Friday, February 24, 2012

Slippery Slope Part 2: Why Frogs Boil

"The difference between pornography and erotica is time..." -author unknown

When Amazon started banning erotic incest fiction in 2010, one of the things I heard again and again was, “So what? It’s not censorship. Amazon is a private corporation and they have a right to sell whatever they want. They’re not saying these books aren’t allowed to exist – just that they don’t want to sell them. So go buy them somewhere else.”

I also heard a lot of: “This is not censorship.” And: “This is not a free speech issue.”

Now that Paypal has started to target the erotic ebook market, I’m hearing much of the same thing. “Paypal is a private corporation. They have a right to accept what they want. They’re not saying these books aren’t allowed to exist – just that they don’t want to pay for them. So go buy them somewhere else.”

Okay. But where? Because now that Amazon has banned erotic incest FICTION from its site, and Paypal has refused to pay for erotic incest FICTION (and have taken it further too include “pseudo-incest”FICTION)…where is a reader supposed to go read it?

No, this isn’t government censorship. No, this is not a constitutional “free speech” violation.

But it is a form of corporate censorship, and it is a violation of your personal freedom.

Big corporations everywhere are eliminating your choices.They’re doing it quietly with no notice or warning to the public at large. They are starting at the fringe and working their way inward, eliminating the things they can get away with, one at a time.

And like the frog in the pot of boiling water, we sit oblivious until it’s too late.

Oh I know, I’m Chicken Little, the sky is falling, blah blah blah. There’s no such thing as a slippery slope, you say! Slippery slopes are a logical fallacy!

Yes, that is so. But all fallacies can be true sometimes. That’s why they sound so logical to begin with! Like stereotypes, if they didn’t have some truth in them, they wouldn’t exist. Stereotypes are so defined because they’re not always true. (Some Asian people are good at math, but that doesn’t make the stereotype true). The slippery slope is a fallacy only because it doesn’t have to be true,or isn’t always true.

It doesn’t mean it isn’t true…sometimes.

And the problem therein is that you never know when you’re standing on a slippery slope—or sitting in a pot of boiling water—until it’s too late.

While this may not technically be censorship, that doesn’t mean that a decision like Amazon’s, and now Paypal’s, doesn’t have a stifling effect on free speech. It does. Paypal and Amazon are giants in their particular industry. If they are starting to deem things “unacceptable” (and please remember this is in the realm of fiction!)it amounts to de facto censorship, even if it doesn’t technically violate the first amendment.

Cen·sor [sen-ser]noun:

any person who supervises the manners or morality of others.

Amazon has the right to remove books. Paypal has the right not to pay for them. But we don’t have to like it. And you have to start wondering about the slippery slope again. No, this may not be one. But how would we know?

I could be like WalMart’s decision to refuse to sell adult-only video games in its stores. That effectively eliminated any chance of explicit video games making it into the U.S. market. No, it wasn’t a violation of the first amendment, but one corporation had a large enough level of influence to eliminate your choice. That’s disturbing.

In 2007, Verizon attempted to block the abortion rights group NARAL Pro-Choice America from using their text messaging services to speak to their supporters. Verizon, like Paypal, fell back on a “policy.” They had a right to enforce a policy that didn’t allow their customers to use their service to communicate “controversial” or “unsavory” messages.

That's very disturbing.

And of course, most recently, the Susan G. Koman Foundation cut off funding to Planned Parenthood, basing its decision on a "policy change."

If corporations have more power than government (and you can argue this if you like, but the evidence is pretty obvious, given the state of things) and they can make decisions like this based entirely in "policies" alone, often made without regard to public safety or opinion, without a checks and balances, without regulation, without any way for the public to weigh in... really, without anything except an eye on the bottom line. Where does that leave you, the consumer?

Take a look at what's happened with Homeland Security since 9/11, at how many freedoms have been taken away from the American people in the name of protecting our safety. Just recently, Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act. When do you think Americans will get that freedom back? When the war on terror is "over?" When everyone in America is "safe?" When will that be exactly?

It's easy to take away someone's freedom. A stroke of a pen. A policy change. It is far, far more difficult to get that freedom back.

Why do you think there have been so few “obscenity” cases in the US courts in recent years? Because corporate America has taken over the role of censor. Money talks and now corporations censor. They hold the purse strings and they have the control.

And Amazon has that kind of power. So does Paypal.

When a giant retailer like Amazon eliminates something from their store or when the largest online payment system in the world (Paypal)decides they don’t want to pay for something, it suddenly becomes less profitable to produce those “offensive” products at all. Now it doesn’t just effect people who shop at Amazon or use Paypal.

Now the decision of one corporation has reshaped the entire (arguably) free market.

These huge corporations have now limited your choices. And you probably didn’t even know it.

Censorship is about judging something – a book, a movie, a TV show – on content. Yes, it’s legal. It’s not against the first amendment.But customers don’t like it.

And we don’t have to stand for it either.

Corporations are exerting greater and greater control over society, and without regulation, the only force that could obligate them to be consistent is the market. A business doesn’t have a moral compass. Its bottom line is the almighty dollar alone. Companies can currently create whatever ambiguous rules and policies they want and apply them as arbitrarily as they want.

Without a backlash in the marketplace – why wouldn’t they?

Because the truth is, while the constitution protects free speech, corporations control it. They say what’s allowed and what isn’t. They tell you what you can read, what you can purchase, what you can think. But we don’t notice. We’re the frogs in the water.

Remember when Amazon decided to remove WikiLeaks? That happened just before they decided to remove erotic incest from their site.Apparently, both of them are bad for us. Oh, and don’t forget, Visa, Mastercard and Paypal decided to stop facilitating donations to WikiLeaks as well, right around the same time. Coincidence? Hmm…

Corporations continue to have a huge influence over what we can or can’t access. Yes, the constitution limits government. They have to go through the legal system if they want to limit our access to material. But corporations aren’t bound by that document. Lucky them. Too bad for us.

They can censor speech without warning and without penalty.And they can do it secretly, without your knowledge. How would you know, after all?

The only recourse a consumer has today is a boycott. It’s a consumer’s right - no, duty - to tell a corporation when they think they’ve gone too far, because every corporation needs you, the consumer, to make the money they so covet. So yes, you have a duty, as a consumer, to stand up - not just for yourself,but for your neighbor as well.

Even if you don’t like his taste in music,literature or movies.

Yes, even if you personally find it reprehensible, or indefensible.

Because who do you think is reading this “unacceptable” material? Perverts? Psychos? Pedophiles?

No. For the most part, they’re your neighbors. The same ones who watch “Hostel” (labeled by some as “torture porn”) and read “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” (Rape themes anyone?) They aren’t people who go around doing illegal things – at least not anymore than anyone else in the rest of the world.

But if you won’t stand up for your neighbor’s freedom, how can you expect him to stand up for yours?

If public consensus is any indication, half of the people are "not caring" themselves toward an Orwellian world for their grandchildren that they themselves might not even recognize.

And the other half are cheering the elimination of such “icky” and “distasteful” subjects.

Neither of them realize they could very well be standing on a slippery slope. Or sitting in a pot of boiling water with the temperature on the rise.

And they all continue not to notice.

Because as Lucas captured so perfectly, whether it's giant corporations or evil emperors deciding what is best for the safety and security of society as a whole:

-Selena Kitt

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Slippery Slope: Erotica Censorship

NOTE: Check out a PODCAST with me and Terry Mixon and Justin Macumber about this topic. (Interview starts at 9:00, if you want skip ahead ;) )


Well, the morality police are at it again. And this time, it's scarier.

First, Amazon started banning books from their site. They backed down on their anti-censorship stance and removed the Ped0phile Guide. Then they went after books that contained incest, bestiality and rape.

After the dust settled, it was clear that, while biological incest was a no-no, Amazon would, however, allow sex between of-age adults who were related to one another in a non-biological manner--step-relations or adopted relations. Suddenly the top 100 in the Erotica category on Amazon exploded with "pseudo-incest" titles. And the covers were far more revealing than anything the category had previously carried. Titles like "Daddy Licks My Pussy" became commonplace. The line between "erotica" and "porn" had blurred even further.

Most (if not all) of these titles were written and published by "Indie" authors, who were distributing them not only through Amazon, but through other self-publishing platforms as well--Barnes and Noble, Apple, Bookstrand, All Romance Ebooks. The latter had even taken a stance against the "porn-like" covers and refused to allow them on their new releases front page, especially if they contained content relating to "pseudo-incest" and what they called "barely-legal" sex.

(I assume this is sex between an older person and someone in the age-range of 18-19. Of course, it's interesting to note that they didn't seem to object to the plethora of "Twink" m/m titles on their site--18-19 year old males having sex with older men. No, their objection seemed entirely against 18-19 females having sex with older men).

Soon after All Romance Ebooks had imposed these restrictions, and Bookstrand had taken Indie erotica authors off their front page as well, Bookstrand sent out an email to all of its publishers. This is from that email:

We were informed by PayPal, without notice, and by our credit card processing company, that we are required to remove all titles at with content containing incest, pseudo incest, rape, and bestiality, effective immediately.

We request that you immediately log into your account and unpublish all titles that contain the restricted content. If you have uploaded titles containing restricted content and do not unpublish these titles as we are requesting, we will deactivate your entire publisher account, which will remove all your titles from sale.

We urge you to log into your account and remove these titles as soon as possible to prevent your account from being deactivated today.

If your account is deactivated, it may or may not be reinstated in the future. After deactivation, requests for reinstatement will require us to go through your catalog, which may take several weeks or longer for us to process.

Note that they list not only "incest" but "pseudo-incest" as well. Now, while "incest" is illegal in most states, "pseudo-incest" is not. (Woody Allen, anyone?) Having sex with a step-relation or an adopted relative is just... sex. It might seem creepy or weird, but it isn't illegal.

Now they're not just targeting illegal acts (this is in fiction mind you) now they're targeting acts that may simply just be "morally objectionable." Where else do they do this? Are they targeting authors who write about serial killers?

Of course, erotica writers everywhere were up in arms. How could they do this? Why? A petition even cropped up, and it has some excellent points, if you'd like to go sign it:

Earlier this week, PayPal told Bookstrand, a major distributor of erotic romance and other erotic content on the Internet, that if certain titles containing "objectionable" material were not pulled from Bookstrand's shelves, Bookstrand's PayPal account would be shut down and the funds within confiscated.

PayPal has a long track record of suspending, freezing, and terminating customer accounts on the thinnest of justifications, but this is going too far. By telling Bookstrand what books they can and cannot sell using PayPal services, they are also telling readers they don't have the right to read what they wish and telling authors that PayPal has the right to take away their freedom of speech and the press.

If you use the Internet to find new reading material, if you use PayPal, and/or if you support the rights of authors and readers to have the widest possible selection of topics to read and write about, please sign this petition and let PayPal know that censorship, no matter what form it takes or how it is implemented, is not acceptable. Readers, publishers, storefronts and authors have the right to choose what books are sold and bought.

Don't leave it up to PayPal to choose how you spend your money or where.

The fact is, and we all know it--sex and porn make the Internet go-round. It's a huge industry, even if there is a vocal minority who doesn't like it. People like their porn, and they want access to it. So why would Paypal refuse to sell something that wasn't even illegal in any state in the U.S.?

I got my chance to ask that question, because a few days after the BookStrand debacle, Excessica received a phone call from Paypal. THE phone call. And then came the follow-up letter:

After a recent review of your account activity, it has been determined that you are in violation of PayPal's Acceptable Use Policy... In order to comply with our Acceptable Use Policy and avoid the limitation of your account, you will need to:

- Remove those items from that violate PayPal's Acceptable Use Policy. Example/s: all ebooks containing themes of rape and incest.

Under the Acceptable Use Policy, PayPal may not be used to send or receive payments for certain sexually oriented materials or services or for items that could be considered obscene.

When I asked if "pseudo-incest" was included (since that was mostly all we had on the site) the representative confirmed that yes, that would have to be removed. "What about BDSM?" I asked--a category full of dubious consent. "That would have to be removed as well."

That's right--they weren't just targeting illegal acts between non-consenting adults. Now they were targeting legal sex between consenting adults.

When I asked her why they were doing this, I received no answer except, "We've always had this policy." Perhaps, but it seems that they weren't previously enforcing it very seriously. Why now?

The only answer I received from Paypal was silence.

So I started to search for alternatives to Paypal. Not an easy task, I might add. Like Amazon, they are a veritable monopoly in their field. At least they graciously (ha) gave us thirty days to comply, after which the account would be frozen or cancelled. So I had some time. What I discovered was that most merchant-services (i.e. companies that allow you to use Visa and MasterCard on their site) which allow adult products charge a $5000 up-front fee to use their service. Then, they take exorbitant percentages from each transaction. Some 5%, some 14%, some as high as 25%.

Now it was starting to make more sense. The credit card companies charge higher fees for these "high-risk" accounts because there is a higher rate of what they call "chargebacks." You know that protection on your credit card, where if you dispute the charge, you don't have to pay for it? Well they've determined that happens more with porn and gambling and other "high-risk" sites than others, so they're justified in charging more money to process payment for those sites.

Paypal doesn't want to have to pay Visa and MC for carrying "high risk" accounts on their books. You have to remember that Paypal is a middleman. Sites that carry high-risk material have to pay the high-risk costs of doing business. If you're going through Paypal, you don't have to pay that. Until Paypal catches you. And then they insist you take down your high-risk content or lose your account.

What Bookstrand did was use this as an excuse to get rid of a problem. They were having difficulties integrating the harder-core Indie books into their site (although to be fair, the books in question, in terms of content, weren't actually any more hardcore than many of the books in their Siren collection--they just had more revealing covers and more conspicuous titles) and so they used this crackdown by Paypal to eliminate hundreds of Indie books.

Who would be next? All Romance Ebooks? Smashwords? Amazon itself? Erotic writers everywhere said that Amazon was immune from Paypal's clampdown, but were they? No, they didn't accept Paypal on their site. But they did accept Visa and Mastercard. Where, exactly, did the buck stop?

I'm not sure, but I did find out an interesting piece of information that made me pause and consider where all of this may be leading.

Someone suggested the new "Amazon Payments" to me as an alternative to Paypal. I thought it made sense - if Amazon sells our books, why would they refuse to pay for them through their payment service?

Well guess what? I opened the account, and they closed it a day later, stating:

Thank you for registering with Amazon Payments. We appreciate your interest in our product.

Unfortunately, at this time, we are not able to approve your request for an Amazon Payments Business Account based on our review of your intended use of our payments service.

As stated in our Acceptable Use Policy the following product or services are prohibited from using Amazon Payments:

Adult Oriented Products and Services - includes pornography (including child pornography), sexually explicit materials (in all media types such as Internet, phone, and printed materials), dating services, escort services, or prostitution services.

While we appreciate your interest, the blocking of your account is a permanent action. Please feel free to write to us for any questions that you may have.

Which means, Amazon may not be "immune" to the Paypal rules after all. Because they still have to process credit cards through the same credit card companies that Paypal does.

I don't know what this means for the future of erotic self-publishing, but like the banning of certain titles begun by Amazon, it is a very slippery slope indeed. Today it's "pseudo-incest" and "rape" (including BDSM titles) which is nothing more than legal sex between consenting adults.

What will it be tomorrow?

-Selena Kitt


I'm putting this addendum here, rather than create another blog post, because so many people are linking to it. Bookstrand took the final step and completely eliminated "most of the Indie titles" from their site. They sent an email stating they wanted to "go back to their roots." Whatever that means. Of course, this decision came without warning, and while Indie authors were still trying to comply with their (ever-changing!) new Terms of Service.

Then Bookstrand said to DearAuthor that Siren "NEVER has and NEVER will publish books with the disgusting themes of incest, pseudo incest, rape for sexual titillation, or bestiality with naturally occurring animals."

No, they don't publish them. (Except for this one. And this one. Oh and this one). But they sure as heck didn't have a problem distributing them and making 50% commission on selling them before Paypal said, "Hey, you can't do that!" did they? Nope. No problem cashing that check. And they've been selling our stuff (incest and pseudo) since 2008. Hypocrite much?

Well I guess we couldn't expect them not to cave to Paypal. I just wished they'd done it with more regret and class.

And I wondered who might be next, didn't I? Well... here we go...

All Romance Ebooks has been contacted by Paypal and given the same ultimatum as Book Strand. They have now changed their policies and are implementing a new structure, splitting erotic romance from erotica. Of course, the concern is that perhaps they, like Bookstrand, will simply use that structure to lop off erotica as a category and go without it. Only time will tell.

In the interest of transparency, here is the letter from All Romance Ebooks:

This communication is being sent out to all publishers since it involves a process change:

From the beginning, we conceived of All Romance as a niche bookstore that would sell a wide variety of romance novels. Our primary demographic is adult women who enjoy reading romance subgenres featuring stories between two consenting adults. We opened with an “Erotica” category and, until fairly recently, that category was dominated primarily by Erotic Romance, which was our intent. “Vampires/Werewolves” was intended to carry romances featuring Vampires and Werewolves. “Gay” was intended to carry romances featuring Gay men. Over the past few months we’ve begun to receive more and more pure Erotica titles. Admittedly, there is a segment of our readership that wants to read Erotica. There is another segment that prefers to read Erotic Romance. Still others enjoy both, or neither.

In order to improve discoverability for all, we’ve decided to create separate Erotic Romance and Erotica categories. The “old” Erotica category will soon be retired. All titles in that category will need to be re-shelved prior to its retirement to avoid inactivation. We have also made some amendments to our restrictive section to provide some further guidance as to the types of books we feel will resonate best with our Romance community. Please review section 7 of the publisher contract here. If the amended terms are ones you can’t abide by, please let Barbara know and she will accept your notice of termination. If they are, accessing your publisher panel after today will be sufficient to constitute acceptance. We request that you take immediate initiative to remove any titles that may be in breach.

In order to help publishers shelve titles appropriately and aid readers in finding the types of books they most want to enjoy, we’ve worked in conjunction with a team of Erotica and Erotic Romance authors and publishers to craft some guidelines. We appreciate that this division is rather nuanced and that our views may not equate with yours. None-the-less, these guidelines will serve to direct customers, so we ask that you refer to them when deciding upon category placement.

In the next one to two weeks, you will receive notice that re-shelving has commenced. You will have seven calendar days in which to complete the re-shelving process. During the seven-day period, only titles in the New Erotica and New Erotic Romance categories will be visible to the public. If you publish all Erotica or all Erotica Romance, you’ll be able to complete the process with one simple step upon login. If you would like us to complete that step for you, please send an email to me, Subject: Shelving. Indicate in the body of the email if you publisher only Erotica or Erotica Romance. I will confirm with you via email when your migration is complete.

If you publish a mixture of Erotica and Erotic Romance, when re-shelving begins upon login you will be directed to a pop-up page that lists only your current Erotica content along with summaries. You will need to check a box for each title, indicating whether it falls into the Erotica or Erotic Romance category.

I’m including our guidelines below so that you can begin planning for this process:

Erotic romance is a Romance containing frequent, sexually explicit love scenes. The main plot centers around two or more people falling in love and struggling to make the relationship work. The love scenes are a natural part of the romance and described using graphic and frank language. Typically these stories have an HEA (happily ever a fter) or HFN (happy for now) ending.

Erotica is a sexually explicit story, which explores and focuses on a character’s sexual journey rather than an emphasis on a developing romantic relationship. While such an erotic story may have elements of romance, it is the sex that primarily drives the story.

I find this rather questionable:

"...accessing your publisher panel after today will be sufficient to constitute acceptance."

So if we want to log in and see our sales or look at our titles, we have to accept these new terms of service? This smacks of what Bookstrand did. They gave no notice to publishers of the terms of service changes (and seemed to change them every five minutes!) and certainly gave no indication that they would be removing the entire "Indie" section of books until it happened. All Romance Ebooks has followed their example, deactivating books and then saying, "Oh by the way, when you log into your account to find out what's going on, you agree to our new Terms of Service." Really!? No box to check, nothing. The contract was amended without anyone's knowledge or consent and then come to find out that logging in to figure out what's going when publishers find their books gone means they somehow agree with the stuff they weren't told about? That's so not cool.

And what are All Romance Ebooks' new restrictions? Funny, they look similar to the issues Paypal was having with the Bookstrand books. Incest, pseudo-incest, bestiality and rape. All Romance, however, has taken this one step further, and has banned "barely legal" (their term) books. This is, apparently, sex between 18-19 year old women and older men, at least if the books they've banned so far are any indication. Of course, they have lots and lots of "twink" books (18-19 year old males having sex with older men). So far, no banning of those. Double standard much!?

These will sound familiar:

7. Restrictions

All Romance reserves the right not to accept any particular Work submitted by Publisher at All Romance's sole discretion, and may remove any particular Work from sale at any time and for any or no reason. Pornographic and obscene Works are restricted and not allowable for upload on the All Romance site, including without limitation, Works depicting sexual acts involving persons under eighteen years of age (exceptions may be made for certain works of literary fiction involving time periods wherein the age of consent was less than 18 and the purpose of the depiction is not for sexual titillation), Works involving any exploitation of minors, sexual or otherwise, Erotic Works which contain incest or pseudo-incest themes, Works that are written for or being marketed to the barely legal market, rape for the purposes of titillation, scenes of non-consensual bondage or non-consensual sado-masochistic practices, bestiality with naturally occurring animals, sex with non-animated corpses, snuff or scat play.


Two distributors down.


-Selena Kitt