EBay Deletes the Queer PastBreaking News
tags: censorship, erotica, cultural history, LGBTQ history, history of sexuality
One day almost twenty years ago, the historian Vi Johnson won an eBay auction for a numbered first edition of “Sex Life in England Illustrated,” by Iwan Bloch, an early sexologist. (Among Bloch’s bona fides: he located and published the manuscript of the Marquis de Sade’s “The 120 Days of Sodom,” long thought lost.) Johnson recalled that, afterward, “I was talking to the buyer I bid against, or technically sniped, thinking I had a new friend I could talk to about finding erotica. But he thought I was what he was—a buyer for the right wing.” The rival bidder was being paid to find erotic books on eBay and destroy them. Johnson, who “came out as both a lesbian and a pervert in 1974,” was stunned, and thereafter she dedicated herself to preserving the histories of sexuality and making them accessible. “I swore that if I could find it, grab it, steal it, buy it, borrow it, beg it, I was going to save it.”
Johnson and her wife, Jill Carter, now count some forty thousand books and artifacts in their queer-focussed Carter/Johnson Leather Library and Collection, located in Newburgh, a suburb of Evansville, Indiana. Early acquisitions came through friends and friends of friends within the B.D.S.M. scene, but, for years, Johnson has depended heavily on eBay to learn what’s available and for acquisitions. The collection, stuffed with ashtrays and shot glasses from bygone leather bars, programs from kink conferences, and thousands of dirty books, has spilled over from Johnson and Carter’s single-level brick home into a second house. Johnson recently set up a “Scholar’s Room” in the new digs, to welcome researchers who desire to study the archive. “Effectively, you’re coming to Grandmom’s house,” she said. “It’s just your Grandmom happens to be as twisted as an old coat hanger.” That afternoon, she told me, a visiting writer had just settled in to explore intersections of architecture and lesbian kink.
Recently, eBay has shifted company policy in ways that will make further acquisitions of erotica difficult. In May, the platform banned the sale of “sexually oriented materials”—including magazines, movies, and video games—and closed its “Adults Only” category to new listings in the United States. There are a few explicit exemptions, including Playboy; Penthouse; the gay art zine Butt; the satirical, women-run erotica magazine On Our Backs; and something called Fantastic Men, which appears to be a misspelling of the PG-rated men’s style magazine Fantastic Man. “Nude art listings that do not contain sexually suggestive poses or sexual acts are allowed,” the policy states. Materials falling afoul of such distinctions—which could presumably include anything from reproductions of Michelangelo’s horned-up “The Expulsion from Paradise” to back copies of Black Inches—are, apparently, now beyond the pale.
The ban appears to be related to the House’s Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and the Senate’s Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act, known together as fosta-sesta, an effort by victim’s-rights advocates and right-wing activists to crack down on sex work. One feature of the legislative package was to make Web sites liable for hosted content that might “promote or facilitate the prostitution of another person.” After Donald Trump signed fosta-sesta into law, in 2018, Craigslist shut down its personals listings, Tumblr banned sexual content, Facebook prohibited the formation of groups organized around sexual encounters, and Instagram ramped up its policing of user content, especially that which includes any hint of human nudity. Also of possible relevance: eBay recently began using the Dutch fintech company Adyen for electronic payment services. Like many payment-processing companies, Adyen refuses to participate in the sale of adult materials. Similar concerns by payout providers were reportedly at the center of the recent decision by OnlyFans, the content subscription platform, to ban sexual content—a move they reversed after considerable outcry led by the sex workers who, in large part, helped the company build a valuation of some one billion dollars. In a written statement to me about the change in policy at eBay, a spokesperson said, “eBay is committed to maintaining a safe, trusted and inclusive marketplace for our community of buyers and sellers and we are continually reevaluating product categories allowed on the platform.”
Drew Sawyer, a curator at the Brooklyn Museum, said that he has “often turned to eBay for printed matter, magazines, zines, and photographical reproductions” when preparing exhibitions. “Even if—if—they’re archived in libraries, they’re often easier to buy on eBay from logistical and registrarial perspectives. And also cost.” For an upcoming retrospective, Sawyer won a copy of the photographer Jimmy DeSana’s self-published 1979 monograph, “Submission: Selected Photographs.” It’s one of only a hundred or so copies ever made, and a crucial document of a moment when queer sexuality and conceptual art intermingled. “DeSana is an artist whose work would fall under this new policy,” Sawyer said.
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