Self-righteous Censorship: It's the New Black
This week, Smashwords, the indie-ebook store, changed its policies, and added three new categories to its list of forbidden erotica contents, because PayPal insists on new criteria and businesses have a choice to comply or give up PayPal. This also affects AllRomanceEbooks and other publishing sites, who have to choose between censorship and quick, drastic changes to their business models.
The new rules (or possibly, new enforcement of existing rules; PayPal's always been anti-some-sexual-content, but may not have been so specific in the past) require ebook stores to not carry books that contain "bestiality, rape-for-titillation, incest and underage erotica." Of course, none of those are actually defined; this is another case of "all DECENT people will know it when they see it, and agree that those are Horrible Things that all DECENT people should not want to write or read."
The more I look at Mark Coker's announcement about the Smashwords changes to comply with PayPal's demands, the more annoyed I get. The EFF posted their obligatory rant about free speech, but I'm focused on a different aspect: Coker's semi-apologetic, semi-defensive post.
He does a terrific job of implying that these are reasonable, sensible new rules, and that it was just kind of an oversight that he didn't have them in place all along--while *also* implying that he's so, so sorry about how this affects authors and readers, but he just has no choice. I hate this kind of duplicity.
Coker apparently supports PayPal's censorship. Consider what he said about each of PayPal's new restrictions:
The underage erotica is not a problem for us. We already have some of the industry’s strictest policies prohibiting underage characters (we don’t even allow non-participating minors to appear in erotica), and our vetting team is always on the lookout for “barely legal” content where supposed adults are placed in underage situations.
Of course, this connects to the same problem the AO3 had in trying to sort out warning labels: what counts as "underage" in a fantasy novel where people are married at puberty? In science fiction where characters get their brains transferred to new bodies? For aliens who only live 15 years? For elves who live for 3000 years? Is a vampire in a 12-year-old body with a 150-year-old mind underage? Is a vat-grown clone, born yesterday with a full adult's knowledge programmed into it, underage? How old are nanites? When are Pernese dragons considered adult?
The Archive of Our Own picked a legal-based answer: "Underage" refers to human characters under 18 years old; aliens, elves, super-clones, dragons, mutants etc. are exempt from the "must warn for underage sex" warning rules. Smashwords has issued no such guidelines, and instead has said, "we don’t even allow non-participating minors to appear in erotica." If I understand this... characters in an erotica story can't have children or young siblings. No romance/erotica borderline stories with families; everyone understands that you can have "romance" stories that involve families and children, but once you get into hardcore sex, kids have to not be part of your life at all. Wouldn't want people thinking that hot sex can be a part of a *complete* life, doncha know.
Note that, since underage is already banned, this means "adult incest," almost always consenting. Coker says,
Until now, we didn’t have a policy prohibiting incest between consenting adults, or its non-biological variation commonly known as “Pseudo-incest.” ... PI usually explores sexual relations between consenting adult stepchildren with their step parents, or between step-siblings. Effectively immediately, we no longer allow incest of any variety in erotica.
Incest, however, carries thorny baggage. The legality of incest is murky. It creates a potential legal liability for Smashwords as our business and our books become more present in more jurisdictions around the world. Anything that threatens Smashwords directly threatens our ability to serve the greater interests of all Smashwords authors....
So, he admits that much of the fic tagged as "incest" isn't technically dealing with incest in a legal sense--but he's not allowing "incest of any variety," which apparently means, "if it hits the incest kink button, it's not allowed, regardless of the legal situation between the characters." So it's not about "does this story contain incest" (a murky legal question on its own--are first cousin relationships incest? They're legal to marry in CA, but not in NV), but "does this story feel likeit has incest in it?" Not banning stories based on the actual, objective content, but based on the expected reaction of the reader.
Then he mumbles about legal baggage with incest--as if there were ANY kind of fiction topics that were illegal to write about in the US--and the issues of other countries' laws. Will he be banning books that are "anti-Islamic," so they don't run afoul of Egyptian law? Banning books that criticize the king of Thailand? How many countries' laws will he be considering adapting his policies to fit?
Smokescreen. He certainly won't agree to ban Christian stories based on China not wanting them available. Incest fic squicks him, so he's happy to agree to ban it "to serve the greater interests of all Smashwords authors"--except, of course, for those who wrote and profited from those stories. They must not be part of "all authors" anymore.
Now we're getting into *bizarrely* blurry territory. WTF is rape-for-titillation? Whose titillation are we talking about: The rapist's, the victim's, or the reader's? Who decides whether "titillation" has been achieved? Coker says:
Although our Terms of Service prohibits books that advocate violence against others, we did not specifically identify rape. This was an oversight on our part. ... At Smashwords, rape has no longer has a place in erotica. It has no place anywhere else if the purpose is to titillate. Non-consensual BDSM – or any other form of non-consensual violence against another person – is prohibited.
So... stories that contain non-consensual sex or violence (or BDSM, which is presumed to be a form of violence) are, by Coker's analogy, advocatingthose things.
He seems to be saying multiple things:
- 1) Rape is not allowed in erotica stories, regardless of purpose.
- 2) Rape is not allowed in any story, if the "purpose is to titallate." (Who'll be deciding this?)
- 3) The reason for these is not just because PayPal won't do business with him if they're allowed, but because books with this kind of content "advocate violence."
Of course, this will not mean that traditional romance stories, with their sappy, "he raped her but she loved it so much that they fell in love & lived happily ever after" premise will be banned. No, only stories tagged "erotica" are subject to this banning; rape in other genres is fine. Or at least, graphic rape is fine, as long as it's not part of an erotica story, and not "for titillation." So this isn't about "content unacceptable in ebooks," but "content that inspires unacceptable thoughts in readers."
Finally, we get to the one that everyone agrees is icky:
Except that even that one isn't so cut-and-dried. In real life, bestiality is well-defined & simple. In stories, it's less so... is sex with a werewolf "bestiality?" How about a centaur? A demon? Coker gives his thoughts:
I like animals. Call me old fashioned or hypocritical (I’m not a vegetarian), but I don’t want to be a party to anyone enjoying animals for sexual gratification, for the same reason we’ve never allowed pedophilia books. I don’t want to publish it, sell it, or distribute it. The TOS is now modified to reflect this. Note this does not apply to shape-shifters common in paranormal romance provided the were-creature characters are getting it on in their human form. Sorry I need to clarify it that way, but we don’t want to see bestiality erotica masquerading as paranormal romance.
See the backhanded swipe buried in there? He doesn't allow "pedophilia books," but doesn't acknowledge that not all sex involving under-legal-age characters has anything to do with pedophilia. (A pair of married 15-year-olds are not committing pedophilia. Neither is a 16-year-old and his 18-year-old girlfriend. Nor even his 45-year-old teacher... there's probably a crime involved, depending on the jurisdiction of the story, but it's not pedophilia.) But enough on the underage issue. We're talking critters now.
He's not saying, "Smashwords needs to restrict some content in order to continue as a viable business; sorry about that." He's saying, "thank you, PayPal, for showing me the gaps in my moral restrictions on ebook sales."
He's also saying that the concept of sex with animals is so repugnant, he can't even allow stories that look like it, if you don't know the characters involved. Sentient shapeshifters in animal forms can't be included in erotica. (It's unclear if they can if *both* characters are in animal forms; is wolf-on-wolf sex "bestiality?") And while he specifically mentions were-creatures, which are popular in erotica these days, he doesn't mention the myriad other kinds of characters-with-animal-traits: are the Jokka animals, for this ruling? Are centaurs? How about Titanides, or the other sentient aliens in Varley's Gaia Trilogy?
He says that he, personally, is against sex with animals (good; so am I), and that therefore it shouldn't be allowed in books his publishing company sells (less good; shows a lack of ability to distinguish fact from fiction--does this mean that he's not against murder since he allows books that depict it?), and that he is so *much* against "bestiality erotica" that he will ban stories containing sex acts that *look like* humans getting it on with animals, even though the entities involved are both sentient and aware. (Or maybe banning animal/animal sex, too; it's unclear whether he's against the implication of cross-species action or anything involving nonhuman-shaped creatures.)
What's most telling in his anti-rape, anti-bestiality etc. moralizing is what he *doesn't* discuss: icky topics that PayPal hasn't banned (yet). Necrophilia. Scatological content. Auto-erotic asphyxiation. Felching. Where's the rant about "auto-asphyxiation is too dangerous so I don't allow it in books sold at my site?" Or "violating dead bodies is just vile; we won't be promoting that activity by allowing people to make money off art based on it?" --No, his morals only kick in when someone threatens his income.
And of course, there are all the non-sexual topics that aren't banned: Child abuse. Serial murder. Racism, sexism, homophobia, and other bigotries. Psychological torture. Those are perfectly fine to depict in books sold at Smashwords. Are we to believe he's in favor of all these, since he didn't bother denouncing them the way he did bestiality?
I'd be a lot less annoyed if he just said, "yes, it sucks, but I can't afford to find another payment processor right now, and am not likely to switch to one in the future, because they're all hideously expensive and risky." I've looked into them--they are. Some want a $500 annual fee + large balance set aside to deal with the "risk" of processing your erotica sales. Some want a 15% cut of every sale. Some want access to your bank account (!). Some, like Dwolla, don't care what you sell... but are US only. Finding a non-PayPal credit-card processor is hard and can be expensive. I could respect him for saying "these books are not enough of our sales base to be worth taking a 10% cut across the board for the right to carry them."
But saying, "hey, now that PayPal doesn't allow bestiality fic? Let me tell you how wrong I think it is!" is just contemptible.