a sign reads "Protection for Asian, immigrant, and all sex workers" in pink ink
A sign sits at the memorial outside of The Gold Spa that reads "Protection for Asian, immigrant, and all sex workers" on March 19, 2021, in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Megan Varner/Getty Images)

Ev’Yan Whitney is a sexuality doula who helps guide people to develop sexual freedom, confidence, and a sense of knowing who they are as sexual and sensual beings. Whitney, along with other online sex educators, helps break down barriers around sex. 

“One of the reasons why sex education is so important is that it lifts the veil of stigma shame and taboo. If we have this conversation out loud and in public—if it’s educational and helpful—the shame and stigma of sex and naked bodies is no longer powerful,” Whitney explained. 

Most of Whitney’s clients find out about them on Instagram, where more than 100,000 people follow along to learn and connect with their website, book, and podcast. It’s a common entry point for many sex educators to find audiences. But instead of clearly stating their job title and expertise on Instagram, Whitney’s bio says “s-xuality doula® 𐄙 s-x educator.” The funny spellings? To avoid censorship.

Around the country, sex educators report censorship from online platforms because of the content of their posts. Platforms actively ban, block, and penalize topics and posts related to sex and sensuality, leading to deplatforming and harming sex workers. The risks are great—and for many who use the platforms as a way to find work, it’s changing how they express themselves online. 

“I had to reposition and rethink the way I express myself on the platform when talking about sex,” Whitney said. “I’ve had to batten down the hatches, dull my voice and expression; I don’t want to lose the community and platform helping me to spread this education.”

Sex educators and sex workers use online platforms to reach and engage more people. Sex workers especially find that the platforms make their work safer. By operating online, sex workers can screen potential clients, share bad date lists to protect each other from assault, and provide information to each other about their rights. It’s also good for their business, since using social media and websites allows them to control their own content. But now, some are starting to lose that control. 

During the pandemic, much of sex work moved online, and sex education continued to grow. This meant sites like OnlyFans skyrocketed in popularity and users. But while these platforms grew in engagement, they censored the personalities that brought in more users and advertisers. The users most censored and deplatformed are people of color, LGBTQ+ folks, and people of other marginalized identities. 

Much of the reasoning given for censorship stems from misguided legislation. The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act and Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA-SESTA) were passed in 2018 to address moral panic around sex trafficking by amending Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. But instead of reducing sex trafficking, the bills give online platforms the power to actively censor users and claim it’s because the content is indecent. 

The impacts were immediate. Platforms like Craigslist and Reddit removed content where escorts and other sex workers were sharing information before the law even went into effect. Some digital lists and tips, like “bad dates lists” and safety sites like “VerifyHim” were gone immediately. 

Over the past few years, others have followed suit: Facebook, Tumblr, Linktree, Twitter, and OnlyFans have kicked users off their platforms, censored posts, blocked or partially blocked users, and changed the way sex workers and educators can talk and support each other. More recently, the main Instagram account for Strippers United, an organization with 27,000 followers that helps strippers organize to improve their workplaces, was taken down from the site without warning. It was brought back online six days later.

Big banks and financial companies also joined in on the censorship: Sex workers and sex educators have reported randomly lost or frozen accounts from Paypal, Venmo, Mastercard and Visa, among other banks and credit card companies like Bank of America, Capital One, and Chase. As a result, sex workers and sex educators are becoming increasingly vulnerable and unstable. According to Hacking//Hustling’s 2020 “Erased” report, 73.5% of sex workers said their financial situation had changed since April 2018, and 72.5% were facing increased economic instability. 

Sexuality content producers are finding ways to trick the algorithm and are self-censoring to keep their audience engagement growing so they can also pay their bills. Profiles and bios don’t mention sex, many include symbols to trick the backend system, and some use adapted hashtags and words. Users also share other tricks and hacks with each other for when the rules change arbitrarily again. 

But, while mostly BIPOC and LGBTQ+ folks are targeted for educational or consensual posts, some face no consequences at all. Models and outlets like Playboy, a white-owned publication, aren’t being banned or having posts removed. Celebrities like the Kardashians are able to post near-nude photos, which go viral, and the companies say the content doesn’t violate their standards. Platforms don’t need to explain why one post is inappropriate and another isn’t—so most of the time, they don’t.

With the power in the hands of big tech companies, the injustices continue and translate offline to safety risks and loss of livelihoods and lives. Some sex workers like stripper Janis Luna noted on a podcast that within a week of FOSTA-SESTA passing, more sex workers  had gone missing from their local communities. Sex workers and advocates have also reported increases in attacks, suicide, and self-harm.

The SAFE SEX Workers Study Act of 2020, which was re-introduced in Congress last month on International Sex Worker Rights Day, would initiate a government study into harms done by FOSTA-SESTA. But, more needs to be done to truly address the challenges sex educators and especially sex workers face, including full decriminalization of sex work.

“Whatever the general systems of oppression is trying to do to sex workers, they are doing to all of us,” Whitney said. “Everyone should be really concerned about the ways that sex workers are being policed, stigmatized, into the literal outer corners of internet and society. If they can do it to sex workers, they are doing it to us.”

Umme Hoque is a writer, editor, and organizer. She's passionate about writing about and investigating issues for low-income workers and communities of color, lifting up the experiences of those who are...