Tech by VICE

A Sex Workers Union Is Organizing Against Instagram Discrimination

The Adult Performers Actors Guild is standing up for sex workers who are tired of being banned from Instagram with no explanation.

by Samantha Cole
May 6 2019, 3:50pm

Image via Pexels

A group of sex workers is starting to organize against Facebook and Instagram for removing their accounts without explanation. Around 200 performers and models have included their usernames in a letter to Facebook asking the network to address this issue.

“There are performers who are being deleted, because they put up a picture of their freshly painted toenails,” Alana Evans, president of the Adult Performers Actors Guild (APAG), a union that advocates for adult industry professionals’ rights, told me in a phone call. “It became really obvious that either people were being unnecessarily reported and removed without Instagram caring or Instagram just outright not replying at all, and locking them out.”

In an April 22 letter to Facebook, the Adult Performers Actors Guild’s legal counsel James Felton wrote:

“Over the course of the last several months, almost 200 adult performers have had their Instagrams accounts terminated without explanation. In fact, every day, additional performers reach out to us with their termination stories. In the large majority of instances, her was no nudity shown in the pictures. However, it appears that the accounts were terminated merely because of their status as an adult performer.

Effort to learn the reasons behind the termination have been futile. Performers are asked to send pictures of their names to try to verify that the accounts are actually theirs and not put up by frauds. Emails are sent and there is no reply.”

The letter goes on to note that celebrities like Kim Kardashian violate Instagram's community guidelines by posting pictures of themselves in "varying states of dress" without repercussions. The letter specifically mention posts by Kourtney Kardashian, where the celebrity is photographed mostly nude, but carefully positioned to cover her breasts. Instagram's community guidelines forbid nudity, including “sexual intercourse, genitals, and close-ups of fully-nude buttocks” and female nipples.

Included in the letter are nearly 200 adult models and performers’ screen names, who claim they’ve been banned on Instagram without explanation.

After not receiving a reply from Facebook, Felton sent another letter on April 30.

“If the principals of Instagram believe that this problem is just going to disappear, please think again,” he wrote. “If you don’t want to respond, we will go the legal route.”

When I asked Instagram about the letters from APAG and Felton, a spokesperson told me in an email: “We respond to valid legal requests but don’t comment on specific cases.”

As of publication, Felton told me he still hasn’t received a response. Instagram's Terms of Use state that users agree to waive their right to participate in a class action lawsuit or class-wide arbitration. When I asked Felton in an email what "legal route" he was referencing in the April 30 letter to Instagram, he said: "I believe that the legal route would be arbitration. A lawyer who is more seasoned in class action lawsuits may have a different conclusion but I think we would have to pursue arbitration."

The APAG is encouraging members of the adult industry to fill out an online form detailing how platforms have blocked or banned them. Felton and Evans told me that they have around 500 usernames of people in the adult entertainment industry who believe they were removed from Instagram unfairly.

One of the sex workers whose Instagram handle was listed in Felton’s letter as unfairly banned, who goes by Samantha Squirt, told me in a Twitter message that her Instagram account, which was set to private, was removed despite her never posting nipples, labia, or anything that could be considered R-rated. She posted links to her own website and cam site, and didn’t hide the fact that she’s a sex worker, but claims to have never broken Instagram’s content rules.

“No email, no contact or anything [from Instagram] to tell me why it was taken down... the ability to get in contact with a live human, and not some messaging bot of Instagram, is impossible,” she said, questioning why accounts like Brazzers and Playboy get to stay up while individuals are removed. “I don't understand. If people understand I am a sex worker, I don't post any nudes, and am just trying to help my business, why is it so wrong?”

Another sex worker named in the letter, Dacey Harlot, told me in a Twitter message that her account was removed seemingly at random a couple months ago. She said she’s participating “because it's silly to delete someone’s account because they promote themselves.”

Suz Ellis, a sex writer and model who was also named in the letter, told me in an email that she’s joining the action against Instagram because she believes the terms of service are too vague, and applied unfairly. Her first Instagram account, devoted to body-positivity, was deleted in 2015. In 2018, an Instagram account she made for her sex writing blog was removed at 14,000 followers. She appealed the decision, and Instagram subsequently revoked and reinstated the account three times—each time, she tried to “clean it up” more and attempting to guess what caused the deletion.

“Sex workers (whether clothed or not) are getting taken down, while other users, even those who are verified, are posting nearly naked photos without needing to worry about getting their accounts taken away,” Ellis said. “These people and sex workers are posting and creating some of the exact same types of content, yet people who self identify as sex workers, those who sell through porn sites, are deleted.”

In April, Instagram announced in a closed meeting with press that it plans to start demoting sexually suggestive posts “that are inappropriate but do not go against Instagram’s Community Guidelines,” according to TechCrunch. Sex workers struggle to keep their accounts on most major social media sites—even when they’re abiding by the platforms’ rules.

Sites like Twitter say they’re not targeting a whole industry unfairly, only enforcing guidelines; but when porn performers set up accounts to only get banned regardless of how closely they follow the rules, it leaves them without a platform and wondering what they did wrong.

In March, VICE met with porn performer Riley Reid, whose Instagram account had just been deleted. Reid said she didn’t know why it was deleted, since she wasn’t posting porn or nudity on her feed, and assumed it must be people reporting her content unfairly.

On Instagram, especially, the rules seem to be applied arbitrarily and often unfairly. Users have found ways to work around rules like “no female-presenting nipples,” but even when they follow the rules, they’re sometimes removed.

Since the passage of FOSTA/SESTA last year—an overbroad piece of legislation that made companies like Facebook more liable for what users do on its platform, specifically targeting sexual speech as potentially “soliciting prostitution”—sex workers and educators have found almost every internet platform unreliable at best and actively hostile against their existence at worst.

Both Evans and Felton told me that the goal of sending these letters isn’t to take Facebook to court, necessarily, but to get answers as to why these accounts are deleted—and possible get them restored.

“We’re sort of hoping Instagram would say you’re right, now we’re going to turn these accounts back on,” Felton said. “Forget about money, let’s get these accounts back on.”