TW: discussions of sexual violence, victim-blaming, self-harm, mental illness.
As much as I, even now, fear professional retribution from Amazon for criticizing their policy, I can not remain silent in the face of their highly problematic policies. If people like Amazon had been in charge of my reading material, growing up, I would have succeeded in committing suicide long before I ever learned to write a novel.
Let me start at the beginning.
When I was little, something awful happened to me. Without the words to name it, it was simply “oh my god, I think I’m about to die,” and “the worst pain I have ever felt.” It was a number of years before I was given a word to simply sum up what I had lived through:
This word meant everything to me. It meant that what had happened to me was common enough to have a name. It meant that out there, there were others like me. It meant that I wasn’t alone. It meant that I could tell people about that crucial piece of me without having to struggle to explain details that were fuzzy, even in my mind.
It came with judgments, too– ruined, or probably lying for attention– but the community and shared experience it implied gave me the first leg up into recovery.
Bearing my experience alone for so long, it trapped me in a cycle of trauma, self-harm, and suicidal ideation that splintered me further. But when I discovered that word, when I stumbled into the world of fanfiction, I found myself home. Fanfiction provided a judgment-free platform (as much as anything on the internet truly is) that allowed me to consider the idea that anyone in my life could have that shared experience, and simply be hiding the pain in their own ways– even if it was someone as well-known and understood as Harry Potter or Hermione Granger, my fandom of choice. It gave me an opportunity to see other survivors, in various states of recovery, centering stories around themselves in a way I’d never seen. Certainly no mainstream book I’d found– including the adult literature I chose off my parents’ bookshelves– portrayed what I’d gone through in a recognizable way.
It saved my life. It gave me an invisible community who understood me more thoroughly than any family member, any therapist ever could.
For all rape’s ubiquity in fiction, the vast majority of the stories are decentered from the person who lives it. GRR Martin builds his worlds with a style described by some as “rape as wallpaper”, using progressively more sensational stories of sexual assault to define the “grit” of his fantasy realms, with little attention paid toward the aftermath for most of his victims. Creators consistently use rape to establish that a villain is bad– with no attention paid to the victim, outside of sexualized descriptions of her pain and his enjoyment of it. Worse yet, when a female protagonist does have that backstory, many authors use it as shorthand to establish that she is interesting and worthwhile, though unlikeable, with no attention paid to developing her psyche to support the idea of that trauma. Or worse yet, to show her as strong, as though no woman has ever been strong without having been raped, and that violation is in-fact, a blessing, making her something other than a boring, humdrum female who certainly would never be the heroine in a story.
In short, rape stories are centered around everyone but survivors.
Even subtle differences in characterization and intent can be the difference between a character who appeals to survivors and lets them know they aren’t alone, and one that retraumatizes them, inundating them with toxic ideas about their own identity, and propagating harmful myths in the minds of those who have never been offered any counterpoint to them. Amazon’s policy of censoring words directly related to sexual violence steers aesthetic decisions in ways that they certainly never intended, rendering character-defining conversations that lean heavily on filterable words like “rape” more offensive than traumatic and sensationalized descriptions of the act itself, that can feel dehumanizing or violent for survivors and present a completely different characterization of the material involved. Books are not a game of Jenga, where all pieces can be rearranged or removed while the structure still stands. And pretending that’s the case ignores that the whole point of Jenga is that the structure will fall, in the end. Saying “just don’t use those words” fundamentally misunderstands the very mechanics of storytelling.
The effects of Amazon’s policy extend far further than simply depriving authors like myself of the right to earn a living off their work, or depriving readers of reading material they desire. It shapes societal narratives and views, by deciding whose stories get to be told, and whose must be filtered out. It tells survivors that their concerns and lives are fundamentally “inappropriate” to build stories around, and that they should deal with their trauma in silence. Already, I’ve had to cut multiple survivor-oriented projects from my schedule because I can’t afford the expense and time of writing a book that I have a good chance of being forbidden to sell.
This is doubly harmful, because this is what the world around us does every single day when our rapist is allowed into the same social events because the hosts “don’t want to pick sides”, or when others pressure us to stay silent, because they “don’t want to hear about the drama” or feel that the issue we’re currently struggling with is TMI.
For many survivors, fiction is the one place we can look into the lives of people like us, or tell stories we wish we’d heard sooner, without the fear of retaliation or shaming.
Amazon’s refusal to consider survivors’ needs by implementing a policy that allows trigger warnings and accurate descriptions of sensitive content, and their ongoing decision to continue penalizing primarily women romance authors who write content portraying survivors in ways that are too adult or “offensive” is an act of violence. It’s one more way that we culturally declare that sexual violence is acceptable for entertainment… but not from the survivor’s perspective.
We prioritize storytelling narratives that portray survivors as asexual, pure victims who must be “ruined” by their trauma, or dead bodies who will never have the chance to begin the messy process of healing, or examine the aftermath of sexual assault solely through their loved ones’ reaction to their trauma, and then wonder why there’s a host of “bad victim” narratives that undermine people’s ability to seek justice for sexual violence. Or why survivors may frequently feel suicidal, that healing isn’t even a possibility, because they’ve never known people who’ve talked about that journey openly, or read stories about it that ring true.
We demonize survivors’ coping mechanisms, declaring that they’re lying because they were caught on camera smiling at some point after the attack, or that they enjoyed their assault because their body responded to it by getting aroused. We grow up on narratives that portray rapists as obviously inhuman monsters, and then wonder why so many people defend convicted rapists as “nice boys who made mistakes,” because they can’t see a monster in that “nice boy” the way they expected to if he was really a rapist.
It’s not just about an author’s right to freedom of speech versus Amazon’s right to not provide a platform for those whose speech offends them. It comes down to Amazon’s cultural impact.
For better or worse, Amazon controls the distribution method for the majority of ebooks, and traditional publishing’s impact is waning further and further. Books are increasingly where the film industry gets new material from, and entertainment is fundamental in telling stories that show people how the world is and shape our reactions to real-life things.
Do we want a culture in which women don’t have access to affirming love stories that tell them that they, too, can heal from trauma, or find sexual fulfillment? Do we want a culture in which women are not allowed to face down the beast that loomed over their cradles in whatever way feels most useful for them? Do we want a society in which women’s sexuality is defined only through male-centered mainstream porn and slapdash sex-ed?
Or do we want a culture in which women are encouraged to speak out, to tell their stories confidently, and allow others to gravitate toward them as kindred spirits. To draw commonalities, even across traumatic or sexual experiences.
I know which one I want. And I know which one romance and erotica readers deserve.
If you would like to share your thoughts on this policy with Amazon, email firstname.lastname@example.org.