Let Me Know You: On Pseudonyms

partial black and white nude on bed with photograph of man looking down on her.This essay appeared nearly a year ago on my other blog before I had really conceived of having a site devoted to my erotica and sex writing. Now, that this has become my primary home online, however, I thought it might be appropriate to move some of the relevant content over here. I hope you enjoy. xx.M

I write erotica under a pseudonym. Many authors writing in this genre do. It wasn’t until recently that I considered why that might be.

When I first started writing erotica, I took a pseudonym for two reasons. The first was fairly frivolous – I thought it would be fun. The second, and far more practical reason, was that I freelance in a number of different markets and the pseudonym would allow me to keep the two halves of my writing career separate.

I suspect that, for the majority of authors, the use of a pseudonym is equally practical. Many writers have primary careers that could be negatively affected if the sexual nature of their writing were to become known. People expect their educators, therapists, and doctors to be above moral reproach. Erotica, though mainstreaming, is not yet above reproach.

What’s more, the moral / ethical concerns mentioned above can, at times, extend themselves into an author’s private life, particularly when the writer’s parents, children or partner might be negatively affected. A teen-aged boy may prefer for his friends not to know that his mom “writes porn,” and a father’s custody could be contested if his career as an eroticist were brought to light in court. As a result, it’s easier for many erotica writers to allow the nature of their work to remain selectively ambiguous.

There is a lot to say about the stigma associated with reading and writing erotica, a genre that is, for many, still negatively associated with historically pejorative terms like “porn,” “smut,” and “dirty story.” Despite the fact that these labels are being slowly reclaimed by those who read and write in areas of the genre, the stigma still remains. There is quite a lot to say about why this might still be true, but I will resist the impulse to digress and focus instead on one, specific point – that of how my pseudonym, the ubiquitous accessory of pornographers, eroticists and writers of dirty stories everywhere, has come to function for me.

Let’s start with what my pseudonym is not.

My pseudonym is not an apology for what I do. It is not a way to distance myself from what I write. I am proud of my work in this genre, and I am equally proud to be part of a community of writers that displays a level of causal curiosity and acceptance that is admirable in an openly cynical age.

Rather, my pseudonym is two things. It is an invitation and a boundary; a welcome and a wall. It provides me with an identity that can be publicly shared, while remaining separate from the life I have with my family and close friends. It gives me a persona to extend to my readers, so that I might explore sexual topics freely while still maintaining a protective distance from my everyday, mundane life.

Invitation. Wall.

Why, as a writer, would I need such a thing?

Because when you write about sex, particularly intentionally provacative, fictional sex, people react, often more viscerally than they would to material that is not sexually explicit. My pseudonym invites the reader, (or public), to engage and connect with my work, while allowing my non-public self a certain degree of anonymous privacy.

After all, there is that long-standing assumption about writers that an author’s work must be, in some way, autobiographical. In my experience, this assumption is heightened with eroticists. Our work is inherently sexual and very often kinky, edgy or taboo. We write about sexual fantasies with the express purpose of eliciting a response in the people who read them. Because of this, the perceived intimacy of autobiography, when it arises, can be particularly intense.

For most readers, this perception of intimacy is not an issue. They read a story, they enjoy the story, they move on to the next story. There is, however, a small minority of readers who crave access to the writer beyond the limits of the page. They want the personal connection they made with a story to extend to the author who wrote it.

Some time ago, a reader contacted me in a manner that can only be described as overly attached and profoundly curious. This reader had connected, romantically and sexually, to a story that I had written and published under my pseudonym. He confessed that he wished to gain deeper, truer access to the woman who had written it; he wanted to share my mind and, somewhat chillingly, my “soul.” “Let me know you,” he said. This reader, caught in the illusion of sexual intimacy that the story had created, wanted exclusive access, not to what I had written, but to me.

What’s more, this gentleman had constructed around my work and pseudonym, a persona that he desperately wanted to believe in – that of the sophisticated vixen and dominant mistress who would grant privileged access only to him. It was a fantasy that he’d spun with no input or encouragement from me, save for the story that I’d written and that he, in turn, had read. This is when my pseudonym became more than a lark or professional preference. This is when it became a wall. It gave this man something to attach to, without attaching dangerously to me. It gave me the space I needed to diplomatically end his fascination. And so, we were both able to moved on.

Interestingly, this has never happened with any of the essays, articles and reviews that I’ve written under my own name. Nonfiction has never elicited this kind of intensely personal response, though there is far more of me on display in that work than in the fantasies I spin.

Why is this? What is it about erotica and erotic fiction that has the power to inspire such an emotional, sexual and even psychological attachment? Why the need to possess?

I believe it comes down to connection. People crave connection. We want the exclusivity of understanding. To paraphrase Mary Rakow, it’s shockingly erotic to be understood. So, when a story resonates with a reader, that resonance can, at times, go beyond the page to creates the illusion of kinship, sympathy and intimate understanding. That illusion can be a very intense, indeed.

The strength, as well as the challenge, of public / private divide as regards writers and readers, is that the reader gets access only to what the writer allows. Only the writer herself knows the degree to which her mind, soul, psyche or heart appears in her work, and she is under no obligation to say. The publication of a piece can be seen as a sort of offering. It is an author’s consent to grant public access to whatever appears, both explicitly and implicitly, in her text. This does not, however, equate to full, private access to her.

When someone reads my work, I want her focus to be on the work, not the shadow of my authorial presence. I don’t want the roles I inhabit in my personal life to muddy the ink on the page. That ink represents the access that I grant. My pseudonym invites the reader to enjoy my writing, while giving him a safe avatar to attach to, if only until he moves on to the next story.

Authors want desperately to connect with readers. We want our work to be enjoyed and understood. For me, the public / private divide allows me the security and the freedom to pour words, uninhibited, onto the page and strive to make that connection. It frees me up to engage and explore and write with far more abandon and honesty than I otherwise might. My pseudonym allows me to walk the delicate line between my private and public selves. I could never have predicted the depth of my relationship to my pseudonym, my lark of a second-name, but I am profoundly grateful for it now.

9 Comments

  1. In my case at least there’s the privacy of others to consider. Most of what I write is somewhat true.
    So I impose certain rules to protect other people where I don’t have their clearance to write about them. One is the five-year rule. Pretty well any story I tell is five years old, minimum, unless I have clearance from the person concerned. Another is that I change various details, not just names, but details of occupation or studies, and appearance.
    But even with that done, I come from a small place where I had a medium-high profile. With my other name known, it would be easier to out my lovers’ names, if someone had a mind to do it. While stigma exists, that would be unhelpful.
    So, the Jerusalem Mortimer persona prevents my mom from being shocked and keeps my other career separate as it still has to be, but it also protects others.

    • Absolutely. And thank you so much for the comment. Your point about your pseudonym providing an extra layer of protection for the people in your life is very well made. Jerusalem Mortimer can explore an number of topics without having to worry about the effect on people in real life. In a way, it’s all wrapped up in identities and roles, isn’t it? People are actually quite fluid, moving from one role to another easily in real life, ie: lover–>mother–>daughter–>writer–>employer, etc. Sometimes it helps to keep those roles separate, in order to explore one of them in greater (public) depth.

  2. I write under a psuedonym for a number of reasons:

    the first of which, my legal name is long, complicated, and sounds more like someone who might write tractor romances

    the second of which is the sheer number of dick pictures I get. (seriously. in a normal month, I get at least three. I keep considering the idea of posting a “erotica writer’s least wanted” page and featuring them on the same logic they’re using (you write erotica, therefore you invite this sort of behavior; well, you sent me a dick pic, therefore you must want it online and mocked.)

    • Yes! There does seem to be an assumption that writing about sex is an open invitation. Someone once said to me, “So, you write erotica. You must like to fuck. (Want to go out?” For the record, my answer was no). I just want to keep that sort of knuckle-headedness, (and the oft-accompanying unsolicited dick pics), away from my private life. To paraphrase Jerusalem Mortimer’s comment, there’s the privacy and protection of others to consider.

  3. Sadly, I’ve only once received an unsolicited cunt pic. I mean, from the possessor of the said cunt. (Not that people have been sending me pictures of someone else’s cunt instead; I’m just being clear.)

    You know and I I know why that worked out as cute-ironical-playful-and-a-bit-hot when a woman did it, but it only comes across as gross when men do it. And of all the unfairnesses in the world, that’s not one I’m ever going to have time or energy to care about.

    I just wish I got more unsolicited cunt pictures, that’s all. Like digital rain. Like Tom Jones gets knickers. Ah well.

    • “…from the possessor of the said cunt. (Not that people have been sending me pictures of someone else’s cunt instead; I’m just being clear.)”

      Ha! This made me smile, as did your Tom Jones reference. May you receive cunt shots fit to make Tom Jones’s day :). I’d also like to say that I think unsolicited dick pics from a lover/partner are great – just as great as solicited ones, (they really are a nice way to say, “Hi. Thinking about you.”) It’s more the unsolicted-from-guys-I’ve-never-met sort that miss the mark. Might try to unpack that in a post sometime…might not. It really is rhetorical quicksand, and not in a fun way.

  4. yeah, I have gotten dick pics that I’m perfectly happy with (would it be weird if I mentioned that at least two of these were from women who know what I happen to like and send me pics on the ‘oh, look at THIS’?) Generally ones where I’m engaged in a little online flirting.

    It’s the ones that get sent to me from people I don’t know (or worse, that jackass stalker from the convention who followed me around all weekend and THEN on line for like 6 months, that guy was scary.) that annoy me.

    Really, dudes, you want to impress an erotica writer? Write me something. Sexy and good grammar and spelled correctly.

  5. The comment about someone contacting you and ‘wanting to know your soul’ made me chuckle… Some of the messages I get make me chuckle and some make me sigh in desperation for mankind… I did get a lovely offer from a young Asian man who wanted to dedicate his life to massaging my feet! However you comment also reminded me of the movie Misery…. it is not just erotic writers that end up with stalkers

    Mollyxxx

    • Ha! I could get behind a lifetime of devoted foot massages! Clearly, I’m not reaching the right people 🙂 You are right about Misery though. Anytime a person puts content in the world, whether erotic or not, there’s a risk that a reader / viewer could attach to its author in an unhealthy way. Personally, it’s a risk I’m willing to take, though, granted, I do so with my pseudonym in place. It’s the connection thing again. People want to be understood, and the things that resonate, and create a sense of understanding, are different for everyone.

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