Asking for It: the controversial romance of the summer that has stirred exactly no controversy because everyone who’s talking about it is being so careful not to judge, nor to remove the lens of women’s studies/fourth wave feminism/neo-Victorianism about triggers and consent and safe spaces from their analysis, nor to admit that they find rape fantasies erotic.
To all of which I say: fuck that.
If you want to judge someone else’s kink, go right ahead. Secretly we all do, in one way or another – but in this day and age of enforced tolerance no one is willing to admit to it. We tolerate anything except intolerance! Now I am not personally going to cast a judgment on a book that revolves around the safe enactment of a rape fantasy, because, as it happens, that’s my deep dark kinky kink. My number one most common complaint about dub-con erotica (dubious consent, AKA rape) is that it’s not dubious enough. Almost invariably the heroine gets too into what she’s being “forced” to do too quickly to maintain the facade of non-consent. So this book? Was pretty much written for me.
Except for the whole new adult thing. That romance genre (contemporary…college to post college…searching for yourself…heroine probably got raped or had a drug addiction because in this brave new (adult) world EVERYONE either got raped or has an addiction or is the wrong gender for their body) is not one that I relate to very much. NA also usually means first person (gag) present tense (double gag) point of view, so the barrier is tri-fold in that I am not interested in the setting/age bracket of the protagonists, find the conflicts and hyperbole laughable, and hate the way the books are written. First person in general tends toward deal-breaker for me. I find that almost all of it sounds the same, and none of it sounds like how I think. Actual stream of consciousness would be preferable because at least that would be interesting to untangle and decipher.
But I digress. We were talking about the fact that I am in the most important way the Ideal Reader for this romance.
Let me say this now – I have never been raped. Being bound/coerced/forced in some way is a fantasy that I can trace back to childhood and my earliest moments of sexual awareness; the very first sexual fantasy that I generated involved coercion. That said, I also have a clear mental delineation between what turns me on in the privacy of my own mind and what I want to experience in real life. For that reason I don’t read much dub-con set in the real world, because I don’t get turned on by imagining an actual rape that might actually happen to me. The “stranger in my bedroom” sub-genre squicks me out. Sometimes BDSM-scene stories work for me, because they do have the framework that makes non-consent consensual, but most of those stories are too much about the heroine’s mental surrender. Mental surrender does nothing for me. To me the eroticism of rape fantasy is the loss of control, not subsuming your sense of self to someone else’s will. I’ve blogged before about how not being in control is my biggest, deepest, ugliest fear; to me it seems a very natural extension that one of my most powerful sexual fantasies is having control taken away – NOT surrendering it. Big difference. Generally, then, the rape fantasy I read tends to be really out there, fantasy setting, fantasy creature type stuff…as I put it in a text to a friend before I started Asking for It, “Normally I just go with monster porn for that, no feminist sensibilities conflict there, but this one intrigued me so I figured I’d try and enlarge my mind a little vis a vis the new adult genre.”
Spoiler alert: I got what I asked for in terms of erotic satisfaction. (The book didn’t much change my opinion of NA, though.)
So what is the book actually about? Oh, you know, the usual story…. Girl meets boy, boy hears a rumor that girl has extreme rape fantasies and offers to fulfill them, girl says yes, they have amazing almost-anonymous sex, they realize sex is not enough and start emotionally bonding, just as they begin to fall in love they discover that the events in their respective pasts which gave them the same kink also make them psychologically incompatible as partners…or are they? The book ends on a cliffhanger where the couple is no longer together – an outlier in romance, which generally demands at minimum a happily-for-now ending. But this is book 1 of a duology, and the cover/release date for book 2 is on the last page after the book ends, so the reader is immediately made aware that the ending is an ellipses and not a period.
I loved this book. First and foremost, because the sex in it was smoking hot. Pitch-perfect, if you like that sort of thing. It felt real, authentically on the line between fantasy play and actual assault, with a clear demarcation in the aftermath to show that for both of them (hero, especially), it was role play.
Second, I really appreciated that the author was trying to take the baggage of the hero and heroine seriously and actually attempt to unpack it. Too often in romance really heavy backstory just sort of magically disappears or stops affecting a character’s life/decisions once it’s served its purpose of creating sympathy in the reader or creating a conflict in a situation that otherwise would have had no impediments (and therefore no story). Not the case, here. I mean, I guess in a way their respective baggage is driving the conflict (because if they were two otherwise healthy people who happened to share a kink, it’s pretty much boy meets girl, they are perfect together, the end), but it feels authentic. It’s an actual problem they have to actually solve, not a plot device that could have been replaced by…well, any other plot device. No. Replace these problems, and you have a different story. Some reviews I saw felt the book was kind of heavy or hard to read because it’s more serious, but I didn’t find it so. Just…realistic.
I did feel like the author imposed a frame of feminist rhetoric over the story that was heavy-handed enough to be distracting for me. Actually, my complaint about the frame is not that it existed – see above where I don’t like real-rape scenarios – but that it SO DELIBERATELY used phrases and topics from the politically correct handbook. Things like the hero saying he approached her at a party with other people in sight (and not, say, via text or email or asking her on a date) because, “I want you to feel safe.” It felt inauthentic for him to use that kind of language, and it pulled me out of the story. There are other ways he could have made his proposition to fulfill her fantasies, and for them to draw up a list of boundaries and limits and rules, that were just their words and their voices, not the cant of Political Correctness/Social Justice Warrior style activism. The whole book felt dipped in SJW rhetoric.
I like to think the author did that as a joke, that she used the trappings to create a Trojan Horse that could trick affirmative-consent proponents into reading (and perhaps even enjoying) about sex that actually offends everything they stand for.
Supporting this theory is the Easter egg for libertarian readers, of a side character’s kid being named Nicholas Gillespie Ortiz. You know, like NICK GILLESPIE, Editor in Chief of reason.tv? Because that happened. An unlikely coincidence given that the child was Hispanic and last I check Gillespie was an Italian name. Also supporting that theory is the fact that she wrote (fine: PUBLISHED) this book at all. (When I finished the book and found the “trigger warning” section as the very last page of the text I was convinced the entire thing was a giant middle finger to political correctness…it made me so happy to think that warning had been so blatantly and hilariously mis-placed…but when I looked at the Table of Contents, I saw the publisher had included a spoiler-free warning at the front with a link to the longer, explicit warning for those who needed more clarity about the triggers. Sigh.)
Here’s the real trigger warning this book needed: if you have ever lived in Austin, try to forget the city you know – she gets a lot of details wrong. The sort of things you can only know if you live there, about what the traffic and the parking is like and what the locals call certain streets, about the general vibe of the town and the countryside around it, etc. If I hadn’t been so intrigued by the premise I don’t think I’d have made it past Chapter 3. But the dirty sex more than made up for my outrage about “First Street” (which doesn’t exist because Austin has two, which are called South First and Ceasar Chavez, and I still don’t know which the girl lived off of).
Also I call bullshit on Pace being a YA author writing pseudonymously, or, at least, only a YA author. The sex was written too well to be a first-timer to writing romance.
Overall, well done Pace, and well done Randy Penguin for publishing a book like this. I’m sorry you had to include so much deference to the yeth hounds of outrage that drown dissent by screeching about their offended sensibilities. Maybe now you’ve established yourselves as “sensitive” and “aware” about such matters you can ignore them going forward. Keep fighting the good fight to bring down the walls of PC tyranny from within!