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I Got Thrown Off Etsy and PayPal for Expressing My Belief in Biological Reality

Apparently, selling mugs and shirts that glorify violence against ‘TERFs’ is just fine. But ‘I 💜 J.K. Rowling‘? That‘s hate speech.

· 9 min read
I Got Thrown Off Etsy and PayPal for Expressing My Belief in Biological Reality

If readers recognize my byline, it’s because I’ve spent the last few years arguing strenuously for the (apparently controversial) positions that biological sex is real, that there are only two sexes, and that the differences between males and females matter in some policy contexts.

My views are hardly out of the mainstream. Indeed, we are now seeing a pronounced (if belated) pushback against activists who’ve insisted that biological sex is some kind of transphobic mirage. But for several years, those activists have controlled the commanding heights of many universities, NGOs, and even political parties. This is one of the reasons why I left my career as an academic biologist in 2020: I was tired of researching science in a subculture whose gatekeepers demanded that I repudiate basic scientific facts about human beings.

In my post-academic life, I’ve been growing my online following, including my subscriber base on Reality’s Last Stand, a Substack that I describe as “dedicated to providing weekly news, articles, and other content about gender ideology and the science of sex differences.” Earlier this spring, I found that I’d accumulated enough subscribers to pay my rent, bills, and feed myself, thereby allowing me to quit my day job so I could pursue this mission full-time.

Self-employment in this kind of milieu necessitates being a bit scrappy: This isn’t the genteel world of academic publishing, in which one can rely on university publicists or conference organizers to legitimize and promote one’s work (and which, in any case, cater to a smaller, specialized audience). To reach a mass readership, you need to be up-to-the-minute on current events and well-researched, and you can’t shrink away from the critics who misrepresent your views (often in bad faith). It’s a brash and fast-paced world that doesn’t appeal to everyone. But those who stick around learn the rules of engagement very quickly.

Raising money means asking readers to support me if they find my content valuable, whether through subscriptions or direct donations, which is something I’ve always found awkward. My other route is to sell merchandise with brand logos and graphics (and a political cartoon I made that went viral when Elon Musk retweeted it, which I also sold as an NFT).

Like any Substack user, I try to balance my desire to get my message out with the need to attract paying supporters. The former motivation argues against a paywall, but the latter argues for putting one up. So I’ve adopted a compromise practice, by which I make my articles freely available, while offering bonus content for paying subscribers, such as weekly news commentary and reading lists.

All of this has attracted a predictable stream of “grifting” accusations from the perpetually enraged activist cadres that hate-follow me. It’s par for the course in their world, where a “grifter” is defined to include any gainfully employed person whose views they don’t like. I’ve tried to ignore them. But, as explained below, some of them have given up trying to argue with me, and have instead gone after my revenue streams.

Earlier this month, I received an email from Etsy, a large online store that allows everyday folks to sell their (often self-crafted) merchandise, informing me that the company had “elected to revoke [my] account privileges permanently” for violating Etsy’s policy against selling merchandise that “promotes, supports, or glorifies hatred or violence towards protected groups.” Etsy says the decision was made with “great consideration,” following a “comprehensive review” of my account.

I’ll let readers decide for themselves whether the images I printed on my merchandise, reproduced below, fit that description. I am not presenting a biased sample. This is a comprehensive inventory of the imagery used on my Etsy-sold products.

You’ll notice that none of these graphics contain even a glancing reference to gender, let alone transgender issues in particular. The word “reality” appears three times, though—and apparently that’s now a forbidden theme (at least in the context of references to males and females). But I really have no idea what the thought process was here because not only did I get no substantive explanation of my ban, I got no warning either.

Etsy’s standard practice in the case of allegedly rules-violating listings is to disable the impugned listing (not the seller’s entire account), and issue the seller a warning to the effect that persistent violations could result in a permanent suspension. The company generally follows a three-strike rule on such matters. Having observed the content that Etsy reliably takes down, I’d opted to play it totally safe and made sure my messaging was completely benign. The fact that I received no warning and no (real) explanation suggests there was nothing Etsy employees could specifically point to that violated any policy. Rather, one of my critics had presumably indicated to Etsy that my designs were intended to signal an unfashionable view on issues related to gender and sex; and it was on that basis that my account was axed.

If there were any substantive appeals procedure that allowed an Etsy user to demand a real explanation as to why he or she had been banned (as opposed to just a rote citation of a generic policy), it’s unlikely Etsy would have banned me—since I hadn’t done anything wrong. But no such procedures exist. In my case, when I complained about getting banned, all I got was a response purporting to claim that “our team has comprehensively reviewed your response, as well as your account history and information on Etsy, and we have determined that we are unable to reconsider the decision made in this circumstance.”

My case isn’t an isolated one. At one point last year, Etsy purged any listing associated with Dr. Seuss, following a social panic centered on the view that the famed children’s author and artist was racist. And in 2020, Etsy officials asserted that the slogan “I 💜 J.K. Rowling” promotes hatred, even while allowing the sale of products that read “Fuck J.K. Rowling”; and that instruct ideologically non-compliant “TERFs” (a term of abuse that stands for Trans-Exclusive Radical Feminists) to “shut the fuck up.” Indeed, there’s a whole product sub-category dedicated to merchandise marked “Fuck TERFs.” Amazingly, none of these explicit expressions of hatred has (to my knowledge) been judged as being offside Etsy’s rule against promoting hatred.

A sample of Etsy-sold products that demonize “TERFs.”

As indicated above, Etsy doesn’t let users promote “violence.” And yet Etsy is home to a thriving cottage industry of crafters whose products celebrate the infliction of various sadistic punishments upon “TERFs.” One Etsy listing featured a Furby pointing a gun outward alongside the slogan “Shut the fuck up TERF.” Another listing promotes the idea that TERFs are like insects (a popular theme of antisemitic Nazi propaganda in regard to the Jews, by the way) who must be “tazed.” Other products feature the theme of TERFs being “choke[d]” or attacked with knives. Again: All of this stuff is sold openly on the same site that deems “I 💜 J.K. Rowling” and “Reality’s Last Stand” to be hate speech worthy of a lifetime site ban.

The problem here isn’t just Etsy: The same activists who seek to deplatform people like me often will complain to numerous other online services, in hopes that their complaint will land in the inbox of an ideologically sympathetic employee. (At the same time, they will sometimes sprinkle in lurid personal accusations, as when independent-minded author Jesse Singal was falsely maligned as a predator by high-profile trans activists who’d become furious at Singal’s mainstream media prominence.)

And so it was that I recently received an email from PayPal, the payment service I use to collect both one-time and recurring monthly donations from supporters who send me money outside of Substack. PayPal’s note instructed me that “after a review, we decided to permanently limit your account, as there was a change in your business model or your business was considered risky.”

I certainly haven’t changed my business model, and I have no idea what “risky” means in this context. As with Etsy, it was a vague, unjustifiable claim. But there was nothing I could do. And the kicker is that PayPal evidently has no intention of giving me back my own funds anytime soon: the company’s message informed me that any funds not yet withdrawn would be held for 180 days before PayPal would consider releasing them.

When I called PayPal’s help line to ask what this was about, I was told that I would receive an email from another department that would provide me with the information I needed. That email never came, and I instead received a message through PayPal informing me that if I wanted “to request information about a customer’s PayPal account”—apparently including my own account—I would need to “submit a legal subpoena.” It’s a slick move, given that PayPal can count on the fact that few of its users have the means to lawyer up in this way.

All things considered, I’m in a fortunate position, because PayPal donations didn’t account for a large portion of my income (though it was significant and growing). But my experience does help me understand the frustration and heartbreak suffered by countless self-employed individuals who’ve spent years building up their businesses with the help of global services such as Etsy and PayPal, only to have the whole project fall to pieces because someone in a Silicon Valley cubicle doesn’t like their politics.

It’s true that these large online services are free to adopt their own policies, and can ban people for any reason they want—or for no reason at all. And it is also true that small business owners who use such services can migrate their shops and payment systems to other providers. But in many cases, this involves huge attrition costs, as there will always be a substantial drop-off in support when customers are asked to log on to new services, a process involving the creation of fresh accounts with new usernames and passwords. As noted above, I hadn’t yet accumulated a large donor base through PayPal. But if this ban had been imposed years down the road, it could have been financially devastating.

Moreover, while I search for a new online home, how can I be confident that any new site I pick won’t also be similarly captured by woke ideological bias? Substack is unusual in that it has dedicated itself to free speech and ideological pluralism (much to the consternation of the chattering classes), which gives me some peace of mind. And Stripe, the payment service utilized by Substack, has taken a similar stance. But platforms such as Patreon made similar promises in the past, only to later cut off long-time customers and ban them without notice (which is what sparked a Sam Harris-led boycott of Patreon in 2018).

Whether we like it or not, payment processors are now a big part of the economy. And unless these companies can find a way to excise ideological bias from the implementation of their usage policies, some kind of government-imposed regulatory oversight may become inevitable.

If and when that happens, many progressives (and not a few free-market conservatives) will howl in protest. But these companies will have only themselves to blame. And when their leaders look back at how their commercial freedoms were curtailed, they’d do well to recall how they let their employees slap words such as “hatred” on what the vast bulk of humanity correctly refers to as “reality.”

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