Over at the Mary Sue, Aja Romano has a terrific piece about the redoubtable culture site TV Tropes’ decision to delete all of its content related to rape and sexual assault on the grounds that it was making it more difficult for the site to retain advertisers. She writes:
Today when you access any of these pages, you’re informed, “We do not want a page on this topic. It does not meet our content policy.”…This problem wasn’t a new one; in January, the Rape Trope index was locked due to Google threatening to block the site’s ad revenue for explicit content. This led to complaints about vanishing hentai tropes, with some users commenting that “creepy content and creepy examples” needed to go, and others questioning whether “creepy content” applied to rape tropes. At that point a user-led effort was made to rename all of the Rape Tropes so that they sounded less rapey (seriously), which rapidly turned into an admin mandate to go through all the renamed tropes and excise all creepiness.
But despite this frantic renaming/excision, either Google brought down the content policy hammer or the admins simply decided it wasn’t a battle worth fighting. When Fast Eddie noted the deletion of the trope page, he added, “There is no explanation needed beyond the fact that the topic is a pain in the ass to keep clean and it endangers the wiki’s revenues. We just won’t have articles about rape. Super easy. No big loss.”
Aja’s gone deep on the grostequeries of suggesting that eliminating conversations about rape are “no big loss.” Amy Davidson’s written powerfully in the New Yorker about the extent to which social media helped former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky’s victims see that they weren’t alone in their experiences. And as long as TV Tropes remains the predominant site for discussion of common story elements in the medium, removing discussions of rape and sexual assault means that when victims or viewers go to the site, they’ll be denied a chance to see the traditions and frameworks that shape their experiences and the stories that touch them.
Now, this is a problem for which Google is more to blame than TV Tropes. TV Tropes is hardly the only site to be affected by Google’s classification of discussions of rape and sexual assault as explicit or obscene, though it’s deeply unfortunate that they decided it was just too much effort to keep an important and powerful part of its site alive.
Rape is obscene. But that’s not because it’s dirty, or sexually alluring, something that needs to—or could be—confined to people at a certain age or a certain stage of life. Rape is obscene because it’s a violation of community norms and standards, not in some settings, but in all settings. It’s a gross, violent attack on the humanity of the victims. I would say rape is an adult topic, but children are victims, too. Part of what’s obscene about rape and sexual assault is that their existence eliminates our ability to let children live in a world that they assume is safe.
Talking about rape may involve talking about sex, but it’s not primarily about sex. A depiction and discussion of a naked woman having consensual sex, and a depiction and discussion of a woman being raped are fundamentally different things, and it’s disturbing that we’d allow algorithms that can’t tell the difference to elide sex and rape. It’s one thing to talk about tailoring content, in news or non-fiction, for ratings or traffic. It’s another to see the structures that governs profit-making online silence a discussion altogether. Ad servers who are literally providing a financial disincentive to discuss rape and sexual assault should be ashamed.