The Future of Taboo, Forbidden, Ultra-Smut, and Other Controversial Erotica

Will Incest Erotica Survive the Purge?

A short time ago the Lot’s Cave Newsletter published its thoughts about the future of controversial erotica on Smashwords. Mark Coker, the CEO of Smashwords responded by fiercely denying any censorship. (See back issues online for the transcripts). Today, Smashwords is stepping up its efforts to silence taboo and controversial erotica. It’s not your imagination; it’s happening right now. Smashwords just banned a number of hard core eBooks this last month, essentially wiping them off the Internet if not for Lot’s Cave. The rest of all erotica authors are supposed to think that’s okay because of rude subject matter. The latest victims consist of authors who write non-consent erotica.

Censors of rape and non-consent erotica assume all sexual violence committed is done by men and that men are by nature sexually violent to women. It has been proven time and again that it is women who most enjoy rape fantasy’s and rape erotica. Indeed, at Lot’s Cave, nearly all rape erotica is purchased by women. Censoring rape erotica actually hinders conversations regarding sexual fantasies and sexual responsibility. Hindering such conversations are actually detrimental to women’s health and sexually open relationships and reinforces the concept that women can only be victims. Does banning rape erotica reinforce toxic adherence to certain strictly enforced gender roles?

You are not delusional in thinking publishing platforms like Smashwords are discriminating against UltraSmut Authors and that they are gaslighting us by claiming ‘no policies have changed; they are just enforcing existing policies under stricter new criteria.’ Hey, we call that a policy change! When caught silencing controversial authors. The chilling effect that occurs every time a new round of “enhancements” is that it keeps most erotica authors far from the boundaries; it keeps them from writing anything that might be controversial in any way for any reason. Because these policy rules are largely unwritten, constantly evolving, being made up all the time, and enforcement is changing, they make a mockery of the concept of a self-publishing platform where all authors are treated equally and that book readers/buyers do not know what they want to read.

First Amazon, then Barnes & Noble, and now Smashwords are controlling the direction the entire publishing market, defining exactly what erotica consumers are allowed to read. If you control the terms, then you can control the outcome of social direction. UltraSmut authors are ignoring this at peril. You will lose every publishing platform going forward, including Lot’s Cave, if authors do not put a stop to this. Some ill-informed authors might agree with Publishing Platform claims that this is just “competition” this is just “free market”; if you do not like Amazon, if you do not like Smashwords, go make your own publishing platform. These authors have never started their own companies and don’t know what it means to start a business. These companies, including Smashwords now, have all built themselves up to the point of monopoly power on the back of protectionist government regulations.

Small companies like Lot’s Cave need large companies like Smashwords to plow the path ahead, without which it’s difficult to survive. We desperately want and need Smashwords to provide taboo authors an uncensored publishing platform. If Smashwords caves in to the vocal few complainers and discontinues publishing ultra-smut, it will make life extremely difficult for us by requiring Lot’s Cave to justify its existence.

Now that Smashwords has ‘arrived’; and in doing so, joined the ranks of all major publishing platforms in crowding out the last bastions of controversial erotica, they are changing the rules on us. On Sept 15, 2017 Smashwords published a table on their blog stating that ‘“rape for titillation” was allowed but discouraged and they would retain the right of refusal—but never provided any discernable “discouraging enforcement”’. Suddenly with no warning they are simply snuffing out authors completely and removing other titles this month. Yes, it’s true they are snuffing out authors and titles from authors that you and I do not necessarily hang out with, read, or enjoy; that’s not the point. They are testing the waters: so nobody protested when it was rape erotica, pretty soon it will be authors and content that are closer to what you and I enjoy writing. Remember a few months back when Mark Coker wrote to Lot’s Cave that “And FWIW, dubcon is considered taboo”?

With Smashwords and Lot’s Cave remaining as the two main platforms for publishing taboo erotica, we want to take a moment to ask some tough questions. The market has changed dramatically, both in what content authors are providing and how stores respond to customer feedback. Examining how to best maximize these market trends is vital… but so is paying attention to the established rules.

Lot’s Cave originally raised its concern when Smashwords implemented a new classification system for content deemed controversial. At the time, Mark Coker stressed the importance of doing so stating:

“Our new approach empowers those who know their content best – the author or publisher – to directly categorize and certify the erotic themes of their books. This will give our sales channels greater confidence to receive the erotica they want while avoiding the titles they don’t want.

The new Smashwords classification system is built on trust. We trust our authors and publishers to accurately categorize their books, and we trust they recognize it’s in their best interest to do so. As is our practice, we will continue to monitor all Smashwords titles for compliance with the Smashwords Terms of Service. Those who jeopardize this trust through deliberate misclassification will face account closure.”

Note here that Mark Coker stresses trusting authors to know and mark their content accordingly while also claiming that doing so is in their best interest. But is it really? What is Smashwords really incentivizing authors to produce? The answer isn’t clear cut. And in this murky water, how is an author to know what is in the mind of Smashwords? Failure to know the mind of Smashwords in defining the meaning of “allowed but discouraged” means being cut off altogether.

Smashwords has gone to great efforts to define the content it deems controversial, and to their credit, they actively attempt to make the process easy for authors. However, there are quite a few problems in their current definitions. We want to take an honest look at these definitions, what they encourage authors to do, and how publish platforms treat such controversial content as a whole. As authors, it is always important to take into account the climate of public opinion, as we soon shall find out.

As mentioned previously, Smashwords makes is extremely easy to look up their content requirements and definitions. There’s the blog post discussing content, and their Terms of Service. In short, here are the definitions of content deemed necessary of further classification:

Age play – One or more consenting adult characters role playing, pretending to be babies or children. Most retailers will take this, but iBooks will not.

Bestiality – Sexual relations between humans and real-world animals (sex with Big Foot, dinosaurs, shape shifters and other imaginary creatures is not bestiality). Few retailers will take this.

Dubious Consent (dubcon) – A common and popular theme in mainstream fiction. Dubcon explores the gray area between consent and non-consent. Not clear if the receiver of the sexual act was fully on board or not at the time of the act. Most retailers will take this.

Incest or pseudo-incest – Sexual relations between family members, whether biologically or non-biologically related. Includes stepbrother, stepsister and step-anyone. Few retailers will take this.

Nonconsensual sexual slavery – Erotic depiction of a person captured or held against their will, such as kidnapping, imprisonment or human trafficking. Not to be confused with BDSM, which is predicated upon informed consent and negotiation between both parties before the act, and which provides safe words so either partner can end the act if it goes too far. If the book adheres to BDSM best practices, do not classify it as Nonconsensual sexual slavery. Few retailers will take nonconsensual sexual slavery.

Rape for titillation – The dominant theme of this book is rape — whether the rape is by one person or a character is raped by a group of people, i.e. a gang rape or nonconsensual “gang bang” — and it targets readers who are titillated by the fantasy of nonconsensual sexual relations. Few retailers will take this.

Out of these, Smashwords says that most retailers will accept Age Play and Dubious Consent (Dubcon). But what about Smashwords itself? Isn’t that what we really care about? Smashwords provides a graph in the blog post that says they will take Age Play, Bestiality, Dubious Consent, and Incest. What they will take but highly discourage is listed as Rape for Titillation and Nonconsensual Sexual Slavery. This shouldn’t be too shocking to authors, but things quickly get confusing. You see, if one wishes to double check this information in Smashwords’ Terms of Service, one finds vastly different information. According to Smashwords ‘Terms of Service’ under section 9f, we find the following information:

“Barely legal” erotica is strongly discouraged, and is subject to additional review and may be removed without notice at the sole determination of Smashwords, especially if characters are in situations – or have mannerisms – that suggest that the characters are actually underage.

Rape erotica and sexual slavery erotica, where the predominant theme is rape violence for titillation, is strongly discouraged, and is subject to additional review and may be removed at the sole determination of Smashwords. Note that erotic BDSM fiction that adheres to BDSM best practices, where all role-playing is consensual with safe words, is allowed and not to be confused with rape or sexual slavery erotica.

Bestiality erotica is allowed but not encouraged. A one-off title is more likely to be acceptable than if a publisher is publishing dozens or hundreds of such titles. At Smashwords discretion, such content may be removed or accounts closed.

Incest and pseudo-incest (sexual relations among non-biologically related relatives and siblings) erotica is allowed, but it will be blocked by most retailers and library aggregators.

Confused yet? Well, if not, why don’t we just go ahead and point out the immense problems here. The first glaringly obvious issue is the number of controversial categories we’re dealing with has changed. Do you notice Dubious Consent anywhere under Section 9f? It’s missing. Dubious Consent is not discussed anywhere in Section 9f. Not only that, but some of the category information has been changed. Note, for example, that Rape for Titillation and Sexual Slavery Erotica are now under the same exact category. There is also no Age Play, but if we assume a bit here, Barely Legal has taken its place. Also, what is encouraged and discouraged content has changed as well. The blog post originally said Smashwords took, but discouraged Rape for Titillation and Nonconsensual Sexual Slavery. But now, Smashwords has said it also discourages Barely Legal, Bestiality, and that original category of Rape for Titillation with the Sexual Slavery tacked onto it. But let’s take another look at Section 9f’s wording with a bit of emphasis…

“Barely legal” erotica is strongly discouraged, and is subject to additional review and may be removed without notice at the sole determination of Smashwords, especially if characters are in situations – or have mannerisms – that suggest that the characters are actually underage.

Rape erotica and sexual slavery erotica, where the predominant theme is rape violence for titillation, is strongly discouraged, and is subject to additional review and may be removed at the sole determination of Smashwords. Note that erotic BDSM fiction that adheres to BDSM best practices, where all role-playing is consensual with safe words, is allowed and not to be confused with rape or sexual slavery erotica.

Bestiality erotica is allowed but not encouraged. A one-off title is more likely to be acceptable than if a publisher is publishing dozens or hundreds of such titles. At Smashwords discretion, such content may be removed or accounts closed.

Incest and pseudo-incest (sexual relations among non-biologically related relatives and siblings) erotica is allowed, but it will be blocked by most retailers and library aggregators.

What is the difference between strongly discouraged and may be removed without notice and strongly discouraged and may be removed, besides a notification? Furthermore, what is the difference between strongly discouraged and allowed but not encouraged? Anyone? Would we be terribly in the wrong to think all is not as it appears to be? The fact of the matter is the language used within Section 9f is highly suspect. Not to mention, the language is extremely negative, just look again at the Incest category, “Incest Erotica is allowed, but it will be blocked by most retailers and library aggregators.” And that brings us to a very important point.

Remember when we said Smashwords’ definitions will impact what an author does, either intentionally or unintentionally? Well that’s the problem with wording with Section 9f. Smashwords is actually falling into a pit of problems, finding itself trapped in being both a publishing platform AND a distributor. They run their store and have their own content guidelines, but so do the platforms they distribute to. But the language quoted above is actually quite telling. Smashwords is encouraging authors to produce content that is highly distributable, and that can’t be articulated with set definitions. This is why there are glaringly obvious difficulties with the classification system among many others. But why is Smashwords encouraging highly distributable books, especially if we assume no ill intent toward controversial content?

The answer, if we’re allowed to speculate, is simply public opinion. While it might be a difficult subject for many, public opinion has a large and heavy influence on controversial content. After all, how does one even get controversial content without others finding it controversial? Smashwords, being the large platform that it is, has to walk to the tight rope between both allowing controversial content and keeping public opinion happy. This is not an easy undertaking in the least! And somehow, Smashwords’ actions are leaning more and more in favor of those who dislike controversial content… and they might not even realize it!

In short, controversial content becomes censored not because of orchestrated bans, but a dwindling ability and incentive to publish and sell such content. With the diminished platforms, it becomes more and more difficult for authors writing such content to make a living. But, on the more insidious side, it also allows public outcries against publishers that blaze a trail and continue to allow controversial content where others failed to. Smashwords, we assume, still very much wishes to be a platform for everyone. However, if that is the wish, it needs to better articulate their terms. Separation between what is able to be distributed and what the storefront will publish is a key step. Allow authors to help. This isn’t about trusting authors, but authors trusting Smashwords. The winds have changed, and with the change in winds comes a new need, the need to be upfront and honest about what content is or is not acceptable.

Again, part of this also gets down to being honest about defined content. Are Age Play and Barely Legal the same thing? What does Barely Legal mean, and why is it a problem? How many titles per catalog are authors allowed if they write Bestiality or Non-Consent? Does the intensity of the rape scenes matter in defining what is Dubious Consent or Rape for Titillation? Many of these questions are often determined by public opinion. For example, violence toward women is often linked to Rape for Titillation in the first often called out by more sensitive readers. One must always be mindful of promoting violence towards women. Sound familiar? Well, what about blackmail? Is sexual blackmail, especially without any violence whatsoever, Rape for Titillation? Authors are begging to know! And that leads me to my last point, that of proper categorization.

Properly categorizing content isn’t just on the author’s end of responsibility. Smashwords also has to recognize and rely on the filters in place. Given that authors are trusted to properly categorize their content and flag controversial subject matter, what is wrong with Smashwords’ own filters for customers? Right now, there are three filter settings available to customers. The first of these is outright exclusionary to erotic content. The second filter setting is one that allows only mainstream erotica. Lastly, we have the filter that allows all erotic content; or a controversial filter as it were. What is wrong with this? If Smashwords were to trust authors to truly label their content, and there are filters in place for the customer, does public opinion really matter?

Odds are the public opinion won’t matter as much as you may first think it does. And that’s really the heart of the issue. Does Smashwords really trust its customers and authors? We hope they do, because if not, there’s going to be very difficult standards to comply with in the future. As a distributor to Smashwords for our authors, we want to be in full compliance. We want to be the trusted source specializing in controversial content that continues thriving in an erotica market that allows for said boundary pushing content.

The Taboo Themes of Note

This year has certainly seen its share of market changes! We’ve seen slight changes in Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited system, B&N purging all controversial content, and a small uptick in popularity for taboo content. The latest change? Smashwords implementation of a classification system for taboo content. While this change already has authors talking, Lot’s Cave thought we’d add a new perspective to the mix! So, if you’re an author looking to get a little more out of the Smashwords classification system, this blog post is for you.

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