Sunday, March 11, 2012

Dirty Minds vs. Debit Card: Shades of Consent

Welcome today's Dirty Mind, Skye Warren. Some writers come through my door knowing what they want to say. Skye was one. Grab a cup of coffee with me and let's give her the floor.

I have always seen the world in shades of consent. When the teenage boy leans in for a kiss, does the girl give explicit consent first? Probably not, so he learns early on to search for clues. Or maybe he learns just to go for it, and deal with the consequences after.

It doesn’t stop there. Even when we’re older, the entire dating ritual is an elegant-awkward dance toward mating. The first date, the third? Wait until they’re married, and then what – is consent implicit?

For me, the issue of consent has never been confined to erotica. It’s in all fiction, everywhere, because that’s the crux of conflict. In fact, I can write in couched terms, pretty it up, and sell it as anything I want. Science fiction, horror, general fiction. It’s only if I want to be direct does it come up, because then I’m writing about sex, which by default of our genre structure makes it erotica, and that’s what’s under fire.

And let me be blunt – all of erotica is under fire. This has nothing to do with right and wrong, and everything to do with repression. Sound extreme? Here’s an example. I can write a book where a woman is burned to death, burned to a crisp, in horrible, gory detail that makes me want to vomit. That can sell to a publisher, sell in Barnes & Noble, and be sold via Paypal. The book is The Mummy by Anne Rice, by the way, and it’s a good book.

But I cannot write a girl who spreads her legs calmly, reconsiders, politely requests that the man stop – “No, thank you.” And he continues to have sex with her anyway. That’s not allowed. Which scenario is more wrong? Well, honestly it’s a matter of opinion, but I can tell you for damn sure which one I’d prefer happen to me.

Paypal is telling me that a 19 year old man having consensual sex is so morally reprehensible that they cannot sell it, and yet the burning to a crisp in explicit language is just A-okay. So don’t tell me this is about morality – that doesn’t make any sense. This is about the fact that some Paypal execs don’t like women reading about sex.

Paypal executives are telling me that I am allowed to get raped, but I should not be allowed to read about it. And I certainly shouldn’t write about it. If Paypal executives want to make the world a better place, how about they target rapists, not rape fiction. It’s the real thing that’s hurting women, not the book.

“The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read. Not by any other person, and not even by yourself at some later date. Otherwise you begin excusing yourself.’ – Margaret Atwood

The truth is that rape happens. The truth is that sometimes sex hurts. Sometimes it’s violent and gritty and painful and disgusting, and it does not stop being any of those things if you don’t let us write about it.

I first heard about the Paypal ban from Bookstrand. I shrugged. Maybe I should have been up-in-arms at that point, but I found their stance on the matter and certain correspondence that became public to be so poorly done that I was not sad not to do business with them anymore. They pulled all my books (not just the two in question) although my understanding is that they pulled virtually all indies. Next came All Romance, who kindly reviewed all my work and decided those two books were “dubious consent” (as opposed to “nonconsent”, which would have required them to remove it completely). That was fine.

Last came Smashwords, and I will admit that the initial letter from its founder Mark Coker really pissed me off. It took until then for me to see red. This was a company that dedicated itself to indie writing, and here was the perfect opportunity to be an advocate, and they turned their back! He didn’t just say that they had to do it to keep the site running for everyone else, which I would have understood, but said that it was an “oversight” that these hadn’t been banned all along! Thank goodness Paypal stepped in to remind him that they should be in the censorship business.

And then he added insult to injury with the parting shot, “If you’re going to push the limits, push the limits of great writing, not the limits of legality.” As if I don’t push the limits of great writing already, which Mark Coker knows, not because he’s read my books, but because of my subject matter. As if I have ever written anything illegal (I haven’t). Subsequent letters have been worded much better, but I can’t forget this one. For me, this one is their true colors. The rest is damage control. So I pulled all my books from Smashwords, even the ones that did not violate their fabulous new terms of service.

Call me oversensitive, but I have felt this censorship mess like a physical blow. It isn’t even all about my books, it’s about what I read, the authors I respect. They are wrong. What I like is wrong. What’s in my head is wrong-wrong-wrong.

Well, like Mark Coker, thank goodness. Thank goodness I have PayPal to teach me better. Thank goodness a man can drag me behind a dumpster, but now I’ll know better than to say anything. Don’t write about. Don’t talk about it. Now I know: sexual violence against women should not be discussed in the open. Thank you, Paypal.

Wow, that’s what I call author voice.  
It’s becoming apparent many readers and writers turn to the sub-genre of transgressive erotica because it’s being used as a vehicle to help many woman process the reality of violence through reading rape fiction, or writing it. Corporate America is telling women our fantasies are wrong, Yet I see no major outcry from the women who have a PayPal card tucked into their wallet. Have any of your readers weighed in on the fact you now have very limited outlets to publish the type of story they want to read? Or has the lack of mainstream news coverage prevented them from realizing the truth?

One of the hardest things for me to deal with has been the cannibalism within the erotica/erotic romance authorship community. I saw one author say that he “refused to stand up with rapists and pedophiles.” You know you have to have a tough skin as an author, and I think I do, but those words cut me. I’m not a rapist. I’m not a pedophile. But I think that kind of attitude, while extreme, represents what is so tough about this whole thing. Even if they understand that it’s not really that, it’s hard for anyone to stand up for something with the word “rape” in it. It’s hard for people to stand up for something with the word “incest” in it, even if it’s fiction. And even when some truly great, mainstream writers come out to advocate, it is still prefaced with “Now I wouldn’t read any of this kind of stuff, but...” (Oh, me too. Makes me wonder where all those millions of dollars spent on romance are coming from.)

So that’s one reason. The other is that Bookstrand and Smashwords didn’t have the kind of readership that Amazon and B&N and even All Romance do, and my “dubious consent” books are still allowed there. Honestly, one of the reasons that I am speaking out here is because I have a suspicion that all this was just a precursor. I am waiting for the death knell from  Amazon. I really hope I’m wrong about this. I hope they see all the fuss and figure that censorship just isn’t worth the trouble for them.

If there’s something to be grateful for in all of this, it’s that it’s opened up discussion. Readers have contacted me to show their support, and I am so grateful for each one of those letters. It’s even opened up discussion between authors of this banned erotica, this series being one example.
I have had some of the same experiences with other authors. It’s as if they believe, by suppressing fiction about pedophilia--the real deal, I mean, will make it stop happening. A nineteen year old male is far enough past the age of consent to make his own decisions about his sex partners--and he likely has been doing so for quite some time. But genuine sexual abuse of minors, and actual rapes happen every day. How is not writing legal fiction about it going to stop an all-too-sad reality? Shall we leave the victims valid experiences out of our fiction? Won’t that make them feel even more guilty and isolated, if these topics are so taboo they cannot be touched in a work of imagination?

When I first read this question, I wanted to talk about how, from a geopolitical standpoint, the places with the highest censorship rates are the ones with the worst forms of oppression. How, throughout history, the times of highest sexual repression were the ones with the most sexual violence. Because really, it’s easier to talk about broad social trends than concrete things.

That’s part of why I write, too. The fiction acts as a buffer. Many of the reader emails I’ve gotten have said that I nailed the experience of being raped and the aftereffects. They said it was disturbing, but so painfully accurate. And the subtext is there, sometimes more blatant than others: so, you’ve experienced it. Because how else would I know? For that matter, how would they know it’s accurate unless they had experienced it?

Not every one of my readers has been raped. Some of them have told me they haven’t been, so what are they relating to? I think even without a distinct “No, stop” experience in their past, those feelings of powerlessness are pervasive. Almost every woman I know has at least one story – that one time they were groped or shamed or somethinged and it haunts them even now. For better or worse, it’s a shared part of the female existence.

Not everyone wants to share that experience, with me or anyone, and that’s their prerogative not to read my books. I don’t take offensive – it can be painful! What’s offensive is the idea that I shouldn’t share that with anyone. That someone else doesn’t deserve to read words giving voice to her pain, and know she’s not alone with it.

There is a commonality to why a lot of us read transgressive erotica. Women who have never been raped report having rape fantasies to a surprising degree. For any card company to wipe this type of story off the shelf is a slap in the face to me. Telling an adult woman she cannot choose to read a book to tap into that emotional exploration seems an outrage.

Do you mind telling us roughly how many copies of your banned titles were sold before they were taken down? Has having your titles banned affected your creativity? Are you concerned now about what might be next on the chopping block, in light of the overall lack of outcry?

Keep Me Safe has sold 3,000 copies since it was released in November 2011, and only about 100 copies came from the bookstores it’s now banned from, Smashwords and Bookstrand. Trust in Me came out mid-February, right before this whole thing blew up. It’s sold over 500 copies since then, less than ten of those came from Smashwords/Bookstrand.

It’s ironic that the bookstores with the lowest volume were the ones who decided to restrict their offerings, but then maybe that’s part of the reason why it happened. Larger bookstores like Amazon and B&N work directly with the credit cards (where XXX porn is regularly transacted), whereas these smaller stores go through a third party like Paypal.

And I can understand that, but both of them could not point the finger at us crazy indie authors fast enough when they came out with their censorship decisions. God, if we only knew where to draw the line, they wouldn’t have to clean up this mess! And yet, for years they have happily taken our money without uttering a peep. If they want to impress us with their implacable morality, how about they calculate the royalties they’ve earned from these horribly obscene and offensive titles and donate them to a rape victim advocacy groups?

The censorship has absolutely affected my creativity. Combined with certain recent political events, my lady parts are feeling distinctly unwelcome. I’m a little bit in shock about it all. Why are banks telling me what to read? Why are politicians telling me who to have sex with? Is this some sort of feminist candid camera, and someone’s going to jump out and say, “Surprise, we actually do respect you!” I would like my 21st century back now, please.

Skye, I appreciate your taking the time to speak out and give readers as well as other writers another facet to the prism we see this targeted sub-genre through. Skye may be found on her website and blog, as well as on Twitter

Remember: Submissions Call for Transgressional Erotica Anthology. Cover Image created and donated by Narcisse Navarre.


  1. Hello Skye!

    What a wonderful and passionate interview you have given here.

    In truth I don't believe that PayPal doesn't mind you being raped. I'm quite sure they mind. And if you were to write a harrowing autobiographical account of it under the non-fiction genre, Smashwords would be able to carry it.

    The fact that you, in light of your experience, might want to write a fictionalized account of your experience and eroticize it in order to make it yours and own it and appropriate it, that is what they don't want to allow you to do.

    And that is a strange and thorny distinction. Because, of course, readers will find eroticism where they will.

    I remember being terribly ashamed about reading a True Crime book about a serial killer and becoming turned on by the capture part of the book. I thought...what the fuck is wrong with me? Why am I finding this titillating? I should think it's horrible.

    But I did also think it was horrible, too. And yet I could not deny my reaction. And I could not explain it either. This haunted me.

    All I know is that honesty is best. That if I write books that contain eroticised depictions of rape, I put them under the 'erotica' category. I acknowledge that, at least for me as a writer, there is something going on in my subconscious and perhaps in the subconscious of other women too. And privately, I think it is actually a very healthy thing. We are telling our stories OUR way, FOR us. We are taking tragedies and carving then into other, strange gardens.

    1. Thank you! I was thinking about how odd it was that I could write a memoir of rape, but not a fictional account. To me, that is more perverse. I agree with you about circumventing the genre or tagging system, because I don't want to risk someone reading it and getting triggered.

  2. Skye,

    When I read something that moves me and makes me think I count myself fortunate. When I read something that brings tears to my eyes it normally means that someone touched on an aspect of my life that is still healing.
    When I can smile at something I've read then I know that I'm not alone.

    Your post covered all three.

    Thank you.

  3. It has not been a terrific year for women's rights in the political scene, I can't argue. On the other hand, we've never before lived in a world where so many women could write openly about things that have never been publicly discussed before, and profit from it, both emotionally and financially. It's been hard seeing other writers react poorly to this but so many have stepped up (writers, readers and those with no involvement at all) that I try to focus on that as much as I can.

    I think your books are stories that I would have benefited from reading when I was younger. And enjoyed too! Thank you for sharing, Skye.

    1. Yes, you are right. It's actually a sign of how progress we've made that there are some people who feel compelled to push us back. I have not been as good as I want about focusing on the positive, but I'm trying! :)

    2. It's hard, isn't it? I think I wrote that as much to remind myself! Probably not a good idea for me to read some of the blogs out there so early, before I've fortified myself with coffee.

  4. Thank you all for reading, and for commenting. Skye was a genuine treat to have as a guest. :_)