How Amazon Is Making Sex a Dirty Word


I am no stranger to the uneasy relationship businesses have with sex. As someone who has written about sexuality for the past fifteen years, I have become used to modulating my voice for the strait-laced publication, the skittish advertiser, the embarrassed reader. I’ve had content hidden from home pages. My bio diluted. I have learned the doublespeak necessary for making it alive through a conversation about my work. It’s funny. They say that sex sells, but I have learned again and again that just because a business offers sex products or sex content, it doesn’t mean they’re not simultaneously uncomfortable with it.

Those who make their living writing erotic fiction seem to have it even worse. Just the other week, erotica authors found that their books had been stripped of their bestseller rankings on Amazon, making the titles less likely to be stumbled upon by the casual browser. According to Motherboard, those rankings contribute to how books appear in searches, and whether or not they show up in those fun “frequently bought together” or “customers who viewed this item also viewed” suggestion lists. In short, this change to authors’ listings was seriously screwing with their books’ visibility—and with their bottom line.

Amazon has since released a statement explaining that a recent change in the Kindle Store “inadvertently affected the display of sales rank for some titles,” and assured concerned parties that they had corrected the issue. But it’s difficult to see incidents like these as innocent mistakes when those who write about sex are routinely jerked around.

The same week as the Amazon “glitch,” serial fiction app Radish sent an email to writers detailing an update to their content policy, in which all “objectionable content” would be removed from its app in order to comply with Apple’s content policy for the iTunes app store. This objectionable content included erotica, smut/PWP (porn without plot), and other explicit titles, and was further defined as material including descriptions “intended to stimulate erotic rather than aesthetic or emotional feelings.” This despite the fact that Apple sells shows like the gratuitous-in-every-way Game of Thrones.

This is nothing new. Just this past summer, a new content policy was announced at Barnes & Noble Press, leading NOOK Press to pull erotica titles from its website and terminate authors’ accounts without warning. Accounts were later reinstated, with a statement issued by Barnes & Noble insisting that any deleted files were a mistake. But some authors remained shell-shocked, having realized just how dangerous it was to rely on only one or two sales outlets.

Though by the same point, it’s tough to find outlets that don’t flip-flop on their policies around sexual content. In 2013, several e-retailers, including Amazon, began deleting erotica titles from their online storefronts in a fit of moral panic, presumably in response to an article calling them out for selling “Kindle filth.” Booksellers rushed to remove erotic ebooks from their sites and one retailer, WHSmith, had a statement up on their site, referring to the titles as “unacceptable.” The statement went on to say, “… we are disgusted by these particular titles, find this unacceptable and we in no way whatsoever condone them.”

In the grand culling that followed, authors were bewildered by the titles that were chosen for eradication. But again, sex has long led an uneasy coexistence with the advertisers, media, and retailers who have seen fit to use it. Though, for the most part, we all have genitals, we all have desire, we are all sexual beings in one way or another, there have always been competing visions of what sex is: pleasure, danger, shame, biology, a gift to be shared only within the context of marriage, a thing to be lost or taken or given away… These competing visions make it difficult for businesses to determine in any definitive way what is and is not “appropriate.” And for those who worry about alienating a huge segment of their audience or of their customers, it just seems easier to dismiss all sexual content as filth.

But in the process, those who see sexuality as an integral part of one’s overall health and well-being, and those who seek to disseminate sexual information, entertainment, and other resources, are marginalized and punished. We see this played out on a grander scale again and again: in the push for abstinence-only education, in the underfunding of sex research—particularly around female sexuality, in legislation that purports to protect people but in actuality only puts them in danger. In this tug-of-war between the various versions of sex that reside in our heads, so much is lost.

Romance and erotica authors have had their rankings reinstated, but it’s hard to feel good about the reclamation of a position that still seems so precarious. Whatever error occurred the other week, my own book was caught up in it as well. My book, A Dirty Word: How a Sex Writer Reclaimed Her Sexuality, was available for preorder for just two weeks when I learned that some customers had received an email saying the book was now unavailable, and that their orders would be canceled. After digging some more, I found that other customers hadn’t received an email at all—but when they logged on to the site, they saw that their order had also been canceled. On the Amazon page for my book, I observed that the paperback was no longer available for purchase.

The issue was rectified just a few days after I began flailing about in a panic. But I was told that the customers for those erroneously canceled preorders would not be alerted that the book was again available, because ordering information was deleted upon cancellation. Either they’d reorder… or they wouldn’t. This is a situation that’s infuriating on its own. At the same time, what haunts me more is that, even if I get those preorders back, it could all happen again.

My book may or may not have been collateral damage in the same error that affected erotic and romance titles. I can’t be sure. Because while A Dirty Word is about sex, it’s not a piece of erotic fiction. Rather, it’s a reported memoir that—funnily enough—is about the ways in which our culture treats female sexuality like—spoiler alert—a dirty word.

Either way, I imagine erotic authors will continue to face similar difficulties repeatedly in the coming years. Because as long as we retain all of these conflicting ideas of what sex is, and what it means to us, sex will always sell—until it’s inconvenient.

Steph Auteri has written about women's health and sexuality for Undark, Narratively, the Atlantic, The Establishment, and other publications. She is also a regular contributor to Book Riot and the blog for the Center for Sex Education. Her book, A Dirty Word, is forthcoming from Cleis Press in fall 2018. You can learn more at Follow her on Twitter at @stephauteri. More from this author →