Or, Apologia for the Forbidden
This is my second post about the current erotica sales ban at the hands of PayPal and/or credit card companies (the true driver of the situation is still unclear) who want to stop doing business with ebook stores that sell erotica dealing in certain topics. This post is the one where I feel the need to defend the seemingly indefensible topics under censure: incest, pseudo-incest, bestiality, and rape “for titillation.”
First, I am not a published erotica author (I have some ideas, but they are still just that), and I am not the likely audience for the “hard-core” erotica this ban seems to be targeting, nor is the work I have in mind likely to fall under these categories…for the most part, at least. But I do believe in economic and expressive freedoms–and while those are not being trampled here by the letter of the law, the ubiquitousness of the financial player(s) in this drama in online commerce means they are being trampled in spirit. Until some enterprising company steps into the void or erotica authors find work-arounds (which is another post).
My main concern with this type of censorship–and, no, censorship is not required to come from the government despite that being a common perception these days–is that it assumes the judgment of value by one person regarding a work encompasses the value judgment of everyone who reads/watches/etc. that work, which is simply impossible. People have different experiences of the world. We have different pscyhological “hot buttons,” and to impose your values on another is the height of arrogance and a reptilian lack of empathy.
There are reasons beyond arousal or sexual exploration to want to read hard-core erotica, the kind some people might dub “written porn” and have the phrase be almost accurate (as opposed to when it is applied to romance novels). In my opinion, the desire for sexual exploration is a valid reason–but for those who consider it too base a reason to elevate work beyond “obscenity,” which is legally defined as work intended to arouse or titillate with no other artistic meaning or merit, I would offer these additional reasons:
Education – what if you are a social worker or therapist who is seeking to understand a client’s needs or experiences? Perhaps you are treating someone who can’t stop reading incest erotica and is struggling with that obsession from shame or confusion, and you want to know what they are reading. Perhaps your intimate partner or close friend is, and you want to understand what they are exploring. Perhaps you are a psychologist researching human sexuality. Any of those, or a dozen other similar, uses could apply even to the most plotless, unframed erotic vignettes.
Self-evaluation – it’s been my observation that when you have a point of view that is pretty far outside of the mainstream (on anything, not just sexual matters), sometimes you start to question your own boundaries. Am I some sort of deviant? Should I be seeking help for this? You might want to read erotica on a topic you don’t find arousing simply to prove to yourself that you do still have SOME limits. Or maybe you are struggling to understand why “normal” sex doesn’t arouse you, and you are researching different “fetishes” to see if any of them peak your interest.
Therapy – either directed by a therapist or self-directed. If you were raped, for example, it might be helpful to read experiences of rape that are not clothed in the PC terminology of victimization. If you were molested perhaps reading a story about it would help you work through the feelings the memories still evoke (note that none of the incest or pseudo-incest stories in question involve children under the age of 18).
Just because one person reads a piece of erotica and sees nothing but smut doesn’t mean everyone will.
Furthermore, there is a double-standard being drawn regarding erotica and other types of fiction on these topics, since nothing was said about a mainstream novel that includes these elements being banned, only work specified as erotica.
White Oleander, for example, contains a pseudo-incest plotline that also could be counted as pedophilia, since a 13-year-old girl starts a sexual relationship with her foster father. But that doesn’t count because it’s not for titillation. Yet it is titillating, regardless of the author’s intention with the scene. The same with Clan of the Cave Bear–I read the book when I was 11 or 12, and the rape scene between Broud and Ayla titillated the hell out of my young mind. Does that not count because it’s depicted as a negative event, and because it is part of a story? I think “titillation” is in the eye of the beholder when it comes to rape scenes; what one person finds horrifying another may find arousing–or they may be disgusted that they find it arousing but yet they nonetheless do. Has anyone reading this seen the movie Irreversible? It has an extended, brutal, explicit rape scene, and it is horrifying and a plot point and a little bit arousing on a deep and uncomfortable level. I think the attempt of feminists to separate rape from sexuality and list it strictly in the category of “violence and power struggle” denies that the act is a sexual act whether they like that or not. “Rape for titillation” is a meaningless definition, because not everyone will be titillated by the same depictions of rape.
Just as titillation is in the eye of the beholder, so, too, is artistic merit. Some people would probably assume that any depiction of rape, incest, bestiality, or necrophilia would be of no “redeeming” value. But what about:
- retellings of Greek myths where Zeus assumes animal form to rape (or seduce) a human girl (this could be a two-for-one since it has both bestiality and rape!)
- retellings of fairy tales such as “Beauty and the Beast” or “The Swan Princess” in which the characters forge a sexual connection before they are restored to human form?
- retellings of fairy tales such as “Sleeping Beauty” or “Snow White” in which the older form of the tale is the base–the version, for example, where the prince marries the seemingly dead body of Sleeping Beauty and she only awakes when she gives birth. A published example is Tanith Lee’s excellent and disturbing retelling of Snow White/Persephone, White As Snow. (Necrophilia and rape! Another excellent deal!)
- historical settings where siblings often married such as ancient Egypt or Persia, or a completely fantasy setting where siblings marry
- historical settings (or fantasy settings) where the rape and pillage of a conquered land is commonplace
- hypothetical/meta-stories. For example…once upon a time I had a sex dream about my brother. I woke up feeling both aroused and disturbed. That scenario could easily be an erotica piece about incest, and at the end you find out it’s only a dream and the narrator feels the “expected” feelings of guilt/shame/disgust at having had the dream and being aroused by it.
These are just the examples that came most quickly to my mind, but every individual who is willing to actually think about such matters for a few minutes could find their own exceptions to what a moral authority might consider “obscenity.” Which is precisely why no one should be involved in censoring subjects that are not illegal, defamatory, or seditious, but rather highly personal and highly subjective–which individual sexuality by definition is.
Edited to add: On the subject of films that would be censored in this sweep, I refer you to Walerian Borowczyk’s 1975 film La Bête if you want to see some rapey bestiality. It was banned in France at the time, and by today’s standards it would still be NC17 or X rated.