Sure, put e-porn in its place – but don’t let all erotica suffer

So the Mail on Sunday took it upon itself to break yet another Horrors of Porn on the Internet story yesterday. Only, for a start, it wasn’t really breaking anything because as some sharp-eyed folk on Twitter pointed out to me, this was the Kernel’s story broken and investigated a couple of weeks ago and we’ve had numerous news reports about it over the past couple of days as Amazon, Barnes and Noble, WH Smiths et al have responded rabbit-in-headlights style to the revelation they sell hardcore e-books with titles pertaining to incest and forced sex fantasy scenarios.

On the surface, yes, it’s pretty alarming that hardcore pornographic books might turn up in key term searches for the word ‘Daddy’ on mainstream book retailers’ websites (given that these e-books have all been pulled, it’s pretty difficult to prove this now). Presumably there’s a pretty easy way of creating a search filter to separate out explicit content from non-explicit though in such a forum, although this was clearly overlooked and given the way titles were being automatically fed without any pre-screening into the lists, retailers clearly needed to have a better grip on what they were actually selling. It’s basically lazy shopkeeping by Amazon, WH Smiths et al and yet more evidence of how digital commerce + porn = potential for irksome search results.

That said, the reporting from the Mail was as outrageous as it was outraged, and the commentary elsewhere is similarly condemnatory. On Gizmodo.com, it’s ‘sick, self-published porn’; on the Guardian, ‘depraved e-books’, and in the Mail, what pours forth after the inevitable condemnation of rape and incest themes is a more general vitriol towards porn per se. Alongside incorrect referencing of Obscenity law, the MoS quotes the National Crime Agency and its warnings about paedophilic material which then greatly confuses the issues about purpose of material and makes no distinction between fiction vs material designed to incite harm, for example. If all books with paedophilic content are to be pulled, then expect no major retailers to sell one of the most exquisite books in the English language, Nabokov’s Lolita from now on. Of course, it should be easy to differentiate between the artistic quality and exploration of Lolita vs Doggy Daddy Daughter rape – but the fact is it seems nobody will bother to do that with other titles outside of the current literary canon, because as reported by the Digital Reader,  WH Smiths et al are now culling huge swathes of self-published erotica with no further investigation.

So there it is – because Amazon, WH Smiths et al couldn’t bother to keep their houses in order and do due diligence on their stock lists,  independent self-publishing erotica authors have to suffer. And their reaction – to quickly get rid of the offending material without proper investigation is almost as alarming as if they’d refused to do nothing. It suggests they don’t really understand the erotica market, written pornography, or the laws governing it. And neither do the tabloids or the Mail wouldn’t have been able to misreport quite so beautifully and confusedly otherwise.

The main point – that children shouldn’t be able to access hardcore pornography – is without question. Of course, that does raise the question of how prevalent or viable that is, given children would need credit card access to make purchases of these hardcore e-books – although as the sage Laura Agustin pointed out to me, self-published authors often make their e-books free to download to begin with, which would enable children to consume them too – and of course, although we can’t ourselves test out the search functions any more, the idea that a child could type a key term in and pull up one of the covers and blurbs of a hardcore porn book is disturbing to say the least. Given that the test of obscenity is whether the material in question tends ”to deprave and corrupt persons who are likely, having regard to all relevant circumstances, to read, see or hear the matter contained or embodied in it,” then it could be argued (in a court of law) that these e-books constitute obscene material if children could consume them. NB – “Could” and the need for a legal trial being the operative words there. For what I think about obscenity law and its relative problems in general, try my coverage of the R v Peacock trial published in the Guardian. 

But the reporting from the MoS, to the Telegraph and even to the Guardian (where I have sympathy and share some of Ally Fogg’s concerns, but still think the piece expresses a little too much judgement around fantasy) condemns the content full-stop. These are themes that no sane, healthy adult should think about either, is the overriding message. And that’s a troublingly censorious one.

We are basically revisiting obscenity arguments from the Sixties – but the twist this time is that it is the democratisation of porn – publishing it and consuming it – via the internet, not just child protection, that is the unnamed fear here.  Rape and incest porn, both written and visual, have always been out there – but they were in the hands of the so-called ‘mindful’ educated elite; now anyone can access them, the fear-mongering Mail can escalate its campaign against its own audience. And they are manipulating the ‘what about the children’ argument to do this.

It’s interesting that the people that usually commission me to write about this stuff wouldn’t touch this today. So here I am nailing my libertarian and depraved views to my blog.

Here’s the thing about sex and censorship: if retailers, the media and the general public understood the laws on what it was legal to produce and what it was legal to consume, then the retailers’ response could have been reasoned, collected, and discerning. Instead they’ve pulled a fig leaf over their chaotic online stock rooms and sent everyone into yet another porn panic instead, thus exposing the underlying fear of porn and by being tainted by association with it. These retailers’ sites carry terms and conditions that state they don’t publish explicit pornographic material, yet they publish 50 Shades of Grey, Sylvia Day and my own BDSM sex memoir Bound To You – so how does that figure? Who in the publishing world even understands the law around Extreme Pornography and Obscenity? Surely book buyers and online retailers should have had a crash course in it as the erotica boom took hold (NB provided by esteemed and knowledgeable associate and obscenity law expert Myles Jackman, for eg).

Let’s just hope the erotica market as a whole doesn’t suffer for what is thoughtless e-shopkeeping by the publishing behemoths.

 

 

 

 

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