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.