Golden Rule: He who has the gold makes the rules.

A couple days ago I posted a Twitter link to an article in the Huffington Post titled: PayPal Takes Controversial Stance Against Sex. The article reveals that Paypay has told a number of websites selling erotica that if they continue to sell work that features bestiality, incest (or pseudo-incest) or underage sex, Paypal will suspend their accounts.

I fully concur with anyone who notes that Paypal, as a private business enterprise, has every right in the world to decide with whom they do business. We can all agree that their severing ties with any criminal enterprise makes sense. If someone were selling crack by mail, using Paypal for transactions, suspending the accounts of both users and sellers would make sense. And, for their part, Paypal has to be very alert to charges of being money launderers. One Ebay sales for an overpriced piece of junk could, in fact, be the conduit for getting money into the hands of terrorists under the watchful eye of the government. So, I’m all for Paypal being watchful—and full disclosure here, I use Paypal to accept payments for my site.

Here’s where I’m uncomfortable. The prohibition against bestiality includes, in paranormal romances, a prohibition against were-creatures engaging in sex while in beast form. Unless I misremember, this, then, would make the selling of the movie Bram Stoker’s Dracula prohibited, since I recall a werewolf having his way with a woman in a graveyard. And, hey, if not in that film, how about the legion of other horror films where that sort of thing happens? Sure, someone from the Paypal side could argue that the scene I remember isn’t explicit, but who becomes the final arbiter of what is or isn’t explicit in that regard?

Bear in mind, please, that even the most explicit sex in media is not necessarily illegal. It is, whether you like it or not, protected speech.

Here’s a case that hits a bit closer to home. Back when I was writing the Age of Discovery series, the editor and I had a disagreement about a point concerning the love story between two characters. I noted that they’d met when she was fourteen year old concubine and begun their romance. The editor objected, suggesting this was an inappropriate age for the romance to start. I tried to point out that the age of consent is not uniform in the world, and not even in the USA. With parental or judicial agreement, girls as young as 14 are allowed to marry.

Still, she wouldn’t have it, so the age reference got deleted, and I merely referred to the female as a young woman. And, note, the protest wasn’t about her being a concubine at that age, it was about her being able to consent to a relationship which, as it turned out, lasted for centuries. Also we’re not talking modern times—in which adolescence is artificially extended by society—or even this world.

Let’s put this into some historical perspective, to use but one of many examples. In 1137, the one-year-old Petronilla of Aragon was betrothed to a twenty-four year old man, Ramon Berenguer IV of Barcelona. Fourteen years later they were married (she being fifteen, he being thirty-eight) and produced five children in the dozen years before Ramon died. (Example is drawn from Norman Davies’ wonderful book Vanished Kingdoms.)

The question then, to return to the point, is this: would a historical romance based on the Petronilla and Ramon story trigger a Paypal warning?

It’s not that easy an answer, is it? It depends fully who is doing the judging. It would be easy to say, “no” because history justifies it. And perhaps the author, while showing them lovemaking on their wedding night, is gently explicit as in softer romances. Others might note that despite her age, she was married and, therefore, that makes it okay—while another arbiter who believes the Catholic Church is really the Whore of Babylon, would see the marriage’s sanction as being another example of Satanic influence in the world and protest.

I also think we’d all be foolish to forget that outside influences might pressure arbiters to make decisions with which we disagree. Advocacy groups with their own axes to grind have very successfully organized secondary boycotts, which gotten corporate decisions reversed and television programs either removed or renewed. Such efforts saved Chuck, and have gutted some truly horrible shows.

I think that each of us needs to consider what Paypal’s done and realize they’ve begun inching down a very slippery slope. In my opinion, once they begin to pressure businesses engaging in legal activity to curtail those activities, they’re setting themselves up to be moral arbiters for the culture—or, by proxy, instruments of special-interest groups who want to be moral arbiters. I never saw that as part of their business mission statement. Maybe it’s time to buy some Ebay stock and voice my opinion as a stockholder.

Because, ultimately, just the very fact that I’ve written and published this essay critical of Paypal could be cause enough for them to notify me that if I don’t pull it, don’t recant, they’ll cut me off. And if I don’t, and they pressure my ISP to kill my site…

Very slippery slope.

UPDATE: The Passive Voice Blog has linked to a follow-up article on this whole thing: Paypal Loosens Grip…

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12 Responses to “Golden Rule: He who has the gold makes the rules.”

  1. As soon as I heard that news I cancelled my PayPal account. I can’t wait for a good alternative to show up so that enough people can take their business elsewhere to make a difference.

  2. I was thinking about the fact that Paypal doesn’t even have the gold. They just transfer money from one interested party to another. That’s their job.

    A job which doesn’t include acting as a moral compass for the purchaser or the business selling the goods.

    Imagine if power companies could say “We don’t like your business–no power for you.”

    Or doctors could say: “We don’t like your ethics–no help for you.”

    Paypal should do its job. Transfer funds for legal activities.

  3. A.R. Williams,

    Every middleman has a right to choose who to do their business with. Mike stated that very clearly in his post:

    “I fully concur with anyone who notes that Paypal, as a private business enterprise, has every right in the world to decide with whom they do business.”

  4. Funny, I’m always hearing about slippery slopes, yet nobody ever seems to slide down them.

    I’m in the camp that says Paypal can do whatever it wants. As much as I believe in free speech, that only applies to government restrictions, not private, and I’m not sure I’d want to lend my company name to stories about (werewolf sex notwithstanding) people screwing animals.

  5. Bill,

    I concur with your point. My question is, as noted in my commentary, who does the judging and what’s the criterion they’re using? Hard to play the game if you don’t know the rules.

  6. Part of the problem is that PayPal isn’t just targeting topics that are illegal in one area or another. Yes, bestiality and incest and underage sex are all legal no-nos. But an author has been told that her BDSM stories are unacceptable because they involve the use of force or violence even if the parties involved all consented to it. They’re going after “barely legal” stories, which involve consensual sex in which all participants are above the legal age. Pseudo-incest titillates, sure, but it isn’t a crime for a stepbrother and stepsister to have consensual sex so long as they’re of an age to do so.

    What makes me uncomfortable about this is that it does feel like a probe against a group of authors who don’t have the resources to do anything about it. They’re targeting Indie writers and publishers who write subjects that skirt the edges of the taboo or leap right into it…not exactly a group that the majority will stand up for. The reactions I’ve seen so far have proven just that– a number of erotica writers, people who write sex scenes just as graphic, are wrinkling their noses or pointing fingers or outright gloating at this demographic being removed from bookshelves and not recognizing that they may well be next.

    Thus far, “barely legal” male/male erotica hasn’t gotten the stink-eye from PayPal, but who’s to say it won’t be next if they succeed in removing “barely” legal hetero erotica from the virtual shelves? The banned “rape for titillation” is a category that encompasses pretty much all of the bodice-ripper novels from the 70s, 80s and 90s. “No, no, I can’t, please stop, ohhh!” is an invitation to prosecution in any real world US courtroom today…sure that bare-chested Fabio with the flowing hair made her orgasm but she told him to stop.

    That’s the slippery slope. This may well be a test run to see how much of a stink is made. If they get away with it, there’s no telling what else they’re looking at as potentially bannable.

    They can refuse whatever business they choose to refuse, it’s their prerogative. But what it boils down to is PayPal (and credit card companies) dictating to readers and authors alike what they should and should not be reading. And that, as Mike has said, is wrong.

    Full disclosure, I have written on some of the subjects that were hit with the ban-hammer here so it isn’t as if I’m unbiased. But even if I weren’t someone who writes erotica (and other things, penning smut certainly isn’t all I write), I would disagree with this move on their part. And I am worried about what this might mean for the future of publishing, both independent and through the houses.

  7. Businesses don’t exist to protect freedoms or take ideological stances. They just want to optimize their profits. We can’t leave those kinds of things up to them. That being said, the nature of capitalism is that if Paypal excludes too many people from their service there will be a number of companies that appear to provide it instead.

  8. It isn’t paypal that is forcing this issue, the Credit Card companies are pressuring them and other online cc processors on these subjects so they in turn are pressuring retailers. Mark Coker talks about that in this press release/email he sent out to effected authors on Monday the 27th. http://www.smashwords.com/press/release/28 and I’ve seen reference to other folks having the same problems with other processors but no good links just in comments on blogs.

  9. Mike, I’m not sure it ultimately makes a difference who does the judging. Paypal will decide what they want to support and what they don’t. Publishers who are worried about staying in buisness with Paypal will likely also make decisions.

    To my mind this is not different than any other decision a company has to make. What if your story is rejected because it’s about a girl named Allison and the editor has an ex named Allison that he despises?

    We can’t control what people in business are going to accept and reject any more than we can control what readers are going to accept and reject. All we can do is write our stories fearlessly—whatever they might be—and hope for the best.

  10. Thank you so much for your eloquent post on this issue. I would like to point out to some of the other commenters, however, that fictional depictions of bestiality and underage sex are NOT illegal. One of the very dangerous consequences of how easy it is to blur fictionality with reality is that it becomes very easy for people to get into froths of righteous indignation and shout that anyone who supports incest, bestiality, non-con or underage sex are disgusting.

    However, it is important to point out that the New Testament opens with a 13 year old being impregnated by a god. That Flowers in the Attic is about incest. That Gunter Grass’ The Tin Drum contains underage sex and that A Clockwork Orange narrates several rapes through the eyes of the rapist. These books have been considered classics of literature.

    I’m quite confident that PayPal will still be processing sales of the above books because to refuse to do so would make them look like the parochial, illiterate bullies they are.

    It’s so much easier to bully a bunch of female erotic authors who primarily have female readers. Who in their right mind would defend a book called ‘I Do Daddy?’. Erotica writers are a soft target. But who’s next?

    What PayPal is doing is not illegal, but their virtual monopoly on the online microtransaction business means that they are, defacto, acting as arbitrary, unqualified and unappointed censors.

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