Jill Sorenson Talks Sex Worker Heroines

by Kiersten Hallie Krum

I’m still mid-dive in my plunge down the rabbit hole of MC erotic romance novels. Along the way, I’ve gobbled up way too many (can there be too many?) Kristen Ashley books (to be fair, not all MC romances, but in for a penny…in for my entire book budget) along with the first two (but hopefully not the last) of Jill Sorenson’s Dirty Eleven MC series including Riding Dirty and Shooting Dirty.

jill sorenson

Jill Sorenson

Jill newest, Shooting Dirty, drops today but before that, she threw back a few shots of tequila here at Lady Smut and decided to share a bit about sex worker heroines and how they fit in with the Dirty Eleven series.

Be sure to check back next week for the Lady Smut Dirty Eleven review.

Welcome, Jill, to Lady Smut!

Hello Lady Smut! I’m so glad to be here, talking about sex-related stuff! Let’s do this.

Sex work isn’t the most popular profession for heroines in contemporary romance novels. We see a fair amount of paid mistresses and bought brides in traditional lines (Harlequin Presents) but the heroines of these books tend to be sweet and virginal, not seasoned hookers. They aren’t standing on a corner in the red light district. They’re whisked away in a jet by the billionaire hero. Street prostitutes, strippers, and porn stars are a hard sell in romance (no pun intended). So are promiscuous heroines, for that matter.

Shooting Dirty

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I recently spotted a review from a reader who didn’t like the fact that one of my heroines had been with multiple partners before the hero. She’d had flings with tourists, which made her seem “slutty.” No mention was made of the hero’s sexual history.

There is a double standard in the genre that is impossible to ignore. Katy Evans’ Manwhore is a New York Times bestseller, but I can’t imagine a runaway hit called Ladywhore or just Whore. Indiscriminate heroes are super hot and always in demand, while sexually forward female characters are relegated to the role of evil ex or psycho villain. Sluts aren’t fit to be heroines. They don’t deserve the hero.

A few months ago I picked up a popular self-published romance with a stripper heroine, thinking it would be edgy and sex-positive. I was immediately turned off by the portrayal of sex workers. The heroine was a sweet, innocent virgin who hated her trashy coworkers. Thumbs down.

I don’t think writers need to sugarcoat sex work or portray it in a positive-only light, but I’m not a fan of putting female purity on a pedestal or slut-shaming other women. When authors pit female characters against each other and portray sex workers as dirty skanks, I get a bad taste in my mouth. Tastes like misogyny. Not my favorite flavor.

Before I started writing Shooting Dirty, which features a topless dancer looking to get out of the business, I did my research. I read several autobiographies by professional strippers. I didn’t want to write my story from a place of ignorance. I also didn’t want to eroticize or glamorize the job. My goal was to develop a strong, well-rounded character who happens to take off her clothes for a living. Stripping has affected her life in many ways, but it’s what she does, not who she is.

bare updated

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My favorite nonfiction book about stripping was Bare: On Women, Dancing, Sex and Power by Elisabeth Eaves. It’s a fascinating personal account written from a feminist, non-judgmental perspective.

I don’t have any recs for stripper heroines, but I’ve read some excellent romances featuring female sex workers. They are rare—especially those that deal with the more extreme end of the spectrum. Case in point, Solace Ames’s The Companion Contract, a beautiful, lyrical, erotic tale about a young porn star/escort who falls for a mature former rock star. Ames offers an unflinching look at an industry that can be a real meatgrinder, navigated by a business-minded heroine with warmth and depth who never loses sight of herself or her love for sex.

Soloplay by Miranda Baker has a lighter tone, and begins with a partner-free type of sex work: sex toy testing. The heroine transforms from a woman who’s never had an orgasm to a solo-pleasure expert. Then she agrees to help the hero try out his new line of couples’ toys. It’s fun stuff.

blue angel

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Also fun is Tiffany Reisz’s Misbehaving, a story about a sex blogger who needs to test out all of the positions in a new sex manual. She hooks up with a former flame and they jump into bed for some steamy techniques that you might want to try at home. No magic penises, magic vaginas, or fantastical contortions required.

Blue Angel by Logan Belle features a law student/burlesque dancer heroine. I’m not sure if this qualifies as sex work because it’s striptease rather than stripping. I really enjoyed the NYC social scene, the costume details, and the soapy drama of this erotic novel with romantic elements.

What do you think about sex worker heroines? Do you prefer innocent heroines or experienced ones? Can you name any sex-positive romances with stripper or burlesque dancer heroines?


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  • Katie de Long
    September 21, 2015 at 11:37 am

    Thanks for writing this! As a former sex worker who’s written her share of sex worker heroines, it’s great to see other people trying to craft something other than Pretty Woman or traumaporn.

    If you’re gonna write about characters in the sex industry, $pread’s anthology is great, as is Melissa Gira Grant’s “Playing the Whore”. Both of them have a lot of great background on the social background that shapes sex work and its stigma. And $pread has a lot of personal anecdotes, too. Beyond that, read Tits and Sass, or get a few issues of the SW-written publications Prose and Lore, and Workin’ It.

    One of the core tenants in romance is the idea that no matter how awful or tormented you are, you deserve a happy ending, too. So what does it say when we exclude SWs from that possibility, by refusing to acknowledge that they can be heroes/heroines, too?

    • Madeline Iva
      September 21, 2015 at 3:29 pm

      Katie, what a great comment. On one hand I hate it that readers dislike ‘promiscuous’ heroines. On the other hand, I myself as a reader have a hard time focussing on a romance heroine when she’s having sex with a bunch of different guys. Why? Well,romance is not just about a happy ending, it’s about finding specialness and intimacy. Sex is our go-to language for intimacy. Often in the romances with SW-ers, the author has undercut the specialness and intimacy of sex–but not replaced it with some other realm of intimacy. I think it can be done–maybe via hurting/caring motifs, or whatever, but when it’s not tended to properly, then I have a very hard time getting into the romance.

      • Katie de Long
        September 25, 2015 at 8:42 am

        Sex work goes far beyond actual sex, though. What about strippers, webcam girls, peepshow performers?

        • Madeline Iva
          September 25, 2015 at 9:41 am

          Yeah, in that case I think the sex can be special — with a webcam girl for instance, sex w/out exhibitionism could be new untried territory and seem very special as a result.

      • jillsorenson
        September 25, 2015 at 2:35 pm

        It’s pretty rare in romance novels for the hero or the heroine to continue having sex with other people after they meet. Have you read a bunch of romances like this, or romances with sex worker heroines? Because I can’t think of very many. One I recall is Eden Bradley’s 21st Century Courtesan. The heroine can’t have an orgasm unless she’s being paid. I thought that was pretty interesting, but I did find some of her clients distasteful.

        I’m not sure I agree that sex work (which as someone else pointed out doesn’t always include actual sex) undercuts the specialness or intimacy of sex within a loving relationship. Part of the point of my post is that we seem to easily accept a “manwhore” hero. He hasn’t had any special sex, just lots of it. His past exploits are meaningless or have enhanced his reputation and honed his bedroom skills. But if she’s the experienced one, she’s sullied instead of polished.

        I don’t think I’d like a romance about a prostitute or gigalo who doesn’t give up his/her job after falling in love. I have no issue with readers who prefer committed monogamy (I’m one of them). I just try not to judge women more harshly than men for having various sexual experiences.

    • jillsorenson
      September 25, 2015 at 2:14 pm

      Hi Katie! I appreciated your comments about sex workers here and at Madeline’s blog, but I don’t agree that awful people deserve happy endings. I think we can acknowledge instead that sex workers can be good, kind, deserving people.

      • Katie de Long
        September 25, 2015 at 6:10 pm

        I’m a tried-and-true dark romance lover, so I’ve seen more than my share of antiheroes learn and grow. Just because someone starts awful doesn’t mean they stay awful.

        And sex workers ARE good, kind, deserving people, who are usually only cast as pretty corpses, catty bitches, or cautionary tales. That’s where a good deal of my problems are.

  • madeline iva
    September 21, 2015 at 4:57 pm

    I must say, I’m meh with heroines who’ve slept with a bazillion guys, I just don’t like it if it’s going on within the confines of the novel, while at the same time she’s occasionally boinking the hero too. (I’m not talking about menage here, of course.)

    But hey, for me it cuts both ways. I actually *don’t* like heroes who’ve dipped their pen in every ink well either. I like, well, the male equivalent of not very experienced heroines. And if you could make them a little bit uptight about it, that’s good too. Anyway, it goes back to that ‘special-ness’ thing.

  • Kate Johnson/Cat Marsters
    September 21, 2015 at 7:01 pm

    My first erotic romance had a courtesan heroine! It was fantasy, and she was a high-class, high status lady who chose her profession, something like Inara in Firefly. I wrote her as pretty proud of herself and her work: she loved sex and got to choose her lovers. The book got some pretty positive reviews, so I guess it worked!

    Mind you, that was ten years ago, and now I’m writing a very different type of sex-worker heroine (also SFF). She never had much choice about it to begin with, being always on the raggedy edge of life, but decided to make the best of a bad situation and get her clients to appreciate her more. Now she’s escaped her past, but she’s still got the stigma of once being a whore. I’m quite enjoying giving her a hero who is far less experienced and doesn’t know how to deal with a former whore who still enjoys sex!

    • Madeline Iva
      September 21, 2015 at 7:46 pm

      Ah-ha-ha! You had me at ‘a far less experienced hero’. The SFF sounds great!

    • Katie de Long
      September 25, 2015 at 8:49 am

      The framing of SWs as “happy hookers”- AKA high class courtesans whose work is unconditionally awesome- or dejected victims with no agency is something the SW community still struggles with in securing press coverage or representation. That duality erases all the voices in the middle- which is generally most of the community.

  • madeline iva
    September 25, 2015 at 10:40 am

    The discussion about sex workers and promiscuity continues over at my own blog with Katie de Long–who is very articulate in the comments section. Click the link above. Weigh in yourself!

  • madeline iva
    September 25, 2015 at 7:40 pm

    Jill you seem to understand the romance industry conventions well, and I learned the same conventions, but in fact, I have read two novels where sex workers continued having intercourse with others even after finding someone they preferred more than their ‘clients’. I didn’t think these novels worked for me.

    However, I take your point. In general in romances, with your average romance reader, it’s okay if a woman has slept around a lot — as long as it’s made her miserable. But with the men they can have slept around and it’s fine. It’s not at all equal.

    Katie, you’re reminding me of this true crime show I watched where a mother of three who sold kitchen stuff online and taught dance went missing suddenly, and everyone was straining to move heaven and earth to find her. As they kept looking deeper and deeper into her finances it finally came out that she was an escort — but right up until that moment you could have plonked her into some romance novel and she would have fit perfectly.

    After the police and her family found out, her family was straining to keep the police on track, to keep looking hard, despite finding out that she was a sex worker. She was still a loving mother, still a beautiful young woman whose family wanted to know what happened to her. In thinking about that particular story I can see what you’re saying about some sex workers are in the middle–not living a life of luxury in NYC, not on the street. How, in a way, up until she disappeared she was just like everyone else.

    • Katie de Long
      September 25, 2015 at 8:18 pm

      Yep. It’s notoriously difficult to get people to care about crimes against sex workers, in part because for most people outside the industry, consenting to their lifestyle is seen as consenting to every exploitative or violent situation encountered while they’re living out that life style. Consenting to provide a specific sexual experience is framed as blanket consent to be harassed, threatened, raped. Some police departments used an acronym for it- NHI. No Human Involved. It didn’t strictly refer to prostitutes- also sometimes to homeless people, known drug addicts, and other people who were assumed to have brought violence on themselves. This is where changing that perception would go a huge way toward helping people develop empathy for sex workers, similarly to how children who read Harry Potter were shown to me more empathetic toward diversity and differences.

      I’ll have a longer reply for you in a minute. I write about this stuff a lot, so it’s easy for me to sink into terseness reframing points that I’ve already deliberated an essay over.


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