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Instagram Is Removing Sex-Positive Accounts Without Warning

Jun 29, 2023 2:00 AM

Instagram Is Removing Sex-Positive Accounts Without Warning

The platform has suddenly suspended dozens of high-profile accounts, cutting people off from the communities that keep them safe.

Video: ANJALI NAIR; GETTY IMAGES

On the morning of June 22, Karl Verboten tried to log into the Instagram account for Klub Verboten, his London kink space and fortnightly party, but was met with the message: "We suspended your account … Your account is not visible to people on Instagram right now, and you cannot use it.”

Klub Verboten, founded in 2016, has a team of 70 freelancers and 50 safety staff, and has developed into a “community for modern human interaction,” with more than 70,000 followers on Instagram. The platform has been an integral part of Klub Verboten’s success, says Verboten.

“It allowed many people to discover themselves and stream into a space where they can find a community and like-minded people,” says Verboten. “That direct contact was really important. Sexuality is within all of us, embedded, and as such we want to reach actual human beings. It really made an impact for the better.” The team was careful not to post nudity, which isn’t allowed on Instagram. “We only post mugshots, people only fully clothed in the event space,” Verboten says. “There’s nothing sexual about it, they could be attending any rave in this day and age.”

But in a flash, Klub Verboten’s presence and digital community was wiped from the platform last Thursday. “We didn’t get any warning, any message whatsoever,” says Verboten. “Our account was just gone from one second to another.”

Verboten’s is just one of at least 45 sexuality-related accounts removed from Instagram in recent weeks. The platform has suspended users posting sex-related content, according to sex workers, activists, fetish parties, and sex-positive community members who spoke to WIRED.

“It feels like a real attack on your identity, who you are, and what you believe in, especially when it’s revolving around sex education, safe spaces, or being a sex worker,” Reed Amber, a sex educator, sex worker activist, and host of the “F**ks Given” ComeCurious podcast, says. “A lot of people think losing an Instagram account is nothing, but it isn’t. It is the equivalent of being fired from your job. It is your time, energy, and source of income, and everything you have worked toward.”

Mitch Henderson, a Meta spokesperson said: “We understand our platforms play an important role in helping people express themselves and connect with communities. While we allow sex positive content and discussion, we have rules in place around nudity and sexual solicitation to ensure content is appropriate for everyone, particularly young people. A number of the accounts brought to our attention were removed in error and have been reinstated.”

Sex education enterprises and cultural initiatives, some of which had tens of thousands of followers, have also been caught in the crosshairs, including the UK Fetish Archives at London’s Bishopsgate Institute. Other casualties include @thepconversation, a sex education outlet by porn director Erika Lust; Gashtrays, a sex-positive pottery account; and Slut Social, a sex-positive event page and meme account. Even @not.a.statistic.19, an account posting news stories and articles about the sex industry, has been temporarily restricted twice since June 13, its founder told WIRED.

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“If you are a sex-positive content creator, it’s not a good time to be on Meta or platforms,” says Carolina Are, an innovation fellow researching social media censorship at the Centre for Digital Citizens at Northumbria University and a pole dance instructor. She has compiled a list of sex-positive accounts that have been removed and shared it with Meta in the hope they reinstate users. Over a dozen of the Instagram accounts—including Klub Verboten; MakeLoveNotPorn, a sex platform; and @samtalkssex, an educational account—were reinstated after WIRED contacted Meta.

This is just the latest of myriad occasions seeing sex workers, adult content creators, and sex-related accounts being pushed away by social platforms. Members of the sex industry are often at heightened risk of on-the-ground subjugation, discrimination, and violent attacks, and so turn to digital outlets. But they are also under threat there, with their livelihoods on the line. Platforms that previously championed adult material have shunned it over the years, including fansite OnlyFans, which momentarily banned explicit content in 2021 before backtracking. Meta also apologized to pole dancers in 2019 for shadowbanning their accounts. It has also regularly shut down sex workers’ accounts and penalized sex-related content on Instagram.

But Meta is not transparent about the trigger for the latest round of Instagram removals, says Are. Several suspended sex-positive users, including Verboten, told WIRED they weren’t given a full explanation for their suspension and didn’t hear from Meta after appealing bans.

“This is all extremely distressing because people who work through these platforms don’t know what’s going on,” says Are. “They’re seeing the scene being wiped out from Instagram, they don’t know when they will be next, and they don’t know what it is that’s causing this because there’s no transparency or information from Meta.”

Are, who has personally been shadowbanned and previously removed from Instagram, believes the recent round of deplatforming might be the result of a “glitch” in Meta’s implicit solicitation policy and algorithm. It considers a “suggestive” pose combined with a request for communication, such as a “link in bio” or instruction to DM, as soliciting, she says.

Some recently banned users posted links to external sites before being suspended. This includes Jane Grey, a professional dominatrix and host of kink party Scene who has been careful, she says, not to post explicit photos on Instagram. “I’ve never had any warnings before because I know not to do that,” she says. “I just normally use it as a portfolio of really cool photo shoots I’ve done.”

But on June 2, Grey was suspended, she thinks, for posting a link to a mistress directory website asking her 3,000 followers to vote for her in their Best Mistress UK competition. “It gave me a list of reasons and it said ‘solicitation and sexually suggestive photos or content,’” she says. “It was really unfair, because I wasn’t actually soliciting anything. I was asking people to vote for me, which is a completely different kettle of fish.”

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Her account has since been reinstated. But Grey is one of several sex workers flagging what they see as hypocrisy and inconsistent application of platform policies around sexual content. “There are people on Instagram with 2 million followers with their tits out all the time,” says Grey of scantily-clad celebrity accounts that go uncensored.

The sex-positive community is well versed in trying to dance around moderation, rewriting commonly used phrases and replacing letters or entire words with emojis and codewords. Fearing they might be next, some sex education and kink event accounts are preemptively taking precautions to avoid getting caught in the removal net. Joyride, which runs queer kink raves and sex-positive events in London, has removed links to off-platform content from its profile entirely and created a backup account. Others are bouncing to other platforms altogether.

Amber, the activist and educator, has been suspended from Instagram eight times. She posted a guide on the platform on June 23, advising accounts to protect themselves amid the wave of removals she calls “insanity.”

“It’s perpetuating the idea that anything to do with sex is negative, harmful, and we should be ashamed of it and be pushed underground into less safe spaces,” says Amber. “I can’t even have ‘sex worker activist’ in my bio on Instagram for fear of being deleted.” Meta did not clarify whether having “sex worker” on a profile puts the user at risk of suspension.

Social media accounts play a role in keeping sex workers safe and secure, allowing the ability to build a public profile and vet potential clients. But sex-positive accounts also provide transparency and education about sex and relationships for others as well. “My aim is only to educate people and make people feel more comfortable about themselves and their sex lives,” says Amber, who frequently posts about sex education, body acceptance, and LGBTQ+ rights. “Instagram is part of the positive education around sex that we need because it’s very accessible and relatable, and if that’s taken away from us, we are cutting off a huge part of that education that we might listen to over and above what we might be taught at school.”

Research shows deplatforming also takes a considerable emotional and financial toll. For Verboten, losing the online space he has committed his time to has made him feel suicidal, he says. “If you dedicate seven years of your life to building a community on and offline and, without warning, it suddenly gets erased, that’s devastating.”

Despite the pain, members of the community are banding together to resist the removals. Verboten, who successfully protested against nudity-restricting licensing in East London in 2022, and a wider collective of sex-positive events and community members are organizing a demonstration outside Meta’s London offices on July 4, and have launched an online campaign called #StopDeletingUs.

“We want to let people know there are humans behind these things and they can’t just always close us down for arbitrary reasons, just because there’s one upset algorithm, one upset councillor, or one officer that doesn’t like it for moral reasons,” says Verboten. “It just really doesn’t reflect the world we live in anymore.”

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