Special thanks to Katzenbaer for copy-editing this post. You can read her kinky short fiction on her blog, Happening To Her: Tales of the Humiliated.
Why dark romance / dark erotica stories interest this editor
Dark romance and dark erotica make many people uncomfortable – even folks who are generally sex-positive – because the character dynamics are deliberately unequal and the plots often include traumatic situations. These subgenres are not for everyone, though the same can be said for horror, thrillers, and crime. It’s important to identify the common tropes and features in this type of story and clear up misconceptions about dark romance and dark erotica, so we can choose to dive in with our eyes open or steer well clear.
What are dark erotica and dark romance?
Romance versus erotica
Defining ‘dark’ in erotica or romance
Romance or erotica which is intended to or has the capacity to scare, disgust, or startle readers by inducing feelings of dread, frightful anticipation, or revulsion via evil, manipulative, threatening, or criminal characters and abusive, grim, or tragic situations.
If you finish a book with your mouth open, and you sit back and go, what the hell did I just read and am I normal for liking that and getting turned on […] yup, it very likely falls into the dark erotic genre. If [you’re] not turned on then it’s probably a dark psychological read, a twisted thriller.
Sounds kinky! Isn’t dark erotica just BDSM fiction?
In fiction, as in real-life scenarios, kink brings an extra layer of abstraction to the table: A kinky sexual encounter is a power exchange deliberately – and often lovingly – crafted by the participants for their mutual pleasure. Kink scenes are like narratives created by the participants, in which they cast themselves in roles they understand and want to be in for a limited time, prioritizing each other’s wellbeing throughout. At any time, the scene can be ended by either party; and when it ends, equality is restored.
Some real and fictional relationships have BDSM dynamics built into their core, and these more closely resemble the ones in dark romance and erotica. In BDSM terminology, Total Power Exchange (TPE) or 24/7 play describe relationships in which one person assumes all decision-making power over every aspect of another’s life. These are indeed extreme sustained power imbalances, but even in these scenarios the participants enter the arrangement with informed consent and an expectation of mutual pleasure.
At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work…
Dubious consent (dubcon) in dark erotica
The issue of consent can be complicated, and even if a person verbalizes their agreement towards a particular request or demand, various issues—such as the power difference between the agreeing parties, the age, mental/emotional condition of the one giving consent, and other potential conflicts of interest—may put the consenter’s freedom to say “no” into question.
Unlike in the real world, where a lack of a clear yes* means a no, in fiction the author can show the character’s internal thoughts, such as a tangle of yes-no-maybe-I-don’t-know feelings which complicate the dynamics of the interaction.
Some stories claim to be about consensual BDSM but lack (or do not clearly demonstrate) consent. Fifty Shades of Grey infamously mentions a BDSM contract, which would theoretically indicate the submissive’s informed consent to everything stipulated in it, but the submissive is young and insecure and has little knowledge about sex when she reads the agreement. She may not realize all the implications that signing such a contract, especially with a wealthy and powerful man, would have for her. In any case, she never signs the contract – and it’s highly unenforceable anyway – so many readers see the consent as dubious. BDSM communities are quick to distance themselves from the book, and they generally look down on formal ‘BDSM contracts’ as manipulative posturing from bad-faith actors; in good BDSM practice, any participant can withdraw consent at any time. Meanwhile, some dark erotica fans have claimed Mr. Grey for their own. The extensive discourse around the book shows the importance of knowing what your target readers expect from your genre and being careful about whom you present as the hero of your story.
Dering points out that many dubcon romance and erotica stories alert the reader from the get-go that they are entering a morally ambiguous realm. Increasingly, dark erotica and romance authors are including content warnings about dubious consent in their blurbs or within the text of their books. They also drop clues in blurbs that may be too subtle for a general audience to pick up on but that will entice fans of dubcon, such as mentioning a character’s pleasure mixed with fear, humiliation, resistance, anger, and/or resignation. Some dubcon stories also feature a protagonist who is aware (and therefore informs the reader) that they have initiated sex with someone who has not given their consent. As Dering explains:
The awareness of the acting protagonist is important because it presents the dubious consent situation as significant. In rape culture, consent is insignificant and unnecessary. Rape isn’t rape; it’s just sex! But in dubcon stories, the crossed lines are felt, and they matter.
Dark stuff indeed! Will an editor try to “sanitize” my dark erotic or dark romantic story?
If the dark elements are central to your story, seek out an editor who is comfortable reading and engaging with these morally ambiguous elements, preferably one with experience editing within your genre. Whenever I work on erotic stories with BDSM, dubious consent, and taboo elements, my goal is always to help the author use the power dynamics in these relationships to create and develop complex, believable characters and engaging plots, and to explore themes of identity, sexuality, love, and human nature in new ways.
The right editor for your dark story won’t try to censor you, but they should apply critical thinking to your story, especially if they’re doing a developmental edit or copy-edit. It’s an editor’s responsibility to flag up inconsistencies in character behaviour, plotholes, and any changes of heart that don’t feel adequately set up in the text. They’ll look for a balance between fear, suspense, and titillation, and they’ll help ensure the HEA or HFN ending you land on feels emotionally satisfying and plausible within the world you’ve created.