[Edited 7/9/13 to add] Carrie wrote to me on twitter saying: "By quoting only part of that sentence, you put the focus on 'women' instead of 'aliens', when it was the alien part I objected to. Either you didn't understand what I was saying, or misrepresented it--but the issues wasn't women, or even hookers in space. It was the specific trope of 'alien space hookers'/the racism of classic examples; your 'look I've learned' statement ignores that." I had not intended to misrepresent and apologize for doing so. The full sentence from the review was:The reference in question came near the beginning of the story in what was essentially a throwaway joke as the reference isn't in any way relevant to the rest of the action.
"Would have rated it higher except for the space hookers; suggesting one catches diseases from sex with alien women is based on the classic SF method of hiding racism by attaching negative stereotypes to 'aliens' instead."
"We weren't armed; the trade routes had been peaceful for decades. The biggest risk to cargo haulers was catching something from one of the alien women at the waystations. A raygun wasn't much good against that sort of trouble."I'm a bit embarrassed to say that my initial reaction was "But I didn't saaaaaaay they were hookers!" Which, if I'd been foolish enough to actually say that should've earned me a "not impressed" look and a "Really?" 'Cause... Yeah... That was pretty clearly the inference I was going for there. Fortunately, I didn't stop at that first reaction, and I also didn't linger around "But I didn't mean for it to be offensive" either.
Because whatever my intentions were, the fact was that it had bothered her and, presumably, some other readers as well. When she and I discussed the review on Twitter, she noted that her initial reaction had been harsher. What I took that to suggest was that when she read that paragraph in the story, she experienced at least a somewhat visceral negative reaction.
Which wasn't at all what I was going for in this story. It was meant to be an amusing story, not one that upset readers -- even if only momentarily. And it was completely needless. I could've written any of a thousand other jokes in that spot, most of which wouldn't have offended anyone. If I had done that, people who read the story as it was and liked it just fine would've still liked it just fine. And those who were troubled by the space hookers would have ended up being able to enjoy the story more.
If I'd come up with a different, non-offensive joke there, the net enjoyment of my story would have been increased and no one's enjoyment would've been notably decreased. This is no less an egregious error than getting the science blatantly wrong in a story; in fact, it's worse because it led to the possibility of people not only being pulled out of the story and frustrated but of feeling harmed.
There are going to be times when even a writer who is trying to take care to avoid slips like these errs. In fact, the rationale that Carrie noted for finding the space hookers offensive is one that wouldn't have occurred to me, no matter how many times I thought about it. I could see it once it had been pointed out to me, but I would have missed it on my own. (Though the combination of it having potentially-misogynistic connotations and also just being an old, worn idea in and of itself should have steered me away from that joke if I'd given it more thought.)
I've got more thoughts on this topic, particularly on the word "unintentionally", but I'll save those for a second post.