In August, OnlyFans, a website known almost entirely for the selling of nudes, declared it would no longer host sexually explicit material. Twitter jokes compared the move to a grocery store banning groceries, and the bidet brand Tushy faux-announced it would follow OnlyFans’ example by ceasing sales of its key product. The risqué website reversed its decision less than a week later.
That’s good news for those of us who have become accustomed to websites banning — and shadow-banning — consensual adult sexuality. The online world is still scrambling to scrub itself clean to comply with a federal bill package President Donald Trump signed into law in 2018, the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act.
As the OnlyFans debacle highlights, the fight to supposedly make the internet a safer place is having a series of secondary impacts. In particular, it is having a silencing effect on key aspects of LGBTQ culture. But that’s just fine for the anti-LGBTQ groups that have lobbied Congress to crack down on OnlyFans and on sexuality in general.
On Aug. 10, over 100 conservative-leaning members of Congress wrote a letter to the Justice Department asking it to investigate OnlyFans. Alleging child sexual exploitation, the lawmakers cited research by an anti-LGBTQ group called the National Center on Sexual Exploitation. Formerly known as Morality in Media, the group has boycotted Disney for extending benefits to the same-sex partners of its employees and called for a boycott of Time Warner after the release of Madonna’s 1992 book “Sex,” which the group called “sick, violent pornography.” Its president, Patrick A. Trueman, formerly led the American Family Association, which the Southern Poverty Law Center designated a hate group for its longtime anti-LGBTQ views and campaigns.
The NCOSE board includes former Alliance Defending Freedom President Alan Sears, whose 2003 book “The Homosexual Agenda: Exposing the Principal Threat to Religious Freedom Today” hardly requires further explanation. NCOSE releases an annual Dirty Dozen List of what it calls “major contributors to sexual exploitation”; Netflix, Amazon and Google Chromebook are all listed alongside OnlyFans this year.
NCOSE isn’t the only group lobbying corporate interests and the government to eradicate sexual content, but it’s arguably the leader in the field, having railed against public displays of sexuality since 1962 and spending $5.1 million to do so in 2020.
Another major player in the anti-porn wars, Exodus Cry, has similar roots in anti-LGBTQ sentiment: Its founder has referred to homosexuality as “immoral” and “toxic.” Both groups declared victory after the signing of FOSTA-SESTA, with NCOSE thanking supporters for contacting their elected officials to lobby for the law.
I’m not going to argue whether or not there’s sex trafficking happening on the internet. But many of the groups leading the charge against it have other agendas, and their one-size-fits-all attempts to guard the internet against traffickers end up not only duping well-intentioned supporters, but also threatening the incomes of already marginalized workers and swallowing entire communities into a consuming maw of fundamentalist Christian, anti-sex censorship.
Their one-size-fits-all attempts to guard the internet against traffickers end up not only duping well-intentioned supporters, but also threatening the incomes of already marginalized workers.
These changes can seem innocuous. In May, eBay announced it would be closing its “adults only” category and banning the sale of “sexually oriented materials.” The impact on LGBTQ historical archives, hardly a dangerous phenomenon, was quick and devastating.
In August, The New Yorker spoke with queer historians about how the ban eradicated a market for materials, from conceptual art to the vital gay leather magazine Drummer, that even museums depend on for acquisitions. Drummer featured plenty of shirtless men on its covers, but it also included important information for the leather community. And highlighting the seemingly arbitrary nature of this ban, the iconic women-run erotic magazine On Our Backs was somehow spared.
Meanwhile, FOSTA-SESTA made a queer comic artist cancel the publishing of her own book (in which a sex worker was interviewed) because she worried she could be accused of sex trafficking. “We already face steep barriers in advertising due to mainstream society’s tendency to frame LGBT as inherently sexual, regardless of heat level,” romance writer Katie de Long told Rolling Stone in 2018. “This is only gonna get worse under policies that say simply mentioning terms related to our sexuality or identities can get us banned.”
FOSTA-SESTA’s impact has also had a silencing effect on sex educators, a vital resource for the many LGBTQ youth across the country who are given no information in school about their sexuality and gender identity. Of the 50 U.S. states, only a handful require school-based sex education be inclusive of LGBTQ people. In most of America, queer and trans youth must take their questions about identity and sex to internet search bars and social media accounts. Those questions often have life-altering implications, whether the answers are aimed at preventing sexually transmitted infections or simply feeling less isolated and weird about your desires.
While not necessarily related to FOSTA-SESTA, queer and trans social media users have complained of identity terms being censored on platforms because of their proximity to porn, of all things. In 2017, Twitter came under fire for blocking the word “bisexual,” saying at the time that it had been added to a list of terms “typically associated with adult content.”
Earlier this year, TikTok users complained that terms like “intersex” and “lesbian” were shadowbanned; searches for the words didn’t bring up results, and lesbian users had launched the tongue-in-cheek “le$bean” hashtag after finding that content with the hashtag #lesbian was frequently removed. Both platforms either apologized or said the issues were mistakes, but continuously evolving content moderation policies seem to target the LGBTQ community on a regular basis: In 2019, the feminist magazine “Salty” was banned from advertising its latest cover featuring several fully-clothed trans women of color — because the Instagram algorithm had mistakenly flagged it as an ad for an escort service.
Swift action from platforms to remedy such missteps is important, but don’t answer the question of why this keep happening — because it doesn’t appear to have stopped. This week, popular queer TikTok star @therealclaybaby posted an Instagram video complaining that he repeatedly gets locked out of his account for violating community guidelines about sexual activity.
The Texas-based creator is known for messy drag, irreverent rants and improvised raps, but the “adult nudity and sexual activity” he’s been flagged for don’t appear on the account. It’s unclear whether he’s being reported by homophobic viewers, or just flagged by an imperfect algorithm, but either way the creator’s income from sponsored posts was threatened. To say that it’s frustrating for queer and trans people to be automatically associated with pornography just by existing would be an understatement.
This kind of algorithmic bias has a similar effect to platforms that ban LGBTQ content under restrictive “adult” bans to comply with FOSTA-SESTA: both silence speech and prevent entire communities from being able to connect online. Few among us can say we’ve never had a post deleted, or had an entire account temporarily or permanently deactivated because we used a self-descriptive LGBTQ term (such as “dyke”) in a post or caption, or because something we posted was deemed inappropriate for some mysterious reason.
The great irony is that many of the content rules that silence LGBTQ expression online may have been put there to protect us from harassment, just as the rules that are de-sexualizing the internet claim to protect us from abuse. And as the anti-sex panic continues to sweep online spaces, it’s only natural for queer folks to expect that our very existence will continue to be conflated with porn by algorithms and whoever oversees the godlike task of creating keyword blocklists.
In GLAAD’s new Social Media Safety Index, the first report to measure online safety for LGBTQ people, algorithmic bias is just one small part of a report that largely monitors hate speech. But just as lawmakers need to do a better job at seeing the difference between sex trafficking and healthy, consensual human sexuality, platforms need to do better at distinguishing between hate speech and pride speech.
There’s no comparison between an underage girl being pimped out by a trafficker and a barista trying to make rent posting sexy videos on websites like OnlyFans. And there’s a vast gap between a young lesbian using the hashtag #dyke to connect with friends and vitriolic hate slurs used to terrorize and harass someone. Yes, training algorithms to find that difference is a challenge. But if it manages to police queer and trans users at current levels, surely it can also learn our language.