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Silicon Valley's Sex Censorship Harms Everyone

This story is adapted from Silicon Values: The Future of Free Speech under Surveillance Capitalism , by Jillian C. York

Bardot Smith calls herself a “corporate finance escapee.” Petite and exuding intellect, she looks the part, but for the past 10 years she’s been involved in a different industry: the precarious world of sex work. She is also, alongside a growing community of sex workers, actively challenging Silicon Valley’s status quo through research and activism. I first encountered her work in the form of an essay she wrote for the critical Silicon Valley publication Model View Culture in 2014. In it, she argued that “[t]he increasing presence of women’s skill and success represents a challenge to tech culture” and that “[w]omen’s success and agency are in direct conflict with an industry culture that caters to the priorities—and egos—of males.” Her words resonated and stuck with me.

Just a few months before I met Smith, in 2018, the window of permissibility for sex and sexuality online had narrowed considerably with the passing of SESTA-FOSTA. The law, a combination package of Senate bill SESTA (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act) and House bill FOSTA (Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act) in the United States, was ostensibly designed to fight sex trafficking on the internet. But the effects of FOSTA’s broad provisions, which hold platforms liable if third parties are found to be posting ads for prostitution, were immediately felt across a variety of online communities.

Serving as the impetus for FOSTA was the frustration by law enforcement of their perceived inability to hold platforms, most notably Backpage, a classifieds website, legally liable for illegal content posted by their users. In 2016, the Senate launched an investigation into the site, and a flurry of public advocacy ensued. Faced with backlash, Backpage decided to shut down its adult section rather than put in the time and resources required to constantly moderate its classified ads. That is not a choice that a platform should have to make but, as the post-FOSTA internet has demonstrated, when faced with such options, it’s the choice platforms will make.

There is perhaps no single group that has been more heavily impacted by FOSTA than sex workers, for whom social media has in many ways made their jobs safer. This includes sex workers engaged in perfectly legal professions such as pornography or exotic dance, as well as those living in jurisdictions where prostitution is legal. What’s more, by influencing restrictions on sexual expression and chilling speech, FOSTA and the corporate restrictions around sex work have also helped shape the broader culture around sexuality online.

At a time when attitudes toward sex work, transgender individuals, and other sexual minorities are by and large changing for the better, it is perhaps ironic that Silicon Valley’s CEOs are so rapidly closing off the spaces where such communities have long gathered. Or maybe irony is not the right way to describe it—after all, the disregard for these spaces is paralleled by San Francisco’s rapid growth that has all but closed down the city’s legendary queer spaces so that Silicon Valley’s highly paid workers can drink $7 cups of coffee and dine at the latest hip restaurants.

Almost immediately after the passing of FOSTA, the blogging site Tumblr, which had long served as a home for a range of sexual content, announced that it would be banning all sexual imagery. In the announcement, then CEO Jeff D’Onofrio wrote: “We’ve realized that in order to continue to fulfill our promise and place in culture, especially as it evolves, we must change.” But whose culture, exactly?

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On Instagram, sex workers have reported their accounts and images being removed, even when they contain no explicit content. They’ve documented instances of Facebook discussion groups being shut down for sex work-related conversations. LinkedIn prohibits the listing of sex work in one’s profile, thus deligitimizing it as work (regardless of jurisdiction). Payment processors from PayPal to Square regularly shut down accounts of sex workers, and nearly every online advertising tool bans sexual content.

While takedowns can be tracked by the user in most cases, Twitter and Instagram engage in a more subtle—and therefore nefarious—practice widely referred to as “shadow banning,” whereby a hashtag or keyword is suppressed from search—either temporarily or permanently—preventing users from finding content on a given subject unless they know what they’re looking for. Twitter has explicitly denied engaging in shadow banning, but sex workers—as well as a number of other activists I’ve spoken with—offer evidence to the contrary.

Smith, who owns the URL “jackisanazi.com” (referring to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey), has been particularly vocal about Twitter’s methods. In a piece arguing that shadowbans deny sex workers income and community, Smith is quoted as saying: “I have multiple tweets a day that will garner hundreds of likes and then I will post a picture that will get two. That isn’t how the internet works, typically pictures get way more engagement than straight text.”

Twitter also hides certain keywords from users’ replies, deeming them “offensive” and requiring multiple clicks to reach them. Among the words deemed offensive? “Vagina.”

Like Twitter, Instagram employs subtle enforcement mechanisms in its adjudication of sexual content. In April 2019, the company announced: “We have begun reducing the spread of posts that are inappropriate but do not go against Instagram’s Community Guidelines.” Instagram admits to blocking such content from its Explore page or in hashtag searches. One recent example was the hashtag #poledancing, used more by exercise enthusiasts than exotic dancers. Danielle Blunt, a queer-identified sex worker with a master's in Public Health who’s spent time observing the phenomenon, notes that she’s seen Instagram ban hashtags like #femdom and even #women—while #maledom remains available.

Censoring sexuality to such an extraordinary degree is bound to have a long-term impact on society. By forbidding any potentially sexual content, tech companies are furthering the sexual ideals proliferated by mainstream pornography sites—ideals that many feminists have long considered harmful. And, in particular, by banning positive and realistic depictions of women’s bodies—many of which are created and shared by women—Silicon Valley companies are ensuring that the status quo will remain.

Erika Lust, a Swedish erotic film director, is known for making porn that contains artistic angles, feminist points of view, and ethnic- and gender-diverse actors. In her writing and public speaking, Lust has called for better sexual education and for porn—which she considers “the most important discourse on gender and sexuality"—to change. Lust has experienced censorship on several platforms, including Vimeo and YouTube.

“When pages that promote female pleasure are hidden, we understand that our pleasure is invalid,” she wrote to me in an email. “When drawings of vaginas are removed, we learn that we should be ashamed of our bodies. When female nipples are censored but male nipples are not, we know that we must police our own bodies to ensure we do not arouse men … The bodies, sexualities, and desires that are allowed online translates itself into the bodies, sexualities and desires that are accepted in society.”

Indeed, the same hypersexualized imagery of young celebrities and influencers abound on these platforms, as they do on American television. The now-infamous photo of Kim Kardashian’s ample behind was permitted to remain on major platforms, as was a photo of Justin Bieber clad only in tight briefs. Meanwhile, less explicit images and information intended to empower historically marginalized communities are regularly deemed inappropriate.

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For example, Twitter and Facebook—both of which happily hosted Kim Kardashian’s nude bottom—removed the word “vagina” from an advertisement marketing a book about female anatomy, written by prominent gynecologist Dr. Jen Gunter. Similarly, journalist Sarah Lacy found that she was unable to advertise her book, entitled The Uterus is a Feature, on Facebook. Both platforms have also blocked advertisements for information about teen pregnancy, proper bra fitting, and gynecologist visits.

This puritanism seems to disproportionately impact queer, and particularly trans, users, as Kali Sudhra, an activist, sex worker, and educator, and others point out. One clear example involves a YouTube channel called Watts the Safeword that seeks to provide “kink-friendly sexual education.” One of the channel’s creators, Amp, told me that the thumbnails he and his team had carefully selected to represent their videos were not showing up in search. After several days of correspondence with YouTube, they were told that the custom thumbnails were “considered inappropriate for viewers.”

Amp said that he’s seen instances where queer content was demonetized, demoted, or removed while nearly identical heterosexual content was left untouched. Another YouTube user, Chase Ross, reported that merely including “trans” in a video’s title was enough to trigger demonetization. And still others have reported seeing anti-LGBTQ ads show up on their content.

With so many examples readily available, it’s hard to imagine that the companies’ policy teams are unaware of the problem. Instead, it seems likely that they simply don’t see queer users as important—at least not as important as the conservative US users whose loud protests are rewarded with significant attention. Or, as Sudhra surmised to me, perhaps it’s something worse: “Puritan values. Blatant transphobia, whorephobia, racism, ableism.”


Excerpted from Silicon Values: The Future of Free Speech under Surveillance Capitalism by Jillian C. York, published by Verso Books.


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