Whatever your opinion of the film and books, the 50 Shades of Grey phenomenon is being treated as if it were the final victory over prudish sex censors. But the real answer is a bit more complicated.
For three decades, the Free Speech Coalition has argued that the government has no right to tell adults what books they may read, what films they may watch and what–if any–pleasure products they can enjoy. And while we’ve often been successful, censorship is cyclical. Historically, for every gain we make, we face a backlash that threatens to roll back those rights. The ubiquity of 50 Shades may be one of them.
So while adults in media centers like New York, LA and San Francisco can freely explore sexuality, many — at home and abroad — can not. While we’re often aware of restrictions in places like Iran, China or Malaysia, many are in our back yard. Below some important issues facing our right to read, write and watch what we want..
1. Public Libraries
At least four counties in Florida banned the 50 Shades book from their libraries, calling it “semi-pornographic,” and the book has been pulled from shelves in dozens others, from Georgia to Wisconsin. In many of these places, the waiting list was hundreds of readers long.
2. Pleasure Product Sales
While buying the 50 Shades book in Alabama is permitted, it is still crime to sell anything that might stimulate genitalia. Alabama’s anti-obscenity statute was challenged in 2009 by free speech advocates — but the ban was upheld by the state Supreme Court. Similar bans remain in effect in Virginia and Mississippi.
3. Erotic Writing
When we think of hardcore porn, we rarely think of written word. But Karen Fletcher, a 56-year old woman Pittsburgh was indicted on four felony counts over sexually explicit stories that she published on her personal website, Red Rose. Fletcher was attempting to process her own childhood sexual abuse, but Mary Beth Buchanan, a Bush-appointed anti-pornography zealot, decided the written material was so obscene as to be illegal — and Fletcher was arrested and found guilty. It was the first successful obscenity prosecution of a written ‘pornography’ since 1973, and set a dangerous precedent for similar prosecutions.
4. Banking Restrictions
Thanks to the Justice Department’s Operation Choke Point, many adult performers and businesses found their banks unceremoniously closed this past year. The DOJ’s Choke Point pressured banks to cut dealings with legal businesses, including porn that were “reputation risks.”
5. Limiting Performer Choice
If a proposed 2016 ballot measure passes, the production and sale of films shot without condoms would be banned within the state of California, limiting performer choice of health and safety options. Proponents of the measure say it as a public health issue, and that adult films should teach condom use. But adult performers are not sex educators, and have argued vehemently that condoms are less often reliable than the testing system currently in place, and that only they — not the government — should have ultimate control over their bodies.
6. Internet Service Providers
This summer, the UK made the production of visual material that includes many consensual BDSM practices, like squirting and caning, illegal. This comes right on the heels of another law that prohibits UK internet users from accessing adult sites unless they request explicit permission from their internet service provider. Given this, it’s unlikely that the 50 Shades movie could even have been made in the UK under these new laws.
7. Driver’s Licences
If Focus Features doesn’t abide by record keeping regulations (known as 18 U.S.C. 2257) for 50 Shades stars Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson, the producers could be prosecuted and even jailed. It’s unlikely to happen, since the law is usually applied selectively to adult producers, but in a conservative administration, that could easily change. During the Bush administration, adult companies were regularly searched for violations and even alphabetical misfiling of a driver’s licence could result in prosecution.
8. Zoning Regulations
Rather than censoring obscenity, many adult books stores, novelty shops and theaters have been shuttered under dubious nuisance laws, or through onerous zoning restrictions in conservative locales. While 50 Shades itself may be difficult to legally censor, censorship advocates have steadily stripped away the rights of merchants to sell pleasure products, videos and magazines to consenting adults. Paired with restrictions on shipping in more conservative states, and consumers can be left with adult ‘deserts’ — where access to adult material, not to mention educational material about adult sexuality, is severely limited.
9. Corporate Censorship
Google no longer accepts ads for adult companies, Apple won’t allow adult-themed apps, and sites like Facebook and Instagram regularly ban users who show so much as a breast-feeding baby. In some ways, corporate censorship (which need not abide by First Amendment protections) is more insidious than government censorship, especially as fewer and fewer companies control a wider and wider audience
10. University Bans
Academic discussions about sexuality are important and vital. And while in the past ten years we’ve seen important scholars like Linda Williams, Constance Penley and Dr. Chauntelle Tibbals approach the subject with nuance and rigor, others like anti-porn professor Gail Dines who have called for an outright ban on 50 Shades, comparing it to domestic abuse. Some universities, like Northern Illinois University, have blocked porn sties on their ISP all together.
11. Conservative Boycotts
Target is being boycotted for 50 Shades-themed items; theaters are being protested over implied sexual violence of BDSM. And thanks to pressure from anti-porn activists and morality groups, hotel chains like Marriott have pulled adult videos from their rooms all together.
The Free Speech Coalition has been fighting for the right of adults to make our own decisions about what we watch, read, write and if we can buy pleasure products. A donation to the Free Speech Coalition helps us makes sure that material with adult subject matter is legal and accessible, no matter who you are or where you live.
The Free Speech Coalition is only able to fight with your support. Please consider donating even $5, $10 or $25 to keep this important fight going.