Self-censorship and the writer

Blood is the only bodily fluid allowed

Blood yay, Love nay … a double-moral

It’s a dilemma that I hate. And it’s dangerous for any art: self-censorship in the eye of other people’s double-morals. I’m confident in my work and mostly know what I’m doing,ย  I surround myself with people who ‘get me’ and support me every step of the way. I try to keep good contact with fans and fellow authors. In my writing, I do not shy away from difficult (or hot ;-)) issues.

Writing the steamy is part of my job.

And still: now, right before the release of my third Tale of Freya, “Monk“, I’m more nervous than before. Why? The first two, “The Current” and “The Awakening“, were well-received and got wonderful, supportive reviews which sometimes found even more depth and quality in my stories than I myself had seen. I received great support from (histfic) bloggers and other writers. So far NOBODY complained that I was just using the Viking period as stage props for shallow writing. I’m creating solid, authentic worlds and, as my colleague JD Lexx, a master of steamy and tasteful writing, said, my intricate plots “just happen to be sexy”.

So why am I catching myself being nervous and shy NOW, when I have to present the upcoming “Monk – Captured by Temptation”?

The other two stories got all the right people engaged with my work. It was a super-wonderful and exciting experience so far. I can’t wait to release the other Tales in the series. But.



Judgemental people.

Or worst: judgemental family.

They can make or break your ambitions – or at least your excitement.

Making-love – or f*ing?

The reaction of someone VERY close to me still sticks. We are related and that seems to make a difference for THIS genre. He saw the cover of my series Tales of Freya and had one comment, without having read a single word: “Ah, just about fucking again. Go away.”

You may judge by yourself if the cover (or writing) is in the slightest pornographic. *eyeroll*

Yes, we had a major fallout then. And he said this ON publication day (!), spoiling all my shy excitement. I got so angry then, I was shaking and had to consciously sit on my hands not to type the most direct answer of my life.

“Just about fucking.” As if

  1. that was true, and sex (why does he have to refer to it as ‘just fucking’?) was all that was in my carefully crafted plots
  2. falling in love and making love was something low and not worth to be mentioned, let alone written about or made the central plot in an engaging story
  3. I just threw together cheap quickies without care for research and authenticity, plot, characterisation, an engaging, gritty story, emotion, and a happy ending, using months to make it the best I can and be proud of it!
  4. I was doing something similar to selling my body to strangers.

That stuck. With just one sentence he belittled months (if you count in the ongoing research about the Viking age: years) of hard work to something disgusting. I suddenly felt like my job wasn’t worthy, and I hated myself for even allowing the feeling.

Inside, I’m boiling, and telling myself to ignore him, because relatives have issues with you + sex. I know, I know. He’s just one voice and a very biased, judgemental one. I do work hard, I CAN write and am improving my craft, I take criticism on board, I am overly critical with myself! Every story must live up to my own high standards, and it must have a theme, or lesson, or twist that gives the readers more than just a ‘quickie’.

Making-love is not worthy …

And who says ‘just’ anyway? Are my colleagues writing the kinky and arousing, the erotic for pure pleasure, not to be respected? Love and sex is the most wonderful thing the gods invented for our souls and bodies. Psychologically, it would take several posts to go into why a close relative cannot stand the thought of me writing about it – thinking it was ‘me’.

Honestly, I let my family only read my German works. These are tame and family-friendly. But I’ve never told them outright that I write historical romance with the added label of “erotic”, too. Is family just ‘too close to home’ when it comes to that aspect of our being human? Probably. Think of that overused clichรฉ of seeing your parents … The healthy distance is just not there.

But my writing is not me, it is not like my stories are a 1:1 translation of what I want to experience, they are not my fantasies put on paper. I explained the difference between my work and me: My writing is not ‘me’ (and all these creepy men thinking because I write the sensual I must be open for … certain approaches must step back and rethink their sexism).

So am I wary because I think that most people cannot make this distinction and will think ‘this is me’ and not crafted work? Will they?

Is self-censorship the answer? No!

And even if?!

We all love sex, we all do it, we are just normal and boring in that, so where’s my problem to – as a writer – explore this aspect of humanity, and craft it into something more? I thought we live in a free world and one can choose to look away. But we must not – I repeat: NOT – judge people by what they write or read, or worse: a book just by its cover, like my relative.

I have no problem thinking up hot situations and then presenting them in a way that is multi-layered and gritty. I don’t do shallow. I want my trademarks to be: authenticity to the period, depth and quality, avoiding clichรฉs and a certain vocabulary. Yet, I cringe at the thought that a relative – judgemental or not! – might read my series. All the quality and pride … and still I want to hide? I hate the fact that since that ONE comment I’m suddenly wary. I don’t know anymore if in a few years I’ll want my kids to read my work. They’d honestly not learn a single pornographic word. But still.

You know what this is about? The old double-moral standards:

Violence is okay, sex is not. Neither writing it nor reading it. No matter the quality of the actual work. If it is sexy – and worse: it is your relative writing it! – it must be disgusting. Because, well, relatives and sex.


… but killing people is fine?

Fact is: Erotica is excluded from many blogs and groups etc. And if the craft is the reason for that, I agree. Many serve a very direct purpose, and aren’t serious writing in that they don’t have deeper layers than satisfying something very straightforward.ย  It can be too shallow to find the craft-quality in those stories. So from a quality point of view I understand why erotica is often excluded on ‘serious’ blogs. And yes, those badly-written works don’t belong in writing blogs or groups. That having said, they do have an eager audience and totally deserve their place out there, to be found by their readers, too. We can be tolerant at least, yes?


I do suspect that some blogs and groups exclude erotica for reasons of sensitivity. They, too, like me with “Monk” now, are overly careful not to hurt anyone’s feelings, not to corrupt anyone (erm, adults who should be able to decide if they want to read something or just look away…). They exclude the sexy as ‘unsuitable’. I don’t get the idea of sensuality, THE basic part of our being human – to procreate, haha! – as being offensive. But why don’t they also protect sensitive souls from other genres then? Does everyone want to read how people are murdered, or tortured, then killed? It’s not frowned upon, and I believe writers of the thriller/crime genre don’t have to face judgemental people like steamy romance does. And hopefully they don’t think about self-censorship like we do.

Torture is only okay when it is done for killing. But not for pleasure.
Self-censorship by Sarah Dahl

You can totally open the red pot and paint in blood…

There’s a very double moral at work. Is, as I explained in my blog, Stephen King seen as a weirdo they just didn’t caught, who has a cellar full of corpses, people he tortured for his satisfaction? Are his readers depraved beings who enjoy seeing others suffer?

But surely I must be overly sexual and depraved and wanting to do it with every ‘Viking’ walking the planet (if not every man and woman as such) for writing about making love?

Graphic violence is accepted. Graphic sensuality not. (I do say sensuality to stress the depth and emotion involved)

If that relative of mine had seen a cover dripping with blood, he’d NOT have said, “Go away, this is disgusting!”. He’d have patted me on the back and snatched the copy from my hands. Because killing people in your fantasies is an accepted pastime, whereas having them love each other, pleasure each other, risking the reader’s arousal, omg, is just appalling.

You know what else is appalling?

I had to be told by some of my readers that they – or readers of the steamy in general – are being bashed for reading sensual books. No matter the actual book-quality.

Reading the steamy is a sin more than reading the brutal!?

Hello? We are allowed to read gruesome violence and enjoy that, we may ogle hot celebrities and discuss their ‘qualities’, or series characters’ sex appeal – but don’t you dare write or read about hotness and sensuality. It belongs somewhere … boxed away and labelled. Which can make it the last genre that is really appealing! Many many books in that genre have a depth tenfold that of every discussion about Travis Fimmel’s abs, or Jennifer Lawrence’s boobs, and a much more positive message than most thrillers. (I love thrillers myself, don’t get me wrong!)

… but you can not paint with the white fluids!

But how can that be, honestly?

One colleague of mine, who, even worse, writes in the genres of sensual romance and horror, said I should be kinda happy about the stigma. It gives our genres an air of the forbidden and daring. Going against conventions (and the cosy perception of relatives) can be fun and worthwhile. I tend to agree with her now, and thank her for the talking-to ๐Ÿ™‚

I should walk with my head and books held high!

So: My upcoming story of a captured monk being seduced by his Viking masters is stepping it up in several ways. It is very straightforward-steamy, but embedded in a plot. It features people whose world view and convictions clash – and I turn it into a morally challenging experience. There are three people involved (as if that was a shocker these days – but hey). I wrote three different points of view. And I felt I have to balance these daring bits with extra-careful writing and depth. Authenticity, depth, emotions.

But the taboos! A monk! Three people in a room!

You can relax, I don’t use torture to pleasure. Because, you know, torturing is only okay for slow killing. I get that (not). If my Viking would feel like slitting the slave’s throat though, that would just be fine, right?

You can paint in red, but not in white.

Mainstream wants blood, not boobs

Wasn’t it the highly brutal and highly popular series (History Channel’s ‘Vikings’) that made Viking brutality and Viking hotness fashionable and mainstream? We could watch a man being blood-eagled in the most gruesome slow-motion possible. But when everyone’s favourite monk was challenged with sensuality, not violence? Ah well, no. Just plant the idea, but let’s spare the audience. Love-making could offend someone. It could have started a discussion about morals … when the moral discussion about killing was long over. Throats can be slit, but a moral dilemma concerning bodily fluids OTHER THAN BLOOD? That wouldn’t have gone down well – their monk declined. It really would have been too daring to have him enjoy himself, haha. Hollywood-esk, they kept torturing and slaying people in every single episode, but the women – Viking women! – right after sex, have to cover their bodies with a fur pulled up high, no matter the plot-logic.

I don’t understand it. But somehow, of course, they DID shy away from actually carrying out the sensual idea of a seduced monk.

Well, I don’t.

Monk – Captured by Temptation” is out September 29.

(If you want to be the first to hear about new releases, please let me know here!

You can (pre-)order “Monk” here.)

Monk - Captured by Temptation by Sarah Dahl

Over to you: Are you a reader or writer who is judged for what she favours? Why is that so? Aren’t we living in a free and tolerant world where everyone can do as he likes as long as it doesn’t hurt others? Have you made unpleasant experiences with loved ones – or feel that you are holding back for more or less good reasons? Do you feel shy about certain aspects and why? What thoughts do you have about the double-morals and mainstream media/society? I’d love to hear every non-judgemental comment! ๐Ÿ˜‰



Comments (7)

  1. Avatar

    Elaine 11.09.2017 at 21:47

    There was a time when extreme violence and blood was taboo too. It took a whole gaggle of horror/supernatural writers to break down the barriers. In time, the ‘sex’ barrier will be broken down too. It’s already happening, with books like Fifty shades of grey going mainstream, and everyone admitting to the fact that they read it. For years now, there have been publishers that focus only on erotica. The double-edged sword you face, is that most erotica being published today is pure pornography with very little substance plot-wise, and people still want a good story, they don’t wanna read porn.

    A lot of publishers/vendors haven’t caught up with the current market. We have to reclassify the erotica of old, find a new category for it … yesterday’s erotica, is today’s romance, and in my experience, most people don’t mind reading a good sex scene if there’s a strong plot going along with it.

    There will always be puritans, and family members, who can’t appreciate it — but you don’t need to give them an explanation. The reason your family is uncomfortable, is because sex is such an intimate experience, and no one wants to think of their daughter/sister in ‘that way’.

    And after all is said and done though, the world still needs a bit of mystery … sex is the last taboo, and I don’t really have an issue with that. Sex is intimate, it’s beautiful, it’s mysterious and secretive. As someone who has explored and pushed a lot of those boundaries in real life, I want it to remain that way, even in literature, because once you’ve broken down all the boundaries of sex, you have nowhere to go … sex, which is arguably the best, and most intimate, part of the human experience, should never become boring, or a chore … erotica writers should never become the $50 hooker on the street corner, broken down and tired – enjoy the mystery, the secrecy, the little blushes of pleasure … it is part of the ‘charm’ that is a good erotic story.

    • sarah

      sarah 11.09.2017 at 21:59

      Thanks, Elaine, yes I totally see your points. Still the hypocrisy remains, in my opinion, but it’s what we make of it as artists, yes, and just do our own thing anyway. I wish you all the best on your journey and that you help breaking many taboos and we keep challenging the audience ๐Ÿ˜‰ Happy week!

  2. Avatar

    Henry Hyde 11.09.2017 at 13:14

    It’s hypocrisy, pure and simple. The English-speaking world is repressed and constrained in its expression by a false morality. We constantly see stories in the press about how our celebrities and leaders indulge in all manner of carnal acts behind the scenes, but the media reinforce the hypocrisy by painting such activities as deviant, whereas they are actually far more common than we would like to admit.

    As for the world of publishing, it’s dominated by White Anglo-Saxon Protestantism โ€“ the owners of the publishing companies more often than not come from similar, exclusive public or expensive private school backgrounds, which are again notorious for their behind-the-scenes abuses. but this same class happily forms the officer corps that leads our young men and women to glorious war.

    Sexuality, and its expression in all but traditional ways, is largely repressed, whereas violence is championed. Mass murder makes the headlines as an ‘evil’ โ€“ but so does sex, which carries the further connotation in British and American society as being ‘dirty’, ‘unclean’ and ‘deviant’. We must suppress our urge to kill that guy who cut in front of us on the motorway, but we must also suppress our urge to tell that person that we find them attractive. We’re even encouraged to dress in a non-provocative way in this post-Puritanical age, because God forbid that we should celebrate our bodies, and even worse because we worry that fellow citizens can’t be trusted to control themselves in our presence.

    But these are societal problems, and of course your relatives are part of that society. We find it particularly difficult to come to terms with the fact that our relatives have sex lives at all. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a member of my family naked, and I doubt that I’m alone, and the thought that my parents, let alone my mother and my hated stepfather had a sexual relationship still, I confess, makes me shudder, though of course it’s utterly illogical โ€“ I wouldn’t be here if they hadn’t! ๐Ÿ˜€ And I know this works both ways: I remember how hard it was for my widowed mother to accept that I had girlfriends and wanted to bring them home and have them stay over.

    Your post opens a huge can of worms, and my little rant won’t change anything, and nor will your post. The fact is, pardon the pun, but you made your bed and you’re going to have to lie in it. We just have to accept that if you work in certain genres, there are going to be whole swathes of people who turn their noses up at you because of it. Just smile and cash the cheques, Sarah. You’re living an unrepressed and happy life; they’ll have to live with their repression. their reaction says a great deal more about them than it does about you. X

    • sarah

      sarah 11.09.2017 at 13:21

      Oh wow, thank you so much, Henry, for this rant which is in fact a great summary, and we both just manage to scratch the surface. I agree that we may not change people and society, but then: discussions are always the starting point, so thank you for this! Have a very happy, free-spirited week and work-life! ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Avatar

      Petra 26.09.2017 at 2:17

      Sarah, you’ve really started a great conversation! Henry, you are right on so many levels. I am just going to throw this out there…. why are certain kinds of sex scenes alright? Is there maybe a gender bias?
      In addition, why are certain authors given leeway to write about sexual encounters within another (or any other) genre, but other authors are relegated to “genre” writing and sneered at? Just wondering.

  3. Avatar

    Grace R Taylor 11.09.2017 at 13:02

    I never really considered this before. The double standard of what’s okay in media. It makes me think of watching Game of Thrones with my parents (or other shows of that nature) and being asked to leave the room for sex scenes and not for when people are being ripped apart. It is true that is more for my parents comfort of watching than mine, but it still shows a taboo on sex. Your post really made me consider my own bias toward sex in writing. It made me question my views and was really captivating. Thank you for posting this.

    • sarah

      sarah 11.09.2017 at 13:14

      Thank YOU! Wonderfully said, and yes, we are just brought up and taught this moral until we no longer question it maybe. For me, as you might see from the blog and my books, there couldn’t be a bigger difference in moral between killing people and making love to them. Yet, the wrong way round is what we are taught is acceptable. I really hope that our genre and every artist, in fact, can step into the light with their heads held high and no fear of instant judgement. I’d always judge quality, not use a perverted moral. ๐Ÿ™‚ Happy week to you and all the best!

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