In defence of writing confessional stories

Pic by the awesome Stuart F Taylor

I write confessional sex stories. Which is a weird thing to say because I’m not really confessing sins or expecting absolution. I’m just telling stories and expecting readers – if they’re kind enough – to click or share or stump up some cash for my books.

Confession is a pretty horrible word – drowning in centuries of expectation. It conjures images of the religious urge to ‘cleanse’ people of their misdeeds via exposure. Telling your stories so that others can judge you: shout ‘shame!’ as you’re paraded through the town. When you call it ‘confessional’, it’s a wonder anyone chooses to write stories about themselves.

But we do.

Confessional stories

There have been a couple of articles recently about ‘confessional’ writing – explaining that the current passion for confessional opinion pieces leaves women short-changed, or makes us look silly.

In the Guardian a while back, Hadley Freeman wrote about how Beyoncé does confessional better than anyone – that Lemonade is a great example of confessional done right. I’m not going to disagree with her on that point to be honest, because she’s probably right: Beyoncé is incredible.

However, I disagree with the way she goes on to talk about confessional storytelling – that it’s something done by women who are ‘prostituting themselves’ (catch me another day on why there’s a world of baggage wrapped up in that awful phrase), and that it’s ‘self-exploitative.’ It’s not the only spotlight pointed at confessional writing that I’ve seen – in the New Statesman a while ago, Sarah Ditum wrote with a heavy emphasis on websites that pay for these stories, where often people are encouraged to pick out the most stressful, terrifying, gruesome things that have happened to them and write them up for a fairly small sum.

“the logic of the perpetual confession journalism machine is the same: everything about a woman should be available to use, nothing a woman has to say is valid without a personal claim to authority, repackage their guts as shiny sausages and call it an “identity piece”.”

They both make some good points around exploitation, and the way the confessional publishing machine often works: I haven’t written directly for Bustle or XOJane so I don’t know about their individual practices, but I can tell you more broadly that as a woman I think I’m more likely to be encouraged to put a personal spin on something before it’s deemed worthy of publication. As I said in reply to someone on Twitter when we were discussing this: if I pitched a book in a Jon-Ronson-style investigative way about a particular aspect of the sex industry, I’d bet you a thousand pounds I’d be asked to add a personal touch – less ‘I investigated the world of X’ and more ‘What I learned about myself from diving into the world of X.’ I’d also guess (and this is only a guess, but looking at the gender of most people in the ‘confessional’ category I don’t think it’s a wildly inaccurate one) that if I were a bloke people would less frequently ask me to add a personal story to spice something up.

To a certain extent, we expect women to be more confessional than authoritative – particularly when it comes to sex stories. Hence we’re also often more surprised/impressed when men do it, because it’s usually seen as a woman’s territory (perhaps also why I’m so frequently asked where all the male sex blogs are).

So: that’s a problem. Not just because (as Hadley pointed out, I think rightly) it encourages us to think of women as experts only when it comes to themselves. It paints us as emotional rather than objective, and the most valuable thing we have to offer is an insight into the ‘mystery’ of our female minds.

However, while I can agree on that, I think there’s a lot of value in ‘confessional’ writing – even if it is a very gendered genre.

Confessional writing as ‘women’s work’

As a general rule, when a woman writes about sex it’s confessional. When a man does, it’s autobiography.

This blog post, on confessional (autobiographical) poetry highlights neatly the differences in attitude towards men’s versus women’s experiences.

What’s more, women’s confessional stories are fairly often seen as for women as well as by them.  Women’s memoirs (and fictional stories about women’s lives) are more likely to be marketed specifically to women, whereas men’s stories are seen as holding a universal appeal. This spills over from memoir and into genres like ‘chick lit’ too. Dan Brown isn’t marketed as ‘bloke lit’, because that is not a thing. Men who write confessional stories don’t just get different marketing strategies: they’re exempt from this kind of criticism because we’ve categorised them out and into the safety of ‘autobiography.’

But just because confessional stories are often marketed this way, that doesn’t mean they hold no value – it just means that literature, blogging, and general online #content isn’t immune from our expectations and assumptions about gender. Personally, there are lots of lines I tiptoe carefully along when I’m writing for mainstream publications – sometimes I’ll accept a gig that people might criticise me for, allow more clickworthy titles to be appended to my stuff, or make any one of a million other compromises in order to get my writing in front of more people. I’m lucky to have worked predominantly with great editors who haven’t insisted I compromise a bunch of stuff I wouldn’t be happy with, but I don’t blame the people who do: if you want to tell a story to a wide audience, to a certain extent you have to play the game.

So when writing about female confessional stories – sex stories in particular, because that’s the area I know best – slamming female writers for ‘self-exploitation’ seems a bit patronising. We’re not unaware of the game we’re playing, and nor are we all just being churned through a relentless machine. Some of us are working within a system to try and change it. We’ll use popular clickbait or platforms in the media and in bookshops to talk about things that wouldn’t get an outlet elsewhere. Sure, some of us fail, but it’s not fair to assume that we’re ignorant about what’s happening.

What’s more: confessional stories have value beyond giving simple voyeuristic thrills.

Why I prefer confessional stories

I have a huge amount of admiration for my colleagues over in fiction. Apart from anything else, I’ve had a go at erotic fiction and found it’s bloody hard. Catch me on a day when I’m feeling down and I’ll tell you that the reason I write true sex stories is because I simply don’t have the imagination for the fictional ones.

But there’s more to it than that, I think. We’re all drawn towards certain stories – any voracious reader will be able to give you a run-down of why their favourite genre just appeals to them more than any other. Thriller readers love the twist. Romance readers love the glowing realisation that you love this fictional character just as much as the protagonist does. Dan Brown readers will tell you they like strings of meaningless, exciting, contradictory, seemingly-irrelevant adjectives followed by – good Lord! – an exclamation of surprise.

I’m drawn to real life sex stories because of the feelings they evoke.

The word ‘confessional’ implies that I like them in a grubby, voyeuristic sense. That I want to see other people’s shame exposed so that I can do what humans are drawn to if you let them wallow in the gutter: judge, condemn, and revel in that delicious combination of titillation and condemnation. The same glee that’s stirred when you read the word ‘ROMP’ in all-caps in a tabloid paper.

But I think that’s an old-fashioned view of how humans read this stuff. In fact, as someone who writes this shit all the time, I’ll tell you it’s far more common for people to respond to me with an ‘oooh’ feeling rather than an ‘eww’. It’s that ‘me too’ feeling. They don’t see me as ‘confessing’ a sin, just sharing a story. In turn they’re not listening in judgment, but with empathy. The aim with most confessional stories is to put the reader in the shoes of the person who’s sharing. It’s why well-written guest blogs make me feel what the author felt. Why I can be aroused by sex scenes that do not match my kinks, and get horny nonetheless.

What’s more, writing about ‘sins’ with empathy and trying to elicit understanding rather than condemnation can even contribute to changing people’s minds. Confessional stories, even if they look like pure titillation to you – also contribute to a wider discussion about how we live our lives. If enough people ‘confess’ to being promiscuous, or enjoying anal sex, or having to get the morning after pill, then those who would shame them for any of these things have less ammunition. Others, who may not have considered these issues before, are introduced to them through someone’s real-life experience: with warmth and humanity rather than screeching condemnation.

That’s not to say that all confessional stories are works of great genius, or that no one ever reads them purely for titillation. And God knows I get my fair share of comments from people who don’t get the ’empathy’ thing. But I think the genre has merit, because it allows you to invite people in to your head and ask them to consider a particular perspective.

While you certainly can be exploited for your confessional stories, not all confessional stories have to be exploitative.


  • The One says:

    As someone who enjoys the writings of Hadley Freeman and Sarah Ditum, and frequently agrees with them both, I’m always happy to read an alternative perspective that questions their position even a bit. Agreeing wholeheartedly with something, whatever it is, should always be a bit of a red flag that you’ve perhaps missed something important you should have factored in. Abstract! I’m forged in the fires of a million comments sections. Great piece :D

  • Garry Buck says:

    I enjoy reading confessionals for several reasons. I like the validation of ‘me too’ when it happens. I appreciate being allowed to see things in a different way; empathising helps to expand my mind. But most importantly for me, it often brings clarity to my own experience. I often have a hard time finding the words to express emotions. The Aha moment for me is a moment of elucidation; ‘so that’s what I’m feeling!’

    The clarity and honesty in your writing has given me a number of those Aha! moments. I appreciate that.

  • ValeryNorth says:

    I wouldn’t call Dan Brown “Bloke Lit”, but the term immediately conjures to me writers like Nick Hornby. It’s certainly a thing, but it doesn’t get called that even though I love the idea of doing so.

    And I think people do treat that sort of writing differently when men do it.

  • Azkyroth says:

    So what exactly is it that makes a story “confessional?”

    • Girl on the net says:

      Well, that depends on who you ask, but from how confessional is being defined I’d guess:
      – something personal (i.e. based on own experience)
      – revealing something intimate (i.e. something we don’t usually talk about – sex, mental health, etc)
      – usually by a woman

  • SpaceCaptainSmith says:

    Reasonable argument here. Writing from personal experience certainly has a value of its own (at the very least to the writer even if no one else), and the Internet has provided a massive platform for it.

    It is true that women are more likely to be directed down that path than men, but it’s also true (as you note) that women’s writing is more likely to be described as ‘confessional’, with all that implies, than men’s. For some reason, I think people are more likely to assume that a piece of writing by a woman *must* be based on personal experience. (Well, either that or that a man wrote it for her…)

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