Amazon's porn censorship is inconsistent and unfair

Amazon bans self-published porn ebooks but lets conventional ones stay, even if their content's way more extreme

Published November 2, 2013 8:30PM (EDT)

Jeff Bezos                  (AP/Reed Saxon/<a href=''>NAS CRETIVES</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>/Salon)
Jeff Bezos (AP/Reed Saxon/NAS CRETIVES via Shutterstock/Salon)

Thanks to the Internet, we now have access to more (and filthier) porn than any generation in history. And that porn is available in more places than you might imagine — not least through the world's largest online retailer. As Jeremy Wilson pointed out in a recent article at the Kernel, Amazon sells material through its website that "appears perilously close to glorifying incest and child rape." One particularly hideous title includes a mother being raped by her daughter; subsequently, the daughter's syphilitic associate also rapes the mother, after which they sew her vagina shut. Another title features graphic descriptions of bestiality and underage sex, and includes a description of an actual rape presented as a fantasy for titillation.

Wilson's article focuses on self-published pornographic ebooks available through Amazon. It is but one of a number of articles over the last few weeks that have expressed shock and revulsion at the "vile trade in online rape porn," as a typically reserved Daily Mail headline put its. Online retailers have responded with panic at the negative publicity. Amazon has engaged in widespread deletion of self-published books— which, full disclosure, affects me directly, since I've penned some ebook naughtiness myself. According to bestselling erotica writer Selena Kitt, her book "Babysitting the Baumgartners," which I discussed on Salon, was deleted until she changed the title to "Sitting the Baumgartners." WHSmith in Britain actually took its website offline while it removed not just all erotic self-published titles, but all self-published titles, period. Kobo is also making sweeping deletions.

Interestingly, though, the titles I discussed in my first paragraph do not face either deletion or censorship. That's because they're not self-published. The daughter-mother rape is one of the most infamous scenes from the work of the Marquis de Sade. The other title, with the bestiality and underage sex, is Nancy Friday's "My Secret Garden."

I asked Jeremy Wilson by email whether, given his feelings about self-published erotic ebooks, he also opposes Amazon selling work by de Sade and Friday. He responded that he had "no problem with erotic material being sold on Amazon and I have no problem with books containing challenging and disturbing themes being sold." He added that, "I'm not interested in censorship or the state regulating works of fiction, but I would question the morality of anyone willing to profit from fetishized rape porn."

That seems reasonable, and certainly the ebook he mentioned in his email, whose title references both abduction and incest, doesn't sound like it's likely to have much in the way of redeeming value. But the fact remains that if you are concerned about fetishized rape porn, it's not clear why you would focus on some unknown ebook tucked away on Amazon rather than on the king of fetishized rape porn himself. If you think Amazon should not profit from the sale of sexual sadism, why is it okay for them to profit from the sale of de Sade?  Or, as New York Times best-selling author Aphrodite Hunt told me after Amazon deleted all her books with the word "Virgin" in the title,  "They remove independent books, and yet those from big publishing houses are left intact. If you want to go after 'virgins,' by all means, remove 'The Virgin Suicides' too. Remove 'Fifty Shades.' Why go after the little guy? Because we don't fight back?"

Given the double standard, it does seem like self-publishers are singled out less because they have objectionable content (since the content is in fact available in non-self-published books) than because they have less institutional strength and less cultural respectability. There are serious books about de Sade and Sacher-Masoch. Their work is published by established presses, and they are seen as scholarly and highbrow. In contrast, self-published ebooks are just crap — rather like the lowbrow horror and superhero comics that Fredric Wertham pilloried in his infamous 1954 monograph "Seduction of the Innocent."

Wertham's book eventually resulted in self-regulation by the comics industry and several decades of enforced banality. One rule of the Comics Code stated that "in every instance good shall triumph over evil." Another banned the use of the word "horror" in comics titles.

The reason Wertham's criticisms were able to gain traction was in large part because comics were seen as being for kids. Erotic ebooks are not for kids, of course. But they are primarily aimed at another often infantilized group whose aesthetic choices aren't taken seriously — that is, women. Women are the main writers and consumers of erotic ebooks; Selena Kitt estimated that her readership is 80% female. As various commenters have noted, the Daily Mail is fine with publishing photos of scantily-clad women for their male readers. For that matter, Jeremy Wilson has defended revenge porn, in which men post real nude pictures of real women without the consent of those women in a deliberate effort to harass and intimidate them. Wilson in particular is arguing against state regulation, but he doesn't express any horror at the porn itself, as he does when writing about the ebooks, or suggest that people running those websites should be ashamed. Men terrorizing real women through for-profit websites is okay; women printing fantasies through for-profit websites incites moral panic.

What's especially frustrating is that the things that make self-published ebooks so easy to attack are also the things that make them valuable. The fact that ebooks aren't vetted in the usual sense results in a good number of grammar and spelling errors, but it also means that they can approach different kinds of content in different ways. It seems unlikely, for example, that Venus Santiago's cheerful lactation porn about the anxieties of working women would have found a traditional publisher. Qiana Whitted, an associate professor of English at the University of South Carolina and an avid erotic ebook reader, made a similar point in an email to me:

I think about an author like Theodora Taylor who self-publishes her interracial romance in what she calls the "50 Loving States" series….along with enjoying her stories, I also appreciate the nods to the U.S. Supreme Court case on interracial marriage (Loving v. Virginia) and black playwright August Wilson's "Century Cycle." …So there's a somewhat specialized interest in Taylor's books as well as the familiar characters of erotica fiction with assertive heroines. Could a series like this exist if it were not for digital self publishing?

You might say, well, let's just censor the daddy porn and leave Theodora Taylor (and maybe the cheerful lactation porn) alone. But then you still have de Sade. Should he be banned or not?

"All censorships exist to prevent anyone from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions," George Bernard Shaw said. If Amazon were really interested in excising particular content, they would tell people what words, content, and images are verboten. But they refuse to do so, either on their notoriously vague content guidelines or in speaking to the press — they did not respond to inquiries for this article, and have refused to respond when I've tried to contact them in the past. By keeping their criteria secret, they can change it at whim, or simply apply it selectively, targeting those who don't have any power while preserving their good relations with those "existing institutions."

It's certainly reasonable for Amazon and other sites to want to have a labeling system for adult content along with parental controls — which is what Smashwords does. Or, if there is some material it absolutely refuses to let on its site, it could set up a consistent system of censorship, so that everyone, writers and readers, knew what the rules are, and where Amazon stands. Instead, Amazon bans random ebooks while selling copies of "Mein Kampf"; it sells the work of Tom of Finland. It sells, for that matter, shocking underage babysitter prostitution erotica. Its decisions, in short, seem to be based neither on principle, nor on a desire to protect its consumers, but simply on panic, ignorance and the knee-jerk impulses of the bully who kicks the smallest kid and scurries away from anyone larger. The company's customers and vendors deserve better.

By Noah Berlatsky

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