October 10, 2008

Commerce, Activism, and the Frivolous World of Sex

After my post last week, Gracie Passette chimed in with an insightful piece called The Clash of the Sex Writers: Should We Stay Or Should We Go? She points out that none of the companies that employed the now laid-off sex writers had mission statements that have anything to do with sex, not to mention that they are companies with a bottom line. Even media companies that focus on outsider issues and politics (as the Village Voice was, once upon a time) and cutting edge information and culture (Wired) must be financially viable. Forget “even” – especially these companies must be financially viable – and they are heavily criticized when they put the bottom line above activism and ideals (as they must do being businesses). Gracie believes that people must choose between business and activism – I don’t necessarily think that is true, or at least not in absolute terms. Tristan Taormino‘s work inside the belly of the beast, aka the mainstream porn business, is a great example of this. Her first film was made in collaboration with John “Buttman” Stagliano and now she’s producing and directing stuff under the imprint of the Vivid Ed line. Has she made compromises along the way? Absolutely. But she still produces ethical, fun, and GOOD pornography within the framework of the mainstream porn world. If it’s possible to mix ideals and money in the porn business, which has a really huge potential for being exploitative, amoral, and just shitty, it is entirely possible in other lines of business.

At Boinkology, Lux Alptraum (who, need you be reminded, is also the newly anointed editor of Fleshbot) asks Is This The End of Sex Writing? She maintains that these cut backs are not just about sex, and that is certainly true. Gawker laid off 19 people from a variety of sites that don’t do sex at all. I absolutely agree with her that this is a sign of the times, and though of course it is interesting to look at the way this affects writing about sex, it’s part of a bigger question about what the glut of online content we’re being assaulted with is worth.

Bonnie Ruberg (the only person left writing about sex for the Village Voice) chimes in with The future of sex writing: gloomy or hopeful? She’s hopeful that those of us who’ve been laid off will be creating new and interesting things, and I think that’ll happen, but it’s still a rough patch. In the comments there’s also an interesting back and forth about the similarities between writing about sex and writing about gaming – both are seen as frivolous, anyone could do it, cushy jobs that most people would be jealous of. Though I think both sex and gaming are worth being covered professionally, I’ll also acknowledge that I’ve certainly contributed to sex writing being seen as all fun and games, what with frequent offhand comments about my tough life of watching porn all day, working in my pajamas, and getting invited to participate in slightly ludicrous events where hot people are on display. Lots of sex writers are guilty of perpetuating these ideas about our work as fun and light and somewhat ridiculous – though it’s good not to take yourself too seriously, in many ways we’re doing ourselves a disservice by making light of our work. And anyway, the pun-happy mainstream media is eager to do that for us. I think it’s partly a way to normalize ourselves and our work, and partly the result of what happens when you step back for a second and think about how weird it is that you just spent a lunch meeting talking about something that most people would not regard as “table talk.” No doubt gaming writers have a similar relationship to their work.

Violet Blue’s SF Gate column this week is called if you think “sex sells” then you’re not paying attention, in which she deconstructs the idea that “sex sells.” Implied sexiness sells, but many companies have weird policies about actual sex. My first encounter with this strange conundrum was back when I was working at the Museum of Sex (seven years ago, holy shit!), and we were seeking corporate sponsorships. In a conversation with a major condom company about potential sponsorship, we were told that they company didn’t want to be too closely branded with sex. If a company that makes products that you put on your dick can say that with a straight face – we’ve got a long way to go.

Tracy Clark-Flory of Salon’s Broadsheet has piece up today called Sex writing goes limp. There are some major misses in this piece, namely a quote from Susannah Breslin:

“Sometimes people become sex writers because they screw a lot, not necessarily because they can write well,” she told me in an e-mail. “If your career as a writer is driven by you showing your tits on your blog on a regular basis, maybe you shouldn’t be so surprised when you lose your cred.”

Though I agree that the craft of writing should be treated as seriously by sex writers as by those who write about other subjects, this quote and the piece at large implies that the batch of writers who’ve recently gotten dumped wrote only about their personal experiences, which isn’t the case at all. I think writing about sex creates a unique opportunity for, um, participant observation and personal involvement, which is an aspect of the human interaction of writing about other people that is a little more honest when you write about sex (“honest” doesn’t necessarily mean that it isn’t fucked up). Plenty of non-sex writing reporters are guilty of being involved in what they write about but they don’t always examine what they’re up to. When you write about sex you are forced to examine your motives, if only because people will always rib you about it – “oh HA HA HA, yeah, that sounds like important ‘research.'” The writers who’ve stuck around and become powerful voices often grow beyond personal tales – and perhaps the reason that we’ve gotten canned is that there’s a younger generation who is willing to write about their personal exploits for free or nothing, while the aging generation of writers is demanding more money for less salacious writing. A college sophomore writing about blowjobs might not be writing good or original stuff (actually, I’m almost 100% sure she/he won’t be) but what if the majority of readers want to read what is ostensibly bad but titillating writing?

Susannah Breslin doesn’t give a damn about the community that has grown up around sex writing and online media – her blog post about the Salon piece ends with “Fuck the sexperts.” This seems jarring because there are so many people in this little online world who consider themselves to be part of a tightly knit community. And though sometimes she’s wrong or fucked up, Susannah feels freer to write what she perceives because she isn’t afraid of community backlash. She’s primarily interested in the story – as many journalists are; while many people who are primarily bloggers concern themselves with community. And the desire to keep harmony in the community is problematic – see the Great Jefferson Debacle.

As I’ve been writing this, Melissa Gira published a piece called The end of sexpertise, and she specifically hones in on a few things that have not been talked about in all these responses:

* Violet Blue: Laid off from Fleshbot. Claimed she “timed her departure” with that of the founding editor. She lied.
* Regina Lynn. Her Sex Drive column at Wired.com was axed months ago. The issue was that Wired has no idea how to cover sex: as clickbait photo galleries, or as reported facts?
* Fleshbot. Given the cost-cutting motive behind Gawker publisher Nick Denton’s layoffs, new editor Lux Nightmare’s retention indicates she’s the one willing to do the work of a once larger staff, but for a lower rate.

Which loops everything back around to the discussion of business, community, and what should or should not be reported – and by whom.

This post has gotten long enough now so I’ll bring it to a halt, but I’m interested in seeing other folks’ responses to all this stuff. It’s been really fascinating to read and ponder all these posts and articles over the past week.

Also, a note: I’m going away for the weekend and I’m not bringing my laptop with me (the first time I’ve gotten on a plane without it in several years) so forgive me if it takes a while to approve comments from new commenters.

8 Comments on “Commerce, Activism, and the Frivolous World of Sex”

Amber Rhea
5:04 pm

Great post, as usual. I am SO itching to respond to this and several others!

5:57 pm

As someone who is guilty both of being over-fond of showing my tits on a regular basis and of being a far-less-than-stellar writer, i appreciate this take on the business side of writing. i started my blog as a form of primal scream therapy and am only just recently beginning to recognize the larger picture of blogging for dollars.

On the one hand, i see some of my favorite bloggers, the ones who write so well it makes me want to go back and re-learn English, struggling to find creative ways to make a living writing and sharing their stories. On the other hand, i see fill-in-your-favorite-online-sex-shop’s offer for free toys in exchange for a few words and a recommendation. If i indulge in a free dildo here and there in exchange for my writing, am i contributing, in a small way, to the downfall of paid sex blogging? If i forgo the freebies and stick to the high road have i really changed anything for the better?

i imagine an extra dildo in my drawer or not isn’t going to change the world, but that dildo is a sign of something much larger. If we all choose to do the job for free, have we sold our idols down the river?

7:55 pm

I think that people are firing people, and sex columnists are the least likely to yell back, because there’s still a very strict societal muzzle on all that. as soon as a sex columnist starts yelling about what’s happening, everyone will log on to call them a slut or a cunt who deserved it and/or was asking for it. All Emily Gould did was lie on a bed in a tank top for her photographer for her ny times piece and she was slaughtered by the mass media for caring more about her tattoos than writing about anything that really “mattered” (sidenote: of course, what she wrote mattered intensely, as they all proved). I mean it’s all women getting fired, yeah?

Anyway, I think a big part of everything is that younger writers will come in and be willing not to get paid. As we started to talk about a few weeks ago at the shoot … I think things have to change, like seriously change, and soon. I don’t know what this change will be, but we’ve got like five years I think we’ll start to see a big transition because eventually there will be enough grownups not willing to write for free and enough young people who’ve become grownups and told other young people not to write for free that people will have to change.

We just have to figure out how to make freshdirect sponsor writers.


9:02 pm

First, thanks for keeping this conversating going ~ I think it’s so important to do!

As I told Amber, I have lots more to say about all of this yet… But I did want to clarify this bit first: I don’t think business and activism need to be completely separate; just pointing to the realities between the two, and that those of us on a mission to have sex be legitimate discussion have to be aware of them.

9:03 pm

Ugh, thanks for keeping the conversation going (I do use English regularly lol)

Amber Rhea
9:19 pm

FYI, I wrote a new post about this last night. I have more to say still, though! I especially want to write about what you mentioned here, about “making your life look easy” and such. But I figured I’d keep it for a separate post.

dj lotu5
2:48 am

whoa, this can not be about people doing what they love for free versus people making money doing what they love. the logical extension of that would be that people should stop blogging for free because paid bloggers need to make a living, hell, people who make art for free should stop endangering paid artists.

what this is about, to me, is the question of power and autonomy. the problem is some asshole deciding that sexual liberation isn’t important anymore because its a complicated marketing question in a fundamentalist country like the united states. one answer might be self-management. perhaps a bunch of the recently laid off writers should form a co-op and talk about what their shared values and dreams are and how to make them a reality. people have been starting co-ops for ages, and though its hard to start any business, it seems that the internet is a perfect place to start a business without a lot of cash. it also seems like the internet is a great place to reimagine the way things could be, the way you’re making money selling your new video online.

and while piles of money are not likely to fall from the sky any time soon for anyone, perhaps enough money to pay the bills is. i also think that living ethically sometimes means living simply, but hey, given the global economic chaos we find ourselves in, we might all be living simply real soon.


[…] Several wonderful sex writers have recently lost their jobs. There are quite a few articles floating around about the layoffs, but Dacia has a nice overview of the situation up on Waking Vixen.  […]

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