When I was first notified that five of my “Seven Sonnets Read by Webcam Girls” had been banned from YouTube, I was quite upset, frightened even. (YouTube was hosting the videos for a project published by Vice Magazine). The decision seemed arbitrary, or worse—given all the sick, sexy and sexist material on YouTube, there seemed to be a double standard at work. After all, I could watch over 17,000 gunshot blood spray videos, 627,000 girls shaking videos (many of them underage), and, well, on and on… And there were other issues at stake (so I thought), which I felt prepared to talk about, since I had written about them before (for ex: at the Rumpus, the Believer, The Paris Review, The Brooklyn Rail, Slate, and Bomb Magazine). But after my appeal was rejected by an automated decision (I respect your total lack of transparency on this, and your refusal even to address my request to know who flagged the videos), I have come to a deeper understanding.
Let me begin by sincerely offering my heartfelt apology: I’m sorry I offended your elitism. Poetry isn’t for people like this. Webcam models and their viewers (even if said webcam models are fully clothed and not shaking anything), are simply beneath the dignity of poetry. And that ilk of people, who are covered in tattoos and the type you shy away from in supermarkets, are not just unpleasant to look at, they’re very likely to represent some ideas that, well, just won’t do.
To some, it might be difficult to pinpoint what exactly in the “Seven Sonnets Read by Webcam Girls” was offensive. (The videos are now hosted through Vimeo, over my strenuous objection, and Vice still has them up, and PEN has posted them as well, but I strongly discourage anyone from watching them.) Attire? Two of the models are wearing tank tops, two are wearing lingerie tops, and one is wearing a … hmm, perhaps it’s a bikini. She’s in what looks like a bikini, and she’s reclining on a couch—like she’s a Calvin Klein model or a seller of shampoo or cologne. Maybe that was the problem, the bikini? Ok, point taken. No bikinis on YouTube! Or, hmm, perhaps it was something in the poetry itself? There was one line, one very suspect line, “All I really want to do is stab people,” which I do regret terribly. Who knows how many minds I’ve already poisoned. (I was so misguided to think that writing sonnets couldn’t hurt anyone. What a fool I was to say, “Good God, they rhyme.”)
It is tempting to ponder the, err, could we say “gazillion” music videos on YouTube. For example, Gorilla, by Bruno Mars, showcases a stripper who has money spilling out from between her bare legs; or, umm, I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself, by The White Stripes, which considers pole dancing. But context is what’s most important here. The suggestive dancing in Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It), by Beyoncé, for example, is in the cause of selling diamonds. (I could watch that video all day, just for the ethical agenda.) Beyoncé’s message, much like the money-between-the-legs trope of Gorilla, is dedicated to the core values that YouTube is all about. And besides, give Beyoncé a break. The poor girl is just trying to sell a few CDs.
Which brings us to another important point. To quote: “This video has been removed as a violation of YouTube’s policy against spam, scams, and commercially deceptive content.” Initially, I confess that this missive left me baffled. What, of course, could I be selling? Books? I do have a few books out, but none with poetry in them. Magazines perhaps? People were racing out to buy Vice magazine because of sonnets that were part of, er, an online project? The dots seemed, well, distant. And then I remembered! The links to some of the model’s websites. I believe that one or two of them were selling t-shirts! Well, that would be reprehensible. I will, I must say, be sorry to see the gazillion music videos removed from YouTube (we can’t be selling all those songs). As well, the gazillion movie and television clips and trailers. And it will be difficult to get along without the gazillion product reviews, as some of them were so informative (and positively spilling over with creative integrity). But, c’est la vie. Such is the honorable and uncompromising path of YouTube: nix on commercial deception.
Too, I should note that my impression of the webcam models—that they were contemporary “pinup girls,” and the primary aesthetic outlet for many, many people—was entirely incorrect. First off, women shouldn’t be able to work independently like that. And if you’re a sex performer, you should be working live, so your audience can reach out and grab you. And, furthermore, webcam models who sell oven mitts on Etsy are really depraved.
Oh, in the interest of being helpful, on my YouTube channel, I have one more video that you might want to take down. (I see you left the two with soft focus. Bravo! The Vaseline on the lens is real classy.) In 2010, I did a sort of test run on a sonnet video. It was read by a porn star. Carrie Moon, Sonnet #4. How did that one slip by? Better off it.
In conclusion: as alms, I promise to write this phrase on the blackboard, ten million times: “Sonnets are not about sex and lust. Sonnets are not about sex and lust. Sonnets are not about sex and lust.” The threat is simply too great. There is no more imminent danger to the YouTube community than a webcam model reading a sonnet.