50 Shades of Censorship

The success of the 50 Shades of Grey movie is being treated as if it were the final victory over prudish sex censors. But the real answer is a bit more complicated. While we're often aware of restrictions in places like Iran, China or Malaysia, many are much closer to home.

For over three decades, the Free Speech Coalition has argued that the government has no right to tell adults what books they may read, what films they may watch or what -- if any -- pleasure products they may buy. Below some some of the many ways conservative censors are still limiting our ability to read, write and watch material like 50 Shades.

1. Public Library Censorship
At least four counties in Florida banned the 50 Shades book from their libraries, calling it "semi-pornographic," and the book has been pulled from shelves in dozens others, from Georgia to Wisconsin.

2. Pleasure Product Bans
While buying the 50 Shades book in Alabama may be legal, it's a crime to sell anything that might stimulate genitalia. Alabama's anti-obscenity statute was challenged in 2009 by free speech advocates -- but the ban was upheld by the state Supreme Court. Similar bans remain in effect in Virginia and Mississippi.

3. Erotic Writing Prosecutions
When we think of hardcore porn, we rarely think of written word. But Karen Fletcher, a 56-year old woman Pittsburgh was indicted on four felony counts over sexually explicit stories that she published on her personal website while attempting to process her own childhood sexual abuse. A zealous conservative prosecutor in Western Pennsylvania arrested Fletcher and a jury found her guilty of obscenity. It was the first successful obscenity prosecution of a written 'pornography' since 1973.

4. Bank Account Closures
Thanks to the Justice Department's Operation Choke Point, many adult performers and businesses found their banks unceremoniously closed this past year. The DOJ appears to have pressured banks to cut dealings with controversial, though legal, businesses like porn that might be "reputation risks."

5. Limiting Performer Choice
If a proposed 2016 ballot measure passes, the production and sale of films shot without condoms would be banned within the state of California, limiting performer choice of health and safety options. Proponents of the measure say it as a public health issue, and that adult films should teach condom use. But adult performers are not sex educators, and have argued vehemently that condoms are less often reliable than the testing system currently in place, and that only they -- not the government -- should have ultimate control over their bodies.

6. Anti-BDSM Laws
This summer, the UK made the filming of many consensual BDSM practices illegal, hitting queer and feminist pornographers particularly hard. It's unlikely that the 50 Shades movie could even have been made in the UK under these new laws.

7. Record-Keeping Statutes
If Focus Features doesn't abide by record keeping regulations (known as 18 U.S.C. 2257) for stars Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson, the producers could be prosecuted and even jailed. The law is usually applied selectively to adult producers, but is written so broadly that, in a conservative administration, that could easily change.

8. Morality-Based Zoning Regulations
Many adult books stores, novelty shops and theaters have been shuttered under dubious nuisance laws, or through onerous zoning restrictions in conservative locales. Morality censors have steadily eroded the rights of consenting adults to buy pleasure products, videos and magazines.

9. Corporate Censorship
Google no longer accepts ads for adult companies, Apple won't allow adult-themed apps, and sites like Facebook and Instagram regularly ban users who show so much as a breast-feeding baby. In some ways, corporate censorship (which need not abide by First Amendment protections) has become more insidious than government censorship, especially as fewer and fewer companies control a wider and wider audience.

10. University Bans
Academic discussions about sexuality are important and vital. And while in the past ten years we've seen important scholars like Linda Williams, Constance Penley and Dr. Chauntelle Tibbals approach the subject with nuance and rigor, others have called for an outright ban on material like 50 Shades, comparing it to torture or domestic abuse. Some universities, like Northern Illinois University, have blocked porn sites on their ISP all together.

11. Conservative Boycotts
Target is being boycotted for 50 Shades-themed items; theaters are being protested over implied sexual violence of BDSM. And thanks to pressure from anti-porn activists and morality groups, some hotel chains have pulled adult videos from their rooms entirely. No matter what you think of 50 Shades, or adult material in general, the decision to engage with it (or not) should be yours alone.

The Free Speech Coalition has been fighting for the right of adults to make our own decisions about what we watch, read, write for three decades. We encourage anyone who believes the same to learn more about these and other battles here or by following us on Twitter.