Early praise to Sex and Social Media
Source: Emerald Publishing
Sex is a normal part of adult life. Yet most social media platforms do not allow users to post sexually explicit visual content, a trend that has intensified after the US Senate passed the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act/Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (FOSTA/SESTA) bills in 2018. The bills intend to stop sex trafficking—crucially important—but their language is so vague that it has driven platforms to overreach in how they moderate user behavior and content.
Many platforms changed their rules about what can be posted or talked about. This forbids not just pornography and depictions of sex acts, but also most nudity, especially female nudity, including in its artistic, activist, and self-documentary expressions. In the process, many already vulnerable communities (i.e. LGBT youth discussing their experiences, making sense of their identities, people dealing with body image issues) were harmed, and many therapeutic, creative, artistic, and political discussions displaced.
What’s the big deal?
Sexual social media use is typically cast as a dangerous youth practice or a cheap thrill among adults up to no good. Either way, it’s seen as something that could be eliminated from public social media spaces with minimal impact. This attitude is understandable. It builds on a long history of anxieties regarding sex and publicness and sex and technology. The intersection of sex and publicness is where our issues around visibility and acceptability of certain sexual identities, lifestyles, and practices linger. What kinds of sex can be talked about? Who gets to be sexual? Where sex overlaps with technology, particularly the internet, we find presumptions about how the internet is or should be used for sex. This is where our cultural anxieties regarding sex education, sexting, sex-work, and cheating, but also our hopes for the internet as a space for information, freedom, acceptance, belonging, and validation sit.
The impetus to push sex out from general-purpose social media is a knee-jerk reaction built on those old anxieties. Most people would agree that sex is a natural part of life and a (hopefully) pleasurable enactment of the human capacity and need for sociality. Most people would also agree that consenting adults should be able to discuss their desires, anxieties, experiences, and health—and that people should be able to explore, experiment, and express themselves. We also know that social media is taking over significant chunks of our sociality. But somehow, we don’t put two and two together. If social media is an important space for being social, and sex is a normal aspect of being social, then censoring sex out from general-purpose social media platforms, instead of coming up with better ways to segregate conversations by age or desire to have them, seems like a very short-sighted plan.
Morals or money?
When social media platforms change their rules to kick all things sexy to the curb, they usually frame it as a moral decision intended to provide a safe space for the users. Many have in the past year or two pointed out the cynicism in this, as those same platforms keep ignoring hate speech, misinformation, manipulation, and bullying still rampant on their platforms. In the hierarchy of things that make a social space unsafe, then, someone’s semi-naked selfie seems to top death-, and rape threats, calls to violence and other toxic speech. Rather – before and alongside the platform developer’s fear of FOSTA/SESTA repercussions – it is money, and not morals that guide their choices. Sex, somewhat ironically, is bad for business on social media. Many popular social media platforms and their advertising clients seem to operate with an American value system that presumes shock and distaste at seeing a product advertised next to a piece of sexual user generated content. This is particularly poignant when we think of the sexualized imagery often used in advertising content itself, or ask why exhibiting an ad next to a racist slur is not presumed to be bad for business.
Further, the Apple App Store routinely bans apps that have sexually explicit content in their feeds from their store. FOSTA/SESTA plays its own role there, but it goes beyond that, indicating a value judgement and unwillingness to engage with the complexity of human sexual experiences and expression. Be that as it may, in an increasingly mobile-first social media ecosystem, platforms cannot afford to not be available on the App Store. And we need to ask if that kind of power should be wielded by two corporations (Apple and Google).
Sex-only internet platforms are not the answer either, because not all sexual social media content is about browsing for arousal (porn sites) or cruising for a hookup (dating apps). And we don’t want it to be. This is how sexual representation becomes narrow and instrumental, problematic in its notions about stamina, prowess, consent, pleasure, bodies, and beauty. When sex was allowed to co-exist with other typical social media fare (for example, on Tumblr between 2007-2018) it was an organic part of art, politics, pedagogy, story-telling, health, etc. Visual representations of bodies that were framed as sexy were diverse.
The internet has, for decades, offered people multiple sexual freedoms to experiment, play, and discover. Today it is poorly and unevenly governed by haphazardly worded regulations and run by a small number of powerful corporations that own the more popular social media platforms. People, especially young people, will continue to use the internet and social media for sexual information, education, and inspiration. Banning sex from generic social media impoverishes the diversity and quality of sexual information to be found online. It also sends a message that sex is not a normal part of life, creating shame and stigma. Shame leads to secrets, bad choices, and misinformation. Our relationships with sex would be happier and healthier if we acknowledged and included it.
Sex and Social Media by Katrin Tiidenberg and Emily van der Nagel is available at all good bookstores or the Emerald website.