A couple of days ago, I posted to the Silmarillion Writers’ Guild’s various online spaces, soliciting member feedback on what we should do about the new Terms of Service on LiveJournal. I have been honestly taken aback by feedback I’ve received that, in a nutshell, asks, “Why does it matter?” So here it is: my view on why it matters.
If you’re not familiar with the latest LJ debacle concerning their Terms of Service, you can read the post I linked for more information (and please do take the survey linked in that post if you have not already) but, in a nutshell, LJ now requires journals and communities to label adult content, as deemed by the laws of Russia (where the company that owns LJ and now the web servers reside) at the penalty of possibly having the post or the journal/community deleted. Previously, when SixApart introduced the adult content labels, they didn’t mandate their use but reserved the right to apply those labels to a post if a user “flagged” the post; there was no penalty for having one or one hundred posts flagged and investigated, and I don’t know anyone this happened to. The SWG didn’t change their policy under the SixApart rules. (Nonetheless, I wasn’t wild about that change either.)
What does it mean to label something on LJ as “Adult”? First of all, individual posts or an entire journal/community can be labeled as Adult. Doing so either hides the content from LJ users under 18 or requires a click-through age verification to view the post/journal/community for anonymous users.
“Not a big deal!” a lot of people have said. Some have pointed out that there is a long tradition of underage users either 1) lying about their age when registering their account or 2) logging out and just clicking that they’re eighteen. Yes, I know this is a thing and has been almost a rite of passage for some old-school fandom participants who started as teens, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t think it’s beyond time we moved past teens having to engage in white lies to access art.
But really, the lack of access to minors–while a problem for me–is not the biggest problem with this new ToS. But I’ll tackle it first.
I have two qualms with blocking access to minors. First is that it is not my place to decide what content another person should be able to view. I am not the minor’s parent, and many teens are more than able to “handle” the kind of adult content they’d find on a site like the SWG.
My biggest problem is the very fact of pearl-clutching over teenagers “handling” fan fiction. Stories. Art. Let’s keep this in perspective. Between 2000 and 2010, 167,000 children under the age of 18 were married in the U.S. … and those are the confirmed numbers because many states don’t keep data. The nonprofit Unchained at Last estimates the number at closer to 248,000.
Children can own guns in 30 U.S. states and fire weapons like submachine guns.
And we think they can’t handle art?
What’s really at stake here is that art–including fan fiction–presents ideas and content (especially sex) that adults are uncomfortable thinking that young people know about. As a middle and high school teacher, I hate to break it to them: They know about it. Keeping them from art will not prevent them from unknowing it or never learning about it, just like we oldtimers managed to learn all sorts of illicit things pre-Internet. I refuse to pander to the idea, in a world where we are okay with children getting married and bearing children and caring for their families and acting as breadwinners and choosing to drop out of school and owning weapons, that reading fiction is the dangerous activity here.
But, as I said, this is not my main problem with the new Terms of Service.
As noted above, now posts must be labeled as Adult if they contain content that is deemed “adult” under Russian law. I am not Russian and do not read Russian, and LJ has refused to release a legally binding Terms of Service in English. (Rhapsody asked weeks ago when the new ToS was first released and has received no response.) But I do know that, under this same Russian law, the recent Beauty and the Beast film was given an adult rating because of a few seconds in which two men dance together.
Many fans–myself among them–have interpreted LJ’s ToS as meaning, therefore, that any content depicting a same-sex relationship would be “adult” and have to be labeled under the new ToS. This puts the SWG in a unique position. We are not a group that draws a lot of adult content, at least compared to fandom as a whole, including parts of the Tolkien fandom. There are likely a few legitimately adult posts on our LiveJournal community; if labeling those was all that was at stake here, I would grumble but likely comply and mark those specific posts as Adult.
However, the SWG has always welcomed slash fiction. We’ve even encouraged it! We were an early adopter of the International Day of Femslash, and last year, we collaborated with silmladylove during Tolkien Femslash Week. We host hundreds of slash and femslash stories on our archive, and slash is regularly posted, discussed, and alluded to on our LJ community.
So that leaves us two choices in complying with the new ToS: 1) We can either require all slash stories or any post discussing slash or LGBTQ+ issues to be marked as Adult or 2) we can mark the entire community as Adult and essentially ask everyone to take on the same burden faced by our slash authors. I would absolutely refuse to do the first; the second is the 0ption on the table now.
But, while I’ve put that on the table as an option I’d consider, I have a major problem with that option too.
Let there be no doubt: If the SWG complies with the new ToS, it will be because of slash. Don’t pretend that it’s an abundance of PWP or torturefic on our LJ community; it will be because our community has always welcomed slash and discussions of gender and sexuality that Russian law finds abhorrent. It will be to comply with the views of someone who said of the Beauty and the Beast film:
I’m convinced that the main task of the state regarding children is to protect childhood and youth from the filthiness of the world, to preserve children’s purity, to block our children off from harmful and dangerous phenomena.
Someone who thinks that authors who represent the full range of human sexual orientations and genders in their fiction write “filthiness” that is “harmful and dangerous” to children.
It will be to shut those authors’ work just a little further off from the public.
I have a major problem with that.
I have a major problem with pretending that, in the year 2017, there is something shameful about writing about LGBTQ+ characters, or that the mere act of being gay in the presence of a child is somehow going to harm that child. I have a major problem with pretending that it is normal to comply with such a request, that it is normal to have a social media site where the LGBTQ+ people are closeted behind age-consent links and locked communities and not a visible, celebrated part of our communities and our art.
There are other issues at stake here. There is fandom history, which is something dear to me and something that concerns a lot of other people as well in this discussion. The idea of losing this venerable Tolkien community is upsetting for obvious reasons. There is pure sentiment, when I can remember clearly the day I set up the SWG community (the same day that I created my own, personal journal) with no idea of how to use LiveJournal but taking my first tentative steps into a fandom that would prove one of the joys of my life. I don’t want to see that end either. It breaks my heart that it might. But I can’t move past this.