Interviewing just over 130 authors of erotic fiction, I asked how openly we discuss our work with friends and family and how far we keep separate our ‘writing identity’, to avoid social stigmatization.
As ever, this article is intended as a starting point for discussion. All comments are welcome.
Slipping into a Pseudonym
While a number of authors do write under their legally recognized name, more than in any other genre, we pen our words from behind a pseudonym.
Some do this for commercial reasons, separating writing identities across genre categories, to avoid confusing readers. Cherry Wild comments, “There are benefits to compartmentalizing writing identities. I believe readers should understand what they’re going to read from an author, instead of having a shocking surprise that what they thought would be a standard murder mystery is actually a sexed-up erotic thriller.”
Male writers, on occasion, write under a female pen name, believing it will result in better sales (the market being thought to largely comprise women readers). Women authors, in turn, may choose a gender-neutral pen name, wishing to avoid being automatically categorized or labelled by gender.
Laura Antoniou, famous for her ‘Marketplace’ series, notes that she used to pose under a masculine pen name, believing this would appeal to gay male readers. However, with changing trends, this has become irrelevant. She notes, “The number of gay male readers who would care who wrote their erotica is FAR overshadowed by the number of female readers who read MM, so there is no benefit in me writing as a guy.”
Where Fiction and Reality Meet
There’s no doubt that the relationship between the author and their reader is never closer than in the genre of erotic fiction. What other sphere of writing taps so closely into the emotional and sexual psyche?
It’s perhaps unsurprising that readers do tend to initiate contact with writers, seeking to further their connection beyond the page. While such interaction can be flattering, and welcome, it’s not uncommon for authors to report readers stepping over the usual boundaries of propriety, assuming that the writer, by nature of their subject matter, is inviting ‘real life’ sexual intimacy.
Female authors of erotic fiction, particularly, are unlikely to have avoided invitations to engage in ‘sex chat’, or overt photographic overtures. As Will Crimson jokes, wryly, having written at times under a female pen name, “I knew I’d arrived as a female erotic writer when I received my first ‘dick pic’.”
In cases where an author uses their legal name, and/or an identifiable profile picture, other risks may arise, relating to unwanted attention.
The main reason cited by authors of erotic fiction in choosing a pseudonym is the wish to avoid ‘judgement’, not just from co-workers or neighbours, but from family and friends, or to avoid negative consequences for those they love.
As Will Crimson notes, “I write under a pseudonym to protect my family’s friendships and associations.”
Whilst we, as authors, are proud of our writing achievements, the explicit nature of our work does not always allow us to openly share our success. Many admit to confiding in only the closest of friends. Some tell only their partners; some avoid confiding even in their lovers, fearing disapproval.
For those with school-age children, and those living in small communities, anticipation of marginalization is very real. Anxiety over losing employment is a palpable fear.
Patient Lee asserts, “As I’m a high school teacher in a conservative community, I guard my identity with my life. I believe I’d be fired if people knew what I wrote.”
Although the journey continues, we’ve come a long way in embracing equality of rights across sexual orientation, race and gender. And yet, whatever their ‘secret’ reading habits, some members of the public draw the line at rubbing shoulders with writers of what many term ‘filth’.
Certain assumptions seem to apply to authors of erotic fiction that apply nowhere else. Write a story in which your protagonists embed axes in zombie skulls and no one will blink an eye. Write a threesome fellatio scene and you’re assumed to be of dubious morals. Whether we’re believed to be writing from experience, or from the rich meadows of our imagination is irrelevant. In line with the prevailing trend of ‘sexual shaming’, our work makes us a target for judgement.
In writing of sexual desire, in all its variations, we are, piece by piece, dismantling social stigma. We are encouraging our readers to embrace their sexual nature, and to lay claim to the pleasure of their body. Sadly, in so doing, we may lay ourselves open to others overstepping the usual social boundaries of courteous behaviour.
While Patrick Califia has drawn from his own history as inspiration in writing fiction, he comments that people ‘believe I’ve done everything I’ve written about’. “They think that if I write about sex, that must mean that anything goes, and they can do anything they want around me—or to me—or with me.”
There is no doubt that first hand experience does provide some degree of inspiration for fiction; 40% of writers taking part in this survey name past experience as a stimulus for their work, but often only as a starting point. Whether writing from experience or pure fantasy, storytelling takes over; few erotic tales are unadulterated memoirs brought to life.
Unsurprisingly, where writers have used their own sexual history within their storytelling, there can be particular reason for wishing to remain discreet. As Patient Lee says,“My mother wants to read my books but I won’t let her. There’s too much of my own journey of sexual discovery in there for comfort.”
A far greater share of authors, 58%, mention fantasy as a main source of inspiration. Just as a crime or thriller writer might combine invention with human empathy and theoretical research to create their work of fiction, entering the mindset of a murderer, writers of erotic themed works apply the same techniques.
In taking on an ‘alter-ego’, we are freed from fear of causing offence or placing our social position in jeopardy; we can write as our imagination dictates. The ‘mask’ is liberating on many levels.
As Spencer Dryden notes: “If my friends, family and associates learned of my interest in erotica, they would drop dead in horror, so I use a pen name.
Tabitha Rayne tells us, “The strangest reaction I’ve had was from one of my sisters who will never read my work because she feels that to do so would be incestuous!”
Patrick Califia (originally Pat Califia), who has written under his legal name, relates, “I stopped writing for a long time because I was trying to be married to someone who, it turns out, hated my work and was ashamed of it. I’m slowly reclaiming my voice, but it’s like healing from a deep wound. I’ve been repeatedly shamed and treated with disgust and repulsion because I write erotica.”
Patrick continues, “Social exclusion and outcast status is imposed at every level. People are frightened of me, titillated, and judgmental. I’ve been declared an enemy of lesbian feminism and received threats. I’ve had people assume that I must be mentally ill for writing about sex. I’ve been attacked online by other trans people, who assert that someone as disreputable as me can only bring discredit upon the trans-community. It has been extremely difficult to keep a stable sense of myself through all of this brouhaha but I’m a very stubborn person.”
Siri Ousdahl recalls, “I sent my book, ‘Constraint’, to a number of agents, and, while they praised the writing, some expressed hostility or disgust towards the content. I treasure one letter from an agent who essentially said, ‘Yuck, don’t contact me again’.”
One writer, who prefers to remain anonymous, tells us that her daughter hates discussing her books, being embarrassed, and has asked that her two teenage daughters be spared from knowing about their grandmother’s writing. The author notes that they have discovered, and ‘have told me they are proud, despite their mom’s attitude’.
Cherry Wild writes both what she terms as ‘smut’ and more literary erotica. She asserts that most people show tolerance for the latter (and even enthusiasm) but that she is more circumspect in sharing that she writes the former. She admits, “I’ve encountered a few people who splutter and make it crystal clear they do *not* approve.” With my smutty erotica, I’ve told far fewer people, as I push more boundaries. I’ve written some things that I know people would be much quicker to object to, and have no desire to listen to those criticisms.”
Justine Elyot laments, “I’d like to be able to tell people about my writing. Very few people in my life know I do this, and it sometimes saddens me that my father died without ever knowing I had published a book – something he always told me I could do. But in our very traditional and strait-laced family, I couldn’t mention it.”
Sylvia Storm tells us, “I prefer to write under pen names and keep my anonymity, just because of the social stigma of what we do. I wanted to finally set my words free. I have grown through this, became a little braver, a little more confident, and a lot more intelligent in the ways of feelings and passions. This began as a bravery test, and it turned into self-discovery.”
Alexis Alvarez comments, “I cringe sometimes, because I know there can be some level of disapproval when I reveal to friends or acquaintances what I write. However, I try to push through, as I’m proud of what I write. The details aren’t appropriate for everyone and every situation, so I don’t announce the fact randomly but nor do I actively hide it.”
However, while some people are disapproving, others are more tolerant. Alexis continues, “Most people I choose to tell are initially surprised, but are then accepting, and often don’t show further interest. Like anything, life goes on and people move with it. I’m pretty much out in my real life as an erotica writer, and everyone knows my pen name.”
Meanwhile, it’s also the lot of authors in our genre to, on occasion, receive words of admonishment: for lack of decency, or morality.
Ina Morata notes that she has been on the receiving end of disapproval from authors who write outside of the erotic genre. She states, “Those non-erotica writer readers who have discussed my work with me have either challenged what I have written, or have tried to persuade me to write in a genre more ‘befitting’. Indeed, the best line I think someone came out with was: ‘if she’s writing that, there must be something missing in her life’. To me, this said more about the reader than the author!”
Ina tells us, “I’ve encountered discouragement in my career choice generally from older members of my family, but this has been exacerbated by my choice to write erotica. Indeed, I was told I should concentrate my energies ‘on something much better’ after I published my last book. The person involved hadn’t even read the book, and had no idea that, aside from the power play through the sex, it broached some serious subjects that have been prevalent in my family for decades, and that there was more to consider than which pages to bookmark and show their friends in secret! My children never cease to amaze me, though: they have just accepted what I write and are interested in me as a writer, regardless of genre. In fact, my daughter seems to find it pretty cool that I write erotica.”
Undervalued and Obscured
At the heart of negative interactions, there’s not only misunderstanding of the distinction between ‘real life’ behaviour and the exploration of possibilities through fiction but a sad lack of comprehension of what can be achieved through writing in this genre.
As Adrea Kore emphasises, “Erotica seeks to arouse, but it may also confront, provoke, and subvert…Sexuality is such a vital part of the map of the human psyche. Sexuality reveals so much of ourselves.” Remittance Girl also comments on the potential of erotic fiction, declaring its ability to explore ‘us at our most naked, our most vulnerable’. She stresses, “It is an exposure of both our passions and our hideous flaws. Our destructive jealousy, our brittle pride, our hunger for what doesn’t belong to us, our need for the strange and the transgressive.”
Those who write erotic fiction know that, at its best, it can claim a worthy place in the literary constellation. To convince others that this is true, and to begin breaking down the prevailing stigma, we must continue, as authors, to set the highest standards in our writing. Whether we’re exploring the darker corners of the sexual psyche or its joyous heights, we should respect writing craft. As any author, writing in any genre, we should aim to move readers not only viscerally but emotionally and intellectually. We need to demonstrate the incredible potential of writing ‘the erotic’.
Support One Another
Seek out the work of fellow authors. Find outstanding examples. Review, recommend and applaud them. Let the whispers travel from ear to ear, from platform to platform. Let readers know that there IS talent in our midst, and that erotic fiction gives voice where many dare not speak.
Malin James: On Pseudonymns
More in this series:
- Introducing 130 Authors
- First Inspirations
- Why Write Erotic Fiction?
- Dancing the Line: fantasy and realism in erotic fiction
- Lines in the Sand: transgression and censorship
- What the Future Holds: 21st century erotic fiction
- Publishing’s Dirty Secret
- Authors’ Recommended Reads
- Women Writing Erotic Fiction
- Writing Craft
- You may like to view this post, on the ‘Male/Female Hand’, in which readers are challenged to identify writers’ gender.
- ‘Men Reading Erotic Fiction‘ – looking at why men seek out fiction in this genre, and their preferences for style and content.
- The Erotic Vein: the male pen – on trends in men’s authorship of erotic fiction.
My thanks go to the following authors for giving their time and for their candid answers; my thanks also to authors who contributed their views anonymously.
Tobsha Learner, Laura Antoniou, Susan St. Aubin, Shanna Germain, Remittance Girl, Malin James, Janine Ashbless, Adrea Kore, Kristina Lloyd, Jonathan Kemp, Patrick Califia, Maxim Jakubowski, Cecilia Tan, Donna George Storey, Kathe Koja, Justine Elyot, Raziel Moore, Will Crimson, Sorcha Black, Cari Silverwood, Siri Ousdahl, L.N. Bey, Zander Vane, Tamsin Flowers, Krissy Kneen, Zak Jane Kier, Jade A Waters, Ashley Lister, KD Grace, Kay Jaybee, Nya Rawlyns, Terrance Aldon Shaw, Sessha Batto, Rose Caraway, Allen Dusk, Tabitha Rayne, Marc Angel, Elizabeth Safleur, Jeremy Edwards, Spencer Dryden, Devi Ansevi, Nicholas Tanek, K. L. Shandwick, I.G. Frederick, Jacqui Greaves, Ina Morata, Finn Marlowe, Elsa Holland, Elizabeth Schechter, Aleksandr Voinov, Lucy Felthouse, Alexis Alvarez, R.V. Raiment, J.D. Lexx, Lily Harlem, Thomas Roche, Madeline Moore, Ria Restrepo, Scarlet Darkwood, Wade Esley, Victoria Bliss, Jane Gilbert, Jim Lyon, Charlie Powell, Cate Ellink, Chase Morgan, Lee Savino, C.P. McClennan, Elizabeth Black, C.J. Czelling, Felicity Brandon, Nicolette Hugo, Frank Noir, Amelia Smarts, Nobilis Reed, Sue MacNicol, Cassandra Shaw, Ardent Rose, Sylvia Storm, Renee Rose, Rachel de Vine, Cherry Wild, Patient Lee, Pandora Spocks, Suzette Bohne’ Sommers, Molly Synthia, Charlie Bee, Meg Amor, Lizzie Ashworth, Cara Bristol, Finn Marlowe, C.A. Bell, Brantwijn Serrah, Aubrey Cara, Kathleen Bradean, Jay Willowbay, Stormchase, Lisa Fox, Allyson Young, Vinnie Tesla, Emma Jaye, Dennis Cardiff, Dee Maselle, Frank Lee, Christina Mandara, Big Ed Magussun, Sue Lyndon, T.J. Vermillion, David Flint, Delores Swallows, Vanessa Wu, Ian Smith, Rebecca Branch, Jaye Peaches, Molly Moore, Ashe Barker, Tilly Andrews and Catherine Mazur.