Every time I get asked The Question, there is a space of a few seconds while I stare at the person and decide how to answer. See, here's the thing: I write smut. You can call it erotica, you can call it porn, you can call it a one-handed read, whatever you want; but it all comes down to the fact that I write about people having sex. I live in North America, and here we have a very fractured view of sex. We like sex; we like having it, we like gossiping about it, we like watching it on TV, we like looking it up on the Internet. But if you go that one step further and make it not just a hobby, but a job, people view that with suspicion. It doesn't matter what you do - writing about sex as an erotica writer, talking about sex as a phone-sex operator, having sex as a sex worker - if your interest in sex is professional as well as just personal, people tend to think less of you as a person. You can almost see the thought bubble above their head: "Oh my God, she seemed so normal! I suppose it goes to show you just never know who the freaks are."
A few years ago, when I was working on my first novel, I was ashamed of what I do, because I had drunk the cultural Kool-Aid of believing that sex work (in any of its forms) was something to be embarrassed about. Back then people would ask me The Question, and I'd mumble, "I'm a writer," hoping that would be enough. But no; people love writers. They'd lean forward, their eyes bright, and say, "Oh, you are? What do you write about?" And there I would be again, biting my lip, and finally I'd hedge, "Well, the novel I'm working on right now is about a sociopath and a prostitute." Generally that was enough to make them back off, since just the word "prostitute" tends to put a chill on conversation. They'd change to some other topic, and I'd feel myself relax, thrilled that I didn't have to go into more detail.
A funny thing happened over the next couple years, though. I'd previously done another form of sex work as a supervisor on a phone sex line (back then when people asked me The Question, I'd just say, "Oh, I'm a supervisor in a call center."), but I'd never had any contact with what I thought of as "real sex workers" - the kind who don't just write or talk about sex, they actually do it. But I believe in doing my research, and since I was writing about a prostitute, I started reading first-hand accounts of sex work, then made friends with some escorts. They were more than happy to discuss their jobs with me, and through them I began to get a very different view of sex work. I began to see that the way it's presented in the media doesn't hold true for all sex workers. Some women do enjoy what they do, and some of them choose consciously to be sex workers, not because they have to, but because they want to. They may find it personally fulfilling to bring that pleasure to others; they may just feel that it's a more interesting way to earn their dough than to spend eight hours in an office every day; they may find that it meets some of their own psychological needs in a generally positive way.
There is no doubt that many women go into sex work due to extreme fiscal need, and would not choose to do it if they had an alternative, and that prostitution is demeaning and soul-crushing work in those cases; but the women that do choose it, consciously and of their own free will, also exist, and they don't find it demeaning. While those women generally keep quiet about their activities due to fear of social repercussions, they are not ashamed of what they do.
The more I learned about their lives and views on sex work, the less ashamed I was of what I do. I came to see that I, and other erotica writers, provide a valuable service; we help to give people an outlet for their needs, a way to bridge the gap between frustration and release. Regular orgasms have been shown to have plenty of health benefits: reduced risk of death, reduced risk of prostate cancer and heart disease, stress relief, a stronger immune system, and more. If my work excites someone enough to get them to that point, when you look at it that way, what I do is basically a public service!
Unfortunately, much of society hasn't come around to the view that sex work is something that can be worthwhile and positive, so I still can't go shout what I do from the rooftops. When someone asks me The Question now, I have to run through a mental flowchart: "Is this person a minor? Does this person know certain people in my partner's family, who are still in the dark about what exactly I do? Would being honest with this person frighten or seriously disturb them? Is this person deeply religious or otherwise conservative?" If the answer to any of those questions is yes, then I have to modify what I do; I'll often give a vague, "Oh, I'm a writer, I write the kind of books that you wouldn't read with children around," and leave it up to them to wonder whether that means sexy books, or violent books, or horror books, or what-have-you. But if the answer to those questions is no, I now have my stock answer to The Question. "I write literary porn," I say proudly. "Not like Penthouse Forums where it's just sex; I write real stories, with sex scenes in it. And not like Harlequin books stuffed with purple prose and euphemisms, either; when I write smut, it's hardcore." I then smile and add, "In short, my job is to help make people happy. Hey, you should check my stuff out sometime! Everybody can use a little more smut in their life."
And now that I'm not ashamed, now that I let my pride in what I do shine through, it's amazing how the responses I get have changed. Before, there was often discomfort from the other person, and awkward silence; now, I'll generally get a few seconds of surprised quiet, and then they smile too, a big intrigued grin. "That's so cool! Where can I buy your book?"
Robin Wolfe is an early-thirties femme who is fascinated by the human animal and all the crazy ways we do what we do. Her first book, Ink Me, is available from Eternal Press. (No, it's not the sociopath/prostitute novel; she's still working on that one.) If you want to learn more about Robin, visit her website and blog at http://www.robinwolfe.com/. She also runs a weekly series on her blog called Victorian Porn Fridays, where she showcases excerpts from Victorian-era erotica novels.