And so, when I started my lesbian meme page on Instagram, it was purely selfish — a sort of livefeed diary where I could post my strong-ass feelings into the void without having to bother my friends about the ups and downs of my sensitivities. I never expected to forge any sort of transformative connection. It’s just memes. Just some good ol’ fashioned laughs.
But everything changed when I got shadowbanned.
You might be wondering, WTF is shadowbanning? It’s when your content is muted, so only those who already follow your account can see your posts.
At first, I didn’t think anything of it. A meme or two not reaching my peers is not the end of the world. But the number grew to five, 10, 15 memes. My memes, which were typically reaching an audience of thousands to tens of thousands, were now reaching 300 — if I was lucky.
And so, that’s when I started to ask around amongst other queer memers: What was going on? Little did I know that was only the tip of the iceberg.
The last meme I posted before the ban had been about masturbation and had featured #sexed in the caption. The meme and caption seemed relatively innocuous to a vocal sexual intimacy advocate such as myself, but apparently using the word “masturbation” was enough to draw the wrong kind of attention.
In a Facebook blog post dating back to 2019, the social media giant announced their push for more family friendly content, saying that they “have begun reducing the spread of posts that are inappropriate but do not go against Instagram’s Community Guidelines, [meaning] for example, a sexually suggestive post will still appear in Feed if you follow the account that posts it, but this type of content may not appear for the broader community in Explore or hashtag pages.”
Although Instagram has not and will not announce what words and images exactly fall into this category, my meme definitely set off the alarm bell.
While I’ll be the first to throw hands over Instagram restricting my memes, there are much more dire and discriminatory repercussions of shadowbanning. Once I started paying attention, I realized that sex workers are unfairly the targets of these ambiguous new guidelines. Recreational meme accounts are nowhere near as impacted as the thousands of sex workers (SWers) who, with few other options for marketing and client outreach, can attest to the devastation their business and income have incurred.
And SWers have learned to shut up or shut down as a result.
“When I was promoting [sex work], my account got taken down as soon as I gained a decent audience,” said Clare, @wantapoptart on Insta. “I’m ashamed to admit that I haven’t really [posted] about sex worker rights because of how easily targeted Instagram accounts can be.”
Without warning and without hope of getting them back, SWers’ accounts are being silenced left and right.
“I got shadowbanned a lot [on Instagram] because of the online conversations/advocacy I was doing around SW. I also got a bit of weird hate from SWERFS and other a**holes, but that’s expected,” said Adele, an online SWer (currently using Snapchat and Girlfundme).
Even those who get to keep their accounts are still subject to an aforementioned shadowban.
“They’ve shadowbanned people for pole dancing videos, which frankly is just as cool and artistic as [safe for work] improv and drama and dance stuff that nearly never gets shadowbanned,” said Jude, a SWer on the site Fetlife. “I’ve been too scared to post any of my own content. I wouldn’t want to risk it.”
Since Instagram has made no official comment on the shadowbans, many have come to their own conclusions. “Shadowbanning allows Instagram to filter out accounts that don’t comply with their terms,” sited an article in Hubspot blog. “Some people use inauthentic measures to expand their Instagram following, like automated bots or hundreds of hashtags irrelevant to their content. If that’s the case, it seems only fair for Instagram to block those accounts, so users can continue receiving genuine and helpful content.”
Fair, yes, if they are actually spam accounts. But with computer algorithms running their detection of such fraudulent accounts, one can see how easily the innocuous can turn sinister — especially considering there is essentially no verified method of recovering from a shadowban.
In order to make a livable income, SWers’ Instagram pages should constantly reach new audiences. This growth can be achieved in three different ways. First, a user can search for the page directly, meaning they know of the account from an outside source. Second, a current follower can share content with their own followers on their story or through DMs. Finally, users can find posts using hashtags, which are the most important tool for page growth. While shadowbanned, none of these audience-reach options are doable.
Before I was shadowbanned, I was getting 97% of my engagement from Insta users finding my posts under specific hashtags (meaning about 97% of the people seeing my posts didn’t follow me).
It may not sound like a huge deal, but it can mean the difference between affording rent and not for those accounts who rely on their social media traffic to sell their content. And it’s happening to SWers all over social media platforms. It’s the equivalent of your local coffee shop only being visible to those who already frequent it. No new business is bad business. And this undue censorship is frustrating the hell out of the SWer community.
“It sucks. It feels like I’m being silenced and my voice doesn’t matter,” said Gabriella, a SWer in the online, stripping, and sugaring domains.
According to Vice, back in 2019, the Adult Performers Actors Guild wrote a letter signed by over 200 prominent SWers asking Instagram to unban and restore their deleted accounts to no avail. (Even some of the internet’s most prominent SWers, like porn star Riley Reid, have lost their accounts.) Although there’s no present data on the number of SWers affected, if it’s taken down some of the biggest names in sex work, it’s clearly far-sweeping in proportion, inevitably affecting users at all levels.
And being queer in this space is only icing on the discriminatory cake. Although why anyone gets into sex work shouldn’t require any explanation at all, there is a distinct correlation with the profession and gender/sex discrimination.
According to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, both unemployment and homelessness are experienced at dramatically higher rates for trans SWers, with unemployment at 25.1% compared to 12.4% for non-sex workers and homelessness at 48.1% as compared to 14.2% of non-sex workers. Of the people I interviewed, many found themselves without money (and that’s on income inequality and the 1%) and without a supportive community when they first started. And sex work became the basis for them to find stability.
“Money called me to sex work, but the sexual liberation made me stay,” said Adele. “I think the relationship between my queerness and sex work is beautiful. I think that my sex work is what made me feel more comfortable in my queerness and gender, and I’m grateful for that.”
I’m not here to defend sex work, because it can handle it’s own, but I do think that its personal impact is overlooked. It has ample room for personal growth and community building. In fact, the common thread keeping SWers on Instagram is the supportive community they can find there.
“I think people see my experience and feel comfortable sharing and opening up with me as someone who can understand them,” said Gabriella. “It’s led to both customers and peers to come out to me about their gender identities, sexuality, fantasies, et cetera that they haven’t shared with other people, and that is something that is very special.”
Small victories aside, many SWers have relinquished the idea of using Instagram without fear hanging over their heads — and that, my friend, is our call to action. Since Instagram has the easy job of simply ignoring us, the fight rests on our shoulders.
If you want to be the person to take Instagram to court over this, I will kiss the ground you walk on. As for allies such as myself who don’t have that bandwidth, we can follow a few simple steps to challenge this policy. Follow sex workers on the app. Like and comment on their posts. Share their content. Recommend them to a friend just as you would a tattoo artist. Support SWers on their OnlyFans and every other site.
As with any moment fighting the powers that be, it’s important that we all — and I mean everyone who comes across this article — stand up in solidarity. If we do this right, we stand a chance at proving to Instagram that there is more nuance to the restrictive algorithms they have yet to refine. A platform is for no one until it is for everyone.