Red, White & Royal Blue, Heartstopper, and the Insidiousness of Purity Culture

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The first time I saw two men having sex on TV, it was Connor Walsh and Oliver Hampton in an episode of How To Get Away With Murder. At the time, I was a closeted 16-year-old at an all boys school, where the extent of sex education was watching my classmates put condoms on a dummy penis. The fiction of Connor’s sex life — and boy was it radical for a TV-14 show — was a world away from my reality, in which I was still coming to terms with my queerness, and my straight classmates were getting on with actual, real sex.

Sex between men has a long, painful history. It’s always been pleasurable, sure, otherwise why do it and risk imprisonment or death? But one need only crack open a history book to find a plethora of sad realities: the AIDS epidemic that started in the ‘80s; the criminalization of homosexuality in so many countries around the world (that continues for many today); the fact that the Supreme Court decision in Lawrence v. Texas — which deemed sodomy laws unconstitutional, since previously anal sex (and therefore gay sex) was illegal — only happened 20 years ago.

Queer culture was born of those circumstances; the ways queer people lived and broke bread and carried on, and the scenarios in which they had sex, which were experienced through otherness, in the fringes, and in all the secret places. That culture is alive, and inherited, today. But so is the evangelical’s calling card, with its “abstinence until marriage” message, admonishing people to do what is perceived as right and healthy.

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Heartstopper is the tamest queer media you can imagine. It still gets hit with bans.

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The Heartstopper book ban proves once again that you can sanitise queer content all you want, make it wholesome and devoid of any sex to please the straights, you will never live up to their idea of “good gays.” Because good gays, to them, are invisible and full of shame.

The graphic novel series Heartstopper will no longer be available in the teen section of a Mississippi public library after a group of parents claimed the books were pornographic. The Heartstopper books, which tell the story of two teen boys who fall in love, were removed from the teen section of the Columbia-Marion County public library and placed in the adult section after complaints.

The library moved the graphic novels from the teen section after a meeting on 9 August in which a group of parents claimed the books were pornographic, with one reportedly claiming homosexuals were using the series to “recruit” children into the LGBTQ+ community.

One mother also reportedly cited 14 other books that they found “objectionable”, asking for the board to remove them from the teen section in order to “protect our children”, The Mississippi Free Press reported. Other titles described as objectionable included Dress Codes for Small Towns, by Courtney Stevens and Luna, by Julie Anne Peters, both of which have LGBTQ+ themes.

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Money Shot: The Pornhub Story

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In those bygone days when you had to sit on a family computer in the living room in order to access the internet, teenagers watched documentaries like Netflix’s Money Shot: The Pornhub Story hoping to catch a glimpse of a world they could otherwise only access by stealing someone’s dad’s Playboy. But one of Pornhub’s big, epoch-shaking innovations was to make actual pornography available to anyone with a smartphone — no credit card required.

There’s a more graphic version of this story that could be told. At the beginning of Money Shot, a woman who’s worked in the porn industry for most of her adult life describes watching an “eight-person geriatric gangbang” the first time she ever fired up Pornhub. “That did set the tone for how extreme things could be on the internet,” she says.

Perhaps as a tacit acknowledgement that Netflix can never compete with actual Pornhub content, Money Shot leaves its analysis of the “gonzo” side of porn there. If this movie played in theaters, it’d be rated R for language and a little above-the-waist nudity. (Seriously, though, if you want to see people having unsimulated sex — much of it quite athletic — the site to check is right there in the name of the doc.) That allows director Suzanne Hillinger to focus on the thing that’s really driving the movie’s narrative story: feminist infighting.

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America’s most challenged & banned books right now

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The American Library Association (ALA) is out with their latest list of the most banned and challenged books, a dubious honor accorded books in library collections in the United States enduring the highest number of attempted bans and demands for censorship.

The list is aggregated by the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom from reports filed by library professionals and community members, as well as from news stories published throughout the U.S. Because many book challenges go unreported, the ALA Banned and Challenged Book List is only a snapshot. The organization says a challenge to a book may be resolved in favor of retaining the book in a collection, or it can result in a book being restricted or withdrawn from a library.

The most recent list covers bans and challenges in 2022. ALA documented 1,269 demands to censor library books and resources last year, the highest number of attempted book bans since the group began compiling data about censorship in libraries more than 20 years ago. The unparalleled number of reported book challenges in 2022 nearly doubles the 729 challenges reported in 2021.

A record 2,571 unique titles were targeted for censorship. Seven of the top 13 most challenged books contained LGBTQ+ themes and/or characters, including the most challenged title, author Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer. The graphic novel/memoir faced 151 formal calls for censorship in libraries across the country. Juno Dawson’s This Book is Gay rounds out the list with 48 formal challenges.

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China banned “effeminate” men

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In 2021, China’s broadcasting regulator issued a ban on ‘niang pao’ or ‘sissy men’ from appearing on TV and video streaming sites. The derogatory term is used to describe men with effeminate looks. Do these rules signal a return to more traditional notions of patriarchy, masculinity and even nationalism?

Heartstopper among books facing ban in the land of the free

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Alice Oseman’s seminal graphic novel series Heartstopper has joined the growing list of LGBTQ+ books banned in certain parts of the US.

Heartstopper is one of many books US conservatives want banned because they mention that queer and black people exist. Because banning books is totally normal in a democracy and definitely not a fascist hallmark.

According to the Florida Freedom to Read Project, more than fifty books were banned in the Clay County school district in Florida last week (24 March), many of which are written by LGBTQ+ authors or discuss sexuality or gender identity.

The list of banned books includes the first three volumes of Heartstopper, as well as Oseman’s 2016 novel Radio Silence, which features a number of queer characters. Other books removed in the latest round of book bans in the district include LGBTQ+ young adult romance novel One Man Guy by Michael Barakiva, and comic A Quick & Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns.

The Florida Freedom to Read Project shared that a total of 355 books have now been removed from the school district since July 2022. Along with LGBTQ+ books, the bans are impacting Black authors and books about and racism and racial justice.

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The censorship wars have only just begun

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June 27, 2011, was a red-letter day for a generation of video game fans. After years of argument, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a California law banning the sale of “mature”-rated games to minors — declaring that one of the youngest art forms of the new millennium deserved the First Amendment’s full protection. The decision, made just over a decade ago, felt like one step in a steady march toward unprecedented opportunities for artists.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, the Supreme Court reversed speech crackdowns on the nascent web, including key pieces of the Communications Decency Act that restricted online sexual content. Politicians and courts had a waning appetite for dubbing music, films, and games out of bounds. Online publishing eroded the power of soft gatekeepers like Walmart and theater chains, which could scuttle the sales of explicit songs and unrated movies, and crowdfunding offered a path to put niche media into the world.

But the path forward these days looks increasingly perilous. The web platforms that transformed art have created their own rules and incentives, shaping what people see online. A broad activist push is trying to pull books from schools, libraries, and sometimes commercial bookshelves. A series of new laws could make that even easier. And America’s highest courts have proven willing to put even long-settled principles up for grabs.

In 2021, the American Library Association reported 729 complaints about attempts to banish books from libraries, the highest number in its 20 years of record-keeping. The efforts were concentrated around books dealing with gender identity, sexuality, and race or racism, and while many of them played out against a backdrop of local politics, they were fueled by a nationwide political campaign. They’re also not slowing down: Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom, says that 2022 surpassed the previous year’s count by November.

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League of Legends’ gay black champ censored in some countries

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Riot Games has admitted to censoring the new LGBTQ+ League of Legends character in conservative countries. Back in October, the video game developer made headlines when they announced the game’s first Black and openly gay character K’Sante.

“A mighty guardian wielding weapons forged from an apex predator he once slayed, K’Sante is a hero of his people, dominating fights with keen judgement and defiant fire,” Riot said in a statement. “His weapons may appear defensive at first, but given the right moment, he can transform them into lethal blades, taking down giant foes others dare not approach.”

In addition to Riot Games announcement, Game of Thrones star DeObia Oparei revealed that he would be voicing the groundbreaking champion, writing: “I’m excited to give life and voice to K’Sante and make history portraying the first LGBTQ+ Black champion warrior.”

On 3 November, the highly anticipated character was officially released on the League of Legends platform. While K’Sante has become an instant hit within the expansive fanbase, his openly gay identity has been censored in certain parts of the world.

In an interview with Sky News, League of Legends executive producer Jeremy Lee revealed that certain words, like “lover” and “partner”, have been removed from K’Sante’s story in countries hostile towards the LGBTQ+ community.

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Nudity is back on Tumblr. Kinda.

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After Yahoo, who bought Tumblr for over a billion dollars, banned all nudity on the platform that was famous for being the best place for porn, the site died a fast and painful death and was eventually sold for a whopping $3 million to Automattic. But any hopes of porn coming back to the social network were squashed right out of the gate.

Original photo by Helix Studios

Automattic CEO Matt Mullenweg explained recently that he personally is in favour of a “go nuts, show nuts” policy on sexual content on Tumblr. But despite his personal views Tumblr will probably never go back to allowing porn on their platform because, according to him, it’s impossible to run a profitable social network that allows porn in this day and age for reasons he laid out in this post.

The tl;dr is: Credit card companies hate porn (mostly due to lobbying from religious anti-porn groups), Google and Apple hate porn (and tumblr is heavily reliant on traffic from their app stores), recent US laws that were supposed to protect sex workers from being trafficked are instead used to crack down on online porn by Conservatives and last but not least it’s a lot harder to secure funding when you run a site in the “adult entertainment” segment because no one wants to invest in a “dirty” business.

So, what’s new then?

In a company announcement on Tuesday, Tumblr staff wrote: “We now welcome a broader range of expression, creativity, and art on Tumblr, including content depicting the human form (yes, that includes the naked human form).”

So, some nudity is allowed now. Just not the sexy kind. And it has to be tagged as such and will be hidden from everyone by default (check your settings on Tumblr to opt into seeing NSFW posts!). That being said, “artistic nudity” was actually always allowed but since the porn ban was enforced by an (incredibly shitty) AI, even hundreds of years old paintings were tagged as porn and hidden. It remains to be seen if this will change now.

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