This article originally appeared on VICE US.
Sex education vloggers on YouTube are claiming that the platform is quietly censoring their videos, raising fears that the vibrant sex-ed vlogging community—often looked to as a source of non-judgmental advice by marginalized groups—could be entering its last days.
Some creators are claiming that the website is engaging in a practice known as “shadow-banning,” or limiting the visibility of their content, which diminishes the amount of traffic and subscribers to their channels. In effect, this means that when users search for a channel, the thumbnails that appear in the search results are pixelated or are removed entirely and replaced with screen grabs. YouTube vloggers argue this de-incentivizes users from clicking through on to the video, effectively redirecting traffic away from their channel.
“If you're going to consume any content online, what is more enticing? A pixelated icon in search that has very unflattering faces, or an icon that looks thoughtful, put-together and makes it clear what the video is about?” asks Amp Somers, the co-founder of YouTube channel Watts the Safe Word. With videos including “Negotiating sex and kink” and “Lube 101 – which do I choose?”, Watts the Safe Word specializes in a light-hearted, humorous approach to LGBTQ sex education.
YouTube itself encourages users to create thumbnails to increase the visibility of videos on the site and entice users to click on content. “Well designed thumbnails and titles can attract more fans to your channel and encourage viewers to watch through your videos because they know what to expect,” explains its informational materials for users looking to create a YouTube channel.
Scrolling through the Watts The Safeword YouTube channel, Broadly noted that the overwhelming majority of Somers' videos have been pixellated or reduced to screengrabs on search. “Especially for people searching for our content who have never heard of us, a pixelated or unflattering icon will not entice anyone to watch our content,” he argues. (It's important to note that the pixellation takes place when searching directly for the Watts The Safeword channel: Search inquiries that bring up individual Watts The Safeword videos aren't affected.)
Somers isn’t the only sex education YouTuber who believes they are affected. “I noticed that our channel had been shadow-banned after hearing about the censorship issue from another sex education YouTuber,” says Florence Barkway of Come Curious, a female-focused sex advice and education channel.
She is convinced that the alleged shadow-banning only applies to her sex education content. When users search for "Come Curious" on YouTube, the preview thumbnails for videos including "How do I give good head? - Blowjob Curious" and "How to put on a condom - Condom Curious" now show up pixelated.
Some YouTubers who create LGBTQ sex education-related material have also recently expressed fears they have been shadow-banned by the Internet giant. Lesbian vloggers Bria Michelle Kam and Chrissy Chambers from the Bria and Chrissy channel posted a video in February this year alleging that YouTube had hidden their channel from subscribed viewers, effectively killing their traffic.
Other YouTubers claiming to be affected include BDSM sex educator Evie Lupine. “Still happening to me,” Lupine tweeted of the alleged censorship. "My issue with this whole situation is that, if there was a legitimate reason to remove thumbnails for some videos, why does it not happen in ALL places? Just in certain ones? The logic just seems fishy. I don't buy YouTube’s justification.”
In addition, some sex education vloggers are also alleging that YouTube has been de-monetizing their content, meaning that YouTube no longer places advertisements on channels and shares the proceeds of these advertisements with content creators. “Since de-monization [sic] started, we lost 80 percent of any revenue we were getting at least,” Somers claims, telling me that he estimates that de-monetization first started happening about a year and a half ago. He tells me that he knows of 40 fellow creators who’ve experienced de-monetization as a result of talking about sex or gender issues, and he claims to be currently acting as an unofficial spokesperson for YouTubers affected by the issue.
"Our Community Guidelines prohibit users from creating misleading or inappropriate thumbnails," a YouTube spokesperson tells Broadly. "YouTube may reject thumbnails, age-restrict videos, suspend the ability for users to create custom thumbnails, and disable them from appearing in search if these rules are violated." Thumbnails that are considered to be sexually suggestive can be age-restricted by YouTube, meaning that they appear as screengrabs or are pixellated, and don't receive advertising revenue.
Recent months have seen the passage of the controversial internet anti-sex trafficking bill FOSTA-SESTA. Although the bill is not currently operational, when it is enforced it would make internet platforms responsible for their role in facilitating human trafficking and sex work—requiring them to actively police their users’ activities more strongly than ever. In particular, FOSTA-SESTA limits how people talk about sex work online—meaning that sex workers can be penalized for sharing vital information about potentially dangerous clients, for example, with fellow workers.
Although a YouTube spokesperson confirmed to Broadly that its practices aren't directly connected to FOSTA-SESTA, and Somers confirmed that alleged shadow-banning and demonetization has been going since before the bill was passed, it's important to note that the broader context for sex educators and workers online is becoming increasingly bleak. “To me, this feels like the start of something,” Barkway says. “It’s possible that it could end up with YouTube deleting channels that talk about sex altogether."
Sex education vloggers worry that if access to their channels becomes increasingly limited, many marginalized or queer communities won’t be able to benefit from their often live-saving advice. “For our channel specifically, kinky people can be ashamed of their kinks or sex preferences so they turn to find content like ours to normalize their sex and feel human. If they don't have outlets and representation, they can become depressed or have dark thoughts,” Somers explains.
“We get messages all the time from people who found our channel and it saved them from a very dark place."