Sex happens. It’s why I’m here. It’s – and I hate to disgust you – why you’re here. Your parents had sex. Their parents had sex. We have all had, or likely will have, sex. But on social media, many of us aren’t having sex. We’re having “seggs”, “secs” or “s3x”.
Log onto some of the world’s most popular social media platforms, like Instagram and TikTok, and you’ll often find a sexless world – but one that’s plenty seggsy. As part of a growing trend to remove legitimately harmful content online, social media platforms are clamping down on sex and sexual terms. And the move is forcing users to resort to clever phonetics and emojis to talk openly about sex while avoiding account suspensions or permanent bans.
“Platforms are essentially declaring war on sex, nudity and sexuality,” says Carolina Are, a London-based content moderation academic and pole dance instruction. Most of the major social media platforms are based in the US, and as such are adhering to rules decreed in Washington. “They’re cracking down on potential solicitation and nudity or sexual activity, which I can only assume is on the back of FOSTA-SESTA [two US Senate and House bills that became law in 2018].”
FOSTA-SESTA was designed to halt sex trafficking, but, in Are’s opinion, it has caught many other innocent people in its drag net. She has had her Instagram account deleted once, and her TikTok account has been temporarily blocked a number of times. “Obviously, I don’t want that to happen again, so I sometimes change the language.” Search TikTok for #sextoys and you won’t find the hashtag, she says, but search #femalepleasure and you’ll find the equivalent.
“Sexual content and the spaces for it are really shrinking on social media,” she says. “I think that says a lot about the relationship users have with those platforms. They live in fear of being censored or being deleted. And they have to protect themselves while still talking about the issues that matter to them the most.”
One influencer trapped in that bind is Vista Wife, an advocate and educator on the swinging lifestyle, who has 150,000 followers on TikTok, 10,000 on Instagram, and 7,500 on Twitter. “You’ve just got to be really cautious about it,” she says. She finds she has to be far more careful about her content on Instagram and TikTok – both of which have comparatively younger user bases – than Twitter.
“We always live on the principle of: ‘Ooh, should I say that? Can I say that? What can I say?’”she says. Vista Wife and her husband often host TikTok Live sessions, answering questions from newcomers to swinging, but these have now become a tightrope walk. “It’s nerve-wracking,” she says, “because if you said something in a discussion and TikTok go: ‘Woah, hang on a minute,’ [and] they just block your account. You start having to think about everything that you’re saying – every little detail – to make sure you can still be there and present.”
The practice of employing a near second language of phonetic and emoji terms to talk openly about sex has long been known to users of Grindr, says Max Morris, a lecturer in criminology at Oxford Brookes University who focuses on queer theory. “Lots of these kinds of codes emerged on Grindr because the app had quite a censorious approach to certain things – drugs and sex work primarily, but also more explicit photos.” Grindr’s approach (which has been relaxed in the last year towards explicit photos) was driven by the need to meet Apple’s strict criteria for listing on the App Store. Without following their rules, apps aren’t able to access the primary form of distribution to users on phones.
Necessity is the mother of invention, and Grindr’s user base came up with their own underground code designed to evade the censors. Rather than explicitly saying users could be paid for sex, which the app monitored and banned, sex workers began using the banknote emoji instead. When Grindr recognised the tide had shifted and started taking action against that, they moved on to the diamond emoji. “People will always find ways to get around sexual censorship, but I would look at what the platforms explicitly allow or don't allow, rather than asking why users go to these lengths,” says Morris.
While those misspelt homonyms and emoji may seem like a solution, Are isn’t entirely sure. Her research, and communications with Instagram, show that when one term is shadowbanned and placed onto the list of “forbidden” hashtags, some terms that sound similar are also shadowbanned. Just as Grindr eventually caught up with the banknote emoji users, they’re also likely to crack down on the deployment of diamonds.
In a request for comment, TikTok told VICE that it doesn’t allow sexually explicit content on the platform – including behaviours that mimic, imply or display sex acts. The word “sex” itself isn’t banned on TikTok, VICE understands, nor does using it impact the performance of your video. It’s about how the word is used and in what context. An Instagram spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
This crackdown on sexualised hashtags, words and phrases shouldn’t just worry those engaged in sex work. In 2022, social media is the public sphere; it’s where people come to talk about their concerns and queries; to learn and ask questions. And if they’re unable to find answers – particularly around vexed issues of sex and consent – that can have problematic consequences.
“This trickles down to different types of sexual expression, to sex education, to information and networking-related stuff for survivors that becomes difficult to talk about,” Are says. “It affects everyday users as much as it can sex work. It could have some really worrying offline consequences if, for example, sex education isn’t available anymore.”
“It’s a really tricky one,” says Vista Wife. “You’ve got children using these apps, and that content can go to children. But I think children should be taught more about sex and it should be more of a conversation.”
A vacuum of information could push the topic of sex even further into the shadows of society and make people feel ashamed about discussing it directly. This has the potential to create a vicious circle: the less social media platforms allow us to talk about sex, the less comfortable we feel doing so in our everyday lives. “It shouldn’t be something that people should have to hide away,” says Vista Wife. “It’d be more healthy if people could speak about it more and not be as prudish.”