Last week, Instagram announced it would be clamping down what it deems "inappropriate" content, meaning that posts don't need to violate its community guidelines outright to be penalised. Sexually suggestive content falls under this umbrella and such posts would be "limited from being recommended on [its] Explore and hashtag pages", the company explained. In practise, a sexually suggestive post will still appear in your feed if you follow the account, but such posts "may not appear for the broader community in Explore or hashtag pages."
The guidelines have already been described as vague and those whose livelihoods could be affected by the move argue the policy is unfair. Among them are sex workers in the UK, many of whom claim to have had their Instagram accounts deactivated in the last week, and they are calling on the social media behemoth to urgently clarify its stance.
UK-based sex worker Rebecca Crow says her account (@katsandcrows) was deactivated last Friday (12th April), and on Monday she started a Change.org petition urging Instagram to meet with her to discuss sex workers' rights on the platform. Crow, who is currently posting on Instagram as @indie_brownbelly, has compiled a list of more than 100 other UK sex workers whose accounts have also been suspended, and won the support of more than 1,600 signatories at the time of writing.
"Instagram's censorship policy is disproportionately affecting sex workers on Instagram," Crow writes. "We try our best to stay within Instagram's vague guidelines, but increasing numbers of sex workers are having their accounts deactivated unfairly and it is seriously impacting our ability to maintain our businesses."
Instagram’s community guidelines state that users must "follow the law", but that "offering sexual services" via the platform is banned completely – "even if it's legal in your region". So it's no wonder that many sex workers in the UK, where prostitution itself (the exchange of sexual services for money) is legal, believe they are being unfairly penalised.
When Refinery29 asked Instagram why "offering sexual services" was prohibited, they said the platform strives to appeal to the broadest possible audience, and pointed us to the Facebook's policy on sexual solicitation, which they said equally applies on Instagram. "We draw the line... when content facilitates, encourages or coordinates sexual encounters between adults," these guidelines state. Sexually explicit language is also banned.
We didn't expect to get deleted because we didn't post any nudity.
Joana Nastari, 29, Fuck You Pay Me
Instagram's stance on sexual solicitation may be clear, then, but some users still believe their content is being wrongly classified as inappropriate.
Joana Nastari, 29, is a writer, performer and one of the co-founders of Fuck You Pay Me (FYPM), a collective of artists, activists and sex workers, whose Instagram account (@Fypmshow) was deactivated on Sunday morning (13th April).
Nastari says there was no nudity on the account and she doesn't know why it was deactivated, as Instagram hasn't given them a detailed explanation other than saying it violated its terms.
The group relied on Instagram as its primary means of communication and they've been been engaged in a back-and-forth with the company since Sunday in a bid to get the account reinstated. "It was a really tight community of people who we really engaged with who came to all our stuff [parties, plays and events], which we cultivated over two years, so it's really gutting to lose that," Nastari told Refinery29. "It was a beautiful little bubble on the internet that existed and is now gone. We didn't expect to get deleted because we didn't post any nudity or even drawings of nudity."
FYPM is currently posting under @fypm.show to around 650 followers, a significant drop from the 1,700 on its deactivated account, but Nastari says they are now weighing up whether they want to be on Instagram at all. "We’re wondering whether it’s the right place to be anymore," she says, "We don't want be on there and worrying constantly that we're going to lose everything that we've done for no reason with no guarantee we can get it back." The threat of being "shadowbanned" – when your content doesn't appear on people's feeds unless they follow you – is also a huge deterrent, Nastari adds.
It's 2019 and a lot of people do sex work... we should be allowed to promote ourselves in the same way as any other business.
Sara Wallis, 33, camgirl
Others believe that Instagram should at least warn people beforehand – particularly if those people rely on the platform to make a living – before it deactivates their accounts.
Sara Willis, 33, a UK-based camgirl, has had three Instagram accounts deactivated, the first of which had almost 290k followers, she told Refinery29. In one photo which was removed, she says she "was fully covered in a t-shirt and full knickers, it wasn't even a sexy pose and nothing sexual was in the caption." Willis re-uploaded the post, assuming the deletion was a mistake.
"The next day without warning I was logged out and given an error message telling me my account had been disabled. I tried to appeal for weeks before giving up and starting a new account in February last year," she explains. Two other of her accounts have since been deleted without warning. As a camgirl using its platform, it's not surprising that Willis would be on Instagram's radar, owing to its guideline against sexual solicitation. But in the absence of a similar rival platform, she is adamant it's Instagram that should change its outdated stance.
"It's 2019 and a lot of people do sex work in some form or another. As long as we follow the rules, we should be allowed to promote ourselves in the same way as any other business," Willis asserts. "Banning and removing us from these sites pushes people, especially full service sex workers, into a place where they may feel pushed into making choices they wouldn't normally to survive."
As for Crow, who has brought the issue to the fore with her petition, she believes Instagram "needs to take a long hard look at itself". She told Refinery29: "Sex is used as marketing in every industry. If the people who are using sex to sell sexual services are the only ones being penalised then that is discrimination.
"We direct our business to websites that are equipped to filter out under 18s, which will become even more effective come July when the UK's porn age verification law comes into effect. I'd also argue that most sex workers sell products and not services in the form of nude photos and videos, which are digital products."