Women's Website Bans Use of Words Such As 'Rape,' 'Abortion' and 'Vagina' (UPDATED)

Blogger Amanda Chatel has a great piece on The Atlantic today about the censorship she experienced with one of her previous employers, where I also once worked*. Specifically, she and other writers at an allegedly feminist-minded blog were forbidden to use words such as "rape," "vagina" and "abortion" in headlines and some posts.

Chatel — who has also written for Bustle and is an acquaintance of mine — says she began writing for the unnamed lifestyle site in 2010, freelancing occasionally at first before becoming a daily contributor to the site. In her time there, she watched the blog go from generically fashion- and pop-culture oriented to a place that developed a "smart, witty ... liberal" voice and a cadre of distinct, explicitly feminist writers.

Things changed, however, when the company that owned the site was bought out by a large, more-commercial media conglomerate.

We were promised that our jobs were safe, the site would remain the same, and that the change in ownership really wouldn’t affect us all that much. But in February, we received an email from our editor-in-chief. She explained that the new owners were trying to gear the site more toward fashion and beauty. [...] At the time I was working on a piece about the rape and murder of two little girls in India. I responded to the email questioning the new direction:
“Based on this—should we toss all feminist/news stories out? I have one scheduled for 10 a.m. tomorrow about another rape in India... should I kill it?”
The editor-in-chief apologized, but yes, the rape in India no longer had a place on the site. I knew it hurt her just as much to send that email as it did for me to read it. But apparently this story wasn’t as important as what some celebrity wore to some event, or how wearing the color red was the best way to attract a man.

That's disappointing, but sites are known to shift in tone. If the new owners were committed to singularly emphasizing the fashion and beauty angle, I suppose a story about rape in India would not fit the bill. Where the story approaches absurdist territory is the subsequent list of banned words distributed to writers at the site Chatel worked for and at other women's blogs owned by the company, some focused on health, pregnancy and motherhood.

As a freelance writer, I wasn’t privy to the meetings in which the higher-ups discussed “the list” of words that we could no longer use. I heard from my fellow writers through email and Gchat that a list was being compiled, and on it was “abortion,” “rape,” “slut,” and “vagina.”

[...] I received the official email banning those words at 4:34 p.m. on August 22. It emphasized that every story now needed to fit within the site's editorial mission, which apparently didn't have room for words like "sexual assault." I emailed my long-dormant resignation at 5:09 p.m.

Let's let this sink in: A group of bloggers covering women's issues, health and motherhood were barred or discouraged from using words such as vagina, abortion, rape and sexual assault. They were not allowed to use words that directly pertain to the health and lives of every female on Earth. One of the reasons her company gave for the change was that advertisers didn't want to run ads next to words like these. Apparently, the word slut messes with women's ability to appreciate a good granola bar ad.

Chatel notes that she can't know for sure whether advertisers were the company's only concern or if it wanted to distance itself from the feminist label altogether. "But it’s lamentable that they took the weight out of something that was working and turned it into another fashion and beauty site," she writes. It truly is. Good for Chatel for standing her ground.

*Editor's Note: A previous version of this story neglected to mention that its author, Elizabeth Nolan Brown, was also once employed by the media company where Amanda Chatel once worked. That company was Alloy Digital, which has since been acquired by Defy. Meghan Keane, Defy's Vice President of Editorial, published a post on October 24, 2013 refuting Chatel's account of TheGloss' editorial requirements and offering examples of posts on TheGloss that covered the topics Chatel claimed were banned. At Keane's request, the Atlantic has promised to publish an addendum to Chatel's piece.