Book Review: Wrapped Around Your Finger

(tw: discussion of rape fantasies)

I love about Alison Tyler because I always feel like I have learned something after I finish reading one of her books. Without fail, Tyler’s prose picks up my brain and rattles it around. As a relatively vanilla and monogamous twenty-something, my understanding of relationships, sexuality, and submission are always challenged. But I also learn about writing erotica itself: how to do it well, how to do it hot, and how to do it smart.

When I reviewed the first two books in her Dark Secret Love series this winter, I gushed about Tyler’s unique blend of memoir and fiction. In the third installment, Wrapped Around Your Finger, this is even more pronounced. For example, the Samantha who narrates regularly refers to Los Angeles as it was back then—when the action is taking place—implying she is writing this story from some vague future where the restaurants she and her partners eat no longer exist. This doubling, having the character Samantha who is living her life and the future Samantha who narrates it, is awesome.

Why is it awesome? Good question. It’s awesome because it has really cool implications for how consent and kink operate in the book. Character Samantha is constantly being surprised by her Dom, Jack. They have an incredible bond and he understands her needs better than she does, which leads to him pushing her boundaries despite her reservations. Simply put, he already knows what she wants. As an outsider to the kink community who is super uptight about consent, this at times makes me uncomfortable. I find it difficult to separate fantasy from reality while I read (a struggle that is quickly becoming a theme to this blog), and so I was often concerned for this fictional character who doesn’t always have a say in what is happening to her. Present character Samantha doesn’t know if she wants to be publically spanked on stage at a club. She doesn’t necessarily want to participate in a fetish photo shoot either.

But narrator Samantha does know, and narrator Samantha does want, and this allows me as a worried reader to relax. There is an agreement between narrator Samantha and me to trust the story, and by extension to trust Jack with Samantha. Eventually character Samantha catches up and recognizes her desires, never leaving a sexual encounter displeased. For her, those moments of fear, confusion, and free-fall are part of her submission and sexuality.

I smudged this temporary tat before I could take a sexier picture. I am an adult.
I smudged this temporary tat before I could take a sexier picture. I am an adult.

Following this train of thought, Wrapped also acknowledges that consent isn’t always an enthusiastic yes. Sometimes consent is a yes because it will make your partner happy, and him (or her) being happy makes you happy. Between two consenting adults, that isn’t coercion. It’s compromise. In Wrapped we see a couple dealing with a realistic challenge: Jack has fantasies that Samantha doesn’t have but that she respects and makes happen for her partner because she loves him. It’s healthy. Jack fantasizes about taking advantage of one of his co-workers, and through role-play Samantha helps him explore this desire without anyone’s consent being violated. Does she get off on struggling to evade his advances? Not really, but she gets off on seeing the man she loves enjoying himself. That’s a great lesson to depict in erotica. Couples don’t always want the same thing, but having an open mind and a willingness to try is critical in pleasing your partner and making them feel safe. Should you consent to a sexual act you don’t want to do? No, of course not! But in having that open mind you might discover you want it through discussion or experimentation. If nothing else, it won’t be a source of shame for either party.

As an added bonus, I appreciated seeing Tyler depict rape fantasies such as Jack’s, and how to incorporate them in play consensually and safely. This is something I am strict about as a reviewer. Rape fantasies are common (yes, even among feminists), so I would never say they shouldn’t be given their due, but it’s important to represent them responsibly in realistic fiction. It is even better to provide examples of how to get off on them without doing harm to oneself or others. Tyler isn’t writing a guide book—in the real world couples should discuss scenes ahead of time and be quick to stop if one partner or both wishes to—but she provides an example for other authors of how to write erotica with an awareness of the world it will enter. For that I am eternally grateful.

I could make a joke about being wrapped around Alison Tyler’s finger, but instead I’ll say this: I have learned more about erotica from reading her books than from anything else. Her writing is my continued independent study in feminist erotica. I can’t wait to see what Jack and Samantha get up to in Paris in the next installment of the series.

Wrapped Around Your Finger is published by Cleis Press and is available 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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