Category Archives: sexuality
Please join us on Zoom, or in person, should you be in Sydney:
Tue, 26 Apr 2022 • 06:00PM – 07:00PM AEDT (10:00 – 11:00 AM CEST)
Online / Social Sciences Building Seminar Room 210, University of Sydney
Online registration link: https://uni-sydney.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_Im57SHm9RqCCjG7fd5Fh9g
Despite the significance of sexuality in people’s lives, sex is a topic of constant contestation. This panel asks why sex, particularly mediated depictions of sex, are often termed objectionable. Why are female nipples zoned out from social media? Why is porn framed as a social problem? Join us as our experts discuss what is really at stake in platform regulation of explicit content.
Chair: Professor Kane Race (University of Sydney)
Participants: Professor Kath Albury (Swinburne University of Technology), Professor Alan McKee (UTS), Professor Susanna Paasonen (University of Turku/Hunt-Simes Visiting Chair @SSSHARC, University of Sydney)
In person seating is limited so please so please send RSVPs to email@example.com to ensure your spot.
As part of our recently finished research project, Sexuality and Play in Media Culture, Laura Saarenmaa and I explored Leikki (Play), a mid-1970s Finnish sex magazine for women. This lead us to consider popular sex ed of the era, feminist affiliations and methodological challenges. The outcome is now out as “Short-Lived Play: Trans-European Travels in Print Sex Edutainment”, on open access with Media History. And here’s the abstract:
Media history is still written largely from national perspectives so that the role of import and export, translations and franchises is seldom foregrounded. On geographically and linguistically limited markets, imported materials have nevertheless been crucial parts of popular print culture. This paper explores the market of ‘sex edutainment’ magazines in 1970s Finland, zooming specifically in on Leikki (‘Play’, 1976), a sex magazine for women translated from the Norwegian Lek (first launched in 1971) that provided knowledge on topics ranging from marriage to masturbation and lesbian desire. Through contextual analysis of Leikki, a marginal publication that has basically faded from popular memory, this article attends to ephemeral and even failed print media in order to account for the heterogeneity of the 1970s sex press market as it intermeshed with sex advice and education. In so doing, it adds new perspectives to a field largely focused on successful periodicals and addresses knowledge gaps resulting from the exclusion of the sex press from mainstream media historiography.
Until end of April, I am Visiting Professor at University of Sydney’s Faculty of Arts and Social Science as Hunt-Simes Visiting Chair in Sexuality Studies. My visit includes PhD workshops, a public lecture (tba), as well as collaboration with the local research community and my most excellent host, Professor Kane Race, broadly on the topic of sexuality and social media content regulation. Very exciting.
Our collaborative book with Joshua Neves, Aleena Chia and Ravi Sundaram for Meson & University of Minnesota Press’s In Search of Media Series has an approximate due-date for June 2022. TechnoPharmacology examines the close relations of media technologies to pharmaceuticals and pharmacology. It is a modest call to expand media theoretical inquiry by attending to the biological, neurological, and pharmacological dimensions of media and centers on emergent affinities between big data and big pharma. The project has been great fun: it’s an absolute joy to work with these smart people.
My section in the book, titled “Drugs, epidemics, and networked bodies of pleasure”, explores the conflation of online pornography with an addiction of epidemic proportions with the aim of centering pleasure as a matter of gravity in and for critical inquiry. Returning to Derrida’s conceptualization of the pharmakon as both a toxin and a remedy, the cause and the cure, the bad and the good—it considers the ambiguities of pleasure as they come about in encounters with networked media, sexually explicit content, and intoxicating substances.
I am delighted to be one of the three scholars elected for a 2022 Hunt-Simes Visiting Chair in Sexuality Studies position at Sydney Social Sciences and Humanities Advanced Research Centre (SSSHARC), University of Sydney. If in the spring we are living in a world where people fly long, long distances, I’ll have the pleasure of working with Kane Race and the rest of the excellent Sydney team on sexual expression and social media platform governance. Very much honored to be in the same company with Jen Gilbert and Srila Roy,
I recently published an article “Intime Abhängigkeiten, fragile Verbindungen, entsexualisierte Plattformen” in Sexuologie journal based on a talk I gave at the Intimacy talk series by ICI Berlin and Schwules Museum last spring on the deplatforming of sex in social media (available here as video). There have been multiple variations of the talk since 2018 or so, that’s fed into and draws on different pieces I’ve written and co-written here and there. Here’s the full English article version:
As networked communications have grown infrastructural in how everyday lives are managed and lived, social media have come to operate as infrastructures of intimacy that play important roles in how people come together, stay in contact, maintain distances and proximities, and possibly fall out. At the same time, the increasingly aggressive “deplatforming of sex” from social media in the name of unspecified notions of safety involves the effacement of sexual imagery and sexual communication from the palette of exchanges available to social media users. Exploring the different ways in which sexual content is valorised and considered to lack in value, and focusing on the logic of social media community standards in particular, this article asks what kinds of bodies and bodily interactions become marked desirable, safe or risky within them; what kinds of value sex holds on them; and what is at stake in social media assembling platformed sociability void of sex.
Keywords: social media, sexuality, content moderation, sociability, sexual rights
intimate dependencies, fragile connections, sexless platforms
Not least in the course of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, during which much of mundane sociability has shifted online, networked media have grown infrastructural in how everyday lives are managed. While online connections were only two decades ago something of an add-on to the navigation of friendships and sexual relations, they have since grown part of the mundane maintenance and management of social proximities and distances, attachments and desires. In our particular historical conjuncture of a global pandemic where social distancing measures strongly limit physical mobility and potential ways of connecting both within specific regions and across them, online traffic has soared: the social media market leader Facebook alone has reported hundreds of millions of new users since the March 2020, porn aggregator sites enjoy high user volumes, and the success of the content subscription service OnlyFans speaks of the appeal of novel platforms for sexual entertainment, monetization and exchange.
At the same time, social media platforms are increasingly engaged in what Stephen Molldrem (2018) identifies as “the deplatforming of sex”, namely the effacement and removal of sexual content and communication. As a general concept, deplatforming refers to the removal of platforms from which individuals or groups who use them to disseminate their views and ideas to the broader public. The shapes that this take vary from Amazon deplatforming the Parler messaging app used by Trump supporters storming the Capitol building in January 2021 by removing it from its web hosting service to the banning and removal of individual user accounts, as in Trump being ousted from both Twitter and Facebook the same month. For its part, the deplatforming of sex means the removal of sexual exchanges from social media so that the spaces for different sexual cultures, practices, and communities shrink – a “de-sexing of platforms” that disproportionately hurts exchanges among sexually marginalised people (Molldrem, 2018). As Katrin Tiidenberg and Emily van der Nagel (2020, 46–47) argue, “critics broadly agree that this deplatformization of sex is a result of cold calculations cloaked in emotional, moralizing language” that tap into lingering moral panics concerning mediated sex “which have reinforced the dubious moral status of sex and popularized the trite diagnosis of technologically mediated sex as deviant.” Contributing to these debates, this article focuses on the violent frictions that occur between platform capitalism (Srnicek, 2018) and the forms that sexual networked exchanges are allowed to take on social media.
Lauren Berlant (2000, 4) maps out intimacy as “connections that impact on people, and on which they depend for living.” Understood in this vein, intimacy operates infrastructurally as networks that our everyday lives – and even our very sense of self – depend upon. Given the infrastructural roles that networked communications in play in everyday life, such dependencies are not limited to connections between people alone but encompass the technological, mediated environments where such connections unfold: and we depend on them for living in terms of the networks that impact us. In other words, it is my premise that considerations of intimacy as connections and networks that matter need to extend to the infrastructural role of digital technologies in the functionality of personal, social, occupational, and collective lives (Paasonen, 2018; Wilson, 2016). Within all this, social media have grown central to how people relate: quotidian, habitual in their uses, these platforms are simultaneously banal and essential in the connections that they allow for.
Infrastructure refers to facilities and backbones, both material or organizational, which, in Ara Wilson’s (2016, 247) terms, “shape the conditions for relational life”. As infrastructures of intimacy, networked media depend on the backbone of the internet as a global computational communication network composed of servers, data cables, protocols, and many things beyond. This technological and very much material infrastructure has, with the introduction of broadband connections and the mobile internet, become a key component of everyday life, not least so in Northern Europe (e.g., Hallinan, 2021). As we are, in many cases, factually constantly connected, the division of the online and the offline that much of the early Internet research operated with has become somewhat meaningless in describing the social practices of everyday life. Within the current historical conjuncture, data giants such as Facebook, Apple, Amazon and Google/Alphabet have broad and concrete power to both shape and monitor our online exchanges.
Blake Hallinan (2021, n.p.) points out that, during the past decade, “Facebook has scaled up, in terms of the number of users, and scaled out, in terms of integration into public life” so that it has gained infrastructural importance in how both personal and public lives are navigated and managed. Expanding its operations to data centres, software and investments in undersea cables, Facebook equally operates on the level of Internet infrastructure, making it “a communication infrastructure that simultaneously infrastructures significant aspects of our social, political, and economic lives” (Hallinan, 2021). My concern is specifically on the infrastructural roles that Facebook – together with other social media companies – plays in terms of mundane sociability in framing sexuality as objectionable, problematic and sensitive.
Although the term of social media suggests the opposite, all media are basically social. As Nancy Baym (2015, 1) argues, social media entails “the takeover of the social by the corporate” while also putting “the focus on what people do through platforms rather than critical issues of ownership, rights, and power”. Furthermore, social media structure and govern the shapes that platformed sociability takes – while this issue has come into sharp focus within the global pandemic, it is not being specific to the moment. My interests lie on the perceived value of sex, or the lack thereof, at a moment when social media services increasingly frame out sexuality from the kind of sociability they allow for. I argue that we are facing a corporate model of non-sexual sociability, of the unsexual social, and that this poses a problem in terms of sexual rights, particularly those pertaining to LGTBQ+ people. Within the model of the non-sexual corporate social, sex becomes flattened into objectionable and potentially obscene content, and visual content in particular becomes filtered and blocked in a horizontal vein free of contextual nuance. In the course of this, the political, cultural and social dimensions of sexuality are flattened and hollowed out. In what follows, I first unpack the overall rationale behind sex’s deplatforming before moving to address the conflicts between the economic value generated on social media platforms and the value that sex holds in individual and collective lives, and the overall stakes involved in its increasing zoning out in networked exchanges.
Zoning out sex
The visibility and accessibility of sexual content has been moderated on most social media services since their launch, even as users have been, and remain creative in their sexual uses of these communication platforms (for an extended discussion, see Tiidenberg & van der Nagel, 2020). In addition to users flagging and reporting posts that they find offensive, commercial content moderators weed through masses of data, and automated machine learning techniques are broadly used to recognize sexual content. Such policing has grown ever more vigilant with the 2018 “Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act” (FOSTA) and “Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act” (SESTA) bills, exceptions to Section 230 of the United States Communication Decency Act that has kept online services immune from civil liability for the actions of their users. Arguably intended to curb sexual trafficking, FOSTA-SESTA has led to the removal of much content connected to commercial sex while impacting the availability of sexual content much more expansively. Facebook, never friendly to sexual content, has revised its community standards to delimit sexual communication and depictions of nudity and sexual activity. The microblogging service Tumblr, once home of diverse sexual subcultures, removed all nudity in its December 2018 “porn ban”, effacing communities of exchange that had developed over a decade (Byron, 2019; Paasonen et al. 2019, 62, 133; Tiidenberg, 2019; Tiidenberg & van der Nagel, 2020, 45–46; Pilipets & Paasonen, 2020).
Before FOSTA-SESTA bills passed, Tumblr offered users the possibility to opt in, namely to agree to viewing sexual content. A similar model remains in place on Twitter. On Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and the current Tumblr, such content is strictly governed through community standards regulating the kind of content that users are allowed to post and share. These standards explicitly and forcefully exclude sexual content in the name of safety, by emphasizing that their aim is to keep users safe from potentially harmful content. In Facebook’s community standards, for example, nudity and sexual communication are classified under “objectionable content” alongside with violence and hate speech.
Sexual content is governed and moderated even more strictly than images of violence, while hate speech is moderated with some contextual consideration in connection with the freedom of expression. Whereas Facebook moderation guidelines address at some length the degrees of physical violence, blood and gore accepted, nudity (female nipples included) is horizontally forbidden, so that images of classic artworks, public statues, historical photographs, dick pics and links to gonzo porn are all similarly censored (Paasonen et al., 2019, 40–41). Within this logic, all nudity is understood as sexual, and therefore objectionable. Suggestions of sexual availability among consenting adults are equally forbidden in Facebook’s community standards, arguably since these can be seen as sexual soliciting. The ousting of sex in social media ranges from the ban on nude selfies to sexual health resources, journalistic accounts and academic studies being classified as being in conflict with community standards.
In the United States, the home of Facebook, the notion of community standards has long been used to determine the criteria for obscenity and obscene content unprotected by the First Amendment principles of freedom of expression. The 1957 Supreme Court ruling Roth v. the United States introduced community standards as a test making it possible to judge whether, to “an average person,” a cultural representation appeals to prurient interest and is hence obscene. In the context of social media services with billions of users globally, community standards operate with an even more ephemeral notion of “some people”, remaining a problematic, or at least an opaque concept in that anything like an average person is impossible to isolate or identify among Facebook’s 2,8 billion active users. These platforms identify themselves as community services, or just as communities, yet their vast use of volume, combined with vast differences in what individual users are likely to find objectionable, offensive or obscene across cultural, religious and societal divides mean that there can be no implicit consensus on the matter.
Despite the corporate logic being clear as such, it remains important to ask why sex becomes framed as unsafe to start with. The most popular social media services in Europe are, with the exception of TikTok, of U.S. origin. The community standards of Facebook, Instagram and Tumblr can be interpreted in relation to Puritanism as an often invisible, yet impactful cultural sensibility concerning sex and sexuality. It is my suggestion that the conflation of sex with risk speaks of that which, following Raymond Williams (1977, 132–133), can be identified as a residual structure of feeling orienting “affective elements consciousness and relationships” and generating specific kinds of sociability. Formed in the past, residual structures of feeling linger on, possibly unnoticed, while nevertheless attuning the rhythms of contemporary culture. They are, on the one hand, detached from dominant culture – just as puritanism, as a historical ideology and practice, is detached from the neoliberal entrepreneurial capitalism of contemporary Silicon Valley – yet, they are already incorporated into it, giving rise to contradictory layers of culture. The residual remains actively present through “reinterpretation, dilution, projection, discriminating inclusion and exclusion” (Williams, 1977, 123) as it does more passively as reverbs and emphases. Understood as echoes implicit in social media’s community standards and codes of conduct, puritan residual structures of feeling specific to the United States (although not limited to the country in question) operate with the premise that sex is dangerous and in need of control, rather than a source of enjoyment and wellbeing. (See also Paasonen et al., 2019, 169; Paasonen & Sundén, forthcoming).
Such echoes entail culturally specific attitudes towards sexuality and bodily display which, filtered through the tradition of puritanism into less strident yet persistent variations of prudishness, are catered as transparent norms of properness internationally through social media community standards. Sex, in this framework, implies risk to be fought off through tagging, flagging, automated filtering, human moderation, and combinations thereof – the humans thus employed often being offshore workers in countries with cheap labour costs (Roberts, 2019).
Social media content policies are, on the one hand, concerned with nudity on a horizontal manner. On the other hand, it is female and not male nipples that come attached to prurient interests as sites of titillation and obscenity (for an extended discussion, see Paasonen & Sundén, forthcoming). Content moderation policies come with gender bias, in addition to which the algorithms used in automated content filtering are primed and optimised to recognize certain shapes and patterns over others. As creations of specific cultural and social context, these techniques treat and valorise different bodies – and, by extension, embodied differences and identities – differently. There is bias, both racial and gendered, to how algorithms work: much of this depends on the datasets that they have been trained with (Noble, 2018).
Exploring literature on computer vision-based pornography filtering techniques that expands on such datasets, Robert W. Gehl, Lucas Moyer-Horner and Sara K. Yeo (2017, 530) argue that these operate with a highly limited set of assumptions, according to which “pornography is limited to images of naked women”, “sexuality is largely comprised of men looking at naked women” and “pornographic bodies comport to specific, predictable shapes, textures, and sizes.” In particular, the authors show that filtering software has been built to primarily recognise white, young female bodies as pornographic objects: the word “penis” did not feature once in the 102 articles that Gehl, Moyer-Horner and Yeo (2017, 536) analysed. Although penises have more recently entered the realm of algorithmic governance, gendered bias remains rife.
In 2019, the feminist newsletter Salty reported on a leaked Facebook and Instagram ad policy document defining the boundaries of acceptability in underwear and swimwear photos through references to a Victoria’s Secret’s advertising campaign. These images comprising a biased dataset were not used to train algorithms but human eyes, explaining “in twenty-two bullet points the way models can sit, dress, arch their backs, pose, interact with props” and “how see-through their underwear can be”. The algorithms discussed by Gehl and his co-authors focused on young, white, and thin female bodies as sites of porn. Facebook’s policy document was concerned with very similar bodies when drawing boundaries around the acceptably sexy and the potentially obscene – the difference being that these bodies operated as markers of desirable, profitable content. As Salty’s writers explain, this biased training sample discriminates against queer and women-run accounts posting body positive and gender nonconforming content that depart from the narrow body aesthetics of Victoria’s Secret, a brand known for its glossy and sexualised displays of femininity (see also Madden et al., 2018).
Within all this, naked or semi-naked female bodies remain the markers of obscenity and potential disgust alike, except when confining to narrow, commercially defined aesthetic norms of appropriate sexiness. From the perspective of Facebook, things seen as sexy or “cheekily” acceptable hold value in attracting advertisers and user engagement; things considered inappropriately sexy, cheeky and offensive do not. Within such estimations of value, drastically different scales of worth, importance and productivity emerge and clash. Meanwhile, community standards offer a discursive space for pulling these together. The 1973 U.S. supreme court test on obscenity (in the Miller v. California case), expanded the criteria of community standards to considerations of whether the work examined “lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value” (Hudson, 2018), with the overall idea that obscene content lacks in all these kinds of value, and hence does not merit protection in the name of freedom of expression as simple trash.
If this legal definition identifies obscenity as worthless, the adaptation of community standards in social media content regulation expands the same logic to all content posted and shared by users. In practice, these norms are far from transparent, ambivalent in their wording, and often plain opaque for those whose content ends up being removed. While residually puritan social media content policies mark sexuality – from sexual representation to other forms of sexual communication and knowledge – as lacking in importance and social value, the situation is considerably more complex from the perspective of users, for whom content that becomes filtered out, flagged or blocked can hold great personal and social value irreducible to its monetization. This importance directly correlates with the perceived importance of sexuality in people’s personal and social lives.
In her research on the mid-1990s 2D graphical chat space, The Palaces, Sal Humphreys (2008) points out the fragility of queer sociability on commercial online platforms. Once a vibrant community, the queer Palace room she studied was abruptly disbanded and destroyed as the site owners simply switched off the server, leaving users unable to find one another as the room had been their only node of mutual connection. Humphreys describes the experience of logging into what had become “a different Palace” some months later:
“Palace, our ‘home’ has disappeared – the owners took the server offline. We have all been wandering aimlessly from Palace to Palace in search of each other for weeks now. Sometimes we find some of us. We gather in a room in someone else’s Palace and rekindle the warmth, but it is not the same. We need our own place back again. We have started to use the Palace we are in now, but it isn’t queer and there are lots of others here too.” (Humphreys, 2008, n.p.)
Social media platforms, similarly to the queer Palace, can just disappear, as did the Twitter-owned short-form video service Vine in 2016. They can equally radically alter their content policies and other in-platform laws without much prewarning so that sexual and gender nonconforming networks are cut off, as happened on Tumblr in 2018 (Byron, 2019; Tiidenberg, 2019; Pilipets & Paasonen, 2020). Announcing the ban on nudity and sexual content, Tumblr CEO Jeff D’Onofrio (2018) spoke of the intention to make the platform a “better, more positive” place for its community members. This statement was met with large degrees of hostility, sarcasm and sadness. Given Tumblr’s role in the formation of queer sociability and in the maintenance and creation of networks connected to a broad spectrum of sexual subcultures, the content ban did not merely alter the platform’s possible uses of but, through the removal of NSFW blogs, did away with social connections and resources.
Some of the content removed pertained to specific sexual likes, as Tumblr blogs had gathered together self-shooters, kinksters, niche porn aficionados, queers, and combinations thereof (Molldrem, 2018; Ashley, 2019; Engelberg & Needham, 2019; Tiidenberg, 2016; Ward, 2019). For some users, Tumblr was a site of sexually explicit fan art and, for others, an archive of counterhegemonic sexual content, a network of connections and exchanges, and a site of queer knowledge on issues ranging from mental health to penile reconstructions. Within two weeks of Tumblr announcing its new content policy, users, some of them comparing the platform to a home space facing immediate destruction, were “no longer be able to express themselves through sharing images of their bodies, or the bodies of others, or a range of other sexual content, regardless of whether ‘adult content’ was their reason for taking up residence on Tumblr” (Byron, 2019, 345).
If we understand social media as infrastructures of intimacy in the sense of entailing connections upon which we depend on for living – not entirely, yet to different degrees – it follows that being cut off from these, or these disappearing, partly reorganizes one’s ability to relate to others, to be and to act. There is fragility to relating through these platforms as the terms and conditions under which this occurs are not ours to control, or to hardly even impact. As Humphreys (2008) points out, “Publishers and owners most often reserve the right to exclude anyone from their sites for any or no reason. They mostly refuse any form of accountability for their decisions and invoke the rights of property to back their claims.”
Writing on Tumblr before the “porn purge”, Alexander Cho (2018) points to it being the preferred platform for queer youth of colour due to both its lenient content policy and its lack of publicness by design. Contra to Facebook’s real name policy, which allows the service to extract “robust and verifiable user data for monetization” by insisting that users operate with their legal name, Tumblr allows for multiple blogs under different aliases, none of which need to be connected to a singular name that other users could search for (Cho, 2018, 3183). As Cho points out, platform capitalism, in the case of both Facebook’s name policy and Google ID, can have drastically negative outcomes for queer youth in the form of outing and homophobic surveillance. In not allowing for anonymity or aliases, Cho argues, Facebook puts vulnerable users at risk. For its part, Facebook identifies aliases with fake accounts entailing the risk of bullying, spamming and trolling while also claiming to protect the safety of its users by governing the visibility of sexual content available to them. Safety, then, works in mysterious, or at least convoluted ways.
As Cho (2018, 3196) further argues, “the very factors that make Tumblr a non-default-public space for counter-hegemonic expression are the ones that impede the targeted value-extractive mechanics of platform capital”. Without sex, Tumblr’s economic model, never profitable as such, virtually collapsed: three months after the ban on sexual content, user traffic had dropped by nearly 30 per cent, and the service was soon sold for a fraction of its former price. With Tumblr, sexual content was key to popularity but not to financial success. While much could be said of the reasons for the content ban and its consequences, suffice to say that it involved a drastic misreadings of the service’s key userbase and the value that these people placed on sexual exchanges. These misreadings speak to the incompatibility in scales of value placed on social media platforms and the exchanges they afford.
Off with context
Announcing Tumblr’s porn ban, D’Onofrio (2018) argued that, “Bottom line: There are no shortage of sites on the internet that feature adult content. We will leave it to them and focus our efforts on creating the most welcoming environment possible for our community.” In doing so, D’Onofrio conflated all sexual content circulated on the site with the genre of pornography – a genre most commonly associated with “adult content”. This swift rhetorical move effectively did away with all contextual nuance within such content, as well as specificities in how, why and what sexual content is circulated and consumed, in what social settings and on what online platforms. This move both built on and further supported a broad division drawn between social media platforms (defined as safe, non-sexual, welcoming, community-oriented) and porn sites (standing for the unsafe, that which is best excluded from social media or otherwise filtered out). This rift continues to grow ever more pronounced so that social media companies may classify virtually all kinds of sexual content as comparable with, or as freely falling into the category of “porn”. This horizontal, simplified classification is in place by design as it is the aim of companies such as Facebook that their algorithmic and human content moderation practices, independent of cultural context or geographical location, are able to similarly recognize, flag and block offensive content.
On the one hand, it is easy for algorithms to spot nudity. On the other hand, it is virtually impossible for them to make sense of (cultural, social, temporal or political) contexts within which such nudity is featured. It is also difficult for Facebook to make sense of consent in order to draw lines around solicited and unsolicited exchanges, for example. Consequently, a nude photo sent to a lover in a private message as part of sexual play can result in the user being banned as this is treated similarly to sexual harassment by a random stranger. There is no choice for users to opt in, or consent to viewing sexual content since, according to community standards, “some people” may be sensitive to this. Focused on the pictorial properties of visual content, moderation guidelines sidestep the notion of artistic value as impossible for the company to make judgements on: while this impossibility is a fact, the policy simply results in art featuring nudity being classified as offensive. As context disappears, images shared from a BBC news site can become flagged as offending community standards on nudity and sexual activity – as with Facebook tributes to the actor Burt Reynolds at the time of his death, many of which made us of his famous nude 1972 Cosmopolitan centrefold, and subsequently became blocked.
The deplatforming of sex, as addressed in this article, has significant repercussions in terms of what can be done with sexual media, how we can relate to one another on diverse platforms, as well as the shapes that sexual lives and pleasures can take. The effacement of sexual content and its conflation with pornography further evokes the question of how we make sense of sexual media genres, their cultural positions and social uses. A broad range of visual sexual practices plays out on online platforms, from networked masturbation sessions on Skype or SnapChat to WhatsApp sexting, chats in hook up apps and more or less playful exchanges of nude selfies via social media backchannels via direct messaging, even if these go against community standards. The people engaging in such routines do not necessarily perceive their media production as being pornographic, or its outcomes having much to do with porn, as largely consumed on aggregator sites in the shape of video clips. Meanwhile, such productions can be experienced as erotic, sexual, intense, libidinal, fun, disturbing, visceral and important. It is of course the case that platforms do exists, and are constantly launched for the purposes of sexual display and connecting – FetLife alone having been in operation since 2008, and diverse hook-up apps being largely centred around sexual exchanges. It is nevertheless my argument that the expansive, horizontal ousting of sex from social media flattens out possible ways of relating, gaining sexual knowledge and advancing public debates connected to sexual cultures, lifestyles, preferences, identities, professions and ethics.
Denying the personal and social value of such exchanges, I further argue, does damage to ways of understanding sociability and the kinds of social engagements that drive people to start with. Perhaps self-evidently, it also downplays the role that networked media play as and within infrastructures of intimacy. The deplatforming of sex has detrimental effects on sexual cultures in blocking access to communication platforms, archival spaces, networking options, and in doing away with the means of presenting and enjoying bodies. Following the logic of deplatforming, the post-porn ban Tumblr, with no more dick pic galleries, no porn gifs, no amateur porn drawings and no explicit kink, is just safer, more welcoming and, by extension, better. The content moderation practices set in place for policing community standards are designed to keeps us all safe, even as this safety goes against our explicit wants, needs and desires. At the same time, this figure of safety, both normative and spectral, causes harm: consider, for example, the consequences that the ousting of gender and sexual nonconforming blogs has had for the possibility of people coming together, finding things, and possibly figuring things out, or the risks of real-name policies on the lives of queer youth, as discussed by Cho. And even as the value of sex – the value of people expressing desire to get it on with one another, or to explore specific interests – is denied, sex certainly continues to hold value in social media as ubiquitous “sexiness” confining to gendered body norms.
Social media services have strongly defended the freedom of expression when accused of not sufficiently moderating vitriolic political commentary or the racist, homophobic and misogynistic overtones of their users. Their community standards, following U.S. legal definitions of obscene content as both falling outside the freedom of expression and lacking in social and cultural value, conflate sexual content with offensiveness so that these can be filtered out. At the same time, the notion of sexual rights, articulated since the 1990s in response to feminist, queer and transgender activism, firmly frames the issue of sexual expression as a human right key to wellbeing (Albury, 2017). Understood through the prism of sexual rights, the policing of sexual expression in social media is in conflict with human rights (for an extended discussion, see Spišák & al. 2021). This is particularly pressing a concern as social distancing measures have boosted the traffic of social media. Networked forms of doing sex have expanded just as the deplatforming of sex has accelerated, making evident the tension between a data economy ruled by U.S. specific notions of appropriate content and behaviour, and the centrality of sexual exchanges in people’s lives
Arguments made for sexual rights in response to social media content policies are perhaps unlikely to undo the overall logic of risk and safety that these are premised on, yet they can allow for shifting the focus of debate to the diverse forms of value that sex holds in people’s lives beyond the logic of monetary value monetization upon which social media operate. The value of sex is intensely personal as that which contributes to the making of the self just as it is political as a matter of alliance, identification and advocacy. Deplatforming of sex produces social media sociability void of sexuality and, in so doing, effaces connections that impact us, and on which we depend for living.
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Our short piece on shadowbanning, Sex in the Shadows of Celebrity, written together with the wonderful Dr Carolina Are, is out on OA with Porn Studies as part of a forthcoming special issue on the deplatforming of sex in social media. Here’s the abstract:
Shadowbanning is a light censorship technique used by social media platforms to limit the reach of potentially objectionable content without deleting it altogether. Such content does not go directly against community standards so that it, or the accounts in question, would be outright removed. Rather, these are borderline cases – often ones involving visual displays of nudity and sex. As the deplatforming of sex in social media has accelerated in the aftermath of the 2018 FOSTA/SESTA legislation, sex workers, strippers and pole dancers in particular have been affected by account deletions and/or shadowbanning, with platforms demoting, instead of promoting, their content. Examining the stakes involved in the shadowbanning of sex, we focus specifically on the double standards at play allowing for ‘sexy’ content posted by or featuring celebrities to thrive while marginalizing or weeding out posts by those affiliated with sex work.
My article is just out with the Porn Studies journal, on open access. Titled “We watch porn for the fucking, not for romantic tiptoeing”: extremity, fantasy and women’s porn use, it addresses gendered generalisations pertaining to porn preferences through survey data and is part of a forthcoming special issue on extremity. The abstract goes like this:
This article examines the appeal of extreme imageries through a 2017 journalistic survey of 2438 participants on Finnish women’s approaches to, opinions on and preferences in porn, with a specific emphasis on responses addressing preferences deemed extreme. The respondents regularly positioned these pornographic fantasies in relation to the assumed tastes of other women while also addressing the complex and ambivalent roles that porn played in their ways of making sense of their sexual selves. By focusing on disconnections articulated both towards the category of women and within one’s sexual self when accounting for the attractions of extremity, this article also questions the ‘will to knowledge’ underpinning popular queries into women’s pornographic likes, asking how such data can be productively explored without reproducing the binary gender logic that structures it.
Our article with Sanna Spisak, Elina Pirjatanniemi, Tommi Paalanen and Maria Vihlman, with the whopper of a name, “Social Networking Sites’ Gag Order: Commercial Content Moderation’s Adverse Implications for Fundamental Sexual Rights and Wellbeing” is just out with Social Media and Society (OA). It’s one outcome of our ongoing project, Intimacy in Data-Drive Culture, and the abstract goes like this:
This article critically investigates the reasoning behind social media content policies and opaque data politics operations regarding sexual visual social media practices and sexual talk, asking what is at stake when social media giants govern sexual sociability on an international scale. Focusing on Facebook, in particular, this article proposes an alternative perspective for handling various expressions of sexuality in social media platforms by exploring the wide-ranging ramifications of community standards and commercial content moderation policies based on them. Given that sexuality is an integral part of human life and as such protected by fundamental human rights, we endorse the freedom of expression as an essential legal and ethical tool for supporting wellbeing, visibility, and non-discrimination. We suggest that social media content policies should be guided by the interpretive lens of fundamental human rights. Furthermore, we propose that social media content policies inclusive of the option to express consent to access sexual content are more ethical and just than those structurally erasing nudity and sexual display.