On Reading Sex

Sepia toned photograph of a nude woman wearing a feathered head dress. For On Reading Sex by Malin James

Photograph by Marc Lagrange. (On a side note, I love this image. It reminds me of The Story of O.)

When I was in my teens, I literally learned about sex by gobbling massive, towering stacks of Harlequin Historicals, the more bodice-rippy the better. In my twenties, I went through a period where i read everything from Henry Miller (filthy sonofabitch) and Anne Rice (kinky, pretty things) to Literotica and CleanSheets.com.

Somewhere between reading erotica and writing it, something changed for me though. I started reading erotica more critically in my twenties because I was getting a Master’s Degree and I was reading everything more critically. I’m kind of a recreational thinker so that’s not the worst thing, except that the habit of reading critically cut the connection between erotica and my sex drive.

Almost as if to compensate, books that were not written as erotica were turning me on in super hot, unexpected ways. Angela Carter, Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Andahazi’s The Merciful Women, The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson…I’d be reading along and suddenly get slammed with a crazy, elemental need to get off. It wasn’t that the sex was better written, it was just contextually more specific.

Stick with me – I’m going somewhere with this and it has to do with that contextual specificity.

As I got older and more experienced, I understood my sexuality more. By then, I’d had all kinds of sex in all kinds of contexts and, as a result, what turned me on was changing. In other words, what grabbed my brainstem at 15 was doing it at 25. My buttons had gotten way more specific in those intervening 10 years, and that affected the way I read sex.

The point is that everyone’s sexuality is different, so everyone reads sex differently depending on what kind of experiences or curiosities you’re bringing to the table. That’s why there is no one “right” way to write sex, and no “right” way to read it. Sure, there’s bad sex writing, but there also bad sex in real life. That’s just part of the deal, whether you’re reading it or doing it.

The other issue is one of place in life. It’s why the sex you had in your boyfriend’s dorm was the hottest thing possible at 18, but why it might not get you off at 38. We read sex differently at different points in our lives because we experience sex differently at different points in our lives, and our needs and tastes tend to reflect that. The same principle goes for audio and visual porn. It even applies to the movies you are hot, (even if they’re awful…hi, Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I heart you).

It’s worth remembering all of this when you judge the value of a genre, (and genre, really). Whether or not you think they have literary value, erotica and romance serve a sexual and emotional purpose that exists beyond the standards of the Man Booker prize. It’s not an issue of the genre’s value, it’s one of the value it has to individual readers at any given time, and that value matters as much as literary merit. For some readers, it matters more.

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The Virgin & the Whore Walk Into a Bar

Modern daguerreotype. Image courtesy thedaglab.com for The VIrgin and the Whore Walked into a Bar post by Malin James

Modern daguerreotype courtesy The Dag Lab

As you can see, I haven’t posted here in awhile. This isn’t from laziness or lack or commitment. Rather, it’s the product of a happy fact–I’m super busy with work on the other side of my career, (that would be the smutty side, for those who don’t know). Posts on this blog will probably be fairly sporadic for the next little while, or at least until I finish the massive project that is my novel. That said, they will pop up as I can manage. In the meantime, you can take a peek at what my erotica writing alter ego, Malin James, is up to here. Or not.. It’s totally up to you.

Which brings me to the virgin and the whore. I’ve always loved that paradox, mostly because I’ve always felt like both–the virgin and the whore, I mean. I am equally comfortable eating ice cream with my daughter and writing articles about the death of the Dewey Decimal System, (this is a greatly contested death, FYI), as I am doing and writing any number of things that I’m not going to mention here because my mother reads this blog. Of course, you can always check out the following to get a sense of what I mean: link, link, link. Click at your own risk.

There’s a common notion that a person is one particular thing–a mother, a teacher, a daughter, a parent, a slut, a virgin, a whore…you get the picture. I would contest this notion though. I think that, much as Meredith Brooks sang in her song, “Bitch,” (what a rockin’ good title), most of us are both sinners and saints. It’s only when we get too attached to one static identity that things get complicated and often unfulfilling.

Yes, I’m a mother and, I hope, a good one, but that doesn’t mean I can’t write things that would make my own mother supremely uncomfortable, (sorry mom–definitely don’t click those links). It doesn’t mean that I can’t have an identity outside of motherhood that many might find unorthodox at best, and somewhat distasteful at worst.

After years of wrestling and apologizing, the fact is that there’s a lot of dark in me–there’s anger and sex and rage and violence. But there’s also a lot of light. I’m nurturing and empathic. I’ve got compassion on tap. These things should be in violent contrast. They shouldn’t be able to coexist, and yet they do, quite naturally, in me, just as they do in most people. All you have to do is choose the two, (or three, or four), contrasting archetypes that resonate with you.

Of course, nothing is never as simple or easy as that. But that’s sort of my point–personalities aren’t static things. They are constantly in motion, acting and reacting. Really, when it gets down to it, personalities are simply a series of reactions, habituated over time. So, the virgin and the whore are part of who I am, and it’s only in cultivating both of them equally that I can truly be whole.

I wanted to give a quick, but very sincere thank you to Eric Mertens at The Dag Lab for letting me use one of his beautiful images in this post. You can see more of his work by clicking here. Mr. Merten does old-fashioned daguerreotype portraits in his lab in Oakland, CA. The work is gorgeous. Please, go check it out. 

Knee-Jerks, or Elle and the Belle Knox Interview

I was going to post something on gotcha questions and how they are both overrated, (as rhetorical tools), and valuable, (as nudgers of social change). However, I’m putting that aside for a second because I got a distracted by my own annoyance.

Why am I annoyed? Because of an interview. Or, rather,  by certain public responses to an interview.

Yesterday, Elle.com published a bit of very timely journalism. Rachel Kramer Bussel, an editor and journalist with a well-established track record in the area of sex and culture, did an interesting, insightful interview with Belle Knox, “the Duke porn star” who was outed by a fellow student awhile back.

The interview reveals Ms. Knox to be a thoughtful, self-possessed young woman who sees herself neither as a victim of her choices, nor of circumstance. Her grounded lack of entitlement was unexpected in the face of Ms. Bussel’s questions, which were insightful and wide-ranging. Clearly, a great deal of thought went into this piece and what emerged was the portrait of a real young woman, with a brain in her head. But this doesn’t matter. What matters is that she was a porn star. Apparently, this devalues EVERYTHING she might have to say.

Elle.com is in the process of receiving a bit of flak for running an interview with, in the words of one concerned reader, “an over-educated whore.”

So, why am I annoyed? Because of the name-calling? I don’t like it, but no. Because of the stigma placed on a young woman’s sexuality? I really don’t like that, but no there, as well.

The source of my annoyance is the blatant lack of thought displayed by many of the people who have posted negative comments in relation to the article. To put it bluntly, it’s fairly clear that many of them didn’t bother to even read the interview before opining. They just had a knee-jerk reaction and ran with it. Much quicker and easier to skip all that reading and head to the comfort zone of righteousness and outrage.

Righteousness and outrage are emotional drugs. They feel good, especially when we get together with a mob of like-minded people carrying torches and sticks. The quality of the journalism doesn’t matter. What many of the commenters did was see is “Belle Knox”, link it to “whore” and then judge Elle for having the temerity to run a piece of journalism that offends or threatens a particular set of sensibilities.

But here’s the thing. In this case, it seems that it isn’t the interview that offends so much as the fact that it was published at all. When it comes right down to it, this post, (okay, rant), isn’t about Elle, or Belle Knox, or porn. It’s about thinking, and how so many people in our culture just don’t.

So, here’s what I propose. If you don’t want to read something, don’t read it. But keep your thoughts to yourself. Consider reading, (or listening, or watching), to be your ticket to voicing your opinion. If you don’t like the coverage, or the interview, or the film, or the book, or the show, that’s perfectly fine. But know what you’re disagreeing with before you open your mouth. Let it be your disagreement – considered and full of your thoughts – rather than the unthinking disapproval of your demographic, whatever that happens to be. Let your brain off the leash and take it for a nice, long walk. It might feel really good.

Moderation and the Art of Earthly Pleasure

Epicurus, c.300 BC

Epicurus, c.300 BC

A warning right up front, this post is going to be pretty loose and off the cuff, so please forgive any glaring generalities. I’ll try to keep them at a minimum.

Last night, I caught part of the PBS program American Experience. It’s an interesting show and while I don’t often watch it, it always contains some food for thought. This episode, The Amish: Shunned, was no exception.

To be frank, there are many points on which I disagree with the Amish religion. I’m afraid that I just can’t view a community that so deliberately rejects progress, education and individual thought as terribly sympathetic. That said, it’s a valid culture based on a valid, if shockingly medieval, set of beliefs and I’m not going to waste time nit-picking it to pieces simply because I disagree. What I am going to do is examine one tiny corner of those beliefs – the avoidance of pleasure – because this principle has ramifications beyond the Amish community.

One of the Amish church members interviewed for the program brought up the issue in terms that implied the inherent logic of pleasure avoidance. He said, (and I’m paraphrasing now), “it’s human nature to avoid pain and pursue pleasure, as if that’s going to lead to happiness. Well, news flash, it’s not.”

Now, on the surface, I can see how this would be an easy notion to buy into, particularly from a conservatively religious points of view. If our nature is telling us to pursue pleasure, and our nature is essentially animal (i.e.: sinful), the only way to heaven must be to transcend our animal nature and pursue spiritual purity (per whatever terms your religion defines). Now, disregarding the ironic hypocrisy that this has historically led to (witch trials and murder aside, the attitude very often leads the abstainer to become addicted to the very pleasurable emotion of social righteousness), there is another, different angle from which to view the issue.

I’d like to propose an more Epicurean take on the question of earthly pleasure. The Greek philosopher, Epicurus, believed that what he called “pleasure” is the greatest good. Now, this is where it gets interesting. He also believed that the way to attain such pleasure is to “live modestly and to gain knowledge of the workings of the world and the limits of one’s desires”. In other words, moderation leads to pleasure, which in and of itself, is a form of transcendence.

I’m not going to say that this point of view is more valid than the strict path proposed by the Amish or any other conservative religious group. I would say, however, that the Epicurean approach is equally valid and potentially more healthy. Know what you like, know what you don’t and find your limits – know where you overindulge and gently lead yourself back. No judgment. No drama. The maintenance of moderation requires awareness, which leads to presence in the moment, which can lead quite directly to lovely moments of clarity – every day transcendence. And yes, even spiritual and earthly happiness.

Pleasures aren’t inherently dangerous. Pleasure are simply pleasures. It is up to the individual to moderate the degree to which he or she partakes. To ignore pleasure is to reject one of our species’ greatest gifts – joy. Joy in food, joy in sex, joy in clean fresh air and warm fires at night. These are all valid pleasure and part of the equally valid human experience. Surely, if there is a god (as an atheist I don’t believe there is, but I respect those who do), that force would want us to enjoy the full spectrum of our lives, rather than reject half of the gifts we were given.

A Question: On Women and Homoeroticism

This is really more of a question than a proper post, but I’ve had an idea for an article and I want to solicit some opinions before I write it.

A friend posted a video of two men kissing the other day and the response from women was, shall we say, heated… as in, every single woman who responded thought it was hot. Granted, there was some selection bias, but it was enough to get me thinking. So I did some shallow digging and uncovered a comparatively large cache of media, mostly written, though there’s plenty of visual too, (cheeky little gifs), that cater to women who love watching homoerotic situations and / or gay sex. The fact that M/M erotica and porn do very well with the female demographic, (and not just in the gay community), tells me there’s something there. What I’d love to do is figure out what that something might be.

From a personal angle, I can absolutely see the appeal of watching / reading about two men, (just as many men find the idea of two women to be a fine thing) but I’d like to go beyond “yeah, that’s hot” to figure out why. So, I’m soliciting opinions and thoughts on the subject.

A few guidelines first though:

1. If the thought of two men engaging in sexual contact isn’t your thing, that’s absolutely fine. I know that there are plenty of men and women who would prefer to take a pass. That said, please don’t blast the notion in your comments, because the reality is that there are many people who would take seconds on that dish. Please respect the fact that it’s a personal preference and do not treat the question as an attack on your own predilections.

2. As I mentioned above, I’m keeping the inquiry pretty restricted to women viewing / reading about two (or more) men. If, however, there’s an angle that involves the converse appeal for many men in watching two women, please feel free to mention it.

3. Be respectful. This question involves sex, homoeroticism and certain aspects of voyeurism. As such, some folks may find it uncomfortable. Again, that’s ok. Just be sensitive to the tastes of others. In short, see #1.

Thanks! I appreciate the time anyone takes to weigh in!

Edited 1/28/14: I would just like to thank everyone who has taken the time to weigh in on this subject. I’m leaving the comments open, so if anyone has anything to add, please feel free!

On Monogamy

William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles in The Thin Man, by Dashiell Hammett

William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles in The Thin Man, by Dashiell Hammett

This is a picture of Nick and Nora Charles, a fictional couple who, for me, defines the ultimate in healthy, committed relationships. I realize that, because they are not real, this statement could easily be questioned – after all, it’s not hard to make an ideal out of people who aren’t real. However, the fact that the fictional relationship of a fictional couple popularized in the 1930’s, (a period of time in our culture when the boundaries of marriage remained highly uncontested), still resonates eighty years later lends weight to the excellence of their example.

For those unfamiliar with Nick and Nora Charles, they are the married protagonists of Dashiell Hammett’s 1934 novel, The Thin Man. The book was later made into a wildly popular film series with William Powell and Myrna Loy. Nick is older and Nora younger, and both appear to be happy in their, presumably, monogamous relationship. In this, they are quite conventional. And yet, this apparently conventional relationship allows for the fact that women find Nick quite attractive. In fact, women love Nick, and Nick, it is implied, has loved quite a few in return. As for Nora, men tend to adore her the moment she opens her mouth, and she, for her part, openly appreciates beautiful men.

And yet, the sexual attraction they both engender in, and display towards, members of the opposite sex in no way threatens their superficially conventional relationship. They treat each other, and their marriage with equal parts respect and irreverence, and they make their relationship work in a way unique to them.

Why do I bring this up? Because the dynamic Nick and Nora share is, in my experience, somewhat rare. Their relationship represents an ideal, one that transcends the monogamy vs. non-monogamy debate currently gaining steam in the United States’ liberal / conservative culture war.

Contrary to the rhetoric on both sides of this particular divide, monogamy is neither “natural,” as staunch proponents suggest, nor is it particularly “unnatural,” (though research into our evolution and biology may suggest that humans were, originally, a harem species like many in nature from lions to gorillas).  Monogamy also isn’t “supernatural” as blogger Matt Walsh suggested in a post defending monogamy’s righteous rightness. What monogamy is, is a choice – a personal choice that is made, either implicitly or explicitly, by individual couples.

Nick Nora Tommy

For some couples, monogamy is critical to the health of their relationship. If both partners honor their mutual choice to remain monogamous, then that is inarguably the best choice for them. Whether they make that choice based on religious faith or personal preference doesn’t matter so long as both partners agree.

For other couples, monogamy could, quite possibly, lead to dissatisfaction in what might otherwise be a very happy relationship. As a result, couples that understand this about themselves and their relationship make a responsible choice in choosing non-monogamy, polyamory, or any other form of open relationship. So long as both partners agree to a set of parameters regarding the open nature of their relationship, this is an equally salutary choice. The critical component is that both partners honor the parameters they’ve set.

Nora finds Nick comforting a girl.

Nora finds Nick comforting a girl.

There is no single answer to the question of what makes for a healthy relationship. There are too many variables involved because people are variable. Arguably, the most universal quality shared by members of our species is that we are all individually different. If we were the same, perhaps monogamy, (or non-monogamy), would be the silver bullet. We would have one religion, (or secularism), and there would be little to no conflict over ideology, faith or lifestyle. Very peaceful I’m sure, but also kind of horrible in a culturally dystopic sort of way.

Regarding those who propose that monogamy is the only natural way to love or conduct a relationship, I can only say that the hubris of this viewpoint is astounding. Likewise, anyone who claims that couples engaged in monogamy are either lying to themselves or each other is committing the same error. Non-monogamy doesn’t threaten monogamous relationships any more than monogamous relationships threaten non-monogamy, practically speaking. There is, however, one thing that damages both forms of commitment, and that is dishonesty.

Ironically, what monogamy and non-monogamy have in common is a deep reliance on trust, honesty and respect. Cheating occurs when one partner fails to adhere to the parameters of the relationship they are in. This means that if a man has sex with someone outside of his marriage and fails to tell his wife, that man has cheated, even if the marriage is open. Sex is only a symptom. The dishonesty employed to facilitate sex beyond the relationship’s parameters is the real betrayal, just as it is in instances of so-called monogamous cheating. That dishonesty signals a lack of respect for the relationship and the lied-to partner, and that lack of respect is a killer.

This is why I think Nick and Nora are such a tremendous example of a healthy committed Nick Nora Astarelationship. It wouldn’t matter if their marriage were open, any more than it matters than it is, apparently, closed, (thought there are implications in Hammett’s book, if not in the film, that this may not entirely be the case). What matters is the respect with which they treat each other and their relationship.

Respect breeds trust and implicit honesty, which in turn fosters a dynamic in which jealousy and dishonesty have no place. The fictional relationship of Nick and Nora Charles is an ideal that transcends straw-house arguments and personal ideology. It transcends monogamy and non-monogamy. Theirs is a grown-up relationship, and I believe that, eighty years later, it’s time for the rest of us to grow up.

On Women and Submission

I had originally intended to write on something entirely different today, but I just read a post that got me thinking, so I’m going to tread carefully into the territory of women and submission instead.

Four things up front:

Image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment

  1. For the purposes of this discussion, I’m addressing submission and domination that are consensual in nature. Situations in which there is no consent are entirely different, and merit their own discussions.
  2. Sexual submission and domination are only part of what I’m looking at. What I want to focus on is the impulse – socially, emotionally and sexually – to dominate or submit.
  3. There are dominant women as well as dominant men, just as there are submissive men and submissive women. Many people fall somewhere in between. Because I want to try to keep this from becoming a dissertation, I am looking at the prevalence of the desire (in women) to submit to powerful men, for the purposes of this discussion.
  4. A disclosure. I am not a submissive woman. It’s something of which I’m neither proud nor regretful. It’s just a fact of my personality. So, while many women look at this picture of Loki and get mildly to extremely turned on, I look at it and want to punch his lovely face. Nothing personal. I just won’t be ruled.

These points made, I respect the fact that submission appeals to many women. What’s more, I’m genuinely curious as to why this might be. What is it about submitting to male dominance that, against our own modern, feminist principles, appeals?

And that’s the tension, isn’t it? The 21st century woman is openly, and some might say, defiantly, empowered. We are shattering glass ceilings and railing against the “male gaze.” And yet, BDSM fairy tales, like 50 Shades of Gray that feature the explicit submission of empathetic women to complicated, dominant man, are ubiquitous, while Twilight’s Bella Swan, whose defining characteristic is, arguably, her submissiveness, has become something of a cultural icon, (though not unexamined).

Our culture has recreated women as powerful and empowered, and this is a very good thing. But biology is stronger than society, which is why it may be that, even as women enjoy a new found social dominance, so many are drawn, individually, to fairy tales of emotional and sexual submission, ie: 50 Shades.

Allow me to suggest, up front, that this is not a bad thing. Here’s why. I suspect that submissiveness is an evolutionary trait. I suspect that, through the millennia, submission has served a valuable function, which is why women are, generally speaking, quite aware of social hierarchies, even amongst other women, (I’m looking at you, mean girls). Dominance and submission are something a silent negotiation, a way of placing one person in charge so things get done, rather than having even more wars than we already do.

Following that thread, I’d like to suggest that submission has served women, evolutionarily speaking, particularly well, while dominance has served men. At it’s most basic, submission was (and in many places still is) a type of currency – “I will submit to this demonstrably powerful male and he will protect me and my young”.  We’re animals after all, and just as the males of most mammalian species vie for female attention through shows of aggression and dominance, most human women find dominant males to be undeniably attractive because that dominance signals the ability to procreate and protect. This would extend itself to being turned on, to varying degrees, by sexual domination and submission, quite naturally.

It’s something of a biological script, and those who follow it are, contrary to feminist theory and conservatives alike, simply following impulses that are evolutionarily hard-wired into the human brain. As a woman with a more dominant personality, even I can say that I see dominance in men as fitness marker. While I have no desire to be dominated, it does appeal on a very basic level, as a social indicator, if nothing else.

Biology moves slowly, much more slowly than culture. It may be that in several millennia, our wiring will catch up to our conscious minds, and questions of dominance and submission, and indeed, even of gender, will cease to be relevant. But they are relevant now. A tension exists in the social / sexual power dynamics of our culture. As a result, the relationship between women and submission remains an interesting, even pivotal, one – so much so that those of us who would punch Loki in the face, are, to some degree, aberrations.

All right, I’m looking down five discursive paths as we speak, so rather than get tangled up in an off the cuff ramble, I’ll end this post here. There’s too much to consider. Apologies for the lack of conclusion on this one, but I’ll be returning to this topic in future posts. In the meantime, I welcome comments, thoughts and input on this issue even more than usual.

Let Me Know You: On Pseudonyms, Erotica and the Public / Private Divide

nude on bed

I write erotica under a pseudonym. Many authors writing in this genre do. It wasn’t until recently that I considered why that might be.

When I first started writing erotica, I took a pseudonym for two reasons. The first was down right frivolous – I thought it might be fun. The second, and far more practical reason, was that I freelance in a number of different markets and the pseudonym would allow me to keep the two halves of my writing career separate.

I suspect that, for the majority of authors, the use of a pseudonym is equally practical. Many writers have primary careers that would be negatively affected if the sexual nature of their writing were to become known. People expect their teachers, therapists, and doctors to be morally squeaky clean. Patients do not want their gynecologists to write erotica on the side. Erotica, though mainstreaming, is not yet above reproach.

In addition, the moral / ethical concerns mentioned above can, at times, extend themselves into an author’s private life, particularly when the writer’s parents, children or partner might be negatively affected. No teen-age boy wants his friends to know that his mom “writes porn,” and a father’s custody could be contested if his career as an eroticist were brought to light in court. As a result, it’s easier for many erotica writer to allow the nature of their work to remain selectively ambiguous. Ours is not a widely respected genre, after all.

There is a lot to say about the stigma associated with reading and writing erotica, a genre that is, for many, still negatively associated with historically pejorative terms like “porn”, “smut”, and “dirty story.” Despite the fact that these labels are being slowly reclaimed by those who read and write in the genre, the stigma still remains. There is quite a lot to say about why this might still be true, but I will resist the impulse to digress and, instead, focus on one, specific point, and that is how my pseudonym – the ubiquitous accessory of pornographers, eroticists and writers of dirty stories everywhere – has come to function for me.

Allow me to begin with what my pseudonym is not.

My pseudonym is not an apology for what I do. It is not a way to distance myself from what I write. I am proud of my work in this genre, and I am equally proud to be part of a community of writers that displays a level of causal curiosity that is admirable in an openly cynical age.

What my pseudonym is, is two different things. It is an invitation and a boundary; it is a welcome and a wall. It provides me with an identity that can be publicly shared, while remaining separate from my own. It gives me a persona to extend to my readers, while allowing me to both maintain, and transcend, the public / private divide.

Invitation. Wall.

Why, as a writer, would I need such a thing?

Because when you write about sex, particularly intentionally arousing, fictional sex, people react, often more viscerally than they would to content that is not quite so sexually explicit. My pseudonym invites the reader (or public) to engage and connect with my work, while allowing my non-public self a certain degree of anonymous privacy.

There is a long-standing assumption about writers. The assumption is that, however unlikely, an author’s work must be, in some way, autobiographical. In my experience, this assumption is heightened with eroticists. After all, our work is inherently sexual and very often kinky, edgy or taboo. We write sexual fantasies with the express purpose of arousing the people who read them. Because of this, the perceived intimacy of autobiography, when it arises, can be particularly intense.

For most readers, this perception of intimacy is not an issue. They read a story, they enjoy the story, they move on to the next story. There is, however, a small minority of readers who crave access to the writer beyond the limits of the page. They want the personal connection they made with a story to extend to the author who wrote it.

Some time ago, a reader contacted me in a manner that can only be described as overly attached and profoundly curious. This reader had connected, romantically and sexually, to a story that I had written and published under my pseudonym. He confessed that he wished to gain deeper, truer access to the woman who had written it; he wanted to share my mind and, somewhat chillingly, my “soul”. This reader, caught in the illusion of sexual intimacy that the story had created, wanted exclusive access, not to what I had written, but to me.

What’s more, this gentleman had constructed around my work and pseudonym, a persona that he desperately wanted to believe in – that of the sophisticated vixen and dominant mistress who would grant privileged access only to him. It was a fantasy that he’d spun with no input or encouragement from me, save for the story that I’d written and that he, in turn, had read. This is when my pseudonym became more than a pithy solution to a professional problem. This is when it became a wall. It gave this man something to attach to, without attaching dangerously to me. It gave me the space I needed to diplomatically end his fascination. And so, we were both able to moved on.

Interestingly, this has never happened with any of the essays, articles and reviews that I’ve written under my own name. Nonfiction has never elicited this kind of intensely personal response, though there is far more of me on display in that work than in the fantasies I spin.

Why is this? What is it about erotica and erotic fiction that has the power to inspire such an emotional, sexual and even psychological attachment? Why the need to possess?

I believe it comes down to connection. People crave connection. We want the exclusivity of understanding. We desperately need to be understood. It’s shockingly erotic to be understood, (to paraphrase Mary Rakow). So, when a story resonates with a reader, that resonance can, at times, go beyond the page to creates the illusion of kinship, sympathy and intimate understanding; and that illusion can be a very intense, indeed.

The strength, as well as the challenge, of public / private divide as regards writers and readers, is that the reader gets access only to what the writer allows. Only the writer herself knows the degree to which her mind, soul, psyche or heart appears in her work, and she is under no obligation to say. Because of this, the publication of a piece can be seen as a sort of offering. It is an author’s consent to grant public access to whatever appears, both explicitly and implicitly, in her text. This does not, however, equate to full, private access to her.

When someone reads my work, I want the focus to be on the work, not on whether I am, personally, gay, straight, bi, kinky, vanilla, submissive or dominant. I don’t want my life and predilections to muddy the ink on the page. That ink represents the access that I grant. My pseudonym, and the persona it names, invites the reader to enjoy my work without the distraction of injecting me into it. Just as importantly, it gives the reader a safe avatar to attach to, if only until they move on to the next story.

Authors want desperately to connect with readers. We want our work to be enjoyed and understood. For me, the public / private divide allows me the security and the freedom to pour words, uninhibited, onto the page and strive to make that connection. It frees me up to engage and explore and write with far more abandon, and honesty than I otherwise might. My pseudonym allows me to walk the delicate line between my private and public selves. I could never have predicted the depth of my relationship to my pseudonym, my lark of a second-name, but I am profoundly grateful for it now.