For 11 years, Genesis Lynn, the owner of Fetish Con, an industry trade show for people in the fetish industry, had relied on Twitter. Fetish Con had more than 55,000 followers, and used it to advertise her annual event, as well as new speakers and classes. Last August, after canceling the trade show due to Covid-19, Lynn tweeted a GIF of a woman crying with the caption, “We miss you all more than you know. Stay safe everyone and we’ll see everyone in 2021.” It was her last tweet before she tried to log in in December, and was informed that her account had been suspended.
Lynn was stunned. She’d had her account since August 2009 and its content had never been flagged (with one exception, notes, when when a model who had decided she didn’t want to attend the event wanted a photo taken down). The account didn’t feature any sexual content or nudity; its profile picture was the FetishCon logo, a silhouette of a woman against a blue background, and its header image was a photo of a woman in Mardi Gras regalia with pasties, about on par with your average Instagram influencer’s bikini photo in terms of showing skin. She authored an appeal and sent it into the platform, but never heard back.
“I wrote that we’ve been a small business for 20 years and losing this account is devastating to my business and my ability to connect with my customers,” she tells Rolling Stone. “I was crying. I was so upset.” Twitter was Fetish Con’s primary platform for connecting with fans, models, producers, and attendees; the event had grown in attendance every year, largely due to its exposure there. With Covid-19, “it’s been hard for us financially, and this will only hurt us more,” she says.
Fetish Con isn’t the only adult business that’s been deplatformed by Twitter within the past two months. Last week, in a move that shocked many in the industry, the accounts for the adult content platforms Clips4Sale and ModelCentro were suspended from Twitter without notice, prompting sex workers on social media to panic about losing the one social platform that has openly allowed them for years. “This is a full-on assault on sex workers,” one tweet said. Since ModelCentro and Clips4Sale were suspended, “the phone hasn’t stopped ringing,” says Corey Silverstein, a lawyer who represents many adult industry clients. “It’s just been ongoing messages of people being terrified they’re going to lose everything.”
Compared to other social platforms, Twitter has historically been relatively adult-friendly, allowing adult content on its platform where competitors like Instagram and Tumblr have purged such content from their sites. Still, it’s not uncommon for individual sex workers’ accounts to be suspended from large platforms for violating terms of service when users attempt to skirt guidelines about nudity or sexual content. It’s rare, however, for the accounts of large websites like ModelCentro or Clips4Sale to be subject to such treatment.
In a statement, Kat Revenga, the head of marketing and events at FanCentro, which owns ModelCentro, says the platform is “incredibly frustrated” by Twitter’s actions. In addition to ModelCentro being suspended last week, she says the accounts for FanCentro’s Arabic and Russian accounts were suspended as well within the past few days. She says FanCentro has operated accounts like ModelCentro for years virtually without incident, and speculates that the explosion of popularity of platforms like FanCentro and OnlyFans during the pandemic may have prompted Twitter to crack down on adult material, as many adult creators use Twitter to promote such accounts.
“These accounts were used to communicate with models, and to promote their work,” she says. “The people most affected by this are those who use our platforms to build businesses and communicate with fans….this should frighten everyone in [the adult industry].”<
In response to a request for comment, a Twitter spokesperson denied that widespread deplatforming of sex workers was taking place. “There have not been changes to our sensitive media policy this year,” they said. “Per this policy, ‘You can share graphic violence and consensually produced adult content within your Tweets, provided that you mark this media as sensitive.’ We don’t have plans to change our sensitive media policy as it pertains to adult content.”
Though Twitter did not respond to requests for comment, data shared by Amberly Rothfield, an adult-industry consultant, shows that since the week of January 1st, out of the 5,000 sex workers’ accounts she monitors, 704 were deleted. Since January 1st, according to her data, there’s been an 82 percent increase in sex workers’ accounts getting deleted compared to the three-month period prior, with an average of 34 sex work-related accounts getting pulled per day.
Rothfield believes that Twitter was cracking down on its terms of service enforcement in advance of rolling out its new public verification system, which it debuted on January 22nd and began removing verified checkmarks from inactive accounts. She doesn’t believe that sex workers are being uniquely targeted, saying that she’s seen non-adult Twitch streamers and YouTubers deleted en masse over the past few weeks as well. Yet historically, sex workers have had so many experiences with being booted from mainstream platforms like Tumblr and Instagram that she wouldn’t be surprised if Twitter soon followed suit. Without Twitter, sex workers would have few options for organizing or communicating with each other, as well as to promote their content and make money. “I’m waiting for the rug to be pulled out” from under sex workers’ feet, she says. “I expect it.”
One of the sex workers who has been suspended over the past month is Goddess Aviva, a New York City-based dominatrix who used Twitter to reach out to her clientele. She was also in several different message groups with others in the sex industry, where they swapped details about bad clients or different methods they used for screening. “It’s incredibly important within this industry to connect with providers and other professionals to share info and keep each other safe,” she says. “We’d also help boost each other’s posts and get the word out.”
That changed, however, on December 27th, when her account was abruptly suspended by Twitter. Their reasoning, according to screengrabs Aviva shared with Rolling Stone, was that her header photo was an image of her rear end in fishnets, and potentially violated platform guidelines about sexual content in profile images. But her profile — which Twitter specifically referred to in an email to Aviva — didn’t show anything inappropriate. Nonetheless, she changed the header to a photo of herself, clothed, holding chastity keys. A few days later, they suspended the account again, saying it violated terms of service.
Aviva appealed twice, but got no response; with the help of a friend of a friend who worked at Twitter, she finally heard back from a customer service representative who said that her account would be permanently disabled. Though she has set up a new Twitter account, traffic to her website is significantly down, as are her sales, due to her old account being a prominent driver of clients. She says that constantly being booted from social platforms makes her feel “very defeated.” “I feel unmotivated to be hustling online when I feel that at any moment, I can be erased again,” she says.
Many sex workers wondered whether the recent purge stemmed from a lawsuit filed against the platform earlier this month by the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (formerly Morality in Media), a religious right-wing group. “A fair characterization of their general stance is they prefer porn just didn’t exist,” says Kendra Albert, a clinical instructor at the Cyber Law Clinic at Harvard Law School. “Many people have been somewhat skeptical about the lawsuit and its focus on trafficking or nonconsensual materials, seeing it as part of NCOSE’s broader goal of eliminating sex work and sexual material from the internet more generally.”
In the lawsuit, the NCOSE accuses Twitter of directly profiting off of and failing to remove child sexual abuse material (CSAM), in the form of graphic pictures and videos sent on Snapchat by a then-13-year-old John Doe to a young woman he believed was his age. The lawsuit, which invokes the controversial anti-trafficking legislation SESTA/FOSTA, alleges that Twitter did not take action against the accounts that posted the CSAM when it first became aware of it.
Albert is skeptical that the NCOSE lawsuit, which is targeted specifically at CSAM, is prompting Twitter to take action against sex workers in general, or that it will even be successful. However, they concede, “one reason you see lawsuits of this type is that it may result in bad publicity for Twitter, so that they crack down on sexual content. In some ways, the content of the lawsuit is irrelevant.”
One prominent example of negative publicity culminating in a platform policy change is Nicholas Kristof’s December 2020 New York Times investigation into Pornhub, in which he alleged that the platform turned a blind eye to material depicting the sexual abuse of minors and trafficked individuals. One of the organizations prominently featured in the piece, Exodus Cry, is an evangelical group that partnered up with NCOSE to launch the #Traffickinghub campaign, which was aimed at shutting down Pornhub.
Despite criticism from sex workers’ advocacy groups and other mainstream outlets, Kristof’s New York Times piece prompted Pornhub to make some changes models had been advocating for for years, such as improving its content moderation policies and allowing only verified users to upload videos. But it also prompted credit card processing companies Visa and Mastercard to sever ties with Pornhub, leaving thousands of models bereft of a platform to sell their content. In light of the Pornhub case, “people are reasonably nervous” about platforms purging sex workers, says Albert. “In the context of what happened with Pornhub, which is anti-trafficking initiatives driving large-scale anti-sexual material crackdowns on the part of the platforms, that’s an absolutely reasonable worry.”
Sex worker advocacy groups are also concerned about calls to reform Section 230, the provision of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 that grants online publishers like Twitter immunity for third-party content, and has been referred to as “the 26 words that created the Internet.” In general, there has been a great deal of pushback against Section 230 reform for fear it could stifle free speech, and in a letter addressed to President Joe Biden earlier this week, groups like the Sex Workers’ Outreach Project cautioned against overturning Section 230, arguing that doing so “could disproportionately harm and silence marginalized people, whose voices have been historically ignored by mainstream press outlets.” As an example, the letter cited FOSTA/SESTA, the anti-online sex trafficking legislation that sex workers argue has put them at increased personal risk and significantly impacted their ability to make a living.
Such concerns are magnified by the fact that, due to both long-term changes in the industry and the consequences of the pandemic, sex workers are increasingly reliant on social platforms in order to make a living, primarily shooting and selling their content themselves on platforms like OnlyFans. “I don’t think people really understand that there’s been a massive shift where adult performers are all in business for themselves,” says Silverstein. “They are their own breadwinners. They feed their families and pay their bills based on the followers they have on social media. Now they’re seeing services bumped off the platform, and they’re scared.” If Twitter does tighten its restrictions on sexual content as a matter of policy, he says, “it is going to cripple these people. They can’t go to Instagram. They can’t go to Facebook. They can’t go to Skype. You’re not leaving them with many alternatives here.”
Lynn is grappling with that reality firsthand. Though Fetish Con still has an active Instagram account, she’s debating whether to start over again on Twitter and rebuild the account and the followers she had spent a decade cultivating. “With Twitter, the funny thing it took four years for them to do something about all of the vitriol and hate and craziness that has happened with Trump,” she says. “And then all of a sudden it was too much and they started removing this hate speech. It took them long enough to act on it and now I just feel they’re singling [the adult industry] out. We’re a little trade show. Why delete our account? I just don’t understand it.”