sex work

How Instagram Banning Stripper-Related Hashtags Hurts Sex Workers

Strippers say the social platform is cutting off their online support networks.

Allison Tierney

Allison Tierney

Photo by Victor Von courtesy of Fancy S. Baby

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

Strippers on Instagram have increasingly been voicing concerns over hashtags the social media platform appears to have banned.

Recent searches on Instagram for “#stripper” have yielded the following results: The “Top Posts” page, which typically shows popular posts for a hashtag, claims there are “no posts yet”; the “Recent” section reads: “Recent posts from #stripper are currently hidden because the community has reported some content that may not meet Instagram’s community guidelines.”

Angie Angieson, a Cape Town-based stripper who has been in the industry for a decade, posted about the hashtag issue on Instagram. Angieson travels the world for her work and has an agency that helps connect dancers with clubs.

In one of her recent posts on Instagram, Angieson listed other hashtags that she said were “banned” on Instagram at the time, including: #yesastripper, #stripperlife, #stripperstyle, #ilovetoseestripperswin.

Fancy S. Baby, a US-based stripper who has been in the sex work industry for over 14 years, is also concerned about the recent issues strippers have had with Instagram hashtags. Baby has been involved with organizing against the US “anti-sex trafficking” bills SESTA-FOSTA (which is now law) and said it was difficult to get other strippers on board early on.

“All of the sudden you see these huge stripper accounts posting about SESTA-FOSTA,” Baby explained. She said she believes the hashtag issue is “absolutely” related to SESTA-FOSTA.

Angieson also referenced the potential connection to the US law. Though its stated purpose is to target sex trafficking, the effects of SESTA-FOSTA amount to internet censorship and, even if it’s not intentional, the targeting of consensual sex work.

Other than the shutdown of popular advertising sites like Backpage, sex workers have reported a multitude of issues with social media, which can be vital to their livelihoods, in its wake.

“In light of that just happening literally a month ago, taking away ways we can find each other online is kind of a terrifying and potentially deadly act,” Baby told VICE.

When reached by VICE for comment, Instagram said it would not be providing a statement. Instead, a spokesperson for the platform sent along some information about hashtags. They said that Instagram analyzes and reviews these to respond to patterns and tries to limit content that violates its community standards while keeping hashtags intact.

But, Instagram also said that if a hashtag is experiencing a lot of spam or nudity they will temporarily make it unsearchable, removing the “Most Recent” section and keeping the “Top Post” section available for users.

However, it appears for #stripper, the “Top Posts” category for the hashtag may have been affected as well. (VICE has tested this on several different devices—most of the time, this page shows no posts, though it does show a handful for some.)

Meanwhile, “#malestripper” appears to be unaffected.

This is not the first time Instagram has made certain hashtags unsearchable for its users. In 2015, there was a controversy over “#EDM” (aka electronic dance music) being made unsearchable due to posts containing nudity. The same year, “#curvy” was hidden for violating community guidelines.

Though the hashtag #woman appears to be up currently, just a day ago that hashtag was also partially hidden (in “Recent Posts”).

Angieson said she thinks there’s an issue with Instagram not informing people about which hashtags they aren’t supposed to be using. She is concerned that usage of "banned" hashtags could have an effect on someone’s account, such as banning.

“Being censored is quite scary—that we are not allowed to be part of society, that we should be hidden away in corners,” Angieson said.

Fancy said that social media has provided a previously unattainable level of communication between sex workers around the world. She said she used to work in “complete isolation,” only meeting other strippers in the dressing room. “I never really got close to any of them… I had to figure it out on my own for over a decade,” Baby said.

“The internet and the sense of community, being able to talk to other sex workers who are in similar positions, learn from ones who aren’t, being able to access resources, all the safety measures, learning to screen clients—all of that I learned from community just in the past couple of years, and it’s all been through social media,” she explained.

Baby has some tips for sex workers navigating social media platforms they are increasingly feeling unwelcome on. She recommends staying “as low-key as you possibly can and still survive,” creating and promoting a backup account for yourself, not using "banned" hashtags, being more careful about community guidelines and prohibited content, and making an effort to connect with supporters off social media (by getting their email or phone number).

“As this progresses, there’s no way this is going to be the last thing that happens,” Baby said.

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