Time to get a little personal, friends. This week, WordPress nuked my sexuality education website – without any warning or recourse. I had, it appears, violated their terms and conditions by including pornography *GASP* amongst the columns, news links and podcasts. For over a decade, my content was apparently fine, but one day it was simply not – and years of work was removed without an option to edit.
This is not the first time I’ve been de-platformed for content of a saucy nature and it surely won’t be the last because – terrifyingly – sexuality is being increasingly targeted for censorship online.
Depending on who you are and how you use the internet, you may have noticed most sites took a decidedly prude turn after 2018. Social media sites revised their community standards to become more aggressively anti-nudity, communities like Patreon began ejecting adult content, and people in a variety of industries found themselves unable to do their jobs.
The reason? A pair of laws known as FOSTA-SESTA, which were written purportedly to combat sex trafficking. Of course, all good people are opposed to human trafficking and no one wants to vote against a law that claims to fight it, so these bills passed overwhelmingly. What critics at the time correctly predicted though was that not only would the bill not have that effect, but that sexual expression would be silenced across the web.
FOSTA-SESTA fails first and foremost in its ability to do what it set out to do. Even the Department of Justice was clear that it will be harder for it to locate victims of trafficking with this law’s passage. But its insidiousness is in the unintended (?) impact of silencing already marginalized groups: sex workers were affected most severely – as well as queer people, artists, educators and grassroots justice groups that fight for sexual freedom.
What FOSTA-SESTA does is hold websites accountable for hosting content that supports the sale of sexual services. Because the sale of sex is illegal in most of the U.S., there is no distinction between people whose chosen profession is sexual in nature and those who are actually trafficked – coerced or forced into prostitution.
Not wanting to be held liable for any violation, sites like Facebook banned not only advertisements for perfectly legal forms of work like porn or stripping, but even open discussions of sexual preferences or even use of the term “looking for a good time tonight?” They began removing the pages of sexuality educators, visual artists and many LGBTQ performers, openly acknowledging that they were being overly cautious and have a 1 in 10 false positive rate.
After a ban, a well-funded corporation or government may be able to fight back, but volunteer-run organizations and small businesses are more likely to fall apart completely. For example: after five years of local activism, SEXx collective – which I co-founded – was erased from Facebook. Just this week, the nonprofit Center for Sexual Pleasure and Health announced that, due to the censorship they’ve faced because online, they will be rebranding to the opaque name of SHIP.
Many major online communities have followed suit with this prudery, ranging from the decision to remove all adult content from Tumblr when it was purchased by Verizon (effectively destroying the monetary value of the site), to Twitch’s rules that allow nudity and violence in games but not by the human streamers who use their site, and most recently: the prohibition of “female nipples” from items for sale on eBay.
Many of these communities have migrated to Twitter where sexual content is allowed, effectively proving the point that these sites could very easily loosen their regulations and continue to function. The ACLU has pointed out that, while “perfect content moderation may be impossible,” these platforms can do better. “They should give users more control, and respond to user experiences and reports, rather than rely so heavily on automated detection. They should also provide transparency, clarity, and appeals processes to regular users.”
There are several reasons for people to be concerned. First, there are the many at-risk groups impacted by this pearl-clutching. Overwhelmingly the folks impacted have been those who are already fighting for survival and who depend on internet communities.
There’s also a dangerous effect of ghettoizing sexual content to purely pornographic sites. Since most children already do not get comprehensive sexuality education or media literacy training, taking down all the sex ed pages is like outlawing drivers ed classes and relying on “Fast & Furious” movies for our socialization instead.
Further, there are geopolitical impacts for people who aren’t even on sites like Facebook. Aside from the silencing of free expression around sexuality, social media sites have been operating outside of government oversight and are worryingly influencing international politics through their moderation choices and collusion with repressive regimes.
So what can we do? First FOSTA-SESTA must be overturned and other potentially damaging reforms of the Communications Decency Act – like the SAFE TECH act – need to be dropped. We also have to shift our usage away from social media sites, financially support journalism and independent artists, and raise awareness about these issues to stem the slow choking death of free expression.
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