Eroticon, the UK’s first sex blogger and erotica writers’ conference took place in Bristol on Saturday 3rd March. The theme was ‘write sex right’ so exploring how sex is represented in the mainstream press, exploring issues around ethics and identity and whether it’s best to write under a pseudonym or use your real name. Organiser and hostess, Ruby Kiddell, wanted to create a forum for debate after attending the Cybermummy blogging conference last year. She said that quite a few sex bloggers went but she noticed they held back from discussing their work openly.
There were five blocks of sessions throughout the day exploring various themes including sex and the media, identity, ethics and sex blogging, self-publishing, collaboration with sex therapists, and marketing, photography and podcasting.
The key sessions for me were those tackling the big issues: ‘Sex and the Media’ with Zoe Margolis, Lori Smith, Rubyyy Jones and Matt Bateman and ‘Identity, Ethics and Sex Blogging’ with Margolis, Molly Moore, Mina Lamieux and Smith. Margolis shared her experiences of being ‘outed’ by The Sunday Times in 2006 after her book, Girl With a One-Track Mind, was published under the pseudonym Abby Lee. She wrote a sequel called Exposed, which came out in 2010, focusing on what happened and her subsequent treatment by the press. It was shocking to hear first-hand how she and her friends and family were treated and the names she was called – ‘cunt’, ‘whore’, ‘slut’ and that she received threats which scared her silly ‘I’m going to rape you and then kill you.’ So much hostility and fear targeted at a woman who wrote (anonymously) about her desire for sex and adventure.
Margolis is a passionate and inspiring speaker and has used the unexpected limelight as a platform to comment on women’s issues. She has written about the Abortion Bill and other issues for The Guardian and recently organised the excellent Sex Comedy Awards in London to raise money for Brook, a sexual health charity for young people. It was obvious that she was burnt, hurt and ‘scared silly’ as she said by what happened to her and as a result no longer blogs about her personal life; her writing is journalistic and more general. She talked about how hard it is for women to write candidly about sex without being ‘labelled, judged and put in a box’ because society doesn’t seem to know what to do with women who like sex and are happy to write about it.
The flip side of being exposed as a writer she said is that she’s now able to attend conferences such as Eroticon as an informed speaker and hopefully make a difference by addressing the issues she would like to change – Nadine Dorries and the Abortion Bill as a case in point. She also touched upon some of the ethical issues around writing about sex. Although she changed names and details some of her protagonists recognised themselves in her book and called her up to tell her so. It’s a dilemma, as online journalist and blogger Lori Smith has also found. Her experience of writing an anonymous sex blog was cut short after she gave a few close contacts the URL. Realising that they would recognize certain situations or characters meant that she began to censor her writing and felt it lost its flow and sparkle. It took the fun out of it so she stopped. She writes about ‘sex in general’ as a sex & relationship columnist for BitchBuzz and tries to educate readers about different lifestyles based on her own as a non-monogamous and bisexual female.
It made me wonder how Brooke Magnanti felt when she was outed as Belle de Jour? It would have been fascinating to hear about her experiences to see if they mirrored Margolis’.
So can you ever write about sex anonymously on the internet? The general consensus was no. Kiddell said don’t put it on the net if you don’t want to be identified because someone will track you down. Moore said that as writers we gain inspiration from daily events – snippets of conversations, events and people and to obtain permission to write about everything that happens simply isn’t realistic and means we’d never publish anything.
Monique Roffey, author of With the Kisses of His Mouth took a different approach. Inspired by Margolis she set about writing a memoir under her real name about her midlife sexual quest. She said she was shocked by what had happened to Margolis and felt it important that she wrote her book under her own name rather than a pseudonym. However it has not been as well received here as her other books because of the subject matter despite being ‘literary sex’ and very well written. It highlights the difference between the UK and Europe where sex and pleasure are written about regularly by respected authors and not confined to a tiny column in the papers. When she approached her publisher, Simon & Schuster, about writing a memoir she was initially rejected for ‘not being famous enough’. However, she persisted and eventually ‘got a weak OK’.
I’m glad she didn’t give up as the book is a fantastic read – honest, moving and funny – and an insight into how relationships change over time, as well as our attitudes to sex. She made the decision to contact her dates to tell them she was writing a book and were they ok with being mentioned? Most of them were fine with it and happy for their real name to be used, which took her by surprise. However, when the book came out last summer it was hacked to pieces by a sex phobic Sloane ranger at The Sunday Times.
Being labeled, put into boxes and judged was a common theme. It’s as if society doesn’t know what to do with strong women who don’t fit into neat categories. As Smith pointed out ‘being bisexual doesn’t mean I fancy every woman I meet’ and Mina Lamieux echoed this saying that just because she’s in an open relationship and blogs about it, it doesn’t mean she’s about to try it on with every couple she meets.
The general consensus from the publishers present was that the tabloid press has a lot to answer for in terms of how sex is written about and received. Maxim Jacubowski (crime, erotic and sci-fi writer) said that his upbringing in France showed him a different side to erotica publishing. In Europe well known authors often write novels about their sex lives and such books are well received by the press. He said the best erotica is being written in France and Italy – literary erotica, which is of a high standard.
In the final session ‘Sex and the Media’ Margolis made a couple of pertinent points. One is that the UK press is fine with the notion of the ‘sex column’ – a little corner that can be used to write about sex. Yet most of the columns are dire and there to titillate rather than educate and inform. Sex isn’t something that can be discussed in a more general article, which is bonkers said Roffey given that it’s an important part of our lives. Margolis also pointed out that most of the book covers for erotica are sexist – showing a scantily clad woman rather than a hot-blooded male. I spoke to Daryl Champion, editor of Somethingdark magazine about this and he said it’s true; often the content bears no relation to what’s on the cover. Women are still being used to sell sex in a stereotypical way, which doesn’t feel quite right to me. I’m glad the issue came up with the publishers there to witness it and it would be nice to see some changes.
Fascinating debates and Q&A’s and both sessions could have gone on for much longer. So plenty of food for thought for next year’s conference and hopefully we can keep the momentum going via the net in the meantime. We still have a long way to go in terms of challenging social attitudes towards sex (although Roffey’s book will hopefully inspire other women to write under their own names). Margolis said she is quite cynical and doesn’t think things will really change with regards to the press but suggested a possible solution – perhaps a rich, Russian entrepreneur with a penchant for kink could give us some funds to start up a new newspaper edited by women that could explore such issues properly without discrimination…
The other talking point of the day was censorship given that PayPal has asked US-based co Smashwords to remove certain ‘unsuitable’ categories of erotica from its lists – bestiality, rape and incest. It’s PayPal effectively abusing its power and asking a company to censor certain types of books that it doesn’t want to process payments for. Too much power is a problem and currently there isn’t much of an alternative when it comes to easy ways to transfer funds but that will change. It will be interesting to see if PayPal upholds the ban after all the outrage online.
That so many of us were there under one roof talking about these issues felt really good and it’s important to have a collective voice. Most of the attendees and speakers were women and as women are writing more erotica the balance will hopefully begin to shift. I’m looking forward to seeing the line up for next year’s conference.
Lovehoney and Coco de Mer were premium sponsors and Channel 4 did some filming so it will be interesting to see what comes of that.
Molly Moore has posted links to other Eroticon reviews on the net – feel free to add more here.