He's On Top and She's On Top; Yes, Sir and Yes, Ma'am; Please, Sir and Please, Ma'am; Cleis Press, 2007-2010. Edited by Rachel Kramer Bussel.
I was looking through a book I have in my library, The Best American Mystery Stories of the Century, edited by Tony Hillerman, and something occurred to me. Virtually every genre of literature has multiple anthologies of short stories that are considered classics: Mystery, Science Fiction, Literary Fiction (yes, it’s a genre, despite its practitioners’ denials), Romance, Western, you name it.
There are obviously too many stories out there to have one single, definitive collection in any genre, so there are many, but they often overlap. The same stories appear in different collections—browsing the Contents pages in several “Classic Mystery Stories” anthologies, I see “The Purloined Letter,” by Edgar Allen Poe, “The Problem of Cell 13,” by Jacques Futrelle; stories by Ellery Queen, Chandler, LeHane. In my various “Classics of Science Fiction” anthologies, I see “The Nine Billion Names of God,” by Arthur C. Clarke, “The Lottery,” by Shirley Jackson, several recurring Cyberpunk titles. Each of these attempts at the “definitive” collection differs from the others; the Canons have been well established—so well that there have been many alternative anthologies of stories editors feel have been overlooked.
In erotica, especially BDSM erotica, we have no such canon of short stories. A google search of “classic BDSM short stories” finds lots of lists and listicles of great erotic novels, including this excellent one from Flavorwire which does veer away from BDSM but is still a great list; but short stories? Nope. Nada.
While searching, I found and ordered an out-of-print book titled SM Classics, edited by Susan Wright, which contains a piece by Laura Antoniou—only to find out the collection was primarily a set of non-fiction essays published in 1999. An excellent source of BDSM topics and culture (before the onset of post-50 Shades “acceptability”) with just a taste of fiction by Antoniou, John Preston, and Celia Tan. Still no thorough fiction collection, though.
Part of the reason for this absence is that the authors of the Great Works—Sade, Masoch, Réage, Roquelaure—published only novels. If they did write short stories, they never published them. If we were to assemble a one-volume compendium of early kink, it would consist almost entirely of excerpts from those novels. And while I would nominate the bathing/portraiture scene from Venus in Furs, it’s just not the same without having read the context of how the characters got to that point.
A large part of the problem, of course, is that unlike other genres, it was illegal to publish smut until very recently. L’Image was banned even in France in the 1950’s. I’m sure there must be a fair amount of early-20th Century written pornography out there, published and sold under the counter like “French postcards” were, but I’m also guessing the quality was pretty low. (Although who knows? I’ve never investigated. Maybe I will.)
So, to the best of my knowledge, we are left without a Classics of BDSM Short Stories. If you know of any, LET ME KNOW. If you know of any early stories that should go into such a collection, LET ME KNOW.
Until very recently, we had no annual compilations of stories, as other genres have—Best American Short Stories for every year, Best Mystery Stories, and Gardner Dozois’s annual Year’s Best Science Fiction.
My mission with this blog, specifically the “Classics” section, is to try to define, at least in my opinion (with input from readers) what the Canon of BDSM literature should be. The ultimate list. As in all things erotica, people will disagree with both what I put in and what I leave out.
Nearly all discussion of BDSM erotica centers on novels. There simply hasn’t been an attempt to collect and assess the all-time greatest BDSM short stories—and short stories are absolutely vital to the erotica world of today. They’re how new writers get their start, establish a name in the industry (such as it is), if not with readers.
Things have changed, in this last decade. The explosion of self-published erotica means a writer no longer needs to have stories accepted to be read. It also means the average quality of available stories has inevitably declined, but that is for another discussion. We are awash in sub-par kink.
What I am reviewing in this post is not a substitute for our non-existent Great BDSM Stories of the 20th Century. What I am suggesting is what I have found to be the best survey of published kinky erotica of the early 21st Century: Cleis Press’s six-volume set, or rather three two-volume sets, of D/s anthologies edited by Rachel Kramer Bussel.
This set of anthologies consists of three matched pairs of compilations, one of each pair from either the male or female point of view. All are stories of heterosexual domination and submission, though not all involve proper “bondage” (restraints), and not all stories are 100% hetero, for that matter. The first pair, He’s On Top and She’s On Top, contains stories from the tops’ points of view in the relationships, the second two sets, Yes, Sir and Yes, Ma’am and Please, Sir, and Please, Ma’am, are from the submissives’ viewpoints.
I’m not exactly sure how I first encountered these books. I know it was when I first started writing (very bad) erotic stories instead of just fantasizing about them, around 2009. Curious about eventually publishing them, I had read Molly Weatherfield’s Carrie novels, and noticed that they were published by Cleis Press. I visited their site to see if and how they accepted story submissions, and also to see what the field of published stories looked like. I ordered two of the books, I’m not sure which two.
Until then, I had read mostly novels, and older ones at that—the Sleeping Beauty trilogy, Antoniou, Réage. Others as well, but only one other anthology that I happened across in a bookstore back in the ‘90’s—By Her Subdued, a fem-dom collection edited by Laura Antoniou.
I dove in. Let me go ahead and admit that I’m one of those fussy, fussy people (why do I hesitate to use the word “anal-retentive” in the context of erotica?) who like to plot everything out in lists, grids, and spreadsheets (which are really just lists + grids). Once I started reading—and really liking the stories in the first pair that I read, I didn’t just want to read sexy stories, I wanted to figure out which authors I liked the most. The six volumes have many authors with several stories across them, so I clearly needed a chart.
I plotted out a vertical list of authors vs. a horizontal list of book titles, and then rated each story by how much I liked it—how overheated it got me, and how good the storytelling was. Yes, that’s what I do. I am one of those people.
I won’t bore you with the details of my rating system, but suffice it to say it went from what I call “double-plus” (++) which meant “seared into my brain, I’ll be reciting excerpts to the rest-home personnel when I’m senile,” to plus (+) “very good, I would definitely read again,” down through “good, but probably wouldn’t read again” (0+) all the way down to double-minus “what was this editor thinking?” (There were very few of those, btw).
In all six volumes together, there are 121 stories by 66 authors. Of those, there were 21 stories that I marked with ++, that absolutely blew me away, left me drowning in a mental sea of lust for days. Many more stories, 39, got that second-best rating, “very very hot”. This is a remarkable ratio, especially since I classified a great many more stories as “good”. Of course, erotica is so subjective. You very well might not like a single one of them.
My favorite writers, according to my little ranking system? Elizabeth Coldwell, Lee Ash, Debra Hyde and Ariel Graham all had more than one of my highest rankings, and the majority of their other stories achieved the second-highest. Rachel Kramer Bussel, the editor, included one of her own stories in each volume, and while she wrote only one story I considered “amazing” (more on that in a moment), she also achieved that “very very good” ranking with almost every other.
I also discovered patterns, gridding everything out like this. I noticed certain themes. Plots were not recycled, but there were certain recurring situations—a submissive woman whose Dom brought in another man, for example, even though the situations were handled quite differently by different writers. I saw not clichés, but occasional tropes, which are not necessarily a bad thing.
From a writing standpoint, what this gave me was some experience to be able to play with those tropes—to turn them on their head, or maybe just turn them sideways. My own story “Just Desserts” does just that with the hot-couple-out-on-the-town trope, in which the sub has to wait until they get home for a punishment/reward—but from the point of view of a hapless waiter trapped in their path, in the chaos left behind once the couple goes home to complete the story someone else has written. (Quite a few people have written, actually.)
I also learned what I liked, as a reader and a person—the kinds of stories that get me going, and, by extension, the kind I’d like to write. As a complete beginner, this was invaluable.
One of my favorite definitions of fiction in general is “Interesting people in crisis,” and that definition fits the genre of BDSM erotica perfectly, better than it does mainstream/vanilla erotica. In mainstream erotica, the basic tension is sexual need, and release. In BDSM erotica, we get that, plus so many more tensions: the submissive both dreads and craves her/his punishment, might even misbehave on purpose. BDSM can hurt. (Trust me on this.) The resolution to a story often does end in release, though not always—yet that is often not the dramatic climax of that story. The contradictions of submissiveness are rich with dramatic potential.
As a side note on my own process, I often don’t begin a story with the question “What is the crisis?” (or even “Who are the characters?”) but with “What is the character’s initial predicament?” What is the jam they’ve found themselves in when we first meet them? Often a narrative, guided by the specific requirements of the Call for Stories (a fem-dom anthology, etc.), can be started from answering that first question. My first published story, “Auction, in Quotation Marks,” in Best Bondage Erotica 2015 (also edited by Rachel Kramer Bussel), begins “Mike was mortified that he was the only male slave in the auction.” Quite a predicament indeed. Could he leave? It turns out yes, but he doesn’t. Why on Earth not? BDSM erotica is filled with such contradictions. (I love this genre!)
Some of the stories included in these anthologies are not incredibly complex—we get an account of an event in the lives of two (or more) characters who know each other well, or not. Married couples, couples, strangers who meet. Narratively, some are simple tales of the transgression of rules and subsequent punishment, a sub’s comeuppance, not all that different structurally than vanilla stories of lust-filled tension and relief. With vital differences, of course.
Just because a story is simple in its plot, however, does not mean that it does not posses a depth of imagery, emotion, and, well, hotness. Not to mention emotional complexity. That complexity is what I love most about This Thing We Do.
One of my very favorite stories, “A Necessary Correction,” by Debra Hyde in Yes, Sir, is a simple punishment scene—and, I have to say, a pretty harsh one. A woman is bound, ankles and wrists all cuffed together and lifted up by a pulley above the bed until her back is barely resting upon it. A bar clamp, originally designed by her man for her nipples, is placed upon her tongue. It is awkward, painful, and humiliating. She is then beaten, her ass totally vulnerable, until she recalls her violation, her transgression. She must confess it, tongue clamp still in place. They fuck. A simple story.
Cruel? Good God, yes. Hot? Well, I had to go do something about it.
This little story goes deep into her thought process. She tries to recall her infraction earlier in the evening (quite a story itself), she has to deal with what is going on now, her near-panic. When she does remember and confess it—needless to say, her violation has to do with speech—she is caned, and we learn of the mental space she enters when her lover does this to her. Unlike so many stories, I get the feeling the author knows what she is talking about. If not from experience, she’s definitely done her research. But mental space is as much a part of BDSM as the physical, and good stories don’t need a complex plot—just a crisis.
In Isabelle Gray’s “Veronica’s Body,” from Please, Sir, we get what is basically a survey of how two people met, conquered, and married, written in the present tense. It’s an oddly structured story, an overview, with no real plot. We are told the things Veronica does for her husband on a fairly regular basis. We are told of their first date, the simple things he said to her. We are told of their wedding night, which involves a cat-o-nine-tails. Rather than a singular event in one night of a pair of characters, as most stories consist of, we get this long view. But believe me, it works.
Another great definition of fiction is that a story depicts change. In all genres, the character is somehow changed, or their situation is, for better or worse. In science fiction, an entire society is often changed. If nothing changes, there is no real story.
The kinds of stories in these volumes that got me the most wound up—and again, they may do little or nothing for you, and that’s okay—are the ones in which there was an increase in the level of activity the characters had already been doing. Usually some kind of increase in the level of commitment they’d made, although shorter-term increases got me going, too—an entirely new punishment, for example.
I would first like to point out a notable exception to that kind of story: Justine Elyot’s “Sunday in the Study,” also from Please, Sir. This little gem is a tribute to stability: the husband and wife engage in a very specific set of activities, every Sunday, which varies only slightly, depending upon her conduct during the week. It is a ritual, which gives them a sense of security—and totally turns them on, of course.
It’s all very Victorian—the study, the polished desk, the ledger in which her husband tallies her weekly transgressions, which she is usually too tongue-tied to recite. He knows them anyway. He chooses the proper punishment, and she bends over the desk for the beating. Afterwards, she stands in a corner for a period of Reflection, before they begin their Reconciliation. It’s not so much a “story” as a glimpse into their lives. This thing they do, every single week—we get just one example as the grandfather clock ticks away while she thinks things over. Their life will go on, she will take liberties during the week, and we leave them knowing what will happen next Sunday, and every Sunday thereafter. They are quite happy, and her cycle of need/dread provides the tension that keeps her going.
One of the common themes in these collections, in erotica in general, is the introduction of a New Person into what has been a stable situation. A third party. Counting up my favorite stories from this series, I see quite a few of them on my list. Maybe that says something about me…
Three in particular attracted me, have stayed in my memory. Despite similarities in story structure and theme, the three authors who penned these handle them in different ways; each is fresh. Again, a trope is not necessarily a cliché.
Perhaps the most “common” approach, at least in its beginning, is Gwen Masters’ “How Bad Do You Want It,” from Yes, Sir. A woman is left alone and naked in bed one morning while her husband goes out; he’s told her to stay there and she tends to obey. He brings back a friend, whom they had discussed earlier though she didn’t think he’d meant it. What will she do? Well, submit, of course—nervously, but eagerly, both to please her husband and because it looks like fun.
There is a common thread in this type of storyline—it’s the top who decides to do this, often without the sub’s knowledge, though sometimes with previous discussion. The sub always accedes—it wouldn’t be much of a story if they didn’t—and there is a nervousness to this, an uncertainty, combined with the thrill of the unknown.
In “How Bad Do You Want It,” the woman has sex with the friend while the dominant husband watches (another frequent element; this is not a cuckolding story), beginning with oral sex—and another commonality, which I’m quite fond of, is that the top frequently assists the action by pressing down on the woman’s head as she does so, “forcing” her to not only take the friend’s cock deeper into her throat, but not allowing her to back off when he comes, as well. (That detail always somehow makes me feel all warm and fuzzy.)
A typical threesome story? Not quite—this story ends with a wonderful little twist, a decision that she must make to answer the story’s title. She must make a complex decision that balances obedience, desire, pain, her own pleasure as well as that of not one but both men. It’s a nice little thing, this story.
In Donna George Story’s “Yes,” written in the second person, a rarity in all genres, the reader is the male top, learning of the first time the characters had anal sex, in the kitchen; we then learn about how when his (your) friend came to town to spend the night, he (you) told him of how the girlfriend is quite the exhibitionist. In fact, you tell her to show him; order her to strip. Which she does. Then to service him, which she does. You leave them alone, but know that that special spot, taken in the kitchen, is all yours.
In Elizabeth Coldwell’s “Because He Can,” from Please, Sir, there is most definitely a foreknowledge of what will be happening—this story combines the punishment tale with the threesome story. The main female character has been flirting with a male coworker, sexting. The husband/Master feels it is time to establish dominance over both parties. He invites the flirty coworker over for dinner, the wife dressed only in a kimono, which he tells her to remove. She serves as the men discuss sports and the situation at hand: the coworker may use her if he is up to the husband’s standards of dominance. If not, if he is shaken up by what she really likes, who she truly is, a submissive, he is out. I’ll let you find out how this all goes. But even though there is no surprise here for the woman, at least at the moment of introduction, she submits to her dominant’s will, agrees upon it. That’s what I like about so much of BDSM erotica—yes these things are consensual, but they are often imposed. And accepted.
Most stories in this series following this template feature male tops and female submissives, I noticed. One example of the opposite orientation is Lee Ash’s “The Unhappy Table,” from Please, Ma’am, but there is a key difference. A male slave’s Mistress does indeed bring in a third party without asking his opinion, a smokin’ hot female friend of hers with no desire to submit. Unlike the other stories I’ve mentioned, however, the man is merely used as a coffee table, on his hands and knees, wine glasses and bottle balanced on his back. He is not even permitted to watch. He does, of course; his Mistress is far too preoccupied with intense, nearly violent sex to notice. Will he be invited/ordered to join? What do you think?
As I said, my favorite stories in this series—in any BDSM erotica, for that matter, deal with increase. An increase in intensity, an increase in the level of demand, an increase in the level of commitment. A relationship elevated—which in this genre usually means an increase in the difference of power. These are the stories that stay etched into my brain, and the kind of story I love to write—the acceptance by the submissive of a new set of circumstances. They can say no. But they don’t.
From Yes, Ma’am, Sylvane Alestair’s “An Invitation to the Dance” is a straightforward story of a powerful man’s desire to be dominated, and after a hand-written (she is old school) exchange, he is permitted to audition for the privilege. Radical storytelling? No. But the process, and the desires, are what make it work. What is he willing to do, to get what he thinks he wants? She must be sure before accepting him. I like that it is up to the sub to prove to the top that he is worthy. That’s a nice thing, that.
In the same volume is one of my very favorites, Rachel Kramer Bussel’s own “Secretary’s Day.” In fact, I liked this one so much that I obliquely referenced it in the story I mentioned above, “Auction, in Quotation Marks,” which also references several erotic novels. Full disclosure, I also mentioned this to Ms. Bussel in my cover letter when I submitted it, offering to remove it if the mention bothered her. It did not, and the story was accepted (on its own merits, I like to believe).
“Secretary’s Day” is not incredibly complicated, either—a young man, somewhat slacking after college, is in the waiting room of a powerful female attorney, answering her ad for a personal assistant. He is called in for the interview ahead of the other applicants, all of whom are female. His potential boss is beautiful but strict—very strict. And very, very demanding. A rather unbalanced, but mutually satisfying, sexual encounter is had in the locked office, and he is offered the job. But what makes this story special to me is that she tells him—not asks—to come to her house after work as well. He will be at the beck and call of a remarkably demanding boss during the day, and then he will still be at her service at night. He has completely given himself to her, and she will make full—full—use of him, no questions asked, any time she wants. That’s what hooks me. There will be no break. It’s a nearly fulltime D/s relationship which he can take or leave, but will be expected to accept fully should he stay.
Lastly, in the same vein, two of my very favorite stories are by the same author, Ariel Graham. The first, “Living Rough,” from Please, Ma’am, is about a man on the road, travelling with nothing but a backpack after a tough divorce—seems his wife was not impressed with his newly confessed fantasies of submission. He meets a woman—quite a strong and fetching one—while looking for a cheap car to replace his truck which has just broken down on his way to stay at his sister’s; he has nowhere else to go. Out of nowhere, she tells him to strip, and to get into the car, and he does. She knows what he is, and he wonders how. She takes him home, hoses him down, gives him a tour. She has quite the well-equipped office, complete with St. Andrew’s cross, and she shows him the staggeringly hot (as in temperature) attic: a collar and chain fastened to the wall, a bucket and bottle of water. She does not like to be disobeyed, she tells him. They go to the basement playroom, and he is whipped and services her. She asks him if he can cook, and he tells her he needs to call his sister to tell her he won’t be showing up.
Like “Secretary’s Day,” it’s a fantasy fulfilled—I mean, their meeting is quite a coincidence. Two people with complimentary needs meet, one demanding, the other submitting. But both committing—to a full-time, radical power exchange. In reality, this is to say the least risky, and unlikely. It just wouldn’t happen. But erotica is fantasy, and to me, these are nice fantasies. Damn nice. They’ve both agreed to commit, to a wonderfully unfair yet satisfying system.
My very favorite story in all six books would probably be Graham’s “Welcome to the World,” in Please, Sir. Unlike the last two I’ve mentioned, the two characters here know each other quite well: they are husband and wife, and they have a long history of B&D play with their own terminology, their own little language. In fact, the story begins with her waking up in a cage at the foot of the bed, which hasn’t been used in a long time. Things have been slow in the bedroom, lately. She has no idea what happened the night before; sometimes, on really good nights, she “flies”—enters that sub space of endorphins and desire that takes her out of reality. Her husband walks in; she asks him what happened. Seems she made an agreement last night. Just after their play, while she was still partially Flying.
This might sound uncool, to some, her man expecting her to abide by an agreement made in a mentally stunted state. And she knows she could call it off. But the agreement slowly comes back to her; they wrote it down as a contract, in fact.
When they play, it’s called Game—temporary rules of BDSM play, safewords, limits. Game is always over at the end of the night. But they’ve long fantasized about World, a 24/7 D/s arrangement—he gets complete power over her for one year, even over her employment, a job she loves. She’d always chickened out. Until he caught her flying. She—slowly, as the fog of Flying wears off—agrees.
The story ends with a list of what she will give up, for the one year of their agreement (and it is quite a list), and what he promises, which is only one thing: that she will come to no harm.
Doesn’t get you going? Not safe, sane or consensual enough? It is all three. Not everyone would want this, and many who think they might would not if really confronted with it.
But that’s why it’s fantasy, and that’s why it’s fiction.
Enjoy the ride!
Do these six books make up for the lack of a comprehensive survey of the classic BDSM erotica short stories? No, but that’s a whole other project. Surely people have attempted such a thing, but perhaps couldn’t find enough original material that wasn’t from novels? Surely someone in the 1930’s, 1940’s was writing explicit bondage material that wasn’t porny-porn trash? (Or was, but was good anyway?) There was certainly bondage photography created, between the 1870’s of Masoch and the 1950’s of Réage and de Berg. Why is there so little written material?
The sole shortcoming of these collections is that there are other early-21st Century erotic writers whom I’ve become a fan of who are not included—L.C. Spoering, Raziel Moore, Annabel Joseph among those whose work I have found in subsequent Cleis/Bussel anthologies (not to mention many who aren’t). But these six were published between 2007 and 2010. They are an excellent record of writers at the top of their game in the first decade of this century, not to mention a survey of the many possible strategies for composing fantastic erotica.
Someday, scholars and anthropologists will be searching through the digital ocean of sub-par erotica written in the early 21st Century—the surplus of it making the good work hard to find—and they will happen upon these six books.
And they will masturbate.