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Via Instagram @decrimnow

Instagram’s problem with sex workers is nothing new

A recent boycott over the app’s censoring guidelines and shadow-banning practice, first put in place in 2018, calls out Instagram’s long-term hostility to adult performers

Last month, Instagram announced that it would be updating its Terms of Use, a change that came into effect on December 20. Many were quick to criticise the proposed ‘updates’, accusing them of tightening the censorship of sex workers on the app.

Screenshots from Facebook’s Community Standards were shared on Twitter, detailing a long list of banned actions, including explicit sexual solicitation, sexually suggestive emojis, and sexually explicit language. Sex workers and supporters were quick to raise their concerns, with many galvanisinig to boycott the platform on the day the new terms began.

However, the guidelines being shared aren’t new. In 2018, in the wake of Tumblr’s ban on adult content, Facebook – which owns Instagram – updated its moderation policies, introducing its strict ban on basically anything sexual. Then, in 2019, the platform implemented its censorship of ‘horny’ emojis.

In an email statement to Dazed, an Instagram spokesperson clarified that the platform had simply changed the wording of its Terms of Use in order to provide “clearer language on how we use data to show personalised ads, what data advertisers have/receive, and to clarify licensing and IP usage”.

Though the guidelines aren’t new, it’s still important to reflect on Instagram’s hostility to sex workers, who have long been penalised by the platform, facing account deletions and regular shadow-banning (when a user can post as normal, but their content is hidden from the community).

The Instagram spokesperson asserts that the app doesn’t “take action on accounts because they belong to sex workers or adult performers, we only take action when accounts break our rules”. Sex workers disagree, citing the differing treatment of sexually explicit celebrities – some of whom are publicly on OnlyFans (see: Bella Thorne) – with actual adult performers.

“Celebrities and others who trade on sex appeal in more ‘respectable’ ways are currently allowed to get away with much more explicit sexual content than sex workers are, and this will continue,” London-based sex worker Valerie August tells Dazed. “The difference isn’t the actual content, but the fact that it’s connected to a sex worker.”

“(Instagram’s censorship) leaves already precarious sex workers without any platform for online content promotion, which is the safest way to work during the global pandemic” – Rebecca Crow

August says that the guidelines are “applied extremely strictly to me”, revealing that she’s previously had posts deleted and even had her entire account taken down. “To try and keep my account within the guidelines, I’ve deleted a huge amount of content and any mention of being a sex worker,” she explains. “Even so, I expect that my account will eventually be deleted.”

Rebecca Crow, another London-based sex worker, has been fighting this censorship for years, starting a petition in 2018 which urged Instagram to meet with her to discuss sex worker’s rights on the platform. Crow says she organised two protests outside Instagram’s London offices, though the company responded by blockading the doors and ignoring demonstrators. 

“After my 725k-strong account was deleted, I didn’t think anything else could be as devastating to my career,” she recalls. Her account, @katsandcrows, has been taken down seven times. Crow says the removal of adult performers’ accounts leaves “already vulnerable and precarious sex workers without any platform for online content promotion, which is the safest way to work during the global pandemic”.

This has been a problem for Oklahoma-based sex worker Livia M, who says it’s been hard for her to “grow a clientele base for the online work I’ve had to start doing due to the pandemic” because of Instagram’s strict censorship rules. “I’ve fully lost the ability to self-promote or advertise on either my meme page or my personal Instagram account,” she reveals.

Livia believes Instagram is particularly tough on sex workers “because of the current political agenda to criminalise sex work and mislabel it as sex trafficking”. Both her and August reference the 2018 US bills, FOSTA-SESTA (Fighting Online Sex Trafficking Act and Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act), as having made life more difficult for sex workers online. The controversial bills were signed into law by Donald Trump, with the intention of curbing trafficking. However, the law makes it so publishers are responsible for any trafficking incidents on their platforms, leading to the over-policing of legal content.

As activists and sex worker-led organisations have consistently affirmed, FOSTA-SESTA fails to differentiate between consensual and non-consensual sex work, and endangers sex workers by taking away their online spaces and platforms, instead forcing them to turn to less safe methods of working. Adult performers say this conflation of trafficking and legal sex work can even be seen in Pornhub’s recent purge of non-verified videos. A New York Times exposé detailed the prevalence of non-consensual videos on Pornhub, and has since led to several credit card companies cutting ties with the adult site, leaving many legal sex workers without an income.

“When sex workers are erased from social media, it enforces the idea that we’re not valid members of society, and that we don’t deserve community, connection, or visibility” – Livia M

“The bills have disproportionately been used to target sex workers operating online,” asserts Livia, “and have done very little, if anything, to mitigate sex trafficking. In fact, they’ve made it worse by pushing it underground.”

“The illegal content is being used as a pretext for attacking the vast majority of content creators who are adults just trying to earn a living,” says August.

Kenneth Play, a sex educator with close to 12 million views on Pornhub, tells Dazed that FOSTA-SESTA has led to all sex work being “subsumed under the subheading of sex trafficking in order to suppress our first amendment rights”. He continues: “I don’t think social media companies are setting out to destroy the livelihood of sex educators and other sex pros, but they won’t risk expensive lawsuits to protect such a small minority of their user base.”

Whether Instagram has it in for sex workers, or is simply saving itself from legal hassle, its censorship undoubtedly leads to further stigmatisation. “When sex workers are erased from social media, we’re cast off as ‘undesirables’ and forced to work covertly,” Livia explains. “It enforces the idea that sex workers are not valid members of society, and that we don’t deserve community, connection, or visibility.”

The deplatforming of sex workers is also detrimental to both their incomes and their safety. “Censorship hurts our livelihoods,” says August. “People from across many strands of the sex industry – strippers, escorts, porn performers, BDSM professionals – use social media to advertise to their audience. Curtailing our presence on certain sites doesn’t mean our intended audience will follow us elsewhere – it shuts us out of a thriving marketplace.”

August adds: “It’s demoralising to know that it’s literally just our identity as sex workers that isn’t allowed. I know sex workers who’ve had their accounts deleted even though their actual content was totally within the terms of service. It feels like they just want to erase us from the internet.”

So, what can Instagram do to be a better platform for sex workers? “Allow them to operate freely on the platform,” suggests Livia, “and to listen to their input on policy changes. Even if a site doesn’t want to allow nudity or pornographic content, it can still be friendly to sex workers by allowing them the same freedoms that influencers and celebrities enjoy.”

Livia acknowledges the difficulty posed by the FOSTA-SESTA law, suggesting that it would need to be completely rescinded in order for sex workers to ever be treated fairly on social media: “We certainly have a long battle ahead of us.”