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eBay’s sex ban wipes out an important storefront for queer collectors

The latest site to make it harder for queer communities to find materials that matter

Photo of a phone showing the eBay logo, set on top of a laptop keyboard. Photo illustration by Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Carta Monir, an author, publisher, and pornographer, maintains an amateur archive of vintage queer erotica: zines, comics, porn mags, classified ads, and other ephemera. “I think it’s really valuable to preserve and read these artifacts,” she says, “like people speaking to you from the perspective of the way that their community was at the time.” One of her favorite marketplaces for finding these materials is eBay, where she can consistently find a variety of old erotica for fairly cheap.

But starting today, Monir’s access to these materials is significantly reduced. eBay announced last month that it would be removing the “Adult Only” category on June 15th. Under the new policy, sellers aren’t allowed to list “items containing nudity and displays of sexual activitys” on the site. The policy makes exceptions for a few mainstream titles, including Playboy, Playgirl, Mayfair, and Penthouse, as long as the listing doesn’t contain nude images. eBay has already expanded that list to include several gay and lesbian magazines, including Playguy, On Our Backs, and BUTT. But by and large, the policy has the effect of wiping out pornography from one of the internet’s biggest storefronts.

The new rules at eBay echo policy changes over the years at other sites, including Tumblr and Patreon, which have banned or limited adult content. According to Monir and others, those policies tend to have the harshest impacts on queer communities and especially queer people who produce or buy erotic content outside of mainstream porn.

eBay says its goal is to make adult items available to people “while preventing those who do not wish to view or purchase these items from easily accessing them.” But it’s already difficult, if not impossible, to accidentally stumble on the “Adult Only” section of eBay. It doesn’t appear in drop-down menus and is nested several categories deep. Users have to sign in, agree to continue, and enter a credit card to view it. eBay did not respond to a request for comment on the new restrictions.

Adult content bans usually aren’t decisions made entirely by sites themselves and are instead responses to advertising concerns and strict regulations from payment processors and credit card companies. In turn, those regulations are often influenced by lobbying from conservatives who point to sex trafficking and “save the children” arguments to cut down on porn. “There are undisguised evangelical anti-porn groups working extremely hard to ban pornography outright, and especially queer pornography,” says Monir, citing organizations like Exodus Cry.

Screenshot showing a section of eBay titled “Adult-Only Items” with subcategories for books, magazine back issues, DVDs, art, collectibles, and other items.
eBay’s adult-only storefront.
Image: eBay

These bans aren’t just bad for collectors, but for artists. In 2008, eBay was one of the first places where Jade, a queer artist, managed to sell their erotic artwork. For several years before they started a webcomic, they would list smutty ink drawings on the site where people would buy them up within a few days. At the time, they remember thinking, “Wow, this is great, you can do anything.”

But things have been more fraught in the years since then. Jade still sells their work on other sites, but always with the worry that their livelihood will disappear if payment processors and credit card companies place further restrictions on the sale of erotica and porn. Patreon increased the enforcement of its adult content regulations in 2018 because of pressure from payment partners, including PayPal, which is known to close people’s accounts and withhold the money in them. Jade requested a pseudonym for this article out of fear that PayPal would shut down their account because of its strict “sexually oriented goods” policy.

Megan Gedris, another queer artist who makes erotic comics, has also felt the effects of adult content restrictions. Since Tumblr’s 2018 adult content ban, they’ve found it much harder to grow and maintain an audience for their work. They have two separate Patreon pages, one designated 18+ and one that’s not, because Patreon limits the exposure of 18+ accounts, and they worry mixing the two would make all of their work harder to find.

Policies like the ones at eBay, Patreon, and Tumblr only compound the effects of FOSTA-SESTA, which were ostensibly passed to curb online sex trafficking but have mostly hurt sex workers, sex educators, queer communities, and erotic artists. “We know that the way that bans like this disproportionately target queer and marginalized forms of expression,” Monir says.

Gedris says crackdowns on adult content end up affecting indie creators the most, and it’s those creators who make erotic work that features disabled, fat, non-white, queer, and trans people. It’s important for people who rarely see bodies like theirs in mainstream porn to have access to erotic work that reflects their bodies and experiences. Jade says there’s been a boom of “amazing, beautiful queer erotica” in recent years, but there are still only a handful of publishers that will distribute it.

There are other sites where Monir can dig around for her collection, but she says nothing compares to eBay. “It’s very frustrating because it effectively destroys one of the only reasonably priced large, eclectic marketplaces for vintage and archival content,” she says, “and drives that stuff into more specialized underground, expensive, less accessible venues.”

Monir sees queer erotica not just as an important form of expression, but as a way to connect with queer people through history. Porn bans don’t come as a surprise, but the change at eBay hits particularly hard. “Seeing this stuff, feeling the passion and personal attention that was paid to it, and feeling the sense of community that comes from it, is very special,” she says. “And I am sad that people’s ability to just stumble onto stuff like this is going to be so much more curtailed and limited with this large marketplace going away.”