By Krissy Eliot; Illustration by Jovan Israel
A temp secretary in her late 20s, we’ll call her Pearl, started working at the same digital ad agency as my boyfriend at the start of the year. On one of her first days on the job she mentioned to the HR guy that she writes a column at a magazine. When HR Man sent out an email introducing Pearl to the office, he included the fact that she was a writer. Everybody wanted to read her stuff and get to know her. Pearl freaked out.
When my boyfriend asked what the big deal was, she confided in him that she writes erotic stories for a porno mag. He told her that his girlfriend (hi!) writes a sex column for the Bay Area Reporter — and that she’s not shy about telling people about it.
“Yeah, but what your girlfriend does is a REAL thing,” Pearl said. “She’s an investigative sex journalist for a legit paper. I write porn.”
Pearl is worried about what I call the hierarchy of sex writers — a system that ranks writers that deal with sexual themes on a continuum of respectability. Your position within the hierarchy varies depending on the type of content you put out, who you write for and even factors like your race.
In my experience, this is the hierarchy’s breakdown, in descending order of respectability:
1) Academic writing (considered necessary and respectable because SCIENCE)
2) Journalism (because people need to know what’s happening in the world)
3) Erotica and porn (associated with physical sex work on account of its goal to physically titillate the reader)
Clearly, the hierarchy is crap. Academic writing and research are crucial to legitimizing the study of sex and uncovering information that can keep us healthy and safe. Sex journalism updates the masses on sex culture and developing trends. And erotic writing and fiction can provide people with perspectives that they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to experience — making them more open to different lifestyles, helping them get to know their body better. They all have merit, so why are some kinds of sex writing seen as more legitimate than others?
Even though academic sexual research is generally held in high esteem, sex researchers/writers aren’t immune from discrimination — especially if they’re female. Researchers Sarah Kingston of Leeds Metropolitan University and Natalie Hammond of the University of Manchester wrote an academic paper on their experiences with sexual stigma in both their personal and professional lives. They found that even though they write to inform, they’re commonly associated with promiscuous women or prostitutes. “As female researchers researching the topic of sex work, our gender was also a factor in how some male participants responded to us,” Hammond and Kingston write. “Kingston found her identity as a female sex work researcher may have labeled her as ‘different’ and sexually liberal, compared to other women not associated with the sex industry.”
When I used to work for a marketing company in Virginia, I did freelance reporting on sex. My boss knew about my sex writing before he hired me because I included some sex articles in my portfolio. Even though my writing had obviously been good enough to get me hired, he requested that I make my real Facebook profile private and made me create another profile where I hadn’t posted any of the links to my sex writing. He would give the G-rated profile’s URL to clients in advance so they wouldn’t try to search my name and discover my real page with the links. He was worried they’d be offended by my work and take their business elsewhere. So yes, I can get jobs outside the sex realm based on the merit of my journalistic writing, but it’s not something companies will broadcast.
Maybe we’re just not used to women being allowed to write about sex in an empowering way. As sex memoirist Claire Dederer points out in her Atlantic article: “Female desire and arousal have for so long been represented as a form of incitement to men that it’s hard for a woman to describe lust — even to say something as simple as ‘I like sex’ — without sounding, without perhaps feeling, as though she’s fulfilling a male fantasy.” This suggests that even though women want to be taken seriously as sex writers, the male gaze still impacts how they’re treated in their personal and professional lives. And with most companies still being run by males, and women still being paid less for the same jobs, is it any wonder that females who write about sex would be held to different standards?
It’s not just marketing jobs. Otherwise reputable publications have been known to pigeonhole sex writers. Journalist Tracy Clark-Flory writes publicly about her sex life — from deep throating her boyfriend to fucking a porn star. When I asked her if this kind of writing has kept her from getting other jobs she said, “Definitely. Yes.” Even if a publication is looking for sex stories, they can still discriminate if they think her previous articles weren’t tame enough for them. Thankfully, not all publications are looking for vanilla. “Salon’s given me a warped perspective on what people are okay with,” Clark-Flory said. “No one [at Salon] has ever said, ‘That’s too edgy,’ or ‘Our readers can’t handle that.’”
Many sex writers have a hard time getting assignments outside the realm of sex writing. Arielle Loren, founder of Corset Magazine, says that she has deliberately made a name for herself as an educator and speaker in topics that have little to do with sexuality. She says that you have to work to separate yourself from the genre of sex. “I think you have to be careful not to pigeonhole yourself if you want to do more than write about sex or work in erotic industries,” Loren said. “When you write about sex (and do it well), your search engine results for your name will likely be attached to that content. I do my best to try and diversify my search engine results, so that people can see that I do more than write and run a magazine about sex. I have other careers and business talents.”
The tendency to pigeonhole sex writers could come from a lack of respect for the genre itself. Laureano says a stereotype exists that says writing about sex in any capacity is not real work. “As if writing is easy. It’s not. It is very difficult,” Laureano says. “And then to be vulnerable enough to share intimate experiences for communities that do not have access to such narratives is even more challenging.”
Some of the sex writers I spoke with for this article told me that race plays a role in who is “allowed” to write about sex and who is not. Bianca Laureano is a certified sexologist and creator of www.LatinoSexuality.com. She says that even in the professional sex writing world, LGBTQ writers and women of color like herself are considered to be lower on the totem pole or even wholly ignored. Laureano says changes need to be made to make room for sex writers who embody a range of identities and unique experiences.
“Why do the usual suspects have book deals, editors who support their writing, and get paid more than another group?” Laureano said. “This needs to change. There is enough for everyone, yet when only certain voices are amplified, it gives the impression we do not exist. It is an erasure. It is time to stop erasing us.” Laureano’s complaint holds weight: despite the accomplishments of women of color like Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison in the realm of writing about sex and sexuality, white women are still widely recognized as the leaders in sex writing today.
This disregard for WOC is evidenced in one of the most recent and famous female sex writing collections to date: Erica Jong’s 2011 book, Sugar in My Bowl: Real Women Write About Real Sex. Only four of the book’s 29 contributors were women of color. Sugar was supposed to be cutting edge — it invited females who typically write about non-sexual (“serious”) world issues to pull back the blanket and reveal their dirty sides. Surely there were more than four successful women of color who could have added their stories to the bunch?
The hierarchy of sex writers proves that sex writing is a risky business, particularly for women and people of color. But regardless of the judgmental bullshit, there’s a lot of sex writers who still keep on keeping on. Risky or not, the business is here to stay.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR Krissy Eliot is a writer and videographer who moved to San Francisco to escape her repressed small town life. Now she writes an experiential sex column called Head First for the Bay Area Reporter and does marketing and video work for the fun and freakier crowd of SF. See what she’s made of.
ABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR Jovan Israel nació en el DF, tiene 23 años. Es estudiante de comunicación y cultura de la UACM y ilustrador autodidacta.