Hitting the Books: Social media's long, pointless war against sex on the internet

Unsurprisingly, society's most vulnerable populations are those most harmed by these policies.

M-Production via Getty Images

From the moment that people started getting nasty with Johannes Gutenberg's newfangled printing press, sexually explicit content has led the way towards wide-scale adoption of mass communication technologies. But with every advance in methodology has invariably come a backlash — a moral panic here, a book burning there, the constant uncut threat of mass gun violence — aiming to suppress that expression. Now, given the things I saw Googling "sexually explicit printing press," dear reader, I can assure you that their efforts will ultimately be in vain.

But it hasn't stopped social media corporations, advertisers, government regulators and the people you most dread seeing in your building's elevator from working to erase sexuality-related content from the world wide web. In the excerpt below from her most excellent new book, How Sex Changed the Internet and the Internet Changed Sex: An Unexpected History, Motherboard Senior Editor Samantha Cole discusses the how and why to Facebook, Instagram and Google's slow strangling of online sexual speech over the past 15 years.

How Sex Changed the Internet cover
Workman Publishing

Excerpted from How Sex Changed the Internet and the Internet Changed Sex: An Unexpected History by Samantha Cole. Workman Publishing © 2022

How Sex Is Repressed Online

Human and algorithmic censorship has completely changed the power structure of who gets to post what types of adult content online. This has played out as independent sex workers struggling to avoid getting kicked off of sites like Instagram or Twitter just for existing as people—while big companies like Brazzers, displaying full nudity, have no problem keeping their accounts up.

Despite Facebook’s origins as Mark Zuckerberg’s Hot-or-Not rating system for women on his Harvard campus, the social network’s policies on sexuality and nudity are incredibly strict. Over the years, it’s gone through several evolutions and overhauls, but in 2022 forbidden content includes (but isn’t limited to) “real nude adults,” “sexual intercourse” and a wide range of things that could imply intercourse “even when the contact is not directly visible,” or “presence of by-products of sexual activity.” Nudity in art is supposedly allowed, but artists and illustrators still fight against bans and rejected posts all the time.

That’s not to mention “sexual solicitation,” which Facebook will not tolerate. That includes any and all porn, discussions of states of sexual arousal, and anything that both asks or offers sex “directly or indirectly” and also includes sexual emojis like peaches and eggplants, sexual slang, and depictions or poses of sexual activity.

These rules also apply on Instagram, the photo-sharing app owned by Facebook. As the number one and two biggest social networks in the US, these dictate how much of the internet sees and interacts with sexual content.

In the earliest archived versions of Facebook’s terms of use, sex was never mentioned—but its member conduct guidelines did ban “any content that we deem to be harmful, threatening, abusive, harassing, vulgar, obscene, hateful, or racially, ethnically or otherwise objectionable.” This vagueness gives Facebook legal wiggle room to ban whatever it wants.

The platform took a more welcoming approach to sexual speech as recently as 2007, with Sexuality listed as one of the areas of interest users could choose from, and more than five hundred user-created groups for various discussions around the topic. But the platform’s early liberality with sex drew scrutiny. In 2007, then–New York attorney general Andrew Cuomo led a sting operation on Facebook where an investigator posed as teens and caught child predators.

As early as 2008, it started banning female breasts—specifically, nipples. The areola violated its policy on “obscene, pornographic or sexually explicit” material. In December 2008, a handful of women gathered outside the company’s Palo Alto office to breastfeed in front of the building in protest (it was a Saturday; no executives were working).

As of 2018, Facebook lumped sex work under banned content that depicts “sexual exploitation,” stating that all references and depictions of “sexual services” were forbidden, “includ[ing] prostitution, escort services, sexual massages, and filmed sexual activity.”

A lot of this banned content is health and wellness education.

In 2018, sexuality educator Dr. Timaree Schmit logged in to Facebook and checked her page for SEXx Interactive, which runs an annual sex ed conference she’d held the day before. A notification from Facebook appeared: She and several other admins for the page were banned from the entire platform for thirty days, and the page was taken down, because an “offending image” had violated the platform’s community standards. The image in question was the word SEXx in block letters on a red background.

The examples of this sort of thing are endless and not limited to Facebook. Google AdWords banned “graphic sexual acts with intent to arouse including sex acts such as masturbation” in 2014. Android keyboards’ predictive text banned anything remotely sexual, including the words “panty,” “braless,” “Tampax,” “lactation,” “preggers, “uterus,” and “STI” from its autocomplete dictionary. Chromecast and Google Play forbid porn. You can’t navigate to adult sites using Starbucks Wi-Fi. For a while in 2018, Google Drive seemed to be blocking users from downloading documents and files that contained adult content. The crowdfunding site Patreon forbids porn depicting real people, and in 2018 blamed its payment processor, Stripe, for not being sex-friendly. Much of this followed FOSTA/SESTA.

This is far from a complete list. There are countless stories like this, where sex educators, sex workers, artists, and journalists are censored or pushed off platforms completely for crossing these imaginary lines that are constantly moving.

Over the years, as these policies have evolved, they’ve been applied inconsistently and often with vague reasoning for the users themselves. There is one way platforms have been consistent, however: Images and content of Black and Indigenous women, as well as queer and trans people, sex workers, and fat women, experience the brunt of platform discrimination. This can lead to serious self-esteem issues, isolation, and in some cases, suicidal thoughts for people who are pushed off platforms or labeled “sexually explicit” because of their body shape or skin color.

“I’m just sick of feeling like something is wrong with my body. That it’s not OK to look how I do,” Anna Konstantopoulos, a fat Instagram influencer, said after her account was shut down and posts were deleted multiple times. Her photos in bikinis or lingerie were deleted by Instagram moderators, while other influencers’ posts stayed up and raked in the likes. “It starts to make you feel like crap about yourself.”

In spite of all of this, people project their full selves, or at least a version of themselves, onto Facebook accounts. Censorship of our sexual sides doesn’t stop people from living and working on the internet—unless that is your life and work.

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