The problem with AfterEllen, and why we still need queer spaces online

There’s a question almost every queer-identifying woman I know gets asked at some point after she comes out, usually by a straight person who lacks all subtly and graces: “How do lesbians have sex?”

It shouldn’t be difficult to understand why such a question is problematic. It is invasive, a query about an intimacy that few would pose to a straight person. It assumes that a woman’s sex life, especially when it involves another woman, is open for dissection and discussion. It also relies on tired tropes that lesbians are desirable for those around them; that our pleasure is not for ourselves but for the pleasure of others. It is voyeuristic, too often for the gratification of heterosexual men.

That’s why when lesbian site of record AfterEllen published a story titled, “Naughty Lesbian Sex Scenes” last week, queer women were understandably pissed off.

Some context: in September, Evolve Media, the company that owns AfterEllen, announced that it would be ceasing the site’s regular operations, firing its editor-in-chief, Trish Bendix, and removing its editorial staff. Evolve says there’s still a possibility for freelance publication on the site, but AfterEllen as it has been known to gay, bisexual, and queer women online since its launch in 2002 is effectively dead.

Without an editorial team of dedicated queer women, posts like the above manage to slip through.

AfterEllen has long been considered one of the few spaces online dedicated to queer women’s entertainment, written for and by queer women. According to Bendix, Evolve gave AfterEllen two years to become a thriving LGBTQ property, and when it failed to bring in profits tantamount to its other properties—which include as Bendix put it, “fashion and mom brands”—it gave the site’s editorial team the axe.

The sad irony? As Quartz’s Marcie Bianco points out, several advertisers tend to ignore gay and bisexual women, despite the fact that they make more money than their straight counterparts.

It’s a story we’re not unfamiliar with. Also an online portal for queer women, Autostraddle manages to stay afloat through reader donations and a subscription program because advertising won’t suffice. In Canada, DailyXtra had to kill its print products in 2015.

The post in question, for me, is reminiscent of being asked how women like me have sex. It’s invasive, voyeuristic. It is so, so painfully obvious that the piece has not been written for an audience of readers who aren’t queer women, for their gratification and not ours. Because gay and bisexual women don’t want to read about “naughty” sex scenes—that simply sells our sexuality short, much in the same way that asking about our sex lives does. Instead, we want content that speaks to our reality. We want to read about entertainment that represents our lived experiences, not a listicle featuring YouTube videos of half-naked women.

The situation amplifies the dire need for more queer spaces online. Yes, all publications around the world are struggling to stay alive, searching for new revenue streams and models to sustain their product. But queer outlets such as AfterEllen face the additional stress of sustaining a product for a minority population that so desperately needs to create space, to have their voices heard. What this “naughty sex scenes” story proves is that companies can’t cut corners when it comes to such content: queer spaces must be run for queer people, by queer people, in a way that speaks specifically to queer realities.

This weekend, the post was removed from AfterEllen. There’s no cached version of it, according to Fusion. There’s also no editor’s note to explain its absence (likely because, oh yeah, there isn’t an editor anymore).

The post is further proof of the need of queer-specific platforms. Content for queer people by queer people matters—and poor substitutes will only serve to embarrass at best, and insult at worst.

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