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Is Twitter censoring sex workers?


Earlier this year, Vine adopted a new policy prohibiting users from sharing porn on the app. To most Vine users, who use the app to post silly videos of babies, dogs, and hip-hop stars extolling winter fruits, this wasn’t such a big problem. But for sex workers and adult performers on the app, Vine’s ban on adult content was nothing short of a death knell for sex on social media.

As it turns out, the adult industry’s doomsday prediction that Twitter, which acquired Vine in 2012,  might institute a similar ban on porn might not be too far off. For months, the adult industry has been buzzing with conjecture that Twitter, which has previously adopted a laissez-faire approach to nudity and sexual content, is cracking down on porn, suspending or permanently banning users for posting adult content. What’s more, some speculate that Twitter isn’t just going after adult content—rather, they’re specifically going after sex workers and adult performers.

“I think the adult industry in general is being targeted and I think they're watching all of the accounts quite closely,” says Noelle Easton, an adult performer who had almost 100,000 followers when she was first banned from Twitter. (She attributes the ban to her followers tagging her in NSFW photos.) “Many producers, directors, girls, and guys have been suspended recently, and some for good.”

Adult performer and director Courtney Trouble, who was suspended Dec. 3 and has yet to have their account reinstated, agrees. Social networks like Facebook, Instagram, and now Twitter “are forcibly removing anyone connected to sex work or sexual art from common online spaces, denying us access to the increasingly needed privileges that social networks provide,” they told the Daily Dot via email. (Trouble is gender-queer, and identifies with the pronouns “them” and “they.”)  

“They are also denying us access to do legal, forthright business through their platforms and censoring us as artists, activists, and community members.”

This recent spate of Twitter suspensions is particularly troubling, in light of the reputation Twitter has enjoyed in the adult community as a bastion of sexual expression. Although social networks like Facebook and Instagram have always banned nudity and sexual content, historically “the adult industry thought Twitter was the last avenue for true freedom of expression,” says Maxine Holloway, an adult performer based in the Bay Area.

The adult industry’s utopian view of Twitter as a sexually liberated social space isn’t totally merited. Twitter’s terms of service specifically prohibit users from posting photos featuring nudity and pornographic content as their avatars or header images. If a user tweets NSFW images, they’re encouraged to apply the account setting “mark my media as containing sensitive content.”

But even though those restrictions have been in place for years, Twitter had “never been strict about enforcing them,” says Trouble, who touts themself as a “very, very early adopter” of the social network. “Sex workers and erotic artists have been using Twitter to post this kind of content since its inception.”

Many performers say the shift in Twitter’s laissez-faire attitude toward pornographic content took place earlier this year, when Vine announced it would be banning adult content. Almost immediately, adult performers began speculating whether Twitter itself would follow suit. And although Twitter has not publicly announced a change in policy toward adult content, many sex workers say they’ve been suspended this year for content that would not have otherwise raised any eyebrows.

Trouble, for instance, believes they were suspended for their header image, an artistic print of a photo of herself that they call a “tasteful nude."

According to Trouble, “it was less graphic than the Venus de Milo, which is my general gauge for the type of photography I would submit to a social network,” they say. They have since tried to contact Twitter a number of times to have their account reinstated, to no avail—despite the fact that, they say, “a majority of my male followers on Twitter actually have dick pics as their avatars.”

Queer adult performer and professional dominatrix Ruckus XXX (NSFW) was suspended twice this year: Once in May, and once in October for his avatar, an image of his rear end. Being suspended, he says, severely impacted his ability to make a living, as Twitter "has accounted for at least 75 percent of my business promotion/connections over the past year," he said.

"The whole ordeal was super upsetting, both on a financial level as a survival SW [sex worker] and because it seems apparent that queers and SWs are doubly scrutinized on such a platform,” he says.

But access to a social media platform like Twitter isn’t just crucial to sex workers from a business perspective. It’s crucial from a safety perspective as well. In an industry that operates on the margins of society, without a viable union or access to social services, being on Twitter allows sex workers to “connect to an online network of support from other people within the industry, which is vital for sex worker well being and safety,” says Holloway.

While adult performers could easily skirt Twitter’s restrictions on adult content by posting SFW photos as their avatars and header images, the concern is that it won’t make much of a difference. “The industry is nervous that the avatar image censorship could spread, or that performers will be permanently banned without any knowledge or warning of the new policy enforcement,” says Holloway.

For its part, Twitter isn’t commenting on whether or not it plans to institute a porn ban similar to the one it rolled out for Vine, or if it’s becoming increasingly gung ho about keeping adult content off the social network. 

When the Daily Dot reached out for comment, a Twitter spokesperson linked to its sensitive media policy, saying, “Our rules prohibit pornographic images in profile photos, header photos, and user backgrounds.”

When asked if Twitter is planning to tighten its restrictions on adult content, or even remove it altogether, the response was similarly cagey: “Sorry, I don't have additional information for you beyond what is already available in our public policies.”

Twitter’s lack of clarity regarding its sexual content policy is particularly frustrating in light of other large companies and social media platforms’ discriminating against sex workers. Earlier this year, sex workers and drag queens fought back after Facebook instituted its controversial “real names” policy, which they said negatively affected adult performers and those in the LGBT community who might have legitimate reasons to protect their identities.

PayPal also came under fire for strong-arming the crowdfunding platform Patreon into shutting down the page of sex worker Kitty Stryker, on the grounds that she had violated their policy prohibiting “transactions involving... certain sexually oriented materials and services.” (She was raising money for a trip to Toronto.)

Given the increasing importance of our online accounts, having access to a social network like Twitter is crucial for sex workers, who already operate on the margins of society. “Social networks are quickly becoming a human right, in the sense that our access to jobs, family, partners, community, community events, benefits, and so much more are becoming dependent on services like Facebook and Twitter,” says Trouble. In this sense, being on Twitter is not just a way for adult performers to connect with fans and tell them when they’ll be going live on cam—it’s nothing short of a validation of their humanity.

That’s why adult performers like Trouble, who is in the process of trying to get their account reinstated, consider Twitter censorship nothing short of a betrayal, particularly in light of the controversy surrounding gendered harassment and bullying on the social network earlier this year.

“What’s really disgusting in this situation is the sheer amount of hate speech, bullying, online violence, and abuse that goes ignored by the same company that [tells] me that my naked body is unacceptable content,” they say. “It's sexist and irresponsible for them to be both censoring people and also not protecting them from abusive behavior on their platform.”

H/T Kitty Stryker | Illustration by Jason Reed

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