Our cultural puritanism often prevents the open discussion of important topics. Sex is wrapped in shame and misinformation. Drugs and the people who use them are demonized. Even the right to die on our own terms is blocked by the lack of a meaningful public conversation about life and death.
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In March 2022, a few weeks after our launch, OnlySky’s home page and two articles were “demonetized” by our ad server. Our content had violated their policy prohibiting content “about sexual entertainment.”
The articles were explorations of the sex work industry—one advocating decriminalization to make it safer, the other a moving examination of the emotional element of sex work. Neither was explicit. Both were thought-provoking in a topic area not often discussed. A few weeks later, an article on the science and cultural taboos around masturbation was similarly demonetized. We had touched a nerve. But whose?
In addition to sexuality, advertiser policies prohibit content related to recreational drugs, profanity, and suicide, among others. But our ad server isn’t the real villain. Like all ad server networks, their rules are dictated by advertisers, who in turn are responding to the perceived sensitivities of American consumers. Many of those sensitivities are rooted in our culture’s puritanism, which HL Mencken defined as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” The rules of ad servers are a handy catalog of these conservative religious taboos and also serve an enforcement function, shutting down conversations that challenge those attitudes.
This isn’t just about wanting to talk about sex and drugs. These prohibited topics underpin serious social issues. Religious shame and prohibitions around sex are at the heart of opposition to reproductive rights and contraception, among many other things. The more openly sex can be discussed and explored, the more women in particular gain agency and bodily autonomy. A country that can’t openly discuss sex and sexuality is a country more likely to enact draconian restrictions on reproductive freedom.
The demonization of recreational drugs, likewise based in religious ideology, has been called “our weirdly Puritan need to criminalize people’s inclination to adjust how they feel.” It has also resulted in the incarceration of hundreds of thousands of nonviolent drug offenders—currently 374,000 people, including 48% of the federal system—who are overwhelmingly non-white and economically disadvantaged, amounting to the criminalization of poverty and race. The inability to openly discuss drugs allows regressive cultural attitudes to remain unchallenged, which allows over-incarceration to continue.
The list goes on: Disallowing profanity impoverishes language, stifles emotional expression, and reinforces the division between the “sacred” and “profane.” Prohibitions on the topic of suicide make discussions of assisted suicide and the right to control the end of our lives impossible.
Of course you find subreddits and forums without advertiser restrictions exploring all of these topics. But to impact public discourse and understanding, it has to happen in general web spaces like OnlySky as well.
Faced with a choice between suppressing these topics or losing the revenue that supports the site, we chose a third way: give these stories a section of their own. Instead of advertising from ad servers, we invite supportive individuals and companies to make this section possible with contributions, underwriting, and advertising.