PayPal Censoring Books: Apocalypse to Follow

Paypal has decided that it will no longer allow companies it is associated with to sell erotica that contains incest, rape or bestiality. TechCrunch already summed up my first thought: Who the hell is PayPal to censor books?

Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords, sent a notification letter to authors and publishers this week. In it he writes:

PayPal is requiring Smashwords to immediately begin removing the above-mentioned categories of books.  Please review your title(s) and proactively remove and archive such works if you are affected. 


PayPal began aggressively enforcing a prohibition against online retailers selling certain types of “obscene” content. 

Smashwords, and other online publishers using PayPal received an ultimatum from the third payment provider that basically says the sites have a few days to comply with PayPal’s demands to remove “obscene” content, or PayPal would deactivate service. You may think this is a simple option—say no and find another payment option. However, PayPal stands in a pretty powerful position. It is the most trusted payment method on the web and many online sellers both receive and send payment through PayPal. I for one trust no other provider than PayPal because it has proven secure and trustworthy. I’m sure I’m not alone. So Smashwords kind of has very few options.

Paypal lists their areas of concern are “bestiality, rape-for-titillation, incest, and underage erotica.”

Now, underage erotica, aka “child pornography” should not be published, in my opinion. I don’t understand the mind that would find this arousing. However, who am I to say someone shouldn’t be able to sell a book that contains said content? This is tricky, and it’s very difficult to place a line in the sand here. At what point do we say censorship is no longer reasonable? Is it ever reasonable?

Coker says that “The underage erotica is not a problem for us.  We already have some of the industry’s strictest policies prohibiting underage characters (we don’t even allow non-participating minors to appear in erotica), and our vetting team is always on the lookout for “barely legal” content where supposed adults are placed in underage situations.”

As for incest, well in a lot of erotic novels categorized as “pseudo-incest” or PI stories, you’ll see relationships between step-parent and step-child, or step-siblings. No blood relation, and thus, no real incest. Follow me? Okay, PayPal says this is obscene and will not allow it to be sold through its system. In most cases the parties are consenting adults, so I’m not sure how they can deem it as oscene, but they do.

Coker addresses this point, writing,

“Incest, however, carries thorny baggage.  The legality of incest is murky.  It creates a potential legal liability for Smashwords as our business and our books become more present in more jurisdictions around the world.   Anything that threatens Smashwords directly threatens our ability to serve the greater interests of all Smashwords authors, publishers, retailers and customers who rely upon us as the world’s leading distributor of indie ebooks.  The business considerations compel me to not fall on the sword for incest.  I realize this is an imperfect decision.  The slippery slope is dangerous, but I believe this imperfect decision is in the best interest of the community we serve.”

Sigh. How many great books have you read, that are NOT erotic, contain incest of some kind? Did this make them obscene? I’ll tell you, while I’m no pro incest, I’ve read some brilliant novels that include it, and once you start censoring it here, how long before it’s censored there?

Now, bestiality. Coker is very clear on this one, there is to be no depictions of “enjoying animals for sexual gratification” and it makes sense to me. He clarifies that “this does not apply to shape-shifters common in paranormal romance provided the were-creature characters are getting it on in their human form.  Sorry I need to clarify it that way, but we don’t want to see bestiality erotica masquerading as paranormal romance.”

So, Anne Rice’s newest novel, The Wolf Gift, would be considered obscene by this standard. Because that guy gets it on in beast form. Many times. And it’s titillating, and touching, and serves a purpose to the plot…but no matter, it’s obscene and PayPal will have none of it. How many of you think The Wolf Gift will still be purchased through PayPal? Yep, me too.

Rape is where the waters become murky. Rape is no longer allowed in erotica published with sites that use PayPal like Smashwords. If it is used with the sole purpose of titillation, in other words, getting your rocks off, turning your crank, making you horny, then it’s not acceptable. I have no issue with the reasoning behind this, but I do have a problem with how to differentiate this. Coker goes on to say that “Non-consensual BDSM – or any other form of non-consensual violence against another person – is prohibited.”

This single sentence could possibly make books like Girl with the Dragon Tattoo unpublishable. It contains “non-consensual violence against another person.” This is where a line is crossed in my mind because that sentence can be interpreted so many ways. “Non-consensual violence”…is ALL violence, don’t you think? So erotic writers can’t use violence that is non-consensual at all. Kind of limits the plot options, no?

This is just another discriminatory slap to writers of erotica, and possibly writers who like to write content that goes against social norms. It’s not right and as Coker says, it’s a slippery slope. If we don’t stand up for these writers, whether we write in this genre or not, then how long before the content of our work starts getting censored?

Erotica writers are warned that while erotica is still permitted, authors that try to push the limits risk further “clamping down” and are advised to push the limits of great writing, not legality.
I’m sorry, Mr. Coker, but part of “great writing” is the ability to depict themes and topics that make other people uncomfortable. That is one of the most precious parts of writing for me. I want to push the limits of what’s acceptable. I want to make people think. I know that in this context, we’re discussing erotica and legal sexual limits, but is it fair that these limits are set only to one genre? Do you really believe that the folks who get off on rape, incest, child abuse and bestiality won’t find their kicks in other ways? You’re crazy if you do.
If the depiction of illegal activity is considered obscene, doesn’t that make crime fiction horror and other genres unpublishable as well? I know I’m being literal, but that slippery slope just keeps getting slipperier.

I’m not okay with this. No writer should be.

4 thoughts on “PayPal Censoring Books: Apocalypse to Follow

  1. 'Perdido station', or are alternative insects different from animals? Bottom line is that the great and the good of pay pal will arbitrate and there'll be some interesting decisions.

  2. Hmmm…not sure if insects count as animals. They're classified as their own separate species, aren't they? So maybe insect porn is okay? Seriously though, I think you're right. There will be some interesting, possibly shocking, decisions made.

  3. I don't believe in censorship. As you asked in your post, who arbitrates this? I just put three of 'the Moonstone' on consignment at a local bookstore and the reader/purchaser asked if there was anything graphic–I didn't know what to answer, as there is a sex scene and some violence…and Book 2 has more…uh oh, I thought as my mind scanned through Book 2 and 3…

  4. I don't mind if an official body rated books as they do movies, that's fine, but for a third part to dictate what content a "store" can sell? That's too far, IMO. As for if readers ask, I just play it safe and say "Yep. Graphic." But then, I'm pretty sure most of my writing would fall into the graphic everything category.

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