Let’s Try to Ban Sex, Because That’s Always Worked in the Past

An odd story has been brewing quietly for a few weeks now, ever since online-payment processing giant PayPal started warning booksellers that they would have to pull “objectionable” titles or else have their PayPal accounts closed.

(An account closing, it’s worth noting, is not a minor hassle — PayPal has a long and storied history of freezing accounts and holding onto the money in them for months on end, leaving the actual vendor with zero of the dollars they supposedly sold their product for.)

So there is a lot of muscle behind this movement. Alternatives to PayPal are catching on slowly, but most e-book retailers are still largely tied to it. Bluntly put, if PayPal says frog, Smashwords and all the smaller electronic publishers jump.

And what is the mighty PayPal muscle flexing to shift off the shelves?

No one’s actually sure.

Every publisher or author who’s posted on the subject has presented a slightly different list. Smashwords said

As you may have heard, in the last couple weeks PayPal began aggressively enforcing a prohibition against online retailers selling certain types of “obscene” content…Although they have tried their best to delineate their policies, gray areas remain. Their hot buttons are bestiality, rape-for-titillation, incest and underage erotica. (emphasis mine)

BookStrand, on the other hand, posted a statement (as reported by author Selena Kitt) saying that

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

The same article details a conversation with a PayPal representative offering even fuzzier guidelines:

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.”

And if you look at the policy that’s theoretically governing all of these new enforcement actions, it just reads:

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.

Obscenity has always been a moving target, which various legislatures and judiciaries have tilted at over the years, but PayPal seems to be struggling to keep their definition straight from one e-mail to the next.

I don’t think I really need to belabor the point that private middlemen — glorified Brinks truck drivers, when you get down to what their job really is — don’t have much business dictating content to publishers, whether they can keep their own definitions straight or not. This is more than a story about whether it’s okay to sell dirty books; this is very much part of an ongoing discussion about people who manage money versus people who produce goods and whose interests should come first.

Nor should anyone have to think to hard to come up with half a dozen “classic” works that include descriptions of rape, incest, bestiality, or pederasty; you can start your list with the Bible and move on down the most-published-ever list from there. A blanket policy against all those things is obviously impossible and not something PayPal cares about at all. The only real targets here are independently-published erotic novels, which have been a booming business the last few years.

The Selena Kitt article does a good job putting it all together, down near the end: The credit card companies that get to bully PayPal around (the same way it gets to bully actual publishers and authors around) charge massive merchant fees, both up-front and as a percentage on transactions, if you are a “high-risk” business. Porn (sorry, “explicit adult material”) is “high risk.” Books are not. Ergo, letting people sell books that replace porn is bad for Visa. Cue PayPal’s new enforcement of “obscenity” policies.

Petty, venal money-grubbing. As a headline it makes a nice story about censorship and how a bunch of crusty old white men want to dictate morality, but really this is about controlling definitions of art to make it more profitable, not more moral.

I don’t know if you want to find that comforting or chilling. One way or another there are rich, powerful people who have a vested interest in controlling your sexual behavior and both the means and the willingness to do so. Does it make you happier to know that they aren’t actually judging you, so long as the money keeps rolling in?

  1. Given their actual policy, it sounds more like they’re targeting prostitution. They need to clarify this ASAP if they’re actually targeting erotica. This whole thing is ridiculous but their vagueness about their new policy is even worse.

    • Well, my understanding from the articles I linked to is that PayPal was pretty clear about wanting any erotic books with those particular themes yanked. Which is a lot of titles — more than I think most people are probably aware of. A lot of indie authors are, unfortunately, going to be looking for a new niche in a scramble, I think.

  2. Thankfully they’ve reversed their decision.

    • I’ll update accordingly. Thanks for staying on top of this story – liked your original writing on it a lot.

  1. March 15th, 2012
  2. August 6th, 2013

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