Instagram hates sex workers. Are changes coming?
What is sex work?
Sex work is a highly stigmatized field that encompasses a vast range from sex toy makers to full service sex workers. It includes porn stars, strippers, and sex educators and is heavily worked by queer and POC communities. In the past, sex workers have been called prostitutes, but rhetoric has changed to recognize the vast variety of work that it encompasses.
In short, "sex workers are adults who receive money or goods in exchange for consensual sexual services or erotic performances, either regularly or occasionally." Consent is the key term here.
While some sex work is criminalized, it's important to remember that the law is not inherently equated with morality (you can read some lengthy philosophical arguments or look to the not distant past to see that slavery was once legal despite its immorality). Other sex work, like stripping, is legal with some restrictions on attire depending on the state, presence of alcohol, and other mitigating factors. Just like any other profession, strippers report income and pay taxes.
Many sex workers, legal and illegal, negotiate acts and heavily vet clients before even having sex or playing. It can allow people to engage in sexual or kink fantasies in a safe way. With some sex acts being high risk with an element of danger, hiring a sex worker can be a good way to explore interests by those more experienced who can implement proper safety protocol. Others in the industry throw play parties where individuals, whether civilians or workers, can vet potential partners in a safe, moderated space.
The difference between sex work and sex trafficking
Unlike sex work, "human trafficking is an egregious human rights violation involving the threat or use of force, abduction, deception, or other forms of coercion for the purpose of exploitation." Trafficking victims can be both children and adults. Sex worker organizations across the board agree that trafficking is egregious assault. There is a clear difference between a deliberate choice versus forced abduction, manipulation, and targeted priming.
In rolls FOSTA SESTA
Introduced with bipartisan support in 2018, the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) and Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), commonly known as FOSTA SESTA is enacted.
Criticized by pro-free speech groups, in a misguided attempt to shut down human trafficking, FOSTA SESTA, in an attempt to create more proactive moderation and deter abetting and facilitation illegal acts, essentially places responsibility on web platforms to stop sex trafficking.
Written most succinctly by Lacie Bee:
F/S is as harmful as it is because of some very sloppy, though no doubt intentional, phrasing. Any sites that “promote or facilitate prostitution” can be penalized, whilst authorities are given leave to pursue any sites for “…knowingly assisting, facilitating or supporting sex trafficking.”
"Website owners now face up to 10 years in prison if one instance of prostitution-related content is posted to their website and up to 25 years if the content facilitates the prostitution of five or more persons," writes Rose Conlon. With high punitive potential, many websites are pressured into cracking down on sexually suggestive content that exposes them to risk regardless of if it's legal sex work or human trafficking. In a "better safe than sorry," strategy, many sites are banning all content.
Gimlet's Reply All did some great coverage on this.
Notable platform policy shifts range from financial discrimination (online payment platforms not accepting payments for sex work) to extreme social media moderation on mainstream platforms including Instagram, Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter and industry specific platforms like My Red Book, Rent Boy, My Free Cams, Seeking Arrangements, Verify Him (which was essential to safety), and more making it near impossible for countless sex workers to safely advertise and vet clients which in turn has made their jobs far more dangerous. "The closures hit low-income sex workers the hardest because Backpage and Craigslist were among the only free or affordable websites where they could advertise,: writes Conlon.
Survivors Against SESTA has an amazing page that documents websites that have anti-sex work policies.
“Conflating sex trafficking with sex work is nothing new … rather than outright acting against the industry, governments will angle to ‘smoke out’ sex workers, by making it harder, if not impossible, for them to work safely—or at all.” - Lucie Bee
Bee's article highlights several voices of people who were profoundly impacted and ends on ways to support sex workers.
“The internet enabled sex work to become safer. Not being on the street is fundamentally safer because there is less opportunity to be exposed to violence,” says journalist Lux Alptraum.
With many websites shut down, many sex workers will need to find pimps, businesses, or larger agencies because they can't promote themselves online individually. In an attempt to make sex work safer, FOSTA SESTA has pushed it more underground and has made it more dangerous, less transparent, and more difficult to vet.
What about Instagram?
Instagram has started demoting posts that didn't violate there terms but were deemed inappropriate and sexually suggestive. Demoted posts no longer appeared on their Explore section. This stops posts from organically reaching broader communities and negatively impacts sex workers' ability to promote their content and grow their audiences.
Some are being targeted by trolls that over report accounts causing some to self-censor, calling themselves dancers instead of strippers. Others aren't using as many hashtags. Decreasing search-ability is a double edged sword that slows trolls but also prevents target markets and community from engaging unless you're already on their radar.
But what if you want to use the hashtags?
During different moments in time, Instagram has banned commonly used stripper hashtags including #stripper, #yesastripper, #stripperlife, #stripperstyle, and #ilovetoseestripperswin. This is often called "shadow banning." Shadow banning blocks some of the reach of content without it being on face easily recognizable as a traditional ban, making your content un-discoverable. But just like nipple censorship, this appears to be a biased, gender based issue as #malestripper remained unblocked. These hashtags have allowed under represented and minority groups to find online community, networks, and representation.
Yet it's these queer, kink, and POC communities have also been uniquely targeted by trolls. Their accounts have been disabled without the ability to activate the accounts and recover content. Some notable figures have lost entire accounts with media history spanning back years. FYPM (Fuck You Pay Me, @Fypmshow), a collective of sex workers and artists had their account deactivated despite showing no nudity or other violating content. In the past, Instagram didn't warn people preemptively before their work was permanently removed.
“No platform wants to be the first to test the limits of this new law,” says porn star Liara Roux. A significant amount of workers have reported that images that weren't nude but showed a lot of skin (e.g. bikini pictures) were removed. Even educational ads and ads geared at LGBT+ communities have been prohibited. And while sex workers are the ones predominately targeted, some artists, boudoir photographers, and marketers for products like swimsuits and intimate wear.
Some of that is changing
Instagram will likely still air on the side of caution and ban things that adjacent to sexuality, but there's at least some positive promised changes including warning users if their account is at risk of being banned.
But it's one step forward, two steps back. Right now, Instagram bans account with a certain percentage of violating content. But we've already covered that "violated content" is subjective at best and may not actually be a problem. According to Instagram, "We are now rolling out a new policy where, in addition to removing accounts with a certain percentage of violating content, we will also remove accounts with a certain number of violations within a window of time." With the rise of hate groups, this could also just mean accounts that have an influx of targeted reports.
So what can you do?
Don't be a jerk. If you don't like sexually suggestive content, unfollow the poster, don't report them.
Contact your representatives and speak out against FOSTA SESTA and vote against it, similar laws, and its proponents whenever you can
Amplify the voices of those most marginalized
Educate yourself to better shut down whorephobia and anti-sex work comments and behavior whenever you can. The podcast Strange Bedfellows and the website Salty are good places to start.
Pay sex workers, support sex worker organizations, and contribute funds to those in need
Note: I'm a middle class, white, trans queer who doesn't work in sex work. I am not an expert in the field.