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.