Most of us recall E. B. White (1899-1985) as the author of the classic children’s novels Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web. However, White was also an accomplished nonfiction writer, and recently serendipity led me to his essay “Freedom.” Published in July 1940, “Freedom” was White’s warning about the totalitarian threat to democracy. While reading it, I was struck by how completely his words on Hitler and Nazism also describe Trump and the fascist danger we are facing in the U.S. right now. White’s message is beautiful and important, so I felt compelled to include some extensive excerpts here. His closing thoughts on freedom of the press ring with truth–and are especially poignant in light of the recent brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Please read…and then, vote, volunteer, be a beacon for love and kindness and help wherever you can.
I have often noticed on my trips up to the city that people have recut their clothes to follow the fashion. On my last trip, however, it seemed to me that people had remodeled their ideas, too–taken in their convictions a little at the waist, shortened the sleeves of their resolve…I confess to a disturbed stomach. I feel sick when I find anyone adjusting his mind to the new tyranny which is succeeding abroad. Because of its fundamental strictures, fascism does not seem to me to admit of any compromise or any rationalization, and I resent the patronizing air of persons who find in my plain belief in freedom a sign of immaturity. If it is boyish to believe that a human being should live free, then I’ll gladly arrest my development…
Men are not merely annihilating themselves at a great rate these days, but they are telling one another enormous lies, grandiose fibs…They seemed to me to issue either from persons who could never have really come to grips with freedom so as to understand her, or from renegades. Where I expected to find indignation, I found paralysis, or a sort of dim acquiescence, as in a child who is duly swallowing a distasteful pill…
THE LEAST A MAN CAN DO AT SUCH A TIME IS DECLARE HIMSELF AND TELL WHERE HE STANDS. I believe in freedom with the same burning delight, the same faith, the same intense abandon which attended its birth on this continent more than a century and a half ago…I am in love with freedom and it is still an affair of long standing and it is a fine state to be in, and…I am deeply suspicious of people who are beginning to adjust to fascism and dictators…
To be free, in a planetary sense, is to feel that you belong to earth. To be free, in a social sense, is to feel at home in a democratic framework. In Adolph Hitler…we do not detect either type of sensibility. From reading his book I gather that his feeling for earth is not a sense of communion but a driving urge to prevail. His feeling for men is not that they coexist, but that they are capable of being arranged and standardized by a superior intellect–that their existence suggests not a fulfillment of their personalities but a submersion of their personalities in the common racial destiny. To him the ordinary man is a primitive, capable only of being used and led. He speaks continually of people as sheep, halfwits, and impudent fools–the same people from whom he asks the utmost in loyalty, and to whom he promises the ultimate in prizes.
Here in America, where our society is based on belief in the individual, not contempt for him, the free principle of life has a chance of surviving. I believe that it must and will survive…
I am inordinately proud these days of the quill, for it has shown itself historically, to be the hypodermic which inoculates men and keeps the germ of freedom always in circulation…These persons are feared by every tyrant–who shows his fear by burning the books and destroying the individuals. A writer goes about his task today with the extra satisfaction which comes from knowing that he will be the first to have his head lopped off–even before the political dandies. In my own case this is a double satisfaction, for if freedom were denied me by force of earthly circumstance, I am the same as dead and would infinitely prefer to go into fascism without my head than with it, having no use for it any more and not wishing to be saddled with so heavy an encumberance.
“Everything you are against weakens you. Everything you are for empowers you.” Wayne Dyer
Since the tragic events of last weekend in Charlottesville, and the president’s subsequent defense of the indefensible, citizens across the country–liberals and conservative alike–are filled with negative emotions: anger, fear, revulsion, horror, anxiety. On TV, on social media, anywhere that people gather to share ideas, we are being urged to speak out against racism, against the president…to take a stand against all of the divisive, hateful and violent acts occurring across the country. While I understand the sentiment, to me, it makes much more sense to do the opposite. Wait…………here’s what I mean:
It has been proven that what you think about expands. One negative thought usually begets another, creating a loop of negative thoughts in the mind. Conversely, if you reach for the thought that feels better, the positive thought, it, too, will beget more of the same. After the last presidential election, I felt devastated, disenfranchised and awash in feelings of sadness and grief. The solution, for me, was to change my thinking. Instead of being anti-Trump, and focusing on his thoughts and actions, I focused on my thoughts, and framed them as affirmations: I am pro-immigration; I am pro-equal rights for all; I am for decency, humanity, empathy, kindness, love. I took actions that supported my thoughts, making donations and/or offering other support to organizations that rescue women and children from traffickers, organizations that empower women economically, etc. I know that all of my thoughts and words and actions have power, and I want to use them to support what I believe in. Rather than feeling sad and helpless, I now feel powerful…I am powerful.
Perhaps what I am saying sounds like mere semantics. However, think about this: If you were a soldier going to fight in WWII, which would have motivated you more, and brought out your greatest good: Going to fight against the Nazis? Against authoritarianism and atrocities? Or going to fight for the country and the people you love? For democracy and freedom? For the protection and benefit of your fellow man? For all that you believe to be morally right and decent and necessary?
Positive change comes from positive actions. Positive actions come from positive thoughts. Negativity breeds more of the same. If we change our thinking, we will change the world.
I was blessed to spend Valentine’s Day 1990 in Hawaii, and it was there that I discovered what was, to me, the most beautiful place on earth: Kalapana Black Sand Beach. Located on a remote part of the Big Island, it was not a tourist spot, and its isolation and sparse population allowed one to truly absorb the landscape. My words can never do justice to the beach’s vista of sky, sand, surf and coconut palms; indeed, these photos only hint at its treasures. One of its most unexpected delights was the flock of chickens and roosters that skittered through the grove of palms. I have been fortunate to see nature’s majesty in many locations, but no place has ever touched my soul, my spirit, quite like Kalapana did that day.
I feel doubly blessed to have visited when I did, as a few months later the volcano Kilauea erupted and its lava flow swallowed the beach. Now, some 25+ years later, the ocean is again turning Kalapana’s lava to sand. As Lao-Tzu said, “Water is fluid, soft and yielding. But water will wear away rock, which is rigid and cannot yield…this is another paradox: what is soft is strong.”
There is a lesson there for all of us… Happy Valentine’s Day.
Like so many women (and minorities, and the LGBT community, and immigrants, and anyone else who has ever felt the sting of discrimination or marginalization), I am still reeling from the outcome of Tuesday’s election. Millions of eloquent words have already been written in an effort to parse the unthinkable and help us come to terms with the fact that we have gifted the most important job on earth to a man devoid of character and intelligence, whose brand is hate and exclusion, and whose tools of the trade are bullying and bombast and abuse, so I won’t rehash that here, except to reiterate that sexism and misogyny (both latent and overt) were two of the election’s driving factors. Likewise, this is not an ode to Hillary Clinton, either, though anyone acquainted with me knows that I admire her fiercely and mourn that our country will not be able to avail itself of her leadership and compassion when both are so sorely needed. Rather, this debacle (and btw, 2016, you are an absolute bastard) has me thinking once again about what it means to be a woman, and particularly a feminist, in America, and that’s what I’m addressing here.
Reading the Slate article immediately reminded me of a quote from singer-songwriter Rosanne Cash: “When I…moved to Nashville,” she recalled, “the first record exec I met said, ‘Well now, we just have to make this girl fuckable.’” As anyone with a modicum of knowledge about country music is aware, Cash is one of the most gifted artists of her generation, and her talents were immediately evident. However, in this exec’s eyes–and sadly, in the eyes of many men, even today–she was a commodity, and her only true worth was her fuckability. Ergo, if men do not want to go to bed with us, then we women have no value.
To state the obvious, women are not merely collections of body parts designed for pleasure and service. We are human beings, each of us unique and complex…and one aspect of that uniqueness is our sexuality. Working in tandem with the view of women as objects is the stereotype that women who dare to breach traditional gender boundaries are man-haters, and/or physically undesirable. Well, I am a feminist, and I love men. Let me say that again: I love men. I LOVE THEM SO MUCH THAT I WRITE ROMANCE NOVELS. They are LITERALLY the heroes of my work. I just happen to believe that women are entitled to political, social and economic equality. And you know what? That belief doesn’t make me unfuckable. I’m a feminist, and I’m also feminine. The terms aren’t mutually exclusive. I like Italian heels and French lingerie and if you saw me on the street you’d never know that I am a feminist. If you took the time to look closely, you’d see more than body parts; you’d see a woman, multifaceted and flawed. You’d see someone you could learn from, as well as teach. You’d see an ally, not an enemy. You can’t fathom all of the wonderful things you would see. The same is true for EVERY SINGLE WOMAN ON THIS EARTH.
I can’t presume to speak for all feminists–we are as diverse as women are diverse. But I am compelled to state, in light of the devastating blow ALL women took this week (even those self-labeled “adorable deplorable”s oblivious to this gargantuan equal rights setback), that I am proud to be a feminist. I’m never going to stop believing in the value of women and girls. BUT. I also refuse to let anyone take away my sexuality. I refuse to be labeled as a man-hater, or forced to forfeit my desires. The “unfuckable feminist” is a propaganda tool, and an admittedly handy stereotype. It is NOT, however, reality.
So…I “met” someone, and he and I have spent a lot of time getting to know one another over the past month. I meet a lot of people and have been fortunate to have more than my share of interest from men through the years, but in my life I have found a true connection with another to be mostly elusive. Not this time. Back on Valentine’s Day, I blogged about what I was looking for in a relationship, and this man checked every box…and then some. I admired his character and accomplishments. His intellect excited me. His heart touched mine. We were kindred spirits with sizzling chemistry. Best of all, his feelings seemed evenstronger than mine–nothing on earth is sexier than a man you like ardently desiring you and being unafraid to show it. We met in a seemingly random way that I don’t believe was random at all. It felt like kismet.
All of the details are precious and private, but suffice it to say that roadblocks appeared. It became apparent that, because of a complex series of circumstances, he couldn’t make me one of the priorities in his life. I knew that, given what we had already experienced, settling for less than his full measure would only make me sad and frustrated, so I felt I had to let him go. It wasn’t what I wanted. I don’t think it’s what he wanted, either. We’re two smart people, so I find myself wondering if we worked hard enough to solve this. When the universe gives you something, is it wrong to give it back? Or maybe it was never really given? How do you trust your instincts when they are an amalgamation of fear, regret and hope? Can this be fixed? I just don’t know…
I DO know this: Connection. Interaction with others. This is the stuff of life. It’s what is really important. It’s why we’re here. It’s simple, really. So why do most of us find it so darn hard?
I love romance novels, and I love the St. Louis Cardinals. At first glance, those two passions may sound incongruous, but they really aren’t: To be a baseball fan is to embark on a lifelong love affair of a sort, one you can’t end no matter how many times your team breaks your heart. My first book, a collection of stories about the Cardinals, was an ode to the devotion that every baseball fan understands. I thought I would share one of the tales here. Though the book was published nearly two decades ago, it is still available on the publisher’s website (http://press.umsystem.edu/product/Cardinal-Memories,1611.aspx), and via Amazon.
It happened, as many childhood traumas do, in the school cafeteria. In eighth grade, I ate my PB&J or lunch room fare every day with my best friend, Laurie*, and her friend Kate. We were neither popular nor unpopular—merely part of the vast junior high middle class. As we shared our Hostess snack cakes and dissected the minutiae of our lives each day, I discovered that I didn’t like Kate. She tended to brag about her dad’s income a lot. Though she was an average adolescent like most of us, gawky with glasses and braces, she regularly made biting comments about many other girls, particularly those whose families were known in our small town to be on welfare. And while she was a solid “B” student on her own merits, she had no qualms about cheating for an “A.”
Though I came to dislike the time I spent with Kate, it never occurred to me to stop eating lunch with her, or even to ask Laurie why they were friends—I blindly accepted her as part of a package deal. Thus we were still dining together at the end of the school year, when the yearbooks were passed out. Our school ritual was to bring our yearbooks to the cafeteria, and visit each other’s tables during lunch, thus gathering all of our desired signatures in one fell swoop. On that day, Kate surveyed the cafeteria, carefully choosing her targets, and motioned over two classmates, Chris and Terri. Both girls were the antitheses of Kate: They came from lower-income homes, wore second-hand clothing and were in need of dental work. They were quiet and shy, the kind of girls who deserve better but usually pass invisibly through the halls and do without invitations to the homecoming dance.
Chris and Terri walked reluctantly to our table. They had no relationship with Kate, and seemed somewhat nervous to be singled out by her. However, when she smiled and sweetly told them that she wanted to sign their yearbooks, they handed her the tomes. Kate opened Terri’s yearbook, turned to Terri’s picture, and proceeded to scribble out her photo. Amazingly, after witnessing this, Chris permitted the same defacement. The most deplorable thing was that I watched it all and said and did nothing. I wasn’t afraid of Kate. I was an only child, supremely confident, and I remember thinking to myself, “These girls need to stick up for themselves. I would.”
Ah, but it wasn’t as simple as that. I thought about Chris and Terri all summer, about how they must have felt that day, about how even the purchase of those (not inexpensive) yearbooks must have been a financial sacrifice for their parents. And I realized my responsibility, as a human being, to help and defend those who can’t defend themselves.
I started high school profoundly changed. I never ate lunch again with Kate; eventually, that meant not hanging out with Laurie, so I made a new best friend (upgrade!). Most importantly, I never again allowed bullying to happen in front of me without speaking up. My class had three notorious bullies, and I tangled with each of them throughout high school, almost always in defense of others. It made for some unpleasant days, but the alternative would have been unthinkable. Speaking up for others actually made me stronger and even more confident. And then a funny thing happened—by the time my senior year rolled around, I had become one of the most popular kids in school! That was never my motivation. I only wanted to help. And I hope that when I interceded for other kids, it made them feel less alone. But I am still haunted by the fact that I didn’t do it for Chris and Terri.
Romance is the (old-school reference alert) Rodney Dangerfield of genre fiction. A month seldom passes when a noted writer doesn’t (at least seemingly) disparage romance novels and/or authors, inevitably sparking a spirited defense of the genre from its writers and fans. This happened again a few days ago when Curtis Sittenfeld, in a piece promoting Eligible, her modern retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, stated that “most romances are badly written.” After reading two days worth of social media comments on the dust-up, I feel the need to offer my own defense of the genre…and Sittenfeld, too.
There is a school of thought that says writers should nurture other writers, and never criticize them. After all, anyone who has ever written a book knows how hard it is. Maybe not digging a ditch in a drought hard, but sometimes it feels like the mental equivalent. So we writers should support one another. And anyway, criticism is what readers are for, right? But most writers, however renowned, are still readers first. So naturally, we have opinions on what we read, whether we share them or not.
I’ve been an obsessive reader all my life—I devour biographies, cookbooks, classics and literary fiction. But I can say without hesitation or embarrassment that I love romance novels best. Ask me my desert island genre and that’s it. Anything else is not. Even. Close. So…do I think most romances are badly written? Reading is an inherently subjective experience; we each apply our own tastes and life experiences to every story we consume, so no two of us will ever look at a book exactly the same way. How then do we quantify “good” or “bad”? One way is to look at certain technical aspects of a work, like dialogue tags or punctuation. Any introductory MFA class or fiction how-to blog will tell aspiring writers to keep dialogue tags simple: Use “said” and “asked” and nothing else. Avoid tags entirely whenever you can. Also, adverbs are the devil. Exclamation points? More than one or two per 100,000 words is probably too many. Many writers in many genres follow these rules. Very few romance writers do. There are romance authors who routinely have characters giggle, breathe, laugh and sigh dialogue, or exclaim repeatedly. Personally, I dislike dialogue tags that are not variations of “said,” and I don’t use them. (How on earth does one giggle dialogue, anyway?) That said, characters in my novel routinely “reply,” “mutter,” etc. As a reader, I enjoy this sort of variety, so I write that way, too, even though it would set an MFA professor’s teeth on edge. I think it’s worth noting that in Pride and Prejudice, Austen routinely uses dialogue tags like “cried” and “exclaimed,” and she shows some big love for adverbs. So, if romance writers use more dialogue tags than some deem acceptable, and we sprinkle those adverbs around liberally, I don’t think it automatically indicates “bad” writing. Maybe we just learned from the master.
Another way we can try to quantify what’s “good” or “bad” is by examining a book’s editing, or lack thereof. Using this yardstick, a lot of romance novels—especially those that are self-published, but also many that are traditionally published—come up short. A good book takes time. To quote Phyllis A. Whitney, “a good book isn’t written—it’s rewritten.” When I finished the first draft of my debut romance, Heaven in the Dark, I laid it aside for weeks and came back to it with fresh eyes. Since I am also a professional editor, I gave it a structural edit (whether, like a lawyer, I had a fool for a client, is another subject) and multiple rounds of revisions before sharing it with beta readers. With their feedback, I made more revisions and then had another round of beta reading. Finally, I copy edited and proofread the manuscript within an inch of its life. That process—from writing the first word to self-publication—took me nearly a year. After all of that, I still found a typo in the published book. I am fortunate that I am not relying on my income as a novelist to make a living, because a self-published romance author who produces only one book per year will probably not grow rich from her words. The formula for self-published romance success is to produce as many books as you can, as quickly as you can—that’s why so many self-published authors release partial books, serials or cliffhangers. If they want to survive and thrive financially, they have to rush to publish. So, even if they have the funds for and access to a good editor (and many don’t), their manuscripts are often hastened through the editing process. The end result is wildly uneven quality: I’ve read many self-published romance novels that needed major structural editing; I’ve read others that are full of distracting plot inconsistencies and/or typos; and I’ve read some that are beautifully written and masterfully edited. While there are certainly authors out there who are in it for a money grab, I firmly believe that most romance writers write because they have to. They are producing the best book they can, because they want to contribute to a genre they love. That’s how I feel, anyway.
So, if poor editing makes a book bad, then there are some bad romances—and not just the self-published variety. When I was a child, I used to marvel at how books never had typos. Mistakes were scarce as hen’s teeth, as my grandma would say. Now, I can’t remember the last time I read a book with no typos. In fact, I routinely see dozens of errors in books put out by the “Big Five” publishers—in all genres. The big corporations are feeling the same rush to publish, the same financial pressure, as indie authors.
Writing style. Editing. Maybe we can try to rate a book based on those criteria, but ultimately a novel is about characters. Plot. And I don’t think those things can ever be evaluated objectively. I recently visited Amazon and Goodreads to peruse reviews of some of my all-time favorite novels, from a Pulitzer Prize winner like Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind to a critical darling like Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins to a beloved romance classic like Judith McNaught’s Whitney, My Love. I adore all three of these love stories. Yet, if you read any review site, there are readers who hated them. Whitney, My Love, a historical romance, features a hero who at one point takes the heroine by force. For me, in the story’s setting and context, it made sense, and didn’t detract from their love. Some readers, however, saw the hero as a brutal rapist. I respect their opinions. One reader’s “badly written romance” is another’s five-star experience, and both are right.
Like most genres, romance has its conventions. Some critics feel that makes the stories stale or limited. As a reader, I have my favorite tropes, and seeing how an author will tackle a trope—what new twists she’ll bring to it—is one of the things I love best about the genre. Within its confines, romance is constantly being reinvented and reinvigorated—I feel like right now the genre is absolutely bursting with talent and creativity. Does the increase in the volume of romance novels mean that there is more dreck? Probably. But it means that there are more great books, too! These days, there is truly something for everyone; it just may take a little longer to find exactly what you want. We’ve all read books that we knew were perfectly well written, but they didn’t hold that spark for us. Other times, we find books that we want to climb inside and live forever. I discovered Tessa Bailey a few months ago—if you haven’t read her work, she is the absolute queen of dirty talking alpha heroes—and if I could, I would crawl inside her Line of Duty series and become one of her heroines. That’s how vivid and engaging those stories and characters are—her books take me to another world and make me sorry I can’t stay there. Ditto Kresley Cole’s The Game Maker series, a trio of erotic masterpieces with genius plotting and banter so clever it would give the Gilmore Girls envy.
Read these books.
In summary, even though I bristle when anyone derides romance, I can also admit that—as with every genre—not every novel is a Darcy. Some of them are Wickhams. And often my Darcy is your Wickham, and vice versa. I admire Sittenfeld’s work and think her comments are an opportunity for all of us who write romance to keep striving to better our own craft and lift up the genre as much as we can. What I would really love to see are more writers like Alyssa Rosenberg, journalists who truly love and appreciate the genre and write about it critically but also respectfully (and even passionately). Mainstream publications (I’m looking at you, New York Times) are still largely unwilling to regularly review romance, despite its immense popularity and profitability. That needs to change. Rodney Dangerfield understood.
Are you a Kindle Unlimited subscriber? HEAVEN IN THE DARK is now available on KU, which means it’s FREE. Check it out: http://www.amazon.com/Heaven-Dark-Tina-Wright-ebook/dp/B015HJ1AJS/ref=pd_rhf_cr_p_img_1?ie=UTF8&refRID=1HCSAAEGXBEKX8EZE66G
If you’re not a KU subscriber and you love romance, it’s definitely worth a trial. I discovered several favorite authors via KU, including R.S. Grey (sexy romcoms) and Marie Force (glorious insta-love). Give ’em a try!
NOTE: This post contains explicit language/sexual content. 18+ Only.
Late last year, I read a romance novel featuring a porn star hero. It was steamy, and I enjoyed it, but it was clear that the author either knew nothing about adult entertainment or, if she did, she knew the realities of the industry might prejudice readers against her hero. So, conveniently, even though he was a “star,” the hero had made only a handful of films and had a very small number of sexual partners. He also loathed his job and gave it up immediately after meeting the heroine to pursue “worthwhile” work. The words “porn star,” when applied to men, often conjure images of virility, endowment and sexual prowess, and that was the case in this book—the hero was skilled in bed. However, he was a porn star in name only—the character was completely unrealistic, with no basis in reality, and the story was essentially a fairy tale. When I finished reading it, I wondered: “Wouldn’t there be a lot of messy realities to sort through if/when a porn star fell in love with a civilian (i.e. someone who doesn’t work in the adult industry)? What if he’d been with hundreds or thousands of women, as would be likely for a veteran star? What if he loved some aspects of his job? And what if she had her own baggage? What if she was absolutely repulsed by his career? Is there a way through all of that to a happy ending? How?”
FYI, romance novels about porn stars seem to be in vogue right now. A quick check of Goodreads reveals that nearly a dozen porn star romances were published over the last couple of years, with at least two more due this spring. Only one of these stories features an adult performer heroine (I would guess this is because society is more accepting of men having lots of sex partners than it is of women—porn men can be “alpha males” but porn women are “sluts”—but that’s a subject for another blog post); all of the other books pair a male porn star with a civilian. And in pretty much every story, the hero is cocky, confident, sexy, has a minimum of emotional baggage and is happy to quit porn at the drop of a condom for the love of a good woman, which my gut tells me is superficial and probably flat-out wrong.
A few days after I’d read this novel and mulled over all of the above, I woke up at 2:00 a.m. with a new character in my head. Yup—a porn star. I could picture him so vividly that I knew trying to sleep would be futile, so I grabbed my laptop and spent the next five hours furiously writing down everything I saw. When the dust settled, and I read through a rough draft of the first two chapters of something, I realized that to tell this story truthfully—to make it as gritty and realistic as the characters needed it to be—I needed to learn more about porn.
Previously, porn was only on my radar in a general sense—I knew crossover pop culture figures like Ron Jeremy and Jenna Jameson, and I’d flipped past the odd softcore clip on Cinemax or the Playboy Channel when I was a kid, but it had never held any interest for me, and I had never watched a film, or even a scene. I knew that had to change, so I put Google on the case and soon had a handful of clips of top male stars to view. The first surprise was that the men were more attractive than I expected—and not one of them had a Village People/porn ’stache. Okay. Time to hit “Play.” Clip #1: A little intro dialogue set the scene, which took place in a bathroom, and that was the extent of a plot. The male performer, a 40-something veteran, and his much younger co-star rolled through a series of sex acts—various intercourse positions, plus oral—like they were ticking them off a checklist. When she went to give him a blowjob, he grabbed her head and forced her to deep throat him. She immediately came off of him and (off-camera) vomited into the sink; after a brief fade in the footage, she was back to work. Okay. Time to hit “Stop.” Needless to say, I found nothing about this arousing—dude was just too rough. #NotMyJam
The next two videos were, content-wise, almost the same: Each pair of performers rotated through a variety of acts and positions with a minimum of dialogue, touching or affection. I found it all very soulless and mechanical. I wish I could say I was titillated at some point but, quite frankly, I was only bored.
On to clip #4, which starred a performer named Mick Blue. As soon as the scene began, I could tell it would be different, as Mick spent a lot of time up front kissing and caressing his partner. Once they began having sex, he continued to touch her and maintain eye contact throughout. I’m not sure if Mick was attempting to bring romance to the storyline, or just showing care and consideration for the girl with whom he was paired, but his actions were actually romantic—unlike anything I’d seen in the other clips, and more akin to what one would find in a mainstream film. Maybe this was an atypical scene for Mick—I haven’t watched others to know—but his demonstrative actions were a million times sexier than the emotionless gymnastics of the other clips, and he impressed in a way no one else did.
Feeling sufficiently familiar with porn content, my next step was to gain a better understanding of how the industry works, and of the personalities of the performers and their fans. I decided to do this by interacting with the community on Twitter, so I created a secondary Twitter account exclusively for my research and dug in. (I want to emphasize that I’m not embarrassed to interact with adult performers on my primary account—in fact, I have—but I thought I’d be better able to talk with people honestly if I didn’t advertise that I was a romance writer: Romance novelists—like porn stars—are often discounted/disrespected.)
After only a couple days of reading tweets from stars and fans, one thing jumped out at me: Loneliness was rampant—among both performers and their followers. The first person with whom I chatted was a 30ish male fan from the Netherlands, who followed many female stars. He often tweeted comments to them along the lines of “Thank God for porn. I wouldn’t get off without it, since women hate sex.” After reading a string of his tweets on this theme (none of which were acknowledged by the stars or other fans), I felt obliged to respond, telling him that I enjoyed sex and thought most women did, and wished him better luck. He replied with his thanks, saying he felt as though he were “in an ocean with not a drop to drink” and that he’d felt lonely and invisible to women for years. This was a theme I would see repeated constantly.
Since the porn star in my story is male, and I wanted insight into his potential mindset, I spent much of my time reading tweets from the men and their fans. However, I did follow some key women, and had a few takeaways on female performers: 1) They are younger than I realized—many as young as 18 and few over 30. While many male stars are in their 30s or 40s and have been working for a decade or more, the shelf life of female performers is much shorter. 2) The girls/women who were in relationships were almost exclusively with men also in the industry. I’m sure there are some, but I didn’t run across a single woman who was dating a civilian. Many ladies who were unattached tweeted regularly that they were horny, lonely or wished they had a significant other. Their reluctance to date anyone who isn’t tested for STDs every 14 days (as porn performers are), and the fact that many men look down on women who’ve had so many sexual partners, seems to make dating civilians a rarity. 3) Drug use is common and acknowledged (this is true of the men, too—not even counting the ED drugs/injections most men use on-set), especially smoking pot, and there were scores of tweets about using, as well as complaint tweets about shoots being cancelled because various female performers flaked/were no-shows/were high, etc. 4) The wish list phenomenon (in which female performers ask fans to buy them clothing, jewelry, etc.) is distasteful. Not all of the women have wish lists. And some state that in lieu of gifts, fans may donate to a favored charity. Others, though, spend a lot of time angling for gifts. 5) Garish stripper platforms and over-pronounced eyebrows are (mostly) prerequisites for filming. As a woman with a penchant for beautiful Italian heels, I found the shoes baffling. Men must like them? #AlsoNotMyJam
As much as you can get to know anyone from his/her tweets (and some Twitter accounts read like virtual diaries), I found the women in porn to be just like any other cross-section of women. Some were uneducated, depressed, troubled, from abused backgrounds, etc., and seemed fragile and very ill-served by their present careers. Other performers came across as disingenuous, their bios stating how much they loved their work, when what they really appeared to love was that the work is lucrative (top stars can earn low- to mid-six figures annually); these were the performers whose tweets were always in sales mode—“buy my movies/clips, look at my wish list, watch my Cam Show, come see me feature dance.” Such relentless shilling and manipulation is a feminist’s nightmare. However, there are also women in the genre who are strong, business savvy, compassionate and intelligent. One star live-tweeted a Republican debate with such wit and insight that I found myself wishing she were the moderator. And I was particularly impressed with Anikka Albrite, whose tweets about art and animals consistently entertained, and who on multiple occasions reached out with kind words to someone in need. (FYI, Anikka happens to be married to Mick Blue, and I fell a little in love with this couple. They both have a lot of heart and humanity.) I didn’t have any preconceived notions about female performers, and I was not surprised to find strong, smart women in porn—we as a society have a tendency to paint everyone with the same brush, and that is always a mistake.
That’s what I gleaned from the women. But the point of my research was to get insight into male stars, and their fans. So what did I learn? I learned that there is no one stereotypical porn star—that’s for sure. Several younger stars seemed to be in it for the obvious reason: lots of sex. Some of the men clearly loved women, while others were blatant misogynists—one performer even regularly offered “fat-shaming” tweets. Mick Blue? Well, he adores his wife and is awesome, as expected.
In my timeline, one star stood out: a veteran performer who was a man’s man but also thoughtful, sensitive, romantic and sensual, successful in his field but also conflicted, and he wore his heart on his sleeve—or at least on his app. In short, he shared many traits with my character. In his tweets, this man spoke frankly about the clinical nature of his work; about his loneliness and longing for a relationship; and his desire for purpose and meaning in his life. He shared his past struggles with addiction and depression. On multiple occasions, his words were tinged with sadness and near-despair, and I felt compelled to reply. He subsequently ended up following me and we exchanged DMs. Though he never said it outright, I inferred that he’s ready for a different path—one without porn. And though he’s usually dated fellow porn stars, I inferred that he’s open to a new path there, too. It appeared that he had few people in his life who were not either in the adult industry, or fans; at one point, I offered my (more objective?) friendship, as I felt empathetic—I am a Pisces and he is a sign I understand—but as a stranger, my purview was limited. Nonetheless, I ached for his struggles and felt…sad. I still do.
Whenever this star tweeted about his feelings, he was inundated with replies. A handful were always of the “Cheer up. You da man. You’ve got the greatest job on earth” variety, but most were sympathetic men and women commiserating, stating that they, too, were lacking love in their lives. As I mentioned earlier, if there was one theme that dwarfed all others in the Porn Twitterverse, it was the sadness/loneliness in the hearts of so many performers and fans. I found myself wondering why. Were fans drawn to porn in part because they were lonely? Or was their attraction to and reliance upon porn isolating them even more from the “real” world? From meaningful human interaction? And how does porn affect its performers? The inherent intimacy of making love—the eye contact, the emotional and/or physical connection—is largely stripped away in porn. And, repetition can lead to desensitization. Do those things affect stars when they step away from the camera? Is porn a product that is potentially harmful to both its creators and its consumers, making them lonelier than most? Or, are these performers and fans just more vocal and honest about something—loneliness—that is an epidemic across society? As Thoreau said, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.” The answer is probably a mix of all of the above.
One more note about that male star: He’s my age, and a chunk of his fandom is women in their 30s/40s/50s. These ladies regularly flattered and propositioned him, and their tweets almost always went unacknowledged. However, when women in their early 20s with model-ish profile pics tweeted him, they almost always received a reply, occasionally with an invitation. Why men in their 40s/50s so often want to date women in their 20s—even when the traits they profess to desire are most likely found in women their own age—is another subject, but I raise it here because of the frequent age difference between men and women in porn. When 50ish men are routinely sexing up 19-year-old girls, it can’t help but impact performers and viewers.
After weeks of immersing myself in the XXX world, I went back to work on my manuscript with a new perspective…and a rather heavy heart. My heroine’s heart was heavy, too, sadness permeating her words. One of the first things she told the hero was that she felt she had nothing special she could give to him…there was nothing he hadn’t already experienced a thousand times over. Fortunately, they’ve since begun to realize that there are some things they can give each other that neither has had before. It remains to be seen if and how they’ll get to happily ever after.
It’s funny. At first glance, porn and romance novels make strange bedfellows (pun intended). While explicit sex scenes are welcome and often important, a great love story ultimately succeeds because of the characters’ emotional bond. Porn, on the other hand, is purely physical. Yet there is no denying that the two genres feed some of the same needs and desires. It’s well known that men respond more to visual stimuli, while for women, our brains are our biggest erogenous zones and we are turned on by the written word. Is it fair to say that romance novels (largely written by/for females) are empowering to women, while porn (largely produced by/for males, although that’s changing a tiny bit) gives the control to men? Whatever your opinion, I think we can agree on one thing: Romance reader and/or porn fan—all of us are longing for connection.