Welcome to VOL.UME: Love Now, a new series of stories chronicling how we find and experience romantic connections in the digital age. For the full experience, head to volume.mtv.com.
By Chingy Le Gay
Ramona Flour is accustomed to being seen by others online. “I’m used to looking at a chatroom with 10,000 viewers and at least 50 to 100 people having a conversation with me,” says the 27-year-old adult performer and dominatrix. While Flour has no issues cultivating her following on cam sites, navigating social media as a sex worker is growing increasingly difficult. Despite exceeding 35,000 followers across both Instagram and Twitter, she has found that her posts rarely appear in search engines or on explore pages; sometimes, they disappear from her followers’ feeds altogether or will be deleted erroneously for violating community guidelines.
“It’s completely different,” she says. “I feel like I’m just screaming into the void, and maybe one person will reply.”
Flour is not alone, either: Since the advent of the internet, sex workers have leveraged its access and reach to market their services and build their fan bases, just as other entrepreneurs, artists, and freelancers do. But the recent implementation of new content policies by a number of sites have resulted in a tightened view of what content those companies believe is or isn’t appropriate for their platforms. Users whose posts fall outside of this scope are often penalized as a result, in ways ranging from having their posts removed without warning to finding that their accounts have been deleted. And while not the only group struggling under these policies, sex workers are disproportionately affected by these changes.
I feel like I’m just screaming into the void, and maybe one person will reply.
Take Instagram, for example. In 2018, the platform’s parent company, Facebook, updated its community guidelines around sexual solicitation to include “content that implicitly or indirectly facilitates or encourages sexual encounters between adults” and “suggestive elements” as grounds for removal. In the ensuing weeks and months, a host of users reported an uptick of what they believed to be censorship: Posts and entire accounts would seemingly be disappeared, and often for vague reasons. During her tenure as a social media publicist for a webcam modeling site with an Instagram presence, Flour estimates the company’s profile was removed from Instagram no less than four times, even though she says their content followed Instagram’s community guidelines.
Many digital platforms — including those geared toward person-to-person payment, social media, fan engagement, and even crowdsourcing — have altered their terms of service in recent years, ostensibly to fall in line with FOSTA/SESTA (Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act). A set of two bills marketed to voters as anti-trafficking laws, FOSTA/SESTA passed in April 2018, making it illegal for anyone or any company to knowingly facilitate or promote prostitution. When reached for comment on the bills, a spokesperson for Facebook, Instagram’s parent company, told MTV News, “FOSTA/SESTA doesn’t influence our policies, nor have we changed any policies in response to it.” Twitter did not provide an on-the-record response.
Crucially, the bills do not differentiate between trafficking and consensual sex work; this gray area has resulted in companies seemingly feeling pressured to censor content and remove sex workers from their platforms. And anti-FOSTA/SESTA activists believe these laws infringe on the rights of sex workers, putting both voluntary sex workers and trafficking victims in further danger by limiting online resources, and pose a threat to the freedom of expression online.
With the surge of censorship online, navigating sex work through the internet is hard. People are going to be forced into an IRL sex work life they aren’t ready for.
“What’s ironic about FOSTA is it’s actually perpetuating trafficking situations,” Sol Sombra, a New York-based sex worker, tells MTV News. “With the surge of censorship online, navigating sex work through the internet is hard. People are going to be forced into an IRL sex work life they aren’t ready for.” Limiting sex workers’s social presence takes away both their agency and inability to screen clients, Sombra adds, which opens people up to a number of potential threats, including sexual and physical violence, and getting caught up in actual sex trafficking with pimps.
A clear example of this effect can be seen in San Francisco: In 2018, the San Francisco Police Department reported an increase in human trafficking by 170 percent since the previous year, while St. James Infirmary, a San Francisco-based clinic run by sex workers, reported the amount of street-based workers encountered during outreach had tripled since the implementation of FOSTA/SESTA.
Violet A. Savage, a full-service sex worker, says she’s had numerous financial difficulties in the year-plus since FOSTA/SESTA was made law. “I’ve had my checking account closed and lost a bunch of advertising options” on social media, she tells MTV News. While she’s maintained independence, Savage says she has seen other workers have to resort to involvement with pimps to get by. “I notice more girls choosing up,” or allying themselves with a pimp, “because they aren’t sure how to adjust on their own now that they can’t just post an ad on Backpage or other sites,” she explains.
On April 12, 2018, the day after FOSTA/SESTA passed, Craigslist shuttered its personals section. Backpage, the popular personal advertising site, was seized by the FBI within weeks on the grounds of facilitating prostitution. Both sites had frequently been used as free-to-low-cost options by sex workers unable to afford ads on escort-specific sites like Eros and Slixa. And in the time since the first version of FOSTA was announced back in 2017, more and more platforms have changed their terms of service to remove or suppress those users marketing any adult content. The organization Survivors Against SESTA curated a list of over a 100 platforms they believe discriminate against sex workers.
Because of my visibility as a sex worker, companies have blatantly, without consideration for my business, removed me from their platforms. Now, every time Instagram glitches, I assume my account is gone.
“Sex workers are not a protected group under US law, meaning Companies and institutions have a wide berth when it comes to setting policies to discriminate against people working in sex-related jobs or at sex-related companies — everything from full-service sex workers and porn performers to people who make and sell toys or safety products,” the group points out on its website. While escorts, fetish workers (such as professional dominatrixes), and sugar babies are some of the workers operating within a gray area of legality, all sex workers (including strippers, porn performers, and cam models) are affected under FOSTA/SESTA.
“Because of my visibility as a sex worker, companies have blatantly, without consideration for my business, removed me from their platforms,” says Flour. “Now, every time Instagram glitches, I assume my account is gone.
For Chloe Venom, the biggest hit came with Tumblr’s site-wide adult content ban in December 2018. In its heyday, the site was a hub where many underrepresented communities and individuals came to explore, discuss, and display their identities and sexuality. “Tumblr was where I advertised [camming and porn clips], and the content ban killed my clip revenue,” Venom says. “The less I’m seen, the less people buy clips or interact with my content.”
And many people believe the policy change affected not only their bottom line, but Tumblr’s, too. In 2013, the company was estimated to be worth $1.1 billion. At that time, 22 percent of its traffic and 16.6 percent of its blogs focused on exclusively pornographic content. As of August 2019, eight months after the ban, Verizon sold the site to Automattic (owners of WordPress) for less than $3 million. Venom specifically believes that “porn supported that platform,” adding that she could see similar fates befalling sites like Twitter “if they don’t value their sex worker users.”
Overt TOS changes are only one side of the fight. Just as insidious are tactics like shadow-banning, which many people believe is a concerted effort by platforms to effectively render a user’s profile nearly impossible to find, and to further make their content invisible particularly to those not already following them. No site has ever confirmed they shadow-ban accounts, but the tactic seems to align with Instagram’s April 2019 announcement of taking “new steps to manage problematic or inappropriate content” that doesn’t go against community guidelines; a Facebook spokesperson told MTV News Instagram is working to “make changes in places where we recommend content to our community,” and that the company is growing “stricter” about “what gets surfaced to the broader community,” but did not confirm or deny the practice of shadow-banning as it is known colloquially. Likewise, Twitter has stated that visibility of content can be affected for accounts violating their terms of service.
The truth is, what affects sex workers eventually affects everyone.
It’s key to center sex workers here, as they are currently on the front lines of such censorships. And the issue of such blanket screening could have wider implications about freedom of expression online.
“The truth is, what affects sex workers eventually affects everyone,” says Cora Harrington, founder and editor in chief of The Lingerie Addict, the internet’s leading lingerie blog; she believes that shadowbanning has affected her social media presence and, in turn, traffic to her site, given that many of her posts feature models in lingerie. “Sex workers are most at risk of having their livelihood and lives threatened, but anyone having any conversations related to sex and sexuality, or perceived as being related to sex and sexuality, are likely to be marginalized and excluded from platforms that are necessary to modern-day marketing and advertising.”
Platform censorship often affects the most marginalized people first, something that Harrington, a queer Black woman, knows all too well — especially given that her site makes a concerted effort to highlight lingerie for people who aren’t the Victoria’s Secret model archetype. “These censorship guidelines first affect those whose bodies and identities are seen as most transgressive. People of color, plus-sized people, and LGBTQ+ folks are all more likely to have their content reported than thin, white, cis women,” she says; a survey by the newsletter Salty that compiled marginalized peoples’s experiences with censorship or reporting on Instagram and Facebook highlighted similar concerns.
In a statement provided to MTV News, a spokesperson for Instagram’s parent company, Facebook, said, “Over a billion people use Instagram every month, and operating at that size means mistakes are made — it is never our intention to silence members of our community.”
But users are already worried that reporting might affect algorithms, or set a standard for what content is acceptable or should be policed: “In essence, the further away you are from normative standards of beauty and gender and sexuality, the more likely you are to be silenced,” Harrington adds.
In my own experience using social media to explore and document my relationship with sexuality and queer womanhood, I have seen my own photos and memes removed or disappeared multiple times. The deleted posts have ranged from including the word “dyke,” which is how I sexually identify, to photos where I’m engaging in consensual BDSM while being fully clothed. Two photos in particular — a headshot of me wearing a gag, and one showing my ex-fiancé spitting in my mouth — were flagged as violating community guidelines by “featuring nudity,” though no such nudity existed. When I posted about this issue, several queer content creators expressed their own frustrations with similar experiences.
While many social media platforms assert that any of their policies that may inhibit sex workers from existing on their sites are often done to maintain “content appropriate for a diverse audience,” their removing and suppressing of marginalized content creators effectively decides whose businesses, voices, and stories deserve to be seen and heard. While sex workers and their allies are holding sites accountable to discriminatory practices, they’re also pressuring lawmakers to fix the problems created by FOSTA/SESTA. Some presidential candidates have come out in support of decriminalizing sex work, while others have been less committal; sex work is currently illegal in most of the United States, though the state of Nevada is the notable outlier.
If enough non-sex workers talk about it, changes will come.
When sex workers are able to use social media, it can make an enormous difference, both business-wise as well as in activism. Sombra was an organizer during the New York City Stripper Strike, a worker’s rights movement that launched in 2017 and went national the following year; she says going digital played a huge part in the strike taking off and reaching others. “Even me contacting Gizelle Marie [the founder of the strike] was from seeing her post and being like, ‘Yo, this is bigger than just New York culture and bartenders — it’s the underlying nuances of workers rights,” Sombra tells MTV News. “I’ve learned things from a lot of URL hoes or just connecting with bomb-ass people from similar backgrounds, so we don’t feel like we just out here alone.”
This begs the question that if sex workers’ voices are being suppressed or removed by the platforms to which people pay attention, who will speak up for them in a way that still allows them agency? Flour believes a key part of affecting change is through continued conversation and allyship, particularly from non-sex workers.
“Understand who has privilege in posting and hopefully encourage people to continue discussing it,” she says. “If enough non-sex workers talk about it, changes will come. People say they are progressive and sex positive, but we live in a very fake woke culture. They carry so much shame for consuming erotic labor that it’s hard to get [anyone] to discuss it. And those are the people we need.”
This story has been updated with further comments by Facebook.
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