Museums with a particular specialty, such as the one that I work for which has a mission to preserve our university’s history, use eBay on a regular basis for acquisitions. We have alumni who have searches set up to acquire items for the museum, and we also consistently search eBay for new acquisitions. Sometimes, it is the only way to get certain items. We also use various brick and mortar auction houses for acquiring art and objects related to the museum’s mission.
Recently, eBay has shifted company policy in ways that will make acquisitions of gay material, especially erotica difficult. While this will not affect our collecting abilities, it does hinder other museums who are collecting items that may be considered on the fringes of society. About twenty years ago, the historian Vi Johnson won an eBay auction for a numbered first edition of “Sex Life in England Illustrated,” by Iwan Bloch, an early sexologist. Johnson recalled that, afterward, she was chatting to the buyer she had bid against thinking she’s made a new friend she could talk to about finding erotica. However, the other bidder thought she was collection for the same reason he was. The rival bidder was a buyer for right wing groups intent on buying and destroying erotica. Johnson was horrified as any true historian would be. So, Johnson dedicated herself to preserving the histories of sexuality and making them accessible. “I swore that if I could find it, grab it, steal it, buy it, borrow it, beg it, I was going to save it,” she said.
Johnson and her wife, Jill Carter, now count some forty thousand books and artifacts in their queer-focused Carter/Johnson Leather Library and Collection, located in Newburgh, a suburb of Evansville, Indiana. Early acquisitions came through friends and friends of friends within the BDSM scene, but, for years, Johnson has depended heavily on eBay to learn what’s available and for acquisitions. (We do the same thing with material about our university). The collection comprises thousands of books, magazines, posters, art, club and event pins, newspapers, event programs and ephemera showing leather, fetish, S/M erotic history. The collection has spilled over from Johnson and Carter’s single-level brick home into a second house. Johnson recently set up a “Scholar’s Room” in the new house to welcome researchers who desire to study the archive.
When in May, eBay banned the sale of “sexually oriented materials”—including magazines, movies, and video games—and closed its “Adults Only” category to new listings in the United States, they largely ended the collecting of material through eBay for museums like Johnson and Carter’s. There are a few explicit exemptions to the new eBay policy, including Playboy, Penthouse, the gay art zine Butt, and the satirical, women-run erotica magazine On Our Backs. “Nude art listings that do not contain sexually suggestive poses or sexual acts are allowed,” the policy states. Materials falling afoul of such distinctions—which could presumably include anything from reproductions of Michelangelo’s “The Expulsion from Paradise” to back copies of Black Inches—are, apparently, now outside the bounds of acceptable behavior on eBay.
The ban appears to be related to the House’s Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and the Senate’s Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act, known together as fosta–sesta, an effort by victim’s-rights advocates and right-wing activists to crack down on sex work. One feature of the legislative package was to make Web sites liable for hosted content that might “promote or facilitate the prostitution of another person.” After the former twice impeached president signed fosta–sesta into law, in 2018, Craigslist shut down its personals listings, Tumblr banned sexual content, Facebook prohibited the formation of groups organized around sexual encounters, and Instagram ramped up its policing of user content, especially that which includes any hint of human nudity. Also of possible relevance: eBay recently began using the Dutch fintech company Adyen for electronic payment services, which refuses to participate in the sale of adult materials. Similar concerns by payout providers were reportedly at the center of the recent decision by OnlyFans to ban sexual content—a move they reversed after considerable outcry led by the sex workers who, in large part, helped the company build a valuation of some one billion dollars.
In researching his book “Bound Together: Leather, Sex, Archives, and Contemporary Art,” Andy Campbell, an associate professor of critical studies at the Roski School of Art and Design, used both eBay and the Johnson/Carter Library, in addition to other archives around the country. “Bound Together” argues that queer archives are particularly precarious, as they often lack institutional support structures, and their content is at odds with community guidelines. Yet, by making queer culture accessible, they also increase the likelihood of that more positive erasure: assimilation.
As marginalized communities become more assimilated into the mainstream, Johnson’s archive, the Leather Archive and Museum in Chicago, the Tom of Finland Foundation, the GLBT Historical Society, and those like them stand as “proof of who did it, what was done, and who was there.” But no one knows how much more of this history remains to be discovered and preserved. So much of the history of marginalized communities has been lost or destroyed. It is one of the reasons that I am a major proponent of oral histories, because we can talk to the people who were part of the LGBTQ+ community, the leather community, or the many other communities that are often deemed perverse. We can get their stories. Sadly, because of the AIDS pandemic, too many of those stories have been lost, and because of that, the material they left behind is even more crucial to collect and preserve.