The Banning of Sex Ed on Social Media

The Banning of Sex Ed on Social Media

Like The Porn Conversation, many sex educators have flocked to social media platforms to provide comprehensive and inclusive sex education in an accessible way. Social media has proven to be a great way to reach people and have an open conversation about sex and sexuality. However, platforms have started to push back against sex-related content with the use of content moderation. These measures also befall sex educators, whom increasingly encounter shadowbans, content removals, and even account removals. 

Platforms Push Back Against Sex

Over the last years social media platforms have increasingly started to censor sex-related content. The strict censorship of sex-related content can, in part, be dedicated to the instalment of the FOSTA/SESTA bills in the U.S.A. in 2018, which have made platforms liable for content that promotes and facilitates sex trafficking. Social media platforms have taken an expansive approach in the interpretation of these bills, and started to moderate and censor any content related to sex, including sex education. 

It is striking that while Meta’s community guidelines state that sex education and sex positive content is allowed, in practice this is not enforced. Many sex educators report having their content be removed or shadowbanned, and some are even removed from the platform entirely. These measures heavily impact the existence of sex education on social media, and it incites a heightened sense of insecurity for those content creators that provide it.

The shadowban has long been dismissed as a conspiracy amongst users. Yet, it is increasingly becoming clear that this is a legitimate form of content regulation through which platforms algorithmically reduce the visibility of certain content and accounts. Platforms make use of algorithms to control what content is recommended to users, and, more importantly, what content is not recommended to them. Through algorithmic means platforms reduce the visibility of so-called problematic or borderline content, which is content that does not necessarily violate community guidelines yet still is considered problematic according to, for example, Meta. Hence, through the shadowban, content and accounts that are deemed problematic are made invisible on the platform. 

Many sex educators experience such shadowbans. Their content is often not shown in reels, feeds, stories, and explore pages, not even to their followers. Additionally, their accounts do not show up in search queries, inhibiting users from finding them. Sex educators and their content are practically made invisible on the platform. This makes it hard, or even downright impossible, for sex educators to expand, grow, or even sustain their accounts.

Apart from the shadowban, sex educators have a hard time tapping into the financial opportunities that many other content creators use to sustain themselves. They are often not allowed to place ads, sell their products, or take on sponsorships of sexual health companies. To top all of this, many sex educators fear losing their accounts all together. With the latest upsurge in account deletions of sex-related accounts, sex educators are insecure about their existence on the platform. 

Out of fear for repercussions, sex educators frequently limit themselves in what they say and post on social media. Many sex educators feel forced to censor words related to sex in their post in order to remain visible on the platform. Often this contradicts their mission of creating an open conversation about sex and removing the stigma that surrounds sex and sexuality sex and sexuality. Yet, not censoring content would lead to a risk of being shadowbanned or removed from the platform all together. 

A Confusing and Futile System

Social media platforms provide limited information about their rules and regulations. There is no tailored information in the community guidelines about the regulation of sex education. In fact, they claim it is not subject to content regulation at all. This leaves sex educators confused and frustrated, as it is incomprehensible why their content is still systematically being shut down by platforms.  

The use of algorithms to regulate content adds onto this confusion. The ambiguous and ever-changing character of algorithms makes it hard for content creators to pinpoint what it is about their content that triggered the algorithm to shut it down. Algorithms by definition deliver a personalized experience, making each output unique for a specific time, user, and situation. Hence, every time content is shadowbanned or deleted, it is only a matter of guessing what may have triggered the algorithm to do so. Sex educators find it arduous to understand the algorithms that govern their work, and predict its outcomes. They experience their existence on platforms as volatile, as something that can be taken away at any second.

The opaque and unpredictable nature of algorithms give social media platforms the upper hand. Platforms often hide behind the ambiguity of algorithms to undermine claims about unfair and discriminatory moderation practices. They dismiss these claims stating that users do not understand the algorithms, that their experiences are anecdotal and not part of a systematic problem, or that the deletion of their account was simply an error. The inexplicability of algorithms aids platforms in their feat, as users can never pinpoint the exact nature of the algorithms with certainty. This creates a power imbalance between platforms and its users. 

A Bigger Movement

The incidents of regulation that sex educators experience appears to be yet another form in which the disdain for an open conversation about sex and sexuality is expressed. The suppression and censorship of sex education on social media platforms restricts the accessibility of education to many of its users. The experiences of sex educators stand in line with others whom experience disproportionate amounts of regulation from platforms such as sex workers, LGBTQIA+, BIPOC, fat people, disabled people, and more. The censoring of sex education is part of a bigger movement of marginalisation and repression of voices on social media platforms, and it is only a matter of guessing what is next. 

This article is based on the master thesis of TPC Student Ambassador Karlijn van der Plaat, whom researched online sex educators’ experiences with and perceptions of algorithmic content regulation on Instagram.