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How Instagram Punishes Sex Workers While Profiting Off Porn

Photo: AndriiKoval & Wachiwit / Shutterstock
How Instagram Punishes Sex Workers While Profiting Off Porn

The censorship of sex workers and pornographic content on Instagram is no new phenomenon but the Facebook-owned social media site’s newest Terms of Use update has made a particularly targetted attack on the sex industry. 

The change, which came into effect on December 20, 2020, has been slated by sex workers, many of whom feel the app is deliberately delegitimizing their businesses and depriving them of a source of income. 

For years now, adult entertainers, sex educators, and others working in the sex industry have battled against alleged shadowbans and deleted content but this latest hit could debilitate one of the last means of safe self-promotion for workers. 

Yet Pornhub, the world’s leading pornography site, advertises freely to its 12.5 million Instagram followers. The $2.7 billion company seems to escape the wrath of Instagram’s terms and conditions. 

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How Instagram’s rules target sex workers

The updated Terms Of Use require adherence to Facebook’s Sexual Solicitation rules. This includes, among many other tight restrictions footage or imagery of stripping, offering sex or sexual conversations, and mentioning sexual activities. 

Instagram has also held on to its 2019 ban on the use of “sexual emojis”. Peaches and eggplants are strictly to be used as foods! 

Beyond the legal jargon, how these rules actually manifest is by basically preventing sex workers from promoting, advertising, or offering services to their Instagram followers. 

Though Instagram hasn’t been clear on the specifics, many sex workers linking out to their OnlyFans, private chats or other business-related content will cause them to be penalized. Some users even instigated a global boycott of the app on December 20 in solidarity with sex workers.  

Instagram has denied claims that their rules deliberately target sex workers but that has done little to reassure the people who have heard this time and time again. 

For years, Instagram has denied the existence of a shadow-ban that restricts an account’s visibility without informing the user, but many sex workers are calling out the platform for lying and continuing to censor them.

Rebecca Crow, a London-based genderqueer sex worker has had their old account (@katsandcrows) deleted by Instagram 7 times, once losing 725k followers overnight after promoting their business online. They organized protests outside Instagram's London offices in early 2020 but received no response from the social media giant. 

Why were Instagram’s "Terms Of Use" updated?

The most recent rule change is part of a slow tightening of the leash that Instagram has been conducting over the past number of years. But it seems particularly surprising considering the year the sex industry has had.

With the closure of strip clubs and bars and the rise of OnlyFans, online sex work has gone mainstream. Social media is one of the safest and most lucrative ways for sex workers to advertise themselves while retaining the right to block users or delete content they no longer want to be shared.

So why is Instagram deciding to persecute sex workers? 

The most likely explanation is the implementation of the controversial 2018 FOSTA-SESTA bills (Fighting Online Sex Trafficking Act and Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act). Passed by Donald Trump, these bills were intended to curb online sex trafficking by making sites responsible for trafficking incidents and allowing trafficking survivors to sue those websites for facilitating their victimization.

In practice, the act has likely pushed sex trafficking further underground and made it more difficult to prevent by targetting website publishers rather than actual traffickers.

Instead, what happens is that sites now over-police sexual content and make no distinction between consensual and non-consensual sex work, therefore undermining both victims of sex trafficking and legitimate sex workers. 

Dumping human trafficking into the same category as people promoting their personal OnlyFans or posting pole-dancing tutorials pushes back a movement to have sex work be protected by the law.  

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These restrictions are particularly insulting and undermining towards sex workers when celebrities and high-profile people freely post risque content without getting flagged or deleted. 

In August 2020 sex workers were outraged at Bella Thorne after she made $1 million in a single day when she joined OnlyFans. Infringing on and gentrifying this space was seen as a slap in the face of sex workers who relied solely on OnlyFans for income. 

Now, while more and more sex workers are shadowbanned and deleted off Instagram, Thorne advertises openly to her 24.2 million followers with “Swipe Up” links, censored photographs, and a story highlight titled “Horny”. 

How PornHub gets away with advertising on Instagram 

But the real double-standard that spits in the face of individual sex workers is Instagram’s refusal to punish Pornhub, the highest-grossing porn site in the world. 

Pornhub’s Instagram page boasts more followers than the Instagrams of the top 10 OnlyFans creators combined, proving that even as porn creators attempt to find autonomy and self-ownership, one site continues to have a monopoly. 

It is almost impossible for the men and women behind these shadowbanned posts and deleted accounts to compete with this site and the updated Terms Of Use certainly won’t level out the playing field.

How does Pornhub advertise on Instagram without getting punished?

The answer lies partially in good social media marketing. Pornhub’s social media manager Aria Nathaniel is a star in her own right, known for witty tweets and vlog-style Instagram stories keeping followers up-to-date with Pornhub’s latest news. 

She and her team carefully navigate rules by never getting too explicit in imagery or suggestive in captions. Pornhub’s Instagram profile doesn’t even have a link in its bio so it can’t be accused of offering pornography, even though that is exactly what it is doing by existing at all. 

This kind of clever bending of the rules is a less accessible marketing option for individual sex workers. Not only can they not afford dedicated social media teams, they don’t have the luxury of an online presence that basically advertises itself. 

Sex workers cannot reference their profession in their username or bio without risking repercussions. Nor can they afford paid advertising or influencer marketing campaigns like PornHub can.

Unlike sex workers, Pornhub benefits greatly from strength in numbers — especially when those numbers have a dollar sign in front of them. 

While Instagram will happily remove the account of a small sexual content creator, they aren’t going to take the same action on Pornhub’s account and risk upsetting a multi-billion-dollar company or the 12.5 million followers who rake in ad revenue for the social media platform. 

For years, Pornhub and other massive porn distributors have been profiting off sex work while the individual stars of this industry get all the stigmatization and almost none of the paycheque. Instagram cannot be entirely blamed for this inequality. 

But in a time where sites like OnlyFans and movements to protect the rights of sex workers are finally giving this community a chance to make their money safely, without exploitation, couldn’t Instagram put a few fewer obstacles between sex workers and their income? 

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Alice Kelly is a writer, feminist, and creative with a passion for trending topics and news stories. Catch her covering all the social justice issues that buzz around your social media feeds.