Some of you may have noticed an evolution in my books. I started writing stories about the staff of a strip club finding love, stories intended to be subversive and challenge a lot of the assumptions we have about sex workers. Writing Love and Lapdances is still one of the things I do for relaxation, because it reminds me of so many beautiful, loving, complex, powerful sex workers I’ve met over the years, who have lived some of the most uplifting real-life romances I’ve encountered. I’ve got enough stories outlined to write those novellas for another decade, if I chose.
But as I kept writing, I found myself returning to stories with a heavy dose of suspense, and violence, stories that just couldn’t fit in that world without dramatically twisting the underlying ideas behind Love and Lapdances- namely that sex work is pretty normal. As I contemplated where I fit in the romance genre, it seemed more and more clear to me that my heart was pointing me far outside the contemporary romance flow. It pointed me to my gritty, pulpy roots, the books that stuck with me through the years. It pointed me to dark fantasy romances/PNRs, and bloody romantic thrillers that pushed even my boundaries. It pointed me to brutality, and trauma, and people powerful enough to survive it and still put love back out into the world.
Not everyone around me has understood it. There’s a number of books I’ve written that even my partner won’t read, because he knows enough of some of the kink to know it is just not his thing, and will never be his thing. After I discussed the outline for Siren with him, including the description of one of the kinkier/edgier scenes (You know the one, if you’ve read Restrain), he couldn’t meet my eye for an hour.
So often, when I talk to people about the darker side of romance, I hear some variation of “I don’t know why I’d want to buy into a character loving another character with no redeemable qualities.” But the thing is, and this is what makes me love dark romance all the more, there are redeemable qualities. They might not be save-the-cat level mercies; in some books they may simply be that antihero hero having a truly compelling written voice. That hero might have charisma, or such skill at their badness that you can’t help but root for them, with or without any kind of reformation. Maybe there’s even something extra satisfying about watching them corrupt their partner, watching the “good” character discover they’re capable of cruelty and violence, no longer forced to stay quiet in the face of it.
See, antiheroes are a mainstay in basically every literary genre. The doomed mafia kingpin who you can’t help but hope will escape the FBI trap slowly closing in around him. The vampire who has committed atrocities- and still will, for the “right” reasons, or because his bloodlust got away from him at the wrong time. Beauty and the Beast. House of Cards. American Psycho. On and on, deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole our fascination goes. We hate and love people who color outside society’s lines, due to our own resentment at the sacrifices and degradation needed to color inside those lines ourselves.
How could anyone think that those characters exist everywhere but romance?
And as for dark romance… it’s like a bastard love-child of romance and horror. It offers the adrenaline rush of reading disturbing things that you’d get from a horror novel, the how-far-can-you-push-people challenge in seeing exactly how the “normal” partner handles it, the catharsis of feeling angst and pain with them, sometimes masochistic tendencies in finding pleasure in the idea of severe pain or injury (or rape fantasies), the optimism in (sometimes) discovering that even the irredeemable can be redeemed, or the dog-eat-dog thrill of seeing the bad guy triumph.
Plus, dark romance offers a safe space for readers and writers to deal with trauma. One of my favorite things about the subgenre is that so much of it does cover not just the trauma someone might endure, but the recovery. For some people coping with PTSD or the fallout from trauma, this kind of literature can sometimes be a form of exposure therapy, allowing us to relive our worst fears, but with the assurance that it’ll be okay in the end, and that just as the traumatized protagonist has moved past it, we can too. This can make portrayals of trauma in romance subgenres (including dark romance) more powerful than ones offered in other genres, because that promise of a happily ever after means that that character will never be ruined by the acts of violence committed against them.
For these reasons, dark romance has captivated me for a long time. I have my pet peeves with it- particularly in the tropes that guide many authors’ (including dark romance authors’) representations of sex trafficking and sex workers, a seemingly natural topic for dark fiction in our current society. And I have a lot of quibbles with how it’s treated by etailers, since dark romance is particularly vulnerable to censorship by retailers who profit from these books while refusing to provide tools for labeling them- preferring to instead ban them the moment they offer them bad press or a reader complaint, which is all the more likely to happen when it’s not properly labeled. But by far, it’s my favorite genre to write in. Even my paranormal romance is dark by many people’s standards. As a woman who’s lived through a shitton of her own traumas, it’s the language I speak. It’s the subgenre where I’m most likely to see empowering and nuanced representations of survivors like myself.
Put it this way. Most of us like candy. Some of us like chocolate and gummy bears. Sweet stuff that’s like a culinary hug. Others like candies with a faint tart tang, like Jolly Ranchers. Still others of us like sour candies that are so goddamn strong, they’ll make your eyes water, and your teeth hurt. No one’s gonna make anyone else eat those candies ’til their tongues bleed and they can’t taste their other food. But some of us will choose to dive into that gluttony, and will love every fucked-up second of it.
Some readers nope out at explicit sex, or consensual BDSM. Others reach for power fantasies in which the reader’s consent to read the story is more important than the character’s consent in the book (dubcon rape fantasies, stories such as 50 Shades of Grey, where you can debate for hours the exact nature and authenticity of consent offered, in places). Others reach for even more graphic explorations of power, trauma, fear, and lust (Pepper Winters’ Debt Inheritance series).
Everyone has boundaries. Everyone has wants.
Me? I’ll eat that sour candy ’til my tongue bleeds. And when the bag is empty, I’ll show you my bloody, peeling tongue as a sign of pride.
For those readers interested in reading my dark romance, it primarily appears under my Tiger Tarantino penname, though some dark paranormal titles appear under K. de Long. Those books will always include a warning in the description that the book contains material some readers may find upsetting. Readers seeking to avoid that stuff should stick with Lila Vega, or K. de Long books that only contain mature content in the warning.
Anarchist’s Lullaby is available on Amazon.com. All profits go to Black Lives Matter. Thank you for reading and supporting my books!
Anarchist’s Lullaby is now available for preorder, with a March release.
TW: vague discussions of mental illness, specifically triggers.
Trigger warnings are one of the best ways for people to engage with sensitive content in a healthy way. They enable someone to create the safest space possible for consuming the material.
For some people, this means only reading upsetting materials when they have a supportive friend or partner nearby, to hold them and tell them it’s okay. For others, this means reading upsetting materials alone, because the presence of a partner will feel threatening and make the fear worse. For some people, this means reading materials that hit close to home with a partner in the house, so they won’t be tempted to self-harm, attempt suicide, abuse substances, or other harmful behaviors. For others, they may need to be alone, because the strain of acting “normal” when they’re upset will grind the pain in worse, until they lash out.
For some people, this means avoiding upsetting materials because they can’t be consumed in a healthy way, and for others, it simply means picking the right time and setting.
See, triggers affect everyone differently, depending on really minute aspects of their lives and mental state. For some people, it might cause a panic attack that causes them to be unable to leave the house or pursue their to-do list. For others, it might cause them to become aggressive toward those around them who are making the trigger worse, unknowingly.
Forewarning and awareness are a survivor’s best friends. When a trigger sneaks up on someone, sometimes it can be too late to back away before the person is already seeing detrimental effects. Content warnings actually enable people to deal with more traumatic material than they otherwise could, because they are able to do it safely. They actually prevent consumer dissatisfaction, because they help consumers know up front what they’re in for.
Vague product warnings like “steamy material” or “too hot for your kindle” don’t actually provide the cues necessary to tell sensitive readers that a book may contain themes that they actively try to avoid. If Amazon is truly interested in being all about the customer, then building better tools for labeling should be one of their top priorities– not filtering authors out who use trigger warnings or censoring specific words. Is it any wonder that without these warnings, there’s a lot more people blindsided, reacting negatively, and bending Amazon’s ear either with direct complaints or bad reviews?
One of those tools could be providing a form to allow authors to label various common strong themes, such as sexual violence, and providing a button on the site that would allow readers to opt out of seeing any content with those themes. Not restricting their visibility in lists, searches, etc. Simply allowing it as an optional filter, similar to how they allow consumers to filter books down by length, for readers who are seeking shorter reads. Or even just a general adult filter toggle similar to what their competitor Smashwords uses.
Hell, this is a niche that readers already desire, and that other sites attempt to cater to in the small scale– a Google search for “clean reads” turns up a host of blogs, publishers, and groups that specialize in assisting readers seeking books without such mildly offensive things as cursewords, like the much maligned Clean Reader. Clean Reader came under fire last year for scrubbing swear words or offensive content from books entirely… without the authors’ consent. Authors came together to protest, to declare that their aesthetic could not be honored by replacing those words– that even if they made some people uncomfortable, the word had been chosen for a specific reason (Does that sound familiar?). They removed their books from the retailers who supply to Clean Reader in protest. But even though Amazon’s policy is much more destructive, arbitrary, and pervasive, it holds too much power for authors to be able to protest in an effective way, as they could for one fairly small app. So we are stuck with whatever Amazon says, no matter how unfair, problematic, or contradictory. And all of that is getting off the topic of trigger warnings as a needed classification tool.
Keywords such as “clean romance”, and “sweet romance” help readers who prefer to avoid sexual content entirely develop a community and a niche built around their desire to avoid that content. Could you imagine if we were allowed to similarly label and build communities around fiction with other love-it-or-hate-it themes, too?
Put simply, Amazon’s practice is bad, in every way. Bad for consumers, bad for authors, bad for survivors and people struggling with PTSD, and bad for society as a whole.
TW: discussions of sexual violence, victim-blaming, self-harm, mental illness.
As much as I, even now, fear professional retribution from Amazon for criticizing their policy, I can not remain silent in the face of their highly problematic policies. If people like Amazon had been in charge of my reading material, growing up, I would have succeeded in committing suicide long before I ever learned to write a novel.
Let me start at the beginning.
When I was little, something awful happened to me. Without the words to name it, it was simply “oh my god, I think I’m about to die,” and “the worst pain I have ever felt.” It was a number of years before I was given a word to simply sum up what I had lived through:
This word meant everything to me. It meant that what had happened to me was common enough to have a name. It meant that out there, there were others like me. It meant that I wasn’t alone. It meant that I could tell people about that crucial piece of me without having to struggle to explain details that were fuzzy, even in my mind.
It came with judgments, too– ruined, or probably lying for attention– but the community and shared experience it implied gave me the first leg up into recovery.
Bearing my experience alone for so long, it trapped me in a cycle of trauma, self-harm, and suicidal ideation that splintered me further. But when I discovered that word, when I stumbled into the world of fanfiction, I found myself home. Fanfiction provided a judgment-free platform (as much as anything on the internet truly is) that allowed me to consider the idea that anyone in my life could have that shared experience, and simply be hiding the pain in their own ways– even if it was someone as well-known and understood as Harry Potter or Hermione Granger, my fandom of choice. It gave me an opportunity to see other survivors, in various states of recovery, centering stories around themselves in a way I’d never seen. Certainly no mainstream book I’d found– including the adult literature I chose off my parents’ bookshelves– portrayed what I’d gone through in a recognizable way.
It saved my life. It gave me an invisible community who understood me more thoroughly than any family member, any therapist ever could.
For all rape’s ubiquity in fiction, the vast majority of the stories are decentered from the person who lives it. GRR Martin builds his worlds with a style described by some as “rape as wallpaper”, using progressively more sensational stories of sexual assault to define the “grit” of his fantasy realms, with little attention paid toward the aftermath for most of his victims. Creators consistently use rape to establish that a villain is bad– with no attention paid to the victim, outside of sexualized descriptions of her pain and his enjoyment of it. Worse yet, when a female protagonist does have that backstory, many authors use it as shorthand to establish that she is interesting and worthwhile, though unlikeable, with no attention paid to developing her psyche to support the idea of that trauma. Or worse yet, to show her as strong, as though no woman has ever been strong without having been raped, and that violation is in-fact, a blessing, making her something other than a boring, humdrum female who certainly would never be the heroine in a story.
In short, rape stories are centered around everyone but survivors.
Even subtle differences in characterization and intent can be the difference between a character who appeals to survivors and lets them know they aren’t alone, and one that retraumatizes them, inundating them with toxic ideas about their own identity, and propagating harmful myths in the minds of those who have never been offered any counterpoint to them. Amazon’s policy of censoring words directly related to sexual violence steers aesthetic decisions in ways that they certainly never intended, rendering character-defining conversations that lean heavily on filterable words like “rape” more offensive than traumatic and sensationalized descriptions of the act itself, that can feel dehumanizing or violent for survivors and present a completely different characterization of the material involved. Books are not a game of Jenga, where all pieces can be rearranged or removed while the structure still stands. And pretending that’s the case ignores that the whole point of Jenga is that the structure will fall, in the end. Saying “just don’t use those words” fundamentally misunderstands the very mechanics of storytelling.
The effects of Amazon’s policy extend far further than simply depriving authors like myself of the right to earn a living off their work, or depriving readers of reading material they desire. It shapes societal narratives and views, by deciding whose stories get to be told, and whose must be filtered out. It tells survivors that their concerns and lives are fundamentally “inappropriate” to build stories around, and that they should deal with their trauma in silence. Already, I’ve had to cut multiple survivor-oriented projects from my schedule because I can’t afford the expense and time of writing a book that I have a good chance of being forbidden to sell.
This is doubly harmful, because this is what the world around us does every single day when our rapist is allowed into the same social events because the hosts “don’t want to pick sides”, or when others pressure us to stay silent, because they “don’t want to hear about the drama” or feel that the issue we’re currently struggling with is TMI.
For many survivors, fiction is the one place we can look into the lives of people like us, or tell stories we wish we’d heard sooner, without the fear of retaliation or shaming.
Amazon’s refusal to consider survivors’ needs by implementing a policy that allows trigger warnings and accurate descriptions of sensitive content, and their ongoing decision to continue penalizing primarily women romance authors who write content portraying survivors in ways that are too adult or “offensive” is an act of violence. It’s one more way that we culturally declare that sexual violence is acceptable for entertainment… but not from the survivor’s perspective.
We prioritize storytelling narratives that portray survivors as asexual, pure victims who must be “ruined” by their trauma, or dead bodies who will never have the chance to begin the messy process of healing, or examine the aftermath of sexual assault solely through their loved ones’ reaction to their trauma, and then wonder why there’s a host of “bad victim” narratives that undermine people’s ability to seek justice for sexual violence. Or why survivors may frequently feel suicidal, that healing isn’t even a possibility, because they’ve never known people who’ve talked about that journey openly, or read stories about it that ring true.
We demonize survivors’ coping mechanisms, declaring that they’re lying because they were caught on camera smiling at some point after the attack, or that they enjoyed their assault because their body responded to it by getting aroused. We grow up on narratives that portray rapists as obviously inhuman monsters, and then wonder why so many people defend convicted rapists as “nice boys who made mistakes,” because they can’t see a monster in that “nice boy” the way they expected to if he was really a rapist.
It’s not just about an author’s right to freedom of speech versus Amazon’s right to not provide a platform for those whose speech offends them. It comes down to Amazon’s cultural impact.
For better or worse, Amazon controls the distribution method for the majority of ebooks, and traditional publishing’s impact is waning further and further. Books are increasingly where the film industry gets new material from, and entertainment is fundamental in telling stories that show people how the world is and shape our reactions to real-life things.
Do we want a culture in which women don’t have access to affirming love stories that tell them that they, too, can heal from trauma, or find sexual fulfillment? Do we want a culture in which women are not allowed to face down the beast that loomed over their cradles in whatever way feels most useful for them? Do we want a society in which women’s sexuality is defined only through male-centered mainstream porn and slapdash sex-ed?
Or do we want a culture in which women are encouraged to speak out, to tell their stories confidently, and allow others to gravitate toward them as kindred spirits. To draw commonalities, even across traumatic or sexual experiences.
I know which one I want. And I know which one romance and erotica readers deserve.
If you would like to share your thoughts on this policy with Amazon, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hardcore TW on this for emotional abuse, domestic violence, mental illness, mentions of self-harm and suicide.
We don’t have a great pattern for talking about healthy relationships, and the boundaries between human flaws and abusive tendencies. This means that many times, when writers seek to show abusive relationships, they jump right to the obvious stuff: the “I’ll kill you before I let you leave me!” level physical aggression and verbal abuse.
But to present a more realistic and compelling abusive relationship, you need to think subtler. Here’s a few emotional abuse techniques that worm into the relationship long before someone raises their hand. As always, your mileage may vary. This is simply my perspective and experience, as someone who’s survived a lot of domestic violence, both from family and partners. Some examples explicitly refer to heterosexual relationships, however the core aggression we’re talking about can happen in any relationship. And its shape is so heavily influenced by the individuals involved, that this is hardly a conclusive rundown of all of the manifestations of non-physical abuse out there.
So recently, I stumbled across a great post by Jenny Zhang.
— Jenny Zhang (@Jennybagel) March 16, 2016
And it’s spot-friggen-on for one of the most crucial and difficult things about the representation of people in the sex industry. People don’t often think of the danger of being out, or the possibility of there being “degrees” of being out, but they totally exist.
I’ve been there. I’ve been coercively “outed” to my family, and lost family members because of it. I’ve hidden it from other family members, and lived in fear of the ones who knew tattling on me, just to see me wounded. I’ve been fetishized by non-sex worker friends, and condescended to by therapists. I’ve compartmentalized, the word for creating a double life with boundaries between the elements that are restricted to one part of my life, to prevent my landlord from finding out about my work, out of the fear that he might kick me out if he took it badly. I’ve been sexually assaulted for being “out” by non-work personal dates, who decided that if I was that kind of skank, surely I was up for anything, and if I was saying “no”, it didn’t mean anything.
The trust I place in those who know of this part of me, and my own defiance in insisting that as many people as possible should accept it as a part of me has been used to hurt me. It’s been used to say I am incapable of making good decisions, and to justify invasive aggression toward my (unrelated) mental illness. It’s been used to coerce me into unwelcome sexual conduct. It’s been used to draw misleading statements about my mental health and my general worth as a person, and to undermine my autonomy. By putting this part of myself forward, I’ve invited the whore stigma to be a force not just in my old professional life, and not just in internal parts of my present life, but in all of my life.
But I am lucky. Plenty of people are isolated from seeking support or recognition from non-industry friends and family by causes much more coercive or dangerous than I was. Being “out” has its dangers, and so much of the time, that gets lost in the rhetoric. Being “out” is a brave act, and I adore all of the people I have met who demand the world see the entirety of them, even the controversial bits. But it’s not for everyone. And until we recognize why that is, and what additional barriers may face others with even more marginalized identities and less social or economic capital, we’re gonna be skewing the framing of the discussion.
To an extent, it’s not simply that the “out” sex workers are the ones doing this; this kind of erasure happens elsewhere in the discussion, too. When anti-trafficking/anti sex work prohibitionists/”abolitionists” discuss sex trafficking as something that primarily happens to innocent white girls who were kidnapped at the mall, or submissive foreign girls who can’t speak for themselves, they are doing it. They are erasing the very real fact that much sexual trafficking is done by friends or loved ones with few other options or similar experiences themselves (Read Alexandra Lutnick’s “Domestic Minor Trafficking Victims” for an eye-opening look at what underage sex trafficking in the US looks like outside of the mainstream narrative) and that even the TERM is vague, and encompasses a lot of situations that people would not consider trafficking, such as Amber Batts in Alaska, who was convicted of trafficking for providing screening services for non-trafficked women of legal age, no force, fraud, or coercion involved. They’re erasing that many of those foreign “sex slaves” would say radically different things than what the prohibitionists say for them. They are erasing the fact that trans women working as sex workers face much more coercive and mentally draining and sometimes violent conditions than CIS women tend to, and that trans women of color face even more hostility, yet. And that many men are exploited in the sex industry, too, especially young gay men from homophobic families, or young men with the same background of abuse or neglect that leads many young women into the industry. They are erasing the fact that they are worsening the conditions that make it more difficult for society at large to allow non-privileged people to advocate for themselves by controlling the narrative in such an exclusionary way that doesn’t address the root causes of exploitation.
They’re creating a specialized narrative that leaves the vast swath of sex workers and trafficking victims alike out in the cold. Because when we’re looking for an innocent white girl with sad eyes, we’re arresting, incarcerating, and/or ignoring legions of black girls who have learned to keep quiet, because they won’t be granted the presumption of victimhood or innocence. We’re legislating the bathroom behaviors of trans people, rather than guaranteeing them freedom from discrimination in employment that could help them find opportunities outside of the sex trade. Or rather than helping them pay for “elective” medical care that can ease their dysphoria and health issues associated with transitioning. We’re ignoring exploitative and predatory practices in other industries, such as the hospitality and agricultural industries, and the bureaucratic hell that traps many migrants in exploitative situations.
The prevalence of this outsider narrative leads to biases that can ruin lives, victimizing people all over again, or putting power into exploitative systems. It leads to us charging trafficking victims like LaTesha Clay as adults, and incarcerating them. It leads to us throwing billions of dollars at “awareness” based on flawed statistics, and undermining HIV outreach by requiring HIV-targeting NGOs to disavow one of the communities that that they had relationships with for the public good: consensual sex workers. It leads to us propagating an unhealthy, racist, xenophobic, and colonialist policy that makes it impossible to recognize what consent (or lack thereof) looks like, when it’s not a little white girl under discussion.
It leads to predators like Daniel Holtzclaw feeling entitled to prey on poor, often majority non-white communities, and surprising the country on the rare occasions they are held accountable.
Being “out” is a privilege, and I’m determined to uplift as many other voices as I can. Because the dangers it’s presented to me aren’t as severe as they could be, and because what I see in the absence of my voice, and voices like mine, is far worse. My job here isn’t to talk until you listen- it’s to uplift as many other voices as possible so that the wider world can see beyond the narratives perpetuated by people even more privileged than me.
To follow along with all of my discussions on the subject, follow my facebook profile. I frequently share relevant links there.
Edit: I misquoted the name of Alexandra Lutnick’s book; the proper name is “Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking” instead.