The reaction is almost always the same. When I tell people that I’m the associate editor of a fantasy website, a look of surprise, understanding, and finally quiet judgment passes over their faces, forcing me to explain, “Harry Potter fantasy. Not, like, whips and leather fantasy.”
The relief I then see is priceless.
But should I be so quick to distance myself from the whips-and-leather crowd? While fantasy does have a kid-friendly, wizards-and-adventure side, I think it would be naive to suggest that there aren’t some people who utilize the trappings of the genre to explore their sexual kinks. All one has to do is run a Google Image search of “fantasy art,” and you’ll very quickly wind up with images like this:
What one finds in much fantasy art is a remarkably common theme of sexuality, which often has a heavy BDSM element. (To the uniformed, that stands for Bondage, Discipline, and Sadomasochism.)
Sometimes, the bondage theme is explicit and openly embraced, such as in the Kushiel novels of Jacqueline Carey, whose main character is a bisexual masochist who finds sexual pleasure in being tortured. (You can read TheTorchOnline.com’s interview with Carey here.)
But sometimes the S&M factor is played more coyly, giving us bondage-themed imagery without ever truly owning it. In the ’50s and ’60s, there were a plethora of beefcake movies, such as the Hercules films starring Steve Reeves, featuring oiled-up hunks and sexy babes alike constantly bound in chains and other restraints.
Most of these movies were terrible by the standards of anyone who wants their films to have a plot. Mostly they played out like fodder for one scene after another of sexy skin pressed against chains.
The very concept of a damsel in distress has a flavoring of S&M, as a helpless maiden is often tied up and must be rescued. Return of the Jedi even showcased series heroine Leia in what has become the iconic, quintessential S&M-tinted damsel outfit — the infamous gold bikini — before employing a post-feminist twist and having her kill her captor herself. But nonetheless, the image of Leia bound and chained like a slave girl has inspired many a young libido to get started.
The trend followed through into the ’90s, where it began to take a more subtle approach. The character of Xena, perhaps the most enduring high fantasy creation of the last 20 years, certainly bore a striking resemblance to a dominatrix, with her leather outfit and arsenal of weapons, a whip very prominently among them.
And how many times throughout the course of the series did we see Xena chained and beaten? She even sometimes seemed to enjoy fighting an opponent who could get his or her licks in, absorbing the blows with a satisfied smile.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer certainly went there, most notably in the sixth season when Buffy began her mutually-abusive relationship with bad boy vamp Spike. Their first session together was so violent it destroyed the entire house they were in.
But as time marches on, the BDSM themes became more overt. Even the family-friendly series Legend of the Seeker features the Mord’Sith, an army of women dressed entirely in leather who specialize in torturing their victims. In one memorable episode, noble hero Richard is stripped and given the royal treatment by “Mistress Denna,” a dominatrix name if ever I heard one.
The vampire soap True Blood raised the bar, as virtually every sexual relationship on the show contains some form of sado-masochistic violence at its core. The show even boasts a brand-new fetish called fangbanging — that is, living humans who prefer to have sex exclusively with vampires. The moments on the show relevant to this article are far too many to mention, from Jason’s romance with a watiress who likes to be strangled in the firs season to Lorena’s twisted, torturous rendezvous with Bill a few episodes ago.
But the Golden Handcuff Award has to go to new kid on the block Spartacus: Blood and Sand. The entire first season’s plot plays out like an elaborate bondage fantasy, with a houseful of sexy slaves to be commanded and used at the pleasure of the masters, oversexed couple Batiatus and Lucretia.
No doubt, there are many fantasy fans who don’t respond to these particular themes. But it would be naive to suggest there isn’t a connection, at least for some, between the fantasy genre and very specific sexual leanings.
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