Terms of ServiceInside Social Media’s War on Sex Workers

Illustration by Xiao Mei

This article was published in Plastic Issue #91 | Summer 2021

Capitalism demands that we sell our labor to survive, an idea that has become increasingly clear in the United States during the pandemic as government officials debate lowering stimulus payments while opting to reopen businesses without providing workers with the personal protective equipment and vaccines needed to keep them safe. The same capitalists who ask people to put their health on the line for the economy profit from undervalued labor—and attempt to prevent sex workers from operating safely and with autonomy. Before the pandemic, Nova Caine, a disabled stripper with more than 13 years of experience in the sex industry, used Instagram to promote the dances she performed at a local strip club. But now, the platform’s community guidelines have limited Caine’s ability to share her work, reach established customers, and attract new clients. “[Instagram] has turned into the only way I can source income to my business,” Caine, who uses erotic dance as a form of physical therapy, tells Bitch. “[But] Instagram’s new terms of service have targeted my account, even deleting my fully clothed dancing videos for being too erotic in nature.”

Instagram has long used strict terms of service (TOS) to antagonize sex workers, banning nude, partially nude, pornographic, and sexually suggestive photos. However, the application of these rules is up to Instagram’s discretion. Each new iteration of the TOS introduces more restrictive rules that further censor sex workers. Most recently, Instagram has begun threatening to remove anything that use emojis, including the eggplant or peach, in a sexually suggestive manner. These ever-changing rules force sex workers to self-censor, going through old posts to delete or edit captions and remove posts that could be perceived as controversial. To avoid being detected by algorithms, many people misspell or add accents to words that might get their account banned. On TikTok, people write “seggs” instead of “sex.” To advertise OnlyFans on Instagram, one might type “Check out my ØnlyF@n$.” Even when sex workers take every precaution and try to play by social media’s archaic rules, there are still consequences, many of which aren’t widely known outside of the sex-worker community.

Every time Instagram deletes one of Caine’s posts, the platform also shadowbans her account, meaning her posts don’t appear on the Explore page or in people’s feeds, even those of avid followers. Shadowbanning is a practice where platforms secretly reduce content visibility, either because of who shared it or because of the content’s subject matter. According to a study published by Hacking//Hustling, a collective of sex workers, survivors, and accomplices working at the intersection of tech and social justice, “What we know about shadowbanning is primarily thanks to community knowledge and the direct experiences of the marginalized communities experiencing harassment, reduced visibility, shadowbanning, and deplatforming. What we know to be true about shadowbanning—and what our research supports—is that shadowbans are felt intensely by the marginalized and radicalized communities that do sex work and movement work.” Most platforms don’t admit to shadowbanning, but the issue is so prevalent on Twitter that community members have created so-called shadowban testers, help determine whether a Twitter user is banned from account suggestions or general searches. 

Shadowbanning continues a long tradition of social-media platforms creating increasingly stringent community guidelines and TOS under the guise of “helping” victims and survivors of sexual violence or trafficking. Again and again, sex workers have said they don’t need to be saved. They’ve demanded the freedom to work safely, supported by the basic resources we all need to survive. Instead, sex workers—especially those who are Black, disabled, full service, and/or trans—are forced to fight against criminalization, whorephobia, and violence in an increasingly hostile economic climate.

Playing the Long Game

The battle—both inside and outside the courts—to censor sex workers is far from new. Garnet, an indoor full-service sex worker (FSSW), notes that Izumo no Okuni, “the original creator of the Kabuki theater,” performed with sex workers in the 17th century. Okuni’s “hoe brigade,” composed of trans and queer sex workers, worked together to create art and make money. Since these sex workers were so successful, the “shogunate [military rulers] banned women from performing onstage,” citing the sensuality of the dances as an affront to morality. The moral panic and saviorism continued far past the 17th century. Established in 1872, the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice would sneak into burlesque clubs to report the sex workers who performed there for “lewd” behavior. It aimed to revoke the licenses of burlesque theaters and shut them down. (The last three burlesque clubs in Manhattan finally lost their licenses in 1942.) While these so-called vice suppressors tried to “save” sex workers, sex workers just wanted to be left alone.

In letters to The Times, an anonymous sex worker described her frustration with those who try to save sex workers as they brag about their own piety and generosity—all while lobbying to close the places where sex workers could safely do their jobs. “You railers for the Society for the Suppression of Vice, you the pious, the moral, the respectable, as you call yourselves, who stand on your smooth and pleasant side of the great gulf you have dug and keep between yourselves and the dregs, why don’t you bridge it over, or fill it up, and by some humane and generous process absorb us into your leavened mass, until we become interpenetrated with goodness like yourselves?” she wrote. Continuing this trend in the modern age, Craigslist shuttered its adult-services section in 2010 after receiving repeated warnings from the Department of Justice (DOJ).

After Craigslist, the DOJ and Federal Bureau of Investigation turned their focus to RedBook, a site that hosted classifieds, message boards, and reviews. The site was shut down in 2014  amid claims that the creators and moderators were “facilitating prostitution.” But Craiglist and RedBook weren’t the only sites lost through censorship and bans: When Congress passed FOSTA-SESTA—an expansion of the 1996 Communications Decency Act allegedly meant to curb human trafficking—CityVibe, Nightshift, Men4Rent, Eccie, VerifyHim, the Erotic Review’s U.S. discussion boards, P411, and several subreddits for escorts and FSSW shut down. Sex workers used many of these platforms to vet clients by requesting provider references or asking them to verify their identities. When Backpage shut down in 2018, many full-service sex workers were forced into far more dangerous situations because they lost their ability to screen potential clients. Hacking//Hustling’s 2020 study about the effects of FOSTA-SESTA revealed that 99 percent of surveyed sex workers felt less safe after Backpage was shut down—and nearly 34 percent had, in fact, seen a rise in violence. A whopping 72.45 percent said the dismantling of online-based sex-work environments caused increasing economic instability. 

Jubilee: A Black Feminist Homecoming

Not only are sex workers exposed to more danger when they’re limited in their abilities to use online spaces for safety, but they are often survivors themselves. “Many sex workers are survivors and many survivors have experiences trading sex,” Danielle Blunt, a dominatrix and cofounder of Hacking//Hustling, says. “Our needs aren’t in opposition to each other. The criminalization and platform policing of sex workers increases sex workers’ and survivors’ exposure to harm and labor exploitation.” Limiting sex workers’ ability to autonomously do their work—through both online censorship and criminalization—actually perpetuates the violence these rules claim to mitigate. Instead of more restrictions and more criminalization, sex workers—especially those who are survivors of violence—need sex work to be fully decriminalized. “The more you decriminalize sex work, the safer we are,” Onyx Black, a Black stripper, says. “If it wasn’t a crime, we would be able to speak up if we’re being raped. If you think that criminalizing something makes it safer, think about the war on drugs.” 

A Brave New World

Instagram models and celebrities with large numbers of followers are seemingly unaffected by the puritanical crackdown affecting sex workers on Instagram and other social-media platforms. Despite regularly posting nude or near-nude photos, celebrities such as the Kardashians and Jenners are able to profit from Instagram ads—and sex-worker aesthetics—without facing the same penalties. There might be a simple reason for that: Influencers and celebrities are in a mutually beneficial relationship with Instagram. Sex workers on Instagram sell their content, services, or shows; influencers hawk products, the sale of which Instagram might get a cut. Miss Orion, a dominatrix who had no digital presence before the pandemic, began using TikTok “to grow my brand and increase my reach,” eventually getting 56,000 followers on the platform. She built this entire fan base from scratch, describing filming TikToks as part of her “job description,” especially after the app verified her as a creator and began paying her to make content. And then suddenly, without warning, TikTok permanently banned her account in December 2020. “I find it very sad that talking about consensual kink is seen as taboo when…I’ve seen violence toward women, hypersexualized children, and men and celebrities getting away with posting about whatever they want,” she says.

Miss Orion also notes that Miley Cyrus has posted videos on TikTok that show her wearing pasties and holding a whip. “I’m sure if I filmed that, it would be banned within minutes,” she says. In fact, she tried to remake celebrities’ risqué TikToks—and most of them were taken down. Even commenting on the hypocrisy can result in a ban. “It’s as if selling sex or being sexual is okay for everyone except sex workers,” she says. Nox Black, a rope artist, sex witch, photographer, and model, says Instagram doesn’t fairly apply its community standards, either. They say the TOS have always been a gray area, but celebrities seem exempt from censorship. “Take Courtney Love’s recent post of Kate Moss, for instance. That’s a full nude photo, and Moss’s nipple is in plain sight,” Nox says. “[My account] would immediately be taken down for something like this.” (Love has since removed the photo, and Instagram has since taken down Nox’s account.) According to Hacking//Hustling, platform policing has gotten worse during COVID-19 as more than 71 percent of people who do sex work went online.

It’s as if selling sex or being sexual is okay for everyone except sex workers.

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Of those people, shadowbanning and deplatforming were most prevalent among sex workers who started using online platforms due to the pandemic, even when compared with sex workers who were already doing online work. When linking social media to a sex-work advertisement, Hacking//Hustling found that nearly 89 percent of sex workers report being shadowbanned. The situation is even worse for BIPOC sex workers, as well as sex workers who are activists or organizers, but Onyx Black points out that the guidelines have always discriminated against people like her. “As someone who is Black, LGBTQ, an activist, and a stripper, it’s the same as the old guidelines,” she says. “It’s like asking somebody who’s Black and poor how much different things were when Trump was in office. The most marginalized have always had to deal with the same bullshit.” She says the new guidelines are alarming a larger group of people because those who aren’t BIPOC sex workers might be getting treated the same way the most marginalized have been treated for years. Hacking//Hustling’s research supports this claim.

The bans aren’t exclusive to social media, though. Now that Venmo, PayPal, and Cash App are increasingly barring sex workers from using their platforms, workers are left without many options where they can get paid safely and fairly. “Not having access to traditional payment processors means I am stuck using payment processors and websites that take a predatory cut,” Blunt says. “I shouldn’t have to sacrifice 20 to 40 percent of my income on inflated processing fees when my non–sex working peers have access to platforms that take between a 0 and 7 percent fee.” According to Blunt, these bans are rampant: Hacking//Hustling’s research shows that “33 percent of sex workers who have access to the internet had been kicked off a payment processor,” she says. The pandemic has made this worse, with the increase in online sex work also leading to an increase in payment blocking and flagging, loss of access to financial technology, and issues using payment apps to send or receive mutual-aid money.

These issues are a problem for people other than sex workers, and they can often be exacerbated for those who are street based. Blunt says Hacking//Hustling’s research found that “78 percent of the street-based workers interviewed did not have access to bank accounts.” By banning sex workers or limiting what they can post, payment processors and social-media platforms take away their autonomy and threaten their ability to support themselves and stay safe. “A lot of the recent community-guideline updates and attacks on Section 230 have been under the guise of ostensibly stopping trafficking or ending child sexual exploitation material while doing nothing to actually address either issue,” Blunt says. “Invisibilizing workers, deplatforming communities, and making it harder to make money actually increase sex workers’ and survivors’ exposure to violence.”

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Reina Sultan, a Lebanese American Muslim woman smiles at the camera
by Reina Sultan
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Reina Sultan is a Lebanese American Muslim woman working on gender and conflict from nine to five. She believes in smashing the patriarchy and eating the rich. Her work can also be found in Wear Your Voice, Vice, Rewire.News, and Greatist. Follow @SultanReina on Twitter for hot takes and cat photos.