I ran the reader panel on BDSM at EC's RomantiCon 2009. The room was packed—we filled up quickly, brought in more chairs, and even then had people standing.
What Readers Dislike
- Overly submissive heroines, especially ones who seem to need constant reassurance. Readers wanted the heroine to have a sense of self-worth without the constant praise of her master.
- Overly controlling heroes/doms. The sub shouldn’t have to ask permission for everything—permission to go to the bathroom was mentioned by several people as a particular squick.
- Humiliation for the sake of humiliation. Lifestyle humiliation is difficult for readers to buy into and, they said, pulls them out of the fantasy.
- Doms who are very into degrading their subs. It seemed fine when it happened once in a while, but when it became a steady part of the relationship dynamic, readers were turned off.
- Doms who cross boundaries they've specifically been asked not to cross.
- Scenes with a ton of equipment, or scenes that require a diagram to figure out what’s where and who’s tied up with what.
- Wham, bam, thank you ma’am sex—it needs to be clear that this is a relationship outside of the sexual relationship. Readers don’t find it believable when characters meet and jump right into heavy BDSM in the first scene.
- “Young” characters—characters who don’t have the emotional, social, or intellectual development that you’d expect from an adult. Incredibly naïve heroines were mentioned specifically, as were characters who are so fucked up from previous hurts that they’re emotionally crippled.
- Treating subs as animals (keeping them in a cage, for instance, or leashing them) was up there with bestiality on the list of do not want. Pet play was also mentioned repeatedly as a squick.
- When the use of a safeword ends the scene or, worse, the relationship. Readers were quite adament that the safeword should end the act currently in progress, nothing else.
What Readers Like
- Giving and caring male doms who are more about providing pleasure than punishment.
- An exploration of the character’s motivations—why they’re into this lifestyle.
- Showing the strength in submission
- Use of non-specialized equipment: headboards, ropes, and handcuffs instead of St. Andrew’s crosses and bondage chairs.
- Exploring the trust between the hero and heroine, making it clear that the trust has been earned, not just handed over.
- Safewords were preferred by the vast majority, with readers commenting that the use of a safeword shows that the dom really cares for the sub.
- Characters with full, interesting lives who have personalities and goals that are unrelated to their BDSM lifestyle. Being into BDSM should be one trait among many, and shouldn’t be the primary characteristic of the character.
Things Readers Want More Of
- Fem dom was a surprisingly common request—well over half of the room said that this was on their wishlist.
- Submissive alpha males
- Thinky reads
- More characterization
- A closer look at the characters’ headspace. Readers commented that they like to spend scenes deep in someone’s head focusing on how that character feels, both emotionally and physically, and how they react; that detailed descriptions of sexual apparatus and what people are doing are less interesting to them than the emotional components of the scene.