Book Review: Dark Secret Love and The Delicious Torment


As some of you may know, I am writing my undergraduate thesis about feminist erotica. This requires two main steps: thinking about what makes erotica feminist by devouring anthologies and classic work deemed landmark women’s fiction like Delta of Venus and Fear of Flying, and then writing my own fiction by applying that analysis. Political concepts do not necessarily lead to scalding sex scenes or complex characters, so more often than not I write whatever is on my mind and then play up the feminist issues it poses, like consent, sex-positive communication, and empowered female sexuality. As a result these stories result from my personal life. I write what I know, what I am living on any certain day. In my thesis—in my writing in general—art imitates life. At times this bleed-over makes me self-conscious.

I loved Alison Tyler’s stunning duo Dark Secret Love and The Delicious Torment because these are books about writing sex. Yes, the relationships are complex and rich, the characters developed and fraught. Yes, the sex scenes are surprising and fresh and in no way lose steam in their multitude. I root for Samantha as she struggles not to be ashamed of the kink she recognizes is central to her identity. This is a woman who knows who she is and what she wants, and that is all too rare in a mainstream culture in which BDSM relationships are refracted through the lens of Fifty Shades of Grey’s abusive, inaccurate example. If you love Dom/Sub fiction, this is the series for you. If you are a newbie to the genre and want somewhere to start, this is the series for you.

And if you are someone who writes about sex, this is the series for you.

Most authors are influenced by their personal experiences when they write. This is not a groundbreaking discovery. But Tyler’s two novels are not quite novels; they occupy a wonderful blurred space between memoir and fiction, and the prose is better for it. She makes no secret of her own centrality to the text, explaining in the introduction to Dark Secret Love: “This is who I am and how I got here. I’ve changed the names. I’ve tweaked and redesigned, camouflaged and unraveled. This is meta-fiction, beta-fiction, masturbatory fiction. I’m there, but I’m hiding behind my long dark hair. I’m there, but I’ve got a different name. You can hear my words. You can feel my breath whispering against your neck. How much of my tale is real? As much as I was able to give.”

This blending of Tyler and Samantha enriches Dark Secret Love and The Delicious Torment with life, not only because it leaves the reader wondering which parts are true and which are not, but because the pages drip with vulnerability, honesty, and unrelenting sexual desire. These books go beyond escapism to offer a life we all could live if we wanted to, a possibility not always expressed in erotica. It also raises the stakes of Samantha’s struggle with her sexual submission, lending her shame and confusion an authenticity the reader can relate to. These characters are not archetypes playing out fantasies; they are real people—figuratively and possibly literally—negotiating the same realities we do, all while they have unrelentingly fantastic sex.

Tyler doesn’t just turn to her own experiences for inspiration: Samantha herself is a “prolific” writer of erotica. The wonderfully meta subplot of her submitting her work to magazines and slowly working her way up to a book deal pulls back the curtain on the everyday efforts of an erotica writer. Samantha articulates her writing process in a way that rings true. Sure there are the familiar descriptions of her compulsion to write. But Samantha mines her own memory for inspiration, just like Tyler, just like me. “And when we were done, if I wasn’t too drained (or if he had decided to undo the straps holding me to his bed), I’d head back to my notebook and write it all down. You want to know how I can still remember difference nuances, subtle lighting, scents, changes in the weather, the way the cool metal of his cuffs felt on my skin, the way I felt when I heard other girls’ voices on the answering machine? That’s simple. I recorded it all. Every important moment.”

Even more gratifying is how much Samantha’s partners support her writing process and her career. First Nathan and then Jack help enforce Samantha’s work schedule and validate her progress, providing inspiration, stress relief, and discipline. In The Delicious Torment Jack orders Samantha to write down the punishment she thinks she requires before he implements it. Sex writing is a means through which she can communicate her desires to her partner, as she often finds herself unable to voice them aloud. Her sex life is integral to her writing, and her writing is integral to her sex life.

Tyler’s two novels are about the relationships between Samantha, Jack, and Alex, but they are also about Samantha’s relationship with her writing. That is a relationship I loved to root for.

Dark Secret Love and The Delicious Torment are published by Cleis Press and can be purchased here.

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Ella Dawson is a sex and culture critic and a digital strategist. She drinks too much Diet Coke.

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