Social media site Facebook caused quite a stir amongst sexual freedom advocates this week with a newly updated revamp of their community standards which severely limits what users can post. The news came as the latest in a string of anti-sex internet censorship moves that activists are calling an attack on free speech and already marginalized sex workers. Facebook’s broadly-written “Sexual Solicitation Policy” was updated in October, but the ban was brought to light again after another social website, Tumblr, caved to pressure to ban adult content from their servers.
Many are pointing at the obvious connection to SESTA-FOSTA, the US anti-trafficking legislation that was protested heavily earlier this year. The law, which was widely backed by both parties and signed into effect on February 27th, 2018, holds website operators accountable for all instances of sexual solicitation and trafficking that take place on their servers, whether or not the owners had knowledge of the interaction.
The effect on the adult industry was devastating, with many websites such as Backpage shutting down out of fear of prosecution, and thousands of sex workers losing access to screening and advertising services that allowed for providers to practice safely. “This bill is killing us,” said Lexi, an escort in Florida, in an interview with the Huffington Post earlier this year. “We can’t screen clients like we used to, which is what was keeping us safe.”
Facebook’s policy updates aren’t just irritating to the average user looking for a casual hookup; they illustrate the extent of censorship that websites are adopting in light of FOSTA. The content ban includes not just nudity, which was already notoriously censored by the website, but extends to “sexually explicit language that adds details and goes beyond mere naming or mentioning of: A state of sexual arousal (wetness or erection)…An act of sexual intercourse (sexual penetration, self-pleasuring or exercising fetish scenarios)” as well as a number of other items such as “sexualized slang,” asking for nude images, and “content (hand drawn, digital, or real-world art) that may depict explicit sexual activity or suggestively posed person(s).”
Activists in the adult industry are frustrated with the public’s slow response to the wide-sweeping censorship that they warned of. Social media megasites are only the most visible tip of the iceberg when it comes to the effects of FOSTA. Some have taken it upon themselves to strive to fill in the gaps created in the wake of adult content bans. After the Tumblr policy change, streaming site PornHub was quick to remind users that their site allows for much of the same functionality as Facebook and Tumblr. Organizations like the Sex Worker Outreach Project have been working hard in the hope of bolstering sex workers and furthering awareness about the long arm of SESTA-FOSTA. Sex workers themselves have also stepped forward, creating their own social venues such as Switter (Sex Worker Twitter), as well as their own verified listing services. I spoke with the owner of a new pro-domme listing site about her role in the privacy revolution that the industry is fueling:
“What I think is that there aren’t enough solutions and too many complaining. It makes me wonder if people believe that airing their concerns on Twitter alone will resolve [the issue]. Maybe their egos are fulfilled with retweets and people agreeing with them. But until a serious stand is taken, all FOSTA will garner is a shitload of complaints,” she told me in an email. “I’m selective on the wording I’ve been using to promote alternative lifestyle and choices…These pages are members only. I can’t guarantee that I won’t get taken down. Hopefully not. So far I’ve been fortunate.”
Content bans such as those put into effect by Facebook and Tumblr may be what gets the public to take notice, but it is clear that the effects of internet censorship are far more devastating to already marginalized sex workers who have been barred from sites such as YouTube, Patreon, PayPal, and Square to name a few. Until decriminalization of sex work is achieved, it is still unclear how to protect the most marginalized members in our communities. Legislation such as FOSTA continues to prove dangerous for anyone who engages in sex-related work, and paves the way for more services to censor sexuality, and sex workers, out of public existence.
Aria, Pornhub. (2018, December 04). Tumblrs: Pornhub welcomes you with open arms. https://twitter.com/pornhub/status/1069984706521747458?s=21
Facebook Community Standards. (n.d.). https://m.facebook.com/communitystandards/sexual_solicitation
Hugo, K. (2018, April 10). ‘People are going to die’: Sex workers devastated after Backpage shutdown. https://www.newsweek.com/people-are-going-die-sex-workers-devastated-after-backpage-shutdown-876486
Lee, D. (2018, March 28). How a crackdown on Google and Facebook is making life more dangerous for sex workers. https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/feminism/2018/03/how-crackdown-google-and-facebook-making-life-more-dangerous-sex-workers
McCombs, E. (2018, May 17). ‘This Bill Is Killing Us’: 9 Sex Workers On Their Lives In The Wake Of FOSTA. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/sex-workers-sesta-fosta_us_5ad0d7d0e4b0edca2cb964d9
Switter. (n.d.). http://switter.at/
SWOP-USA. (n.d.). http://swopusa.org/
Violet Blue. (2018, December 7). The internet war on sex is here. https://www.engadget.com/2018/12/07/the-internet-war-on-sex-is-here/