BIG TECH’S WAR ON SEX

The deplatforming of sexuality and how to resist it.

BY STEPHEN MOLLDREM

On December 17th, Tumblr—a social network notorious and celebrated for the many varieties of niche pornography and kinky communities that it once hosted on its servers and allowed to flourish on its playful interface – made its first major move to effectively purge sexual media from its platform. This followed a December 3rd announcement from the firm (owned by a subsidiary of Verizon) that the social network would ban all “adult content.” Tumblr defines “adult content” both carefully and sweepingly, as “primarily includ[ing] photos, videos, or GIFs that show real-life human genitals or female-presenting nipples, and any content—including photos, videos, GIFs and illustrations—that depicts sex acts.”

There are some exceptions carved out in the new policy. A December 17th post from the company assures users that visual media depicting nudity deemed newsworthy or political will be permitted, as will “nudity found in art, specifically sculptures and illustrations.” However, “photorealistic imagery or photography,” even if it is deemed art, will be flagged. And while illustrations of nudity are given a pass, “illustrations” of “sex acts” are banned. There are carve-outs for textual erotica and health-related content ranging from pictures documenting gender transition to breastfeeding and afterbirth photos. However, the intent is clear: most sexy visual media are not welcome on Tumblr.

Shortly after Tumblr announced its plans, news began to circulate that Facebook had quietly updated its Community Standards to ban a broad array of content and speech related to sexuality. The two cases make an interesting juxtaposition. Facebook has a relatively puritanical history compared to Tumblr, yet the firm still felt the need to place more restrictions on sexual expression on its platform.

SEXUALLY MARGINALIZED COMMUNITIES

A new federal “anti-trafficking” law called FOSTA/SESTA has rightly been blamed for the increased policing of sexual content by digital media companies. In the wake of FOSTA/SESTA’s passage in March 2018, Craigslist closed its personals section. Many websites catering to fetish communities and sex workers shut down or changed their content moderation policies. One prominent example is the Furry-oriented website Pounced.org, which hosted community features and personals. The Department of Justice also raided the offices of the personals website Backpage and shut it down shortly after FOSTA/SESTA was passed. Craigslist and Backpage were two primary platforms used by independent sex workers to find clients—particularly transgender sex workers. There was an immediate negative impact on sex workers who utilized these platforms, with many having to go onto the streets to find clients: a much more dangerous marketplace than a digital environment where clients can be screened. 

Whatever one’s position on how real or overblown the problem of trafficking is (a topic for another essay), the broad and draconian policies that firms such as Tumblr and Facebook are enacting to regulate sexual content often go far beyond the requirements of FOSTA/SESTA. The enforcement of these policies constitutes the direct repression of sexually marginalized communities. However, the deplatforming of sexuality cannot only be understood as an outcome of this new law. It is better framed as part of a recent upsurge in cultural anxieties around sexuality, sexual commerce, and sexual media that are much more widespread. Masha Gessen has rightly characterized these conditions as a sex panic, while David M. Halperin and Trevor Hoppe say that we are living in a  War on Sex. This was the milieu in which FOSTA/SESTA was passed and in which it is being implemented. It is also the context in which queers, kinksters, and our allies can fight back.

What is at stake is nothing less than the internet itself as queers have come to know it: an internet that has historically been a place where sex workers, sexually marginalized folks, Leatherfolk, kinky people, purveyors of sexual wares, and consumers of niche pornography can find representations of their desires, explore their identities, form communities, and engage in sexual commerce.

FEAR OF PROSECUTION

The Tumblr and Facebook episodes—but especially Tumblr – are two prominent examples of a recent trend in internet history that I call “the deplatforming of sexuality” or “deplatforming sex.” In the context of digital infrastructures, deplatforming sex occurs when an outlet implements Terms of Service, Community Standards, or related policies that explicitly bar sexual content, sexual speech, or sexual commerce on its platform. Firms build tools that are designed to remove or filter content that meet the criteria they set in their governing policies. The retroactive removal of existing content deemed too sexy for a platform’s updated policies is a hallmark of recent episodes where sex has been deplatformed, as is the ongoing monitoring and filtration of new user-generated content.

Any claims about the “true” motivations of the executives who have decided to implement such broad and platform-altering
policies about sexual content at Tumblr or any other platform are inherently speculative. However, it is clear that FOSTA/SESTA is one major motivator. FOSTA/SESTA revises Section 230 of the Communication Decency Act, the “safe harbor” provision that shields platforms from liability for content posted by users. The American Civil Liberties Union cites Section 230 as “the reason why websites can offer platforms for critical and controversial speech without constantly worrying about getting sued.” It makes the internet as we know it possible.

Our greatest sources of power in confronting the deplatforming of sexuality are ultimately our individual and collective voices.

FOSTA/SESTA’s revisions to Section 230 make platforms liable for any content posted that could be construed to be an advertisement for prostitution, thus conflating “trafficking” with essentially all sex work.

The law also further empowers state and federal prosecutors to target platforms that they determine are hosting user-generated content related to sex work using local anti-prostitution and related statutes. The law has yet to be fully implemented, so the extent of its ramifications remain to be seen. However, the response of platforms to date does not suggest a bright future for sexual economies online. While passed in the name of “anti-trafficking,” FOSTA/SESTA’s practical effect has been to incentivize large social networks to suppress sexual content and to force smaller ones to shut down or systematically remove content out of fear of prosecution or sheer uncertainty.

MECHANISMS FOR RESISTANCE

On December 17th, Tumblr made good on its promise, converting all content identified as “adult” to private and “only visible to” the individual user who posted it. Tumblr accounts that were hubs for sexual subcultures have now effectively been turned into archives accessible to a single viewer: the account holder. Many sexual communities on Tumblr have essentially ceased to exist. Independent sex workers who utilized Tumblr have been denied yet another platform.

However, deplatforming is not a single act. It is a process. Well-resourced social media companies largely do the work of deplatforming algorithmically, by building tools that identify specific types of content, flag it, and then remove it. As issues with the tools built to do this work become apparent through their application and users’ responses, they are updated. The code that determines what constitutes a penis, vagina, or “sex act” is reworked and refined to become better at identifying and filtering content.

As the deplatforming of sex moves ahead, documenting deplatforming processes, confronting firms about overly-broad or repressive policies, and generally staying vigilant and taking action will be key strategies of resistance that sexually marginalized folks and allies can employ to resist it. This is especially true for queers who work in areas of tech where sexual commerce or media are hosted and/or regulated.

Documenting and sharing of instances of deplatforming or content moderation is something that sex workers and researchers have actively been doing since the passage of FOSTA/SESTA. For example, the now-dormant organization Survivors Against Sesta published a list of known actions by firms that took place in the wake of the law’s passage. Another collective led by Ashley Lake and Liara Roux has documented actions of discrimination against sex workers by over 150 companies following the law’s passage. However, you need not be an activist or researcher to do the work of documentation. If you see media being filtered that you believe is an egregious example of suppression on the basis of it being overly sexual, take a screenshot. Share it in your social networks with some contextual explanation, and/or with organizations and researchers that are documenting and responding to FOSTA/SESTA’s implementation. If you are queer and work in an area of tech where content reviews are conducted or new policies and filtration tools are produced, document the internal processes used to create those policies and technologies. Assess the fairness of the company’s processes, speak up internally, and—to the extent that you can—share information with others.

Another mechanism for resistance is built into the deplatforming process itself. Content that is flagged or removed can usually be challenged. For example, Tumblr staff writes in its December 17th post: “If your post(s) are flagged under the new policy, they will be hidden from public view and will only be visible to you. You can appeal these flags if you feel your content was erroneously marked as adult content. Upcoming feature changes will also make appeals more manageable for those of you with multiple flagged posts.”

Maximize these processes. File appeals with platforms, especially if you believe that the content moderated actually did not violate that platform’s policy. However, even if content flagged did clearly violate a policy (e.g. a dick pic you posted on Tumblr in 2017 being retroactively made private), appeal mechanisms can be leveraged to voice opposition to the policies themselves. If you are a queer person or ally who works at a tech platform in an area where appeals are processed, internally advocate for review protocols that favor sexually marginalized people. You could even engage in acts of workplace organizing or refusal on the basis that doing certain kinds of content moderation is an ethical line that you cannot cross. If you need support, reach out to groups such as the Tech Workers Coalition (www.techworkerscoalition.org)  Free Speech Coalition (/www.freespeechcoalition.com), Sex Workers Outreach Project (www.swopusa.org), or Electronic Frontier Foundation (www.eff.org).

The most critical strategy for resisting the deplatforming of sex is simply for queers and our allies to stay vigilant and to support one another. If sexually marginalized people are not actively paying attention to the suppression of sexual media and sexual commerce online, talking about these issues amongst ourselves, and taking action to defend our communities, there is little hope of reversing the tide of repression that we are currently experiencing. Our greatest sources of power in confronting the deplatforming of sexuality are ultimately our individual and collective voices.


Stephen Molldrem is a PhD Candidate at the University of Michigan, a writer, and an activist. He lives in Atlanta, GA.