Censorship, Banned Books and Writing Taboo

Harley Moore, from eBook Eros invited me to blog on the subject of censorship, banned books and taboo topics in literature.

I think that some people are going to have a hard time with my position on this subject: I do not support the legal censorship of any book, on any subject, period.  I don’t think any book should be legally banned and I don’t think there is any topic a writer should be prohibited from writing about.

I do, however, support a legal ban on materials that sexually involve, for instance, minors in the process of production, i.e. movies or still photographs. However, I find even this issue to be problematic. There have been instances in which photographers have been vilified or charged with producing underage ‘pornography’ where, if there is a pornographic element going on, it is in the eye of the viewer and not, necessarily in the eye of the photographer. A good example of this is the photographer Sally Mann.

Another example of why I have issues with the censorship of visual imagery is the recent legal controversy over Japanese Lolicon comics, which are drawn images of cartoon children in sexually explicit situations. I wanted to get the issues of visual material out of the way so I can focus on textual representations.

There are a lot of books I find offensive. Many, many I would not buy or provide a link to, or in any way promote. But this is me exercising personal choice.  I don’t think something should be banned just because I, and even perhaps the majority of the population, find it disgusting.

Ideas in the mind of the writer and words on a page or a screen are abstract concepts – not concrete reality. They are idea representations, remediations. And as much as it might upset me – thinking, writing or reading about, for instance, acts of pedophilia is NOT committing them.

My main concern is not with the subject itself, but with the propensity for society to mistake an idea or thought about something with the actual fact. This inability to distinguish the two has been used conveniently by powers seeking control over citizens for centuries. Books on sedition, books criticizing the church, books dealing with homosexuality or race mixing, erotic texts: people in power have often used the law to suppress thoughts which question their right to be in power, to pursue alternative sexualities and to worship other gods.

When you bring the law into the equation, you enable the abuse of power over the thoughts of others. I think it is dangerous, fundamentally wrong, and I condemn it. And if I have to ignore a few books on pedophilia to ensure universal freedom to think what we want to think, then I will do it.

It is very easy to work people up emotionally over the real victimization of a small child, then equate it to something written in a book, and then to demand that all representation of the sexuality of people under the age of 18 should be banned.  In the meantime, we have just disallowed ourselves from being able to freely acknowledge, textually, that we lost our virginities at the age of 15.  Which is pretty much where we are right now in the erotica genre. I cannot get a sexual coming of age story published unless I assiduously fail to mention the age at which it happens. This is absurd.

Meanwhile, I am free to eroticize staggeringly violent acts, but there’s no publisher that will touch a story about a man who wakes up one morning to find his wife dead, and in a moment of intense grief, has sex with her body one last time.

The great blessing of the written word is that it allows us to communicate, examine and debate concepts that should not be played out in reality. It is by far the safest space in which to struggle with issues that, in the real world, would erode the fabric of our civil society.

When I wrote ‘Gaijin’, I was inundated with letters from irate women who accused me of eroticizing rape. I did write representations of rape that were intentionally erotic and designed to arouse. But the emails went on to accuse me of promoting rape and enabling rapists, as if there were no distinction between a fictional representation of rape and the reality.

(I also got an email from a woman who told me that she’d been raped, orgasmed during the rape, and felt terribly conflicted because she could not truly see herself as ‘wronged’ since her body had not reacted in accordance with her mental state. She said the book allowed her to find a way to come to terms with the paradox.)

I’m not suggesting that rape victims should read the book. I’m quite sure it would upset, sicken or offend the hell out of most of them. The book was written out of my need to grapple with the conundrum of rape fantasy. As many as 57% of all women have sexual fantasies that involve them being the victims of non-consensual sex acts.  Up to 17% of women have these fantasies regularly. (Critelli and Bivona, “Women’s Erotic Rape Fantasies: An Evaluation of Theory and Research”, Journal of Sex Research, Volume 45, Issue 1, 2008)

Although I don’t think there is any subject I would not write about, there are certainly subjects I would not intentionally eroticize in my writing. This is a personal choice I make as an individual writer.

Conversely, there are things I have no interest in reading. But no one is forcing me to read them. And if I find, halfway through an erotic story, that I am becoming upset or offended, I simply close the book, or leave the webpage. It’s that simple. I exercise my choice to not expose myself to something I find offensive.

I believe that banning books, and publishers who adhere to blindly to taboo guidelines, and writers who may want to write on certain subjects but self-censor themselves in order to adhere to those guidelines – all those situations deny me the right to make decisions for myself as thinking adult. And I resent it.

Some of the most moving and thought-provoking writing I have read have been works where characters are presented in extremis and where I am presented with morally ambiguous questions.  It is my very discomfort as a reader that has triggered deep and serious introspection on many topics. These are the books will stay with me for life. They have played a part in forming my character as a person, and my identity as a writer.

I’d like to offer you two links to short stories which, I hope, will disturb you, arouse you and make you think.  “Nadica”, by Mike Kimera and “An Early Winter Train” by C. Sanchez-Garcia . They are both stories that many erotica publishers would have problems publishing under their guidelines.

The power of governments, publishers and the righteously indignant to make sure I don’t read things that are bad for me is patronizing, offensive and frightening. I am heartily grateful to the rise of internet-published fiction. Certainly, there is a lot of badly written, offensive and repugnant crap out there, but I want to be the one who determines what that is for myself. I don’t want that power to reside in someone else’s hands. I have historical proof that this is almost always a very bad idea.

Finally, I believe that the current trend towards making the world of literature ‘safe’ is essentially damaging. Readers are being acclimatized to having choices made for them. They are being lulled into believing that other entities will inure them from offense and keep their minds safe from harm. Under the guise of protecting society from evil things, they are being enabled to relinquish their responsibility as individuals to exercise discernment. And they are learning not to question the agendas of the people who are so eager to do it for them.

  14 comments for “Censorship, Banned Books and Writing Taboo

  1. Melissa (DrSnit)
    October 18, 2011 at 11:48 am

    Before I became a sociologist I was a librarian. Part of our job was to “select” materials (books, journals, etc) for our audience and our institution… It really helped me GRAPPLE with the idea of censorship and “safe” material and “picking wisely” and making CHOICES both professionally AND personally.

    It can be done. I believe in complete freedom of information. I also believe in COMPLETE freedom to CHOOSE what I read or do not read. Similarly I am appalled at what we call “journalism” (it is not) and what we call “news” (it is not) and what we call content (ditto)… of most sources today. AND – I find LITERATURE doing a similar downward trend – we as professionals are allowing our own lack of standards to scandalize rather than be great. It reduces genres of amazing work and leaves readers to select for themselves. It is a SHAME. It should still go UNCENSORED.

    I wish we had higher PROFESSIONAL standards I suppose (in all areas)… I wish we were holding ourselves to higher purpose. The way you reflect and talk and communicate. I am missing that in so many areas… and yet- there is something to be said for spectacle. I am just sad that it gets “mistaken” for literature and news. I wish it were UNDERSTOOD to BE what it IS…

    This perhaps seems like an off topic rant. And it is. I’m just disheartened.

    Adore you to bits RG!

  2. October 18, 2011 at 12:14 pm

    I long ago argued that the “crime” of child pornography is too often mis-aimed. The correct crime is accessory to rape. If photographic or video evidence exists of someone unable to consent to sex (i.e., a minor) having sex with someone else, then that is evidence of a crime. The failure to turn that evidence over to the authorities is where the accessory element comes in.

    One reason I like this definition is that it eliminates the issues around fictional depiction, be that in written erotica or cartoons. There is no victim for those, so there is no crime.

  3. October 18, 2011 at 1:06 pm

    I agree with you. Censorship is BAD, period. Tyranny always blames art when they have problems controlling a restless population, and we shouldn’t give them the change. Art should be transgression, should be controversial, should shake people from their slumber.

  4. October 18, 2011 at 1:36 pm

    I cannot tell you how much I agree with you, RG. Authoritarian Censorship is a bad thing for the society in which it occurs, as it encourages narrow thinking and discourages that wide roaming of the mind that produces real original thought and creativity.

  5. October 18, 2011 at 5:54 pm

    Meanwhile, I am free to eroticize staggeringly violent acts, but there’s no publisher that will touch a story about a man who wakes up one morning to find his wife dead, and in a moment of intense grief, has sex with her body one last time.

    Well, *almost* no publisher. You know we’d love it. 🙂 But the censorship practiced by erotica publishers is exactly why we had to start our press in the first place. I’d love it if the guidelines at the large presses were expanded enough to make us redundant.

    Another unfortunate by-product of all this stigmatization (of certain topics) is that it leaves readers feeling like they’re deviants because they get off to things such as rape fantasy. Some of us like feeling like deviants, but for most people it’s an uncomfortable and shame-filled feeling, and I hate that people are being made to feel that way. It’s okay to get off to whatever you get off to; whether the publishing industry supports it or not has everything to do with their own fear, and nothing to do with you.

    Catherine and I did an interview with Sex Life Canada where we discussed some of these issues – the conflation of fiction
    about something with the real thing, how that affects the reader, why people stigmatize certain subjects, etc. Check out the interview if you’d like, but the short version is that we agree with you 100%.

  6. Korhomme
    October 18, 2011 at 6:56 pm

    I’m generally against censorship. Ideas should be free and people should be free to express them and you and I should be free to read them. However, in my field we were brought up to regard ‘always’ and ‘never’ with suspicion; a useful concept to apply to other areas.

    Most people are able to distinguish the fact from the fantasy, to grasp the ideas and concepts expressed indirectly in fiction.

    But some people don’t or can’t distinguish; the fantasy is the fact, for them; ideas are dangerous because such people may well be tempted to act them out. Some people do act them out to the detriment of others — I’m thinking of violence and aggression. These people may be either ‘mad’ or ‘bad’ and their response to ideas is very different to most peoples’. And it’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation; were they mad/bad before they read, did they actively seek out specific material, or did reading it ‘convert’ them? A small minority, but a potentially dangerous one.

    I don’t have a clear idea of how to separate such people from ideas which would be potentially damaging to them (and thus to others). It’s often only after the ‘event’ that such people are recognised — when it’s often too late. But I can see that censorship would appeal to authoritarianism as a method of control and prevention.

    • October 18, 2011 at 7:40 pm

      I won’t deny there are people like this, Korhomme. There always have been and I suspect there always will be. But I’d like to argue that suppressing our ideas for the sake of these people a) doesn’t seem to work and b) makes us weaker in figuring out how to deal with them.

      If you were going to censor texts based on their ability to inspire nut jobs to do harm, I think religious texts would have to be first on your list for banning because the atrocities committing in the name of the Bible and the Quran outnumber all the pedophiles in the world. We would also have to ban all political texts too. The Communist Manifesto, Mao’s little Red Book, etc. Millions of people have gone to their deaths because of these texts also.

      My point is… if this is really about protecting people, we’ve been making really bad choices as to what needs censoring, so I think we should just stop it altogether.

      • Snarkyxanf
        October 18, 2011 at 9:45 pm

        History also suggests that people who have trouble telling violent thoughts apart from reality prove immensely useful to authoritarian governments. It’s where inquisitors, torturers, secret police come from.

  7. S
    October 18, 2011 at 7:25 pm

    I agree with you on most points and I’m not sure if I’m digressing but it does make me wonder whether it is easier for us to object (to censorship) from a learned (possibly impartial?) point of view. I suppose what I mean is that we have the ability to distinguish between the idea and the actual act, whereby others perhaps for some reason or another cannot.

    For myself I can say that I enjoy violent games and films, or I might even think not so nice thoughts on the odd occasion, but faced with the reality of physically doing something along those lines would be out the question. In the same way that I found Gaijin erotic, yet I done not condone rape nor do I did it make think that RG would. Similarly when I read Comfort Food which invoked feelings of anger and made me uncomfortable beyond measure, I did not think for once the author would condone it IRL.

    However in that might lay the problem. For a long time I was always of the opinion that whatever I could do, anyone could, and therefore, no one ever had any excuse. (I learned a lot from someone I once worked with and for that I’ll always be grateful because how wrong I was, was such an epiphany.) I can often read without questioning movtivation; however I’ve noticed some people are unable.

    While for most part I don’t partake in it, I can understand the idea or conclusion that is drawn that certain material can fuel compulsion. I’m definitely not saying that this is how censorship is decided, but I can see perhaps on one hand the see the fear or the one-eyedness that may contribute to it.

    (Interesting this should come up since I quickly flicked through a release which deals with an affair between a sixteen year old boy and woman in her forties. I was interested to read quite vehement reviews especially from those with children around the same age, and their view of the woman going as far as to label her a pedophile. Is it possible views such as this, add to weight of censorship?)

    • October 18, 2011 at 7:55 pm

      Hi Sasha. I’m not going to disagree with you that certain texts don’t fuel compulsion in people who cannot distinguish between an idea and acting upon it in the real world. But if censorship were really intent on protecting society from those people, wouldn’t we ban the Bible first? Think about all the horrific things that have been done under the influence of that one? OTOH, think of all the amazingly good things that have been done under the influence of certain texts.

      There will always be people who don’t have much of a capacity to reason for themselves. Who get an idea into their head and think they have to live it out without considering the consequences of their actions. And yes, I do think a good education goes a long way to making a population more rational and thoughtful and able to absorb ideas without choosing necessarily to act on them. So it would better serve a society to expend its resources and efforts educating its population. Then we wouldn’t have to worry so much about which texts needed censoring and which didn’t.

  8. GidgetWidget
    October 18, 2011 at 8:59 pm

    In the 19th century, photographing naked children was not considered child pornography but instead, an artistic manifestation celebrating innocence. In the 21st century, a man in Georgia spent 3 years fighting child pornography charges because of Japanese manga found in his home. Advocacy efforts by the CBLDF (Comic Book Legal Defense Fund) and others were no match for the determination of the prosecution. After many delays and months, the legitimacy of his defense still held solid. He conceded to a plea bargain, however, frustrating all involved. The precedent was set: Japanese Manga in your library could very well get you charged with pedophilia in many US states.

    But let’s go back to why the CBLDF was created. Ayn Rand (OH NO I DID NOT JUST REFERENCE HER…!) came under fire for the scene when Dominique is forcefully taken by Howard Roark and the Hayes code was in full effect for Hollywood films. By 1952, a book was published on how comic books were responsible for corrupting the youth of America. Inciting social outcry and offering justification for juvenile delinquency, the genre came under strict censorship. Consequently, the Comics Code dominated how the comics were both perceived and created. The CBLDF was formed to protect the First Amendment Rights of retailers and comic book artists/writers who were under constant bombardment. Like Erotica, it was, and is, an easy target.

    In all of these mediums, and in each historical era where censorship has been strictly enforced, the visionaries found ways to tell their stories and squeeze past the code. An argument can be made for censorship affecting almost a reverse psychology among those for whom their craft/medium challenged their artistic improvement. But that’s the only positive thing I have to say about it.

    So, today, Lewis Carroll would be in jail or listed as a sex offender, along with most of his generation. Socrates would be brought before the Committee For Public Safety and executed for asking too many questions. A guy who gets some comic books from Japan has to fight a losing, three year court battle against charges ranging from possessing child pornography to being a pedophile. Walt Disney is still considered to be pure and innocent. RG comes under fire for depicting rape while it’s okay for graphic “torture fetish” horror films, like HOSTEL, to air on cable networks. And to make a statement about how offensive a recently released book is, a person payed the 30 or 40 dollars, put the hard cover book in a microwave, melted it, and if you want to purchase its charred remains, check Ebay.

    At least some of us still exercise free will. But it’s not something to be taken for granted. With the digital landscape comes a whole new wave of misunderstanding and outrage. We do enough ourselves to affect forms of censorship as it is. There’s wrong, there’s wrong, there’s WRONG and then there’s idiocy. The latter is the easiest form of censorship to enforce, yes? Or no?

    ~ *GW

  9. Kathleen Bradean
    October 19, 2011 at 8:17 am

    I’m against any sort of censorship, period. If anyone finds something offensive, they can exercise their right to look away. Most people will not act on transgressive thoughts. Those who would don’t need a book or movie to move them to acting. They will make any excuse and do it anyway.

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