The Ethics of Writing Erotica About Sex Workers

Last week, I was the lesser-given-a-shit-about writer who announced the release of a new erotic ebook about sex workers. I try not to be bitter, but it must be said that I had a grand total of zero fights with NYT bestselling authors last week, so I guess being the little guy (metaphorically speaking) isn’t so bad.

Joe Konrath’s announcement led to a helluva lot of controversy (check out the comments thread on his post if you’re interested, or his Twitter feed). The controversy centred on this comment from Konrath:

“Our male protagonist is a sex worker. An escort. A prostitute. I’m pretty sure Harlequin didn’t allow that back when Ann [Voss Peterson, co-author] was publishing her romance continuities. I also believe Harlequin had a guideline that once the hero met the heroine, neither were allowed to philander. Strike two. Finally, the sex in Want It Bad makes Fifty Shades of Grey look like a Disney picturebook. Harlequin may have had some racy titles, but I doubt they ever got this racy.”

Many people disagreed. I haven’t read enough Harlequin titles to comment, particularly not continuities, but I do know Tiffany Reisz is a Harlequin author and that lady cannot see a boundary without pushing it (which is why her books are brilliant).

But I haven’t seen anyone talk about the ethics of writing about sex workers (such is the nature of Konrath – you read one of his posts and it’s hard to know what points to engage with first. I don’t always agree with him but I read his blog because he makes me think, for better or worse. Also, I think he and Penelope Trunk need to be friends).

The morality of writing about sex workers has been on my mind since I started Lights Out, my erotic novel about two female sex workers who meet in a London brothel and are irresistibly drawn to each other. I’m a staunch feminist (not-quite-card-carrying – I figure I don’t need cards to point out that I’m a feminist since I am a woman with a job and a bank account; I don’t get to not be one) and I debated with myself a lot before deciding to release a book that depicted female sex workers.

 

Is sex work a feminist issue? And is it a bad thing? HOW THE HELL AM I SUPPOSED TO FEEL ABOUT THIS? GERMAINE? CAITLIN? ANYONE?

Warning: I am going to be talking about Iceland a LOT. And why wouldn’t I? They have 320,000 inhabitants, phone books organised by first name, tiny horses and the ability to bring air travel to a screeching halt. Iceland clearly rocks.

They are also getting closer and closer to banning the sex industry. The Guardian, my hippie-leftie-Bible, described Iceland as “the world’s most feminist country” when strip clubs were outlawed for feminist reasons (rather than religious reasons, which has precedents all over the freakin’ shop). From the article:

Kolbrún Halldórsdóttir, the politician who first proposed the ban, firmly told the national press on Wednesday: “It is not acceptable that women or people in general are a product to be sold.”

Abso-fucking-lutely. No argument there. I also like the ‘people in general’ remark.

Feministing, on the other hand, disagrees vociferously. Blogger Miriam writes:

History has shown us that criminalizing these industries simply drives them underground, where they continue to thrive, but with little regulation and definitely no protections for the workers (emphasis theirs).
Instead workers are criminalized (often instead of the people seeking their services), which prevents them from seeking recourse for abuses they may face.

Which sucks. Here’s a link to a news piece about the issue in Dublin, my home city, where sex workers fear new laws will make them more vulnerable to violence.

On the one hand, as a feminist, I love the idea of a society where sex isn’t a commodity to be bought and sold (surely when buying sex, consent becomes muddy as fuck?). But then, food is necessary for life, and it is a commodity we buy and sell. So is water (thank you, San Pellogrino, my second-favourite bubbly drink with a P in it). On the other, also as a feminist, I want a world where women don’t need to go into underpaid and potentially exploitative work just to make ends meet, but if they do, I want them to be protected and safe while they’re doing it.

For me, in an ideal world there would be no sex work. But if it’s going to exist, I want it regulated, safe and transparent. And without trafficking. Banning it does not seem like the way to achieve this.

 

Why write about something that, morally, I would rather didn’t exist? Why risk normalising it?

For the same reason that Sue Grafton or Dan Brown writes about murder. For the same reason that Stephen King writes about kidnapping, forced imprisonment and violence (King pointed out that school shootings were close to unheard of in the US before he wrote Rage and Carrie; now they are tragically not so. Did King normalise teen-on-teen violence? That’s a question for future sociologists to answer, I suppose). Because this is the story I want to tell.

 

How about pornography, then? Is that moral? 

In 2013, following the successful ban on sex work and strip clubs, Iceland attempted to follow up with a ban on “violent or degrading pornography”, “which some Icelanders take to mean most of it,” according to The Economist (the attempt was blocked by the European Commission due to censorship concerns). Had it passed, could vanilla folk have still enjoyed their bit of aul’ porn while kinksters couldn’t? Were the Icelandic people planning to knit away those dark winter evenings (and few places do dark winter evenings like Iceland – I’m quite a few kilometres south and don’t even ask me to try whiling away an Irish winter without something arousing and warming to read. Alexander McCall Smith is all well and good but not when it’s 0 degrees Celcius outside and my heating just packed up)? Apparently not – the same article in The Economist assures us that Iceland is sex-positive:

Iceland, however, is determinedly pro-women. Half the cabinet and 25 of the 63 members of Iceland’s parliament are female. The country is run by the world’s only openly lesbian prime minister. Iceland is also pro-sex. Its supermarkets sell condoms and mini-vibrators next to checkouts. A new sex-education film informs teenagers that sex should be something they want to do again and again, and then maybe again. Some 65% of Icelandic children are born outside marriage, more than any other country in the OECD. Same-sex marriage has been legal since 2010 and gays and lesbians can adopt children. Icelandair ran a campaign featuring the tagline, “Fancy a dirty weekend in Iceland?”

Provided it’s the right kind of sex, of course.

Do I hear a ‘won’t someone please think of the children’ coming on? Why yes, Helen Lovejoy, I do.

The country’s initiatives against the sex industry have been championed by a powerful feminist movement. “Tackling online porn, particularly the violent kind, is part of a broader set of policies to protect children and reduce sexual violence,” says Halla Gunnarsdottir, a political adviser to the interior minister who has proposed the law. But the more ambitious Iceland has become in its war against the sex industry, the less success it seems to enjoy.

The British Psychological Society backed a move to ban ‘violent or extreme’ pornography in Britain in 2006 on the grounds that it could influence impressionable people to either commit violent acts or sexual offences if a predisposition was already there. Some of their members disagreed. It is unproven that explicit material can lead to violence (not of the consensual variety) but seemingly there is doubt.

And how violent does material have to be before it’s violent pornography (aside: I now have that fucking System of a Down song stuck in my head, which will be marvellous at work tomorrow when I’m humming it at the water cooler and my boss has to pretend he doesn’t recognise it)? Bettie Page’s work with Irving Klaw, which features on badges and buttons that you can buy in the mildly offbeat district of my hometown? Or material where someone has actually been hurt or exploited in the making of it?

How are users to determine that?

It’s one thing to say that all users of pornography should stay away from anything violent that they feel was non-consensual or exploitative, but given that the appearance of non-consent is a kink, it’s a helluva task for some person sitting in front of their computer.

Also from The Guardian:

Many other organisations – including the CPS, the Police Federation, women’s rights organisations and child welfare groups – urged the government to introduce the [violent and degrading porn] ban. But libertarian campaigners accused the government of creating thought crimes and warned that images of consensual sexual activity would be outlawed.

“Government proposals to criminalise the possession of ‘violent pornography’ will do nothing to reduce real crime. They will treat consenting adults like children. And they run the risk of imposing much wider limits on freedom of speech than they intend,” Backlash said in a statement. A spokesman for the coalition – whose members include Feminists Against Censorship, the Sexual Freedom Coalition and the Libertarian Alliance – said: “A picture can look graphic and not involve harm, or look innocuous and involve a great deal of harm.”

That’s the crux of it, though, isn’t it? Which does more harm – a photo of a woman tied up and being beaten, who agreed to it and got up after she was untied and went for a latte with the bloke hitting her, who is named Tony and likes carrot cake and Arsenal? Or yet another romantic comedy movie depicting a woman repeatedly refusing to date a man, only to have him disrespect her ‘no’ and wear her down until she finally, grudgingly agrees to a date that he’s ‘sure’ she’ll like once she gets to know him? Which is more degrading to women? You can probably guess what I think.

The tougher question is which is more damaging to our culture.

 

How does this affect us as writers?

I’m using the Royal Plural here – this isn’t meant to be especially for Konrath and me (or ‘meself and Joe,’ if I’m going to be a proper Dubliner about this). As a writer and a feminist who believes that sex work is less-than-ideal, what on earth am I doing writing about sex workers and presenting them as protagonist figures? My book is about sex workers. It’s set in London, where sex work is legal but brothelkeeping isn’t – both figure in the story – and it presents two women who fall for each other. What I contributing to the culture by writing this?

It’s a question I’m still asking myself. I hope I have depicted the issues in the book responsibly. I hope I have shown that the life Kayla and Sally live isn’t typical for a sex worker. But then, Kayla and Sally aren’t typical women, which is part of the nature of fiction, and part of the responsibility we place on readers is to realise that fiction isn’t typical.

 

How To Write Blurbs, Cover Copy or Teaser Text – Whatever You Call It

In Ireland and the UK, we call them ‘blurbs’ – the text, usually a couple of paragraphs, on the back of a book designed to make you want to buy it. On my ebook release, you’ll find it in my listings. When I do a paperback release, it’ll be on the back cover.

I’m a novelist and I write professionally (sometimes). How hard can a couple of paragraphs be?

Excuse me while I tear some of my hair out. I wasn’t using it anyway.

I’m polishing mine today ahead of sharing it here on the blog tomorrow. I’m nervous about sharing my cover copy/blurb/teaser- it’s the first baby step in the process of sharing my book, which is a terrifying journey. Tomorrow will be my first time revealing what the book is actually about. I’m also hoping some kind souls might offer some feedback on how to improve it, ahead of slapping it on my book prior to release.

In the meantime, here’s the method I used for writing it:

 

1. Check out other blurbs in the same genre.

I quickly discovered that erotica blurbs come in three varieties:

– Dark, adjective and adjective, he was the only man that could satisfy her. Torn, adjective and adjective, she is powerless/must surrender/must not surrender/other disturbingly war-like phrase.

I wasn’t nuts about these, because I like some character traits to cling on to, and this told me a lot about how people were feeling but not a whole lot about why I should like them or give a crap. This works for a lot of readers, but it’s not really my thing.

– Really, really long blurbs. Like, five paragraphs.

I found one of these on the listing of an excellent self-published erotic novel that I had read and enjoyed. Even though I’d read the book (and count it among my favourites), I couldn’t get through the blurb because it was so. Freaking. Long (as opposed to so long freaking, which I could handle). There was a little bit too much character to cling on to – by the end of the listing I figured I could skip the book.

– Regular blurbs with some sex in them.

I liked these ones best.

As I’m new the genre and the conventions of the genre, I decided to go model my blurb on the ‘Regular blurbs with some sex in them’ (because they appealed to me most, and they are the books I was most likely to buy, and I imagine my future readers – please God I have some – will probably have some tastes in common with me). However, I also incorporated some elements of the ‘Dark, adjective and adjective’ blurbs – a lot of erotic bestsellers have these, and while I’m not setting out to ape bestsellers in the hope of becoming one, I figure bestsellers are probably bestsellers because they are delivering what their readers want. And although I found the adjectivey blurbs a little light on character, I didn’t find a single one that wasn’t at least slightly evocative.

 

2. Figure out what the conflict is

What’s the problem? Why is there a book? Why can’t the main character just have what they want? That needs to be in the blurb.

Harry Potter has to defeat his parents’ killer. Frodo has to destroy the One Ring and some folk would rather he didn’t. In romance novels, something is causing the course of true love not to run smoothly and in erotica, there may be something that keeps the lovers apart, or something that forces them to confront uncomfortable realities when they’re together – that’s the heart of your blurb.

Your conflict will give you some clues about your character too. Why can’t Harry just say ‘Sod this, lads, I’ve no parents. Yizzer on your own. I’m off for a Butterbeer’? Because that isn’t Harry. Why can’t the heroine of any romance novel ever say ‘Meh, plenty more where he came from!’? Because that’s not who she is (and if it is, you don’t have a book. . .).

Now you have your raw materials – an idea what a blurb looks like, the conflict that needs to be included and a sense of the character traits that need to come through. So we’re ready to start putting the whole lot together.

 

3. Establish the status quo, the thing your protagonist wants and the thing that turns it all upside-down – not necessarily in that order.

Where is your protagonist when we start? What do they want? (Very often, the answer to this is either ‘a quiet life’ or ‘to stay in the mildly unhappy rut they’ve carved for themselves’ – but make it sound more interesting than that if you can!). For my main character, as you’ll see tomorrow, the thing she wants the most is ‘not to screw up anything else.’

But we wouldn’t have a novel if our protagonist got what they wanted too soon. . . so something happens to turn things upside down.

 

4. Establish the consequences of the turning upside-down.

Isn’t it happily ever after for Harry when he arrives at wizard school? Why is it so bad that this tall, dark and dangerous guy has rocked up to change our heroine’s world? What is so catastrophic about two people having a shag? Tell us without spoiling the ending.

 

5. Reinforce the conflict 

Amy Temple is a mild-mannered bookish sort who is happiest with a bottle of Prosecco, a dog and a pile of Hannibal DVDs while she dreams of south Dublin home ownership (status quo). Until Self-Publishing rocks up on her doorstep and sweeps her off her feet, convincing her to take risks she never dreamed of (upside down).

But Self-Publishing isn’t all Konrath-level sales and seven-figure print-only deals. As Amy is drawn deeper into the world of Self-Publishing, she discovers that formatting, publicising her work and incisive edits are an unavoidable consequence of her new, exciting passion (conflict). Can Amy pursue her new love without losing herself in her KDP sales reports? Is Self-Publishing all that zie is cracked up to be? (reinforce the conflict).

Tomorrow you can take a look at how this worked for me in practice. I’m off to find a dog and some Prosecco first, though.