When Instagram updated community guidelines aimed at stopping “sexual solicitation” in December, sex workers were the first to raise the alarm. They were concerned that the rules would end up censoring the accounts that many use to grow their fanbases – an especially pressing concern at a time when their incomes were already affected by the pandemic.
But it seems that sex workers aren’t the only ones with cause for anxiety. A whole swathe of sex-related accounts, including those of certified sex educators and sexual wellness brands, are now being affected by the new rules.
Educational sex content is huge on Instagram. The hashtag #sexeducation has over 1 million posts. Many sex educators turned to the social media network as their main platform, especially amid an increased crackdown on sexual content on TikTok. But many sex educators feel that the updated guidelines are censorship, with some calling it an all-out ban on sex.
Gigi Engle is a certified sex educator and author who relies on Instagram to reach new audiences and share information about sexual health and wellness. “Instagram used to be the go-to hub for sex-positive content,” she tells VICE UK. “It was this place people could go for accurate, sex-positive, adult information.”
Engle has been trying to tone down any sexually explicit language to avoid getting banned and losing followers and sponsorship income, but says that she has been shadow-banned by the platform anyway. A significantly smaller portion of her followers report seeing her content regularly in their feeds, and posts that use flagged words, like “sex” and “clitoris”, have been removed from Instagram’s search function. Engle has already seen a massive decrease in engagement, despite having almost 27,000 followers, with likes on her posts decreasing from thousands to hundreds.
“This is such a backwards step,” she says. “All this can lead to is a lack of proper education, and worse sex. Ultimately they’re telling people that sexuality is inherently dangerous. And it’s not, it’s a normal natural part of human existence.”
Instagram told VICE UK that it removes content based on its Community Standards. It says that the December update simply moved policies from its “nudity and sexual activity policy” section to its “sexual solicitation” section of its standards.
Sexual wellness brand Emojibator has also been hit by the update. “They view our product category as inherently dangerous and vile, which impacts our sales revenue potential more than I can express in words,” co-founder and CMO Kristin Fretz tells VICE UK.
When the restrictions first came into place, Emojibator’s followers said they were unable to view the page and users got in touch to say they couldn’t find them on the platform at all.
The fact that Instagram now views the eggplant emoji as sexual content, says Fretz, is especially problematic for them, since one of their flagship products is an eggplant-shaped vibrator, which, along with the rest of their line, they can no longer promote through paid ads on Instagram. The restrictions have forced them to make big changes to their tone of voice and to delete content that might cause them problems.
Joe Vela, co-founder and CEO, says that Instagram could be the ideal tool for Emojibator to reach their target market, but the draconian rules have made this almost impossible: “It seems arbitrary, ignorant, and cruel that a legally-operated business, like Emojibator, would be restricted from a tool optimized for millennial ecommerce brands.”
The guidelines prohibit both explicit and implicit sexual references, including “sexual emojis or emoji strings”, “regional sexual slang”, “mention of sexual intercourse or activity” and “self-pleasuring”. They also specify that conversations around “sexual roles” are off limits, but do not specify exactly what this means – something people in the LGBTQ community have been quick to point out as a dangerous ambiguity that may put queer and non-binary people at greater risk of censorship. The guidelines are both vague and sweeping, essentially making any and all sexual content, including erotic art, in potential violation of the rules.
Accounts that break the guidelines can be blocked or removed indefinitely. It seems Instagram have been quick to implement the update, removing content that was previously allowed and blocking accounts, forcing educators and sexual wellness companies to create back-up accounts and let followers know how to reach them elsewhere. As members of the sex-positive community flood Instagram with posts and stories calling out censorship, many are now moving over to Twitter or looking for alternative ways to reach their following.
Cheyenne Davis, founder of Unveild, a publication dedicated to inclusive sex content for black and brown folks, has been scared away from using Instagram altogether. “I have literally been walking on eggshells with all the content I post,” she says. “I have been amping up the Twitter presence and Medium platform in order to produce content in spaces that have a little more wiggle room to post sex-based content.”
VICE UK reached out to Facebook, which owns Instagram, for comment. A spokesperson said: “We don't allow nudity or sexual activity on Instagram, because we want content to be appropriate for our diverse global community, including our youngest members. However, our rules around nudity have become more nuanced over time, and we now allow nudity in certain contexts, including in real world art, or when shared for educational or health reasons.” They also said that a number of posts had been removed in error and have since been restored.
For those who want to keep using Instagram, Daniel Saynt, founder of sex-positive club NFSW, has a few tips. Saynt has been banned from Instagram multiple times, but managed to get his accounts recovered by asking other account holders to message Instagram on his behalf to ask for his account to be reinstated. “Unfortunately,” he says, “when you’re doing things alone you have little chance of getting your account back, but when you’re doing it collectively the amount of messages Instagram receives is enough to make them take notice.”
Saynt also recommends following the Adult Performance Artists Guild, the largest labour union for the porn industry, on Twitter. Although focused on protecting the rights of sex workers, the APAG has a variety of resources for sex-positive accounts that have been impacted by Instagram’s guidelines, including information about how to take action against Instagram for unfairly deleting an account.
Even now, in the face of censorship, educators, writers, artists, performers and brands are still working together to make sure their voices are heard. “It’s just about really coming together as a community,” says Engle. “Working together is the only way we can make sure that people still see our stuff. We’re doing everything we can.”