Saturday, March 31, 2007

Who's Afraid of Naughty Words? The Idiocy of NSFW

By Susie Bright, Posted March 26, 2007.

Even though the Internet tag NSFW (Not Safe for Work) is assumed to have something to do with sex, it is more about class, politics, and how much money you make.

Who's afraid of naughty words? Not The New Yorker. After the spring-fling scandal about the use of the word "scrotum" in children's literature, the NYer published a satire by Paul Rudnick, which revealed X-rated stories like "The Pretty Little Bunny," (Melissa Rabbit ponders her vagina) and "The Clattery Caboose." (Don't even ask about his prostate!)

I laughed my a** off -- but wondered what would happen if I, a simple blograt, ran the same darn thing. With nothing more than the inclusion of those naughty little words, my story would be labeled "NSFW" (Not Safe For Work) in many quarters. Spam filters would block out my sun; millions of readers would be effectively hindered.

The New Yorker runs clever, sexually sophisticated stories all the time without such censorship. They say "fuck." They publish critically acclaimed erotic and nude photography. They discuss and illustrate the lives of famous decadent and kinky artists (who can forget the Balthus story?). They deliver a steady diet of grown-up arts and politics which resonates with untold numbers of readers.

Nowhere, in all the internet, would you hear The New Yorker described as NSFW. Whether you brought their magazine to the office, or searched their web site online, the firewall/censorship/Dilbert Nightmare of NSFW would never crease a NYer reader's brow.

Why is that? Even though NSFW is assumed to have something to do with Sex, it is much more finely tuned to Class -- as in whether material is considered respectable in its proper class-conscious milieu. In that vein, the most elite periodicals enjoy the greatest freedom, while further down the ladder, prudery reigns. Plebians, cover your eyes!

The NYer is an easy example to point to, but you could note the same thing about Vogue, a fashion magazine -- nudity in virtually every issue. Vanity Fair, a reader favorite, regularly publishes profane words, nudity, and explicit commentary on sexual controversies.

Elite 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 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.

Their embrace of the first amendment should extend to all, particularly the internet.

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 almost-irrelevant MPAA.

Why? Because it is unmandated, unlegislated, censorship.

A casual observer may opine of NSFW, like the late Judge Potter said of hardcore pornography, that "I'll know it when I see it."

However, you may find yourself recanting, like the Judge did, when you compare your views to your friends and colleagues -- you can't find five people in a room who'll agree down the line what "NSFW" includes.

Because everyone is afraid of shaming or disciplinary action on this issue, self-censorship leads to absurd cautions, and institutionalized filtering that goes against basic self-interest. Remember when AOL banned the word "breast," causing their readers with breast cancer to go ballistic?

That's inevitable at the unaccountable censor's desk, not the exception.

If NSFW meant filtering out "sexually explicit" or profane materials, what does that mean, exactly? Is there a list of seven bad words, while others make the cut? Is a woman's breast sexually explicit in every context, be it eroticism, cancer, or nursing? 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 who takes over System Operations. 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.

"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?

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 a 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.

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 mammary gland on my deck. 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.

So what do you do about it -- if you think "Not Safe For Work" censorship has gone too far?

It's tricky, isn't it? NSFW has no legal or electoral basis -- there's no ballot to punch, no senator to harangue.

The great majority of NSFW warnings are the result of unconscious class and religious bias, with the added conceit of American ethnocentrism.

For starters, let's change our own responses.

1. Unless you would tag The New York Times, The New Yorker, Vogue, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, and Art World as "NSFW" -- don't tag anyone else who covers the same turf of sexual politics, erotic culture, and the full breadth of the English language. And yes, those editors publish bare breasts -- in some cases, every issue.

Think about the media class distinctions every time, and you'll find yourself exercising freedom of speech.

2. What if you want to tell your dear old fragile Aunt Dot about a spaghetti recipe, but you're worried she might take offense at the rest of the site, or worse, blame you for impropriety?

Solution: Try being direct and nonchalant:

Dear Aunt Dot, Thought you'd love this recipe. [Susie's] site is feminist/leftwing/sassy/bohemian, but I thought you'd like it.

3. Remove and oppose Nannyware systems wherever they crop up. If you want to filter your spam in some fashion, that's up to you, not some nameless hack whose values or interests you may not share. Don't assume your values and cultural attitudes are shared by a no-size-fits-all filter.

4. What if you're reading a site at work and one of your co-workers/supervisors interrupts you with a shocked glance and demands to know what you're up to?

Again, imagine you were reading one of the magazines above. You would say, "Why, I"m reading an article about Kurt Eichenwald going off the deep end in New York magazine ... what about you?"

Do not take the "prude bait" that there is something particularly unusual about what you're reading at your desk. It's a big world out there. This is not a nursery school.

5. You work with someone who's a leering, porn-obsessed pig who all but rubs himself down with hand lotion every time you need to borrow a paper clip.

Solution: The problem is privacy. That's how you address the problem. Many of us don't like to listen to bigoted, narcissistic, neurotic demands for attention all day, but NFSW lunacy isn't working for anyone.

The creeps don't stop being creepy, no matter how many indexes you give them, and meanwhile, American political and cultural discussion is reduced to infantilism. It's not an equal trade.

Remove the diaper, and consider a grownup alternative. We have a couple hundred years of figuring this first amendment stuff out on paper; let's take our wisdom and ethics to the web with the same respect.


Tagged as: nsfw, censorship, internet

Susie Bright is an author, editor, and journalist known for her original and pioneering work in sexual politics and erotic expression. She writes about sex and politics every day at her blog.

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