Sex writing goes limp

Loads of columns have been axed -- does sex no longer sell?

Published October 10, 2008 10:00AM (EDT)

Lately, I've been gripped by blog-buzz about sex writers being laid (har) off. Two weeks ago, the Village Voice let go Tristan Taormino, the porn director, editor and author of the 9-year-old column "Pucker Up." Just last week, Gawker laid off 19 people, including Fleshbot editor Jonno and Melissa Gira Grant, author of Valleywag's "Sex Trade" column. Also axed: Audacia Ray's columns "History of Sex" for Eden Fantasys and "Fashion Police" for Fleshbot, as well as her Village Voice Naked City blog. Playboy Radio also cut from its daily news segment Regina Lynn, formerly of Wired's "Sex Drive" column (which she chose to leave).

There are others, but the point is: These are scary times for sex writers. And, today, Violet Blue, sex columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, asks: If sex sells, why are sex writers getting the shaft? (Again, har.) She doesn't directly answer the question, so I brought the question to sex writers themselves.

Susannah Breslin, a reporter who runs the blog Reverse Cowgirl, argues that sex writers have, for the most part, been held to a lower journalistic standard. "Sometimes people become sex writers because they screw a lot, not necessarily because they can write well," she told me in an e-mail. "If your career as a writer is driven by you showing your tits on your blog on a regular basis, maybe you shouldn't be so surprised when you lose your cred."

Rachel Kramer Bussel, whose column "Lusty Lady" was cut from the Village Voice in 2007, blamed the disappearance of sex columns on the integration of sex reporting. She has noticed sex journalism popping up in mainstream media outlets -- not as regular columns, but as reported features -- and suggests that readers might prefer to "see sex written about as part and parcel of our culture, rather than as a separate, stand-alone topic."

On a similar note, Broadsheet's Sarah Hepola, formerly an editor for the smart sex mag Nerve, said the traditional shock-and-awe approach to sex columns doesn't work. She finds "the frustrations of a real person grappling with sex -- the lack of it, the absurdity of it, the frustrations of it" more compelling than reading about, say, being tied up in a dominatrix's dungeon and being flogged with a cat o' nine tails. I would argue that the range of subversive sexual behavior that is out there no longer shocks -- and, unless the author intelligently mines the behavior, it's all kind of ho-hum, wonder what's for dinner.

Hepola put it this way: "Like porn, sex writing is totally boring to me when it strikes me as phony and posturing." Often times, instead of learning about the emotional and intellectual facets of a stranger's sex life -- and, most interesting, those contradictory cross-currents -- I have felt an unwilling participant in their exhibitionistic fantasy. Why would I pay -- be it with money or page views -- to turn on a sex writer? I don't read sex columns for the voyeuristic thrill, either; I read them for the same reason I read novels or watch movies --  it helps me to intimately know people. Good sex writing is like an inkblot test, for the author and reader.

However, Bonnie Ruberg, sex and technology columnist for the Village Voice, suggests that the real problem is the way the media treats sex writing -- and that's with prophylactic-gloved hands. "Mainstream media still sees sex coverage as interesting but tangential, something on the side -- which is why we're seeing sex writers get cut before other writers," she wrote in an e-mail.

Regina Lynn, formerly of Sex Drive, disagrees with the insider impression that sex writing in particular is in danger. "Old media is hemorrhaging writers and new media is still struggling to prove it can make a profit," she said in an e-mail. "Thousands of reporters, editors, stringers, photographers, copy editors have lost their jobs in the past few years. That half a dozen sex-positive columns have ended is part of that."

Breslin echoed that viewpoint: "There is no causal relationship between the fantasy that sex no longer sells and several sex writers losing their gigs. There is a causal relationship between a tanking economy and many writers, sex writers among them, losing their jobs."

In other words: Sex sells, so does sex writing -- but, friends, these are not sexy times. Even the sex industry has learned of late that it isn't recession-proof. The real question is: What now? Will the recently laid-off writers initiate a sex columnist comeback on their own terms (an idea that has been kicked around lately)? Will they provide us with free blog content until this economic storm blows over?

For my sake, as a reader, I hope so. For their sake, I certainly hope not. Some of y'all are too good to give it up for free.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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