Personal Essays for Peanuts
Are Feminist Sites Exploiting Their Contributors?
Sam Dylan Finch began blogging about mental health and queer topics in 2014 — right in the middle of the personal-essay boom. It wasn’t long before he realized he could make a little money with the same kind of writing he was already producing for free.
Finch, a 26-year-old genderqueer trans man, wrote unflinchingly and compassionately about a wide range of tough topics: gender identity, complex PTSD, suicidality, attention deficit disorder and the stigma around all of these. He found the work challenging, cathartic, empowering and terrifying — and he reached an audience of people who felt like they were being validated for the first time.
But writing about these subjects soon took a toll.
“When [writing about] trauma was paying my bills, I had to go to that dark place, whether I really wanted to or not. And that’s not a healthy way to engage with personal pain, especially when you’re not even making enough money to get yourself some damn good therapy to deal with the aftermath,” Finch says.
Finch ultimately stepped back from writing about his painful experiences, except for occasional pieces on his blog, Let’s Queer Things Up! He’s now an editor at Upworthy; he acknowledges that his early work allowed him to gain recognition for his writing, but he’s glad he now gets to choose when to write about the dark places in his psyche.
Online media has come a long way, with thousands of websites delivering niche content to eager audiences. Several sites focus largely on women’s issues and feminism — and, specifically, intersectional feminism, which examines how race, class and gender intersect and affect people’s lived experiences. Everyday Feminism, The Establishment, Ravishly and Bustle are some of the publishers in this space.
Those are important topics, and feminist sites often rely on writers like Finch to bring an authentic voice to explorations of misogyny, transphobia, fat-shaming and sexual trauma. These pieces serve two purposes: they draw like-minded readers, and enlighten others who don’t quite understand. Unfortunately, these writers are often paid very little — if they are paid at all.
According to whopayswriters.com, the pay for personal essays ranges from $25 at the low end to $120 at the high end, with many outlets paying $50 to $75 per piece. xoJane, one of the biggest publications in this market, pays $50 for its “It Happened to Me” essays, which tend to be harrowing, even shocking pieces. Some xoJane writers reported not getting paid anything.
Like the media industry as a whole, many feminist publications are hurting for revenue. The ad dollars aren’t there. Many readers are reluctant to pay for subscriptions. And investors often don’t view media outlets — except those with the biggest name recognition — as a wise place to put their money.
“Everyday Feminism strives to pay people fair wages, amplify marginalized voices, and fight everyday oppression,” the site’s editors said in a plea for donations. “And none of those things are valued in our society or deemed as ‘profitable’ — not when HuffPo doesn’t pay their contributors or when ‘women-friendly’ (but not actually intersectional feminist) sites are getting million-dollar investments.”
Readers these days expect online content to be free, The Establishment’s editors said in 2017. After receiving an initial investment, the company asked readers to donate funds and buy merch in order to keep The Establishment afloat. Like Everyday Feminism, The Establishment had a tough time convincing subsequent investors “that there’s value in intersectional media — especially in an environment increasingly hostile to media.”
To keep costs down, these publications often bring on fledgling writers who’re paid by the piece — and then pay them as little as they can. New writers are often happy to earn anything for their work. Before long, though, many realize the writing comes at a cost.
“It sounded like a great idea, but I didn’t realize just how much it would hurt,” says Laurel Dickman, 34, who has written about trauma and fatphobia for a few online publications. Sometimes she would ask for more money, but when her editors said they couldn’t afford it, she felt stuck. “I was in a bind. I couldn’t say no to ANY money. Because of this, I just ignored the painful feelings and pushed through it.”
Like Finch, Dickman says the experience wasn’t entirely bad. She was finally being recognized for her writing, and felt validated for all the painful experiences she’d lived through. It was deeply therapeutic — but also made her realize she needed real therapy, something she couldn’t afford on what she earned with her writing. She eventually stopped writing personal essays and now focuses exclusively on plus-size fashion.
Not everyone’s encounters with the personal-essay market are so negative. Sezin Koehler, a biracial Sri Lankan American, agreed that writing about painful experiences is tough, since it requires reliving them. She also agreed that there’s a therapeutic element; when she “came out” as a rape survivor, she says her whole life got better. “I hadn’t realized how much that trauma lived and was active in my body until I released it with published words.”
Koehler, 39, says she’s been paid $40 to $125 per essay, which she concedes is low — especially for sharing something so intimate. “It’s also unfortunate that for women of color, we are often expected to mine our social and cultural experiences with regards to our identity when writing personal essays.”
She’s writing fewer personal essays these days, and rarely takes less than $125 for one. But that’s partly because she has healed so much through her writing that she feels less of a need to get things off her chest. Koehler says that’s a bigger reward than the money — although a check is nice, too. “Basically, I got paid to do self-therapy. That’s a win-win for me.”
Experiences like Koehler’s are few and far between. More typically, writers who start out with personal essays move on to other forms of writing that pay better and require less soul-searching. Finch challenges the online media world — and media sites that focus on marginalized voices in particular — to take a good, hard look at what they’re doing.
“I’m passionate about the genre, and I always will be. What I question is an industry that asks marginalized people to be vulnerable, turns our identities and struggles into a product, encourages voyeurism, and has the audacity to pay peanuts for it,” Finch says. “What I find even more disturbing is that some of the most ‘socially just’ platforms were the biggest proponents of that harm.”