The website of Dan Erdman
I won’t pretend that I was paying attention to California politics in 2011 (or at any other time), but some of you may remember when State Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner accused eBay of trafficking in pornography. Poizner was attempting to compete in the Republican gubernatorial primary, but was finding it difficult to find a foothold against the frontrunner, then-CEO of eBay but really all-around girlboss at large Meg Whitman, who’d dropped a money bomb on the contest and would eventually take it in a walk. Hoping that something would eventually stick, Poizner released an attack ad in May of that year that tried to make some kind of statement about eBay’s policy on the sale of adult materials. The video itself seems to be lost to history, but the transcript sounds like a hoot.
Whitman cleaned up the site. No more guns. No more fake paintings. But pornography? Whitman started a separate division that only sells porn. Under Whitman’s leadership the porn site became one of the largest on the internet. That’s Meg Whitman. From Goldman Sachs deals to porn. It’s all about the money. Meg Whitman. Bad Judgement. Wrong values.
This week, in May of ’21, Poizner finally has a reason to celebrate; eBay announced that it will shut down its Adults Only listings. Some items now for sale in that category may be redirected to the other parts of the site if they follow certain vague rules, but things like magazines and films – the material most relevant to my research interests – are likely to disappear entirely.
My reaction to this can only be to tilt my face to the heavens and thank my celestial overseers that I finished writing and (most importantly) researching my forthcoming book Let’s Go Stag: A History of Pornography on Film before this happened. A not-insignificant amount of primary source material – small-gauge stag films, magazines, mail-order ephemera, various and sundry artifacts – was discovered by me during late-night trawls through the Adults Only listings. Like many scholars and historians of pornography, I’d be sure to check the site at least once every several days, usually not looking for anything in particular, but just browsing and tossing out keyword terms to see just what might show up, hoping to turn up something that I never knew was out there, and wouldn’t have even known how to look for if I had. Much of this stuff isn’t very well represented in traditional archival collections, so the “sifting through eBay in to distract yourself from writing” strategy is an important research method for porn scholars in particular, and I know for a fact that plenty of film historians do the same thing (and probably other kinds of historians, and probably people in other disciplines as well). To a certain extent, this is the 21st century version of the compulsive visits to flea markets and antique malls and junk dealers that people in these fields have been doing for decades, but, as with so much else, there’s a dystopian quality unique to this current iteration. Quite apart from how this is inconveniencing me and some of my colleagues, eBay’s cancelation of their porn section is just a specific manifestation of a bigger problem, which is that certain types of scholarly research are, to a large extent, dependent on a private, commercial digital platform which trades access for personal data; follow any instance of social malaise, trivial or otherwise, back to its root and it’ll lead you to this as often as not. Relying on silicon valley bloodsuckers to support your intellectual endeavors with no understanding that they will eventually choose their own interests over yours…not a good plan, as it turns out.
Thing is, I can’t even fathom what those interests might be in this case. It’s bad enough to be at the mercy of the whims of rotten corporations, but this one stings all the more since I can’t for the life of me figure out what they’re hoping to accomplish. The protection of children’s sensibilities? This assumes that there are a non-zero number of underagers out there who are so desperate for dirty pictures that they’re fraudulently applying for credit cards, setting up eBay accounts, setting up PayPal accounts, renting post-office boxes, all to buy magazines and videos largely featuring performers who would have been active in the years before their parents were born. Some purely moral objection? Doubtful, such things don’t tend to fly when you’ve got itchy shareholders to please. Concern over human trafficking? I feel that selling a sex slave over a retail website would be too labor intensive to be worth it, but this kind of rhetoric, combined with the recent SESTA/FOSTA legislation, was enough to give credit card companies the willies a few years back, so perhaps something similar is in the works here. Or, more likely, it’s some other thing that I’m not privy to and don’t have the imagination for. (I actually wrote to eBay’s press office with exactly these questions and asked for comment. I assume they’ll just ignore me (even though I identified myself as an “independent journalist” – technically true!), but will update in case they somehow tell me anything of substance.)
Whatever the reason, however much it may cause me professional and personal grief, it’s just a sign of a more sewn-up, uptight world, the neuters ascendant. Oh well, for the next two months at least, go to “Shop By Category,” then “All Categories,” then “Everything Else,” then to the alphabetically prominent “Adults Only.” Have fun while you can.