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Amazon's e-book dilemma: Extreme porn
Online retailers are under attack for selling e-books filled with rape, incest, and bestiality. Should they clean up their act?
Amazon is cool with mommy porn. Incest porn not so much.
Amazon is cool with mommy porn. Incest porn not so much. (Facebook/Fifty Shades of Grey Trilogy)
T

he e-book world has a porn problem.

Online retailers like Amazon and Kobo have spent the past week furiously deleting extreme pornographic books from their digital catalogs after a report in online magazine The Kernel revealed how the stores were selling hundreds of self-published titles glorifying rape, incest, pedophilia, and bestiality.

"Available titles include Don't Daddy (Forced Virgin Seduction)," said Jeremy Wilson at The Kernel, "and Daddy's Invisible Condom (Dumb Daughter Novelette)."

How did those depraved e-books end up on a mainstream retailer like Amazon? Well, according to Wilson, many authors set up their own fake publishing houses by registering an ISBN number for around $200. They can then upload their work to the online retailer, which customers can download to their Kindles and other e-readers. Amazon doesn't police its digital publishing platform in any meaningful way, so the books have remained on sale, despite the retailer's ban on self-published titles that feature "pornography or offensive depictions of graphic sexual acts."

The Kernel's report resulted in a flurry of outrage, and Amazon and other U.S. retailers began yanking individual titles from sale. Some questionable e-books remain on Amazon, said the Los Angeles Times, including Taken by the Vikings (rough erotic ménage romance) and Forced to Fit (taboo sex stories). British bookseller WH Smith — which takes its e-book content from Kobo — went so far as to take its website completely offline for several days. When it relaunched, the site was no longer selling self-published titles.

The crackdown on extreme erotica has caused collateral damage. E-book blog The Digital Reader notes that digital bookstores have deleted not "just the questionable erotica but are also removing any e-books that might even hint at violating cultural norms." Riding the Big One, a gay novel that chronicles an 18-year-old boy's sexual adventures in the British Navy, was pulled from the shelves by Amazon, possibly because its description includes the word "teenager." Another title, The Nun's Lover, was seemingly withdrawn because its description features the word "sister."

While many of the pulled books make for deeply unpleasant reading, PJ Vogt at On the Media said that alone is not reason for censorship. "We outlaw snuff films, child porn, and, increasingly, revenge porn, because actual people are harmed during their production," said Vogt. "Erotic fiction concerns fake characters who don't exist in real life. You could argue that entertainment that caters to people's darkest fantasies makes them more likely to enact them, but the science wouldn't support you."

Self-published erotica authors have also complained that they are being punished for writing about topics that routinely appear in "serious" literature — like Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita — and countless works of genre fiction produced by big publishing houses and movie studios. "Books and movies and shows about murder, incest, and cannibalism will still be sold by these websites," wrote Dalia Daudelin, author of numerous self-published titles, including A Rape Fantasy. "Dexter, Hannibal, Sleeping Beauty, and Game of Thrones will not be removed, because it's a lot harder to bully people with the money for lawyers."

If e-booksellers want to avoid future scandals, and the ire of scorned erotica writers, they need to provide clearer guidelines as to what actually counts as extreme porn. "The book industry reaped massive profits from the bestselling erotic trilogy Fifty Shades of Grey," said Laura Hazard Owen at GigaOm. "If that's okay, but other porn isn't — if, for instance, child rape porn is unacceptable — retailers will have to be much more explicit in publicly declaring what is and isn't acceptable."

They'll also need to employ humans to ferret out the offending titles, not just rely on computer algorithms that can't discriminate between a lighthearted romp and a sick tale of sexual abuse. "That is likely to be more than a full-time job," said Hazard Owen.

Theunis Bates is a senior editor at The Week's print edition. He has previously worked for Time, Fast Company, AOL News and Playboy.

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