Twitter ‘Blue’: Sex workers, censorship and the fight for online visibility

“In the past couple years, I’ve gotten kicked off of PayPal and Venmo,” sex worker Maya Morena told me. “I’ve gotten kicked off Twitter. I had 80,000 followers on Twitter; I had 30,000 followers on Instagram, I had 30,000 on Tumblr. I lost all those platforms.”

Morena’s experience isn’t unusual, though it also isn’t well known. When the right talks about censorship, it focuses obsessively on liberals protesting conservative speakers. When the left focuses on censorship, it points to the efforts by red states to criminalise the teaching of LGBT and Black studies. The longstanding, and worsening, policing and censorship of sex workers online is seen by all as either justifiable or unimportant. It is neither though; the censorship of sex workers affects their livelihood, their ability to advocate for themselves, and puts their safety and their very lives at risk.

That’s why when Twitter started promising that Twitter Blue would boost visibility and engagement on the platform, many sex workers signed up. The service hasn’t really solved sex worker’s problems. But the hopes around it, and the backlash to it, demonstrate just how isolated sex workers are, and how much they need solidarity from those who care about free speech.

A Sustained Assault on Sex Worker Speech

Government, gatekeepers and the public have long been very uncomfortable with sexual speech, going all the way back to laws that criminalised the shipping of sexual material through the mail in the late 1800s.

The early internet gave sex workers the ability to advertise directly to clients and to be visible online in ways that had been previously unimaginable. Sites like Backpage and Craigslist allowed people to promote erotic services and, importantly, allowed them to vet clients. Homicides of sex workers cratered in cities where Craigslist opened erotic services websites as sex workers were able to get off the streets and out of danger.

Despite clear evidence that free speech made sex workers safer, policy makers and anti-sex advocates insisted, with little to back them up, that adult services on the internet contributed to trafficking.

The “watershed moment” for sexual censorship, according to Olivia Snow, a dominatrix and a research fellow at the UCLA Center for Critical Internet Inquiry, came in 2018, with the bipartisan passage of FOSTA/SESTA. These laws made platforms legally responsible for user-generated sexual content. That gave many platforms an incentive, or an excuse, to purge sex workers.

Backpage was shut down by the government in 2018; Tumblr purged most NSFW content the same year. So did Patreon. Payment processors and banks have been escalating a longstanding war on sex workers, preventing them from accessing funds or doing business. Even OnlyFans, which has built its business almost entirely on sex workers, decided to get rid of sexual content, though it reversed its decision after a backlash from creators.

As sex workers have been shut out of most sites, Twitter has become more and more important to the community. “Twitter is the only major social media platform that tolerates us,” Snow said. “It is by default the least shitty of the platforms.”

Twitter Is Welcoming—But Not That Welcoming

recent study found that 97% of sex workers rely on Twitter as their top site for finding followers. Writer and sex worker Jessie Sage explained that while she has accounts on sex worker sites like Eros and Tryst, “the people who book me tend to do so because they find me and then they go look at my socials.” Clients use Twitter to verify that sex workers are who they say they are, and to see if they have shared interests. And, Sage says, Twitter allows sex workers to share information. “Being able to connect with other sex workers allows us to create pathways and resources and screening resources for each other that keep us safe.”

Sage also says Twitter is vital because it lets sex workers show that they’re not just sex workers. “Most of my Twitter’s just talking about books I like to read and things that I’m thinking about,” she told me. “But there’s something very political about that, because I’m saying that I am a sex worker, and I’m also all of these other things. And when we get shoved off of social media, we lose that and we become dehumanised. And when we become dehumanised, our existence becomes much more ripe for abuse.”

While Twitter is somewhat welcoming to sex workers though, it’s not that welcoming. Sex worker accounts are often deprioritized by the algorithm (a process sometimes referred to as shadowbanning). Deprioritisation can mean that accounts don’t show up in search results or that they don’t show up in follower’s feeds. That makes it hard to build an audience. It can also make it easy for bad actors to impersonate sex workers and catfish clients. “Fake accounts on Twitter are able to get more followers than me, because I’m already censored,” Morena told me. “It’s a big problem for all sex workers.”

Twitter Blue to the Rescue, Sort Of

In December, new Twitter owner Elon Musk claimed that for $8/month, Twitter Blue users would begin to be prioritised in search and in conversations on Twitter. Many sex workers hoped Twitter Blue would give them more visibility.

Sex worker Andres Stones says that in his experience post-Musk Twitter has strangled his engagement and has “had a very large and negative impact” on his business.” It’s not clear whether this is because Musk is more aggressive in restricting adult content, or whether the new Twitter simply throttles engagement for everyone who isn’t on Twitter Blue. Either way, Stones says, “I started subscribing [to Twitter Blue] out of necessity.” It hasn’t gotten him back to where he was before, but it’s at least slowed the slide. “It’s been helpful only insofar as not having it was a death knell for engagement.”

Other sex workers report similar experiences. Morena says it hasn’t been that helpful, though it’s given her content an “extra push.” Sage struggled because Twitter Blue didn’t allow her to change her screen name easily, which made it difficult for her to advertise her travel dates.

Block the Blue

Sex workers saw Twitter Blue as a possible way to navigate censorship and deprioritisation on the one important social media platform that warily tolerates their existence. But in the broader cultural conversation, Twitter Blue was portrayed as a service solely for Elon Musk superfans and fascist trolls.

Mashable reported on a Block the Blue campaign, which encouraged Twitter users to adopt a Blocklist targeting all Twitter Blue accounts. It was embraced by NBC News reporter Ben Collins, Alejandra Caballo of the Harvard Law Cyberlaw Clinic and other large progressive accounts. Twitter comedian and celebrity @dril told Binder, “99% of twitter blue guys are dead-eyed cretins who are usually trying to sell you something stupid and expensive.” Blocking them, @dril suggested, was funny and a way to undermine Musk’s right wing political agenda.

But a small study by TechCrunch found that the vast majority of Twitter Blue accounts were not right wing harassment accounts. Instead, people used the service because they wanted features like the ability to post longer videos, or two-factor authentication—or because they were, like sex workers, businesspeople trying to boost engagement.

Ashley, a sex worker and researcher of online platform behavior who did her own study of Twitter Blue users, told me that the Block the Blue list is frustratingly counterproductive. The best way to block hateful trolls, she argued, is to block the followers of large right-wing troll accounts.

“I’m all in favour of users being empowered to block people,” she says, “but combined with the fact that so many sex workers are using this, [Block the Blue] is really just sharing a sex worker block list. Because there’s way more sex workers than hateful people on there.”

No Voice

Ashley adds that the majority of Twitter Blue users are probably just random people experimenting with the service. The point though is that sex workers are using the service at high rates, but have had little success in getting their interests, or existence, recognised by progressives who are supposedly fighting for marginalised people. Matt Binder, who wrote the Mashable article about Block the Blue, told me he doesn’t believe that sex worker concerns did much to interrupt or slow the Block the Blue campaign which has “become somewhat of a meme on the platform,” he said. (He added that he thinks more people block individual users than use the block list, and doesn’t think there’s been much “friendly fire.”)

Musk and the right are no friends to sex workers; as Snow told me, the right-wing “neo-fash, neo-Satanic Panic” targeting LGBT people is built on terror and hatred of anything associated with sexuality, which includes sex workers (many of whom are LGBT themselves.) But progressive leaders often don’t feel accountable to sex workers either, and mostly ignore sex workers when they say (for example) that blocking everyone using Twitter Blue will further isolate them.

Twitter Blue isn’t a solution. But it’s a reminder that sex workers face extreme and debilitating censorship. More people need to listen to them.

Five myths about contraception and pregnancy laid bare


Condom_Five myths about contraception and pregnancy laid bare / Credit: iStock / LemonTreeImages

Credit: iStock / LemonTreeImages

Sex and pregnancy continue to be taboo subjects around the world as a special report in Index on Censorship magazine shows. From using toothpaste as emergency contraception to not receiving proper treatment during childbirth, fictional beliefs around sex education and reproductive health, combined with a lack of resources, are leading to sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancies and problems or death during pregnancy.

Toothpaste isn’t just for cleaning teeth, it can also prevent pregnancy

In Ecuador’s Amazonian region, health workers have reported instances of women using toothpaste after sex to prevent pregnancy. A woman in Mexico, who believed contraception was immoral, thought she’d successfully avoided pregnancies when she had green vaginal discharge — a sign of infection. Latin America and the Caribbean are the only regions in the world where pregnancies are rising among girls ages 15 and under due to ineffective use of contraception and lack of education.

Just touching a man’s hand can lead to pregnancy

In North Korea, a country where information is restricted by the government, topics such sex and reproduction are off-limits in schools, and myths such as touching a man’s hand can lead to pregnancy so prevalent, that STIs and unwanted pregnancies are major problems. Condoms and other forms of contraception are unknown, even among adults. Because the signs of pregnancy aren’t talked about, many women won’t know they’re pregnant until they start to show, leading to a rise in illegal and unsafe abortions. But, as Jieun Baek writes in the latest Index on Censorship magazine, the situation may be improving.

Only “weak” and “lazy” women have Caesarean sections

Nigeria has the highest rate of maternal deaths in sub-Saharan Africa, and sentiments like this contribute to societal pressure for women not to have C-sections. Even yelling or shouting during delivery may be viewed as a sign of personal failure. Many women who have C-sections still tell people they had a vaginal delivery, and the stigma against is so strong that some may attempt or be pressured into a vaginal delivery at the cost of their or their babies’ lives. According to Unicef, Nigeria has the second highest global maternal mortality rate, behind only India, a country with more than five times Nigeria’s population.

If someone experiences pain during childbirth, it’s their fault

Obstetric abuse in Russia has become almost commonplace, with often only three to four midwives and four doctors to care for 30 to 40 women. Doctors and obstetricians carry out procedures like inducing labour without asking for permission or informing the mother. And if the patient is in pain? The response may be: “How are you planning on delivering the baby if you’re already in pain?” The systemic issue of a lack of resources in hospitals has become a health endemic for women in Russia.

If you don’t have a condom, chicken skin or cling film will work just fine

According to a 2009 survey in the UK questioning 1,000 women aged 18-50, one in five said they had heard of these items being used. Misinformation such as this may be the cause behind Britain’s high rate of teenage pregnancy. Based on 2016 data, this number is at an all-time low for the country, with a rate of 18.9 conceptions per thousand women aged 15 to 17, but Britain still has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in western Europe.

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The winter 2018 issue of Index on Censorship magazine explores taboos surrounding birth, marriage and death. What are we afraid to talk about?

With: Liwaa Yazji, Karoline Kan, Jieun Baek

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Let's (not) talk about sex…

Throughout history and across the world, talking about sex has been banned in various forms. Films with racy sex scenes in have been censored, books that talk a little too openly about the birds and the bees have been taken out of print, and even Betty Boop has been the subject of a censor.

But the latest ban on sex comes from an unusual place, as the Malaysian Government plan to ban an Islamic sex manual, amid fears it may cause religious confusion.

The book, which was written by the leader of controversial Islamic society the Obedient Wives Club, is entitled “Islamic Sex, fighting Jews to return Islamic sex to the world”, outlines the “physical and spiritual way” in which women should approach sex.

The Obedient Wives Club says it intends to “curb social ills like prostitution, domestic violence, human trafficking and abandoned babies”, all of which they attribute to unfulfilled sexual needs, hence the reason for the book.

Though it was intended only to be read by its 800 club members, Malaysian Authorities have cracked down, and people found in possession of the book could be fined up to 5,000 ringgit (£995), whilst anyone who makes copies for sale could be imprisoned for three years and fined 20,000 ringgit.

The government’s Islamic Affairs Department is said to have studied the manual and recommended a ban on the grounds that it may confuse Malaysian Muslims about what constitutes acceptable religious teaching.

Last week, Malaysia also placed a blanket ban on sexuality rights festival Seksualiti Merdeka (sexuality independence). The annual festival aims to promote human rights and acceptance of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender community through workshops, talks and film screenings. It aims to enable Malaysians  “to be free from discrimination, harassment and violence for their sexual orientations and their gender identities”, but a police ban was imposed amid fears the festival could create “disharmony, enmity and disturb public order”.

Police allegedly received 154 reports which opposed the festival, prompting Deputy Inspector-General of Police Datuk Khalid Abu Bakar to say that the public clearly wanted the police to act firmly against the organisers.  Bakar added “whatever we want to do, we must take into account cultural and religious sensitivities and the multi-ethnic communities in the country.”

Not talking about sex isn’t just restricted to Malaysia — it’s a global taboo. In 1992, Madonna’s book “Sex” , which was designed to look like a condom packet, and filled with pop star’s self professed fantasies, was subject to massive controversy.

The book was banned in Japan, due to its risqué photographs, whilst in France a Catholic group called The Future Of Culture tried to get all copies of the book destroyed for corrupting the French youth with pornography. Other organisations across the globe tried to boycott the book, and many book stores refused to sell it.

But despite the controversy, Sex sold 1.5 million copies whilst it was still in print. In August 2011,” was declared the most sought after out-of-print book in the US.

Even before the controversy of Madonna, or the Obedient Wives Club, literature that was deemed as erotic was subject to widespread bans. “The Life and adventures of Miss Fanny Hill,” by John Cleland (reprinted as “Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure”) was one of the very first pieces of “prose pornography”, published in 1748 and is deemed one of the most prosecuted and banned books in history.  Written in the form of letters from the 15 year-old Fanny Hill to an unknown woman, defending her lifestyle as a prostitute, the book caused outrage and was banned for obscenity.

And sex censorship hit the headlines again this week, as a provocative perfume advert campaign from Marc Jacobs featuring Dakota Fanning was banned by the British Advertising Standards Authority for “sexualising children.” Fanning, who is 17, looks much younger in the Lolita style ad campaign which featured in London Evening Standard’s ES Magazine and Sunday Times Style magazine. Wearing a short skirt, Fanning holds the perfume bottle between her thighs in a way that was perceived to be “sexually provocative” by the ASA, with the strapline “Oh, Lola!”, the name of the perfume.

But it’s interesting to consider where the line is drawn — did the sexual exploits of Fanny Hill cross the line into obscenity? Was Madonna’s sex book too blue to be read by the public? Does the Obedient Wives Club give a confusing message to young Muslims? Does a young-looking Dakota Fanning need to be censored? And when will the age old taboo of talking openly about sex become old fashioned?


US: Craigslist “adult” adverts censored

Classified ad site Craigslist has closed its “Adult Services” section, after a campaign by 17 states to have it removed. Attorneys general from Montana to Virginia wrote a letter to Craigslist chief executive Jim Buckmaster last month, urging him to shut down the erotic ads section. The link has now been blacked out and replaced with the word “censored”. The decision only affects the US version of the site. Craigslist has previously cited in its defence the federal Communications Decency Act, which protects websites from liability for content posted by users. The company has not yet commented on the recent removal.