The Dish’s NSFW Saturday Night

Andrew Sullivan —  Jul 12 2013 @ 12:16pm

Yesterday, I declared that, “in deference to the readers, this blog will henceforth censor itself in one area: no more non-pornographic, non-sexual depictions of any faintly naughty bits of the actual human body.” A reader pushes back:

The reason I subscribe to The Dish is because I love the range of issues you cover.  Politics and poetry, religion and pop culture, sex and, well, “non-pornographic, non-sexual depictions of faintly naughty bits of the actual human body.”  You don’t have to let our anxieties drive your editorial decisions, but if you really ARE sympathetic to those who work in nanny corporatist states, how about you post such (YES, I AGREE) innocent-yet-controversial photos below the fold?

Because anyone who links to the post would immediately see the whole thing, rendering them just as vulnerable to lawsuits from office busy-bodies, regardless of a “read-on” NSFW warning. Another reader goes into more detail:

I was one of those people who was at work when I scrolled upon the scrotum story with its giant picture of the aforementioned body part. I quickly moved past it lest anyone in my office caught sight of it; I’m just glad I wasn’t on a public desk when I perused your website (I’m a librarian at a public library). I’ve had the same reaction before to the graphic pictures of war that you’ve posted. But in reading your reaction to the Dissent of the Day, I disagree with your conclusion.

It’s not a matter of Puritianism; it’s a matter of Internet etiquette.

The NSFW label gives people an option to make a choice which is whether to view a movie, picture, or website. For the people who are at work, they can make a mental note to visit the site later if they want to follow up and view the material without worrying about possible work consequences. For the people who are in the comfort of their own home, they can make a choice as to whether or not to view it; it is not thrust upon them unsuspectingly. By placing the materials sans label out there, you are usurping that choice.

It’s not that I object to the material in the slightest; it’s that I object to having my choice taken away. I do realize and fully appreciate that you want your readers to see these images and videos because they are so powerful. I trust in your news curation skills to bring forth the issues that need the light of day, to be talked about, and to be discussed in full measure. Placing material behind a label isn’t furthering Puritanism, it’s being a good friend to your readers in saying, “Hey, I have something that might be a bit shocking but it’s important to me that you see it and know about it.”

As a librarian, I don’t believe in holding things back either. But I do believe in letting people know what they are getting into. I inform them and let them make their own decisions. Trust your readers and they’ll follow you to where you point them.

I notice the the reader thought the image of the scrotum was “giant”. It was actually half the size of a full Dish photo and embedded in a pull-quote. But the reader has a point. Another:

If the offensive image is worth posting, then put it below the “read-on.” It’s a reasonable compromise. And I am asking you to compromise because of both workplace considerations and personal considerations. We would like to be able to choose when and if we want to look at potentially offensive material. This is why there are wrappers on porn magazines. This is why movie trailers omit graphic sex and violence. Your readers have varying sensibilities, and they have a right to determine what they will see on their computer and when they will see it. It’s about maintaining a civilized society, which requires negotiation, compromise, and mutual consideration.

I don’t just work in a place where co-workers would rather not see dick, but I also have three kids, two boys and a girl, ages 10 to 11, and a sensitive wife, who doesn’t prefer to glimpse close-up dick shots as she walks past my screen.

We’ve never published  a “close-up dick shot,” unless you count this abstract close-up. I cropped the scrotum image precisely to avoid that. Another:

Putting a NSFW label or tucking an image under the fold is not censorship. Censorship is making it impossible to view something. NSFW is a warning: “Here there be balls.” It does not restrict me from viewing it, just gives me a heads up in case I work in a cubicle. Which I do.

And a final reader thinks I’m being inconsistent:

I understand the point you’re making in this post, but you’ve already set precedent by employing the NSFW label in the past, mostly when linking to videos containing profanity. If it’s Puritanical to warn people about nudity and violent content, then why should you give a heads-up to those who might take offense at “bad” language?

Videos come ready-made for choice to play them or not, so a warning can actually work. Not so with photographs.

Is there a compromise? I repeat that I think I’ve been unwittingly insensitive to the dangers readers face if these images pop up on their screens with co-workers nearby. But it kills me to have my freedom to publish anything curtailed by employment laws. (This may not be direct government censorship but it is indirect censorship. The sexual harassment laws, in the end, are enforced by government.)

Patrick suggested a way forward that maximizes our ability to post what we want, without risking readers’ jobs. We’ll carve out space in the middle of the weekends for adult visual content, particularly Saturday night. Think of it as a free speech zone as well as a free reading one. It grieves me to be constrained this way; but my readers are right. There needs to be a balance between my freedom and their livelihoods. If we link back to Saturdays in the week, we’ll add a warning. Thanks for all the input.