Tuesday, April 14, 2009



#amazonfail: With book monopolies like these, no-one is safe


Overland editor Jeff Sparrow writes

On Easter Sunday, weird things happened at uberbookseller Amazon.

Inexplicably, the site suddenly reclassified certain titles as containing "adult" content, meaning they lost their sales ranking and became much harder to find. Hundreds -- perhaps thousands -- of books became, without warning, well-nigh invisible.

Even curioser, this outbreak of Grundyism seemed to impact most on titles with gay and lesbian themes. The author Mark R. Probst contacted Amazon querying why his bookThe Filly (a gay cowboy romance) had lost its ranking. He received the following response:

In consideration of our entire customer base, we exclude "adult" material from appearing in some searches and best seller lists. Since these lists are generated using sales ranks, adult materials must also be excluded from that feature.

Hence, if you have further questions, kindly write back to us.

Best regards,

Ashlyn D

Member Services

Amazon.com Advantage

As Probst -- and then just about everyone else -- apoplectically noted, great swathes of heterosexual material still turned up. But suddenly, Amazon wouldn’t list Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle or EM Forster’s Maurice or Radclyffe Hall’s lesbian classicThe Well of Loneliness (with its famous s-x scene lasting a whole seven words: "and that night, they were not divided").

Rather than pointing you to, say, Heather Has Two Mommies or Who’s Who in Gay and Lesbian History, an Amazon search for ‘homos-xuality’ brought up A Parent's Guide to Preventing Homos-xuality, followed by You Don't Have to Be Gay: Hope and Freedom for Males Struggling With Homos-xuality or for Those Who Know of Someone Who Isand then, in third place, For the Bible Tells Me So.

Great news if you wanted to read Christian fundamentalists explaining how, by playing the piano and spending too much time with his mother, eight-year-old Jimmy "was […] already showing many signs of pre-homos-xual behavior"; not so great if you weren’t a complete lunatic.

The episode did, however, allow Twitter to demonstrate that, contrary to all previous evidence, microblogging does actually serve some purpose. Quickly #amazonfail became the number one tag, as users shared news about the latest title to vanish. Gore Vidal had gone. So too a biography of Ellen DeGeneres. You could no longer find The Essential Book of Gay Manners & Etiquette. And so on.

When Amazon eventually issued a statement, it blamed the kerfuffle on a software glitch. But the company’s oddly hesitant response only added to the speculation. A hacker has since claimed responsibility, on the rather deranged basis that he wanted to "cause a few hundred thousand queers some outrage" because the personal ads he placed searching for girls to take heroin with kept getting rejected (uh huh). Elsewhere,Feministing.com posted correspondence from an unidentified Amazon rep admitting that the bookseller was, in fact, trying to protect conservative buyers from ‘offensive’ titles.

Meanwhile, most, though not all, of the delisted books seem to have regained their rankings.

Even if #amazonfail turns out to be a storm in an i-Phone, it should draw attention to the huge monopolies now dominating the book business. Amazon is currently spending zillions developing its Kindle e-reader, an application intended to do for books what MP3 players did for music. Although e-books still remain fairly marginal, Amazon’s prepared to subsidise the Kindle on the basis that, when digital book publishing eventually takes off (as it surely will), ownership of the default e-application amounts to a licence to print money.

But do we want Amazon as the Microsoft of publishing? To use an old school analogy, monopoly control of the standard format for e-books equates to a single publishing house owning all the paper stocks. If nothing else, events this Easter hint at why that might not be such a great idea.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Tranny Panic!

I love the Tranny Panic site – loads of gorgeous radical art from a trans perspective for everyone to print out and use for non-commercial purposes.

I loved these two graphics in particular:

I might have spoken about some of the similarities and connections between sex worker and trans experiences in this blog before. As someone partnered to a wonderful transman, he will often get clueless and offensive questions such as ‘so, what is in your pants, then?’ Whereas I’ll get the ‘so how old were you when you first started working/ had first sexual experience?’ or ‘do you use drugs or were you sexually abused?’ from random strangers. The kind of questions that the person would never think was acceptable to ask a cisgender person or a non-sex worker.

Sex workers, like trans people will sometimes choose, when they can to go stealth, or not reveal their status, not due to a desire to 'trick' others or to be deceptive, but to avoid stigma and discrimination..... and really, really stupid and offensive questions that we've all heard way too often.

From sex worker sensitivity training I've been involved with in the past, it seems that making connections between the experiences of different groups is important for the making of allies, and many of us have experienced at least a few episodes of marginalisation, or unfairness, even if it is simple school yard cruelty or bullying, so if we can tap into a sense of how that has felt, when we consider other communities, there is the possiblity to move beyond that fear of the other, and move towards understanding.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Stupid, Stupid Laws (part 2)

So I first blogged about stupid sex work laws that didn't do what they were meant to, or just had bad outcomes over here. That was a South Australian story, since I've been living in Melbourne for about a year now, I figured I should write a little bit about the travesty that are the Victorian sex work laws, in particular, mandatory sexual health testing of sex workers.

The testing regime in Victoria, according to the Prostitution Control Act (!) mandates swab tests every month, with blood tests every three months. This practice is supposed to occur, if you have any symptoms of an STI or not, whether you have had a condom breakage or slippage or not, whether you provide penetrative sex services or not. So, as this isn't based on any real risk practice, just whether you charge for a sexual service, so there is an huge waste of clinical resources on this practice.

The strain on clinical services becomes apparent when you attend the Melbourne Sexual Health Centre.

Currently, in order to be seen within 1 hour of attending the clinic, you have to be there upon opening, at 8.40 am.

If you attend before midday, you are likely to be seen within about 3 hours (or have your details taken and asked to come back after lunch when they will be seen in order. If you first show up after lunch, then you will not be seen that day.

Obviously this is due to the enormous strain on the services by sex workers, who for the most part will not have experienced any symptoms or breakages since their last test. I presume that the clinic prioritises people who (once determined after the brief interview with the triage nurse) actually demonstrate some genuine risk of being infected; however, it simply isn’t possible for everyone who needs access to have adequate access to the service, under the current system. For most people, setting aside a significant amount of time out of their day to wait for testing is difficult.

There is a major sexual health clinic in (I think) every capital city of Australia, and although anyone is welcome to visit a private doctor if they have a Medicare card, the benefit of these services is that they are free, reasonably anonymous - you don't need to provide a Medicare card, so presumably you can give a fake name), you can drop in without an appointment, and get testing and treatment by medical staff who are more used to diverse lifestyles, sexual identities and practices than some suburban doctors might be). I’ve now worked in three states, and this is the only time I’ve had to wait longer than about an hour to get in to see a nurse in the major metropolitan sexual health clinic. I can only assume that this bares a direct relation to the fact that this is the only state that does mandatory sexual health testing of sex workers.

Given that their has never been a reported case in Australia of client to sex worker, or sex worker to client HIV transmission, in the more than twenty year history of the virus in this country, given that sex workers have lower rates of sexually transmitted infections than the general population, and higher rates of condom use, this over testing does nothing to protect public health, and only services to stigmatise sex workers. as long as no one is seriously discussing testing clients - or other sexually active adults, this practice is about discrimination based on status. There has been anecdotal evidence for more than a decade now coming out of Victoria that clients are well aware that licensed brothels require sex workers to submit to regular sexual health tests and present certificates of attendance in order to work, and feel emboldened to request services without a condom as a result. So, in fact mandatory testing puts so much more pressure on sex workers, and makes our work so much harder, to keep providing services with a condom, and to protect our OHS.