Killing the Messenger

by | September 13, 2014 | General | 5 comments

Last month, the BBC reported that Bettina Bunte who writes under the pen name Cass E. Ritter, was dismissed from her administrative position at a child care centre run by Kent Country Council. She was fired from her position after a number of parents (it’s not clear how many and I’d personally love to know) complained that she had written an erotic novel. According to Ms Bunte: “She claims the council told her they could ‘not be seen to promote this sort of thing’ and that her book damaged the reputation of the children’s centre.” (Staffing Industry). This is after Bunte asked for and received permission from her employers to speak to the media about her recently released novel.

Bunte is the first in a long line of people, mostly women, who have lost their jobs when it was found out they wrote erotic novels. But it doesn’t happen exclusively to women, or to erotic writers. Recently Patrick McLaw, an African American middle school language teacher was put on administrative leave and forced to undergo ’emergency medical evaluation’ after it was discovered he’d written two novels, set 900 years in the future, which involved a massacre at a school. When pressed on the issue, authorities reported that it was not just the novels that concerned them, but his state of mental health. (Atlantic Monthly). There was recently an incident of a UK male who was forced to step down from his position when it was discovered he wrote erotic stories. (DailyDot). Ironically, I have it second hand that the discovery was made when after the school organization contemplated raising funds by having an erotica reading night, his wife let it slip that he actually wrote some.  Judy Buranich (Judy Mays), Carol Ann Eastman (Deena Bright), Ayden K. Morgen, Deidre Dare…

It’s usually women, it’s usually erotica and the excuse for firing them often involves the protection of children.

Let me offer you a contrast:  Phyllis Dorothy James, Baroness James of Holland Park, who has written some of detective fictions most celebrated novels under the pen name P.D. James. Her first novel, “Cover Her Face” was written in 1962. She has worked in the criminal section of the British Home Office, and served as a magistrate for years. No one ever thought she should be fired for setting her novels in environments she knew, or suggesting that she couldn’t do her job right because she wrote about mentally unstable characters with murderous intent, or painted word pictures of gory murder scenes. She now has a seat in the House of Lords. Of course, there is one huge difference: she doesn’t write about sex.

She claims the council told her they could “not be seen to promote this sort of thing” and that her book damaged the reputation of the children’s centre.

It’s not a wildly irresponsible to surmise that a number of the parents who demanded Cass E. Ritter’s removal and at least some members of the Kent County Council who fired her have read Fifty Shades of Grey. I do have to wonder if they’d be quite so anxious about the effect this administrator might have on their kids, if Ritter had been E.L. James. Sorry to seem jaded, but I notice that people are much less worried their children’s minds will be poisoned by millionaires. Similarly, why is it that the consumers of erotic or pornographic works aren’t considered destabilizing but their creators are?

But more haunting still is the unwritten, unexpressed accusation that lurks beneath a lot of these firings. What risk do people really believe these women pose. Words like inappropriate and reputation are bandied about, but strip the rhetoric away, and what it comes down to is that these women are losing their jobs because of a vague unspoken fear that they would, in some way, sexualize children.

It is not the content of the written work that is suspect. It is the mind of the person who writes it.

No one actually accuses anyone of anything. Because this allows the accusers to infer risk, rather than having to prove wrongdoing.  In Western democracies, the accused have a right to hear the precise charges leveled against them, defend themselves against them, demand that those charges be proved.

But if we stick to vague, undefined mutterings about inappropriateness, any amount of injustice can be done. How many gay men and lesbians through the years have lost their jobs based on the baseless but oft-perpetuated fallacy that being homosexual immediately implied you were also a pedophile?

Looking back on the great censorship cases of the 20th Century, I am reminded why, for all its draconian influence, state censorship is preferable to economic persecution.

In the case of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the 1958 trial on charges of public obscenity didn’t see D.H. Lawrence, the writer, in the dock, but Penguin, the publisher. The charge wasn’t that the writer was dangerous or unfit for society, but that the book was obscene and should not be published. When the state censors in a modern democracy, the writer, the publisher and the reading public have some legal recourse.

Similarly, in the US, it was Grove Publishers who were charged and defended obscenity charges over Lady Chatterley’s Lover, The Tropic of Cancer, and Naked Lunch. They notably won each case. But it is important to note that IT WAS THE TEXTS that were considered dangerous and drew down legal censorship, NOT THE AUTHORS. Moreover, even had it been the authors, a formal charge allows for the accusers to have to prove wrongdoing, prove risk, etc.

I suspect, at least in the West, that the supremacy of the marketplace, and fast-eroding protections for employees will mean that the persecution of writers will increase as it becomes clear that there are no mechanisms to stop it, save expensive civil trials that most erotica writers could never afford to conduct.

There are worthy efforts to highlight and ridicule the banning of certain books from schools and libraries, and I’m delighted to see this. But there is no movement to protect women who are economically punished for writing about sex.  We’re not in a good place, as women, as creatives, as workers or as eroticists. And if you think that writing under a pen name will keep you safe, think again. It only takes one bitter intimate to ruin your career.

Remittance Girl

Remittance Girl lives in exile in Ho Chi Minh City where she writes and grows orchids. Her erotic stories have been published in Cream: The Best of the Erotica Readers and Writers Association, Garden of the Perverse: Fairy Tales for Twisted Adults, and Lessons in Love: Erotic Interludes 3. Her stories have also appeared on the ERWA website.


  1. Brewt.Blacklist

    And never mind the whole economic censorship imposed by credit card processors for refusing to handle the money from creative works they don't feel fits in with their "values."
    I would wonder how far works depicting the super-rich as being the horrible perverts we are all afraid of would get.

  2. Lisabet Sarai

    I'd love to see someone push back. I doubt that termination of employment for reasons of privately writing erotica would actually turn out to be legal, at least in the US. Who has the money and the energy, though? Not someone who has been fired, obviously.
    Anyway, even if you were successful, your employer could still make your life miserable.

    I wonder if the ACLU could be persuaded to take on a case like this.

  3. Renee Rose

    I would love to see the ACLU take on this issue. Thank you for speaking out about this violation of free speech and civil rights.

  4. Fiona McGier

    The more things change, the more they stay the same, huh? Remember last year, when an author who was also a high school English teacher of over 25 years, was "outed" by a pair of disgruntled moms who went on the news (slow news day I guess) to say they didn't want any kind of woman who "thought things like that" being in charge of their impressionable boys in a classroom.

    Within a couple of days, there were thousands of signatures on petitions to keep her employed, the ACLU was volunteering to represent her, and her union backed her 100%. Her former students, many boys, wrote in to speak up for her, and at least one boy made a very funny video and posted it to U-tube, in which he berated the moms telling them that if the teacher was "looking at their boys funny', the only things she was thinking was probably that they should get their butts back in their seats and get some work done.

    In an attack of common sense, the school board backed her and refused to take any action against her.

    Amazing, how people have the time to try to ruin someone else's life, when we're all working so hard just to pay the bills. Also amazing that now the thoughts that a woman has can be used as grounds to persecute her. Every time I think we're making some progress, something like this happens and again I realize the Puritans have SO much to answer for! As well as other religious groups who have made sex into such a terrifying thing that they feel justified in banning others, even and especially those who aren't part of their religion, from just thinking about it!

  5. Jean Roberta

    Amen to all the comments, and thank you, RG, for writing about this persecution. Several years ago, someone explained in one of the ERWA lists that a couple had to leave a small town in the U.S. after some townsfolk discovered that the wife was an erotic author. The persecution of writers not only sounds like a case for the ACLU, but for world-level writers' organizations.

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