Earlier this week, I asked Twitter for recommendations of books that centered characters with chronic pain, characters that were not cure-seeking and do not get cured. One book that was recommended was Risk Aware by Amelia C. Gormley. It’s an M/M BDSM romance with a main character, Geoff, who has hemophilia, and has never found a top who would give him the pain that he aches for. Enter Robin, a top who wants to do just that.
I have complex feelings about this book.
The dance of these characters around managing risks and setting boundaries and trusting each other was continual, and I really liked that in a lot of ways. It resonated for me. That dance doesn’t end, it keeps going as relationships change and grow. And that is rare in BDSM romance, so I really prize stories that show that.
A number of things resonated for me in terms of the depiction of chronic pain and disability, particularly the ways ableism impacts Geoff’s life, the ways it can be so complex to accept help (especially when so many people treat you as helpless), the ways risk management and thinking about access shape daily life. I did want to see more about how pain was a part of his daily experience; that felt glossed over, and as someone who lives with chronic pain, it felt like a gap. (I also went into the book looking for that depiction particularly, so it may have jumped out at me more than it would have otherwise.)
I appreciate that this book exists, one that imagines a chronically ill masochist finding a sadist who wants to top him in ways that feel as dangerous as he wants his play to feel and carefully works on managing the risks. I know how very difficult it is to find stories that imagine disabled and chronically ill bottoms getting their needs met.
And, this book left me hungry.
The story doesn’t progress beyond treating Geoff’s hemophilia as a potential obstacle to play that needs to be puzzled through. That is basically the central arc in the story and everything else, including the romance, takes a backseat to it.
I like puzzling through kinks and limitations; I’m an autistic top, erotica writer, and kink educator, so that’s likely not a surprise. (I even teach a class on working with limitations and sadism.) Suffice it to say, I was interested in the puzzle of this. And, centering that puzzle is one of the main things that made the story feel like it was bare bones, like it needed flesh and care and complexity, and well…feelings.
This is romance, after all. And it didn’t feel like an emotional journey. It wasn’t swoony. I didn’t care about them being together, didn’t feel for them. It kind of felt like an intellectual exercise. Which makes me sad, as a disabled reader, on a number of levels. For one, I want disabled characters to have love stories that are swoony. Cuz I adore that, and these stories are all too rare. For another, I want us to have stories where our disability isn’t a central problem to think through, or the main focus of our characterization. But also, I feel sad and kind of annoyed that it seemed like such an intense intellectual exercise for an experienced sadist to figure out how to meet this man’s needs around pain. (Because it was never presented as a mutual thing to puzzle through together.) And it’s not even something we get to see the top puzzle through! The reader is surprised by each idea the top tries, right along with Geoff. Which is emblematic, in many ways, of the reading experience: Geoff, and particularly his hemophilia, are the center of the novel.
Robin, the top character, is barely drawn. He doesn’t really get an arc of his own. He gets a conflict that we barely see, and he has some emotional pain, but a lot of his personal growth supposedly happens before he meets Geoff. He rarely seems to think about himself or his own needs when Geoff is around, and we rarely see him outside of Geoff’s presence. We never even meet his friends or family. He’s not a whole complex character, he’s a fantasy. Not just that, he’s a fantasy of a top who is completely focused on his bottom, doing all of this for him, his needs, his pleasure. Almost all the pain oriented scenes are written from the bottom’s POV. And the scenes from the top’s POV show him as this rather selfless top focused primarily on the experience and safety of the bottom.
I’ve written at length about this image of the selfless top. It is a very common conception of tops, especially sadists and edge players, and I think it is both harmful and inaccurate. In fiction, it often results in tops that seem to not really have emotions during play, and definitely do not have vulnerabilities.
Part of what this selfless top depiction meant for me as a reader was that I didn’t connect with Robin at all. And we are both sadists! This is because even though Robin is described as a sadist, you don’t get to witness his pleasure in creating pain, pretty much ever. You don’t get to feel much of anything with him.
As a sadist who often plays with disabled bottoms, I really felt the loss of this. There is so much to explore here. It made me sad that it was left out pretty much completely. I haven’t played with a bottom who has hemophilia, but I have played with bottoms who bruise more intensely and easily for health reasons, and it has stirred up a complex set of feelings in me as a sadist. I would love to see that explored in fiction. I’m not saying I want Robin to be the center of the book, but I want his experience to be more fleshed out and complex, especially his experience of their play.
Because Robin is drawn so thinly, I didn’t really get why Geoff was into him, except that he was the first top who was up for the kind of play he wanted. That bugged me, a lot. I wanted to see why he desired Robin, why he fell for him specifically. Because that’s what makes romance arcs work. But also because I want more for disabled characters than this. I want stories that do not assume that it’s a miracle he found a top who would do the kind of play he wanted. But it kind of seemed like everyone assumed that, especially Geoff. But also the author.
I am troubled by a story that assumes Geoff would need a selfless top. That the only way play would be safe is if Robin never had needs or experienced sadistic pleasure but was wholly focused on Geoff. Part of what concerns me so much about selfless tops is that they basically can’t be disabled. This fantasy depends on tops who don’t have needs and vulnerabilities and that’s basically impossible for disabled tops like me. In my fantasy rewrite of this story, Geoff meets a disabled sadist, one who also has needs and vulnerabilities and feelings and desires, and they connect around common experiences of ableism, create access intimacy together, push each other’s buttons sometimes, work through their internalized ableism, and figure out how to handle opposing access needs.
Geoff seems to think about his life, pretty much every moment of it, as being about his hemophilia. There are references to his art but you never get to see him immerse himself in it, and it’s always shaped by his illness. As is everything in his world, even his irritability, his personality, every choice he makes, how he sees himself in the world, his grief, his relationships. Yes, disability and illness shape our lives, and…disabled and sick people are people–complex human beings with personalities, and relationship conflicts that are not only about our disease, and job concerns that aren’t only about our disease, and dating concerns that are not only about our disease.
Despite the ways he was often reduced to his illness, I liked Geoff. I liked him especially when he was irritable and grumpy. I have a fondness for disabled characters that intensely refuse pity, and he definitely qualifies. That was a thread I especially appreciated in Geoff’s characterization, his consistent refusal of pity. This is a rare thing in romance centering disabled characters. It’s rare thing in disabled representation across the board, really. And that’s part of my complex feelings about this book. Because it does counter some of the disability tropes I hate. Geoff and the story itself both refuse pity. Geoff is no supercrip, and actually has character growth around not pushing through pain and injury to prove he can do things. He gets to have lots of sex, to be sexual and care about sex and kink, and gets a happy ending where he doesn’t give up kink for his health. All of these things are rare, and I value Risk Aware for challenging these tropes.
The SM itself was accurately portrayed; I didn’t get yanked out of the story much at all because of inaccuracies, which often happens for me with BDSM romance. I really liked the kinds of SM that were included; it’s rare for me to find stories that show things other than impact play (most frequently bare handed spanking, flogging, and paddling). I like impact play, but reading very few types of it, described in pretty similar ways, over and over, gets pretty old.
I will say that I didn’t especially find the kink hot, but I think that’s at least partly because it is not my kink; I don’t personally enjoy SM divorced from D/s. I do think part of it was that the SM was depicted with a lot of action description but not as much descriptions of reactions, feelings, and sensations, even in the chapters from the bottom’s POV.
I really wished that Geoff had not been quite so inexperienced in terms of BDSM. It intensified a power dynamic that was already quite intense. Robin wasn’t only the top, he was very experienced, and Geoff was not at all experienced. Robin was wealthy, and Geoff wasn’t poor but was struggling to pay astronomical medical bills. Robin was non-disabled, and Geoff was chronically ill. That’s a lot of power stacked up. And the book didn’t really acknowledge it much, as that. Which is not unusual in BDSM romance, but is worth noting.
I really liked the way Robin insisted on being aware of risks as part of his own consent, but I would have loved to have him think about his own consent and responsibilities in a more complex way. It felt very simple, the way he thought about his role as a top and what he was responsible for. For example, he insisted that the bottom stop worrying about his own safety altogether and give over that job completely to him. There was an absoluteness, a black and white presentation of this, that I found very troubling.
‘Close your eyes and let it go,’ he murmured as he swabbed my arm with an alcohol pad. ‘It’s all in my hands now—all your responsibility and all your worries. Just let it go. I’ve got it.’
Strangely, that part wasn’t difficult. Once he started speaking to me in that tone, gentle but in command, my brain packed it in for the night. I released the burden of looking out for my own safety. It was so incredibly easy to do with him.
This is a really complex and loaded thing to ask a chronically ill bottom to do, to fully give over responsibility for their well-being to their able-bodied top. I feel like the story really tried to hold the ways this was loaded for Geoff, but seemed to depict them as internal obstacles getting in the way of him getting the kink he desired, instead of actually loaded and complex power dynamics to be engaging in. Which I think is likely rooted in a belief that this is the one right way to do kink, or at least to do RACK.
Sharing necessary information is a critical component for risk awareness and consent, but that doesn’t mean all responsibility then needs to lie with the top. There are definitely other possible frameworks for doing RACK, and it troubled me that this was presented as the only way. (Which was compounded by the fact that the bottom was a novice and the top was experienced. Robin was “teaching” Geoff how to do risk aware consensual kink. Geoff had no way to know that there were other ways to do RACK. He didn’t even know basic SM 101.)
This framework for understanding the roles of tops and bottoms in play is widespread in BDSM fiction and in BDSM culture. I believed it for a long time myself. So it’s not unrealistic to write kink this way. It’s just troubling.
It sets up the top as solely responsible for the bottom’s safety. This may be a lovely fantasy, but the reality is both overly burdensome to tops and often quite risky for everyone, particularly when doing edge play (as these characters are).
Surrender is possible, power exchange is possible, without the bottom giving up all responsibility and having no jobs. I talk about what this looks like for me around edge play in my post about my own consent as a sadist. (It’s near the end. If you want to skip there, go to the section titled “I don’t want to be holding the scene all by myself.”)
The kind of kink I treasure is kink that is mutual all the way through. Mutually desired, mutually negotiated, mutually held, mutually responsive and responsible. The kind of kink where Geoff and Robin would share responsibility for each other’s well being in play. The kind of kink where Geoff and Robin would puzzle through together how to get Geoff’s desires for pain and danger met within the limitations of his hemophilia. The kind of kink where Robin might be as vulnerable with Geoff as Geoff is with him. This kind of kink is rarely depicted in BDSM fiction, and I ache for more of it.