Review: Serving Him and Under Her Thumb

I have to confess that reading one of these two new books from Cleis Press made me more nervous than the other. Even with my objective reviewer hat on, trying to simply give you, the lovely reader, a peek into the world of an erotica anthology, I felt a bit antsy about reading Serving Him: Sexy Stories of Submission. Stories of cis women submitting to cis men are more likely to trigger me or make me uncomfortable than other things. But, trusting editor Rachel Kramer Bussel from her previous work, I decided to hold her literary hand and soldier on into this volume for the sake of comparison to the anthology I cover in the second half of this post.

Fortunately, author Lori Selke started me off easy with a story narrated by an eager female submissive and starting with a sexy blindfolded handfeeding scene. I love reading erotica where the enthusiastic consent of the players is obvious, and the playful tone of this story calmed my nerves quite a bit. “Never apologize for laughing,” the male dominant character says, “Even at me.” Good man.

The rest of the book delivers on this first story’s promise. I found almost all the stories scorchingly hot, and I particularly appreciated how much most of the stories connected the reader to the female submissive, offering an intimate look at these relationships and their motivations rather than a detached or cliched view of female submission. The women in these stories have a range of motivations from the girl who needs to run away and be caught to the girl asking her daddy to “play a game” to women who brazenly take what they need from their dominant partners. The dynamics also vary greatly, with female submission and desire being the only real constant among the narratives.

In my favorite story in this collection by Teresa Noelle Roberts, a dominant man challenges his girl’s notion of what D/s roles mean when he encourages her to penetrate him with a Feeldoe. It’s a gorgeously intimate take on a character’s confusion and ultimate desire to please, neatly subverting assumptions with some really hot porn. I also loved, despite some problematic elements (namely unsafe sex and a disregard for lube) Maxine Marsh’s story about a woman who “auditions” a potential partner through initiating a wrestling match. In the female character’s words, “I know how much I need, how much I want. I need to find someone who’s all right at this level. Someone who can bring me right to the edge. Someone who can love me while they’re hurting me.”

Switching gears, Under Her Thumb: Erotic Stories of Female Domination is the flip side of this coin, edited by D.L. King. I found this anthology absolutely delightful, showcasing the humanity of realistically-portrayed dominant women rather than relying on everyone’s favorite bitch goddess in heels that practically hobble her trope. This is another anthology that starts with a very strong first story, Andrea Zanin’s “Quiet,” and I love how the protagonist acknowledges this trope and the struggle of being a female dominant in public playspaces.

Tonight, she has been on display. This was not her intention. It doesn’t matter that she dressed up for her own pleasure [… ,] the public clubs are full of people who do not know what they are looking at. They are populated by men who see only their fantasies come to life, not the flesh-and-blood women in front of them. These men do not notice his devotion, or his beauty. They see only her, and only her contours, at that.

The same story also looks at how male submissive beauty is either ignored or fit into incorrect assumptions.

This is not humiliation. There is nothing humiliating about being beautiful or about being feminine. She, herself, is both of those things, and many more. She cannot fathom how encouraging these qualities and others could possibly be shameful or worthy of mockery. There is also nothing humiliating about submission. It is a gift and all the finer when given selectively.

I want to put that quote on my bedroom wall, just saying. Another highlight of the anthology is Rachel Kramer Bussel’s “Subdar,” a delightful first-encounter story featuring a salt-and-pepper instinctive sub whom you kind of just want to take home and cuddle (or do dirty things to, perhaps simultaneously). I love the quiet power of the female character as she has him simply kneel in a public restroom while she’s on the toilet. On a completely different tone, I appreciated the downright dirty multiple-femmes-on-blindfolded-boy queer story, “The Dinner Party,” which Anne Grip opens with a lovely image of a woman’s floral party dress showing off the silhouette of what she’s packing underneath.

Bottom line? Both these volumes are likely to arouse the kinky reader’s cough prurient interest.

This post was originally published on the blog Sex Positive Activism, which has now merged to become the sex & relationships section of Queer & Now.