A Sex Writer Takes a Thirst Trap

Let’s get one thing out of the way. I am a sex writer.

Call my work whatever you want: porn, erotica, romance, sex scenes, adult literature. Supposedly there’s a difference between gratuitous pornography and art. Dick around with definitions all you want. I don’t care. I write about sex. 

Sometimes my work turns people on. Sometimes it makes people think. Sometimes it does both. 

Sometimes it does neither. I never called myself a genius.

At some point during the last five years I began to use the title “sex and culture critic” instead of “sex writer.” I made this shift for a number of reasons, some genuine and some shallow. 

I am less interested in the physicality of sex—in sex toy reviews or tips about positions—and more compelled by the emotional residue left in its wake by our sex-negative culture. My nonfiction work has evolved to focus on sexual violence and abuse, which clashes with the saucy expectations that people have of sex writing. It feels more accurate to call myself a “bad sex writer,” which creates more questions than answers.

Respectable Ella with Dead Eyes.

In search of a new descriptor, I borrowed from writers I respected. “Sex and culture critic” replaced “sex writer” in my Twitter bio. But this snazzy turn of phrase did nothing to solve the real problem: my embarrassment.

My boyfriend at the time was a regular at several of Manhattan and Brooklyn’s private social clubs. I found myself at a lot of cocktail parties with people who worked in finance, or technology, or did not have to work at all. Whenever I introduced myself as a “sex and culture critic,” I was met with uncomfortable silence. There was also the occasional assumption that my date had purchased my company for the evening. The slut-shaming I faced in my teens and early twenties morphed into a strange new form of whorephobia. While I did not do sex work, my writing placed me in a sex-work adjacent category. 

The more time I spent clutching $4 glasses of watered-down Diet Coke, watching as faces twitched when I mentioned my chosen field, the more my conviction bled away. I began to feel shame about my craft for the first time as an adult. It didn’t matter how many pearls I wore, or how high I raised my neckline. I could never desexualize myself enough to be taken seriously. The respectability dance was unending. 

Exhausted, I began introducing myself as a “digital strategist.” 

And then, because COVID-19 respects no one at all, there were no more cocktail parties for several years.

The problem was never my writing. The problem was the cocktail party. I’d been in the wrong rooms. 

Call it whatever you want: a quarter-life crisis, or a mismatched relationship, or a valuable life lesson. It doesn’t matter what brought me to those private clubs and literary salons, or what kept me going back. For whatever reason, I forced myself to button up and socialize with people who didn’t share my values. I could describe myself a “critic” all I wanted, but I broke the rules by talking about sex, kink, mental health, and disease. My whiteness and class privilege got me through the door, yet no amount of Connecticut prestige could overcome my Google search results. 

I am not respectable. 

Thank goodness. Respectable people throw terrible parties.

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Ella Dawson is a sex and culture critic and a digital strategist. She drinks too much Diet Coke.