The Corporate Censorship of Erotica

In recent weeks, there has been an attack on certain types of indie erotica. It started with Bookstrand, a site I investigated but never used, banning first some of the more fringe types of erotica and finally indie authors altogether. OmniLit/AllRomance ebooks, a site I do use, was next. Same story, erotica gets its own ghetto without any subclassifications and certain kinds of erotica are now unacceptable altogether. In addition to the underage sex, incest, bestiality, necrophilia and rape erotica, so-called pseudo-incest (featuring stepsiblings or stepparents and stepchildren) as well as barely legal erotica featuring 18 to 20-year-old women is now unacceptable as well. Oh yes, and BDSM is apparently a no-go as well.

More under the cut. And since we’re talking about erotica here, the content might bother more sensitive people:

Smashwords was targeted next and unlike AllRomance and Bookstrand, Mark Coker was pretty open about what the problem was, namely with PayPal, the online payment system we have all used at some point in our lives. Apparently, PayPal is being pushed by the credit card companies to get rid of the some of the more out there forms of erotica. Alas, Smashwords did not fold so easily and is trying to come to an agreement with PayPal that is less restrictive.

The romance site Dear Author has a round-up of the events and relevant links. What is more, Femmedia has a link round-up on the topic as well. There’s also a petition you can sign.

Now I don’t write erotica, even though some of my stories were originally published in a magazine specializing in pulp erotica. Nonetheless, I find these developments troubling. First of all, because while literary descriptions of pedophilia are illegal almost everywhere (unless they are called Lolita and were written by Vladimir Nabokov, of course) and necrophilia, bestiality and incest are illegal in practice in most countries, though not necessarily in writing, I don’t see why erotica featuring people who are not related by blood or erotica featuring characters who are clearly over the age of consent even in the US should be a problem. The acts described are clearly legal, so why is writing about them suddenly not allowed. I never really understood the prohibition against rape for titillation, though I personally can’t stand that stuff, because prohibiting rape for titillation would eliminate the whole bodice ripper era in one swoop. As for BDSM, sometimes it seems that half the erotica on the virtual shelves is BDSM.

Besides, who died and made PayPal or respectively the credit card companies supreme guardian of public decency? And am I the only one who finds it troubling that I can buy a gun using PayPal or my credit card (in the US at least – Germany has tough gun laws) but not a steamy novel? Because last I checked, no one was ever killed by reading erotica, even of the more sordid variety. Guns, on the other hand, kill thousands of people each year.

Erotica author Selena Kitt has two great posts about this sudden crackdown on erotica and why it matters to all of us, even those who don’t read or write erotica.

Michelle McCleod weighs in as well, as do Violet Williams, C.L. Knight and paranormal romance writer Roxy Rogers.

Those links are, as internet parlance puts it, “not safe for work”, by the way.

I’d been following the online discussions about this issue for a while and was bothered not just by what was going on, but also by how cavalier many indie writers reacted to the whole issue:

  • “Well, I find this stuff disgusting, so it should be banned.” (Here’s one example. There are others)
  • Bookstrand/AllRomance/Smashwords/PayPal is a business and has the right to decide whom they do business with. And besides, Capitalism is wonderful and Communism is evil and if you don’t agree, you’re an evil Communist.”
  • “It’s not censorship, because it’s not the government who is doing the censoring here.”
  • “No one is forcing you to write erotica. Why don’t you go and write something else?”

But what really prompted me to post was this post by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Now I’m a regular reader of Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s blog, I admire her a lot and I probably wouldn’t be indie publishing at all, if I hadn’t read her blog. Which is also why I was so shocked to tune in for the latest installment of The Business Rusch and read what basically amounted to “Shut up and write”. Because those stupid thudding writers who complain about censorship (and of course, it’s not censorship at all, because PayPal and the credit card companies have every right not to want their brand associated with that nasty porn) are just supporting someone else’s agenda anyway. And don’t even get me started on the whole “If you really wanted to, you’d find an alternative” stuff which completely ignores that many of the supposed alternatives are not viable for non-US writers.

So I decided “Fuck all that” and write a loud and angry thudding post, like a stupid thudding writer: Because making whole classes of content unavailable for sale is censorship, regardless of whether it’s initiated by government or by a corporation. Besides, non-governmental self-control bodies are just as effective at censoring and removing undesirable content as official government censors. The Hays Code, the Comics Code Authority and Germany’s Freiwillige Selbstkontrolle (voluntary self-control, though it’s neither voluntary nor self-control) are censorship organisations, plain and simple. For a current example of how large swathes of the mainstream media, both publicly controlled and privately owned, try to manipulate public opinion and suppress dissent, read the Gauck posts on my main blog.

Besides, even if this attack on certain kinds of erotica was apparently originated by PayPal and the credit card companies, the real background here is that a certain vocal subset of Americans have got their heads in a tizzy about porn. After all, it is telling this crackdown on self-published erotica happens at a time when the three Republican presidential candidates with the highest chances all promise to crack down and preferably ban pornography. A crumbling infrastructure, high unemployment, two wars, a recession that shows no sign of ending, an enormous budget deficit and the three most promising Republican presidential candidates worry about porn. Really, someone has their priorities all screwed up here.

This is probably what bothers me most about all this, namely that a vocal minority of Americans are trying to push their morals on the rest of the world. Now “Daddy’s little girl” erotica is not my thing at all, I don’t find incest or rape or bestiality even remotely sexy. But I don’t think that adults writing or reading about it is wrong.

Besides, I already censor my own works to comply with American morality. I write historical fiction. Sometimes, my characters have sex and sometimes one or both partners are young, because ideas of sexual maturity were often very different in the past. Besides, the age of consent in Germany is sixteen, but I already up the ages of some of my characters to eighteen or nineteen to comply with the American panic about underage sex. But if eighteen or nineteen-year-olds having sex is suddenly taboo as well, will I have to up the ages of my characters to 21, even though they behave like teenagers, because that’s what they are?

And don’t get me started on trying to arrange the letters on the cover of The Spiked Death, so they would cover up a bare nipple and a bit of pubic hair – on a historical painting that no one in Germany would find the least bit objectionable. As for the content – the story is about a villain who gets off on kidnapping young women, chaining them to walls and torturing them. Cause if you’ve read my stuff, you know that a lot of it is violent. Characters are tied up, they are threatened with torture and execution, because that’s what villains do. Sometimes there’s a sexual component to the violence, sometimes the villain or his henchmen grope the heroine – because again, villains are villainous. And just to point out that it’s not just Americans who are trying to push their morals on everybody else, in the UK certain kinds of “extreme porn”, mainly snuff and asphyx porn as well as bestiality and necrophilia, is illegal to possess after a guy who was into that sort of stuff strangled a young woman. I have stories where characters are threatened with hanging or garotting.

Yes, I know that it’s only erotica that’s under attack at the moment and I don’t write erotica. And none of my stories contain anything that you couldn’t find in a George R.R. Martin/Joe Abercrombie style gritty fantasy novel, a Bernard Cornwell historical novel or a vintage bodice ripper. But if erotica that doesn’t depict anything illegal is suddenly no longer okay, then my works or anybody else’s could be next. And this is why we have to speak out.

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22 Responses to The Corporate Censorship of Erotica

  1. Selena Kitt says:

    Thank you!

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  5. Estara says:

    Did you see that Manga Bookshelf had a comparison post for what the Apple Store is censoring in the way of sex in comics? Yaoi isn’t okay, but hetero sex in US comics is just fine. It’s all so double standard…

    • Cora says:

      Thanks for the link.

      Apple has long been known for its particularly puritanical standards. At one point, they even blocked the Bild and Stern apps for alleged pornographic content. Whatever one may think about either publication, pornographic they’re not.

      So I’m not surprised that they choose to censor comics with sexual content that is about as shocking as the page 3 girls of Bild, namely not very. Not surprised that they have a double standard and censor fairly mild Yaoi, while letting racier but heterosexual US comics pass. I’m actually surprised that the Vertigo comic passed (probably due to big dollars from Warner Bros) and as for the Batman comic, I’m surprised that he had sex at all, since he certainly never did that while I was still reading mainstream US comics.

      And of course the double standard regarding GLBT content is deeply worrying in the light of the recent PayPal attack on erotica. Because it’s pretty obvious that once they have dealt with the pseudo incest and BDSM stuff, they’ll go after GLBT books next.

  6. “…none of my stories contain anything that you couldn’t find in a George R.R. Martin/Joe Abercrombie style gritty fantasy novel, a Bernard Cornwell historical novel or a vintage bodice ripper. ”

    Well, actually a great many of the vintage bodice rippers would be in PayPal’s gun-sights. An astonishing number of them included the rape of the heroine, in quite astonishingly eroticized detail. The grandmother of all bodice-rippers, “The Flame and the Flower” opens with a rape.

    • Cora says:

      Yeah, this was the first thing that struck me when I saw the prohibition against rape for titillation. Namely that it would theoretically eliminate a whole lot of vintage bodice-rippers. There was usually quite a bit of violence, too. I remember whippings and even a heroine getting crucified. But ARe still sells Rosemary Rogers and Kathleen E. Woodiwiss.

      • Estara says:

        And I’m sure you can buy Lolita via Paypal checkout at most general ebook stores, too.

        • Cora says:

          I’m pretty sure you could buy Lolita, though it mostly gets a free pass on account of being “art”. You can also buy a lot of recent gritty fantasy novels with horrible scenes of torture and rape and murder. And an indie-published BDSM happy erotic trilogy that is basically Twilight fanfic with the serial numbers filed off has hit the New York Times bestseller list.

          It’s the term “erotica” that gets up PayPal’s hackles here. Either that or they have no idea what can be found in some mainstream books.

          • Estara says:

            Yes, I saw the long discussion of the appeal, non-appeal of Fifty Shades of Grey on DearAuthor.com ^^.

            DA has followed this from the start – with Book Strand and ARe separating or evicting erotica and Smashword founder and CEO still trying to work out some more compromises with PayPal.

            Still, it finally comes down to censorship of material which has not involved any minor or unwilling participant, just because someone doesn’t like particular sexual kinks. My impression.

          • Cora says:

            Dear Author has done a really good job covering both the whole PayPal vs. erotica debacle as well as the 50 Shades of Grey phenomenon. Though it’s not difficult to provide better coverage of the 50 Shades phenomenon than the mainstream media, which mostly provided condescending articles along the line of “Mommy porn” and “It’s wives and mothers… reading about sex! But their husbands get a bit more sex out of it, so it’s probably okay.”

            But it’s definitely a case of someone – whether it’s PayPal, the credit card companies or the Republican Party – trying to censor certain legal sexual kinks they find icky.

            It’s not just the US though. Back in the early days of private television, Sat1 and RTL used to show so-called softcore porn flicks late at night. Some of those were comparatively harmless, Schulmädchenreport and all that (though Schulmädchenreport would be banned as “barely legal” under PayPal’s guidelines). Others were definitely not, e.g. the eye-searing scene of Snow White doing it with all seven dwarves at the same time that I came across while waiting for a Star Trek rerun on late night TV in the early 1990s. But Sat1 or RTL were only fined once for showing inacceptable late night porn, for a bondage scene in a film called Katherina, die nackte Zarin. So sex with all seven dwarves is okay, but bondage games with Catherine the Great are not.

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  10. Jibarican says:

    Thank You for writing about this. I was rather ignorant to all the erotica censorship until wordpress decided to block my “clean” erotica website. Thank You so much for posting this! It’s much needed!

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