Porn on the Kindle: A Catch-22

By Noah Berlatsky
Max Braun/flickr

"Many of us realized immediately that, like the Internet, the Kindle was made for porn." So wrote the pseudonymous kinukitty at my website, The Hooded Utilitarian, a while back -- and the use of the pseudonym underlines the insight.  Consuming porn is something people often prefer to do at least semi-anonymously -- especially people who happen to be women. By dispensing with book covers, and indeed with books, the Kindle has made it possible for readers to peruse 50 Shades of Grey wheresoer they go, without fear of scorn -- and, for that matter, without fear of harassment. According to the (also pseudonymous) porn writer  Venus Santiago, back in the 90s, when she purchased Black Lace titles at a brick and mortar store, "the clerk felt free to hit on me." After that happened several times, Santiago said, she stopped buying in public.

With the Kindle, though, you don't need to buy in public.  As Santiago wrote me by email:

The beautiful thing about buying porn on Kindle is that nobody sneers at you.  It's just you, Amazon, and your personal mobile device.  You can read it on the train or subway, at home, wherever, and no one has any idea what you're ogling.  Which removes most of the outside negative social pressure that prevents a lot of women who are interested in porn from buying it in the mainstream places (sex shops, online XXX websites).

As a result, pornographic e-books have taken off50 Shades is the successful mainstream phenomenon that everyone knows about, but there are tons more where that came from, and tons kinkier as well. E.L. James' nervous flirtations with BDSM are perhaps titillating by the standards of the rest of the best-seller list. But her too-timid-to-even-sign-the-contract relationship shenanigans barely even register as kink compared to the other offerings available via e-book, where step-sibling incest, minotaur porn, and futanari abound. Santiago for her part has written gay assassin romance as well as a series of cheerfully perverse stories featuring human cow lactation porn, in which submission, degradation, and impossible busts exist alongside a remarkably detailed grasp of dairy industry mechanics.

The Kindle, then, provides both privacy and the promise that somewhere, someone has written exactly the gay werewolf paranormal romance you've always wanted to read. Combine the privacy and range of titles, and there's little doubt that for readers digital is the perfect porn delivery system.

Which seems to have made Amazon somewhat uncomfortable. Back in 2010, Amazon deleted many erotica e-books with incest themes -- not only dropping them from its store, but actually electronically erasing old titles from consumers' digital devices.  (It later claimed the erasures were a mistake, though its policy on incest titles remains unclear.) More recently, the company has been filtering some erotic titles, so that they don't appear in the All Departments search. To find them, you need to search directly in Books or in the Kindle store. For example, Santiago's title Accidental Milkmaid 3: Gangbanged by Bulls shows up in the Kindle Store, but not in the All Departments search. On the other hand, high-profile erotica like 50 Shades, or, for that matter, Lady Chatterley's Lover, appears in both kinds of searches.

Fiddling with the search function may seem like a relatively benign step. In practice, though, it has an impact on sales, and can render a title essentially invisible. Selena Kitt, the pen name of a successful erotica author who makes hundreds of thousands of dollars a month by writing porn e-books, has referred to Amazon's filtering as the Pornocalypse. Previous Amazon rejiggerings of their search function have at various points cut her monthly income by a third, she says.

In an essay on her website, Kitt argues that that Amazon's seeming efforts to hide the porn are both hypocritical and a bad case of biting-the-hand.

Erotica, as a genre, has been Amazon's dirty little secret from the beginning, driving sales of the Kindle to astronomical numbers. Does Amazon really believe that it was all the free copies of "Huckleberry Finn" and "Moby Dick" ... that drove readers to buy Kindle devices? Nope, sorry. It was erotica. It was "porn."

Kitt is angry, and you can understand why. She works hard, is successful, and instead of giving her accolades, her business partners keep her product hidden from would-be readers.

I was not able to get a comment for Amazon for this piece, so I don't know for sure why they are manipulating search functions. Nor do I know why they refuse to explain their standards to authors. One of Kitt's chief frustrations is that Amazon won't tell her what she needs to do to keep her book from being filtered, and that they seem to keep changing the rules on her.

Amazon's policies may be unnecessarily opaque, but reading Kitt's essay, you can at least see a possible motivation for the company's apparent Puritanism. Kitt herself, like Santiago and kinukitty, believes that the appeal of porn on the Kindle is precisely that it allows for reading of content surreptitiously. Porn may have helped make the Kindle successful, but a big part of the reason that the Kindle is so perfectly made for porn is that it doesn't look like it's made for porn. Women (and men, too) who want to read porn on the Kindle don't want to be buying their porn from some place that screams porn! Amazon's advantage as a seller of porn is precisely that it sells lots of things that aren't porn, and that it is known primarily for selling things that aren't porn.

Porn e-book writers and readers, then, are in a catch-22. Folks like Amazon porn because Amazon isn't branded as a porn outlet. But as long as Amazon isn't branded as a porn outlet, the company is going to see X-rated content as something of an embarrassment.  The same incentives that drive writers to use pseudonyms and readers to use the Kindle also drive retailers to keep porn from showing up in searches and make them want to keep it off best-seller lists.  For many good reasons, and perhaps some bad ones, nobody -- not readers, not writers, not retailers -- wants to publically embrace the porn.   

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/sexes/archive/2013/07/porn-on-the-kindle-a-catch-22/278075/