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August 15, 2001 06:15am
Yahoo! Porn Controversy Not For Adults Only
Source: Yahoo! Internet Life
by: Roger Ebert

COMMENTARY--The decision by Yahoo! Inc. management to eliminate some of the adult content on its massive site fills me with gloom, not simply because it caved in to an organized protest from the fringe, but because when a universal site becomes provincial, we all lose. [Y-Life licenses the magazine's name from Yahoo! Inc. but is editorially independent. —Ed.]

One of the targets at Yahoo! was its retail operation, which listed porn tapes among thousands of others. This could not be permitted, argued the protesters. They are no doubt aware that porn tapes remain abundantly available, but by singling out a publicly traded company like Yahoo! Inc. for embarrassment, they were able to validate their sense of power and get publicity, even if they had no effect on the porn industry itself.

I was reminded of the recent trial in Provo County, Utah, where a video store owner was hauled up on charges of purveying porn. He was violating community standards, it was charged. He won an acquittal by presenting evidence that the pay-per-view consumption of porn in Provo County was approximately twice the national average for cities the size of Provo. The New York Times coverage observed that major hotel chains and communications empires make millions on porn.

Although Yahoo! Inc.'s decision to ban porn retailers will have a negligible effect on sales, another area of Yahoo! is more vulnerable. The Yahoo! Clubs area contains many adult clubs, which were until recently categorized by gender, fetish, behavioral specialty, or body part. My attention was drawn to them by "A New Way to Be Mad," an article by Carl Elliott in the December 2000 issue of The Atlantic Monthly that examined the Web's role in bringing together people who previously thought they were unique in their sexual obsessions. The article focused on those who feel an urgent need to have body parts amputated. Not my cup of tea, but after all, aren't nose jobs, breast reductions, and liposuction procedures socially acceptable manifestations of a similar desire? Elliott mentioned Web sites where users with this rare fetish found soul mates and named themselves "devotees" (of amputees) and "wanna-bes."

Fascinated, I went to Yahoo! Clubs and, under fetishes, found that people wanted to share their sexual thoughts on cashmere sweaters, teddy bears, noses, fingernails, eyeglasses, and photographs of shoes stepping on stuff. Just reading the names of some clubs created a fingernails-on-the-blackboard effect (and of course there are people who are turned on by that as well, especially when performed by a woman dressed as a teacher).

I do not pass judgment on the members of these clubs, so long as their activities do not violate the law. When it comes to fetishes, some unfortunates are hardwired at an early age with amazingly inconvenient turn-ons. The Web allows them to meet one another, and thus decreases the sum of loneliness in the world. Yahoo! adult clubs also enrich the leisure hours of admirers of sex symbols, and facilitate the exchange of millions of digital photographs, sparing untold forest acreage.

But in May, Yahoo! began to act ambivalently toward its adult clubs. Links to the adult category were removed, so that a first-time user could not find it. I tested the Yahoo! "club search" function for such essential terms as booty and Busty Dusty and came up empty-handed. Message boards spread the alarm: Was Yahoo! banning adult clubs, or only making them harder to find? Yahoo! would not say, but if you visited an adult club and clicked on its "category" for similar clubs, Yahoo! responded, "That page does not exist." In other words, the clubs are lurking there somewhere, but you need the exact URL to get there.

In a reasonable world there is, I believe, a place for pinups of Busty Dusty, detailed analyses of cashmere sweaters, and perhaps even both at once. The British newspaper News of the World once had as its motto, "If it goes on, it goes in," and I commend that sentiment to Yahoo!

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