Sex & Relationships

Why Is Sex Writing the Fastest Way for Women Writers to Get Ahead?

Even when it comes to writing, women are more likely to get noticed for their sex lives than their skills.

I have reported from the frontlines of my bedroom more than once in this space.

I detailed that sleepover with the hot guy who claimed not to like condoms (don't worry, I didn't let him get away with it). I confessed my insecurities about my vagina around the time of the advent of labial plastic surgery. I admitted to some racy sexual fantasies -- a piece that was met with, shall we say, plenty of enthusiasm by the guy I was then dating.

And -- oops -- there there I went again, using my sex life as essay fodder. But around here, we like to think such self-revelation is all in the name of the greater good: That condom bit illustrated a growing disrespect for those invaluable little pieces of latex. My vagina monologue shed light on a common fear among women that needed to be addressed. And those racy fantasies? Well, the whole point was that women shouldn't be ashamed of their sexuality, and there were indications that pop culture was becoming more accepting (if still not accepting enough) of such.

But when does sex writing cross the line into the kind of tawdry self-exploitation that's just one more way of using your body to get ahead? With more and more journalists losing jobs every day, good sex writers have been among the first to go -- and that makes me a little nervous that we'll be getting more of the latter. With lots of hot young J-school grads -- most of whom are female -- flooding the market in search of jobs that don't exist, will more of them be turning to the kind of confessional "reporting" that gets a girl noticed for something other than her sharp interviewing skill and her analytical know-how?

Stripping one's sex life bare for the world has a successful literary track record. Erica Jong invented the fabled "zipless fuck" in her seminal roman a clef Fear of Flying. Candace Bushnell told all -- in lightly fictionalized fashion -- and "Sex and the City" was born. "Juno" writer Diablo Cody broke out by becoming a stripper, then blogging and writing a book, Candy Girl, about it. Enterprising? Sure. Even illuminating at times.

But is this what a woman -- even in a profession as dorky as writing -- has to do to get ahead? Answer: She doesn't have to do it, but it certainly helps. Last spring, blogger Emily Gould found herself lounging in bed on the cover of the New York Times magazine, thanks to her dear-diary piece about -- meta alert! -- the tough lessons she learned when she over-exposed her love life on her website. Of course, recounting this tale meant recounting said love life … again. In the New York Times.

Jezebel's Tracie Egan (aka "Slut Machine") has had a more difficult, if plenty high-profile, time of it while blogging the crap out of her sexcapades with a stated intention not too far from the one I cited above -- to, essentially, take an aggressive sex-positive stance. She's made great points in her own defense -- and it is, admittedly, too bad she has to spend so much time defending herself against both perverts and prudes. "I've had to endure ignorant assumptions and cheap shots made about my looks, my weight, my vagina, my tits, my sexual health, my mental health, my morality, my character," she writes in one impassioned post. "And all for what? Being honest? For liking sex?" Bravo to that, but she often fails to put these adventures in screwing-just-for-the-fun-of-it into any meaningful cultural context. Even worse, when called upon to participate in public discourse about women and sex -- because so many young women read her musings -- she can't (or refuses to) engage on any serious level. She and co-Jezebel-er Moe Tkacik were so glib about rape and substance abuse during an appearance on Lizz Winstead's "Thinking and Drinking" series last year that their editor had to issue an apology. (She called it a "fucking shame.")

My question, though: Can't sex be so much more interesting than your own string of one-night stands? Well, yes. (Little-discussed problem with one-night stands: They're kinda boring a lot of the time.) And there's plenty of great sex coverage out there. Rachel Kramer Bussel brings us a bunch in her new anthology, "Best Sex Writing 2009″. (She also happens to put out some spectacular erotica collections, but notice that she knows there's a difference between the two.) The Sexies, God bless them, recognize the best sex writing every year -- and hold the standards high. (They call writers out on "wince-inducing grisliness" and lack of depth -- all-too-common problems with any sex writing.) And over at Nerve, well, they pretty much invented quality online sex journalism -- check out their recent anthology, "Nerve: The First Ten Years" for proof.

Here's to hoping for 10 more years of great sex coverage -- without anyone having to whore themselves out, figuratively or literally.

Where do you draw the line between substantive sex writing and sleaze-that-sells?

Jennifer Armstrong is the co-founder/editorial director of
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