Twitter and Instagram say they're enforcing community guidelines, not targeting an industry.
Sex worker and porn producer/director Liara Roux (photo courtesy of Roux)
Sex workers are voicing concerns about increasingly being pushed off social media platforms. Between suspended accounts, suspicions of their accounts experiencing “shadowbans,” and a long-standing unwillingness for platforms to verify sex workers except those who have reached certain levels of fame, some in the industry say they're feeling unwelcome in spaces they’ve long used to communicate with fans and build their personal brands.
Melody Kush, a camgirl who has been in the industry for over a decade, experienced a permanent Twitter suspension in May 2017 just before she was supposed to give a talk about social media at an industry convention. Kush was known for her online presence and had attained nearly 114,000 followers in the seven years her Twitter account was up.
“It was the absolute worst time in my career to be suspended,” she told VICE.
To this day, Kush can't be sure what exactly caused her permanent suspension since Twitter never officially told her. She said she’d been temporarily suspended for using a photo with visible nipple in her header once in the past. At the time of her suspension in May, though, she didn’t have nudity present in her avatar nor header. Kush started using a backup account in the wake of her suspension she said she believes is currently under a shadowban—a term used to describe the way some platforms can make users’ accounts and content less visible on a given site.
In September, Kush also lost her original Instagram account permanently without explanation. She created a new account, which she also lost while ironically in a battle to get a number of catfish accounts of her taken down. “When you lose your best branding name, fake accounts rise to the occasion and try to make something and pretend to be you,” she explained, noting how fake accounts using her photos had been trying to scam money out of people amidst her social media woes. Kush is now on her fourth Instagram account, which she has made the decision to keep private. She’s had to replace her business cards multiple times within the last year due to losing social media accounts, leading to her spending hundreds of dollars.
“Absolutely, no question I feel pushed off social media,” Kush said. “I understand the need for content restrictions and stuff like that, which is completely legitimate and fair… But they’re not discriminating our content, they’re discriminating our persons, our work, our jobs. They’re invalidating us.”
Though Kush’s issues with social media began last year, stories like hers are increasingly being voiced by sex workers. Those in the industry interviewed for this article often pointed to the passing of the controversial US bill FOSTA/SESTA and implications for how sex workers are treated online. Experts say that FOSTA/SESTA, though its intention is to address sex trafficking, also punishes those consensually participating in sex work by censoring them online and generally leading to a less safe environment for them to work in. Other sites that sex workers use, such as review sites and Backpage’s adult services subsection, have been affected, further pushing sex workers off platforms they’ve used online for years.
Liara Roux, who has been doing sex work for over four years and producing porn for about a year, said she thinks there is “absolutely” a connection between FOSTA/SESTA and sex workers increasingly being pushed off online platforms. Roux also used to work in the tech industry.
“No platform wants to be the first to test the limits of this new law,” Roux told VICE. “It creates a federal law which refers to ‘facilitating’ of trafficking, and defines this as including consensual sex work.”
Roux said that “facilitation” is left up to interpretation, but that, historically, laws surrounding sex work have “been used to make sex workers less visible.” Roux said she believes her Twitter account is currently experiencing a shadowban and sent VICE a screenshot that showed a contact attempting and failing to find her via the search function on the social media platform.
“The general public isn't actually interested in the safety of sex workers,” Roux said. “The goal is to make it so they don't have to see it and don't have to confront it. This happened on the streets of NYC, and it's happening on the internet.”
Roux also said she has had issues using other online platforms as a sex worker, including Patreon, which she co-wrote an open letter to with other adult content creators amidst policy wording changes on the site in late 2017 surrounding adult content. While involved with organizing around Patreon, Roux said, she experienced a Twitter suspension “without any reason given or warning.” After filing an appeal and having her legal team contact Twitter, she said she regained the account after two days. “I fully believe this was due to media attention,” Roux said.
Lotus Lain, a sex worker who has been in the industry since 2010, is the industry relations person for FreeSpeechCoalition, a nonprofit trade association with a mission to protect and support the growth of the adult industry.
“What I’ve noticed recently on Instagram is a lot of accounts are being frozen, deleted, or once they’re deleted, then people are looking for that performer—and that’s when imposters are able to create fake accounts,” Lain explained. “Those imposters are DMing fans asking for money.”
Lain voiced concern that imposters’ accounts remain sometimes while authentic accounts of sex workers do not. It is the same situation that Kush described above, and the same that porn performer Prince Yahshua described going through recently.
“They’re not helping solve [these issues], they’re not addressing them,” Lain said of social media platforms.
Lain lost access to her Instagram account in 2017 and was unable to access that account until this year. She also said she has noticed the effects of suspected shadowbanning on sex work Twitter.
“I’ve seen a lot of friends begging for retweets,” Lain said, noting that sex workers are increasingly concerned their content is not going to show up others’ feeds. Twitter in particular, Lain said, has been a known hub for sex workers for years. “I felt like that humanized us... It humanized the industry because [fans and clients] were able to connect with us.”
“All of this removal of us online, it’s only making things more shady for the way we have to eventually do business,” Lain said. Unwillingness to verify most sex workers’ accounts, too, she said, has long contributed to hindering those in the industry, especially with catfish accounts running scams.
Others, like Hailey Heartless, are concerned that their activism has a correlation with the visibility of their account and content on Twitter’s platform. Heartless is a sex worker activist and a trans rights activist—she said she is “occasionally the target of harassment campaigns from transphobic people.”
“Shadowbanning sex workers is bad enough, but when we use our Twitter account as a tool of activism, to help vulnerable people, and we're attacked for it, then it creates a system where Twitter is siding with and upholding hate speech,” she said.
Heartless said she believes she experienced a shadowban in February right before she was supposed to give a talk at a feminist organization in Vancouver. When she gave out business cards with her handle on them to audience members, she said, they were greeted by harassing tweets aimed at Heartless rather than her account when they looked her up on Twitter. Heartless contacted Twitter support multiple times about this issue, but did not receive a response.
When contacted by VICE for comment about alleged shadowbanning, though, Twitter claimed they do not shadowban accounts.
"Anyone is welcome to use Twitter so long as they abide by the Twitter Rules and our terms of service." —Twitter spokesperson
But, they did describe how the visibility of content from accounts that have violated their terms of service can be affected. Twitter has also made a number of changes to its policies, including several in 2017, although none seem to have been explicitly targeting NSFW content. Twitter does mark some content as “containing sensitive content” as well, including NSFW images, which cause these to be hidden by default from others’ feeds. Currently, 97 percent of Twitter’s users have the sensitive content filter on.
When asked if sex workers are welcome to use Twitter, a spokesperson for the company responded: "Anyone is welcome to use Twitter so long as they abide by the Twitter Rules and our terms of service."
When I talked to Kush about Twitter’s response, though, she was concerned that they would not have simply issued her a warning about content that had been marked as violating their terms of service before taking action.
Instagram, when reached for comment by VICE, did not specifically say how it deals with sex workers’ accounts. Instead, they sent over some excerpts from the platform’s community guidelines, including how it does not allow nudity nor the offering of sexual services. VICE asked Instagram for further comment and to look into specific sex workers’ accounts that have had issues (with their permission), but has yet to hear back.
Meanwhile, amidst the issues sex workers are having online, a social media platform made for those in the industry has cropped up: Switter, which markets itself as a “sex work-friendly social space.” The site’s homepage describes how it was set up in response to the FOSTA/SESTA bill and “shadow-banning” of sex workers’ social media accounts. Kush said she signed up for it, but is just going to observe for a bit to see how it develops. She said her personal site, which is private with overseas hosting, “seems like the safest place right now.”
"They’d rather just push us aside, block our voices, and not listen to what’s safe or reasonable for us." —Melody Kush
All sex workers interviewed for this article expressed how important social media is to their work. As well, most also said that they knew others in the industry who were experiencing the same or similar issues as them.
“These platforms need to realize that as they control the media people are exposed to, they need to be responsible for protecting marginalized groups’ right to free speech,” Roux said. “It's my belief that all these attacks on sex workers are unconstitutional.”
Lain said she has censored herself in certain ways online lately, including taking her email off public platforms, ceasing use of Skype, and “definitely not saying anything online as far as anything being offered or for sale.” She said being unable to access her Instagram account for so long also negatively affected her business.
“Every place we become ostracized, it just forces us to go further underground, not necessarily as safe, and makes our businesses more difficult,” Kush said. “Rather than finding ways to work with us and having us work within boundaries that I’m sure we can come to an agreement on, they’d rather just push us aside, block our voices, and not listen to what’s safe or reasonable for us. It’s unfair. it’s just completely unfair.”