When Kinky is Wonky, and When It’s Not

I’ve been thinking lately about whether you can say a romance is wonky just because the central sexual relationship is unconventional, non-vanilla, or kinky. I’m leaning towards no.

Ah, Patrick. Or Brandon. Or Both.

Take Samantha Wayland’s Destiny Calls, from Ellora’s Cave. It’s an erotic ménage romance about two cops, one straight and one gay, and their best friend, Destiny. The story kicks off when the straight cop kisses the gay one (to get out of an awkward and potentially dangerous situation) and is totally unprepared for his out-of-control attraction to his friend. Destiny sees her two best friends together and wants to join in the action.

That’s not a conventional setup for an HEA. And yet, by a number of measures, Destiny Calls is not a particularly wonky book. The players are loving, reasonably undamaged, and emotionally available. The sex is hot and well-written, but also, by erotic romance standards, relatively vanilla—beyond the thorough use of all available orifices, there’s not much boundary-pushing. The heroes are alpha and the heroine is not too effed up—she’s best-friend material. If the book weren’t pushing conventional notions about numbers and groupings, it would be, well, “just” a romance.

To me, a romance is wonky because it breaks genre conventions and violates readers’ ideas of what can get published and widely read. A romance is kinky because it violates sexual and social conventions—society’s ideas of what people should and do do in bed. A book can be both, of course. But just because society loosens up about a particular more doesn’t mean the genre will immediately follow. I know many strong women who happily love beta men (that kind of couple may even dominate my landscape), but the genre still doesn’t embrace beta men.

Both wonkiness and kinkiness are moving targets. Theresa Weir has noted that in the nineties, when she released the archetypically wonky Amazon Lily, there were virtually no books with male POV. Now it’s commonplace. Likewise, a couple of years ago, no one would have been able to foresee how much in stride readers would take Fifty Shade’s BDSM.

I do believe it’s part of Wonkomance’s job to help transport ideas from the margins to the center, from the minority’s fantasies into the majority’s consciousness. And sometimes that means being an advocate for the kinky or taboo. But I don’t think it’s Wonkomance’s primary job. Wonkomance’s primary job is to push the limits of the genre. And to do that, it has to push the limits of what we can accept about love, not just what we can accept about sex.

What’s unusual about Destiny Calls is not what its characters do in bed (or out). What blows me away is how deeply and profoundly romantic it is. The three characters don’t just screw around—they love each other, fully and fearlessly—and they do it in all three pairings and, somehow, even more than that, as a group. No one feels left out, no pairing overbalances the others. It takes a great deal of authorial skill to manage that, and a brave, wonky optimism.

I believe in Destiny and Brandon and Patrick’s HEA more than I believe in the happy futures of most m/f marriages I’ve witnessed in operation. Wayland changed my preconceptions about the reach and depth of love, and that, as far as I’m concerned, is a wonktastical act.

About Serena Bell

Serena Bell writes stories about how sex messes with your head, why smart people do stupid things sometimes, and how love can make it all better. Read more >
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25 Responses to When Kinky is Wonky, and When It’s Not

  1. Ruthie Knox says:

    I agree — kinky is by no means automatically wonky, but if it can make you really believe in an unconventional love story, than yes. Will have to check this one out.

    • Serena Bell says:

      I had some other thoughts about this that I couldn’t make coherent, mostly along the lines of the fact that “just because it’s kinky to you doesn’t make it wonky to me.” I went down this path to begin with because I wanted to make it clear that by “wonky” we don’t mean “sex someone else would have.” We mean (I think) “love most romance editors wouldn’t call romantic, somehow transformed into being romantic by the addition of brilliant writing.” I’m a little obsessed, in case you guys can’t tell yet, with pinning down the definition of wonk. Maybe I’m being a little too reductionist. But hey, I’m a wonk.

  2. Del says:

    Eerie synchronicity, I was just thinking about this a few days ago while reading Tiffany Reisz’s THE SIREN. I loved it, of course, but despite the characters’ general fucked upness (and the back story which is beyond unconventional) and the wealth of kink, it didn’t strike me as wonky…and I still can’t quite figure out why not. I mean other books of hers have done (Seven Day Loan, the one with the male Dom who is a librarian, for instance). But not this one.

    • Serena Bell says:

      I really want to read that book–have heard several recommendations for it.

      Let me know if you draw more conclusions about why it’s not wonky, and if I read it we can get all analytical on its ass. With palms, etc.

  3. Anna Cowan says:

    me too, me too, I’ve been thinking about this too! I often wonder whether love is a moral act – i.e. if the person you love killed someone, would that mean an end to love? Is it reliant on a certain level of “good”? (Not that I’m about to write a romance with a murderous hero, but love is the great leveller and can, I assume, be pushed rather far.)

    • Serena Bell says:

      I do think there’s something wonky (and fabulous) about H/h’s who love someone who isn’t traditionally moral. There are a lot of romances about people who break minor laws or who are unjustly accused of transgressions, but there aren’t a lot about people who do really unforgivable things and are redeemed.

      I say, write the murderous hero! :-)

      • Ruthie Knox says:

        I thought the recent discussion at DA about Kristen Ashley’s KNIGHT, whose hero is a pimp, was interesting. For most people, pimp hero was unredeemable. I get the impression the book doesn’t work as a love story (for many readers, anyway). But can anyone redeem a pimp hero? Maybe Cara McKenna. She did write a convincing HFN ending with a whore hero, after all.

        • Yes but the pimp and the whore are polar opposites when it comes to redeemability. There’s a reason we have the “hooker with a heart of gold” archetype and not the “pimp with a heart of gold”.

          In the wonkomance drinking game, I guess we should all take a shot when somebody says archetype. It’s almost as bad as urtext.

  4. Penelope says:

    Ah ha! And so you have discovered Sam Wayland’s secret. She doesn’t write traditional erotic menage stories. She writes “triad” stories….where all 3 characters fall deeply in love with each other. There is no odd-man-out. It is the perfect equilateral triangle, with everyone happy. And that, my good woman, is true romance. Wonky for some maybe (bec. there are 3 people here), but not that wonky after all. So glad you read and enjoyed Sam’s book!

    • Serena Bell says:

      I don’t love menages because they always feel unbalanced, but I loved Sam’s triad, and I would definitely read other triad stories. So lovely to discover something new about romance/erotica …

    • Penelope, you know I adore you. I do. And so much of this book has your influence in it, was written knowing that if I don’t convincingly write a love story for everyone, you’re going to put the smack-down on me, that you should take this as a compliment as well. :)

      In fact, the book I’ve just finished is the first in a three part series, each one about one of the couples in a single triad falling in love with each other. I just couldn’t fit these characters stories, their arcs, changes, and love, into a single book!

  5. Amber says:

    The first time you read a menage (or one in which all three have an HEA) it feels very wonky. At some point I have read twenty seven bajillion of them, and…. not so much. This is probably going to happen to me more and more as I become more jaded…. ahem, I mean, as I read more… where people are all shocked about kinky sex! menage! M/M! etc and I’m like uh, okay.

    But I do really REALLY appreciate when an author writes the same story with enough nuance and voice and everything else to make a trope I love feel fresh. That is the best case, always.

    • Ruthie Knox says:

      I think I’ve only read one menage (?) — a Lora Leigh book. It didn’t feel wonky to me. It felt, like, “Who’s going to put what in which hole next?” *eyes fall out* — but not wonky. I didn’t buy the love story, though. Would be interesting to read another where I really did buy it.

      • Serena Bell says:

        I haven’t read enough of them to generalize, but I imagine that’s a problem with triad & larger grouping love stories–if it’s hard to make it believable that two people are perfect for each other, it’s that much harder to make it believable that three or more are …

      • Amber says:

        Ménage isn’t exactly my thing but it ends up in books I read for their other stuff. I think the best one I’ve read is Lauren Dane’s Laid Bare. Even then I’m not sure I was sold on them all growing old together but their love and commitment felt real. And yeah, the sex wasn’t like who’s doing what? It was good. I read one recently where the boyfriend shared her with four of his friends. I snoozed through the last two guys.

    • Serena Bell says:

      Yeah :-) I almost didn’t write this post because I kept getting kind of paralyzed by the knowledge that I’m a noob. And I think that’s part of what I was trying to say — that it doesn’t make sense to say this sex act or this grouping or this whatever is wonky, because what’s wonky to one reader is standard fare to another, depending on life experience and reading experience. I’m glad you chimed in with that, because I didn’t articulate it well, but it was definitely on my mind while I was contemplating this whole topic.

  6. I’ve been sitting here for an hour trying to express in a reasonable number of words just how flattering and incredibly gratifying your thoughts about Destiny Calls are, Serena. Instead, I think I have to leave it with, “I can’t find the words”.

    Which for a writer, is humbling. And in this case, humbling is apt.

    I’m intrigued by your definition of wonky. And I find I agree. Del describes what has happened to me a number of times – it sounds wonky, is smells wonky, I’m sure it’s going to taste wonky, but sometimes it’s just not. I’ve also started to worry that I’m falling into the ‘jaded’ thing that Amber describes. Regardless, my attempt is to think, “what do I love about kinky thing xyz” and “what’s missing here?” and put that in or pull that out (pardon the imagery) in a character or moment in my writing. I’m not necessarily going for ‘wonk’, though I’m delighted to have achieved it. DELIGHTED.

    • Serena Bell says:

      I’m so glad you stopped by! (Though sorry you lost a whole hour of your life–I do that all the time, sit around trying to find exactly the right words to compose a comment or, on a bad day, A TWEET–only to discover that I can’t. Can’t! Maybe we use them all up on fiction. :-))

      I’m really excited about the new series–can’t wait to read!

  7. Dalton Diaz says:

    “…No one feels left out, no pairing overbalances the others. It takes a great deal of authorial skill to manage that, and a brave, wonky optimism.”

    The triad is so much harder to write than the standard menage, too. These words are high praise indeed.

    • Serena Bell says:

      I can’t even imagine how hard. As far as I can tell, it’s basically four romances–three pairs and then the strange alchemy of “the group.” And you have to make them all feel real AND balanced. Go, Sam!! (And Dalton, thanks so much for stopping by!)

  8. Ruthie Knox says:

    Okay. I give up. I have to read the book. Off to Amazon…