Mar 022012

The history of obscenity and censorship is the history of drawing and redrawing very fine lines in the ever-shifting sand, if you’ll pardon the mixed metaphors.

Consider the recent case of Michael Peacock in the UK, charged under the Obscene Publications Act of 1959 for distributing allegedly obscene DVDs. (Peacock sold DVDS via Craig’s List and his own website and magazine ads, which seems like an oddly old-school way to do a porn business these days.) The Crown Prosecutor presented two lists, one of things that would probably be prosecuted (“sadomasochistic material which goes beyond trifling and transient infliction of injury”, “fisting”, “torture with instruments”) and those that usually would not (“mild bondage”, “fetishes which do not encourage physical abuse”)

Peacock was acquitted, thankfully. This is a case of what you might call old-style censorship: government authorities studying media for specific acts, using criminal prosecution against the producer or distributor, and basing their arguments on prevention of harm by the images or texts to the vulnerable population.

New school censorship operates in a fundamentally different way. Paypal recently changed their policies (or at least started enforcing them) regarding sexual content, and ebook publisher Smashwords has changed their policies in response, adding three new categories of forbidden content.

An email from Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords, describes these policies:

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.

So does this mean that children can’t even be mentioned in erotica stories?

*Incest:* Until now, we didn’t have a policy prohibiting incest between consenting adults, or its non-biological variation commonly known as “Pseudo-incest.” Neither did our retailer partners. We’ve noticed a surge of PI books over the last few months, and many of them have “Daddy” in the title. I wouldn’t be surprised if the surge in “Daddy” titles prompted PayPal to pursue this purge (I don’t know). 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.

There’s a conflation of two separate issues here, or rather four: real or fantasy age differential, and real or fantasy intra-familial sex. This makes no distinction between, say, a woman who’s obviously in her 40s in a little-girl dress versus a nude picture of a child. In effect, this bans ageplay fiction, even fiction in which the character is only playing a role.

Coker proceeds to basically tell writers how to censor themselves to appease Smashwords and by extension Paypal.

Please, act responsibly, don’t try to game the system or publish content that pushes the limits of legality. Help us continue to help indie authors around the world to continue to publish and distribute with freedom.

*THINGS TO AVOID:* Avoid using words such as ‘bestiality,’ ‘rape,’ ‘incest,’ ‘underage,’ or ‘barely legal’ in book titles, book descriptions or keyword tags, otherwise Smashwords may conclude you’re violating the Terms of Service, or trying to push the limits. If you’re writing non-erotic works, and any of these words are necessary, then you’re okay.

An essay on what this means for erotica publishers and writers.

Meanwhile, in another part of the Internet, Facebook has revealed its own policies regarding photos with nudity and violence. The handbook is now posted on Scribd.

Notably it prohibits “depicting sexual fetishes in any form”, which is odd given the vast variety of objects and acts that are fetishized. “Male nipples are OK.” “Art nudity OK” Meanwhile, under “Graphic Content”, “Deep flesh wounds are ok to show; excessive blood is ok to show. Crushed heads, limbs, etc. are ok as long as no insides are showing Note: No exceptions for news or awareness-related content.”

Once again, violence is more acceptable than sex.

These are private companies whose actions are not prohibited by the First Amendment or other freedom of expression laws, but these are also companies that are close to monopolies and have huge authority. Furthermore, they exert this influence over people in multiple countries and in widely varied cultures.

I’m just pissed at this.

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