Instagram recently censored the hashtag #stripper and related phrases dancers use to connect, advocate for rights, and promote their work.
The #stripper hashtag has been hidden before, but this was the first time it was reportedly hidden alongside others such as #yesastripper, #stripperlife, and even #woman. The ban was lifted from all hashtags, but this wave of suppression comes as sex workers are reporting their accounts getting deleted from social media, possibly as a result of the controversial sex-trafficking law FOSTA/SESTA. Without their platforms, dancers will lose tools needed to protect their autonomy.
Following the ban, illustrator and performer Jacqueline Frances took to social media to criticize the industry-wide censorship and the blatant gender disparity at play, since #man and #malestripper were left uncensored.
There was outrage that #woman was banned alongside stripper hashtags, but as Thierry Shaffauser wrote in the Guardian, stigma against sex workers “operates as a way of controlling and policing women’s behavior.”
The #woman, #stripper, #yesastripper and #stripperlife hashtags are working again as of Thursday, after being down for several days, but #strippers still shows that the content is blocked:
Estelle Laufeia, an Australian stripper, told me in a Facebook Messenger conversation that she discovered the Instagram account she used to promote her performances at various clubs in Melbourne was removed last week. Her social media presence helped her earn income during slow periods..
“Some nights there have been no customers and one post on Instagram is the difference between walking out with nothing and having a good night,” she said.
Laufeia said she prefers to get her clients from social media rather than lean on managers to bring in traffic.“I have better experiences when I advertise and get clients [through social media] than rely on whoever randomly pops into the club,” she said.
In a profession that’s been repeatedly silenced by society, social media radically displays sex work to the public
Not only has the internet given her more control over her labor, it’s also given her more leverage with managers. Firing dancers for no reason is common in Melbourne, perhaps because of saturation in the industry, but dancers with social media accounts are less likely to be callously dismissed, she said.
“Promoting lessens my likelihood of being fired because I’m helping the club bring people through the door,” Laufeia said.
After watching her colleagues get their accounts deleted, Laufeia prepared her business by making a backup account, but her posts don’t get anywhere near the amount of attention without her original 1.2k followers.
A spokesperson for Instagram told me in an email that the company is “constantly monitoring hashtag behavior by using a variety of different signals, including community member reports.”
Instagram sometimes restricts access to recent posts and hashtags “based on content being posted with those hashtags,” the spokesperson said. “The hashtag #stripper can again be used and seen by the community in the spirit in which they are intended.”
Laufeia noticed the increase in banned and deleted accounts after FOSTA/SESTA passed. The law, which was signed by President Donald Trump in March, was framed as a way to fight online sex traffickingby making websites criminally responsible for users’ content.
But the law doesn’t distinguish between sex work and coerced labor. Out of fear of incrimination, sex workers believe that they’ve seen evidence of social media companies ramping up censorship globally—even at the expense of alienating an entire workforce.
“Everyone uses social media. Barring a specific workforce from using is discriminatory and dangerous. By censoring sex workers, you're perpetuating the stigma, not rescuing us,” Frances told me in an email.
It’s not just dancers who advertise online that are at risk, but the entire community that relies on social media to swap safety and health tips.
When I started dancing, I only had scraps of information I picked up along the way, jumping from club to club unaware of how to avoid harm. After getting violated by a customer in a private room in Manhattan, I started searching social media for advice using hashtags like #stripperproblems and #survivetheclub to detect dangerous customers, assert my boundaries, spot undercover cops, clubs to avoid, what to do in a raid, and save money. I discovered a library of information in a job that has no manual.
But the ability for strippers to get details like I did may disappear: #survivetheclub, which Chase Kelly created to empower strippers, was blocked with the other stripper hashtags.
Social media also helps dancers across the industry connect in a job laden with contention among workers.
“The internet has made facilitating friendships within clubs much easier,” Morgan Claire Sirene, a Chicago based stripper, artist, and writer, told me in an email. “It created a web of mutual interest among a group of women who often hide their true personalities at work.”
Like myself, Claire Sirene also met sex workers online who helped her get through rough patches in her career.
“Social media has connected me to sex workers who I would have never met or found otherwise,” she said. “Sex workers are some of the smartest, most generous people I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. I’ve never even met a lot of women in person who have supported me in times of need.”
Frances echoed this: “Strippers use social media to feel connected to people who face a similar struggle, to combat fear and isolation,” she told me.
Aside from removing invaluable community support, censoring strippers will impact our ability to organize and advocate for our rights and for better conditions. In February, police raided strip clubs in New Orleans after the city attempted to limit the number of clubs. Dancers quickly spread the word and rapidly mobilized petitions and organized a march using the hashtag #letusdance, which led the city to back off. Without those protests, organized on the platforms that are now censoring us, the city officials may have successfully curtailed the industry, putting hundreds of women out of work.
This is worrisome as the #internationalsexworkerrightsday hashtag was temporarily banned recently, especially as protests are being planned for International Whore’s Day on June 2nd to rally against SESTA.
In a profession that’s been repeatedly silenced by society, social media radically displays sex work to the public. Strippers are no longer faceless women working in scary seedy places, but people with lives outside of their lace and lingerie. Instagram and Twitter have helped legitimize an industry absent of labor protections, and without access, we’re left us at the mercy of government policies, shady management practices, and police misconduct.
But censorship threatens to do more than than push sex work back into the dark ages. Stigma against sex workers is a social tool to control women’s sexualities by splitting us into madonnas and whores. By creating standards on what’s appropriate to display, Instagram draws the line on who is seen as valuable through the lens of “community standards.” Blocking #woman was a warning: Clean up or you’ll be treated like whores.
Follow Reese Piper on Twitter at @thenudereporter.