When the opening panel of a conference comprises a writer, a pornographer and a lawyer, you know you’re set for an intelligent, stimulating weekend.
There should be a joke that starts like this. “A writer, a pornographer and a lawyer walk into a con…”
When Ruby Kiddell invited me to speak during the opening keynote of Eroticon 2014 alongside Myles Jackman (better known as “Obscenity Laywer“) and renowned author and kinkster Zak Jane Keir, I wondered what I could have to add. Myles is an expert on the legal situation regarding censorship in the UK, and Zak would surely talk with authority about how censorship as a feminist issue, how it affects authors and perverts. What could I possibly say that wouldn’t already be covered?
Well, I suppose there was always that kerfuffle with CCBill last year – that might at least raise a laugh, through sheer absurdity if nothing else. And I’d be addressing a roomful of erotica authors, who would presumably be interested in the foibles of Amazon’s content guidelines…
My concerns proved fruitless when the civic-minded Zak emailed me and Myles to tell us what she was planning to talk about, so that we could plan around each other and co-ordinate. It turned out that there was no overlap whatsoever. Ruby had chosen her panel well. My intention to talk about my personal experiences of corporate censorship as a pornographer didn’t clash with anything they were planning to say; and if they laid the social and legal groundwork, that left me free to tackle the commercial side of things.
All in all, it worked out rather well.
#Eroticon2014 starts with Zak Jane Keir: "Censorship is always used by the powerful to control the powerless."
— London Faerie (@londonfaerie) March 8, 2014
Not at #Eroticon2014 but am always amazed that I can do something with someone and it's legal but filming it and sticking it on net isn't
— sarah (@sarahluv81) March 8, 2014
As a porn producer my primary experience of censorship has not been legal, but corporate. Anyone who creates erotic media and wants to find a way to make it available to others is at the mercy of restrictions placed by financial institutions, publishers and distributors. We might all want to increase the diversity of erotic material available, but however innovative we are, unregulated commercial bodies still have the power to control the marketplace.
Censorship is strongly controlled by financial institutions as they can control what can and cannot be sold #Eroticon2014
— Chris McC (@stranded_in_to) March 8, 2014
There are two fallacies at play here – excuses cited by corporations to justify censorship. The first is ‘what is legal’, and the second is ‘what will sell’.
A few years ago Suraya Sidhu Singh developed an erotic magazine called Filament. This was the first print magazine for women which combined erotic photography of male models with adult fiction and intelligent articles on subjects as varied as physics, music and Morris dancing.
Filament’s problems started with their second issue, the first one to contain actual photos of actual erections. Small fry, one might think, compared to the explicit imagery included in lads’ mags; but no. It turns out that there’s a total double standard between what’s permissible in sexualised images of women for the male gaze, and what’s permissible in sexualised images of men for the female gaze. When Filament’s printer found out that the issue would include erections they said they couldn’t print it, claiming that it would upset some of their other clients. Suraya needed to run the world’s first democratic “erection campaign” to raise the funds to hire a more progressive printing company.
First film erection passed by censors was allowed because "only the middle classes would see it". Class, power and censorship. #Eroticon2014
— Blacksilk (@BeingBlacksilk) March 8, 2014
Even once printed, Filament struggled with distribution. One distributor who was interested after the magazine was featured in the Independent changed their mind after seeing the second issue, claiming that printing erections was illegal in the UK. The thing is that it isn’t illegal now, and it wasn’t then. The CBS guidelines don’t even mention erections – it is considered so trivial a concern as to be a complete non-issue. But the actual legal status doesn’t matter when companies are setting their own rules. The law takes on a mythical status. When neither corporations nor producers are accurately informed, they often hedge their bets for the sake of brand image. The resulting uncertainty surrounding the law creates a chilling effect whereby perfectly legal material is tacitly censored.
The distributors who impeded Filament often used the excuse that the material “wouldn’t sell” – despite the fact that they themselves had expressed interest in the product. This is a fallacy I encounter time and time again when working to improve diversity in porn. “It won’t sell” is a self-fulfilling prophecy if publishers ensure that something is impossible to buy.
The internet is an empowering, liberating tool, but the truth is that everything online is controlled by corporate entities somewhere down the line. Everything has to be hosted somewhere, and the online publishing tools and marketplaces that make distribution so accessible for independent creatives have lot of power. In the 21st century we may not have to be accepted by an agency or publisher to distribute our work, but individual companies still impose restrictions that control what can be published online.
Any erotica writer will be familiar with Amazon’s foibles when it comes to adult content – and the loss of sales many authors experienced when the online bookstore stopped adult fiction from showing up in search. Likewise, Google is famous for its adult content restrictions; you may remember when Blogger gave users four days to remove any “adult advertising” under threat of having their blogs summarily deleted. In its search algorithms Google has recently started favouring pages which are linked to a Google Plus account – where pseudonyms and porn links are not permitted, effectively discriminating against sex workers and adult content producers.
Nothing about this has anything to do with law and everything to do with corporate prudishness. Trying to find an audience for your work can be an uphill struggle against restrictive and ever-changing terms and conditions.
These commercial controls doesn’t just affect over-18 content; they can also reflect the prejudices of the business owner by being gender discriminatory or homophobic. For instance, the tube site SpankingTube which hosts user-submitted free content (and makes money off advertising) accepts male/male spanking videos, but hides them from search – to protect the homophobic sensibilities of the straight male target audience. For fuck’s sake.
Then there are the problems that arise when you try to monetise adult content online. Paypal is famously harsh – and arbitrary – in its restrictions. Online financial institutions control our money, and they have the power. I had my Paypal account frozen last year for accepting donations via this blog; and Maggie Mayhem had the same experience when she was fundraising for disaster relief in Haiti.
@AndreShakti I remember being shut down by paypal when raising funds for disaster work because I was a sex worker. Keep being loud!!
— Maggie Mayhem (@MsMaggieMayhem) March 6, 2014
Other payment operators have similar restrictions, and one hears numerous stories from sex workers of funds being confiscated or frozen, for instance Andre Shakti’s tweet above – regardless of whether the transactions themselves are adult in nature.
If you want to sell porn or erotica, you can’t use Paypal, WePay, Worldpay, SagePay or any of the standard credit card processors. You have to use a specialist service that caters to “high risk” merchants (a category which includes gambling and porn sites). I produce spanking porn which is openly and explicitly consensual and ethically produced, but which sometimes includes severe punishment, up to and including judicial caning. Despite the fact that none of my work is illegal under the UK extreme porn legislation, it is notoriously difficult to find a credit card processor willing to handle transactions. Most billing agents that serve adult sites do not permit images of vivid welts or bruises, both of which are a common feature of my personal sex life, and therefore of the porn I choose to make.
My site Dreams of Spanking uses CCBill, which officially does not restrict images of hard spanking, but has a very vaguely worded T&C which is erratically and inconsistently enforced. Your site has to be vetted before launch, but even once your content has been approved, you can be subjected to irregular, unexpected checks at any time. Decisions are made subjectively by individual CCBill agents, and so content which passes one check may fail another.
One frustrating example is blanket word bans. As erotica writers you will be familiar with this sort of control imposed by publishers; I was talking to a Mills and Boon author in the bar last night who was told to remove all instances of the word “cock” from her book. (Apparently you aren’t allowed to use “dick”, “prick” or “cunt” either. No wonder written erotica has a reputation for using stupid synonyms for genitalia.) Well, the same sort of thing applies online. In my case, CCBill told me to remove all instances of the word “non-consent” from the Dreams of Spanking blog, regardless of context; even from blogposts in which I was discussing how to communicate the consent of my performers. Other words subject to the same blanket ban included “little”, “daddy” and “rape”. The latter caught a sci-fi thriller inspired by the TV show “Fringe” in which a psychic villain interrogates someone by forcing their way into their mind. I had to change “telepathic rape” in the scene description to “telepathic ravishment”, which I think is my new favourite porn keyword of all time.
Other scenes which had passed previous checks were randomly flagged for removal. I was told to remove all scenes which featured sword-fighting. Now I’m producing historical porn for a female audience and let’s face it, guys duelling with swords is super hot. One update featured wooden bokken and capped fencing foils; another was a silly pirate scene that used rubber LARP swords (yes, me and most of my co-performers are massive nerds).
Both these scenes had to be taken down because they included the use of a “lethal weapon”. I’m serious. Rubber LARP swords. I remember sitting on the phone talking to a nice woman at CCBill called Clare, going through the site working out what I was allowed to keep. I pulled up one picture from the pirate set which showed the prop in close-up and said, “Look at that – does that look like a real sword to you?”
“Yep, that looks pretty real to me.”
Had she ever seen a sword?
— furrygirl (@furrygirl) September 6, 2013
— furrygirl (@furrygirl) September 6, 2013
The takeaway here is that the content you’re producing can be perfectly legal, not obscene by any jury’s definition, and if you can’t find a way to publish it you can still be censored as effectively as by the government or police. Everything we sell online is controlled by unregulated, international corporate entities that are not subject to any particular legal jurisdiction. Online marketplaces have democratised publishing, but that ease of access is the very thing that permits them to censor our work.
We can’t ever escape corporate control entirely. The bottom line is that everything has to be hosted somewhere, so unless you run your own server you will be subject to some company’s terms and conditions somewhere down the line. But the more independent we can be, the less vulnerable we will be to corporate censorship. Host your own blog rather than using Blogger or WordPress.com. Distribute your work in as many places as possible, so if one outlet is shut down, you still have others.
The most stringent controls affect financial transactions, so consider alternative ways of monetising your content than a straight-forward sales-based business model. For instance, when I was no longer able to sell my sword-fighting and severe caning scenes via CCBill, I moved them to a self-hosted free download website, with donate buttons provided by fetish marketplace Clips4Sale. They take a hefty cut, and they still impose some restrictions (for instance, no menstrual blood!) but they haven’t objected to the caning welts or fencing swords so far, and the buttons still allow me to receive some payment for my work.
In fact free downloads are great publicity. Perhaps you could give away your fiction as a loss leader for paid commissions; or publish videos online to advertise your real-world performance or sex work. You might have a site that gives away downloads to attract traffic, and make money selling advertising or merchandise.
Independent creatives and small businesses will always be quicker and more flexible than global corporations, and as soon as one control is put in place, someone will discover an alternative method of doing the same thing. It’s stupid that we should be at the mercy of these ever-shifting restrictions. But if we inform ourselves about corporate regulations, and are smart in how we work around them, we can avoid making ourselves vulnerable to dependence on a single distribution method.
Above all, it’s crucial that we keep talking about censorship, raising awareness, and sharing ideas to inspire and empower each other.