In June 2018, Patreon told Vex Ashley that it was effectively shutting down her page. Ashley’s independent pornography project, Four Chambers, had been on the funding site for a number of years, and the income it provided was her livelihood — and paid for the labor of her performers.

The shutdown was part of a wider flurry of suspensions toward adult creators on the platform. Patreon explained at the time that it had ramped up a “proactive review of content” due to pressures from “payment partners.” While Four Chambers had existed happily for four years on the site, Ashley was informed she couldn’t continue to use funds for work that involved nudity or sexually explicit material.

“This is an issue bigger than Patreon,” she wrote in a blog post. “It’s a worldwide, online and in-person crackdown on freedom of expression, on women, on marginalised people, on sex and sex work, on non-conventional forms of labor that counter the status quo: the domination of corporations and the patriarchy. On dissent.”

Six months later, Tumblr announced it would be permanently banning sexual content on its platform—a move at least partly motivated by the site’s issues with child pornography, but one that was widely criticized for pulling the rug from under sexual subcultures and marginalized communities. “The internet is for porn,” as Avenue Q once put it. No more, it seems.

Vex Ashley

“Instagram has censored hashtags relating to sex work and women,” says Erika Lust, an independent adult filmmaker. “Amazon has buried erotic novels. YouTube has shadow-banned and demonetized sex educators. Sexual slang is now ‘illegal’ on Facebook. Patreon and PayPal will not allow anyone to use their services if their business comes even close to sex.”

Lust tells me she has been personally kicked off Vimeo and PayPal and says YouTube removed her account last year because she uploaded a documentary series called In Conversation With Sex Workers. “There was no sex, nudity, or profanity in any sense in the series, just sex workers speaking about their profession,” she says.

Taken altogether, these crackdowns suggest a fundamental shift in how the internet treats the place of sexual content. Pornography has long had to contend with regulation, and many of the reasons behind it make perfect sense, from preventing revenge porn to protecting children from viewing explicit content. But the past year or so has seen an extra push to clean up internet. Why now, and is it the right approach?

The first key driver is legislative, namely a pair of new U.S. laws: a House bill known as the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and a Senate bill called the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA). Both are designed to help curb online sex trafficking, and they do so by amending a crucial piece of internet legislation to mean website publishers are now liable if a third party posts an ad for prostitution. The bills are intended to make it easier for law enforcement to target sites that promote illegal sex work, including child sex trafficking.

Ashley suggests there may be another, more nebulous driver behind this new online prudishness: the evolving business of big tech.

However, critics say the way the bills do this undermines the user-generated nature of the internet and, because of the vagueness of the language, has created confusion about what is and isn’t allowed online. Simply put, it may be easier for a site to remove all sexually explicit content rather than run the risk it might be used to advertise sex work. Two days after the Senate approved SESTA, for example, Craigslist announced it would be shutting down its personals section, with a statement that “any tool or service can be misused” and that the site couldn’t take the risk of this jeopardizing the rest of its services.

“The real problem is that these bans affect women, LGBTQ people, and marginalized communities the most,” Lust says. “Specifically one of society’s most vulnerable populations, sex workers. Before SESTA/FOSTA and the Tumblr bans, sex workers could find resources, share ‘bad date’ lists, connect with others in the industry, vet clients, and just generally find a much-needed community, which is hard to get when you’re in a stigmatized profession.”

Ashley suggests there may be another, more nebulous driver behind this new online prudishness: the evolving business of big tech. “When Instagram started, it was about photographers,” she tells me. “It was about sharing work visually, and a lot of artists flocked there. Now, your mum has Instagram, your teenage nephew has Instagram. They want to be sites where everyone exists, and what that means is the content has to be acceptable to the lowest common denominator.”

Photos courtesy of Erika Lust

Ashley adds, “Porn is part of a bigger fight between what the ideals of the internet were and what they mean now. The internet is now totally defined by brands and consumerism.”

Between the demands of premium advertisers and the review guidelines of gatekeepers such as Apple’s App Store, makers of sexually explicit content are finding fewer and fewer places to call home. “[The internet is] isolating independent producers in a way that wasn’t the case five years ago,” Ashley says. “There used to be avenues to share work, and it did feel like there was a way to build a community around people who were doing things differently. It now feels very much like it’s either the tube sites or nothing.”

The tube sites or nothing

While the mainstream internet distances itself from sexual content, the power of a few key porn companies continues to grow. The most notable of these is MindGeek, the parent company behind streaming sites Pornhub and YouPorn, as well as production companies Brazzers and Digital Playground. Pornhub alone says it attracted 33.5 billion visitors in 2018, up 5 billion from 2017. It used more bandwidth in that year than the entire internet consumed in 2002.

MindGeek’s empire also has an age verification arm, called AgeID, which it is positioning as a solution to incoming U.K. legislation that legally obliges adult sites to prove visitors are over 18. It is not the only tool being proposed, but given MindGeek’s dominance, it is expected to lead the market and has led to a few eyebrows being raised about potential security risks and conflicts of interest.

For its part, MindGeek has sought to assure that its tool is based around a third-party provider, and it has commissioned an independent security assessment to confirm it doesn’t track user behavior. If AgeID does become commonplace, however, it might put pressure on independent creators to adopt it and therefore hand MindGeek even more power over the industry. Ashley believes this is part of the same trend of hostility toward smaller adult projects on the internet, outside the siloed bounds of corporate tube sites.

If the company identifies a trend and then makes more clips and promotes those videos, does it make the subject desirable to people who might not be searching for it in the first place?

“The message [to viewers] is: Don’t go anywhere else, because it might not be safe, because your data is being recorded. This is your only safe space to watch porn and explore your sexuality. Whatever the algorithm is feeding you, that’s what you’re going to be watching,” Ashley says.

Desire by algorithm

Indeed, MindGeek tracks enormous amounts of data about their users. It knows what you watched, how long you watched it, when you paused, where you flicked forward to. In many ways, it is more open about this than other tech giants, offering regular insights to viewers. Apparently outdoor porn was more popular during the government shutdown, FWIW.

The company, even more so than streaming giants such as Netflix, feeds this data back into its commissioning process. Using A/B testing, where similar videos are compared with one variable changed, the company can decide which videos are likely to attract the most views and churn them out accordingly, optimizing everything from positions to clothing to furniture choices.

But what does this do for our desires? Just as social media algorithms can amplify political viewpoints by creating feedback loops, algorithmic commissioning also has the power to strengthen kinks. Incest role-play, for example, has been called the fastest-growing trend in porn, but to what extent has this been amplified by the MindGeek system? If the company identifies a trend and then makes more clips in that vein and promotes those videos, does it make the subject desirable to people who might not be searching for it in the first place? When contacted for comment, a Pornhub spokesman said: “Pornhub lets users customize feeds by subscribing to creators and offering recommendations based on what they like.”

At least for now, Ashley’s Four Chambers project has kept away from the orbit of the tube sites, despite no longer being welcome on Patreon. She tells me she feels as though she has been pushed to the sidelines as platforms have pushed to “sterilize and gentrify” the internet, and yet her project continues.

With its aim to “explore the aesthetic and conceptual potential of pornography as a medium for ideas,” Four Chambers is perhaps about as far from desire by algorithm as you’re likely to get. Its survival is a sign that there is still space for something raw, messy, and human, even if that space is shrinking.

“Just because it’s porn doesn’t mean it’s disposable,” Ashley says. “People do give a shit about what they’re watching.”

Update: The article has been updated to reflect a statement from Pornhub.