The war on sexual content

If you follow news about sexual content online, it has it been a whirlwind lately.

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Sex advice shouldn’t be syndicated. We wanted a local feel to ours so we’ve enlisted the sound advice of resident sex professor Timaree Schmit. Have a question about your love life that needs answers? Email her at asktimaree@philadelphiaweekly.com. | Image: Redlite photos

In recent weeks, a number of shake-ups have occurred, including PornHub making major policy changes and purging millions of videos.

This happened after they got heat from a New York Times expose (with questionable motives), and led to Visa and Mastercard severing ties to the site. Meanwhile, Instagram puritanically updated their Terms of Service, TikTok started purging users who were found to have OnlyFans accounts, and Twitch expressly conflated all sexy content to harassment – all ready to jettison anyone who continues to post the content that built their platforms. 

Some facets of the news – like the financial war on sex workers and censorship of sexuality on social media – have been ongoing for years. Meanwhile, a newly proposed bill in the Senate threatens the future of sexuality on the internet entirely. To understand what is happening, and why absolutely everyone should care, we must examine the origin of this prudish movement.

“The feminist porn wars of the ‘70s and ‘80s have dwindled into the ashes of history, yet an ember remains of the fear that all pornography is a shield for sexual exploitation.” 

There are few areas of overlap between liberals and evangelical Christians, but a longstanding area of contention has been pornography. The feminist porn wars of the ‘70s and ‘80s have dwindled into the ashes of history, yet an ember remains of the fear that all pornography is a shield for sexual exploitation. 

To be clear, there are highly exploitative labor practices in the porn industry, as there are in many industries. It is also possible for a person who works in the sex industry to have a long, shitty day on the job where they feel like the money is absolutely not worth the trouble…as there are in many industries. And trafficking does exist, though largely not as movies imagine it and more often in agricultural and domestic service fields than in full-service sex work. 

For years, the creators of sexual content have bemoaned the business practices of PornHub, owned by MindGeek, and lobbied for them to stop making it so easy to steal and share their content. Largely, these efforts were to no avail, as porn performers and other sexy folks are rarely given major platforms or taken seriously by mainstream Americans, even those who consume their content. 

Enter organizations like Exodus Cry and other groups of self-appointed saviors purporting to battle trafficking. Clearly, any decent person would be opposed to sexual enslavement, right? Well, that’s also the major selling point of joining QAnon too. That doesn’t make them not crazy. Even the UK’s Slavery Museum temporarily was swayed by these groups, failing to understand the context that these activists believe any sexy work is, by definition, slavery. 

“Be an ethical consumer of porn and other sexual content: Pay for it, especially if you can do so directly from the makers themselves.” 

Anti-trafficking has been at the core of many monumentally bad pieces of legislation, notably 2018’s FOSTA-SESTA. This combination of laws significantly neutered the internet, made sex work harder and more dangerous, and, ironically, made it more difficult for authorities to find actual victims of trafficking

The basic gist of FOSTA-SESTA is that it made websites legally liable for any sale of sexual services that happen on their platform. Because there is no legal distinction between forced and consensual sexual commerce in the U.S., any hint of sexiness on Facebook or Patreon could potentially open the company up to major liabilities. And because these sites don’t have any philosophical commitment to freedom of speech or any interest in ensuring the continued existence of marginalized communities that revolve around sexuality education, performance or labor, they’d rather simply purge that content entirely. 

When you look at the updated guidelines on PornHub, ensuring only verified accounts will be able to upload content, banning downloads, and working with child abuse databases to find and remove horrific content, it sounds great. When you hear that the site routinely hosts videos of underaged people or victims of sexual violence, it’s absolutely ghastly. But then you find out that all websites have this problem actually…and that the policies won’t stop that abuse from happening or being shared…but it will make it even harder for people to survive.

For years, people in sexual industries, even legal ones like porn and stripping, have battled for their financial rights – as apps like Venmo and PayPal seize their assets and banks shut down and deny them accounts. All in the name of combating trafficking. 

The latest bill, known as SISEA, also sounds good on its face, as it’s intended to “prevent the uploading of pornographic images to online platforms without the consent of the individuals in the images.” But it calls for sites to have a 24-hour response team, a two-hour turnaround to removal requests, and a variety of other things that websites simply won’t give enough of a damn to do. Instead, they’ll just put the onus on users and remove content without warning or recourse. Celebrities with the ability to raise a kerfuffle might be able to keep their accounts and get their posts reinstated, but the everyday people who rely on incomes they make from platforms they’ve spent years building, or even those creators who don’t meet conventional standards of thinness may be booted. 

So what do we do about this? 

First, you can contact your legislators about these issues. SISEA has only recently been introduced and can be killed. If you are a content creator and this may impact you, make sure you have a backup means for your followers to connect. Get a website going, start a newsletter, whatever works. Finally, be an ethical consumer of porn and other sexual content: Pay for it, especially if you can do so directly from the makers themselves. Follow creators online and stay informed about what is happening in the industry. Because this is far from the end of this battle.  

Have a question for Timaree? Send an email to asktimaree@philadelphiaweekly.com.

  • Timaree Schmit Headshot

    Timaree Schmit is basically an episode of Adam Ruins Everything, but in the shape of a person. She has a PhD in Human Sexuality Education and years of experience in community organizing, performance art, and finding the extra weird pockets of Philly.