The Shrinking Public Square

Chris's picture
If you want to get a good idea of what we're on about with the title of this website and why the concept of "the public square" is so important to us, go on over to Audacia Ray's site, Waking Vixen. You should be doing that anyway, but if you haven't been checking her out recently, she's had some experiences lately that illustrate neatly the realities and risks of talking publicly about sex.

  • First of all, Dacia tried last month to open an account at Citibank for her business, Waking Vixen Productions. After filling out the preliminary paperwork, she received a voicemail delicately informing her that her line of business made them unable to take her account.
  • Then, early this month, she got a similar notice from iTunes, notifying her that her podcast, Live Girl Review, could no longer be included in their directory. ITunes was less direct than Citibank, saying only that podcasts could be excluded "for a variety of reasons." On checking out their podcast spec sheet, she found "strong prevalence of sexual content"  included among the possible reasons that Apple can kick you to the curb.
  • And just last week, Google yanked her Google Checkout account, barely twenty-four hours after she'd put her new short film The Love Machine up for sale. According to the e-mail Google sent Dacia, "the products or services [she's] selling on [her] website are considered ‘Restricted’ per our policy- Adult goods and services."
The last one really has to sting, because it's as stupid as it is nebulous. The letter that Google sent Dacia doesn't tell what makes her site too smutty for them to deal with, or what she has to do to clean it up. She said to me in an e-mail "If that just means taking down sales links to the Bi Apple, that's fine... but if it also means the Dacia's Love Machine is adult... I'm screwed." And of course, so is anyone else who wants to make sexuality an inherent part of public discourse, because we can't tell what the rules are. Taken either together or separately, these three incidents show how fragile the concept of the public square has become. In 1960, press critic and journalist A.J. Liebling made the famous observation that "Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one." That's even more true than it was 48 years ago; although it's theoretically easier to build and operate your own "press" -- whether it's blog software, a video camera, a copy of Photoshop, or podcasting -- whatever you produce will go nowhere if the channels of distribution are blocked off, and many of those channels are privately owned. When Elizabeth and I first created this site, one of the things we had to look at very closely was the Acceptable Use Policy of each of the web hosting providers that we checked out. Most web hosts have an AUP that very specifically says "no porn"; the hitch is that you never know which hosts are going to actually enforce that, and which ones tossed it in as boilerplate that routinely gets ignored. As Dacia's dilemma shows, there are many, many resources which seem public and open in our everyday lives, but the minute sexuality is brought up, their private ownership becomes immediately apparent.

The irony is that such policies don't hinder the people who make the majority of the stuff that really pisses off the anti-porn crowd. Do you really think that Vivid's income is hindered one bit by not being able to use a Google account? Does Larry Flynt lose sleep over the fact over Apple's policies about listing adult podcasts? Not one bit. Their size and financial resources allow them to either take a small detour to distribute their goods and collect payments through other means, or just roll right over them like a big rig facing down a turtle standing in the middle of the highway. The people they inconvenience are those for whom sexual expression is personal and artistic, who are trying to create things that reflect their own lives and desires, not a corporate product.

In short, these policies preserve the status quo. They guarantee that sexuality continues to be represented within smotheringly narrow limits dominated by bleach jobs, silicone tits, and cum shots performed by actors who are seen as old news when they hit 25, and the availability of genuinely imaginative works like Love Machine and Live Girl Review shrinks that much more. For years, we've heard about the near-mystical virtues of a "free market," and we keep on finding out that it's not that free; the Internet was sold to us as an "information superhighway," only to discover how easily toll booths and road blocks can be built, rendering it as mobile as the 405 near West Hollywood on a Friday afternoon. The smaller our public space becomes, the more restricted the channels for distribution come, the more we're reduced to passive listeners with no voice of our own. Share/Save