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Robert Yang, Hurt Me Plenty
Hurt Me Plenty, Robert Yangcourtesy of Phile Magazine

Expressing your sexuality on Instagram is becoming impossible

Phile and Math Magazine are just some of the creative outlets hit hard by censorship and filters online

The virtual landscape is becoming increasingly difficult to navigate for creatives, sexual minority voices, and sex workers. The issue of net neutrality in the US, the FOSTA/SESTA legislation, Instagram’s bizarre and vague guidelines on sexually suggestive images, and the onus put on websites for the posts they host in the UK’s ‘online harms’ proposals highlight just some of the barriers. Many have found themselves blocked from social media, affecting vital lines of contact and pushing their conversations out of digital spaces.

It was exactly these conditions that left Erin Reznick and Mike Feswick decidedly unsurprised when the Instagram account for their magazine, Phile, was deleted last week. Based between Berlin, New York, and Toronto, Phile brands itself as ‘The International Journal of Desire and Curiosity’. “It’s really about sharing stories from underrepresented communities,” co-editor Erin tells Dazed. “We want to find out how people are approaching each other, and how they’re expressing themselves in a world that wasn’t built for them.”

For Phile, their censorship was the latest in a long line of deletions and ‘shadow-bans’ over the two years, since they created the magazine’s Insta-profile. Erin and Mike push to make their magazine as accessible as possible, and their approach is typical of the proactive iconoclasm and creative cross-pollination employed by many new-gen, independent publications online. “Instagram is great for us, because it’s such a huge platform,” Mike says. “We have used in the past it to look into fetishism, which is about an implicit sexuality, so it was easier for us to try and get away with posting stuff… but obviously that’s not true anymore.”

Another indie publication all too familiar with this hostile environment is the sex-positive Math Magazine. “It’s about making the world a better place through personal liberation,” founder MacKenzie Peck says. “Through our events, our social media, and our print magazine, we want people to know that they can have the sexual lives of their dreams, that they’re worthy of love and affection, that the things that turn them on are valid.”

Just like Phile, Math has been forced to resurrect its Instagram presence multiple times after being killed off by the powers that be (“I have a few backup accounts ready to go!” quips MacKenzie), and for both publications, the process is now a familiar back and forth, culminating in complete access-denial. “I think the spookiest thing is that it’s as if you never existed, there’s no explanation, no trace, you just disappear, it’s like a guillotine through your points of contact,” MacKenzie tells Dazed. “All these platforms sell themselves around this ‘Kumbaya’ act of ‘uniting the world’, but what they’re really doing is creating a space that they can mine our information from.”

“It’s incredible that I am more free in print than I am on the internet” – MacKenzie Peck, Math Magazine

Almost a decade into our complicated relationship with Instagram, many users will be familiar with the double bind that comes with active engagement on the network. In return for an arsenal of social and professional networking tools that have now made themselves all but indispensable to creative communities, many of us find ourselves sacrificing our ideas, agency, and mental wellbeing.

Content controls appear to be growing ever stricter – just this week reports surfaced of a crackdown on so-called ‘borderline content’, which is essentially shorthand for things the moderators don’t like, but can’t justify deleting entirely. Already, artists working with the subject of queerness and sexuality have seen their engagement plummet as ‘borderline’ posts are removed from searches and explore pages. Despite the undeniable traction and interest that its posts created, MacKenzie recently found her access to Math’s account revoked once again: “Now I’m in this mindset where I simply don’t wanna be part of a platform that doesn’t care about me.”

All three of these interviewees lament the demise of Tumblr last year, when the network undertook a process of sanitisation, deleting overnight what had previously been an extensive, often painstakingly-curated archive of sexually explicit and erotic material. “That’s where a lot of people started expressing their sexualities, in both pornographic and non pornographic ways,” says Mike, chiming with the idea that sexual exploration in the 21st century is tightly bound to both image culture and image making.

Given the precarious nature of queer archives throughout history, these attempts to silence sexually dissident voices can be viewed as attacks on the continuation of a vital queer lineage. If we’re to believe plentiful predictions of an ongoing intertwining of our virtual and real worlds, this process of silencing begins to look worryingly authoritarian. Sure, there is an abundance of private spaces for sexual exploration on the internet, but the important matter at hand is our need to normalise and discuss diverse sexual experiences more openly, in order to fight homogeneity and avoid the danger of sexuality being metabolised as shame.

So, what of the future? For MacKenzie, Mike and Erin, working in the print medium offers something of a sanctuary, where publishing protections are somewhat more permissive. “It’s incredible that I am more free in print than I am on the internet,” MacKenzie says, before adding that, in her opinion, a rejection of the virtual world entirely would be antithetical. “It’s impossible to disregard the internet now, but it all has to work in concert.” For Erin, the road to solving the issue can only be parsed through open conversation: “We want people to be part of the discussion and for them to find out how this is affecting queer communities now, and to consider how it could affect our cultures in the future.”

Phile and Math are back on Instagram (for now anyway)