person with a book covering their face

What does one do with an enjoyable, well-written, yet problematic novel? That was my dilemma with The Pearl, the third novel in the erotic romance Godwicks series by Tiffany Reisz. Each is a stand-alone book that can be read in any order, and The Pearl was released last month.

In the book, twenty-one-year-old Lord Arthur Godwick comes to the rescue when his younger brother, Charlie, runs up a 100K pound bill at the Pearl Hotel, which he can’t pay. Charlie has offered hotelier Regan Ferry a beloved family portrait in lieu of payment. To get back the painting, Arthur strikes a new deal with Ms. Ferry, a young widower who inherited the hotel from her deceased husband. He agrees to spend ten nights in Regan’s sexual service.

From the start, Arthur is attracted to Regan but struggles with the arrangement. On the first night of his service, he is torn between his desire to sleep with Regan and the conditions under which he is acting:

[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]If he did this, had sex with her right now, on her terms, these terms, he really was to keep Charlie in his parents’ good graces. Selling himself because his body was the only currency she would accept.[/perfectpullquote]

When Regan has Arthur strip and lie down naked on the bed, he is embarrassed to be turned on. The character wonders: “What was worse—being hard when you didn’t want to be or not being hard when you needed to be?”

This is not the language of enthusiastic consent. This is the language of someone being coerced.

In kink terms, Arthur is a service sub. Even before he meets Regan, he has the desire to serve a woman, to take commands in order to please her. But because of a past relationship, Arthur is hesitant to admit this to another woman. The story is set up in a way that makes it seem as if he needs to be forced to do what he actually wants to do: be submissive.

The setup of the story — the contract — is an example of a troubling theme in BDSM literature (and films). Too many stories rely on one inexperienced character being forced to explore BDSM to find out that they enjoy it.

We see a similar situation in the notorious Fifty Shades series in which the book’s protagonist, Ana Steele, must dive into BDSM and sign a rather strict BDSM contract if she wants to explore her romantic interest in Christian Grey. 

In her Atlantic article about the book, writer Emma Green explores one poignant scene in the first of the Fifty Shades trilogy which occurs before Ana has signed Grey’s contract.

In the scene, Ana has rolled her eyes at Christian, and he tells her he’s going to spank her, then fuck her “very quick and very hard,” as a result. Ana starts out be reminding Christian that she hasn’t signed the contract — a clear sign that she’s not ready for what Christian is telling her he’s going to do:

“‘I told you what I’d do. I’m a man of my word. I’m going to spank you, and then I’m going to fuck you very quick and very hard. Looks like we’ll need that condom after all.’  His voice is so soft, menacing, and it’s damned hot. My insides practically contort with potent, needy, liquid, desire. He gazes at me, waiting, eyes blazing. Tentatively, I uncurl my legs. Should I run? This is it; our relationship hangs in the balance, right here, right now. Do I let him do this or do I say no, and then that’s it? Because I know it will be over if I say no.”

It’s important here that Ana doesn’t verbally consent. She simply goes along with what comes next: “And he hits me again and again. From somewhere deep inside, I want to beg him to stop. But I don’t. I don’t want to give him the satisfaction. He continues the unrelenting rhythm. I cry out six more times. Eighteen slaps in total. My body is singing, singing from his merciless assault.”

“This isn’t spanking as a form of erotic play,” Green critiques. “It’s an emotional bargain—Ana tolerates it, barely, because she’s scared of what will happen if she doesn’t. She can’t tell Christian she doesn’t want to be spanked—she’s too shy, and her relationship with him is dependent on his power to both widen her sexual horizons and get whatever kind of sex he wants from her. But even though she ostensibly consented to this interaction, it seems like a thin kind of consent.”

The scenes in The Pearl and 50 Shades both feature two submissive people who ultimately form a more comfortable relationship with BDSM and their partners, but only after being pressured into situations they weren’t ready for.

This theme runs throughout many popular BDSM-themed books and movies. The polish film 365 DNI, which was released on Netflix in June, romanticizes a hostage and her kidnapper. And after 50 Shades, perhaps the most well-known BDSM books are the Kushiel’s Legacy series by Jacqueline Carey which tell the story of Phèdre, a courtesan that is sold into sexual service as a child.

I start to wonder if this theme is telling of society’s fears around BDSM. Perhaps it is mentally safer to imagine being forced into exploring these dark and dangerous taboos than to admit to oneself that you simply want to.

But that we romanticize any coercive sexual encounter is also telling. I fear that the reader is expected to justify these situations by the characters’ arousal in the scenes. This, to me, is reminiscent of an argument common in rape culture: “They  turned on, so they must’ve wanted it.”

If someone needed to be forced into a sexual situation, surely we would say they are simply not interested. Surely we would denounce any coercion …

Except we don’t. 

We argue over what is and isn’t considered sexual coercion, assault, or rape. We debate what consent is and what it should look like.

I’m thinking about the controversy around Aziz Ansari and how the Internet struggled to define the woman’s experience.

And I’m not here to say that these arguments are wrong or that our conversation about consent should be straightforward. Whether we want it to be or not, consent is complicated. Desire and consent don’t always match up perfectly, and consent over one action doesn’t mean consent over another, but learning how to communicate all of this — or even know what we want — is still a work in progress for many of us.

Part of the issue is that we have not been socialized to seek out enthusiastic consent in our sexual encounters — a way of engaging with a partner and one’s own desire that leaves less room for questions.

Still, when we engage in BDSM, we’re not necessarily looking for enthusiastic consent. We’re often dancing around the edges of consent as a way to intensify our play. And it takes more sophisticated dialogue and self-reflection to do this in a responsible and safe way. 

Out of discomfort and frustration over the arrangement, I almost stopped reading the novel after the first chapter, but I’m glad I kept going.

The relationship that developed between them starts to feel more and more intimate— the ongoing tension between them becomes less about the agreement and more about past trauma and heartbreak. And after that first cringy scene, the sex scenes throughout the book began to feel more equally wanted, and they were lush and creative.

Between an enviable knowledge of art history — especially that of female artists, a complicated childhood and marriage that bring up all sorts of class and gender issues, and a lovely wit, Regan’s rich character makes the book for me.

She also has a fascinatingly complicated relationship with prostitution, and it’s through this arrangement with Arthur that she’s able to share it with him.

But I couldn’t forget the arrangement that started the character’s relationship. As I continued to read the book, I began to wonder about the ethics of enjoying a problematic story.

Throughout season one of Rebellious Magazine’s Feminist Erotica podcast, my co-hosts, guests, and I explored the question: What makes erotic literature feminist? Is it that the characters always act in ways that align with our feminist values? Or that the book offers a feminist message?

And how can we expect a story to be authentic and real when we, ourselves, don’t always act in a way that fully supports our values? Can it be more interesting to read about characters struggling in the same ways that we do?

There are no right and wrong answers to these questions and much of it is a matter of personal taste.

Still, I wish that the ethical issue of the arrangement had been addressed by the characters as they drew closer to each other. Regan never apologizes to Arthur for entrapping him, and Arthur never asks for an apology.

Reviews of the book that I’ve read do not address this moral conundrum, and I fear it is being overlooked as a non-issue. Is it shrugged off because of Arthur’s gender similar to our society’s common dismissal of male sexual assault? Or do readers and reviewers simply not recognize the problem of coercion in the narrative?

As I think beyond this book, I’m left wondering if it is possible to enjoy books that have these problems without internalizing their unhealthy messages. Of course, if I wanted to avoid all unhealthy messages, there would be nothing left to read.

Overall, I quite recommend The Pearl and will be looking into other books by Reisz. I just recommend you keep these questions of consent and coercion in mind as you read.

Jera writes about sexuality, spirituality, and social justice. They are the author of Just the Tip, a queer-friendly, sex-positive, relationship advice column and the editor of Sacred and Subversive,...