Organizations using Facebook and Patreon to share information and resources on sexual health say they’re experiencing an uptick of bans and censorship, even when their content isn’t “adult” in nature.
Timaree Schmit, who runs a sex education group on Facebook, told me in Facebook messages that she and several admin for her page SEXx Interactive were banned from Facebook the day after their biggest annual conference in June. When she logged on, she saw a message from Facebook saying that an "offending image" had violated the platform’s community standards. The image was SEXx Interactive’s logo, which is simply text of the word “SEXx.” She and the admins for the page were banned for 30 days, and the page was taken down.
“We have theories about what happened, but obviously no way to know for sure,” Schmidt said. “Some of the committee suspect it's just prude people or someone who has issues with us personally. I started to wonder if it's FOSTA-SESTA related, given we talk openly about sexuality and sex worker rights and FB may not want to be held liable for even that.”
After I contacted Facebook about this situation, their page and admin were restored. Facebook declined to comment on the record.
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As the Fight Against Sex Trafficking Act, or FOSTA, a law that makes platforms more liable for what their users say and do, casts a wide net over sex workers online, it could very well be punishing sex educators and harm reduction providers for spreading information on social networks. But that’s difficult to prove.
The same vague phrasing that makes FOSTA so dangerous for sex workers also makes it hard to pin down as the cause of censorship online: Some companies, like Cloudflare and Craigslist, have explicitly said that the law is the reason they’re restricting access. Other cases of sexual censorship, like Google Drive and Patreon, seem related to FOSTA, but without a platform admitting as much, we can't draw a direct line from these kinds of censorship and events like the closure of Backpage, a website for advertising sex work.
“We definitely have seen an increase in things getting blocked or removed by facebook for violating community standards,” Cyndee Clay, executive director of sexual health and harm reduction advocacy group HIPS, told me in an email. Job postings, photos, and boosted ad requests all have been deleted. “My friend was recently banned for a post that was asking to interview sex workers for an article she was writing,” she said. “I'm not sure how much of this is SESTA/FOSTA related, and how much of it is just FB being evil—but we are concerned.”
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For educators and advocates caught in the middle of confusing, overly-vague legislation, the effort of staying online is frustrating—especially when platforms aren’t clear about why they’re being banned, or how to appeal.
Sometimes platforms make sex educators harder to access not by outright banning them, but by listing them as “adult content.”
DMarcella Lyles, a sex educator and relationship coach, told me in an email that her Patreon account, which features relationship coaching and educational materials on topics including masturbation, sexuality, and gender, was listed as “adult content.” She says she didn’t receive any notice from Patreon about the change, and weren’t given access to appeal. When a page is listed as “adult” on Patreon, according to the platform’s community guidelines, it’s removed from the main directory and hidden from search. This eliminates any chance that someone might stumble onto their page or find it through related interests, which can seriously hurt the creator’s traffic and income.
“We are under attack simply for education others,” Lyles said. “In short, what seems like a simple redirection or an ‘alert for sensitive content’ is just one more way to collapse, conflate and confuse the public on what sexuality education is, why it matters and why their access to it is a right that they should have and not a commodity that should be at the hands of someone decide who has that access or when.”
That someone else, in Patreon’s case, is payment processors. Last month, Patreon blamed a renewed crackdown on adult content on its payment providers, which include Stripe and PayPal. But a spokesperson for the company didn’t completely rule out FOSTA as a cause of those processors cracking down on them anew—PayPal, especially, is historically hostile toward sex-related payments, but is recently more strict about what that means.
In response to reports of pages that promoted violence against women, the company said in 2013 that it would no longer allow ads to appear on pages with sexual content, saying it was “protecting” users. Its current guidelines say that the approach has gotten more nuanced with time, and that “where such intent is clear, we make allowances for the content.” But that’s not what educators like Schmidt and Clay are seeing.
“That is the problem with FOSTA/SESTA,” Lyles said. “It makes all sex things bad. When in truth they aren't all bad. Some are necessary to be discussed to keep the public safe, informed and empowered.”