While I was at work today, I got an email from the editor of an upcoming erotica anthology that recently accepted one of my submissions. I’ll talk more about that project when its table of contents is released later this week, but my editor’s email asked a pretty important question that I hadn’t taken much time to think about. Did I want to be credited as Ella Dawson in the book, or was there a pen name I would rather use?
I get the sense that most erotica writers use pseudonyms. There are a lot of reasons to do so; some authors have day jobs that would clash with their sexy alter egos, or they write in a range of genres and keep their works separate by changing the byline. Others want to create a healthy distance between their professional lives and personal lives, a divide that is increasingly blurred the smuttier the writing becomes. This can be a matter of safety for the author, and of privacy for them and their loved ones. My friend Malin James wrote a great blog post about the relationship between the author, the reader, and the pseudonym that I recommend you read here. If I were to use a pseudonym, this would be the main reason why: protecting my parents and my partners from judgment down the line.
The stakes are higher for authors of marginalized identities, or even authors who write about them. Yes, writing about sex is inherently risky, but creators of queer fiction often use pseudonyms to protect themselves from increased discrimination and harassment. (My favorite author penname of all time specializes in male/male erotic fiction: Bearmuffin. That’s it, one word. Bearmuffin.)
When I attended CatalystCon this spring, I received a lot of advice from older female sex writers, many of whom encouraged me to be careful as I started my career. I was just too young to understand the ramifications of my decisions, one woman in her early 50s stressed. I did not want to brand myself with a scarlet letter this early in the game. Her advice, while well intentioned, scared the shit out of me. But then I actually thought about the undercurrent of what she had said. It was a maternally protective gesture marked by fear: others will judge you for writing what you write, and you need to anticipate that.
Well I don’t want to anticipate that. I don’t want to accommodate a culture that will slut-shame me for writing thought-provoking, eloquent, and yes, sexy fiction and nonfiction. If my solid resume of clips and internships with gender and sexuality oriented publishing houses means I will not get a job I am fully qualified for in the future, fuck that. One of the central reasons I write feminist erotica is to change the culture, not to jack it off while comfortably existing within its patriarchal hang ups.
I have in my short twenty-two years of life always said the shit no one else wanted to say, whether it was making a classroom full of psychology students talk about STI stigma or writing angst-riddled tumblr posts about hookup culture. As the editor of my college’s sex magazine, I dealt with the double-edged sword of having a name and a reputation people knew before meeting me, regardless of whether or not their assumptions were even legitimate. When I start a new relationship, one of my first concerns before meeting a partner’s parents is: what has he told them about my sex writing, and will they Google me before I get the chance to nail the first impression? Are they going to respect or express disgust with my career goals? Have they already read my tweets about irrational pregnancy scares triggered by seeing Obvious Child?
The fact is the “respectable girl from a nice family in Connecticut” ship has already sailed. As long as my social media presence remains snarky, and as long as I enjoy the work that I’m doing, I see little reason to capitulate to judgment and use a pseudonym. I’m going to own it, because that’s still a rare thing in society today. It’s a risky and perhaps foolish decision, but what kind of feminist who yells about pop culture would I be if I did not put my real name behind my contributions to pop culture?
So yeah. Ella Dawson, erotica writer. Shocking, I know. Look at that shock all over your face.