The first horror novel I ever read stayed with me in a way that no movie ever has. I was haunted by the very visceral descriptions of mutilations and murders my mind had created. Human brains are capable of creating such powerful illusions that for and least a few hours every night we are completely fooled, so why do we find it so much more offensive to view sexually explicit material than to read about it?
We’ve created a scale of legitimacy where stodgy literary works with no love interest reign, followed by romance, then erotica, and finally pornography, the outcast.
The Merriam Webster Dictionary describes pornography as “(1) the depiction of erotic behavior (as in pictures or writing) intended to cause sexual excitement (2) material (as in books or a photograph) that depicts erotic behavior and is intended to cause sexual excitement (3) the depiction of acts in a sensational manner so as to arouse a quick intense emotional reaction.”
Despite this broad definition, our society seems to have decided that the term pornography only applies to images of plot-less, penetrative sex.
Amazon, the top distributor of erotic novels, is perhaps the best example of this complicated exclusion. They purport to not allow authors to submit pornography to be sold on amazon.com, but just type in erotica to the search bar and you’ll find nearly 250,000 options teeming to the brim with promises of salacious sex.
This idea becomes even more ironic when you delve deeper into the “ADULT” filter that Amazon rather capriciously slaps on offensive material, which may include anything from incest and bestiality to a little bit of side boob on the cover art.
What this label means is that a potential customer who comes to Amazon searching for a title with keywords that pertain to a particular novel will never see it unless they type in the exact title and click to remove the adult filter. This will last until the browser cookies are cleared and essentially renders the work invisible to anyone browsing titles.
There exist numerous articles instructing authors how to reverse the adult label and the irony of this situation is that most of them don’t mention rewriting or taking out offensive content, but rather cleaning up the forward facing content, like the cover art, title and description. Imagine if the raunchiest porn could be sold anywhere as long as the cover seemed acceptable. This would never fly and really no one wants to operate this way. Authors who write about taboo subjects such as rape or “dubious consent” certainly don’t want to market their stories to uninterested audiences but they are superficially toning down the taboo to avoid market suicide.
The main issue, though, is the secrecy and confusion surrounding the filter. Amazon has come under fire in the past for policies that seemed to discriminate against stories with LGBT sexual themes. In 2009, when authors began to notice their sales rankings dropping, they brought the issue to media outlets, and complained to Amazon, who wrote the situation off as a “glitch in their system.”
Again in 2013 Amazon expanded their censorship when an expose ran in the Kernel highlighting a number of erotic novels dealing with rape, incest and bestiality. During the scandal, other publishers who were mentioned pulled down their site completely, or removed all work from self-publishers leading to an outcry from authors whose work was swept up unfairly.
At the time, Amazon did not have an adult filter. The filter they slapped up is the one that still remains: poorly designed, inefficient, and unclear. Even their terms of service for their market affiliate accounts are similarly confusing: “We may reject your application if we determine that your site is unsuitable. Unsuitable sites include those that: (a) promote or contain sexually explicit materials.”
What really gets me on this is not only that amazon.com is clearly promoting and containing sexually explicit materials, but even more that the top sites under the search “erotic novel review” all use Amazon for their affiliate links.
One must assume then that they are either not enforcing this, or they are drawing a line between images and words. If you look to their censorship to date, you’ll see the clues point to the latter.
How quaint, a company on the leading edge of technology is befuddled by the technology of the photographic image. Of course it took hundreds of years for our society to see that erotic novels are not going to lead to the downfall of civilization. Even as recently as 1959 books such as Lady Chatterley’s Lover have had to fight for their rights in court, and lo and behold though any one can now pick up a copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, our society has not devolved into madness. Perhaps once virtual reality becomes the norm, hold ups and reservations about the damning effects of video pornography will be forgotten in a tide of virtual reality censorship.
Of course adult content filters are crucial for written or visual work, but Amazon could really take a hint from Smashwords who, even as a much younger and smaller company, are capable of installing a easy to understand adult filter that any user can toggle on or off without having to search for a particular title they know to be coded as “Adult.”
Amazon is a behemoth of a company, and not likely to change anytime soon, but what authors and readers can do now is support alternative options, like Smashwords, whose versions are compatible with any e-reader. Amazon may be the easiest option, but it doesn’t have to be the only one, and the less influence a middleman has, the more the creative and consumers benefit.