Bess Can't Go There

Originally posted to Dreamwidth in 2020. You can see the beginnings of my Manifesto here.

20 years ago, my mother taught math at a high school that, to protect its students, used a net-nanny program called Bess. Bess was probably not originally intended for teenagers, but for elementary-school students. I say this because damn-near every single URL that didn't end in .edu or .gov was auto-blocked by Bess. Which means that if you wanted to use a search engine to do actual class research and typed in

"Bess can't go there." Because it was possible for someone to use Google to look up pornography, and therefore, by the sort of logic that only censorware authors possess, the entire Google server (I think it was still only one server at that point; Yahoo! was still the most popular search engine back then) must be blocked.

If you wanted to log in to your school email address, on the very high-school campus that issued you that email address in the first place?

"Bess can't go there."


"Bess can't go there."

The Human Rights Council? UNICEF? The United Nations?

"Bess can't go there."

I'm not saying that little kids should be watching Star Wars: The Porn Parody or reading neo-Nazi blogs. And back then, the Net was very much the Wild West, where anybody really could upload anything they wanted, as long as they had dial-up and could afford to spend about a dollar a month to rent server space. Since most search engines weren't very good, every personal webpage you went to had a page full of links that like-minded readers would enjoy, and many were members of webrings. (For those who don't remember: a webring was a group of loosely-affiliated websites who all agreed to link to each other, so you could visit the "next" site in the ring, over and over, until you'd visited them all, at which point the "next" site would be the one where you started.) The "alt" server of Usenet, which originally started as "the part of Usenet where you're allowed to talk about sex and drugs" and quickly expanded into thousands of communities, was and remains completely uncensored.

Anybody could post anything, unless you were on PHPBB or another site that had specific rules against the thing you wanted to post. Most of the Internet did not have Terms and Conditions. You could go to someone's Sailor Moon Geocities page and they might have a fic with tentacle rape buried amidst a half-dozen of the sitemaster's G-rated fics, with absolutely zero warning that there was adult content in that fic. And the hosting site had no rule saying they had to take it down. You couldn't report the content because there was nobody to report it to. The only truly massive Internet community at that point was Furcadia (which was first released in 1996 and is still going after 24 years), which had a miniature army of "Beekins" (moderators) to whom you could report flamers, pedos, and the occasional jerks who started doing R-rated levels of making out in the PG-rated areas.

And this was the default state of the Internet. Internet safety rules included "If you're under 15, never use the Internet without a trusted adult present" and "If you see something that disturbs or frightens you, click Back and never go to that particular website again."

Yeah, let me go back and stress that last point. 20 years ago, the only website with a large number of users that was even remotely moderated for content was a program that let you talk to people while walking around in a virtual pixellated fursuit. (It was like Second Life, only you didn't have to pay real-world money to have a house in it, and there were no human avatars, only furry ones.) The only other sites that had moderators were webforums, which for young folks, is kinda like Discord before there was Discord, but with no video-streaming capability because nobody had a fast enough Internet connection to load video in anything like realtime.

Nowadays, interacting with people online has gone from mainly happening on PHP forums with an average of less than 100 members each, or on Usenet, or on an individual's personal Angelfire site, or on direct instant-messaging programs like AIM, to mainly happening on a handful of incredibly massive social-media sites. Facebook. Instagram. LinkedIn. Tumblr. Twitter. Snapchat. Each of them has literally millions of users, and each of them has a EULA the length of a novel so that nobody actually knows everything that's in it. Instead of the relative privacy of "you pretty much have to know about this forum to be able to view people's posts, and only the admins and the user you sent it to can see ANY of your PMs," every single one of those websites sells your information to the highest bidder. All of them. Every single one. It's how they afford the servers.

And now we no longer expect parents to protect their kids, or teenagers to use their own common sense and discretion on the Internet, even though most adult content is tagged as such nowadays, making "Don't read a full webpage that contains things you don't want to see" infinitely easier. No, we expect the companies that host our web content to babysit, so that teens never have to learn how to curate their own web experience and toddlers can watch videos on Mommy's smartphone without her even knowing what they're watching. (Seriously. Why are we giving toddlers smartphones?)

When I was 17, I accidentally viewed a pornographic site that disturbed me. So I clicked "Back," went to a site that I knew had clean, uplifting content, and never went to the porn site again. (I also learned to always mouse-over links to see what they are before clicking them, so I wouldn't make that mistake again.) I saw a Bad Thing; I did what I needed to in order to stop fixating on the Bad Thing; I learned a lesson on How To Protect Myself.

Today's 17-year-olds go to sites like AO3 that are intended mainly for adults, that they know contain adult content up to and including explicit sex scenes and pornographic fanart, refuse to block any of the tags that disturb them, and then when they stumble upon Really Nasty Shit, they immediately try to get AO3 to ban the author of the Really Nasty Shit and post "callout posts" on Twitter and Tumblr that make sure everybody else knows about the Really Nasty Shit that this person did and why they should, therefore, be Cancelled from all social media everywhere forever.

And instead of saying "if you don't want to read adult content, don't go to an adult-oriented website;" instead of saying "why didn't you block the tags for That Thing That Squicks You on the AO3 account that we all know you have, so that you don't even see it at all;" instead of saying "You're one birthday away from being a legal adult and really should learn how to press 'Back' and walk away," we enable this behavior.

No, really. SESTA and FOSTA are, ostensibly, about preventing online sex trafficking. In practice, every single social media website's response to these sites has eventually been to block all of the porn. Not age-restrict it, no. Not ban the specific buying and selling of sexual content, no. Ban every single bit of smut in general. Twitter is still holding out as a bastion of "This Tweet may contain offensive content. View anyway?" but there's no telling how long that will last.

And now, the Internet for everyone, everywhere is starting to look a lot like the Internet at my mom's old workplace 20 years ago.

You want to look at a fictional character's boobs? Sorry, Bess can't go there.

You want to set up a Patreon, but some of your art has naughty bits in it? Bess can't go there.

You want to buy the Kama Sutra on Amazon? Bess can't go there.

You want to find fellow smut artists on Tumblr? Bess can't go there.

You want to draw a man's nipples on a site that doesn't ban male nipples at all? Bess can't go there because AI has no fucking clue how to deal with images and everybody except big-name website CEOs knows it.

And freelance sex workers (who are NOT being trafficked, by definition) are hurt by it. So are small-time artists for whom every eyeball that views their art, every Like, every Share/Reblog/RT, every commission, could be the difference between them being able to buy groceries this week or not.

I know I mention the Tumblr Purge on here a lot, but Tumblr before the Purge was the safe place to go for porn. It was the website that you could go to that didn't store your credit-card information, that didn't download massive amounts of spyware and dangerous Trojan Horses to your device the second you went to it. The only other spot online that lets you access pornography without extreme risk is PornHub, which is almost entirely live video, and thus isn't what you wanted if you were hoping for animated smut or still drawings.

Are there other websites you can go to that have this sort of thing? Yes. But the vast majority of them are either entirely behind a paywall, or install all of the nastiest viruses on your device all at once. (Bless those rare sites that offer "free samples" up to 1-2 pages into the Good Stuff before you have to pay; sometimes you're both horny and broke, and these tidbits can and often do result in subscriptions once you're no longer as broke, but still horny.)

I guess what I'm trying to say is, fandom smut is largely going back to the way it was 20 years ago, when quality stuff was hidden on an individual's privately-hosted (or AngelFire, or Tripod) website. Which means we need to re-create Smut Webrings. Who's with me?