After Instagram Rewrote Its Rules, Sex Workers Had To Get Creative To Survive

Illustrated by Twisha Patni
On December 20, 2020, Instagram updated its Terms of Use and the sex work community on OnlyFans was not happy. The new Terms of Use wasn't a drastic change; it involved an update to data transparency, the enforcement of stricter rules when it comes to disabling accounts, and a change in their definition of sexually suggestive content. However, it's the last of those items that caused an uproar, as one thing was made clear: Sex workers — and specifically OnlyFans adult content creators — would no longer be allowed to market themselves on Instagram.
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Under the Sexual Solicitations section of its parent company Facebook’s Community Standards, Instagram's rules state that users cannot offer or ask for pornographic materials “including, but not limited to, sharing of links to external pornographic websites.” A Facebook spokesperson explains: “We want Instagram to be a safe environment for everyone, and have strict rules against nudity, sexual activity, and sexual solicitation. Under these rules, we don’t allow people to share links to porn websites on Instagram. While OnlyFans isn’t a porn website, we know it can be used in that way, so we take action on accounts that share OnlyFans links when paired with other sexually suggestive content.” What this means in practice is that, if you have an OnlyFans link in your bio and mention at any time (on your grid or stories) that your OnlyFans contains adult content and/or post sexy photos of yourself, you will (most likely) be banned from Instagram. Users can’t offer sexual content indirectly, either; that is, a user may not offer a method of contact in their bio and also post “imagery of real individuals with nudity covered by human parts, objects, or digital obstruction, including long shots of fully nude butts” or use sexually specific copy in their captions, such as using an eggplant emoji. Users are also forbidden from using sexually explicit language such as erection, wetness, or masturbation.
Instagram's sidelining of sex-workers is defended by the platform, who spoke to us on background, as an attempt to welcome users of all ages (the platform allows anyone 13 and older to create an account) and create a balance of expression and safety, but no matter the rationale, what it means is that OnlyFans sex workers who rely on the platform for income were instantly sidelined. So, how would these creators save their jobs? They had to adapt.
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Megan, whose current Instagram handles are @msgigggles and @thatfatbabeagain, had her original sex-positive account (@thatfatbabe) deleted at 10,000 followers, after having five posts flagged for sexual solicitation, one week after the new guidelines were released. Megan, a self-identified “outspoken queer fat latina,” has had to be extremely careful with posts on her main account (@msgigggles, currently sitting at 50,000 followers) and has shifted the way she speaks about OnlyFans on her sex work account. “I've had to find ways to indirectly advertise my OnlyFans on Instagram,” Megan explains. “I've jokingly changed the term to ‘only flans’ and post photos of the dessert flan when advertising. I also have nicknamed OnlyFans 'voldemort' because it's the place that cannot be named for fear of being deleted.” To avoid further decrease in revenue, Megan has shifted to mainly advertising on Twitter and Reddit.
Though Instagram has consulted with sex workers in the past (and met with the Adult Performers Actors Guild in June of 2019), the platform's newest policies don't seem to have considered the continued livelihoods of these creators. @305Bruja_, another Instagram and OnlyFans creator, has had to completely shift their marketing strategy after seeing a decrease in revenue since December. “I'm in this pocket of being a curvy, LGBTQ sex worker and Instagram has made it clear they don't like that,” they say. “[For example,] I posted a fully clothed photo mentioning my OnlyFans sale and it was taken down from my story twice. Every day I wake up thinking, Is this the day they delete my account?
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And it’s not just sex workers who are being affected. Instagram account @notyourpxrn is an organisation that helps victims of revenge porn and abuse navigate resources; although the account solely posts hand-drawn graphics and images that say things like “sex work is work,” it was put under review on December 22, 2020. Though the account was eventually restored, it received no explanation from Instagram about what lines had been crossed to begin with. And, as the account's co-founder, Elena, tells Refinery29, they have been so inundated with creators who need help on the platform, that she now focuses much of her time on helping sex workers safely post on Instagram. 
Similarly, sexual health companies, such as Kegelbell, an FDA-approved kegel system, have faced issues when it comes to how to describe its products. “We have to code the language used on social media,” explains founder Dr. Stephanie Schull. “For example, we have to use the word ‘women’ when it would be more inclusive to state ‘people with vaginas’ because the word ‘vagina’ — [even] in a sexual dysfunction context — will get us flagged.” While the word vagina is not specifically disallowed on Instagram, when used in the context of sex and sexual pleasure, it is likely to get flagged. Kegelbell, which can be used for a variety of reasons, such as sexual dysfunction and bladder control issues, has also had to censor its ads, removing any mention of sexual health use of the product. “The attitude that Facebook and Instagram have adopted is a reflection of deeply ingrained misogyny, positioning sexual health and anatomical differences as vulgar and offensive,” Dr. Schull says. “The result is that women with easily addressable issues continue suffering.”
As a private company, Instagram is under no obligation to offer users a platform with no oversight or consequences for what is posted; the platform provides a service to its users and so is allowed to censor material as it deems fit. But, unfortunately, where they've drawn the line of acceptability has been to the detriment of the adult content creators on OnlyFans, which is all the more ironic since OnlyFans, who declined to comment for this story, was originally created as a paid extension of Instagram, a place where fans could see more intimate content from their favourite creators.
Over the last year, OnlyFans has thrived — due, in large part, to the users who arrived because of the platform's sex workers. But, though OnlyFans offers legal services to its creators who have had leaked content, they have not offered similar help to those who are being removed from Instagram. This isn't the first time rich and powerful corporations have profited from sex work without providing adequate support for the people actually labouring, of course, and it surely won't be the last. Meanwhile, sex workers will continue to find ways to earn income, ever vigilant of the fact that there will always be someone out there happy to exploit them, rather than collaborate for a mutually beneficial solution.

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