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THE BODY POLITIC

My upper torso heaves with indignation.
Late last month, in an effort to clean up their act before Congress does it for them, those arbiters of taste at America Online banned the word "breast." In doing so, the country's largest computer on-line service exhibited all the exquisite sensibilities of those Victorian spinsters who put skirts over their piano legs and ruffles around "limbs" of lamb.

The brave new world of telecommunications is apparently anything but.
And "breast" wasn't the only body part that didn't make the cut. In an attempt to keep cybersmut off their service--and federal regulators out of their hair--AOL's self-appointed censors came up with a whole host of words they deemed "vulgar." Presumably to protect easily shocked members of the fourth estate, they've declined to release that list for public consumption. Nor did they bother to warn AOL's subscribers that their use of previously acceptable words would result in the deletion of the offender's "member profile." (Come to think of it, isn't "member" a euphemism for a certain male unit?)

In fact, it was only after a subscriber discovered that her profile had disappeared that AOL's pornography police admitted they'd been on the job. Her crime: mentioning that she had breast cancer.

For most people, the word "breast" loses its titillating qualities at about the age women start developing them. Not at AOL, however, which saw endless prurient possibilities in that lump of flesh. In order to keep America (and AOL) clean, those breasts had to go. Forget the desperate cooks seeking advice on how to keep their Thanksgiving birds moist--like La Leche League members, they could go dry up. And most of all, tell those breast-cancer patients to go somewhere else to chat.

"First you lose a breast on your body, then you lose it in your title," says Renna Shesso, a Denver artist (and, under the name Nancy Clegg, Westword's former art critic) who'd been a frequent visitor to AOL's on-line breast-cancer chat room since she was diagnosed with the disease a year and a half ago.

Shesso may have lost a breast, but she hasn't lost her sense of the absurd--or her sense of outrage. When she discovered that the word "breast" had been banned from the AOL system, taking the profiles of many subscribers with it, she fired off an electronic missive to AOL. "This is outrageous and potentially life-threatening," she wrote.

What AOL had blocked was hardly pornography. Through what the company itself terms "personal empowerment networking," breast-cancer patients had been able to search each other out electronically, and then swap stories about treatment, side effects and even feelings. They could share the sort of knowledge you could only get from other survivors. They could literally take their lives into their own hands, collecting information that might help them survive.

But for all the importance of these discussions, they were hardly arousing. Anyone searching AOL for risque dialogue was bound to be disappointed if the key word of "breast" led him to the cancer chat room. "Obviously he's going to be bored," Shesso says. "He's hearing stuff like, `Well, I had a breast, and now it's gone.'"

Last week, after AOL purged its system, so was any mention of breasts. Shesso wasn't the only one to complain about their absence. Another chat room regular wondered if they should change their designation to "hooter cancer survivors," since the word "hooter" had been deemed acceptable. ("Tits" had not.)

In the face of their protests, AOL backed off. On December 1, the company issued a statement admitting that member profiles containing the word "breast" had been "erroneously removed," apologized for the error, and offered five free hours of on-line time to subscribers who had been affected. "AOL's Terms of Service Agreement does not indicate specific words that might be considered vulgar," the company stated, "however, body parts that might be named in medical diagnoses do not fall under the category of offensive on-line communication." AOL just hadn't thought its new policy all the way through, a company spokeswoman said.

Except that Shesso herself had given AOL a reason to do so last July, when she wanted to open a breast-cancer survivor chat room and had been told she couldn't do so under that name. "Would there be a problem if it was prostate cancer?" she asked. That got the door open.

After its brief closure last week, it looks like access to the breast-cancer room will stay open. But Shesso remains vigilant. "To me, it's all part of that paranoia now going on in Washington," she says.

This week, Congress is scheduled to approve the final version of its telecommunications bill. And so far, it shows every sign of making obscene accommodations to the Christian Coalition, which wants to hold on-line service providers responsible for indecent communications. Before Congress goes all the way, though, lawmakers might want to pick up that handy Bible by the bedside and reread the Song of Solomon. Pretty racy stuff. To cool off, they can then take a sobering look at the First Amendment. Beats a cold shower.

For every Christian Coalition lobbyist beating his breast, there is a woman out there trying to save hers. It could be the fight of her life.

 
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