The Happiest Sadist: Phèdre and Kushiel’s Dart

Kristin Devine

Kristin has humbly retired as Ordinary Times' friendly neighborhood political whipping girl to focus on culture and gender issues. She lives in a wildlife refuge in rural Washington state with too many children and way too many animals. There's also a blog which most people would very much disapprove of

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42 Responses

  1. Murali says:

    I’ve read the Phedre trilogy and the Imriel trilogy, but not the Moirin Trilogy. It might be worth discussing the Imriel trilogy here. Her handling of Imriel (a born sadist) as a genuinely heroic protagonist was masterful.

    Her Sundering duology is also good.Report

  2. James K says:

    I just wanted to chime in and say that “The Happiest Sadist” is a really good title.Report

  3. LeeEsq says:

    I’d really wish that the sex positive people would grapple with the fact that there are many people who don’t get to engage in sex ever. This isn’t because they want to be celibate, its because nobody wants us. Instead the create their elaborate fantasy worlds where all who are good get to indulge as much as they want and their isn’t any decent person excluded from the party. Its all just world fallacy rot. What they offer is a shame.Report

    • Jaybird in reply to LeeEsq says:

      Have you read any Houellebecq?

      “It’s a fact…that in societies like ours sex truly represents a second system of differentiation, completely independent of money; and as a system of differentiation it functions just as mercilessly. The effects of these two systems are, furthermore, strictly equivalent. Just like unrestrained economic liberalism, and for similar reasons, sexual liberalism produces phenomena of absolute pauperization . Some men make love every day; others five or six times in their life, or never. Some make love with dozens of women; others with none. It’s what’s known as ‘the law of the market’…Economic liberalism is an extension of the domain of the struggle, its extension to all ages and all classes of society. Sexual liberalism is likewise an extension of the domain of the struggle, its extension to all ages and all classes of society.”

      The upper class always sees itself as middle class. Hey, if you’re poor, just bootstrap yourself. The way I did.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to Jaybird says:

        I haven’t read Houellebecq but I’m very aware of this quote. I guess in defense of the sex positive folk is that they are combating a lot of things they see as evil and need to ignore any weakness in their position. They are also not the sort that are likely to care that much about cis-gendered heterosexual men left out of the loop because they see us all as part of the oppressor class, even if only marginal members and entitled. But it’s all so stupid. They campaign about how unnatural celibacy is and how bad humans are at it but they want those without a sex life to be very good at celibacy.

        And yes, I know that Houellebecq isn’t exactly loved among the sex positive people but I never heard a convincing explanation on why he is wrong. It is true that this paragraph is from the perspective of cis-gender heterosexual men but it can be expanded to cover women and LGBT people to. Some people just don’t get to participate in the party no matter what.

        Yet, those left out are supposed to go along how great all this sexual freedom that they aren’t experiencing is. Its very much alike how the wealthy want the poor not to be resentful of their material good fortune while the starve in a slum.Report

        • Jaybird in reply to LeeEsq says:

          Dude, you’re an immigration lawyer. I am certain that a non-zero number of people have sat in your office and thought “this is a guy who has a job, has a steady job, doesn’t seem terribly prone to violence, and needs someone to help him pick out ties. Because: Damn. He would be *PERFECT* for my cousin.”

          And you know what? You would be. Sure, she might be Catholic, but that’s okay. The kids could be taught both traditions.

          Note: I’m not saying this about every person who has come into your office. But I’m damn sure that there is a non-zero number of people for which this is true.Report

          • LeeEsq in reply to Jaybird says:

            This may or may not be true but I haven’t had any client verbalize this at all. I also have good taste in ties. Even if clients thought I’m good for their cousin, doesn’t mean that the cousin thinks that. She is allowed to have her own opinion on these matters. These marriages because one partner had.a steady job could also be sexless easily.Report

            • Kristin Devine in reply to LeeEsq says:

              A client probably wouldn’t verbalize this as it would of course be wildly inappropriate for them to do so. What Jay is trying to point out is you have a lot to offer people even if they’re not saying that to your face.Report

        • DensityDuck in reply to LeeEsq says:

          “I never heard a convincing explanation on why [Houllebecq] is wrong.”

          It’s like Papal Infallibility turned round. If Houllebecq is right, then the whole system is bullshit based on lies, therefore he’s wrong.Report

          • LeeEsq in reply to DensityDuck says:

            I’m going to be a bit more fair to Houellebecq’s critics. They want to push a narrative about sex that it is fun and natural rather than the previous narrative that sex is not good and it should only be done by cis-gender heterosexual married people. At the same time, they also want to emphasize the importance of consent. Coming out and saying that romantic and sexual attraction is unfair and that some of you are going to end up with great sex lives, others no or horrible sex lives, and most of you in-between is not great advertising.Report

    • veronica d in reply to LeeEsq says:

      What do you expect from sex positivity?

      Sex positivity a relationship model that grew from the LGBTQ and BDSM communities. It’s built on principles of consent and acceptance. However, it’s not a dating service. It doesn’t guarantee everyone a partner. How could it?

      More specifically, it doesn’t guarantee that every dude will get a hot, high status girlfriend. Again, how could it?

      You speak of exclusion, but you could find love. There are women who would date you. So who is excluding who? There are social spaces that would accept you, but would you accept them? The people there won’t look like Hollywood. But you don’t look like Hollywood.

      Dude, figure this out before it’s too late.Report

      • DensityDuck in reply to veronica d says:

        There’s no recession, there’s plenty of jobs for people who are willing to work hard and tighten their belts and stop spending so much on luxuries. Not everyone is guaranteed an executive position with a million-dollar salary, but there’s always going to be a space for someone who’s willing to pay their dues and put in the time and be a real go-getter. And remember, any time you have debt, just make one extra payment a year–it really adds up in the long run! And also make sure you save for retirement, you should have at least three times your yearly salary saved by age 35.Report

        • veronica d in reply to DensityDuck says:

          Women are people not things.Report

          • DensityDuck in reply to veronica d says:

            and yet here you are telling LeeEsq that he doesn’t fuck because his standards are too high, which is a rather transactional way to describe the situationReport

            • veronica d in reply to DensityDuck says:

              That’s a fair point. Allow me to explain.

              Recently Lee complained that everyone he dated was “status seeking.” I can believe that. There are a lot of shallow people in the world.

              The point is, I don’t think Lee is any better than those women. He is also status seeking, which is why he’s trying to date those women. He wants the “trophy girlfriend,” but he isn’t trophy boyfriend material. Those women want to show off their guy to their friends. Lee ain’t that guy.

              This sucks, but it’s how those women think. Why does Lee keep trying to date them?

              Do you think that all women are like that?

              They aren’t. I know this from personal experience. I know plenty of women who don’t care about looks that way. They have cool, nerdy boyfriends. Women like that would totally date a guy who looks like Lee. Would Lee date those women?

              That’s not even the biggest problem. While such women would happily date a guy who looks like Lee, I don’t think they’d want to date a guy who thinks like him. His attitude would show through.

              However, attitudes can change.

              So yes, this is about “transactional” relationships, but not in the way you mean. Lee is trying to play the “transaction” game with women who don’t want what he’s selling. But he keeps trying with those women. Why? Other women exist.Report

              • LeeEsq in reply to veronica d says:

                You have no idea about who I’ve been on dates with and what women I’m trying to date. I’m not trying to date the stereotypical hot, high status woman and my dates have generally never been with that type of woman you are talking about.

                Most of my dates have been with college or above educated women. Some of them are conventionally attractive, some of them were average, and some not conventionally attractive. Some of them had my hobby interests and some did not They were teachers, lawyers, doctors, vets, dancers, etc.. But none of them fit the mold of the woman you believe that I’m going after.

                You also have no idea what I look like besides that I’m below average in height. I’m not over weight, I work out, and take care of my grooming.

                I do not believe that I am really going for women that are out of my league or are looking for a hot guy to show off to their girlfriends. I do not believe that I will be happy with such a woman. I do admit that I am not interested in plus size women or somebody who is miserly with physical affection.Report

              • veronica d in reply to LeeEsq says:

                Lee, I only know what you share here, but you share a lot. I think I have a decent grasp of who you are when it comes to dating. I stand by my analysis. You could find women who would date you, but those who otherwise would are going to be turned off by your attitude.Report

              • LeeEsq in reply to veronica d says:

                I have this attitude because I’ve been throguh many bad experiences and not a lot of good experiences. I’ve been on donzens of first dates that went no where no matter what I tried. And it leads me to wonder whether anybody was seriously interested in me or whether I was an evening’s entertainment.

                I’ve also had dates that cancelled at the last minute because they literally told me that they found somebody they like better to date. I guess they get points for being truthful. I think my favorite example was during winter several years ago. There was a sudden storm. My date contacted me that we were sitll on, so I went home from work and showered to get ready, and went out into the snow again. When I was nearly at the restaurant, my date texted me and said she decided to stay in. I then slipped on the ice and got some bruises. There were other stories but these stand out.

                Are these the worst things that could happen? No, they aren’t but going through a very late start and decades of rejection is not fun. Yet, I’m supposed to maintain a good attitude and prove my value and fake it till I make it. Well, I don’t want to fake till I make it. That means my pain is irrelevant and I have to put on some act while people get to blare their pain at me and I have to make it better.Report

              • LeeEsq in reply to veronica d says:

                I apologize for lashing out at you but I’m feeling rather frustrated lately and with no good or easy solution available.Report

              • Maribou in reply to LeeEsq says:

                Do you remember me saying ‘hey, what about you joining a history book club?’ and you explaining to me that you could never date those women, you need someone with a glam factor?

                I mean, I don’t need you to explain it or discuss it further or any of that.

                But it seemed like a thing that if you don’t remember it, it might serve you to remember it. In conjunction with this conversation.

                If not, man, no worries. We all have our things. (I certainly have a truckload of my own.)Report

              • LeeEsq in reply to Maribou says:

                I’m part of the dance community and social club called Events and Adventures. I’m trying to get out a lot and meet people.

                What I really need now is what I guess you can call girlfriend as an activity partner, somebody to do things with, and sex that doesn’t feel that I have to earn it. Amd Ihaving been placed in the non-romantic category for my entire life, I don’t really see anything with wanting somebody who will show the world that she kind of likes me.

                Yet the women who might be most open to dating me are the ones that seem least likely to give me what I need because that isn’t their personanlity.Report

              • DensityDuck in reply to Maribou says:

                so the only two pieces of advice Lee has gotten here are A) go into spaces that don’t have “find a date” as part of their charter and try to find a date, and B) lower his standards.

                Like he could be hip-deep in ass except that he’s too ~picky~, like there’s chicks just throwing themselves at him all day but he’s like “eewww, no fatties, no uggoesReport

              • LeeEsq in reply to DensityDuck says:

                I think Maribou’s advice is go to places that “don’t find a date” to meet women of similar interests and see what develops. It is a common but slow working piece of advice. We might all want to be on a direct path but not everybody can be on it.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to veronica d says:

        I expect not to hear their preening constantly and not being called to support their cosmology, otherwise I’m an evil bad person, while also being put in that category because I can’t participate.

        And the hot, high status girlfriend thing is a red herring because at least for heterosexual men we seem to operate with the severe penalties. I work out, work hard, take care of appearance and clothing, and yet somehow completely fail to register romantically or sexually with women. I’m not exactly what i consider to be a lie status man.Report

        • Ozzzy! in reply to LeeEsq says:

          I would lay even money on the idea that every person on this post is unhappy with their sex life. Give you 2:1 even.

          There is no greener pasture full of ‘sexy time’. You are not weird or an outlier for feeling how you do or doing what you do. You are amongst fellows!

          Check out the angst in all the comments on Kristen’s recent posts. We are all there scared and alone with you (more or less)!

          Sorry to speak so directly to you, a person I do not know or have any knowledge of besides this board. It’s probably a step too far.Report

          • LeeEsq in reply to Ozzzy! says:

            For all my frustration, I do note that people with great sex lives often have that and only that. A few weeks ago, I intended an amateur comedy show. The last act was by a woman who talked about her sex life, which from her routine seemed to be the only thing that was occurring in her life. Her routine was more pitiable than funny.

            Yet, I’m approaching middle age and still single without any relationship. I know I’m not the only person in the world to experience this but it is still really frustrating. There is a great feeling of uncertain on when will something happen and what will happen if it does.Report

          • Maribou in reply to Ozzzy! says:

            You’d lose that bet. I’m real happy with my sex life. (It’s *never never trouble free* but I’m really happy for it.) And it greatly informs and sturdies and … is a gift that makes the rest of my very happy life (overall, despite the really fucking hard parts) even happier. Consistently. Like…. I’d say 98:2 lifetime-after-21 ratio… it is a glorious benefit. (The other 2 sucks to a degree that seems unimaginable for most people. What can i say. Baggage is really fucking hard sometimes. Doesn’t change the ratio.)

            And yes, despite Jaybird’s snark above, I really *did* bootstrap myself to that point. except it isn’t bootstrapping if you can lean on the queer community of an entire city, that happens to be at a particular point in history when it’s seeming like maybe we’ll stop seeing so many friends die miserably and young, to figure out what you need to know.

            But like, seriously folks. I was *seriously sexually and otherwise abused by a primary caregiver* from the ages of as far back as I can manage to remember (probably longer than that) until I managed to break away at 18.

            And *I’m* over the moon happy about my sex life and work hard at staying that way and even getting happier such that the overall arc is that I”m probably three times as happy with it now as I was twenty years ago.

            It’s *hard fucking work* due to my history and that life is hard for all of us.

            But it’s not IMPOSSIBLE.

            And it’s not UNFAIR that I have that and (many of) y’all don’t.

            Pretty sure it’s real fucking fair that I was able to eke out a happy existence through my own determination and the good fortune of finding found family and intensely safe contexts, given my 18 years of decidedly non-consensual torture first.


            • Ozzzy! in reply to Maribou says:

              A nice story of success! That is really honest and I am glad you are happy. I guess I should have qualified I was thinking over a longer timeframe than *right now*, but that doesn’t change anything about what you said. Thanks for responding.Report

          • Kristin Devine in reply to Ozzzy! says:

            I’m replying to Ozzzy but this observation is really directed at more than one person, just that this was a good jumping off place.

            Also, I am using “you” just because it’s convenient and not because I am singling out YOU whoever you are.

            There’s an expression, “comparison is the thief of joy” and it is super true. Like, I could look at EL James, that chick who wrote Fifty Shades, and be consumed with rage that she’s had all this fiscal success when she sucks and I’m so much more deserving than her yet I’m sitting here writing for free. I could let that bother me all the time to such extent that I would refuse to write anything because it’s so unfair that I have to give away my writing when others so much worse are making bank off it. (and I have a friend who thinks I am nuts for giving away writing I “should be” charging for even though no one would ever see it otherwise. He said I was “writing for dopamine” LOL and it’s a fair assessment. This is an actual attitude people do have, not a straw man.)

            But me worrying about EL James and her bank account wouldn’t make me HAPPY. I wouldn’t enjoy that. I would only be hurting myself and reducing my enjoyment in life because I would turn away from things that bring me joy for no better reason than it wasn’t what I “deserve”. I have learned over the years that what brings me joy is being the best darn Kristin I can be in my little circle of the world. Even though I may occasionally complain how bad the writing in Fifty Shades is, it doesn’t eat me alive even though I know I could do way better (or I like to think so anyway). And it isn’t just writing/money, it’s kids and marriage and sex and the decor of my house and my work accomplishments and other people’s good health, all sorts of other stuff.

            Defining your life and happiness by what you imagine other people have/deserve (whether it’s better or worse than you have) is a losing game. Getting happiness from assuming other people are not happy is not a good way to get happiness because what happens when you find out they ARE happy? And assuming that you would BE happy if only you had Element X, Y, Z of someone else’s life is also a losing game because trust me, you get those things and then find out you’re not happy anyway. It’s hella shocking because you built your life on a lie that some achievement or event would create this state of satisfaction and it doesn’t. It doesn’t because satisfaction is a choice you make, not a state of nirvana you attain.

            If you don’t change that mindset of expecting happiness to come from externals, you’ll just go on looking for the next reason why you’re unhappy even if/when you get the thing you think will answer all your prayers. Because you’ll still be unhappy, and you’ll look all around at your life still hunting for the reason why and trust me, you’ll find it. You’ll blame that person, that thing, that goal you haven’t reached, because there is ALWAYS going to be something in life that you’re lacking, something that the other guy seems to have that you don’t. There are people on this site without financial security, without social standing, without good health, without kids, without a relationship, with a relationship but it isn’t a good one, every person you meet has both blessings and burdens and it has absolutely nothing to do with your own personal level of happiness what another person has or doesn’t.

            And I know that’s not something another person can explain, it’s a realization that has to come from within, but once you have the revelation, it will change your life forever.Report

            • Ozzzy! in reply to Kristin Devine says:

              This is very much what I was getting at, Kristin, and quite well put. Thanks!Report

            • LeeEsq in reply to Kristin Devine says:


              There is a modern Hebrew word, firgun, that doesn’t really translate well into English, but roughly means to be happy because other people are happy.

              I recognize that resentment isn’t very attractive and it isn’t likely to get me what I want. However, resentmetn can also come very easily, especially when you feel like you are being called to support something you are excluded from participating in. There is a sort of meaness in this. People want to be free of resentment aimed at them but many, not all, want to be able to exclude and be mean to those that the exclude. So it’s something like you can’t be resentful of my super-happy sex life but I get to go after you for your lack of one. Rinse, wash, repeat with lots of other stuff.Report

              • veronica d in reply to LeeEsq says:

                Resentment is a very particular emotion. It is different from disappointment or frustration or sadness. There are multitude of emotions that are not resentment.

                Over my life, there are a great many things I wish I had, but did not. There are many times I felt excluded. Sometimes I could understand why I was excluded. Other times I could not. It just felt shitty. It felt personal. However, I seldom felt anything like full-on, sustained resentment.

                Resentment is different, as is its cousin bitterness. In short, resentment doesn’t automatically happen when you don’t get what you want. There are other factors. Those factors are attitudinal. They happen inside your head, based on your view of the world.

                When someone encounters someone else who is resentful or bitter toward them, it is not the same as encountering someone who is frustrated or sad. The resentment implies underlying assumptions.

                Examine those assumptions.Report

  4. Chip Daniels says:

    I think your point about how people practice similar things with different motivations is a good insight.

    Although most fantasy novels are based on premises which would be unpleasant if we were to actual live them out (A world of nobility and classes and enforced servitude? No thanks) they allow us to insert ourselves into lives we can only vicariously dream of, sort of like daydreaming of being a rock star.

    I attempted to read Fifty Shades but got tired after a chapter or two and skimmed the rest. The difference between it and the classic works of the genre like The Story of O or the Beauty trilogy by Anne Rice is that Fifty Shades really was about the fantasy of money, and the romance was pretty much secondary.

    Ana falls for the idea of having an endless buffet of goods and toys and power. But she really brings nothing to the table except her willingness and availability. It is sort of the reverse of those movies where a schlubby guy somehow manages to bag an impossibly hot model- there is never any explanation of why Christian (or the reader) would be interested in her.

    By contrast, O and Beauty are more vividly drawn characters who are more easily believable as the object of fixation and devotion. More importantly, they approach the relationship more on the plane of equals. Their motivation is different, more on the lines of classic romantic tales than the trivial aspect of Fifty Shades.Report

    • LeeEsq in reply to Chip Daniels says:

      Ana and the schlubby guy that gets the hot girl are usually purposefully blank to allow the readers or viewers to see themselves in their space. When the average, and presumably female reader, reads or watches 50 Shades, she is supposed to be placing herself in Ana’s stead. Same with the the average, presumably male viewer of the shlubby guy-hot woman heterosexual male romcom. The readers live vicariously through the books.Report

  5. Maribou says:

    Excellent essay as usual.

    “I can, without being in any way anti-sex, say that Fifty Shades of Grey was a terrible and dangerous book that normalized toxic attitudes about sex, and without being in any way hypocritical also say that Kushiel’s Dart was an interesting book with similar subject matter that I liked.”

    I have been avoiding the former for those reasons, and avoiding the latter because it’s so meaningful to so many people I know that I’m afraid of not appreciating it. There’ve been a lot of drops of water pushing me to stop avoiding Kushiel’s Dart, this year. Yours is definitely one of the most useful. (not that you said it was especially meaningful to you! just… every ‘no really this one is good’ from an unexpected source is making the thought of reading it less daunting.)Report

    • veronica d in reply to Maribou says:

      I have two contrasting takes on Fifty Shades. This first is, it is a fantasy, and closing the book is the safe word. In other words, enjoy your transgressive fantasies on their own terms.

      My second take is based on the fact that I’ve met multiple real-life women, who were entering the BDSM scene, who were fairly naive, and who were searching for their own Christian Grey.

      This is troubling for the obvious reasons.Report

    • Kristin Devine in reply to Maribou says:

      Kushiel’s Dart actually was meaningful to me in an artistic sense, as I generally prefer slow moving, carefully paced storytelling and I happened to read it at a point in time when every popular book and movie seemed hell bent on doing the opposite. I felt like everyone was dispensing with the niceties and having Frankenstein pummel Van Helsing rather than spending any time on world building or character development. It really came along at a time I needed to feel like “ok I’m not alone in what I’m trying to do here” so I’ll always be grateful to Jacqueline Carey for reminding me that people were still writing books that way.

      The sexuality part was interesting to me but more in an academic sense. But I can completely see how it would be meaningful to other people, unlike Fifty Shades which I think is suitable only for starting firesReport