An exercise in practical application

Sometimes, in one or another of the IRL writing groups I belong to, someone will have a plot idea that they want to bounce around. They’ll give us a brief overview of story arc, characters, the ending they’re envisioning, and see what the rest of us think. A while ago, one writer had an idea for a sexy BDSM erotic piece: what if this innocent college freshman had an affair with her totally sexy professor/advisor, who introduced her into his world of wild sex? She had one scene written already, where they were in his office for a meeting, and he ends up fucking her for the first time in his office chair, after bending her over the desk for a sound spanking. And it was HOT! See, by playing up the whole student-and-teacher thing, it would explore power dynamics, and-

And as you know, I’m in academia. So there is no way that this situation would be able to fly without the teacher/advisor involved being completely void of scruples. Not to mention risking his job and career. I pointed that out, because if this MMC was willing to fuck a student no matter how attracted he was to her or how much she wanted it, he was not going to be trustworthy as a Dom, as an advisor, or as a human being, because he lacks good judgment. There might be ways to make it work, but as the situation stood, it was problematic, unrealistic, and-

Cue the pushback from a couple others: But it’s worth it! It’s a fantasy! It’s fiction! It’s all about the excitement and the risk! But they’re both consenting adults, so it’s okay!

No, it’s not okay. It is a severe abuse of power. That is why it is against the law for a student and teacher to have a sexual relationship. An advisor/professor/counselor hooking up with a student, even if it wasn’t one of his own, could compromise an entire department, even a college/university, depending on how it played out. So to have an MMC that is willing to abuse his power for a sexual relationship already makes him completely unsympathetic from the start. We’re back in “normalizing abuse” territory.

Part of the problem was that the writer obviously wanted to hear “That sounds so sexy!” not “Well, this might be an issue because ___.” Anyone who implied that a professor and his teenaged student embarking on a sexual adventure was anything other than 100% smokin’ was deemed a “hater” who was trying to “censor” writers. Yeah, so, business as usual. I was hoping to have a conversation about how to make a plot like this work without it hitting every creepy red flag, but it wasn’t possible at that place and time. So I saved the idea to play with here. Because yes, a contemporary erotic piece with this scenario as it stands, no matter how “hot” the student-and-teacher fantasy might be, is an issue. It compromises all of the “hot” elements right from the start, because it is ethically and legally immoral, not some case of “star-crossed lovers.”

A student in this situation cannot give informed consent. A teacher is under obligation to put a stop to any advances a student might make, to say nothing about not making overtures of his own. Others who know or find out about a relationship like this can be implicated.

And IRL, there is already a severe problem with female students being harassed, coerced, and/or abused by male academics. (Just ask me how many undergrads I know who have been creeped on by older profs the first time they attended MLA conferences.)

It’s like wanting to write an erotic piece about a police officer who pulls a woman over, and then decides to suggest to her that she go with him back to his place (or a club he knows) so they can play with his handcuffs and baton and maybe his taser. Considering the number of women IRL who are raped this way regularly? No.

So not only is this teacher/student BDSM situation not sexy on its own, it’s not sexy because it’s too close to abuse situations in real life contemporary society. Even gender-flipping it doesn’t lessen the issue in this case.

However, as writers, the fun is to look at a plot proposal and think “What could I tweak so it actually works?” Because it is possible. There is no reason why one can’t keep all of the “hot” elements of the teacher/student fantasy, but frame it in ways that aren’t Asshole University, Department of Creep, Intro to Abusive Power Dynamics 101.

Let’s play!

 

  • Change the setting

 

Up until the last few generations, it was actually not just okay, but even expected that a professor might meet his future wife when he taught her in a college class. Most of the college novels from the early 1900s include at least one of the girls marrying one of the faculty.

So set the story in the 1950s. Or the 1890s. Or the 1830s, with a family’s private tutor. If the story is going to keep the BDSM elements, use the social framework of the time to expand on that: the FMC feels oppressed by the society she’s in, or has had “dark, dangerous thoughts” that no one else seems to understand. The teacher catches her with unsuitable reading material. Perhaps they both feel restricted, and talk about these things together before they start fucking, which spins out the sexual tension between them.

 

  • Change the genre

What may not work in a contemporary romance might actually be believable if re-framed with other genre conventions and expectations. So what is illegal and immoral in today’s university system could work in, say, a futuristic supernatural college for crime-fighters, or a dystopian training program for swordsmanship and mixed martial arts.

There will still be ethical tensions, obviously, but magnifying that with the issue of the student being a paranormal mermaid and the teacher ethically bound to report all shapeshifters to the Cryptid Board makes it a functional part of the plot instead of just squick-factor. It can still be Romance-with-a-Capital-R or hardcore erotica, but there’s no reason why it can’t be a couple of ghosts from the French Revolution, or a starship training program on the Spacecruiser Damascus, or a Parapsychology community in an alternative world.

 

  • Remove the problematic power dynamic component.

Setting the story in another historical period can help with this: the teacher has less social standing than the student in many of those scenarios, and possibly less money.

But to keep it contemporary, there are other ways to tweak it. She is still a student, he is still a professor, but not her professor, and not at her school. They meet on a holiday away from an academic setting first, maybe. And after initial sparks fly, when they establish a relationship, they decide to bring the student-and-teacher roles into it.

Or she is his former student, and they meet again a few years after she’s graduated.

Or he may be a teacher, but she has some position of power, too: she’s the president of ___ organization and the editor of ___.

Or she’s one of the organizers of the BDSM club he joins.

And she is not currently his student. I repeat, SHE IS NOT HIS STUDENT. That does not fly in a contemporary setting.

Another possibility is that instead of a university teacher-and-student, it is a less ethically fraught situation. He is her new archery instructor, or someone she has hired to teach her how to play piano, or make soap, or roof her house, or brush up on Tagalog in anticipation of a new job. The student-teacher “tutor me in all you know!” elements are there, but the power dynamic and ethics can be done in a non-coercive way.

Power dynamic issues can also be reduced if she is able to match him with a flipped teacher-student relationship. Five years ago, he taught her Information Science in college, now she is teaching him computer-aided welding technology on a consulting basis, perhaps.

 

  • Make it a real plot point, and do it believably

They do not have contact or establish a real relationship of any kind while they are still student-and-teacher. They each struggle with “I shouldn’t be having these feelings!” She drops his class and avoids him. He takes a position at another campus.

Perhaps they’ve been chatting online in a BDSM group without realizing who the other actually is. Or maybe they see each other at a BDSM group or club and pretend not to know each other.

Then, after she graduates or goes abroad for a year or he takes a 2-year leave or whatever, they meet again under circumstances where (I repeat!) she is not his student. They can confess feelings and consummate their relationship then.

There are still ethical issues, not to mention psychological ones, with several of these scenarios, but again, in these cases, they can be made to work with the story and characters instead of undermining everything from the beginning by framing it as All Things Wrong.

These are the kind of plot points that can’t be ignored, even in the name of fantasy or fiction. (And please don’t assume that everyone questioning the morals and ethics behind your MC’s romantic situation is a “hater” out to ruin your romantic fantasy.) In fact, questions like this will likely help writers craft and even hotter and more believable story than originally intended.

 

2 thoughts on “Making a problematic plot work

  1. I love this game. I have this plot – it’s got issues that I don’t know about – here, fellow writers, help me make it work. If you listen, and play along, and really think about it, you’ll end up with a much better story.

    Like

  2. These are all very apt solutions. One more is, “Make it a horror story.” If elements of your plot are deeply problematic, one way to deconstruct them is to show real consequences. Depends on the situation, though. 😛

    Like

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