In the video she posted to TikTok and Twitter in late January, Sylvie* wears sweatpants and a T-shirt and shyly looks at the camera as Paul Anka’s “Put Your Head On My Shoulder” plays in the background. When the beat drops and Anka starts singing, the light changes to a red hue, and she is visibly wearing less clothing (maybe no clothing at all) and showing off her silhouette while dancing erotically. The video, posted on social media and receiving upwards of a thousand likes, was a contribution to the #SilhouetteChallenge, a viral social media trend where posters exhibit their curves in front of a red light filter to the sound of a remixed version of Anka’s song mashed up with Doja Cat’s “Streets.”
Attracting contributions from Cardi B, Tiffany Haddish, and Lizzo, the challenge prompted women to take the opportunity to show off their erotic appeal. But the trend soon soured when men started downloading the videos and editing them to show the original posters’ bodies in lingerie or completely nude.
“It was something fun to do,” Sylvie said, when asked why she made her video. “Most of [the response I have gotten] has been uplifting, but men have been aggressively horny. Hundreds of porn pages shared my video and I’ve been blocking them all.”
Originally a social media trend intended to be body positive and sexy, the #SilhouetteChallenge offered people an outlet to explore their sexuality within clear boundaries of lighting and erotic teasing. Instead, the challenge—which featured participants who are mostly women of color (though people of other genders also joined in)—has been hijacked by malicious viewers. Instructions on how to use video editing to remove the red light filter have popped up on YouTube, Twitter, and Reddit, and accounts that repost edited videos without the original posters’ consent have been created on Twitter.
According to a Buzzfeed report, the subreddit r/SilhouetteChallenge has now been banned, and Twitter banned at least one user who removed the red light from a video and reposted it without consent after he was mass reported by Twitter users. Rolling Stone reported that there are still dozens of videos on YouTube instructing people how to edit the videos, some of them with hundreds of thousands of views and at least six of them featuring ads. The videos tend to be uploaded by tech product review and hack channels, and Rolling Stone reports that the most popular has more than 233,000 views.
The high number of views on these tutorials indicates that non-consensually removing the red light—whether to use the video privately or to repost it on porn websites—has become a social phenomenon. Though the people maliciously editing the videos could easily find ethical porn online, the allure seems to lie in crossing the boundaries clearly articulated by those who performed in the challenge.
Zalika U. Ibaorimi, a conceptual performance artist, ex-cam girl, and PhD candidate at the University of Texas at Austin focused on African and African diaspora studies, says digital public spaces are evocative of people’s desires, and thus can work as spaces for exploration of utopia and more, but that those spaces are not free of dangers.
“In many ways, digital public sites act as institutions, and no institution is not impacted by systems,” said Ibaorimi, whose PhD project focuses on how digital public spaces impact the sexual and racial distance between spectators and Black femmes. “These systems do not preclude anti-Blackness, queerphobia, misogynoir, transphobia, ableism, fatphobia, colorism, etc. These are the same categories that are read onto the performing bodies of those who participate in the #SilhouetteChallenge.”
The women who participated in the challenge told Prism they used the space to explore their bodies and sexualities. Mala Muñoz, a Chicana podcaster, writer, and comedian based in Los Angeles, said she felt encouraged by her audience after posting her video.
“I’m always here for a chance to wear lingerie and create something spicy,” she said. “It feels good to conceptualize, perform, and edit that type of video, and for your audience to embrace it and affirm that it was well executed.”
However, Muñoz notes that while exploring your sexuality online can be affirming, she is under no impression that social media platforms protect women from people who seek to harm them. “I have always known that there is nothing protecting me from those who might seek to do me harm,” Muñoz said.
“It means that women sometimes hold back on our creativity, we might feel nervous about risk-taking in our content, or we might stop ourselves from posting altogether because of the relentless misogyny and rape culture that seems to thrive on our favorite social media platforms. Instead of targeting racism, misogyny, hate speech, and pedophilia, and threats of violence, they target sex workers and sexy, sex positive, or sex inclusive content.”
Muñoz is referring to the widespread mishandling of sex workers’ safety by social media platforms that has become the norm in the last decade. Instead of targeting online violence against sex workers like doxxing, harassment, sexual coercion, cyberbullying, and slutshaming, social media platforms like TikTok and Twitter have increasingly elected to push sex workers to the margins of the internet, often resulting in sex workers losing income due to being banned from accounts that they had cultivated for months or years.
According to Ibaorimi, the #SilhouetteChallenge has exposed a fraction of the violence that sex workers deal with everyday when performing erotic labor, and how ill-equipped social media platforms are to protect women and femmes who express themselves sexually.
“Sex workers, particularly Black sex workers, have to deal with this horror on a consistent basis without a red filter or the red light,” she said. “I think from this particular logic, if there is more of an urgency to address that, imagine the freedoms that we could have for all bodies who desire to participate in the #SilhouetteChallenge.”
The #SilhouetteChallenge has exposed the intersections of desirability, racialization, and the specific kind of misogyny that erupts when women and femmes perform their sexuality online. From the non-consensual editing and re-posting to the slutshaming and victim blaming, social media responses to the challenge have made clear that there are social restrictions to women of color’s sexuality.
Both Muñoz and Sylvie warn women who want to join in on sexy trends to be careful.
“I would encourage every woman of color with an interest in exploring their sexuality and creativity online to go for it. It’s fun. We’re adults. Do it. But do your research,” Muñoz said. “Follow other content creators who you identify with and get a sense for their experiences, and see what you can learn from others about digital safety. Always learn from more than one source. The internet is a vast place. Set solid boundaries for yourself, say no often, and be the bitch you want to see in the world.”
However, Ibaorimi warns that putting the onus on racialized women to guard themselves and their boundaries might not be enough—and she might be right, as the fallout of the #SilhouetteChallenge happened the same week Chloe Bailey, of RnB duo Chloe x Halle, was criticized for posting her own rendition of the challenge on her social media accounts. Bailey, whose rise to fame was at the early age of 17 when she posted a video singing a rendition of Beyoncé’s “Pretty Hurts” in 2013, only recently made her own Instagram account after previously sharing one with her younger sister. On the new account, Chloe has felt freer to explore her sexuality. In response to videos and photos where she shows some skin, members of the public called her new content attention-seeking and unnecessary. It seems that any Black or brown woman who articulates control over her own body and pleasure only elicits hateful responses from the public—no matter what boundaries she stipulates.
Instead offering women advice on how to navigate those boundaries, Ibaorimi suggests people should interrogate these violations of non-sex workers along with the violations against sex workers. “I do not have advice [for women of color who seek to explore their sexuality online], because I find this to place the onus on Black women or other people of color, not even just women, to have to perform the labor to manipulate themselves just enough to not be targeted,” she said.
Ibaorimi says the problem goes beyond digital spaces. “It is necessary for us to think beyond the trends and social media challenges. Exploration is so important, but often times, the exploration of many Black non-sex working bodies is juxtaposed to the work performed by Black sex-working bodies–those points meet and would be essential to actually interrogate together.”
The performance of the erotic, whether through the practice of sex work or not, is still understood as a threat or as a provocation, especially if it is performed by racialized bodies that are already understood as hypersexual. Though the #SilhouetteChallenge has erupted as a mass violation of digital consent, it is important to note that sex workers are always inhabiting the intersections of desirability and threatening hypersexualization that attracts this kind of violence. As Ibaorimi suggests, if the online and physical sexual safety of sex workers were prioritized, perhaps all people’s sexual freedom would be guaranteed.