Judging Smut

Each spring, when we advertise our humor poetry prize at Winning Writers, and again in the summer when we publish the winners, we can expect a few hot complaints about our openness to sexual explicitness and coarse language. Not all of our archives are NSFW, but yes, you can expect more dick jokes than in the average magazine or website for light verse. This market segmentation is one reason we welcome drunk Santas and copulating mollusks; there aren’t many other outlets for intelligent literary burlesque. But more importantly, bodily functions and the absurdities of desire are not high on the list of things I find offensive. Even the word “smut” implies that sexual topics, and by extension the people who write and publish them, are dirty and tainted. I want to unpack this assumption.

Reinterpreting others’ moral purity judgments as triggers or boundary assertions helps me resist the shame that sometimes gets projected onto my work as a writer and editor. I understand and respect people’s different thresholds for exposure to explicit material. Forcing sexual content on someone can be as much a form of harassment as stigmatizing them with purity rules. I didn’t understand how to navigate these boundaries when I used to workshop my fiction, nor did my instructor appreciate that publicly discussed parameters for the group would be better for the creative process than after-the-fact private scoldings.

The flip side of my responsibility as writer or editor, though, is the public’s responsibility to own their choices. Don’t leave bad reviews on Amazon for TV series because they have gay characters. That’s not an aesthetic judgment, it’s a statement that people with sexual interests unlike yours shouldn’t exist. Don’t send work to a publisher whose taste you don’t respect, but don’t also send them a letter saying you’d be ashamed to be associated with them.

I wish readers and aspiring contest winners would get this hot under the collar about literary offenses that have far more potential for real-world harm than silly anecdotes about tampons. Gratuitous sexualization of female characters in action-adventure tales. Exotic, “othering” portrayals of people of color and non-Western cultures. Fat-shaming and other misuses of physical difference and disability to code fictional characters as villainous or laughable. Poems whose “humor” depends on the undesirability of elderly, fat, or poor people. Stalker-ish and nonconsensual behavior framed as romantic pursuit. Every year, our judges and screeners weed out hundreds of entries to our four contests because of fails like these.

Sex isn’t dirty. Prejudice is.

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