In the infamous carol “The 12 Days of Christmas,” the singer brags about all the bossy gifts their “true love” gave them for the holidays. But since since six geese-a-laying and a bunch of turtle doves seem unsanitary — not to mention a violation of city ordinances — we decided to gift you with 12 of something better: A handful of sex workers you should absolutely know about. Whether they’re becoming literary superstars, breaking the “stunt cock” mold or literally embodying gay Jesus himself, they’re the real gifts we need this Christmas. And no, not one of them is a turtle dove.
You’re a stripper, and your name is Naomi. You’ve just split up with Rob, who made a scene at the club after finding out what you do for work. You leave with another dancer, Melody — she backed you up in the fight — and soon, the two of you are making out in the back of a cab. At her place, the foreplay continues until she goes down on you. Your orgasm is explosive, but afterward, Melody says she’s just getting started. She opens a box full of sex toys.
Do you want to use a butt plug, or would you rather Melody fuck you with a strap-on?
Such are the pressing decisions to be made in Club 42, a choose-your-own erotic fantasy novel by Joanna Angel, published this year by Cleis Press. (Her debut in the format, Night Shift, was released in 2018). An acclaimed porn performer and producer, Angel has brought her strong personal brand, signature wit and raunchiness to bear on this minor literary genre — and introduced it to a whole new audience. On the rating site Goodreads, many reviewers of Club 42 and Night Shift write that they’d never heard of such fiction before, and were drawn to it out of curiosity, or because their book club had chosen one of Angel’s titles.
This February, she launched Club 42 via a virtual event organized by The Ripped Bodice, an L.A. bookstore devoted to romance literature. No stranger to the camera, the live stream began with her adjusting the setup in her room to get rid of a troublesome patch of glare, before sitting back in front of a black background that matched her dark hair and shirt. A string of icicle lights and her smiling eyes made for bewitching accents. “I did not choose this adventure, this adventure chose me,” she tells the audience.
Angel went on to explain to her conversation partner, the writer Rachel Kramer Bussel, that it was her publisher’s idea to have her write erotica in a choose-your-own fantasy style. Impressed by her story in an earlier anthology, they hoped she was up to the task. “I was like, okay! Let’s do this,” she recalled. “I had always wanted to write a book, and I like a challenge.”
It was a comment that jibes with the rhetorical question posed on Angel’s website, where you can watch her perform in hardcore scenes of impressive variety: What won’t Joanna do?
This intrepid spirit that has defined 40-year-old Angel’s illustrious career, from her days pioneering the “alt-porn” genre in the aughts — a punk aesthetic replete with tattoos, colorful hair and piercings to counteract the generic blondes popular at the time — to her relatively new TikTok account, where she keeps up with the hottest Gen Z dance trends. And while her first novel Night Shift was only published in 2018, literary verve and ambition have been the lifeblood of her work since the very beginning.
People always seem shocked to learn that she’s publishing, Angel tells me, but she’s actually been a writer for longer than she’s been in porn. While earning a degree in English and film from Rutgers University in her native New Jersey, everything came out in the form of poetry. “It’s so embarrassing to think of now,” she says. “I did a lot of open mic nights at coffee shops. The poetry turned into ‘prose,’ and the prose turned into short stories. I suppose college was the time I was really exploring myself sexually, and, well, I wrote about the awkwardness of it all — the heartbreak, the humor and the eroticism that came with it.”
After graduation, she founded her own site, BurningAngel.com, which eventually earned her icon status in the adult industry. The trajectory of a college-educated twenty-something who enters into this world is mirrored in both her books: Night Shift follows Taryn, a young woman who takes a job at a sex shop in a seedy Florida strip mall, while Naomi, the aspiring filmmaker protagonist of Club 42, stumbles into a gig as a dancer in a Times Square strip joint. Angel describes both settings as “meeting grounds where just about anyone at some point in their lives enters — as a customer or a worker.” This makes her stories feel relatable without being too on-the-nose about her life. “The most obvious thing for me to write about was the porn industry,” she continues. “However, I chose to write fiction and not an autobiography. Fictionalizing my own job felt… weird.”
Long before constructing these alternate realities, Angel was experimenting with erotic narratives on BurningAngel, sharing her fiction alongside “naked tattooed chicks.” But she’s not convinced they had much impact on an audience that was primarily there for porn. “In the very early days of BurningAngel, like in 2002, I truly wanted it to be a place where I could share my writing,” she says. “I used to post erotic stories of mine in the ‘articles’ section, but I’m not entirely sure how many people read them. I’m gonna guess myself and perhaps four other people, at best.”
What performed better were band interviews that catered to the hipsters interested in the look and feel of alt-porn. “That’s what really set the brand apart in the early days, and set the tone for the aesthetic of the website,” Angel says. “Conducting these interviews, transcribing them and writing them up with little intros became quite fun for me, so my creative writing was put on the back burner for a bit and became more journalistic.” In this era, BurningAngel ran profiles on rock groups including the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Bloc Party, Electric Six, Bad Religion, Killswitch Engage and My Chemical Romance. “In these interviews,” Angel says, “I’d start with asking your run-of-the-mill questions about the band and their current projects and whatnot, but then I’d delve into asking them about sex, tour stories, etc.”
In some cases, Angel slept with band members afterward, then used these encounters as the basis of her written erotica for BurningAngel. “Kind of subtly and also not subtly at all,” she says. “That was what most of my erotica was about. Not exactly very professional journalism on my end! But hey. It was all in the name of… Art? For the record, it wasn’t everyone in every single band. And it wasn’t every single band. Just a select few. And looking back on it now, being the erotic writing professional that I am, it was some very sloppy and mediocre erotica, but then again… so was the sex.”
But even interest in the music coverage also waned, paving the way for a subsequent realization: Obviously, she needed to start writing porn.
What performed better were band interviews that catered to the hipsters interested in the look and feel of alt-porn. “That’s what really set the brand apart in the early days, and set the tone for the aesthetic of the website,” Angel says. “Conducting these interviews, transcribing them and writing them up with little intros became quite fun for me, so my creative writing was put on the back burner for a bit and became more journalistic.” In this era, BurningAngel ran profiles on rock groups including the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Bloc Party, Electric Six, Bad Religion and My Chemical Romance.
But interest in this content also waned, paving the way for a subsequent realization: Obviously, she needed to start writing porn.
In the almost 20 years since, Angel has penned sex columns and contributed to books, but most consistently, she’s written, directed and produced feature-length adult films. “This became my creative outlet, and my job,” she explains. “Writing a porn script isn’t as easy as you’d think. And the amount of effort, heart and soul I’ve put into these scripts makes it truly devastating when anyone just fast-forwards through the plot! Coming up with a storyline that leads to sex — with a cast of particular characters, a strict deadline and a budget, month after month, year after year — definitely gave me great training for writing an erotic novel.”
Still, writing novels is different. For one thing, she needed to amplify the ensemble and opportunities to accommodate the choose-your-path format, which leads readers into a wide range of sexual acts with many different partners. This was another good reason for using the sex shop and strip club as environments to play in. “Basically, these books are like the erotic version of that Ryan Reynolds movie Waiting” — which covers a single dinner shift for the employees of a chain restaurant — Angel tells me. “A restaurant is like the less sexy version of the strip club. The cast of characters, the staff and the interactions between the customers and the workers is really just a layer of clothing apart from one another when you fictionalize it, if that makes any sense. These places are great jumping-off points for any story to happen.”
Angel describes writing the fantasy scenes themselves as “a 50/50 combination of watching a porn scene and being in a porn scene — two things I have a hefty amount of experience doing!”
And, as in scripted porn, the thrill of discovery and initiation is a valuable ingredient of pleasure. At the beginning of Club 42, Naomi, fresh out of NYU and fired from a barista job, has a youthful innocence, surprised that she’s invited to audition for the stage after walking into the establishment as a curious observer. She and the reader learn the ropes and pitfalls of the business together, making decisions that could land her a pile of money, a shuddering orgasm, a long-term romantic partner or a one-way ticket back to her flat-broke life in Brooklyn.
“I mean, on a purely erotic note, it’s incredibly sexy and exciting to hear about someone’s first time doing anything,” Angel says. “It also broadens the base of your readership. A seasoned sexual professional will still get turned on reading about someone’s self-discovery, and so will a more naïve reader who is looking to broaden their horizons. When self-discovery isn’t the overarching theme, it becomes a different, more niche type of erotica” (for example, a dominatrix writing for readers already involved with the BDSM scene).
It must be said, too, that Night Shift and Club 42 aren’t just packed with arousing encounters, they’re also funny and disarming. Naomi has plenty of mishaps and misunderstandings as she tries to step into the role of a nude dancer — when she first takes to the pole, she realizes the dress she’s wearing is pretty much impossible to take off in a smooth, seductive way — and her amusing descriptions of colleagues and clientele bring the place to life, which greatly enhances the smutty passages. This comedy, Angel says, is actually part of the erotic journey. “I have a hard time writing anything at all without making jokes,” she says. “I can’t help it! I love jokes! And, well, there’s a lot more quirky, awkward humor that comes along with trying anything new and sexual for the first time.”
While her scripts can dabble in the absurd end of the comic spectrum (the award-winning Evil Tiki Babes, co-written with Shawn Alff, involves espionage and undercover agents), the more grounded gags she deploys on the page lend an air of credibility to the lewd proceedings.
I was also taken in by the fluidity of the experience. As Angel says, her ideal audience is “everyone who read Fifty Shades of Grey and wasn’t rich enough, or heterosexual enough, to enjoy it,” and hopes they remember the book as not just horny and funny, but inclusive. This manifests in the diverse appetites of Club 42’s Naomi, who is open to trying just about anything. After my first few decisions in her shoes, I had the chance to entertain a client in a private room with Brandi, a more seasoned performer — Naomi winds up eating Brandi’s pussy while she grinds on the guy till he comes in his pants. Having enjoyed my time as a hot bisexual woman by proxy, I ask Angel if she considers gender-swapping part of the draw for cis male readers.
“I didn’t imagine the men reading this book gender-swapping in their head — I suppose I expected them to feel like a fly-on-the-wall customer and get aroused watching it all go down,” she says. “But now that I know cis male readers can indulge in getting turned on while feeling like a cis female stripper, I’ll have a much bigger smile on my face as I go through the day.”
That positivity is present in the book, too. It’s not that Club 42 doesn’t feature embarrassment, economic anxiety and an exploitative boss, but it’s also not the end of the world. I can’t help pointing out that in the choose-your-own-adventure books I read as a kid, any wrong turn could lead to your grisly death, whereas Naomi at most risks a breakup or losing the stripper job. The somewhat lower stakes are a relief from grim depictions of sex workers as coerced or truly desperate, unable to break free of their circumstances. Even the downbeat conclusions have a note of hopefulness: In the outcome where Naomi’s budding relationship with Rob and stripper career are thwarted by a single disastrous move on the stage, she says that it’s time to “figure out what was next for me in life.”
“I only did positive endings in Night Shift, and I actually felt a bit guilty, like I didn’t really give the format the justice it deserved,” Angel tells me. “So when it came time to write my second novel, I made sure to incorporate a bunch of dead ends. I mean, no one actually died, but in a book about a stripper, getting fired from the strip club is the equivalent of death!” Fair enough, although in my estimation, it beats falling off a mountain.
So, will Angel polish off a trilogy? She’s in no rush. Plus, there’s lots of other writing to be done: Besides the film scripts, she’s sexting her subscribers on OnlyFans — full-time erotica work in its own right. But Angel credits this practice as an “inspiration” for her novels, and vice versa. “When you’re a writer, you take your sexting very seriously,” she notes. “You cannot be a writer and send out sloppy, phoned-in sexts!” Whether these exchanges will build up to another novel, Angel can’t say.
Though with the right conditions, the sky’s the limit. And given Angel’s stated influences, from fellow author and porn star Asa Akira to guys like David Sedaris and Jonathan Ames, the next project could go in any direction — much like the titillating mazes she’s written so far. Beyond that, I wonder, might she teach other people her craft? Does the culture have a place for an erotica MFA program? “That’s a great idea,” she replies. “You know, every few months, when I have a midlife crisis, I think of getting an MFA in general. And then, I get halfway through taking a practice GRE test and give up. So if anyone out there in the world of academia wants to help me start a pornographic MFA program —- let me know!”
Advanced degree or not, there’s no denying this about Joanna Angel: She’s a master of fine arts.