YouTube Removed a Sex Tech Conference for No Reason

The Women of Sex Tech conference, which moved online due to coronavirus, was banned by YouTube at the last minute.
May 7, 2020, 12:00pm
A tablet with the YouTube logo.
Image credit: Esther Vargas on Flickr

The first-ever live streamed Women of Sex Tech conference, held on Saturday over Crowdcast, almost didn't happen because YouTube's automated moderation controls banned the group from the platform.

Women of Sex Tech, a group of entrepreneurs in sex and technology industries, has been organizing events and meetups for nearly five years. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, this year's conference moved to live-streaming online.

Women of Sex Tech president Alison Falk and vice president SX Noir tested the live stream on YouTube on Friday evening. After four minutes of streaming with a speaker in the UK, the stream was cut off for violating community guidelines.

"I was so confused, I thought it had to be a glitch considering there was no mention of sex or adult content at that time," Falk told Motherboard. She said that the YouTube account only had their logo on it, and was made weeks in advance. When she tried testing again a few hours later with Noir, YouTube said the channel was in violation three more times.

In a statement to the Daily Dot, a YouTube spokesperson blamed the incident on its coronavirus response, which involved sending human moderators home and instead relying more heavily on automated algorithms. “We know that this may result in some videos being removed that do not violate our policies, but this allows us to continue to act quickly and protect our ecosystem," the spokesperson said. "If creators think that their content was removed in error, they can appeal decisions and our teams will take a look.”

Falk and Noir told Motherboard that appealing the decision, so close to their event the following morning, seemed pointless.

"At that point, we began scrambling to figure out what we could do and ended up having to fork over a couple hundred dollars for conferencing software to make sure the show would still go on!" Falk said; Crowdcast costs $195 per month for a business plan that could support the attendees and time limit they needed.

YouTube’s nudity and sexual content policies bans a whole list of explicit content "meant to be sexually gratifying," but there was none of that in the entire five-hour conference, which Motherboard attended. Speakers including founder of MakeLoveNotPorn Cindy Gallop, reproductive health specialist Serena Chen, and sextech business founder Lora Haddock DiCarlo spoke on how the coronavirus pandemic has affected their work, and gave insights into how others in the sexual wellness and education industry can cope with the current crisis.

Adult industry professionals including Danielle Blunt, who spoke about the EARNIT act, and writer Jessie Sage discussed the ways sex work is impacted by the pandemic, but no one described their profession in explicit detail. All of that doesn't matter, however, because the algorithm decided they were breaking the YouTube terms of use before they even held the event.

"Morality and technology very much have intersections."

"Considering this isn't a one-time occurrence and there are frequent stories of folks being shadowbanned, demonetized, having their accounts disabled, and so on within our communities, I can't help but wonder what variables within the automation their smart detection has been told to look for that would trigger a violation of inappropriate content," Falk said.

This is yet another example of sex education and sexual speech being routinely silenced by tech companies like YouTube, Facebook and Apple for years. It's an incident that's indicative of a larger pattern of sexual censorship online.

"I think this indicates that there will always be a moral judgment on these platforms… When cis, heterosexual white men create these digital worlds, you see these moral judgments leading to more discrimination for people who are brown, black and queer," Noir said—and legislation like FOSTA-SESTA, which censors sexual speech online under the guise of preventing trafficking, and the EARN IT Act, which is still in the Senate but would give government actors the power to force sites to break users' encryption, further hinder their acceptance on mainstream platforms.

"Morality and technology very much have intersections," Noir said. "And most of the time, as mentioned, it's the queer and brown folks that are left out of this acceptance."