Content warning: this article mentions dubious consent and depictions of rape, kidnapping, and nonconsensual acts, as well as BDSM and kink scenarios (no specific instances of any of the above).
Special thanks to Katzenbaer for copyediting 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
The romance and erotica genres have exploded in popularity in recent years. In our post-50 Shades world, stories featuring BDSM and unconventional relationship dynamics have entered the mainstream, but there are still subtypes of steamy stories that don’t make it to the book clubs, that major newspapers will not review, and that cause no small amount of pearl-clutching.
Erotica and romance have been editorial niches of mine for a long time. I’ve written erotica FAQs and given interviews for The Editing Podcast and the Your Kinky Friends Podcast on editing erotica. I’ve wanted to write more specifically about dark romance and dark erotica since 2020, when editor colleagues first asked me about them. Goodreads now has Dark Romance, Dark Erotica, and Erotic Horror categories, and authors are increasingly vocal about the appeal of writing in these subgenres.
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
There’s no absolute line in the sand dividing these two categories, but author Sylvia Day draws a helpful distinction between erotica, which centres “the sexual journey of the characters and how this impacts them as individuals,” and romance stories, which are “about the development of a romantic relationship,” and which may or may not involve sexual interaction as part of the relationship’s development.
Defining ‘dark’ in erotica or romance
There is no single agreed-on definition, but broadly speaking, a ‘dark’ erotic or romantic story seeks to frighten or disturb the reader while also arousing them. Author Lyssa Dering offers a detailed breakdown of the genre’s elements and proposes the following definition:
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.
In her blog post “What is Dark Erotica?” author Cari Silverwood clarifies that, “None of the dark erotica I read will make you scream and check under the bed.” She adds:
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.
In dark romance and dark erotica stories, the protagonist is victimized by their eventual love interest – an anti-hero or outright villainous character – and the reader sits in a deliberately uncomfortable space regarding the dynamic between them. The anti-hero does cruel, unethical, degrading, and illegal things to the protagonist, and the reader knows that what they’re doing is wrong, but the protagonist and the narrative still describe the anti-hero as desirable. There is often a happily-ever-after (HEA) or happy-for-now (HFN) ending for the pair.
Credit: Paramount Pictures
Sounds kinky! Isn’t dark erotica just BDSM fiction?
The kinky scenes in BDSM fiction can resemble dark erotica scenarios, but they are not exactly the same. The key factor is consent – who gives it, how freely and enthusiastically it’s given, and how explicitly it’s communicated between the characters involved. A kinky dominant might tie a submissive to the bed, just as a kidnapper might do to their captive; however, the kinky dominant will only be doing it because the submissive has explicitly told them they enjoy being tied to beds, they trust the dominant to tie them to this bed at this time, and they continue to indicate their consent and enjoyment throughout the bed-tying experience. The kidnapper, on the other hand, consults only their own desires: they either don’t care about the captive’s needs and feelings or they enjoy outraging and tormenting them. The captive has no say in what happens to them.
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
With some fiction, consent is harder to pin down, so to speak. As TV Tropes puts it:
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.
In fiction, the narrative perspective further complicates matters. Fanlore’s Dub-con page points out that,
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.
That tangle can be catnip to readers of dark erotica and dark romance. In the same way that many people have ravishment fantasies – scenarios that they, in fact, control because they take place within their imaginations – dark romantic and dark erotic fiction let readers explore the eroticism of dark fantasies in a safe, contained narrative, often one with a satisfying ending in which the villain is redeemed and the two main characters end the tale in love.
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?
A good editor will have a collaborative approach and respect you as the author of your story. If you’re taking a traditional publishing route, find a specialist publisher whose brand would be a good fit for your story before submitting it. Be aware that each publisher has guidelines, and an editor assigned to your text through a publisher will have to adhere to them. If you’re hiring a freelance editor to work with you directly, do your research and find one who understands the dark romance and dark erotica genres.
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 copyedit. 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.
A happy ending?
I hope I’ve given you enough of an introduction to dark romance and dark erotica to whet your appetite for these complex stories or help you confidently say, “No thanks, not for me.” And if your dark tale needs an experienced, empathetic, and kink-friendly editor, get in touch for a chat or a quote.