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Shame on me: My time in Amazon's penalty box

Wmc Features Explicit Content Parental Advisory 112717

Two weeks ago, without warning or explanation, Amazon hid my book from its search function, effectively rendering it invisible unless one could locate one of the few workarounds not readily apparent. My book is called Landscape with Sex and Violence, and it’s a book of poems that explores sexual violence and rape culture and its lingering effects on the speaker’s life and sense of self. It had been out for a month at that point, and was determined, through some mysterious decision-making, to be pornographic or otherwise inappropriate, and it was labeled “adult content.”

When I was a college student, my poetry professor told me that I needed to stop writing graphic poems about violence against women. It’s getting repetitive, he said. There are other things to write about, he said. I tried that. While my male classmates brought in odes to the beauty of women or their own brains, I struggled to write poems that had nothing to do with what I actually wanted to write about. At that point in my life, I would rather be silent than shamed.

When I was in grad school for writing, a classmate of mine repeatedly told me that he couldn’t take me seriously, that I wasn’t writing the kind of lyric, philosophical poems I was supposed to be writing. I mostly kept my poems to myself. I started turning them in to my professor directly and bringing only my least aggressively feminist poems to class. Months later that classmate would grab my vulva in a taxi, without my consent, and then blame me for having gotten into the taxi with him.

Last week, a friend sent me a link to “Virilize,” a penis-enhancing supplement searchable on Amazon. “The pills will help bring you more power,” said one customer review.

The supplement is not hidden for being adult content.

When I published Landscape with Sex and Violence, I knew there would be pushback, but I also know it’s a small-press book of poems so how bad could it get? Who’s really paying attention? Well. Before it was even out, Publishers Weekly was #notallmen’ing me, complaining that the men in my book are “depicted as undeserving,” mocking me for the book’s “parade of I.” This is what happens when women center themselves and their experiences in a narrative, I guess.

Last week, a friend sent me a link to Nicholson Baker’s House of Holes, lauded as “almost Chaucerian” in GQ and as “full of fearlessness” in Washington Post. From his book:

“Jerk after jerk of Jason's artisanal come filled her rejoicing twathole. 'Now quick, hop on this cockbranch.' She grabbed it and held it — it was still warm from its accelerated growing. And then she heard the summer wind begin — a warm wind that made a different kind of rustling in the leaves because the leaves were drier now — and the light that snuck in between the boughs and boles was splaying and scattering, half of it reflected off the water, hailed direct from the setting sun. 'Fuck me deep, tall, strong penis tree,' she said.”

Baker’s book is searchable on Amazon. The book is not hidden for being adult content.

I’ve had so many lovely, heartening responses to Landscape with Sex and Violence, but, despite a lifetime of being shamed for being a victim, for being a sexual being, for being a woman, I still was not prepared for being shamed for my book, was certainly ill-prepared for Amazon to label my poetry — which has been published in typical poetry venues, not Hustler — as porn. It can be graphic, but it is never prurient or pornographic. And it certainly is never in service to the male gaze. Maybe that’s the problem. Maybe the problem is the book confronts the male gaze too hard.

The thing is, I know how to write porn because I’ve written it.

My first paid writing gig was an off-the-books job writing scripts for pre-recorded phone sex narratives. This was years before the Web, when porn wasn’t everywhere and you used your landline to dial phone sex. If you didn’t want a live voice, or couldn’t afford the cost, you could listen to a woman reciting a sexy fantasy to you. I wrote some of those stories. When I started I thought I was supposed to tell a story that focused on the look and pleasure of the woman who would be narrating the story, I thought a heterosexual man would become turned on by hearing a moaning woman describe what she was doing to the man. And, yes, that was part of it. But, I was gently edited by my boss, I had to focus on the penis, how big and sexy it was, how much the woman loved it, how very very glorious.

Last week, a friend sent me a link to John Berger’s G: A Novel, hailed by the New York Times as “an extraordinary mixture of historical detail and sexual meditation.” From his book:

“He has convinced her that the penis twitching in the air above her face is the size and color and warmth that it is entirely because of what he has recognized in her. When he enters her, when this throbbing, cyclamen-headed, silken, apoplectic fifth limb of his reaches as near to her center as her pelvis will allow, he, in it, will be returning, she believes, to the origins of his desire.”

Berger’s book is searchable on Amazon. The book is not hidden for being adult content.

So what, then, is adult content? I did a Google search and found that, in the past, Amazon has hidden the searchability of LGBT content — even in children’s books — and labeled it “adult.” The guidelines on their site aren’t very clear, although they do say “What we deem offensive is probably about what you would expect.” Huh.

After 48 hours in Amazon’s penalty box, Landscape with Sex and Violence was again searchable, and therefore findable and buyable, on the site. I won’t ever know how many sales I lost to the incident. I have yet to hear back from Amazon about what exactly caused this search ban in the first place, but, at its core, it’s patriarchy. I was silenced.

I was heartened by all the women and men who complained to Amazon on my behalf, who expressed outrage on social media. But, the truth is, I was still mortified. A work of literature that I took five careful years to write was being written off as porn because it talks about the experiences of living with and through rape culture. I am tired of being shamed. It’s humiliating and exhausting. When do we get to decenter the penis and its needs, and tell our stories without reprisal?

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