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Paypal is forcing Smashwords to remove books and content “with themes of rape, incest, underage sexuality and bestiality.” It’s been all over Twitter and a range of blogs. I haven’t seen similar buzz about anything happening with Amazon, although that company’s attitude toward controversial content buzzes periodically.
Just in case you haven’t heard, last week, Paypal told Smashwords to “remove all titles containing bestiality, rape or incest, otherwise they threatened to deactivate our PayPal account,” according to a statement in Smashwords’ news page. Smashwords President Mark Coker went on to explain his company’s reaction: “We engaged them in discussions and on Monday they gave us a temporary reprieve as we continue to work in good faith to find a suitable solution.
“PayPal tells us that their crackdown is necessary so that they can remain in compliance with the requirements of the banks and credit card associations.”
According to the Self-Publishing Review, the big credit card companies and associations are pushing for this sanitizing of publishing sites. Apparently, this kind of action falls outside the protection of the First Amendment in the US because it’s done by private companies, not the government.
The payment operators are within their rights to allow anyone they want or not to use their technology and systems. So is this censorship?
Yes. A group or company—people, somewhere along the line—are telling others what they can and cannot publish. It amounts to a restriction on expression.
On one hand, it’s hard to argue with the sentiment. Paypal and the other companies are restricting content that most of us, I think, find repugnant: incest, bestiality and rape. Who’s going to stand up for rape? Anyone?
I won’t be the first to point out though that this kind of restriction is blunt. If we ban depictions of rape, what will happen to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo?
Would Lolita pass muster? It has been banned at various times for its central theme of underage sexuality.
As Smashwords President Mark Coker said in the company’s news release: “How does one judge whether the taboo subjects are incidental instances or major themes? Where does one draw the line? The PayPal rep and I agreed our discussion will continue, and they assured me our PayPal services will not be cut off as we both work in good faith to advance the discussions.”
Some say that the distinction between porn and literature like Lolita is clear. But that’s still subjective. Your line may be in a very different place than my line—in other words, we probably have differences over which category to put a particular work.
I am a little worried about my first novel, now available on Smashwords (and elsewhere), because someone could argue it portrays underage sexuality. I have a strong argument, I think: it’s not porn, it’s literature; and it’s set in the 6th century, when most people were married and having children by age 16.
What I think the pro-censorship crowd needs to understand is this: censorship never works. It never has. Remember samizdat? When the Communist Party controlled eastern Europe, it banned “seditious” content, including novels by politically dangerous writers like Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Boris Pasternak and Vaclav Havel. So people made copies on little mimeographs in their basements and distributed them surreptitiously to others who though independently of the Communist Party. No matter how hard the Communists tried, the ideas still circulated.
The less you see, the less you want others to see
Back when I was in university, I was part of a group that conducted a survey about the public’s attitude toward sex and violence in movies. We found—or rather, confirmed—two interesting things.
The first, that those who thought that gratuitous sex (and sometimes violence) should not be shown in mass-market cinemas tended to watch fewer movies. The more people went out to movies (this was so long ago, that people actually went out to movies more than they rented them in their homes), the less likely they were to agree to restrictions on content.
At the same time, even people who thought that sexual and violent content should be curtailed in some way did not think they were influenced one way or another by that content.
In other words, censorship is something we want to do to other people, but not to ourselves.
I certainly do not want to read about, much less see rape, incest or bestiality. But I will say that, sometimes, rape is a legitimate part of a story. It happens.
As for bestiality, again, it’s something that I don’t want to read or hear about; Mark Coker mentioned some time ago that this subject required some fine combing when it comes to paranormal romance. If Twilight’s Bella gets it on with the werewolf, even in his human form, does it come close to bestiality? Clearly, he’s not human. Then again, neither is Edward, the sparkly vampire. I think there is someone, somewhere, who would see that as something similar to bestiality.
So what’s the solution?
The problem with these subjects is not in their expression, but in their commission. Does reading about rape encourage rapists? I don’t know. I doubt that reading about shagging a werewolf is going to convince a young person to rape his or her dog or try to pick up real wolves. And I certainly don’t think that reading the novelization of Blue Lagoon will be the trigger to brothers and sisters getting it on.
There are people with said tendencies or urges, and that’s what we all want to prevent. So maybe we need to focus on the education and the honesty to talk, write and do something about those problems.
Let me know what you think.