TW: this piece contains information and discussion about trauma, sexual abuse, trigger warnings, kink, and BDSM. While Xan and I do not get graphic about these subjects, please take care before reading.
I am beyond thrilled to be part of Xan West’s blog tour for Show Yourself to Me: Queer Kink Erotica published by Go Deeper Press. Not only do I want to help spread the word about Show Yourself to Me, I want to help you get to know the writer behind the book. Xan West is someone I am proud to know.
Oleander: Welcome, Xan, thank you for stopping by poison pen/dirty mind HQ today.
Xan: I’m so excited to be here, and to be talking about this book with you!
O: Xan, your work renders me speechless. Show Yourself to Me is ferocious, intense and beautiful, but also hard hitting. I have been a regular reader of your blog, Kink Praxis for a long time, and was thrilled to get my hands on your latest erotic collection.
Speaking of Kink Praxis, I am awed by your series “Writing Characters Who Are Trauma Survivors”, particularly the second chapter, “When Trauma Survivors Get Triggered”. I felt like I was reading about myself – your description of what it feels like to be triggered was perfect. I would like to thank you for adding trigger warnings to Show Yourself to Me. Thanks to you, I was able to read without fear, because I knew what to expect and that is a huge thing.
A month ago, I wrote a piece about trigger warnings and received a lot of backlash from other writers. Just using the words trigger warning raises the hackles of the erotica writing community, but I don’t understand why. Do you have a theory as to why trigger warnings are so poorly received?
X: Yes, this collection is very intense. You take an intense dominant who goes deeply into sadism and adores edgeplay, and you combine that with a trauma survivor who is writing kink erotica for and about trauma survivors, and you will get intense.
I’m so glad that you are enjoying my series on writing characters who are trauma survivors; it’s a project I care very much about. (And it’s just getting started, there are more posts to come!) I’m so glad that my descriptions resonated with you. I spent about a decade working full time in the trauma field (most of it was spent training folks who worked with survivors), and I definitely drew from that experience when I was writing; it helped me find language for things that are rarely spoken.
I’m pleased that the trigger warnings worked for you! It sounds like they did exactly what I’d hoped they would: make it possible for you to access the stories in the book. That’s something that I think is often misunderstood about trigger warnings. Folks think that they are about preventing people from reading, but they are actually about making a text more accessible to trauma survivors.
I think that’s one of the main reasons erotica writers get upset about trigger warnings: they don’t understand what they are about (creating the possibility of deeper consent and access for trauma survivor readers), and how they are used (not to stop survivors from reading, but to make it more possible for folks to read something, and to choose when and how to engage with something that might be triggering). Folks see the word warning and think of it as something intended to stop people from reading, or to encourage a writer to avoid writing about something. They see trigger warning and they think censorship.
As writers, especially erotica writers, we are concerned about censorship, and we should be. Censorship is real and alive in this world. Writers are under death threat from their governments, jailed for what they write, exiled for the subject matter they include. Books are banned from schools and libraries. Government funded artistic endeavors are censored, and funding destroyed. Writers experience violence, harassment, purging and retaliation for what they have written. Books are burned and targeted by organized groups and institutions, seized and refused distribution across borders. Those things are real, and have happened to people I’ve known, people close to me.
Perhaps because I have personal connection to that sort of experience of censorship, I am continually surprised by the ways that people use the word censorship to refer to trigger warnings, especially in the erotica world. The call for trigger warnings comes from readers, who are saying, please make it possible for me to read your books, please give me enough information so that I can come to your work with the resources I need to read it. The call for trigger warnings in erotica has not (and I doubt it ever will) come from institutions or government, seeking to prevent access to our work. Because of that, I cannot understand how folks perceive it to be censorship. I firmly believe that when they come for our erotica (as they often do now and have over and over again), it won’t be in the form of trigger warnings.
Why do you think that folks in the erotica world are upset about trigger warnings?
O: I think you hit the nail on the head – writers, especially erotica writers, see the word “trigger warning” and think “censorship”. Fear and loathing of censorship is the common ground that all writers stand upon, an injustice we would gladly fight against. Somehow, trigger warnings got shoved under the umbrella of censorship, and let’s face it, the “C” word makes people angry. Anger breeds defensiveness, and it’s been my experience that when shields go up, minds close. Hopefully, our dialogue will open a few minds!
Besides the censorship issue, I experienced some victim blaming and/or shaming. Statements like “Well, I was abused and I just got over it. You should try that.” Or “If reading erotica upsets you so much, why read it in the first place?” Part of the issue, I think, is lack of understanding about how sexual abuse affects a person. Something you said earlier struck a chord with me, regarding working with survivors: “…I definitely drew from that experience when I was writing; it helped me find language for things that are rarely spoken.”
Things that are rarely spoken. The truth of that statement buried me! Victims are afraid to speak. Whether from shame or fear, victims have lost their voice. How do we give them back their voice?
X: Let’s unpack those two responses. The first is one I’ve heard variations of, as well. Some of the most passionate voices arguing against trigger warnings are from writers who are survivors. They say things like: “I don’t need trigger warnings, why do you?” And, “The world is a triggering place. So many things can trigger me, you couldn’t possibly warn against all of them.” I’ve also heard things like “You can’t protect me from my trauma, it’s mine to manage.”
There are a few things working here. The first is the idea that survivors need to be tough, and get over it. Of course, that’s a hugely compelling idea for trauma survivors, who want to be done with trauma reactions, who want to feel in control when trauma experiences and traumatic reactions gave made them feel helpless. I so get that, and have been there. It’s a common trauma response. So common, in fact, that survivors deciding that they are “over it” was included as a stage in Rape Trauma Syndrome (an early 1970s precursor to what is now known as complex PTSD).
There’s another thing at work here, I think. It’s one thing to not want trigger warnings for yourself. But something else is going on when folks are claiming no one should need them, and I think it’s partly about rejecting disability. It’s very seductive to reject the idea that PTSD is disabling, an ongoing chronic disability that you can’t just overcome. The thing is, it throws other survivors under the bus, says that suvivors are weak for wanting trigger warnings to help them access things. (And not just that, it participates in a framework that blames disabled and chronically ill people, especially other folks with psych disabilities for not being able to get over it.)
The other two responses I think come from a different place, and often intertwine with each other. They are likely a reaction to a common survivor experience, of being “protected” without their consent, and treated as if they are broken or fragile. This is often paired with patronizing and abusive behavior. So you could see why survivors might be suspicious and angry if they feel like folks are treating them as fragile or trying to protect them.
They are also correct that we can’t possibly do trigger warnings for everything a survivor might get triggered by. It’s impossible to predict, as triggers are so diverse and specific. I think this argument against trigger warnings likely comes from a place of insisting that the world cannot be made safe, and feeling like the implication of that possibility is a hurtful, lying, dangerous erasure. However, the point of trigger warnings is not to create a trigger free experience for anyone or imply that is even possible. Instead, the effort is about giving information about the most common things that are likely to trigger folks: things like real world violence and trauma, edge play, play with themes of violence (like rape play), play with oppression.
The why read it in the first place question is a different animal. Especially for a fellow erotica writer, who I hope sees the value in reading erotica, since they write it! I tend to think that it’s probably a defensive cover for something else, especially since it often is said defensively (“if they don’t like it, they don’t have to read it!” seems to be an underlying message). I think it can also be an indication that the person would prefer not to think about survivors getting triggered by their work. Partly I think that’s related to a common writer coping strategy where we try to let go of the book once it goes to print, let it do what it will do without thinking about the impact it has on readers. And partly I think it can be scary for folks to try to connect with survivor experience, in general. Most people avoid it if they can (including a lot of trauma survivors). I think that avoidance is part of why so many folks actively work to silence survivors. (Though it’s definitely not the only reason.)
Which brings me to the last point you make, about the need for survivors to reclaim themselves and their stories. Victims of abuse and trauma are silenced in so many ways, and it takes work for us to claim our voices. For me, a vital part of that work has been around claiming my own sexuality, and honoring my own desire. Reading and writing erotica has been such a vital resource in my life, that’s partly why I care so much about trigger warnings, because I want to support survivors to have access to reading and writing erotica. In my experience as a survivor, reading and writing erotica has been and continues to be an important part of identifying and articulating my own desire, and reclaiming sex and desire for myself. Part of how I do that is by telling stories about survivors claiming their desire, being open about desire, choosing to act on their desire.
For me, naming desire has been a key that unlocks so much. From some of the first erotic fiction I read as a young person, it’s been the center of what makes a story hot for me, when characters face their own desire, and articulate what they want, ask for what they want, even (or maybe especially) beg for it. That moment when a character first admits their desires, especially if it’s a struggle to do so, is one of the most electric for me as a reader, or a writer. It charges the scene so intensely, and resonates so deeply. Because it has not been easy for me to name what I want, to claim my desire for something, to openly say yes to things, to actively choose sex, as a survivor. So I write those moments of choice, and thread them through my stories. Not just because I care about showing the reader that characters are consenting (which I absolutely do!), but because those moments of claiming desire are a key part of what gets me hot.
How has writing erotica been a powerful force for you as a survivor?
O: First of all, every time I read one of your answers, I want to stand up and cheer! Now to answer your question, I am going to quote you and go from there:
“In my experience as a survivor, reading and writing erotica has been and continues to be an important part of identifying and articulating my own desire, and reclaiming sex and desire for myself.”
I wholeheartedly agree with that statement, it reflects my own beliefs about why I choose to write erotica. For many years, I couldn’t talk about sex, not even with my partner. There was shame associated with sex that I believed stemmed from my abuse. “How can I enjoy sex when it has brought so much fear and shame into my life?” As if my own sexuality invalidated my trauma! Writing and reading erotica pushed me past that barrier. Like you said, it helped me reclaim my desire.
The more I write, the more natural it feels to discuss all things sexual. This freedom gave me the courage to finally open up about my abuse after decades of keeping it buried. Not only did I discuss my abuse on my blog, I am seeing a trauma specialist and the healing continues. All of this miraculous change – this courage to embrace my whole self – stems from writing and reading erotica, a genre that is treated like the bastard child of the literary world. But I am not going there, because we could talk for days about that!
I would love to talk a bit about your piece on F. Leonora Solomon’s blog. (If you haven’t already, you can read it here, and please do, it’s wonderful.) This article floored me, Xan, I mean it took what I thought about BDSM and flipped it on its head. Now, BDSM is not my kink, but I have always respected it, and I respect it a hell of a lot more now. This paragraph hit me in the chest and drew some tears:
“I stopped bottoming after that scene. It changed me, felt like it had washed me clean, given me a touchstone memory of bottoming that was wholly different from the abuse I’d endured. So that I didn’t feel like bottoming had been stolen from me by my abusive ex. I had taken it back for myself. Stopping after that scene was a way to stop from a place of strength.”
That story blew me away, it was one of the bravest fucking things I’ve ever read. You took back what was taken from you in a really powerful, life-affirming way. You chose strength. That, my friend, is inspirational. Reading your story gave me hope for myself, that I will be brave enough to choose strength over fear. I hope other survivors will find inspiration in your words, I know I did. Which leads me to my next question: What do you hope readers will take away from Show Yourself to Me?
X: I’m so glad you found erotica a place for healing and embracing desire. Embracing, honoring, and reclaiming desire is so damn powerful. I see desire as being a place of hope, of fantasizing a future you want, of dreaming something into potential being, of connecting deeply with yourself and your body, of asking for what you need.
For me, writing erotica is one of the ways I tap into all that hunger and yearning and vision for a future that I ache for. It was like that right from the start. My first full length erotica story was written while I was in the depths of an abusive D/s relationship, and was a main way I dreamed myself out of it. Writing that story helped me ground in the reality that my relationship was abusive, and that I could have kink that didn’t work that way, that it was possible to hold onto my desire and leave the relationship. As you discuss, erotica can be such a tremendous gift for us as a survivors.
Which circles round to the post you mentioned. It tells a story about an experience I had soon after I left that abusive relationship, about seeking a cathartic experience from a scene. So many survivors, especially survivors of intimate violence (sexual assault, family violence, child sexual abuse, intimate partner violence), go to sex and romantic relationships seeking healing. In my experience, BDSM is particularly attractive in this regard, perhaps because it embraces drama and fantasy, says whatever you want is probably ok, has cultural expectations around consent and negotiation, and goes to scary dark places. Kink seems to be something that survivors bring a level of intense hope and yearning for healing to. As Megan Stories says, we want kink to save us.
Part of what happened for me was that the intensity of my need, the depth of my desire, and the desperation of my yearning for transformation and catharsis, (especially in combination with very little kink education) made three things difficult.
- it made it difficult for me to discern who to trust;
- 2 it made it difficult for me to consider and honor my own consent in the moment; and
- it made it difficult for me to see my partners as whole people and treat them with care and respect.
Seeking healing from kink is a big part of how I ended up in that abusive relationship. So the last thing I want is for folks to run to kink thinking it’s a good, safe place to heal as a survivor. Because that belief can make you incredibly vulnerable to abuse. I’ve heard too many stories like mine to encourage that.
The reality is that whether we seek healing from kink, or sex, or love, that those things cannot save us, or fully heal us. We can have powerful transformative experiences, we can learn new things about ourselves, we can have new visions of ourselves from our sexual and romantic and kinky experiences, we can explore trust, and face our fears in the moment. All those things can be part of a healing experience. Based on my experiences as a survivor, from connecting with so many other survivors as a kink educator and from my expertise of a decade of professional work in the trauma field, it is my firm belief that this sort of thing cannot be the whole answer, or even a central one. Moreover, going to kink or sex to heal from intimate violence can backfire badly, even with folks worthy of your trust, and is likely to make your trauma symptoms worsen. It happened to me.
One of the things I know, looking back on the powerful transformative experience I describe in that post on F. Leonora Solomon’s blog, is that I did not treat that top with the care and respect she deserved. I did not tell her what I was seeking from or bringing to the experience, so our play could not be as mutual as I believe it needed to be. I have compassion for myself as a survivor for doing what I did in that scene, but I want better from myself, and for myself, and for others, when we seek transformative scenes like that.
That’s why I wrote so many of the stories in this collection, in order to envision what those sorts of scenes could be like, were they more mutual, more caring and respectful and careful on all sides, more negotiated and fully consented to by everyone. I wanted to offer that to survivors, multiple different models of how kink can be deeply affirming and transformative, to give readers a diversity of stories about the gorgeousness of pushing your edges from the top and the bottom. That’s a big part of what I hope survivor readers take out of the book: a range of possibilities for doing transformative BDSM scenes in a way that honors the needs of everyone involved, and is mutual, respectful and intensely hot. I also deeply care about readers seeing tops in the fullness of their humanity, fears, and needs. I wrote this book to center the stories of folks that are often marginalized, including survivors, and I hope it offers a chance for folks to see themselves in erotica. I also hope that it gets people off! I believe that connecting with and honoring your desire can be a hugely vital part of life, and creating opportunities for erotic engagement is absolutely one of the reasons I write erotica.
Oleander, it has been so lovely to talk with you about this stuff, and so deeply. I know for me, talking about trauma can be such a necessary and beautiful thing, and that being witnessed by other folks who get it can mean so much. So I really want to thank you for this conversation. Y’know, studies show that connection is one of the things that builds survivor resiliency (our ability to find hope when faced with difficulties) both during traumatic experiences and later on in life. Connection to other people, connection to art and creativity, connection to faith, connection to animals. That’s definitely been true in my life. What helps you find hope?
O: Although it was one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever done, sharing my story (part of which I’d kept hidden for almost 40 years) was a huge step in finding hope again, especially when I posted it on my blog. So many people came forward and offered words of comfort, while others shared their own stories. It felt like other hands were reaching out to help me carry this burden and instead of being crushed by its weight, I was able to move forward.
Other things give me hope, helping others, writing erotica, getting feedback from readers who like the kind of stories I write, support from family and friends. Being around animals is a huge thing. My cats love me no matter what kind of mood I’m in. Well, as long as I feed them on time, that is. Funny, I could never consider myself submissive, but these two furry guys run my life.
I know you have a special cat in your life, can you tell us a bit about Sweet Pea?
X: Sweet Pea is a big barn cat from Vermont. He has been with my boyfriend Jen for the last twenty years or so. (I’m attaching a picture of them together, and one of him staring up at her adoringly.) He’s about 23 years old, and as disabled and sick as we are, with about as many access needs. We made him a ramp so he could get on and off the bed, after his arthritis got worse. He is on a raw food diet with special supplements, and we spend more time preparing his food than our own. Sweet Pea has taught me a lot about life with disabilities; he’s an awesome model in so many ways. He’s very vocal about his needs and complaints, herds us to the kitchen to feed him, generally is pretty much in charge in an crotchety grandpa kind of way. We have a saying, “nothing can happen until Sweet Pea is comfortable.”
Sweet Pea takes care of both of us. When we are having a hard time, he often offers snuggles and comfort. When my leg got broken this year, he devised his own treatment plan to help me heal after surgery, where he would lie next to my injured leg and purr for about an hour a couple times a day. (I’m attaching a picture of him giving me treatments.) I find it very grounding to be around him, to pet him, take care of him or just hang out around him. We do a lot of resting together. It took him a while to warm up to me (after all, he’s been with his mother for two decades and prefers a monogomous relationship), but now he trusts me to take care of him, and generally seems to think I’m ok. I love him very much, and feel really lucky to have him in my life. He’s definitely an important part of my support system. With his mother’s permission, I wrote Sweet Pea into the novel I’m working on, Shocking Violet. I couldn’t resist, because he’s such a strong character.
Thanks again for this conversation. It has meant a lot to me to discuss these things with a fellow survivor.
O: No, thank you, Xan, this entire dialogue has been incredibly cathartic and meaningful!
Before I close, I would like to share something from another post that Xan wrote for the Radical Access Mapping Project. This piece, as much of Xan’s writing does, brought me to tears, but the good kind of cleansing tears we all need to shed from time to time. You can read the entire piece here.
Making My Kinky Erotica Accessible to Survivors
By Xan West
I remember holding the book in my hands. I remember seeing it on the page. I couldn’t even take it in at first. Then, as I did, tears were streaming down my face.
The first time I opened a book and saw a trigger warning, it hit me in the heart, and reverberated out. I was about to read The Marrow’s Telling: Words in Motion, by Eli Clare, and opened to a page titled Author’s Note, that said: “The pieces listed here are in part about child sexual abuse, ritual abuse and/or torture and include graphic, but not gratuitous, details. As such they may contain triggers. Please take as much care as you need.” I remember the shock wave through my body, as I realized, this writer cares about me, cares about my access to this book. This writer wants me to take care of myself.
I had never imagined I would see such a thing in a published book. It felt like the first time someone really cared about my consent: scary, overwhelming, full of respect that I wasn’t sure I was up for receiving, heart-wrenching in the realization that it had not happened before…
From the bottom of my soul, thank you Xan. Thank you.