Censorship of Sexual Content on Social Media

Today, we embark on the age-old question: is sex shameful or not? Just kidding, we all know that it isn’t, or at least that it shouldn’t be, and yet most social media platforms today partake in sexual censorship so hard that even nipples — just like, existing — are banned. Wait no, don’t want to mislead -- only female nipples are banned. Those belonging to cisgendered men are apparently and arbitrarily just fine. The social stigma associated with sex means that certain types of sexual content is censored across the board on most popular platforms. But what exactly is allowed and what isn’t and who gets to decide? Is it about safety or mere respectability politics? Who are the censors trying to protect and who is being hurt? In an era when terms like “sex-positive,” have found their footing, how is it that social media continues to be so censored? 

A bit of background on censorship 

The American Civil Liberties Union explains that “censorship, the suppression of words, images, or ideas that are “offensive,” happens whenever some people succeed in imposing their personal political or moral values on others. They note that sex in art and entertainment is the most frequent target of censorship crusades and cite a humorous example whereby a painting of the classical statue of Venus de Milo was removed from a store because the managers of the shopping mall found its semi-nudity “too shocking.” Less humorously, even sadly perhaps, hundreds of works of literature, from Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings to John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, have been banned from public schools based on their sexual content.

Sexual Speech, Puritanical Culture, and the meaning of Porn

Apparently, when it comes to sex, Americans don’t play around. Of course, it’s not that we aren’t having sex, or don’t enjoy nudity, but that we prefer it in its neat little boxes and categories. In other words, there’s a time and a place, and social media is still a relatively new frontier where the rules are being figured out in real time, so we’re still figuring out the ‘time and the place’ online. The ACLU asserts that American law, on the whole, is the most speech-protective in the world but that sexual expression is still treated as a second-class citizen, noting that the Supreme Court has allowed censorship of sexual speech on moral grounds- a remnant of our nation’s puritan heritage. This does not mean that all sexual expression can be censored, however. Only a narrow range of ‘obscene' material can be suppressed and it’s important to remember that a term like “pornography” has no legal meaning. Yes, really.

The Vague and Murky Obscenity Politics

Well, what does that mean? It means that it’s all very gray both on social media and off - but especially gray on social media - again because of the whole relatively new territory thing. Associate Justice of the Supreme Court from 1958 to 1981, Justice Potter Stewart is frequently remembered for his famous non-definition of obscenity: “I know it when I see it,” which left little in the way of clear guidance for lawmakers and arbiters and instead made room for more of an open-ended, nuanced interpretation. The Supreme Court's current definition of constitutionally unprotected Obscenity, first announced in a 1973 case called Miller v. California, has three requirements. The work must 1) appeal to the average person's prurient (shameful, morbid) interest in sex; 2) depict sexual conduct in a "patently offensive way" as defined by community standards; and 3) taken as a whole, lack serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.

The Supreme Court has held that Indecent expression -- in contrast with "obscenity" -- is entitled to some constitutional protection, but that indecency in some media (broadcasting, cable, and telephone) may be regulated. 

But none of this is technically here nor there because we’re talking about social media platforms and until and unless a lawsuit against one of them for censorship makes its way to the Supreme Court, this is all a bit moot. Well, it still makes for an interesting backdrop in the conversation of censorship on social media though. Especially since policy does affect what happens online. Enter Fosta-Sesta. 

The FOSTA-SESTA debacle 

In April 2018, a set of two bills (the House bill known as FOSTA, the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, and the Senate bill, SESTA, the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act) marketed to voters as anti-trafficking laws, were passed, making it illegal for anyone or any company to knowingly facilitate or promote prostitution. Now, we may not associate platforms like Facebook or Twitter with prostitution, but nevertheless, many digital platforms including those geared toward person-to-person payment (think Craigslist), various social media, fan engagement, and even search engines like Google — have altered their terms of service in recent years, ostensibly to fall in line with FOSTA/SESTA.

On the surface, these bills sound great because no one wants to support trafficking, but what they ultimately ended up being was fuel for censorship on social media and another hurdle for safe online sex work.

How censorship on social media platform affect sex work

FOSTA/SESTA directly challenged the longstanding “safe harbor” rule of the internet: Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act. Section 230 holds that “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” In other words, Section 230 has allowed the internet to thrive on user-generated content without holding platforms and ISPs responsible for whatever those users might create.

The new bills mean websites will have to decide whether to overpolice their platforms for potential prostitution advertisements or to under-police them so they can maintain a know-nothing stance, which would likely be a very tricky claim to prove in court. And we all know who gets harmed the most whenever policing and certainly overpolicing happens. Marginalized communities get hit the hardest.

So, what does this mean for safe sex work? Rather than preventing the online exploitation of trafficked persons, these laws have hurt the people they intended to help, pushing sex workers and trafficking victims into more dangerous and exploitative situations.

“What’s ironic about FOSTA is it’s actually perpetuating trafficking situations,” Sol Sombra, a New York-based sex worker, told 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' 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.

The internet’s white heteronormative lens

The reality is that even before FOSTA/SESTA, the internet was a murky place for creators who do not fit within the white heteronormative lens.  For years creators and regular folks sharing their lives online have said that the algorithm does not support BIPOC and queer content. Giving platforms more reason to censor and control is only going to affect content creators who never fit the mold even more than before. Nudity, sexuality, queer love, kink, body positivity — platforms like Instagram will remove it all in the wake of FOSTA-SESTA, seemingly lumping sexual exploitation with anything sexual.

What affects sex workers affects everyone 

“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 shadow banning 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.”

Harrington, a queer Black woman and champion for inclusivity, says 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' experiences with censorship or reporting on Instagram and Facebook highlighted similar concerns.

‘Seggs’ education and the rise of sex euphemisms on social media

Sex educators also report difficulty trying to post content in the overregulated, overly censored world of social media platforms. Even educators who are accustomed to working around the system by using emojis or characters to substitute out letters, for example ‘seggs’, ‘cl1t’, ‘p3n!s’ to describe sexual acts and reproductive anatomy, are finding that isn’t always enough. In the name of blocking harmful content, even educational content suffers. 

How censorship plays out in the real world

Opponents of internet censorship point out that somehow the rules that are purported to help end up hurting marginalized communities. Plus-size creators, black creators, differently abled creators, and POC creators have been saying for years that their accounts get reported more often, get shadow banned, or get deleted altogether. Well, in 2019 TikTok confirmed this was true. TikTok admitted that it had policies in place which suppressed the reach of content created by users assumed to be “vulnerable to cyberbullying.” As examples of users “susceptible to bullying or harassment,” the policy listed people with facial disfigurement, autism, Down syndrome, and “Disabled people or people with some facial problems such as birthmark, slight squint, etc.” A list of flagged users included people with and without disabilities, whose bios included hashtags like #fatwoman and #disabled or had rainbow flags and other LGBTQ identifiers. But remember guys, they were only trying to help.

Different standards on who gets to have sexually expressive content and who doesn't

In the wake of FOSTA/SESTA and censorship generally, it has to be noted that a very particular kind of sexuality continues to be undeniably omnipresent in public advertisements and popular media, namely - young, thin, white, and heterosexual. Critics of online censorship note that certain brands like Playboy, Viagra, or condom ads using phallic imagery, i.e. those that are targeting a largely male audience, still get to be cheeky and overtly sexual in their ads. 

But their female counterparts - ads for women’s sexual health products- including sex toys like vibrators or dildos- get reported, banned, and censored. Sex toy companies still struggle to navigate content regulations and figure out whether their business counts as “obscene” in the eyes of payment processors, banks, and advertising platforms. Advertising poses the biggest problem. Facebook refuses to run sex toy-related ads, even if the ads are set to display to adults only or link to completely SFW content.

Even ads related to women’s menstrual health were reportedly removed from Meta (formerly known as Facebook), with the platform removing them for violating “adult content” policies, according to a new report. The content in question? Breastfeeding, menopause, pelvic pain, postpartum comfort. Not entirely surprising when you consider period panty brand Thinx fought with the MTA to allow their ads on the subway back in 2015.

Accounts that feature lingerie or bikinis for plus-sized women get reported while the Kim Kardashian’s of the world get lauded for their bikini-bods. 

Who gets to shape the narrative

The end-result of continued and increasing censorship online means that private corporations are making decisions about what is acceptable in the larger social discourse about sex and sexuality. Not only are they “sanitizing,” the digital space according to their own standards, they’re oppressing marginalized communities and prohibiting folks from exploring their identities and finding community online all while purporting to help those very communities. All while purporting to protect the most vulnerable amongst us.

The enduring concern - especially after the passing of FOSTA/SESTA - is that the digital space will become increasingly controlled, curbing both free expression and creativity of innovators, in favor of the agendas of homogenized corporatized entities. The internet, which has been a refuge for so many, will increasingly mimic the real world; becoming even more susceptible to a few large corporations who hold tremendous power to define cultural norms, deciding what desires are acceptable, what bodies are acceptable, and what kind of expression matters.

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