Today we have a post from author Joey W. Hill on Dom vs Domme. Hill’s most recent release, At Her Command, is an F/m story and is available now.
Ever since I’ve been writing BDSM romance, I’ve noticed I can have two Dominants, in two different stories, who are pretty much equally uncompromising with their respective submissives. They will be expecting their sub to live up to his/her potential, care for themselves. They will also demand a great deal from them in terms of service, acceptance of pain, etc. Not just because the Dominant enjoys that, but being good, intuitive Doms, they know that the sub craves opportunities—sometimes extreme ones—to prove their service and devotion. While both stories are generally well received, a noticeable number of readers respond this way to the two Dominant characters:
Male Dominant/female sub (M/f) – Oh God, I love him. Love how he lets her get away with nothing, and stays so in touch with how she’s feeling, and how much she’s needing to offer of herself as a sub.
Female Dominant/male sub (F/m) – She’s so cruel and unfeeling. I didn’t like her at all. He had to give her everything and she gave him nothing. She didn’t deserve him.
So what’s the primary demographic of that kind of feedback?
Female romance readers who prefer M/f.
Feedback from female romance readers who prefer F/m trends in the exact opposite direction. They indicate they find my Dommes insightful, caring, loving, and appreciate how they don’t let the male subs engage in evasive behaviors that are self-destructive. “I never think your Dommes are too hard or mean to their subs, because you can almost feel the love that they project and how they all long to have someone that they can take care of as well as being taken care of.”
How can the same character be insightful and caring to one group, and yet cold and unfeeling to another? I went to my readership to get some input, since they offer great representation from both sides of the issue.
IS IT THE WRITING?
As an author, my first thought is, “Okay, the negative feedback must be because of how I write Dommes.” So I looked closely at those comments. Many felt more effort was needed toward integrating/revealing the Domme’s softer, more vulnerable side earlier in the story’s progression. Others felt the Domme was being written “too harsh,” in an artificial way:
“I find they (some FemDomme stories) seem more like a caricature. Not because they are overly mean or harsh, but because the author doesn’t show the vulnerability of the Domme enough.”
“As a writer, I have a hard time showing the FemDomme’s vulnerability as well. I feel it, but showing it is harder for some reason.”
Which meshed with this reader/author (no stated preference for F/m or M/f) who felt that authors might sometimes write the Dommes as overly hard: “What I see is that when your male Dom breaks a sub down, their thoughts are filled with concern and worry to not go too far. I feel like you constantly show us more of their gentle moments before you do the break down moments, so those feel as if we know the guy’s intent is to give her the best…”
“With the female Dom I think you concentrate on her being strong so much that we don’t get those before ‘gentle moments and thoughts.’ I also see this in authors of non-BDSM when they have strong heroines. They work hard at that view of them, and forget you need the soft moments outside the intensity, for female reader buy-in. (More than likely because viewing this mix is opposite from societal views, so we are predisposed to judge women harshly) … Your male Doms allow themselves moments of doubt outside the scene and that enhances the actual scene.”
Further comments on this point:
“I’m not a fan of a Domme that tries to show no weakness. You’ve always given your characters flaws that make them relatable.”
“I feel the Dommes (in most books of any author) are putting on a bit too much of a show. Like they are artificially strong and stubborn, versus being more naturally female but also Dominant, if that makes sense… Like, your males as subs retain their masculinity and male ‘purpose,’ so that is why I still enjoy reading your F/m; so as Dommes I feel the female should retain her soft femininity in some way too.”
But the question remains: Why do primarily M/f readers have that reaction, whereas F/m readers have the exact opposite reaction? Like this F/m reader: “You are one of the few authors who don’t compromise your female Dominant’s personality once they fall in love. I love that; a lot of times they end up “softening” somehow and losing that strong Domme part of themselves.”
In talking to other authors of F/m in informal conference bar get-togethers (where all problems of the writing world are solved, lol), I discovered they’ve had similar reactions from their M/f readers. Which means if the feedback isn’t targeted at one author’s particular style, it suggests a general reaction to the F/m sub-genre. So why the double standard for romance readers between M/f and F/m books?
A couple of other possibilities:
IS IT THE SUB?
“For me, it’s not about the Domme. It’s the sub. Hell, I don’t like it when female subs are wimpy. Begging, crying, broken down, has to come after I see the character stand strong, fight it, armor up. Because I am a sub, I am WAY more critical of sub characters.”
OR MAYBE…IT’S THE READER’S PERSONAL EXPERIENCE?
Another reader felt it didn’t have to do with male or female Doms, but the reader’s individual mindset: “I wonder if part of it comes from our own life experiences; that we as readers feel that the female Dominant isn’t connecting to the male emotionally, only taking, as in our personal experiences [when] our partners didn’t give fully to the relationship.”
Does the current tone of society, or whatever is going on in the reader’s life, impact the reaction? As one reader said, “It also depends on what is going on in my reality and the agency I feel in the moment. If I’m feeling overwhelmed, I want to read about someone who will take control and dive deep into the fantasy of that – the prince charming on a steed fairy tale. If I’m feeling weak, I like to see strong women taking control who can tame the patriarchy.”
Individual experience can certainly explain a specific person’s reaction to an issue. Which is why I try to never generalize about why any single person feels the way they do about a topic, no matter what the popular thinking on it is. However, since I only received a couple comments along these lines, I’m thinking individualized response doesn’t explain consistently similar feedback about F/m that is opposite for the same behavior in a M/f story. However, I did notice two popular trends in my readers’ explanations that seemed to do so:
Do women often respect an authoritarian personality more in a man? A noticeable amount of my readers thought that could explain the issue, and offered ideas of why:
“[This reaction happens] for the same reason people hear a man talk and say ‘he’s a leader’ and ‘strong,’ and a woman talks the same way and she is ‘shrill/demanding’ and ‘a ball buster.’ Sexist thinking and a wish that women remain ‘the fairer sex.’ I see it in business all the time. I’m ‘too aggressive,’ and men are rewarded for the exact same aggressiveness. Drives me crazy.”
Does this go back to the historic family model of the father being the stern disciplinarian and the mother being the nurturer? Is it that simple? That those models are our reading comfort zone?
As I was developing this article, I recalled a conversation I had with a friend years ago about her kids. She said if it had been up to her, her sons would never have left the driveway. It was her husband who convinced her to let the boys ride their bikes around the neighborhood, get on roller coasters, etc. Is a woman who values being more protective and coddling toward her sons more likely to see a Domme’s demands on her male sub as cruel?
The most extreme Domme in my six series is Lady Lyssa of the Vampire Queen series. She’s a vampire and over a thousand years old. In early interviews about her book, I noted one of the reasons I loved her was she reminded me of the strong Southern women I grew up with—particularly my own mother. She epitomized the term “steel magnolia.” She cared very deeply for her family, her friends, her community. Her heart was broken several times by life—bad marriage, cancer, other disappointments—but she kept moving forward. Only the people closest to her ever knew when she faltered, and only if they were paying attention. Tears, sadness, negative emotions—these were things she handled in private. In public, she was courteous, lady like and warm, but she had an impossible-to-miss iron strength. She didn’t let anyone, including her family, get away with doing less than their best.
So this particular reader’s comment really resonated with me: “Women are categorized as nurturing, which too many equate with soft or gentle. Women can nurture through expecting better or more from those around them.” She went on to note that the alpha male submissive that has seemed to achieve the most success in BDSM romance fiction was helpful for framing that kind of Domme in a more acceptable light. “I think a strong Domme with a strong male submissive takes [her] perceived harshness away.”
Another reader made the same point: “There is a segment of women who do not understand discipline as love. This applies in their everyday lives as daughters/sisters/moms, because they simply cannot stand to see someone hurt, even if in the long run the pain helps someone grow, and even if unwillingness to allow pain (even emotional pain) leads to terrible long term outcomes.”
One more: “It was so interesting to me to read all the comments and realize how many women feel the same way I feel, but on the opposite side of the spectrum! I’ve always felt there’s a coldness depicted in female Dommes when they remain in control, versus a steadiness depicted when [male] Doms remain in control… I’m still chewing over whether that’s my own bias or based on my own history with very strong women.”
Does age factor into this reaction? The readers thought so.
A great many of my readers come from the 35-55 age range, which means many would have been raised in a time very influenced by the perceptions noted above. “I wonder if there is an age component as well. Women raised as caregivers.” Another reader said, “I think many of those who read M/f stories enjoy them because there’s at least a small part of them that relates to the submissive and the want to take care of their man and make sure he’s comfortable. So when a Domme is pushing HER man out of his comfort zone….some may view it as wrong, as being too hard on him, and pushing him too hard, etc. because their inclination is to take care of them (the man). There are times I admit to being uncomfortable [with F/m], and when I stop to think about it, it’s something along those lines.”
More comments that support this:
“We older women were reared to be strong but act and appear soft, so I think it takes a little effort to let go of our preconceived sexual roles.”
“I think this topic speaks to the larger issue in our society today. We are still operating under norms from the previous centuries where the man was considered the stronger of the sexes. Even today when a woman is successful, talented and forceful in her opinions and career, more often than not she’s labeled a bitch or difficult. Whereas a man who has the same traits is considered to be strong and successful. I think the tide is turning slowly, as in at a snail’s pace, but it is still changing.”
An interesting note to throw into this: when I receive negative feedback from my F/m readers about my male Doms, I do see some similarities to the M/f reader reaction to F/m stories. For instance, this comment from one of my F/m readers: “I often find myself mad as hell at and plotting revenge against male Doms for some of the things they do with/to their female subs. Even when I know it’s their way of showing their caring in addition to their dominance, it still grates my cheese.” Even more interesting, when I do receive this kind of feedback from F/m readers, it’s often about the male Doms who become my M/f readers’ FAVORITES.
One reader concluded the overall caregiver perspective with this comment: “Until we accept that ALL genders can be strong and smart and capable, I don’t think the reactions from readers will change. People have to be willing to do the hard work of self-introspection and learn what biases they hold. As true for gender roles as well as racial, sexual orientation or any other issue.”
OR IS IT SIMPLY RELATABILITY?
Now, the caregiver/societal norms idea has some pretty compelling points, and there’s some overlap here, but what about simple relatability as the cause? Meaning the reader’s ability to connect to the perspective of the characters. There was a trend of feedback supporting that idea, from both F/m and M/f readers:
“I’d rather read [F/m] over the M/f. I guess maybe because I could never feature myself as a submissive.”
A reader with a submissive orientation offered this: “I can relate to your female Dommes as fellow women, so I’ve found it easier to try and place myself in their shoes, yet almost every decision or action they take is the opposite of how I would want to act in that scenario. I think reading from your opposite standpoint (while very helpful to understand the psyche of both sides) can be jarring and certainly explains if your female readers that don’t have that strong Domme or even a neutral perspective would feel that the Dommes are too harsh or cold or xyz. … When readers have a strong inclination as a sub or a strong sense of women as caretakers as mentioned above, strong female Dommes feel ‘wrong’ in the sense that their decisions feel opposite of how we ourselves would act.”
Another reader: “Some women cannot perceive ever being in a place of dominance with a man (for whatever reason: naturally submissive, cultural strictures, etc.) and so have zero empathy for a Domme and how a F/m relationship could fulfil both people.”
Or this one: “I’m an M/f reader, that’s what I am attracted to. And I’m just 30 so I wasn’t raised to be a caretaker… I just don’t relate to the F/m, so I think I may be harder on the characters because of that. That happens to all the books I read, not just the F/m; if I don’t relate to the characters, then I notice a LOT of stuff that annoyed me in a story.”
It works in the opposite direction too. Like this reader, who put it so succinctly:
“I get bored after a while with M/f. I just cannot relate to the female sub.” Which touches on the basics of writing: “A good storyline and a great connection are a must” or “The reader needs to relate to a small smidgen of something emotionally to continue reading.”
“Personally, I love the F/m dynamic equally as the M/f. I also thoroughly enjoy the M/m component. As long as the Dom/Domme is giving the sub what they need in the way they need it and there is a connection that includes caring on some level, I am a happy reader.”
One of my readers observed there were times where, in either F/m or M/f, “The Dom comes off as a jerk, but as the story progresses then I discover that it’s what both people need. It takes a strong person to go below the skin to see what the soul truly needs and to ignore other people’s opinions.”
WHAT ABOUT BEING TRUE TO REAL LIFE?
In chats with real life Female Doms and male subs, it’s clear many male subs generally prefer a more demanding brand of dominance than most female subs. But if your readership is not primarily male subs, do you stay true to what’s real, or what your readers prefer in a genre that is clearly tailored to a female readership? I follow the muse, so I straddle the line, I think, as a reader as well as an author.
One reader took the unique viewpoint of looking at the subs as well, as a way to interpret the differing Dom/me responses: “With the F/m, I certainly don’t feel that the Dommes are colder or not caring, just that the male subs don’t seem to need the same type of care that female subs do. I don’t know how to word it so it doesn’t sound like I’m trying to turn this into men vs. women, but obviously female subs don’t need the same type of after care and looking after that male subs do. To me it feels like for a male sub just to be able to serve his Mistress is fulfilling enough, and they don’t require as much as women do afterwards. And also the sessions are completely different, male sub usually requiring something way more intense than females. Two different types of needs for two different dynamics.”
[NOTE: Keep in mind all the comments above about real life Doms/subs are general observations specific to the commenters’ experience. It doesn’t mean there aren’t exceptions, alternative scenarios or different viewpoints. As I am fond of pointing out, when it comes to D/s relationships, we can note trends, but there are almost no absolutes.]
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MY CONCLUSION – Overall, I think the caretaker/historic norms theory may primarily explain how feedback targeted at the F/m dynamic trends polar opposite toward similar M/f characters. Whatever our feelings are toward male-female relationships, the comfort zone of power dynamics based on experiences, raising, historical roles, et cetera, does seem to impact our pleasure in reading F/m versus M/f stories. And if that’s true, here’s something that may sound odd, but THAT’S OKAY.
Why do I say that? Because romance in general, and BDSM romance being no exception, is a leisure reading experience. Reading is a sanctuary for many of us, a chance to immerse ourselves in comfort zones in a world that often lacks them. It doesn’t necessarily translate to making us narrow-minded in the real world. We’re simply human, and we gravitate to where we feel comfortable when we’re in a space where the world won’t judge us for it. That goes for our fantasies, too. Many of us have been loving the movie 365 Days, but I think very few of us in would say it’s okay in real life for a guy to kidnap a woman to get her to love him – even if he IS hot, lol…
But romance is also a genre that has helped pave the way for increased acceptance of same-sex, polyamory and power exchange relationships. Its readership is an incredibly smart and caring demographic, as I believe the above comments amply demonstrate. So examining a topic like this can result in a new appreciation and consideration of sub-genres that expand our comfort zones. Which in turn might just increase the range of books we include in our leisure reading library. We can all use that!
Now, closing disclaimer. What’s written here won’t fit everyone’s experience. Any attempt to generalize or classify is merely to make some sense of what “may” be happening. However true it is for one person, it may not be another person’s truth. I would no more say that I have found “THE” reason that F/m isn’t popular with ALL M/f readers than I would feel comfortable saying that about…well, anything. As Dean Koontz says in Fear Nothing: “Six billion of us walking the planet, six billion smaller worlds on the bigger one.”
So take this post for what it’s worth, to initiate an interesting dialogue within ourselves and with each other about why we react to these sub-genres differently.
Thank you so much for reading my article, and to the Smexy Books folks for letting me share it!
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Acknowledgment: A big thank you to my readers who provided their insights for this article. Like most topics, this one benefitted immensely from an open roundtable discussion, rather than just one voice in an echo chamber.
If you’d like to read their discussion straight from the source, here’s the post – https://www.facebook.com/groups/JWHMembersOnly/permalink/1612930548881957/. As it’s on my FB fan site, you have to join, but you can unjoin afterwards. Just answer either of the short Join qualifier questions with “I’m wanting to read the F/m post.” In short, I’m not attempting a marketing ploy to lure you to my site. “This isn’t that kind of movie, bruv.” (grin).
Joey W. Hill is author of over fifty contemporary and paranormal BDSM romances, and an RT Book Reviews Career Achievement award recipient.
Facebook Fan site: JWHMembersOnly
Free novellas revisiting Joey’s characters: storywitch.com/series/cantrips