The Censorgasm

As with my previous post, reblogging, reposting, or excerpting with proper accreditation is not only permitted, but encouraged.

Over the last ten days, distributor after distributor has fallen prey to PayPal and major credit card companies, who seem to have decided “Enough’s enough” when it comes to what informed, consenting adults can buy and sell using their own money.The problem, it turns out, boils down to covers that reveal too much and tag words PayPal deems offensive, objectionable, or even questionable.

They started with BookStrand. Just a day later, All-Romance E-books started feeling the pinch. In a preemptive strike, a number of readers and authors including myself and Remittance Girl contacted Mark Coker, the founder of Smashwords. A petition telling PayPal and the credit card companies to stop using commerce to legislate morality while end-running the Constitution was started. As I write this, there are six hundred sixty-six signatures, and by the time I close this post out, there will undoubtedly be more. A flurry of furious emails and account closures hit PayPal. I flatter myself that some of those emails were sent using information culled from my previous blog on the matter. And, perhaps most damning, PayPal told Selena Kitt, with Excessica Publishing, in a telephone call that in PayPal’s eyes, BDSM is no different than rape.

Then, on Friday, came a devastating blow to indie authors of erotica, and indeed authors everywhere: Mark Coker caved to PayPal’s demands. In his letter, he even went so far as to say that some of the proscribed topical matter has no place anywhere.  On Saturday, this led to a conflagration at Dear Author when they published their Saturday roundup. (You’ll have to parse this thread carefully, because there’s two heated conversations going on: one concerning this, and a shouting match over an RWA chapter treasurer who was caught plagiarizing.)

Regardless of what you think about incest, pseudo-incest, rape, bestiality, or underage sex in literature of any kind, the fact is when you start drawing arbitrary lines of acceptability in fiction, you open the door for the lines to get deeper and narrower with regards to what does and does not fall within the parameters of acceptability. As Renee Vickers noted with characteristic acuity: “When you restrict discussion on a given topic, you also restrict discussion against that topic.” There are, of course, exceptions to every rule, but let’s parse some historically significant examples of these topics to see just where the lines need to be drawn. Just for the record, I’m not trying to equate any of these morally or on any other grounds; these examples are intended for illustration purposes only.

The Bible

Rape, incest, child molestation, bestiality, underage sex.

Oops. Looks like the number-one morality guide ever published, the Good Book’s right out of there according to PayPal. (Heh. Can’t wait to see them try to enforce THAT one. I’ll crack a beer and laugh myself sick over the backlash.)

Shakespeare

Romeo And Juliet: There’s been a lively debate among scholars for centuries as to just how old Juliet really was. However, Capulet’s request of Paris to “give her two more summers ere we think her ripe to be a bride” suggests that Juliet had probably not entered her first menses yet. This assumption puts her at somewhere between nine and twelve.

So long, Billy. It’s been vivid. At least English teachers won’t have to listen to their charges griping about the fact they can’t make heads or tails of Middle English.

Lolita

Even if you’ve never read it or are repulsed by the premise, you’re familiar with the basic idea of the story. An old man falls in love with a child and proceeds to have a sexual affair with her.

However, this story is shelved as “literature” instead of “erotica,” which means it’s safe from the purge. For now.

Anne Rice

The Mayfair Witches, especially, contained scenes and notions of incest, rape, and pedophilia, and yet this series is often held to be second only to the Vampire Chronicles as her finest work. And, of course, Belinda, which was written and IS shelved as erotica and deals with the affair between a forty-four-year-old man and a sixteen-year-old girl.

Sorry, Anne.

John Sanford’s Prey series

The Prey series, starring Minneapolis detective Lucas Davenport, delves into some very dark territory indeed. Everything from rape to child molestation is covered, and he pulls no punches.

Too bad, John. I enjoyed seeing the bad guys get theirs.

Now, why am I picking on Shakespeare, Nabokov, Rice, and Sanford? The fact is, I’m not. I am, however, trying to point out the absolute ridiculousness of PayPal’s position and their selective enforcement. They also seem to believe that children have no place in erotica, and I believe that AS PARTICIPANTS, that’s absolutely true. But let’s consider a couple of scenarios in which erotica or erotic romance books might be subject to these rules.

1) Mommy brings her new boyfriend home for the weekend. After the children are tucked into bed, they do what two people who’ve just started exploring their sexuality together do. A good time is being had by all . . . until little Susie wanders into the room with her teddy bear because she had a bad dream.

In real life, this is comic fodder. Horrifyingly embarrassing, but one of those things that just happens. But if the wrong censor sees this in a book (and yeah, they’re out there), oops! You’ve got a banned novel.

2) A woman is sexually abused as a child by her father. Years later, her boyfriend allows her to handcuff him to a bed, showing her he’s not going to harm her and he’s willing to do whatever it takes to be able to make love to her and help her conquer her demons.

Here we’ve got elements of pedophilia and rape  (not for titillation), incest (again, not for titillation, and DUH . . .), and BDSM.  The entire point of the story is that the couple is able, working together and trusting one another fully, to overcome the horrific things that happened to her as a child. But because they occur in the same story, even thought the handcuff scene is clearly everything the abuse was not, you can’t call it erotic romance. You can’t even call it erotica, no matter how lightly you touch on the abuse or how hotly you write the love scene, unless you want some well-meaning but clueless busybody telling you to take your sleaze somewhere else or even better, trying to have you locked up for distributing child porn.

Well, I guess there’s nothing for it: We’ll have to lock them all up and burn their books. As long as we’re thinking about it, let’s go ahead and make sure we can’t have frank and honest discourse about human nature in all its shades and strange desires. All authors, please report to your nearest reeducation center, coming soon to a city near you, for intensive brainwashing and indoctrination. Thank you, PayPal, for showing us the way. (Don’t worry, I don’t charge extra for sarcasm.)

For more on this and a detailed list of people speaking on this, both pro and con, you can visit S.V. Rowle’s excellent and exhaustive list of rumblings in the blogosphere.  The long and short of it is, when PayPal decided their customers are too stupid to know what is and isn’t right and wrong and elected to make their point by engaging in left-handed censorship (YES, IT IS, AND NO, I DON’T CARE TO HEAR 6,813 REASONS WHY IT’S NOT. JUST CLICK HERE TO SEE THE DEFINITION.) they overstepped their lawful authority and betrayed their customers on both sides of the transaction. There are things stirring as far as people and small presses opening new bookstores with no ties to PayPal, but these movements are in their infancy. Let’s hope they are actually able to deliver what they seem to be suggesting they can.

In the meantime, PayPal’s had their censorgasm, and they’re reclining, having a cigarette, and thinking pleasant thoughts about how they’re going to spend YOUR STOLEN MONEY. (Because they froze your account without recourse under their TOS and now it’s building interest for them instead of going where it was supposed to, namely, your pocket.) This letter, sent to me last Monday from PayPal’s corporate office, suggests exactly how little they think of all this:

Please note that in this letter, all emphasis (shown in bold) is my own. All italicized content is my own thoughts and musings upon the possible meanings and shadings of intent contained herein.

February 20, 2012

Thank you for your recent correspondence to PayPal dated February 17, 2012. Your concerns were forwarded to PayPal’s Executive Escalations office for review and response. Hmm. Now what could that possibly mean? “Oh shit, he may have a point?” “We’re debating whether to sue you for everything you’re worth and make sure you stop being a thorn in our side?” “We’re not sure what to say about this, so we’re saying nothing for the time being?” In other words, typically vague and meaningless communique from PayPal so far, with just enough of a hint of threat to give a little pause.

We can’t comment specifically on the Regretsy.com account due to our privacy policy. Eh . . . huh? Who said anything about Regretsy? That was never mentioned in the previous letter . . .  However, we can confirm that the funds have been released and we are working directly with the account holder on this matter. That’s big of you, considering it was their money AND MINE to start with . . .  We are also working with Regretsy to make a donation to help families in need this holiday season. Okay, hey, they’re at least doing SOMETHING good to try to ameliorate the damage. Could be self-serving, but if it helps those in need, I’m good with that.  We’re very sorry this occurred. Moreover, we cannot directly comment on any account that you do not own or any actions taken related to PayPal policy including both PayPal’s User Agreement and Acceptable Use policy. Hah! You wouldn’t even give me a straight answer on my own account when I HAD one! OF COURSE you’re not going to directly comment. That’s how y’all operate.

For reference, we have clear guidelines for any business who uses PayPal to accept donations. For example, we require certain documentation to prevent misuse of the donated funds and, if the recipient claims charitable status, to determine whether they are properly registered. Um . . . what? Unless they’re referring back to my original complaint, the one that led to me shutting down my account altogether, I’m not getting the relevance here. Fundraising and charity were never mentioned in the original letter I sent to them.  As a regulated payment service, we’re also required by law to follow these guidelines. !?!?!? And what law might that be, may I inquire? Where can I, as a concerned citizen and former customer, gain more information as to precisely what body of law tells you this is even remotely acceptable?

We appreciate that this can be an inconvenience, You have a talent for understatement. I can at least respect that. but we have a responsibility to all our customers – both donors and recipients; or buyers and sellers. Um, yeah. Until what’s being bought or sold looks odd, off, immoral, or wrong by YOUR standards. Then all bets are off, aren’t they, Bucky? Sure looks like it from where I’m sitting . . .  In this instance, we recognized our error and moved as swiftly as possible to fix it.  To a greater or lesser degree, yes . . . but you still haven’t addressed the underlying issue, you’ve given me no information so I can research for myself and determine what laws give you these rights and responsibilities, and I’m still not getting what the hell charity has to do with this. (See above.)

Very sincerely yours,

Executive Escalations

So, in other words . . .

Yeah, PayPal screwed authors and readers badly the last ten days or so. Whether we continue to allow this to happen is now up to every single author, publisher, bookseller, and reader. Because when they’re done with these “questionable” kinks, I’ll bet you a year’s pay they’re coming for yours. Hope you weren’t really enthralled with those Elves Gone Wild or whatever you’re into, because if PayPal has its way, they’re probably next. Don’t let PayPal’s next censorgasm come *snicker* at the expense of YOUR right to buy and read what you wish.

Until next time,

Best,

J.S. Wayne

25 thoughts on “The Censorgasm”

  1. My earlier comment disappeared but maybe it was because I added a link? Anyway, I mentioned that V.C. Andrew’s Flowers in the Attic had incest between brother and sister as a BIG theme in the series, starting off as underage to boot. The new cover for it on Amazon shows a romantic-looking teen couple that are actually siblings. Very double standard.

    1. Yeah…but this is where and how it begins. They nibble around the fringes, taking down the content that “decent people” recoil in horror from. Then, as the edges get smaller and they get hungrier, they start taking bigger bites. History is rife with examples, and it starts RIGHT HERE…unless WE present a united front and stop it.

  2. Excellently stated as always JS … I saw my own work in your second example up there. Scary to say the least. This reminds me of the Pitbull genocide. The breed was reviled so its been okay to systematically work to exterminate them. Erotica writers are just as misunderstood and reviled.

    Like I told the EAATalk list, I’ve been a corporate VP of Information Technology. Nothing moves on a dime. I wholeheartedly believe Coker had to cave for now. No corporate change can be effected in 10 days when your entire platform is integrated with a service. What disturbs me is that he should be waving a banner that he isn’t going to rest on his laurels now. That he will actively work to provide another solution as soon as possible and he’s not.

    That is the real disappointment to me.

    1. Thank you, Gillian!
      This will certainly make future e-book sellers think twice about how closely linked their sites are with PayPal. Having a button is one thing, but having the entire platform reliant on a transaction provider’s goodwill is terrifying for a number of reasons, this being a chilling example.
      For the reader’s information: The example I cited in #2 is in fact distilled from Gillian’s work. The story is entitled “Reborn,” and has been submitted for inclusion in the forthcoming Writing Out Child Abuse inaugural anthology A Light In The Darkness. Which, I might add, I am the editor of. I greatly appreciate Gillian allowing me to use this thumbnail synopsis as an example. :)
      As regards Mr. Coker: Until another option is provided, I regret to say I will not be offering Shadowphoenix: Requiem for sale on Smashwords. As much as I don’t wish to, considering this work is not in the crosshairs at this time, I’m doing this as a show of solidarity with other indie authors who lost out on this deal. In the interim, I will be seeking alternative methods of selling Requiem, as well as looking into applying some of the knowledge I’ve gained over the last 18 months to editing and tightening the story.

    1. Thank you for the repost, Gideon. I hope this will serve as a wake-up call. today it’s the so-called fringe on the line. Tomorrow, the consequences could even hit the NYT bestseller list.

  3. What is unsaid is sometimes the bigger story.

    What is it that drives this shift in morality by paypal. I can only assume that they have been making money from this arrangement. If that is true then why this why now?

    Maybe it is my distance from this as a canadian that gives me my perspective. I don’t see this as an isolated incident. Follow this train of thought if you will.

    The USA is at the forefront of the internet. The largest free market of internet users with few restrictions. Aside from illegal activities there are Zero moral filters if you click on the “i am over 18 ” there are few restrictions on what you can veiw. Except it seems when you want to pay for it.
    Paypals actions are nothing more than religious moral oppression. Well paypal your actions are more morally oppresive than anything I might chose to read or veiw. This I fear is nothing compared in what is to come.
    That a presidental candidate can publicly endorse the inclusion of state and religion makes me what to throw up. Stephen Harper is the most egotistical morally offensive Prime Minister Canada has ever seen. But it seems you our American cousins have much more to fear than book banings should some religious fanatic acually make it to the White House.

  4. Yep, yep, and…yep. I say, you might not charge extra for sarcasm, but you should for snark, because here, my friend, you would have been made wealthy!

    Paypal is just pulling the Morality Wool over the eyes of the gullible to put them in a haze of stupidity while they pick everyone’s pockets. Everyone needs to recognize this for what it is. Censorship for the purposes of theft of funds, Morality at the expense of people to lazy to read between the lines.

    Well said.

  5. Loved this piece. I am amazed at how many authors whose work contains “adult” “steamy” content want to distance themselves from “erotica” “smut” and the word that rhymes with sticky.

    Just because they start at the edge with the newer players to the game doesn’t mean they don’t mean to change the rules for established players.

    Thanks again!

    1. Thank you, Ms T! :)
      I’m so glad you enjoyed it. We’re in a dangerous situation right now, but I do “espy a kind of hope, which is as desperate in its execution as that is desperate” we’re trying to prevent. It looks like the harder PayPal tightens its fist, the more people are starting to fight back. In the last 24 hours, the petition has gone from 666 comments to a current 863. People are talking, and a lot of what they’re saying, they’re saying with their wallets. Which is exactly as it should be.
      Thanks for stopping by!

  6. This is all over G+ as well – good to see writers of all strains coming out against this utter BS. They start with something ‘easy’ – general populace hear incest etc and react without listening to the rest. Next it’ll be BDSM, all erotica.. paranormal romance is a bit iffy I mean.. that’s close on beastiality and necrophilia! Hell, fantasy quite likes a bit of non-human sex too and of course, horror’s just downright scary we can’t have people talking about serial killers etc!

  7. The problem is that it isn’t just PayPal, it’s just *beginning* with PayPal. The banks behind PayPal are who urged this coup, so it will eventually spread to any other front end web money handler. There is a much deeper problem here than PayPal. These banks are the ones legislating morality. PayPal is just the first one to act on it. This one act could impact literary ecommerce in an incredibly negative way (and has already for some). Considering the publishing industry has at best trudged into the Information Age, the overall implications of this point to far more indie maneuvers than just not using PayPal.

    Thanks for examining the issue so thoroughly.

  8. J. S. –

    You’ve said it well. Having been directly affected by this regarding my erotica, I agree, we must stand up for the right to write and read, publish and sell anything we as consenting adults choose. This is petty censorship snowballing toward fascism. Kill it now.

    Is a boycott in order?

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