If you were wondering if I would only be featuring science fiction and fantasy writers in this Month of Writers thing, today’s guest answers that: Author and sex expert Susie Bright, who I’m proud to say I’ve been reading since she was editing On Our Backs (what was a straight guy doing reading a magazine for lesbians? Very clearly, reading it for the Susie Bright articles). Her most recent book (picture above) has her talking about, well, sex, motherhood and porn, and also about pie (which as you know is one of my favorite subjects), and is classic Susie Bright, which is to say, funny, sometimes surprising and always sex positive. Recently Susie borrowed one of my Whatever entries (this one, in fact), and is graciously allowing me to do the same for one of hers, on the subject of “NSFW.”
Who’s afraid of naughty words? Not The New Yorker this week, but it made me wonder what would happen if I, a simple blograt, ran the same darn thing:
“A children’s book that included the word “scrotum” was recently the subject of great controversy in school libraries nationwide. A Google search has discovered several more questionable titles and excerpts from other works intended for readers twelve and under.
From “Inappropriate,” by Paul Rudnick, The New Yorker, 2007-03-12
“The Pretty Little Bunny”
Melissa, the pretty little bunny, woke up one morning in May and said, “I think I’ll hop-hop-hop over to the carrot patch. I’m so pretty that all of the carrots will jump right out of the ground to see me.”
“You are very pretty,” said Melissa’s Bunny Mommy. “But your sister is pretty, too, and she doesn’t spend all of her time looking at herself in the mirror.”
“But is she as pretty as me?” asked Melissa. “Just look at my vagina.”
“The Clattery Caboose”
Carl the Caboose had worked for the railroad for a long time. He loved it when little children ran alongside the tracks and waved to him. But Carl was getting older. His bright-red paint was peeling, his wheels were getting squeaky, and don’t even ask about his prostate.
“Betsy Barstow, Colonial Girl”
One fine morning, as Betsy went to the village well in the Olde Massachusetts Baye colony, she ran into her best friend, feisty Katey Karmody.
“Oh, Katey,” said Betsy, “I have such news! My father and my brothers are joining up with the militia to fight the British, so that we may all be free!”
“Oh, Betsy, that is news!” cried Katey. “My nipples are like muskets!”
Oh, he never stops… Go read the whole thing this week before they archive it; it’s contagious!
But now, I must interrupt my giggle fit to reveal a little stone in my shoe. The New Yorker runs clever, sexually sophisticated stories all the time. They say “fuck.” They publish critically acclaimed erotic, and nude, photography. They discuss and illustrate the lives of famous artists (who can forget the Balthus story?) who may be highly eccentric fetishists with every sort of paraphilia.
Some of these articles receive wide discussion, like Daphne Merkin’s “Spanking Piece.” But even with less-known stories and photos, the NYer delivers a steady diet of grown-up arts and politics which resonates with thousands of readers.
Nowhere, in all the internet, would you ever hear The New Yorker described as “Not Safe for Work”: NSFW. Whether you brought their magazine to the office, or searched their web site on line, the firewall/censorship/Dilbert Nightmare of NSFW would never crease a NYEr reader’s brow.
You could say the exact same thing about Vogue, the fashion magazine— nudity in virtually every issue. Vanity Fair, a supermarket favorite, regularly publishes profane words, nudity, and explicit commentary on sexual controversies.
Newspapers belong to this daring group too. The New York Times reports with great gusto on every sexual debate. When it comes to art, they’re no wilting flowers— they just published a gorgeous slide show of naked women and their young children.
These photos were especially daring, because they violate the letter of U.S. Federal law, which stipulates that no nude photographs may be published or exhibited of minors, no matter what the context. Ever. Without exception.
This is why you hear stories about parents being dragged sobbing into court, their kids taken away, because their photos of their naked toddlers in the plastic play-pool were seized by do-gooders at a drugstore photo lab.
The law is sickeningly wrong. It’s unjust, it’s anti-art, anti-kid, and purely phobic. I love that the Times, Vogue, The New Yorker— and other high-status members of the publishing world— stick their neck out on this issue to prove a point.
I’m just as delighted that they don’t have to deal the provincial denigration or censor of their web sites with the appellation “NSFW.”
When editors at such periodicals send their email to academic colleagues and other publishers, their letters aren’t deleted because of a NSFW “origin.” What a privelege…
NSFW exists because of undefined and bigoted conceits. It’s more outrageous, in its own DIY-Prude fashion, than the federal “child porn” law, the Hays Code, or the MPAA. Why? Because it is unmandated, unlegislated, censorship.
If NSFW means filtering out something that is “sexually explicit” or that uses profanity, what does that mean, exactly? Is there a list of seven profane words, while others make the cut? Is a woman’s breast sexually explicit in every context, be it eroticism, cancer, or nursing? And if the material in question is published by a major corporation, does that render NSFW moot? Exactly how does that get argued?
NSFW has no meaning in print— in paper journalism or publishing. It has no place in a newsroom or the bookstore. It only exists on the Internet— which is ironically notorious for its libertarianism. NSFW, whoever dreamed it up, is a Bowdlerization of the Web, a Scarlet Letter. It exists because fearful people believe in it, like a bad fairy. It says more about the psychological fears and prejudices of the person using it, than it does about the content in question. Why do web authors put up with it?
The “W” in NSFW seems to imply that the “workplace” is an environment where all must be defended against impropriety and loss of efficiency. But surely clock-watching bosses have noticed that employees can just as easily daydream about online seed catalogs as they can about porn.
Public libraries seem to have figured out how to have unfettered Internet access for their patrons— why can’t corporate America get a clue?
“The “S” stands for “Safe”— although it seems more of a “Satire.” What is the danger of seeing or reading something you don’t agree with? Will you fly through a windshield? Where are the corpses of those who died from being offended?
Yes, I’m at the end of my rope. My blog and internet communications have, many times, been dragged to a standstill because my blog, or even my email, was characterized by the ever-mysterious and anonymous mob of “Some People” as NSFW.
I have friends at major universities who can’t get my email because it has my URL in it. Do you think professors should have email banned from susiebright.com?
I work with major publishers and NEWS organizations who can’t receive my email if there are any “NSFW” words in the message text! Yes, these are the same handful of corporations that own 99% of the American media.
One colleague taught me how to misspell words like “Crp” so that her international wire service could receive my correspondence. She can’t read my blog at work, even though it directly comments on issues she writes on, every day.
But it’s not just the major corporations that censor in this manner.
It galls me when I see that someone has blogged about one of my stories, or passed it around a newsletter, and added the note: “Oh by the way, you better be careful because it’s NSFW.”
But if my same story is in one of the aforementioned magazines— no problem! No one seems to be terrified of being caught at the lunch table reading a copy of… Harpers Bazaar. Rolling Stone. And I’ve got a long way to go before I can catch up with their nudity and profanity.
When I started my first web page, NSFW didn’t exist, and therefore, I didn’t get tarred with the brush. Amazingly, it never came up. The world hung onto its axis. U.S. productivity continued unimpaired.
When I blogged years later, and more importantly, when I blogged about women’s issues, like abortion and birth control, I found myself stabbed with NSFW daggers for the first time. My editorials on the South Dakota abortion ban— which included video footage from primetime SD television news— were the items that nailed my Safety-Free coffin.
There is not a single feminist political blogger I’ve met who hasn’t dealt with this issue. I brought it up at the last Blogher conference, and it was like the Zoolander explosion at the gas station.
Of course, it’s not just mouthy women who get the NSFW tattoo. Needless to say, if you’re gay— in any fashion— you are NSFW. If you use a “bad” word that would otherwise be published in Entertainment Weekly without blinking an eye, you’re NSFW. If you present photographs of antique, artistic, or educational breasts! — In Any Form!— You. Are. So. Wrong. Nursing Mothers can just forget about it.
The NSFW prejudice is entirely dependent on size, with a soupcon of prejudice thrown in. There are certainly a few quiet, no-fuss lactation sites that haven’t been destroyed by NSFW, but they exist in a sheltered world. If they get political, or uppity, just watch the backlash.
That’s the odd case though. It’s usually about the money. If you reach a critical mass, or have the imprinteur of high society, you can run ANYTHING on your site, no matter how sensational or sexually bizarre— no matter how many religions it offends, or work hours it squanders. No one will dream of calling you names and sending you to the sidelines. No longer are you NSFW— you are Safe for Bank, baby.
How much does it “cost” to get your NSFW wings clipped? I asked a Google AdSense rep that once. He turned down my application because of… well, you know. This was before I had one bare breast on my page. I argued with him, by pointing to all the sexually vivid stories that were in the Times the same week I put in my application.
He agreed; he said, I was “absolutely right.” “But they have millions of hits,” he wrote me. “And you don’t.”
When I point out the ethical disaster of NSFW, many shake their heads. Of course it’s about money, what isn’t? How could I be so naive?
What’s interesting, is how few characterize the hypocrisy of NSFW group-think as unAmerican, undemocratic, illegal— or unethical. All that fuss and bother to make democratic publishing possible was just a mistake, a joke. It’s as if everyone gave up.
If you see an R-rated film advertised, you can elect to avoid it, or not bring your small child to the theater. It’s not banned from your neighborhood. Can you imagine— think of all the Oscar-winning movies this year that were rated ‘R”— if you never heard of these films, if you weren’t allowed to hear of them, because there was a theatrical firewall in your town? And what if the people who dared to take a peek at these censored films were castigated and looked upon as perverts?
I’m sure many people must be disappointed when they arrive at my “NSFW” site. Too many words, a jack-off disaster. I talk about sex, and then something else, without even counting! I write as if I thought I was Paul Rudnick or something, like I was a… journalist. An essayist. A political activist. A human being.
Is your journalism, art, and publishing compromised on the Internet because of NSFW? Is your communication, reading, and education suffering from NSFW? Is your mom unable to receive your email at her office because of this crp?
I’d like to hear your NSFW stories. I’d like to know your NSFW questions, arguments, and perhaps your success stories of ethical challenges. I’ve been thinking of hosting a NSFW Carnival and we might as well start here.
Photos, from top to bottom: My very own copy of Nurse Nancy; a Balthus painting that is way tame compared to what The New Yorker printed— but they don’t have it archived online, sorry!; Mapplethorpe nude from Vogue magazine, and Justine Kurland’s wonderful exhibit as discussed in the NYT.
(See the original article and its comments here)