It’s a relief to be writing this after the high-stress updates of last week, and the frantic emails of the week before. However, I’m thrilled and surprised to announce that the ebook edition of Edgeplay is back on Amazon.
TW: vague discussions of mental illness, specifically triggers.
Trigger warnings are one of the best ways for people to engage with sensitive content in a healthy way. They enable someone to create the safest space possible for consuming the material.
For some people, this means only reading upsetting materials when they have a supportive friend or partner nearby, to hold them and tell them it’s okay. For others, this means reading upsetting materials alone, because the presence of a partner will feel threatening and make the fear worse. For some people, this means reading materials that hit close to home with a partner in the house, so they won’t be tempted to self-harm, attempt suicide, abuse substances, or other harmful behaviors. For others, they may need to be alone, because the strain of acting “normal” when they’re upset will grind the pain in worse, until they lash out.
For some people, this means avoiding upsetting materials because they can’t be consumed in a healthy way, and for others, it simply means picking the right time and setting.
See, triggers affect everyone differently, depending on really minute aspects of their lives and mental state. For some people, it might cause a panic attack that causes them to be unable to leave the house or pursue their to-do list. For others, it might cause them to become aggressive toward those around them who are making the trigger worse, unknowingly.
Forewarning and awareness are a survivor’s best friends. When a trigger sneaks up on someone, sometimes it can be too late to back away before the person is already seeing detrimental effects. Content warnings actually enable people to deal with more traumatic material than they otherwise could, because they are able to do it safely. They actually prevent consumer dissatisfaction, because they help consumers know up front what they’re in for.
Vague product warnings like “steamy material” or “too hot for your kindle” don’t actually provide the cues necessary to tell sensitive readers that a book may contain themes that they actively try to avoid. If Amazon is truly interested in being all about the customer, then building better tools for labeling should be one of their top priorities– not filtering authors out who use trigger warnings or censoring specific words. Is it any wonder that without these warnings, there’s a lot more people blindsided, reacting negatively, and bending Amazon’s ear either with direct complaints or bad reviews?
One of those tools could be providing a form to allow authors to label various common strong themes, such as sexual violence, and providing a button on the site that would allow readers to opt out of seeing any content with those themes. Not restricting their visibility in lists, searches, etc. Simply allowing it as an optional filter, similar to how they allow consumers to filter books down by length, for readers who are seeking shorter reads. Or even just a general adult filter toggle similar to what their competitor Smashwords uses.
Hell, this is a niche that readers already desire, and that other sites attempt to cater to in the small scale– a Google search for “clean reads” turns up a host of blogs, publishers, and groups that specialize in assisting readers seeking books without such mildly offensive things as cursewords, like the much maligned Clean Reader. Clean Reader came under fire last year for scrubbing swear words or offensive content from books entirely… without the authors’ consent. Authors came together to protest, to declare that their aesthetic could not be honored by replacing those words– that even if they made some people uncomfortable, the word had been chosen for a specific reason (Does that sound familiar?). They removed their books from the retailers who supply to Clean Reader in protest. But even though Amazon’s policy is much more destructive, arbitrary, and pervasive, it holds too much power for authors to be able to protest in an effective way, as they could for one fairly small app. So we are stuck with whatever Amazon says, no matter how unfair, problematic, or contradictory. And all of that is getting off the topic of trigger warnings as a needed classification tool.
Keywords such as “clean romance”, and “sweet romance” help readers who prefer to avoid sexual content entirely develop a community and a niche built around their desire to avoid that content. Could you imagine if we were allowed to similarly label and build communities around fiction with other love-it-or-hate-it themes, too?
Put simply, Amazon’s practice is bad, in every way. Bad for consumers, bad for authors, bad for survivors and people struggling with PTSD, and bad for society as a whole.
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 email@example.com.
This is an extremely difficult post to write, for reasons I may write more about later. But here’s the basics.
As of 8/26/16, my novel Edgeplay will no longer be available from Amazon.com in ebook form. For those of you who don’t know, KDP, the division of Amazon that deals with self-published ebooks prohibits “inappropriate content,” defined in their Terms of Service as “about what you’d expect.” And they’ve deemed Edgeplay inappropriate. I have exchanged multiple emails with Amazon requesting clarification of which parts of it they want to see altered. In every reply, they have refused to elaborate or provide details on exactly which parts of the book are “inappropriate”. This is the way they operate, and there is no appeal. To keep Edgeplay available at Amazon, I would have to play a guessing game, striking words and potentially “offensive” scenes, rewriting the blurb and keywords, offering less indication that the book deals with sensitive subject matters, and resubmitting, with no clue as to whether the changes are necessary, overkill, or not extensive enough. And even if it got through this time, in six months, I could discover it removed as inappropriate again, if I changed the price or updated the cover and a new reviewer took issue with it.
This is a drain on my time and resources, and would substantially compromise the artistic integrity of Edgeplay, as some of the words that Amazon have been known to censor a book over– “rape” “sexual assault” “sexual abuse” “kink” and “trigger”– are vital to telling the story of a rape survivor healing from her experience, and vital to warning readers, who may be survivors themselves, that they should take whatever measures necessary to protect their mental health before reading it.
And before I get into the nitty-gritty details of how all this works, let me say one thing. Yes, Edgeplay does have sensitive content that may not be for some readers. It features consensual rape fantasies, BDSM, and many heavy discussions on healing from sexual assault, and living with mental illness. But these elements are extremely common in fiction. The only places where they are consistently policed are in the romance and erotica genres, which are both primarily written and consumed by women. Amazon’s policy in practice deems it more offensive for a rape survivor to heal and find love in the romance genre, than for a serial killer to rape and murder a woman in gratuitous detail in the crime genre. Though it may not have been intended this way, this policy silences rape survivors, and forbids women from discussing their lives, trauma, and sexuality.
Rape fantasies are extremely common, and are even a powerful tool for many survivors to heal and move past their trauma. And they are demonized and censored in ways that prove punitive to survivors, both as readers, and authors. Stigma against all sexual content in romance/erotica becomes one of the tools that traps survivors in silence, and survivor-oriented stories in invisibility.
Keywords such as “rape” can get a book banned from sale, or shelved in the “adult dungeon”, basically a limbo in which the book is technically available, but cannot be displayed in searches or otherwise discovered, regardless of content or context. How am I to tell other people that my book is stamped with their brand of hurt, if I’m forbidden to name it? And as a reader, how am I supposed to know to brace myself for a book that will make me experience being raped, if the author is forbidden to include a trigger warning? But these guidelines are selectively and unevenly enforced in ways that target women in general, and abuse survivors in particular.
The first time I submitted Edgeplay via an aggregator, a site that publishes your book to multiple other retailers at once, they rejected it. “Our retailers have asked us to not submit books including nonconsensual content.” I noted in my reply, “It’s a consensual fantasy. Here’s passages showing that the consent has been explicitly laid out and respected.” They replied, firmly, that they would not look at the passages, because it was inappropriate content that they would not distribute.
I worked around that aggregator, submitting manually or through other aggregators, despite the additional burden placed on my time, and the heavy heart that resulted from their refusal to even engage with me.
And then it happened again. Amazon, the leading ebook retailer, and my primary source of income, blocked Edgeplay from sale during a routine review. I wasn’t surprised, after the issues I’d had with the aggregator, but I was deeply saddened.
And lest we think that it just has to be this way, because the alternative is hardcore erotica shelved with children’s books, I’d like to point out that the concept of an adult content toggle, or automated content warnings exist in basically every other entertainment industry out there, though that’s a conversation all on its own.
Amazon claims to disallow adult content but we all know that erotica built the Kindle, and if Amazon disavowed all adult content across the board, from E.L. James to Bret Easton Ellis, it would make enough readers aware of their censorship to impact their brand. That’s the real reason that they will allow it to stay, but selectively enforce blocks based on a so-vague-as-to-be-nonexistent rubric. And this uneven enforcement crashes down exclusively on independent or small press authors that don’t have the clout to fight it and are also predominantly women, in genres that are primarily populated by women authors and whose readers are women. Can you imagine Amazon deciding to block Fifty Shades of Gray, Flowers in the Attic, Anne Rice, or any of the traditionally published boundary-pushers?
Other retailers have largely followed Amazon’s lead as far as the handling of adult content. They have chosen to turn a blind eye to adult content so they can reap its profits, until they randomly and unevenly decide to purge their titles with witchhunts in romance/erotica, to look pure in the face of possible negative attention over controversial content. They refuse to engage with authors on what aspects of the work are “inappropriate,” or allow room for discussions on context or the reasons why those choices were necessary. This disrespectful “You know what you did” brand of customer service/discipline results in authors being forced to guess where the line is– in ways that serve to be extremely destructive for those of us who write, or read stories that explore the nature of our sexual identities, or that in any way appeal to our sexual selves– or forfeit the ability to make money from their work.
This kind of corporate censorship has devastating effects on the work and reading habits of abuse survivors like me.
When I scrambled to learn what, specifically, they were objecting to, to figure out whether it could be scrubbed without fundamentally breaking the book, I combed over blogs written by other authors about their own experiences, stuff that had worked for them in the past, and dug through every account I could find of authors communicating with Amazon over their works. And several likely points of friction emerged, each of them more problematic than the last.
“You can’t use the word kink.”
I had planned the series name Kink or Die for Edgeplay and other stories about people using unconventional kinks or behaviors to overcome disability, sexual assault, and mental illness, and finding love through their unique situations. For many of us who straddle these thresholds, reclaiming our sexuality, and finding someone who uplifts it with us is an act of survival and self-affirmation. One which we are often denied due to disability stigma, mental illness stigma, stigma against BDSM or sexuality, and the atmosphere around discussions of sexual violence that drives survivors to deal with their trauma in silence.
“You can’t use the word trigger.” ‘Trigger’ is the most common word for letting readers know that if they are sensitive to a certain kind of content, they should brace themselves for a rough ride, for their mental health, or bow out of reading it. It’s the ad hoc equivalent for abuse survivors of content warnings like ‘adult situations’ in movies.
“Review the book file and take out any mention of the word rape, or sexual abuse, or sexual assault.” And the list went on and on. I’m sure you can see how my little novel would have nothing left by the time I cut every “potentially objectionable” word away. Because these words, and concepts, are central to the story of an adult sexual assault survivor facing down the damage done by her trauma. Over and over again, writers told me about other writers they knew who had had to do these things, to try to help me, since Amazon is well known for refusing to elaborate on exactly what content they find objectionable in a way that allows authors to publish as much of their original intention as possible.
The chilling impact of this wall of silence is difficult to understate. Faced with the death of a thousand self-inflicted cuts, it’s difficult for anyone to subject themselves to writing about their own trauma. But what alternatives remain? To stay silent? To whisper about our rapes to an empty room, and leave our stories unread, on a crowded hard drive?
Perhaps the most devastating thing to see is how consistently the authors I see pulling titles rather than whitewashing them are survivors, who can’t stomach putting up a book in the kind of shape it’s left in when the guessing games are done. People who wrote from personal experience.
By forcing us to prove that we aren’t fundamentally “inappropriate” for discussing the deepest reverberations of our trauma, Amazon is silencing sexual abuse victims. By policing romance and erotica more heavily than other genres, and holding them to an unrealistic standard that puts undue burdens on authors in those genres, Amazon is disrespecting the maturity and humanity of the women who browse their romance shelves.
Rape and sexual abuse are of particular interest to women. Whether or not we’ve experienced them, they’re the specter that lords over our lives from the day we’re born. So of course books in a genre by and for women are going to deal with them. Romance provides an incredibly useful canvas for charting this kind of journey, because it does provide reassurance that you won’t leave the book feeling the character has been destroyed by their sexual abuse. It can provide a feeling of safety that enables a reader to confront things that hit deeper than that person would otherwise be able to tolerate. And for survivors especially, owning their experiences and story, seeing people like them echoed in the world around them can be a hugely powerful tool for healing. One which Amazon’s policy punishes us for utilizing. This is a sting that hurts doubly, because of how many of us must face our attackers or abusers– or those who support our attackers and abusers in demanding we shut up, or in blaming us for what happened– in day to day life, who may find that channeling our feelings into fiction is the only way to talk about it without fear of repercussions or retaliation.
A book about a survivor healing, written by a fellow survivor, that confronts the aftermath and sexual quirks an assault leaves in a survivor’s psyche and sexual identity, is not more inappropriate than a crime novel that gratuitously describes the rape and mutilation of a serial killers’ victims, or a horror novel in which the rape is portrayed in glorying, sexualized detail. And yet in Amazon’s eyes, even many fully consensual romance novels with no themes related to sexual violence are more likely to be restricted or blocked than either of those non-romance books. It’s completely inappropriate to tell women and sexual assault survivors that our issues, our existences, our presence in the public sphere, are held to higher standards of appropriateness than other genres with a high incidence of these themes (horror, crime, etc.).
The decision to primarily police genres with the highest concentrations of women authors and readers for material that’s especially relevant to that demographic’s lives may not have been intended as misogynistic or punishing toward sexual violence victims, but it is, and Amazon, and the retailers that follow its lead, need to reevaluate it.
Let us write about rape in the context of a life with love, and rape in the context of our private titillation, Let us explore our reactions to it, and the ways it affects us through fiction, even in, yes, erotica or romance. Let us celebrate our full experiences without fear that we’ll be told that our very existence is fundamentally inappropriate. Let us process and create art based on the world we live in, the same way you allow men to in the genres that are their safe spaces. Or for god’s sake, at least police it evenly and tell us what to expect.
If you would like to share your thoughts on this policy with Amazon, email firstname.lastname@example.org.