4 min

Apple won’t produce online book with homoerotic imagery

'It's about a living archive of gay and lesbian life,' publisher says

Arsenal Pulp Press publisher Robert Ballantyne says Lust Unearthed is a testimony to "the perseverance of erotic art and queer networks in the face of state censorship in an era when gay sex itself was a crime." Credit: Shauna Lewis

Sex-positive advocates and anti-censorship activists say freedom of queer artistic expression is under attack after Apple Inc refused to produce an online version of a book containing homoerotic images.  

The book’s Vancouver publisher, Arsenal Pulp Press, was informed earlier this month that Apple would not produce an online version of the text for sale through its store because the book’s “explicit or objectionable content” violated company criteria.

Lust Unearthed, by Thomas Waugh, contains more than 200 vintage drawings of penises, bondage, mutual masturbation and men engaged in various sex acts. The sketches were executed by famous and unknown artists of the 1930s through the 1970s and had belonged in the private collection of American gay designer Ambrose DuBek.   

Arsenal Pulp Press says the book, which has sold 8,000 copies since it was published in 2004, is testimony to the pre-Stonewall era when these kinds of images were illegal. They say Apple’s decision to censor the images undermines the cultural message that the book provides.

“I roll my eyes and I think, ‘How silly.’ It’s an adult book for a sophisticated adult audience; it’s about history. It’s about a living archive of gay and lesbian life and gay and queer imagery and what was secretive,” says publisher Robert Ballantyne.

“It’s a testimony to the perseverance of erotic art and queer networks in the face of state censorship in an era when gay sex itself was a crime,” he says. “It’s ironic for this to happen with a company like Apple, who parade themselves as being creative, groovy and progressive.”

Applications developed for iOS devices such as iPads, iPhones and iPods must be approved by Apple before they can be listed in the company’s App Store. During the approval process, Apple reviews applications to ensure they fit criteria and are free of “offensive material.”

But two weeks ago, Apple sent an unsigned letter to Arsenal’s digital distributor, Constellation, rejecting the online retail of the book for reasons pertaining to “exceptionally objectionable or crude content, which includes but is not limited to: depiction [photo or drawing] of a child in a sexual situation, even without contact. Photographs of penetrative sex, oral/genital contact or genitals, textural encouragement to commit a crime [books supporting, encouraging or defending rape, pedophilia, incest or bestiality], photographic content for the sole purpose of sexual arousal and excessively objectionable or crude content.”

Ballantyne says he suspects that a few images depicting young boys engaged in mutual masturbation with older men might be why Apple rejected the book. But, he says Arsenal censored those images, blocking out the genitals and sex act, before sending the book to Apple.

“We censored our own material, a couple of images. That’s what responsible publishing does,” he says. “I mean, we don’t just turn out anything. We look at it really carefully.

“The book is about context,” he says. “It isn’t about a bunch of pedophiles.” It’s about people who understand that there were intergenerational relations in history and there was imagery about it and some people collected it, he adds.

Ballantyne says he attempted to contact Apple, but no one has returned his call.

Xtra’s efforts to contact Apple were also unsuccessful at press time.

Meanwhile, Apple has given Arsenal the option to further edit and resubmit the book for possible distribution, but the company has refused.

“I told them, ‘Sorry, we’ve already edited this book and we’re not going to fix it to fit your crazy standards,’” Ballantyne tells Xtra.

He says Lust Unearthed has been available from digital distributors Kobo and Barnes and Noble Nook without issue.

Author John Ince, leader of the Sex Party of BC, says this type of censorship harms the community.

“By rendering images less available, [retail distributors] help perpetuate negative attitudes toward sexuality that, in turn, justifies censorship,” he says. “It’s a toxic cycle; until there’s a much more vocal and consistent opposition to this, it will persist.”

Ken Boesem, of Little Sister’s Bookstore, says he has noticed a double standard in what Apple deems acceptable and unacceptable.

“It’s interesting that there seems to be apps for heteros that don’t have the same kind of scrutinizing eye applied to them,” he says.

“At the core, they are very anti-adult material across the board, so [the rejection] may just be falling under that umbrella,” Boesem adds.

“Violence is always okay, but sex is not,” he says. “It’s a different issue if someone’s smashed to pieces [in books and movies] but to show them making out or having sex? No, no: that’s verboten; you can never do that.”

Ince agrees. “We’ve allowed the visibility of violence but not the visibility of sexuality,” he says. Meanwhile, “the issue of violence is not being taken seriously and the issue of sexuality is being demonized.”

“It’s quite insulting that our history always ends up being the one at the cutting board, whether at the hands of Canadian customs or now Apple,” adds anti-censorship activist Janine Fuller. “Artistic integrity is a really important part of queer identity. Apple has certainly made some bad judgments around this.”

Last month, a humour application called Lil’ Flamer, a soundboard that features a flamboyantly gay, smiling, flame-shaped pink creature, was also rejected by Apple on the grounds that  it contained “defamatory or offensive content that would be considered objectionable by many audiences.”

Last year, Danish author Peter Øvig Knudsen had the iBook editions of his books Hippie 1 and Hippie 2 removed from Apple’s iBookstore because of their documentary photos of naked people in the 1970s.

Apple also rejected Knudsen’s resubmitted version of the text, in which the photos were covered with large red apples.