By the Horns: My Beef With the Iron Bull Romance

Inquisitor by Michi
Inquisitor by Michi

Sometime in my early teens, I set the background on my mobile phone to a picture of handcuffs with the phrase “naughty but nice” written underneath. It was pink, it was cute, and I liked it. My mother was horrified when she saw it. I couldn’t understand why. For me, I felt the phrase “naughty but nice” represented the duality of human nature — how we are neither wholly good nor bad. She told me it had something to do with sex. I didn’t understand. What in the world did handcuffs have to do with sex?

These days, in popular culture, awareness of BDSM is pretty high, but the public perception of it is still characterized by the same kind of confusion and bafflement that I felt when I discovered it was a thing. For some people, the practice is seen as dangerous or shameful. Others see it as a punchline.

God help the people who find it hot.

In such a world where Fifty Shades of Grey is a major talking point, portrayals of consensual BDSM relationships come like rain in a desert. The writing of Iron Bull in Dragon Age: Inquisition has received huge amounts of praise from some quarters because, in the romance, Iron Bull gives you a safe word and plenty of chances to back out. The potential romantic relationship with him and the Inquisitor or with him and Dorian is definitely and refreshingly consensual.

I imagine at this point your senses are tingling. Like, what’s my point here?

I’d like to clearly state that I don’t think the writing of Iron Bull is problematic. I’m sensitive to the idea that other people have had issues with it because it triggered them. Iron Bull’s relationships aren’t, in my view, abusive, but quite unintentionally, they have reminded people of abusive relationships they’ve had.

Certainly, there seems to be a tightrope to tread when writing healthy BDSM, and there are other things to bear in mind beyond the issue of consent. However, I can’t really speak to this issue in particular, as it wasn’t an issue I personally had with it. No, I don’t have a problem with the writing. However, I do have an issue with a statement he makes. (We’ll get to that.)

Dragon Age

Do you see the difference? Characters in games sometimes express points of view that are discriminatory, unreasonable, and/or hopefully wrong. And that’s fine — that’s writing. That’s reflective of the universal truth that humans are neither wholly good nor bad. No one’s an angel and there’s clearly no problem with Chell being adopted.

I realize that for those who perfectly understand the distinction, the above might have come across as downright patronizing. Still, I want to take every precaution to avoid being misunderstood.

Now, let’s get to this one thing that has me slippin’. This one thing that Iron Bull says pushed a berserk button that had hitherto laid dormant within me. I suppose, because he says this thing, I don’t understand why he’s held up by some folk as the patron saint of healthy BDSM. Anyway, here is the part that made me narrow my eyes and jump up and down like a bemused, angry frog.

[Sometime after a relationship has been established and sex has been had:]

INQUISITOR: You told me that this is what I needed. What do you mean by that?

IRON BULL: You’re the Inquisitor. You didn’t ask for this job, but you’ve taken on the responsibility. You’ve got thousands of lives riding on your decisions. You bear that weight all day. You need a place where you can be safe, knowing someone else is in charge for a bit.

Here we see Bull assuming that you’re into the masochistic side of an S and M relationship as a result of you being the boss outside of the bedroom. You need to have a life with balance. Some people are going to read this as a harmless assumption, and possibly an insightful one if you choose to accept Bull’s perception of your Inquisitor.

However, Bull assumes that your Inquisitor is into this kink for a reason and that he knows that reason. I have a massive problem with this because I’m a queer woman and, as such, am occasionally on the receiving end of similar psychologizations that people offer me — unsolicited — to account for how I ‘got this way.’ I must have had a terrible relationship with my father, or perhaps with my mother. I must have had bad experiences with men. It must have been the strict Catholic upbringing or the all-girls school or the feminism thing and on and on until the sun (or I) explode.

If you’re into BDSM and disclose this fact, you might be treated to an equally irritating laundry list of explanations for your interests. I brought up the problem I had with Bull’s dialogue at a party to this girl who’s into BDSM. In the conversation that sprung from that, she said that she absolutely hates when other members of the BDSM community assume that she can’t be a top because of her height and her being a woman. Yeah.

In times like this, I like to turn to the words of Isabela, god among pirates. “They don’t know me,” she tells Aveline, “I know me.”

Dragon Age

You see, whenever a person’s sexual interests lay anywhere outside the realm of the vanilla, the armchair psychologists come flocking. Bull is one such armchair psychologist and, as such, I got beef with him.

Now, there are individuals who can account for their queerness or interest in S and M. Maybe they fit the stereotype and did have bad experiences or like to feel taken care of after a busy day being the CEO of a major corporation. However, these people are not the sum total of their kind. There is, and always has been, every manner of person. No one should have to justify their sexuality or various kinks to others in the same way that no fan of chips need justify their love of the foodstuff.

Again, I’d like to restate that I don’t have the problem with the writing. The Qunari are interesting folk (she says like they’re a real thing that exist) and sport takes on the universe that are different. For instance, they accept trans individuals (see: Krem), but they have a restrictive view of gender. The notion of a woman being a warrior is alien to them. So when Sten is sufficiently impressed with a woman Warden’s combat skills, he’ll begin to doubt her womanhood.

It’s cool that Iron Bull has such a unique worldview and, moreover, you can totally tell him that he’s wrong in his assumption. Isn’t that nice?

But maybe I’m being presumptive. Maybe Bull’s opinions on BDSM have nothing to do with him being a Qunari. Maybe I’m a hypocrite and a horrible person. Maybe I shamefully used Dragon Age as an excuse to talk about issues faced by the BDSM and queer communities. Maybe. I don’t feel the need to justify myself to you. You don’t know me; I know I like chips.


13 thoughts on “By the Horns: My Beef With the Iron Bull Romance

Add yours

  1. I definitely agree with your point but I do think it’s a problem with the writing, in a way.

    I managed to rationalize Bull’s psychoanalysis on the basis that he’s had time to observe the Inquisitor and reach those conclusions about the Inquisitor specifically, so it never hit the button for me that it hit for you (unlike, say, the movie Secretary, which basically intimates that submissives/masochists are self-harmers looking for another outlet–that drove me up the fricking wall.)

    I think the issue is that the Inquisitor has no way to argue or dispute this, if the person roleplaying the Inquisitor wants to have a different approach to their character’s masochism/submissiveness.

    It’s sort of the same problem people had with the fact that almost all the Inquisitor’s responses to finding out Krem was trans came from a place of ignorance, thus precluding the possibility that someone might be playing an Inquisitor who already knows and is accepting of transgender people, or even an Inquisitor who is trans themselves.

    If this Inquisitor had had an option to dispute Bull’s analysis of his/her needs, to say “um, yeah, you’re reading too much into it, I just think this is fun” or “no, I don’t think that’s it, because this is something I’ve wanted since long before I became the Inquisitor” then it wouldn’t have been a problem.

    So, I do think it’s an oversight on the part of the writers. But I also think on the whole it was a far cry better representation of BDSM than we get in a lot of places.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I really love this because I 100% agree with you about Bull’s assumptions. They always sat really weird with me and I could never put it into words why. This basically just summed that weird feeling. I really think they did a great disservice to all the romance options in DAI. Most of them feel unfinished and rushed, and there isn’t much in the way of exploring problematic areas like this one. I wish the Inquisitor would have been given the option to disagree with that kind of read on them, like Amelia mentioned. Same with how I wish we could explore more of how Dorian’s world view (hopefully) changed, that sort of thing (could list every little nitpick for each companion). But it just comes back down to they should have maybe spent a little more time on these characters. It just feels like DAI has archetypes of characters and can finish their story arch after getting to the second half of the game.

    Awesome observation Ruth!


    1. In some ways, it almost feels like the writers were trying to roleplay for us, doesn’t it? There are so many places where our chances to explore a diverse range of responses and reactions are quite limited and really needlessly so. It’s as though Bioware decided who the Inquisitor would be with very little variation, and you just have to play inside that mold.


  3. This is a really great piece of meta – I think part of Bull’s offhand assumption was rooted, for the writers, in his training as Ben-Hassrath. Its’s canon that Bull is incredible at reading people, it’s literally his job to understand and anticipate those he comes into contact with.

    That being said, I wish the conversation had involved a dialogue between Inquisitor and Bull in which they both come to a consensus about what the Inquisitor is getting out of the relationship, rather than Bull telling /you/ how /you feel/. Though it may be canon that he has incredible psychological insight, it does take away a certain amount of agency as a player and for the character and I totally understand the discomfort.

    I think what I love about Bull is that there is a cerebral side to him – he’s not just the guy cracking skulls and getting off on killing dragons. He’s huge and terrifying, he’s a blunt instrument of war but he also pays attention to minute details, reads body language, inflection, and expression, understands emotions just as well as he understands how to brutally and effectively murder people. As someone who adores Iron Bull and has repeatedly romanced him, the majority of his dialogue is so refreshingly unproblematic that I didn’t really take the time to think about the implications of that line but you’re dead-on.

    Bull may know the Inquisitor, but he ought not to know them better than themselves.


  4. As other commentators already pointed out before me, I think The Iron Bull’s job has a lot to do with DA:I’s approach on BDSM. He’s an observer, and our character is the Inquisitor, a leader with lots of responsibilities, duties, and power to make important decisions every day.

    I find it absolutely reasonable that someone with so much power would like to lay all control on a lover’s hands for a while, just so they feel like they don’t have the power anymore, at least between those walls. It brings balance, which is functional like a dom-sub relationship in real life.

    In some party banter, Cole also makes some good points about The Iron Bull being the one that serves the Inquisitor, even if he’s supposed to be in the dom role. It’s also a lot like that in real life, since even though anyone would say the sub holds no power, they actually hold the ultimate one: the safeword. And the dom’s role might be, in a way, of the actual servant, since they’re the ones that have to have the most self-control and restraint over themselves, besides being careful observers.
    It’s all a matter of perspective.

    Besides, The Iron Bull may seem big and scary at first, but he keeps asking your character if they agree with what he proposes. From the first “talk”, he asks for the Inquisitor’s consent around 3 times, and they carefully managed to not make the scene cold or creepy.

    I have an absolute crush on The Iron Bull. He’s the sweetest, just so well written, I could never make the Inquisitor romance anyone else in DA:I. I just can’t help it. I hope he gets at least a minor appearance in the next releases.

    (I have a suspicion that the Well will have some impact on the Inquisitor’s relationship and their loved one. I asked David Gaider back then, but he said he couldn’t speak of it. =/ )


  5. ‘Aight, so, I’ve noticed that people had various responses to this thing I wrote. Here are my responses to their responses:

    1. I understand that IB doesn’t assume some stranger-Inquisitor is necessarily submissive. He does, however, once a relationship has been established, assume that you are submissive for a reason. I don’t care that he assumes you’re submissive, since you have entered into a sub/ dom relationship with him. I do care that he assumes he knows why you’re into subbing.

    2. You are clearly given an option to reject Bull’s reasoning, this is why I don’t have a problem with the writing. As a piece of writing, I like how Bull tries to ‘read’ because it speaks to his character and how he used to be/ is a spy.

    3. To those who didn’t really understand why I wrote the article because I had no problem with the writing…
    I was curious about what other people thought. I did want to use the starting-off point of the game to prompt a broader discussion about irl attitudes and whether his assumption is a fine one to make or, at all times, unwarranted. I argue for the latter, clearly, but realize that to do is contentious. Especially if you believe the parallels I drew weren’t analogous to the situation. In my view, there’s a broader issue about whether it’s ever okay to assume anything about a person and to what extent it is okay goes beyond particular BDSM or LGBTQI+ issues. We all have to draw that line somewhere.
    If you feel that I’d be better served having such a conversation on a different forum, you might be right (idk).

    4. No, I didn’t communicate the difference between sub/dom relationships and S&M ones (S&M relationships involves the giving and receiving of pain, sub/ dom ones don’t necessarily). I might have kinda conflated the two, which wasn’t great of me. Still, the issue I have with the dialogue is still present whether or not their relationship is one or the other or both.

    5. I still believe IB is a stand-up guy and don’t believe myself a hypocrite for thinking so.
    If it’s in any way ‘wrong’ to assume that someone who’s been thrust into a leadership role without warning would like to be submissive in a relationship as a result of that sudden and unasked for power… and to voice such an assumption to said individual, I don’t think it’s a massive issue. Even if it did affect me massively.

    I think that’s everything- but I could be wrong (about so many things).


    1. Hi!

      I think I get your main point (but correct me if I’m wrong), which is The Iron Bull assuming the Inquisitor is into being in the sub role, while that may not be the case (depending on each player).

      But besides whatever our perceptions of Bull are, I guess we can agree that this was an outstanding (and mostly accurate) overall portrayal of BDSM, which is rare in any media, where it’s usually twisted to the point of turning it into a joke or a casual pun, and even confused with abuse.

      In Bull’s case, it’s also fully integrated as part of his character and story development (what he tells the Inquisitor in Haven about sex back in Palaven), so it’s not like he was turned into a token or anything.

      I also find your points quite valid at the same time, I guess it’s a matter of perspective =)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Okay… my main point is that Bull assumes the submissive role the Inquizzy has taken on is what they ”need” (because the Inquisitor has all this unasked for control).
        Now, it’s totally, as you say, reasonable ”that someone with so much power would like to lay all control on a lover’s hands for a while”. However, is it reasonable or polite to assume that someone with so much power wants to sub because they have so much power? Can’t their desire to be (sexually) submissive exist natively or without reference to other desires?

        So, no, my main point is not that Bull assumes the Inquisitor is into a sub role. Just that he says he knows why you are, once you are.

        ALTHOUGH, thinking about it more… you could make the argument that he assumes you should be submissive because he won’t enter into an intimate/ sexual relationship with you in which you’re not. He talks about his liaisons with barmaids and how he lets them be on top of him because that’s what ”they need”. You, on the other hand, in his view, want or ”need” a D/s relationship.
        I think he’s being presumptive. That’s not to say he can’t be right in his presumptions!
        Moreover, regardless of his presumptions, he clearly respects your consent.

        Having said this, I’m glad that this relationship exists in DA: I because, as you said, it’s neither a joke nor abusive.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank you for this. I often get confusion and sometimes outright anger from fans when I bring up the fact that I just don’t like TIB. In fact, he was probably my least favorite party member. I played a Qunari female Inquis so it was doubly frustrating that 1) he assumed I knew jack shit about Qunari culture because I was Tal-Vashoth and proceeded to patronizingly explain how I couldn’t possibly know how awesome and efficient their culture is because of that, and 2) when I started romancing him on one playthrough he immediately assumed he knew what was best for me, as you said, and then laughed off the thought that I might want something else when I implied I was dom/switch. I immediately reloaded that save and proceeded to scale the Wall instead.

    I think the devs screwed up because they attempted to write the relationship as very focused on consent or whatever, but it fell short. When you first sleep with TIB he puts your hands above your head and talks about a safeword, from which it can be implied he’s dom, sure. But I also assumed that it was possible he just liked rough sex, or else liked taking the dom role on “some” occasions. From there we’re suddenly having a conversation about how he knew that was what my character wanted, and it’s the only thing she’ll ever want, and that’s that.

    It especially pissed me off when you give him the line about wanting to be dom yourself, and his response is along the lines of, “Well, I’ve been sub before for like, wait staff and stuff. Because they need to blow off steam since they get pushed around all day. But you’re always in power and therefore need to chill and be sub in bed.” No dude. You have absolutely no idea what my character wants because that is decided by me. And so the point here is that, in fact, he HAS BEEN and is WILLING to be sub… just not for you, because daddy knows best. Gross.

    There’s no ability for your character to dispute that or talk about the fact that people’s sexuality can’t be easily defined and put in tidy little boxes. To say that, actually, some people are cool with being sub sometimes, while they’ll want to be dom at others, or even engage in sex where both parties are “fighting” for control because that turns them on. Nope. You’re just pigeon-holed as a sub and then forced to accept it or shut down the relationship without another word. The ignorance displayed either knowingly or not did remind me of the stupid responses you’re given after you find out Krem’s gender identity, and it felt stilted and dumb. I wonder why they didn’t get someone actively involved in the BDSM or trans community to write those conversations, or at least get more thorough feedback before including them. (And yes, yay for progress being made toward even *having* these conversations in popular culture. We just still have a ways to go.)

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I commented before about the option to tell him off.
    I found a video of it, it occurs just after 1 minute.

    The Inquisitor tells him he’s wrong, and he immediately backs off. I think he may be trying to be a bit of an armchair psychologist, but he isn’t one who attempt to force his views on others.


  8. Let’s see. I’m bi-poly, a domestic violence survivor, and a proud sub in bdsm relationship. Frankly I loved this romance and choose it more often than any other save when I want a Solas or cullen runthrough. I wasn’t bothered by it and I love the fact that if he says something I wouldn’t like I can end it and move on. Great thing about it. It’s optional. Plus it’s Freddie Prinze Jr.


  9. There’s a difference between D/s and S and M. What Iron Bull described is a dynamic between a dom and a sub. Some people LIKE to give up control, and often executives and people in a high position of power gravitate to this because it provides an outlet, an opportunity to let someone else have control for a while. That doesn’t mean they enjoy pain. I was surprised how tasteful and well thought out the romance is. I think you’re just unfamiliar with the D/s community.


  10. I actually drew a little comic that helped me fill in the holes in the writing of Bull. (I use female pronouns since my most recent inquisitor is a woman) He says Ben-Hasserath training is what let him on that the Inquisitor would enjoy being a sub, so I figure at some point maybe she is complaining to Cabot in the tavern or confiding in Cole about how she has all this weight on her shoulders and she’s suddenly in charge of everything. She’d just like at one point to let someone else be in charge even for just a second, but she knows she can’t do that. I imagine Bull makes no gesture, says nothing, but puts that handy bit of information in his “Boss” folder for the next time she flirts with him.
    I do get where you’re coming from, though. My experience in the BDSM community was full of doms insisting to me they know what I want and it got a little more than annoying.

    Liked by 1 person

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