LOS ANGELES—Writer Michael Stabile sent out a tweet today that expressed his disappointment at the fact that the Huffington Post removed a link in an article of his that was posted to the site yesterday. Normally, that might not upset him so much, but in this case the removal of the link, which was to Stabile’s personal porn blog, gaypornblog.com, which contains sexually explicit content, upset him because the subject of the article was preciesly about "the importance of keeping online sexual spaces open.” In this case, the only link in his story to a “sexual space” was removed.
Unfortunately, it’s much more than that; it’s actually corporate cowardice alert. The Huffington Post, despite its pretentions to being a progressive voice is like any other mainstream corporation: risk averse and very conservative in practice. In effect, it is an entity that perpetuates the very harms that Stabile writes about in his piece.
Citing recent instances of porn censorship—including by search engines and social networking sites like Google, Tumblr—he notes, “For many people this doesn't seem like that big a deal. Some doubt that it will have much effect on people's ability to find pornography. Others, particularly those with small children or from socially conservative backgrounds, may cheer it as a good thing. It's not. We've seen this hackneyed plot before.”
In the 1980s, when he was growing up—“a little gay kid in suburban New Jersey”—he said he could find “almost nothing that talked frankly about sexuality. The library held a few staid titles that discussed sexuality, but so clinically that I regarded myself as a case study … I had no way of knowing it at the time, but my '80s dark ages were the result of a backlash against a previous flowering: the sexual revolution of the '60s and '70s.”
Cue the internet and a decade or two of unfettered access to sexual spaces and a second “flowering” of sexual speech, and what we now seem to be encountering is another and perhaps inevitable wave of attempted censorship, only this time the “attempts to block pornography are trawl nets that sweep up a heck of a lot of byproduct in their wake.”
It’s not only the government that’s cracking down, but also “corporations that want to make the online experience as safe for advertisers as they've made the cities for real estate agents. What happens to the rest of us, to those who aren't interested in the Times Square Olive Garden, is that we're forced to dig deeper and deeper to find reflections of ourselves. And with each successive dig, we're reminded that we're not fit for polite conversation.”
Hiding is not on the agenda for Stabile, however. “Sexually explicit imagery provokes a visceral reaction, which makes it one of the best ways to consider and debate sex,” he states. “It turns us on, or disgusts us, or shocks us. It's also a validation of sexual behaviors that are marginalized and maligned by the larger culture. As gay men, we might have shown up to the theater for the film, but we stayed for the community that we found there. It's part of the reason that, even though it might stain my reputation as a serious journalist and filmmaker, I keep an explicit porn blog, GayPornBlog.com, to talk about not only porn but gay sex and sexuality.”
That, of course, is the url that was a live link when it was submitted to the Huffington Post but which was made dead by the site.
“I had hyperlinked to it when I submitted it, along with the other links that they kept, along with an NSFW in parentheticals,” Stabile told AVN. “I wrote to ask them to reinstate it, as the entire point of the piece was about how negative it is to treat sexuality as if it's not suitable for polite conversation. They told me that it was part of a broad editorial policy to not link to porn, in case someone should accidentally click on it. (This is why NSFW was invented, I countered, but to no avail.) They told me they recognized the irony, but that there was nothing further they could do.”
I get it, they don’t want to be sending anyone to a porn site, or blog, or space, or anyplace where, God forbid, sex can be seen. They will pat themselves on the back for having the guts to publish Mike Stabile’s thoughtful piece on hiding sexuality away, just as they will convince themselves that allowing porn stars to post to the HuffPo is also a badge of progressivism, but providing a NSFW-labeled link is verboten?\.
Disappointing, but not terribly surprising; in the end, everything the Huffington Post does is safe, safe, safe, because it is just as vested in conservative American culture as are people like the Koch brothers. It’s all the same thing. Large influential companies are never really progressive, even in the tamest meaning of the word. HuffPo may be in a different industry as the “libertarian” Kochs, where it can throw a little of everything into its melting pot of a site in order to claim that it is whatever it wants to be, but at the end of the day, as the editors said, “there was nothing further they could do.”
We’ve all heard that before; the person shaking their head in sympathetic agreement and simultaneous rejection, as if they would do it differently if they could. No one believes them, but that’s okay, because neither does anyone expect an editor to risk their job over a stupid link. What makes it scary, however, is that today’s internet giants really can do more damage in terms of making stuff simply go away, in the process returning us to the bad old days when no information was the norm.
It’s doubtful of course that the internet sex genie can be stuffed back completely into the bottle, but in perpetuating the current trend, corporations like the Huffington Post (and so many others) actual betray the gifts that technology has so generously bestowed upon them. One would think that bucking the current tide of censorship would be important to people in these companies who care about free expression, but we are seeing in case after case that this is not the case, and that board rooms around the country are increasingly voting to ghettoize sexual speech.
“We've seen this hackneyed plot before,” warns Stabile. It looks like we’re determined to revisit history.