This is part of my series of reviews of fiction published by Harmony Ink Press featuring asexual characters. You can find the introduction here. I originally was not going to review this, but then there was another Dreamspinner sale, so I decided to pick this one up too.
What Is This Story About?
Mace Danner, a teenager from Chicago, is a freshman in college who moonlights as a BDSM submissive rentboy. He has never liked sex – he never wanted sex with his ex-girlfriend who is going to school in San Francisco. But he feels like he deserves to be punished because he feels that he is responsible for his brother’s death. He avoids his dorm mates, but some of them have a clue anyway. Some of them want to help, but don’t know how. But one dorm mate has much more malicious intentions…
What Sexual and/or Violent Content Does This Story Have, If Any?
There are multiple sex scenes, both consensual and non-consensual. As far as violence, there is false imprisonment, gang rape, whipping, choking, beating people up, somebody falling out of a window and dying, and … I am probably forgetting something, but I think that’s enough to offer a general picture.
Tell Me More About This Novel.
I am going to be upfront: I don’t know what it’s like to be a prostitute, to engage in BDSM, to experience gang-rape, or to have my brother die to save me (I don’t even have a brother). Therefore, I am going to say this:
IF ANYTHING I WRITE IN THIS REVIEW SEEMS LIKE IT IS INVALIDATING AN EXPERIENCE YOU’VE HAD AS AN ASEXUAL PERSON, YOUR EXPERIENCE IS VALID, AND I AM AN IGNORANT PERSON ON THE INTERNET
I have read about asexual people who have experienced sexual abuse who then went ahead and had lots of sex as a form of self-harm. That aspect of this story is plausible to me. Also, since it’s stated in the story that Mace really does need money, that makes him going out to be a submissive rent-boy even more believable.
What really made me think “Deus Angst Machina” was when it was revealed that Mace’s brother got killed by preventing Mace from getting killed by a drunken exploit. Okay, I get it, there had to be a reason why Mace believes that he’s responsible for his brother’s death so he will go out and get himself punished, but … it felt too contrived to me.
And when Mace stops being a rentboy (I don’t think that’s too much a spoiler, since I’m not stating how/why he stopped, or whether he goes back to being a rentboy) the financial issue is ignored. If Mace did not have any financial need, and if being a rentboy had been strictly a means of self-harm, that would have been one thing, but since the story did say that he needed the money, it ought to have either explained a) how he got another way to meet his financial needs or b) show the consequences of not having enough money.
This is a nitpick which almost nobody will care about, but since I am from San Francisco, I have to comment on this part:
She laughs. “I just reached Fisherman’s Wharf. I’m about to meet Carter for lunch, so I’ll have to hang up.
Why is somebody who is from San Francisco going to Fisherman’s Wharf? Does she have a job there? Because otherwise, it does not make much sense. Unless one has to go to Fisherman’s Wharf for work or if one is entertaining out-of-town guests who really want to see Fisherman’s Wharf, there is basically no reason to go there. It’s overpriced tourist-trappy food, which makes little sense for a college student, and it’s not even near any of the universities. If the writer wanted to drop in a famous San Francisco location, Haight Street would work much better because a) restaurant prices in Haight Street are low enough that locals, not just tourists, will eat there and b) it is near a university, and a lot of students hang out there. In short, this reference to “Fisherman’s Wharf” tells me that the writer doesn’t know much about San Francisco.
On the asexuality content scale (1 = ‘By the way, I’m asexual’ and asexuality is never mentioned again, 10 = a story all about asexuality and little else) I would rate this story as a 4.
Mace is asexual. However, I generally felt that the point of making Mace asexual was not to illuminate the experience of asexual people, but rather to pile on the suffering he experiences, both by making him lonely, and to make the sexual experiences he has even more unpleasant. Oh, and it also gave a non-asexual person a chance to comfort him by explaining asexuality to him.
On top of that, this story is an example of “I want to have sex even though I don’t like sex because I want to give my partner pleasure”.
Neither the “non-asexual explains asexuality to asexual character” or “I want to have sex to please my partner even though I don’t like sex” tropes are intrinsically bad. They can be done well. However, I felt that they way they are used in this story is distasteful.
So what do I think could have been improved? First of all, pointing out that there is such a thing as the asexual community would have been an improvement. It would have also been good if the story made it clear that having close and loving relationships without sex is an option so that, even if it is not the option that Mace ultimately chooses. Having an asexual character be the one to pull Mace out of his problems would have also resolved some of the issues I have with this story (and it would have meant there was another asexual character in the story, which would be a bonus).
Yes, I know the guy who Mace has consensual sex with is freaked out about having sex with Mace since Mace clearly is not turned on and he knows that Mace uses sex as a form of self-harm, and that he only goes ahead and has sex with Mace after Mace asks him to do it multiple times. That means he is someone who does not want to commit sexual abuse. However, even though it is consensual, I am still bothered by the way this sexual relationship is portrayed.
But really, I felt it was distasteful because it seemed that it’s purpose was to satisfy a hurt/comfort fantasy for non-asexual people, not to speak to asexual readers. I’m not going to begrudge people who are really into hurt/comfort, but I wish they either left asexuality out of it, or dealt with asexuality in a way which was not “non-asexual person rescues helpful asexual and asexual is so grateful that they have sex JUST SO THAT non-asexual rescuer will feel pleasure”.
Clearly, I disagree with this reviewer:
In the end, Bender is a powerful novella that gives the reader a glimpse into what it is to be asexual and find a lover who is willing to understand your needs, and often hold back their own.
Given how many kinds of asexual people there are out there, there is probably someone who is like Mace, but … he is really not representative, and since the story does not mention other kinds of asexual people, or that most asexual people would rather not have sex with partners just so that their partners will feel pleasure, I think the story promotes attitudes which pressure asexual people to have sex they don’t want.
Also, why are there so many stories about asexuals who have sex with their partners because they want to give their partners pleasure, but not so many stories about non-asexual people who will stop having sex or work out a non-monogamy arrangement so that they make their asexual partners feel comfortable? For more information about this, read this class tumblr post about asexuality in fanfic.
However, I admit that I also hope that some asexual people who are more knowledgeable about these types of experiences will read this story, and offer their opinions (self-care comes first of course – please don’t read this story if you don’t think you can handle its content). It’s possible that I am overreacting, and if asexual people who have experienced sexual abuse and/or like to have sex to give their partners pleasure say that this story accurately represents them, well, they would know better than me.
Was This Written by an Asexual?
I don’t know.
Hey Sara, Do You Like This Novel?
No, I don’t. It was an unsatisfying experience.
Where Can I Get This Novel?
I got it from the Dreamspinner Store. One may also get it from the Harmony Ink Store (note: the Dreamspinner Store often has sales, the Harmony Ink Store not so much), and from various eBook retailers.