How sex workers are fighting back against online deplatforming

How sex workers are fighting back against online deplatforming
The #StopDeletingUs campaign is resisting a mass wave of deletions of sex positive accounts and arguing for fairer moderation of sexual content online.

It’s a grey Tuesday afternoon in Central London. A group of protestors dressed mainly in black latex and leather are standing outside the metal and glass frontage of social media giant Meta’s UK headquarters in Euston. Some are wearing masks: one surrounded with latex spikes and another with a black and red dog mask. Two safety reps with yellow hi-vis vests worn on top of their fetish gear stand out from the crowd of black, red and metal. The many placards sport a variety of pro-kink and sex-positive slogans, such as ‘Kink is art,’ ‘Suspended for just existing,’ ‘My account is my livelihood,’ and ‘#StopDeletingUs,’ the rallying cry of today’s protest.

On June 22, over 50 prominent Instagram accounts run by sex workers, sex educators and members of the kink community, some with hundreds of thousands of followers, were removed by Instagram with no explanation. In response, a group of activists led by kink party Klub Verboten and publicist Helena Kate Whittingham came together to create the #StopDeletingUs campaign. Together, they compiled a database of deleted accounts and made a collective appeal to Meta, Instagram’s parent company. After a huge outcry online and numerous articles in the tech press, Meta reinstated most of the accounts on June 28.

Despite successfully overturning the majority of the bans, the #StopDeletingUs campaign decided to go ahead with their planned protest on July 4. The statement issued by Meta said the accounts “were removed in error,” but offered little in the way of explanation or reassurance that arbitrary deletions would not occur in future.

“I’m still afraid they are going to delete us again,” explains Hanny, co-organiser of Klub Verboten. “Meta say they made a mistake but they have given us no information. We have been very careful to stay within the rules, we received no warnings and we can’t understand why we were deleted. We’re here today to start a dialogue with Meta because we want to wake up each day and not be scared that our account is going to be deleted again.”

This is just the latest in a long-running saga of deletion, deplatforming and censorship of content deemed sexual across all social media platforms. This censorship is mainly driven by rules set by payment providers and attempts to comply with legislation such as FOSTA-SESTA in the US, which primarily targets sex workers, but also affects many others in the sex-positive space, from artists and photographers to sex educators and women-run lingerie brands.

#StopDeletingUs are hoping to engage Meta in a constructive debate around online safeguarding and the uneven and excessive moderation of legal sexual content. They want to highlight how, for many of those affected by the ban, Instagram accounts are not just their livelihoods but vital sources of information and community online, while deletions and deplatforming can have huge negative impacts on people.

Klub Verboten organises progressive kink events in London and Berlin and has built a vibrant community of “tens of thousands of caring kinksters” in Europe and around the globe. Founded in 2016, Verboten organisers Karl and Hanny have led the way in developing safeguarding procedures and understanding of fetish and BDSM practises and culture. Losing their account was a major blow.

“We felt super depressed for a couple of days, we never thought it would hit us that hard,” Karl explains. “When our digital selves get erased without warning or plausible cause, it’s not just the digital structure and hub that connects us that goes, for many of us, it’s a large proportion of our income, too.”

Verboten felt the financial consequences immediately, with an event in Berlin selling less than half the usual number of tickets. Many in the community said they never even heard it was happening. Yet, the consequences of deletion go beyond the financial. “We lost our network, our friends and our channels of communication,” Karl explains. “Many people have put a lot of time into these platforms, satisfying the community’s thirst for knowledge. People who are curious about sex education can discover us through social platforms and satisfy their curiosity about diving into our community. Excluding sexuality from these platforms is like taking a part of our humanity, slicing it up and saying that sexuality is not part of your self.”

This isn’t the first time that Karl and Hanny have had to fight for their survival. In 2022, Tower Hamlets council tried to take away the licence for Wapping club E1 / Studio Places, one of London’s last surviving queer-friendly kink spaces. Verboten created the Save Kink Spaces campaign and spent months rallying their community and building a legal defence before the council finally relented.

“We would rather spend our time on creative projects than constantly having to defend our existence both online and offline,” Karl explains. “It makes us question our entire world – our value system and our moral compass. The internet, including Meta, hosts plenty of Andrew Tate-style losers who drive inhumane agendas for pure personal gains. The algorithms can’t seem to differentiate between sexist online warlords and those seeking to improve lives or encouraging people to express themselves in this dull place.”

“The level of fear that is imposed in the physical realm translates into the level of fear in the digital domain.”

Karl Verboten

Infamous misogynist Andrew Tate spread his toxic ideas to millions before he was eventually banned but his content and that of his many copycats still proliferates online. For all the policing and deleting of sex workers and sex educators, many who speak to Huck complain about Meta’s slow pace in removing hate speech and abuse.

As the line of security guards outside Meta’s doorway eye them suspiciously, the protestors assemble for a photoshoot. A man dressed as a droog from Clockwork Orange waves the rainbow Progress Pride flag above the group as people call out irreverent chants. “Stop allowing cock pictures through and deleting sex education content,” shouts Reed Amber over the din.

Reed is a sex educator, sex worker and co-founder of ComeCurious and the F**ks Given podcast. “I always struggle to get imposter accounts taken down or stop unsolicited dick pics,” Reed says, with a tone of exasperation. “Yet, my posts talking about sex education or LGBTQ+ issues frequently get taken down. The people abusing women online are exactly the people who need the sex education content we put out there, so they can learn not to harm other people, particularly women.”

Reed is frustrated by a lack of protection for women online and the lethargic response from Meta and other platforms when it comes to tackling abuse. She also sees constant double-standards in the way rules are applied. “When a female account gets taken down or somebody with maybe a curvaceous body has a post removed, it is just saying a huge ‘fuck you’ to women as a gender,” Reed says. “When it comes to being overly sexualised, I have seen countless male accounts where you can literally see dick outlines in photos but those accounts seem to get away scot-free. We see the same gender hypocrisy all the time.”

“If pornography is the canary in the coal mine when it comes to free speech, sex workers are the miners.”

Myles Jackman - obscenity lawyer

Dr. Carolina Are is a content moderation researcher at Northumbria University’s Centre For Digital Citizens. She has been both battling and researching deplatforming on social media since 2019, when she pressed Instagram to apologise for shadowbanning pole dancing hashtags. In 2020, she created a petition against Instagram’s new sex-negative terms of use. After establishing contact with Meta’s policy unit, she has been functioning as an unofficial liaison, helping many unblock their accounts. She speaks to Huck while en-route to her native Sardinia, but played a major role in advising the campaign leading up to today’s protest, alongside Helena and Klub Verboten.

Carolina explains that since FOSTA-SESTA became law in the US in April 2018, countless accounts have been deleted worldwide as social media platforms attempt to comply with legislation that bans “solicitation.” Framed as a means to combat sex trafficking, the law was promoted by American religious and extreme conservative groups, with anti-sex, anti-porn and anti-sex work agendas. Yet, research into the impact of FOSTA-SESTA published in the Columbia Human Rights Law Review concluded it has had “a chilling effect on free speech, has created dangerous working conditions for sex-workers, and has made it more difficult for police to find trafficked individuals.”

“Resisting deletion has become this ongoing battle, where we all band together to defend one-other,” co-organiser Helena explains. “We are just collateral damage but sex workers are the primary targets and are most affected by this, which all comes from FOSTA-SESTA. We aren’t even living in America, yet regardless of the legal situation in our country, we’re affected by this law – it’s a global, not just a US problem.”

Carolina co-authored a study on the effects of deplatforming with Professor Pam Briggs from the Center for Digital Citizens. “A large portion of our work now occurs online, through the creator economy or using social media as a means of self-promotion,” Carolina explains. “Additionally, many stigmatised and marginalised communities, such as sex workers and kinky or LGBTQ+ people, have found a space on social media to express themselves, network and connect with communities of like-minded people – while often being excluded from those opportunities offline. So, being deplatformed means financial loss or losing your workplace. But the personal loss felt from losing a community is significant, too. Our study participants expressed feelings of depression, low mood and of feeling ashamed, again, in a space that had previously felt inclusive.”

Carolina has been deplatformed herself by Meta once in 2021 and by TikTok four times in 2021, so she knows intimately the pain and frustration it can cause. “I really care about deplatformed users and I want to help them,” she explains. “But my position is becoming overwhelming because I am doing free labour for a massive corporation whose moderation and appeals system does not work. If it worked, I wouldn’t be needed. The huge negative effects of deplatforming mean it is vital to make this process fairer and more just, so that people don’t have to go through this any longer.”

#StopDeletingUs published ‘Our Demands, Your Solutions,’ which calls on Meta to use more human moderation, rather than AI; clarify Meta's guidelines, including their definitions of solicitation; and recommended the addition of 18+ content warnings, among other measures. Additionally, Carolina and the Centre for Digital Citizens recently published a report called ‘Co-Designing Platform Governance Policies.’ Based on extensive research and consultation, it proposes a ore principled framework for moderation on digital platforms, overcoming injustices and providing much greater protection for marginalised communities online, such as sex workers, LGBTQIA+ and BIPOC users.

“Today, we asked Meta to come down in solidarity but the first person they sent out was their head of security to say nobody from the company would be speaking to us,” Hanny explains. “It just shows the level of fear that is imposed in the physical realm translates into the level of fear in the digital domain,” Karl adds.

On safety duty, Whiskey is sporting a yellow hi-ves vest beneath their black latex face mask with a red and black ponytail. In her experience, while there are few safe spaces for women, online or IRL, the community around Verboten is a place of safety and respect.

“I’ve had to completely step away from regular nightlife because of the amount of harassment and abuse I have received as a curvy, relatively attractive person in men’s eyes,” she explains. “There is nobody to report or address anything with. I’ve been touched, I’ve been groped, I’ve been followed and made to feel really unsafe. That is not something that happens at Klub Verboten events. You can be half naked, go out to rave and just have an amazing time, safely. Where else can you do that?”

Unlike many of the other attendees who share their negative experiences of being female online, Whiskey hasn’t received abuse or unsolicited dick pics. But that’s only because they’ve enforced strict safety measures: their account is private, they’re virtually anonymous and have almost no presence online. But for others, whose personalities are their brands, this isn’t an option.

After being a member of the community for six years, Whiskey now works on the Klub Verboten safeguarding team. “I mainly look after the play space and ensure safety and security for people when they are at their most vulnerable,” she explains. “As a community, we take mutual responsibility for one-another and there are procedures in place to keep everyone as safe as possible. Spreading awareness is key, alongside transparency and clear communication. We prefer to intervene before situations develop and bring issues to people’s attention. If someone has transgressed, we prefer to have an open conversation and talk about how we can do better as a community, rather than just ejecting people straight away.”

Klub Verboten put out constant messaging around respect, communication and safeguarding. They don’t rely on AI or algorithms to maintain a safe space but by setting out clear rules that everyone understands, which are enforced by humans trained to discuss issues openly. In fact, their ‘Don’t Be A Dick’ motto has been so successful, it has been copied by others. Verboten’s approach stands in stark contrast to Meta’s response to today’s protest: hiding behind a glass wall of silence. Meta, it seems, could take a lesson on dialogue and transparency from the kink community, rather than attempting to address sensitive issues around free speech and expression through deletion and deplatforming.

“Removing us from these platforms takes away a tool of education and information from potentially hundreds of thousands of people who otherwise wouldn’t have access to it,” Whiskey explains. “This space allows people to explore, open their horizons and see that things don’t have to be done in a misogynistic, predatory or patriarchal way. However much they try to suppress, silence and deplatform us, the community won’t cease to exist – we will always be here.”

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