Activism isn't easy — not even when you're doing it online. But an increase in legal barriers and long-held institutionalized biases aren't enough to silence the
people working to de-stigmatize sex work on Instagram. The platform, which has singled itself out from the rest of the social media pack as a tool for sex workers, can be instrumental in helping them develop their businesses by allowing them — like any other business owner — to promote their goods and services, expand their client base, and build community with others in the industry. But simply having access to Instagram doesn't make their work any easier.
Speaking openly about sex work, whether that's through self-promotion or advocacy, has become more difficult in recent years due to the bills Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA), which passed in
the Senate in March 2018. Both bills were intended to target sex trafficking, but FOSTA-SESTA caused many sex workers more harm than good by spurring social media platforms to crack down on sexual content indiscriminately.
However, research suggests that online spaces for sex workers to promote themselves have
led to much safer working conditions. Making self-promotion of consensual sex work illegal forces sex workers to turn to the streets for work, making it harder to vet clients in advance. In the aftermath of the legislation, sex workers and adult industry veterans have reported a decrease in financial stability since FOSTA-SESTA's passing.
To make matters even more difficult,
Instagram's December 2020 Terms of Service update, meant to adhere more closely to Facebook's Community Standards on sexual solicitation, included a ban on sexually implicit content (like suggestive emojis and allusions to wetness and erections). It also included a push to redirect users to more explicit platforms, like OnlyFans, instead of hosting that content on Instagram.
Instagram has publicly stated its update is not targeted at sex workers, and that "nothing will change" about the way it enforces its policies, sex workers have reported their posts have, in fact, been taken down or their accounts shadowbanned — hidden from intended audiences — or deleted entirely.
Still, sex workers are not giving up. Not only is destigmatization important for shifting cultural attitudes toward their work, but it can also
pave the path to decriminalization, fostering safer working environments for strippers, cam models, full-service sex workers, and others in the adult industry.
Below, six sex workers using their Instagram platforms to destigmatize their work tell Elite Daily what they're doing to speak up for themselves and their communities, and why it's so important.
"Stigma is a direct correlation to criminalization."
I run SUGAR Worldwide, a multimedia platform [ @sugarwrldwide on Instagram] that highlights sex workers' voices and experiences. I work to center the sex-worker narrative through collaborations in varying mediums, including film, written blog content, a clothing brand, and more. SUGAR imagines a universe where sex workers are not only seen, heard, and free to exist in all spaces, but are celebrated and uplifted. SUGAR also works to provide this media outlet to a non-sex-working audience so that there are educational resources on the nuances and reality of sex work, directly from sex workers themselves. I hope to aid in breaking the harmful stigmas that ostracize the sex working community and cause unnecessary divide. These stigmas are a direct correlation to the criminalization that endangers those that work in the industry. I hope to honor the wh*res that came before me, and all those who are tirelessly doing the work now to make the world a better and safer place for the sex working community. – Kika, she/her
"I want to educate civilians about the legislations that kill us."
I'm a multidisciplinary artist, activist, and full-service sex worker who self-released two e-books in the past year about my line of work, my clients, and the legislations endangering us. I want to keep pushing for full decriminalization, and use my platform to educate civilians about the legislations that kill us everyday — and will eventually hurt [civilians], too.
"We are human, just like you."
I’ve been dancing on and off since I was 18. It was hard at the time — finding a job at that age, when you don’t have any skills that qualified you for certain jobs. The only real skill I had was dance, and I figured, why not try and use that to my advantage? Ultimately, I learned that the culture of stripping was a different ballgame. It's important to de-stigmatize sex work because most people don't understand that those who work in the sex industry do it to survive and create better circumstances for themselves. These people are human, just like anyone else walking by you on the street, sitting in front of you in a coffee shop, or maybe sitting on a bus taking their child to school. We are human, just like you. I never looked at myself as a leader for anything. But I feel like it’s my duty to educate those who judge without understanding why sex work is work. — Gizelle Marie, she/her
"I hope to give sex workers the support they deserve."
I am a sex educator and a semi-retired sex worker. I say "semi-retired" because, while I am not currently doing any in-person sex work, I still make content here and there. I now focus most of my time giving other sex workers a platform through my platforms, so everyone can have their demands heard and their needs met. I mostly use Instagram and Twitter to highlight these folks — the two places trying their hardest to get rid of all sex workers and folks working in sex, with the destruction of SESTA/FOSTA taking its toll. I hope to continue to give other marginalized sex workers the space, platforms, and support they deserve. I also hope that decriminalization is on the horizon, and that sex work will finally be seen as real work — as it should be! — Niyyah, they/them
Twitter has been historically lax about adult content on the platform as long as it doesn't go against its
sensitive media policy, which states users can share "graphic violence and consensually produced adult content within your Tweets, provided that you mark this media as sensitive." However, in February 2021, Rolling Stone reported data by adult-industry consultant Amberly Rothfield that showed an 82% increase in sex workers' Twitter accounts being deleted just in January alone, compared to the three months prior. Several sex workers told the publication that their accounts had been suspended by Twitter in recent months, and when they appealed, they got no response.
According to a Twitter spokesperson, Twitter has not made changes to their sensitive media policy this year. "All accounts are subject to
the Twitter rules and our range of enforcement actions," they said in an email to Elite Daily. "If people think that we made a mistake suspending an account, we encourage them to appeal and we'll review what happened."
"We can’t mobilize without dismantling racism, classism, ableism, and transphobia."
As a holistic sex and pleasure educator, being in collaborative movement with sex workers is essential. My sex work advocacy involves working with LGBTQIA+ folx to dismantle their own internalized wh*rephobia and erotophobia, building inclusive and trauma-informed curriculums for adults who never received comprehensive sex education, and creating spaces that invite LGBTQIA+ BIPOC folx to embody sensual movement and rebuild consensual and sovereign relationships. Another integral part of my sex work advocacy is crediting and amplifying the sex workers — specifically the queer BIPOC sex workers — whose bodies and lives continue to experience such horrendous discrimination and violence. We can’t mobilize sex work advocacy without dismantling racism, classism, ableism, and transphobia. I want to be a dandelion, spreading seeds everywhere I go that are moving the collective toward policies that de-stigmatize and decriminalize sex work. I want sex workers to be provided with with non-negotiable standards of safety, respect, care, and dignity. As I stretch to mend the parts of the community that are within my reach, I recognize that interdependence is the way forward.
Che Che Luna, they/them