Internet Sex Panics Hurt LGBTQ Communities

Silicon Valley is an accomplice, but not the instigator

Instagram’s recent removal of a lesbian couple’s photo isn’t an accident, though the image has now been restored and friends at Facebook (which acquired Instagram in 2012) are telling me it really was a just terrible mistake. I love all my friends in tech — both the ones who still believe that they can do something good and the ones who look like cancer patients, whose souls have been hollowed out by the truth of trying to do good under capitalism.

But the truth is that in tech everything always is a mistake or an accident, unless it’s a silence.

Here’s another truth: Removing or limiting hashtags — as Instagram, Tumblr, and Twitter have done — is a policy decision. Withdrawing advertising from specific verticals is a policy decision. Limiting search for specific terms is a policy decision. Not doing a goddamn thing about transwomen whose profiles are repeatedly flagged in harassment campaigns is a policy decision.

Screenshot captured December 17, 2:29AM Pacific on Instagram hashtag search for “lesbians”. The same restriction applies to “lesbian,” and “bi.”

Silicon Valley is not full of prudes committed to a heteronormative agenda. Execs don’t often care — and even when they do, they still make decisions factoring cost, gains, and how best to evade a regulatory backlash. That’s it.

When you see platforms changing their terms one after the other like we’ve been seeing all year, hiding or restricting or demonetizing queer content under the guise of targeting pornography or tightening up “community guidelines” or some other nonsense, it’s regulatory pressure at work.

By “regulatory,” I mean “politics.” And, unfortunately, I am not just talking about Republicans.

Canary in a coal mine by David & Angie (Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0)

I’ve been reporting on the intersection of sex and the internet in the United States for over ten years and I can tell you that there’s no sex panic that doesn’t hurt LGBTQ. And though it may come as a surprise to a few queers under the umbrella, the masters of political-ascent-via-internet-sex-panic are our political darlings, the Democrats.

Democrats have been using internet sex panics to score political victories since the days of MySpace. And they’re still doing it. Take Kamala Harris. One of her biggest achievements while she was Attorney General of California came at the expense of sex workers. What group that lacks workplace protections and faces workplace discrimination is most likely to turn to sex work and survival sex to get by? LGBTQ youth, especially trans youth of color. How did Harris help them? By going after websites that made it a little easier for sex workers to minimize interactions with abusive cops and screen clients.

Harris is a senator now, and we still don’t know how many cops are implicated in the sexual exploitation of a minor survival sex worker at the hands of officers from at least seven different agencies. And this is not the only account of victimization at the hands of police (in case you were wondering why some queers really don’t want police at Pride. Hey, did you know that transwomen arrested during prostitution stings tend to be misgendered as pimps and johns and charged with human trafficking? Helps pad the numbers!).

Sex trafficking panics got a lot of Democrats a leg up and continue to ensure a degree of bipartisanship once they get into Congress — at cost to queers, poor women, the disabled and anyone else who might have turned to the informal economy of sex work via the internet to survive and attempt to evade law enforcement.

“Real name” policies that have terrorized the trans community? We can thank Richard Blumenthal (senator from Connecticut, Democrat) for those — he’s been pushing for that since 2005. And we can pin all the “adult content” guidelines on him, too — as well as Andrew Cuomo (governor of New York, Democrat). Payment processors and financial institutions getting squeamish about adult content? Barrack Obama was already president when he green-lit the FDIC on the operation to discourage legal businesses extralegally, but the Cook County sheriff (Democrat) sure took it to a whole new level.

My point is this: if you’re LGBTQ and you think Democrats have your back, you likely have a lot to be grateful for. Listen to queers who don’t. This system wasn’t built for us. It was built to ignore, exploit and keep us from view.

When you think about it, existing only really became somewhat acceptable for certain members of the LGBTQ umbrella (white, cisgender, able-bodied, middle class, employed, paired-off) when a few corporations realized that they could profit by appearing accepting and inclusive. Allowing corporations to be the arbiters of rights meant it was only a matter of time before any small gains made this way were opposed by corporations that realized they too could capitalize on “values” signaling. Tech’s rainbow-flag waving at Pride walks hand in hand with Chick-fil-A’s donations to anti-LGBTQ efforts.

Somehow on the road to this neoliberal dystopia, we came to believe that we could get rights by buying things. And so the spectacle continues alongside the gentrification of queer spaces and activism (no nudity or cruising at Pride, please! It’s a family place and advertisers don’t like it!). Meanwhile, queers continue to be ostracized by support systems upon coming out; to find it difficult to get work and keep it; to be criminalized for trying to survive in informal economies; to experience bullying, self-harm, isolation, poverty, homelessness, lack of access to healthcare, abuse at the hands of police, the criminal justice system and the medical establishment.

The internet used to terrify the State because it couldn’t patrol and regulate it. Now, thanks to the Obama administration, the State has a powerful surveillance apparatus in place which allows it to patrol its every corner. And thanks to the existing app store and mobile operating system oligopolies and the fact that we can’t pay cash when we buy things online, regulating the internet is now trivial — no new laws required.

My guess regarding the crackdowns and “accidents” we’ve been seeing lately is that somewhere along the pipeline — financial institutions, payment processors, app stores — regulators are applying pressure, Obama-style. And as with his administration’s Operation Chokepoint, “adult” (which always includes the female body and the queer body, both inevitably sexualized, in whole, in part, or merely as a suggestion) is collateral damage in the move to target gun content, violent content (including kink content), and limited forms of harassment. We’re only seeing the outcome of this pressure, but this isn’t the full picture.

The full picture is, unfortunately, likely significantly worse and it goes far beyond queer realities. Washington has made clear what the next target is: Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the law that protects sites and platforms from being liable for the things users say or do on that site or service. Section 230 is already dead federally in cases of suspected “trafficking” — however the State chooses to define that. Because no, this isn’t actually about trafficking (ask yourself: wouldn’t we have protections for undocumented immigrants if this were the case?).

Sex is the Trojan horse and fear is what makes it go. This is how repression continues to get enacted under our noses — who is going to fight a measure to end sex trafficking and reduce children’s access to pornography? Who is even going to question whether proposed legislation actually achieves those aims? Few,* none of them mainstream media outlets.

Silicon Valley will make whatever concessions it has to to in order to retain value and market share. That’s what corporate interests do. They’ll keep showing up at Pride, too, and the bar is so low, some of us will cheer them on like we always do — the same way we cheered that presidential candidate who opposed same-sex marriage until 2013 and all but admitted later that her position was mostly about politics. Some of us have time to play politics.

Others of us do not and can’t even find one another on the social networks we use or rely on them like other people do.

Like I said: listen to queers who don’t have as much to be thankful for as you do. You are missing some context.


Those of you who have experienced post removals, account suspensions, campaign terminations, etc., on social media may consider submitting a report to onlinecensorship.org, a project of the Electronic Frontier Foundation founded in 2012 to map the extent of censorship across social platforms. You can read their latest report here, which shows that for 2016, “real name” policy violations continued to be one of the top reasons for Facebook takedowns and account suspensions. The report also found that the tag “LGBTQI” was among those frequently associated with nudity in content removals (of note: this extended version of the acronym is not preferred by the adult industry).


* It will surprise you, dear reader, that those few who did stand up were conservatives: Republican congressmen, libertarian sites, and conservative outlets. They stood up for all the wrong reasons, of course (gun sellers are being impacted by this! People should be free to participate in brutal, physical labor without any protections just to survive!), but quite a few asked the right questions and made the right points. Just in case you needed some insult to go with your injury.

Like what you read? Give A.V. Flox a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.