A crowd of Latinx people, some holding trans Pride flags, stands facing the camera
NEW YORK, NY - JULY 09: People participate in the annual TransLatinX march in the Corona neighborhood of the Queens borough on July 9, 2022, in New York City. The march called for justice for sex workers, denounced employment discrimination against the trans community and called for local businesses to hire trans women. (Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)

Trying to explain Reddit to someone who has never used the site is difficult. While subreddits are simple enough to understand, explaining upvotes and karma—which amount to little more than fake internet points awarded at the discretion of strangers—requires a broad ability to laugh at yourself. Founded in 2005, Reddit is the brainchild of Steve Huffman and Alexis Ohanian. Seventeen years later, the self-professed “front page of the internet” boasts 52 million daily active users and had 4.3 billion visits in July, making it the 8th most popular website in the world.

Reddit’s system of community moderation, carried out almost entirely by human volunteers, is an anomaly when compared to competitors like Twitter and Facebook. The trade-off of using human moderators to monitor online communities is that the same biases baked into automated systems are exponentially worse in the people that these programs are designed to mimic. Reddit is a breeding ground for particularly vile and violent communities that target women and the trans community, like the incel community of Reddit and the broader “manosphere.” Further, the site has contributed to the rise of divisive “male empowerment” figures like Andrew Tate, who is under investigation for sex trafficking and whose podcast subreddits were taken down for promoting hate in August, and the late Kevin Samuels.They and others built social media followings by doling out advice that most resembles the teachings of early aughts pickup artists.

This lackadaisical method of moderation is especially prevalent in subreddits that cater to audiences seeking NSFW content. One such community, r/TheFappening encouraged users to edit celebrity womens’ faces into pornography and share leaked celebrity nudes without consent until it was finally banned. Reddit leadership insisted this was a last resort and would not become the norm without legal action. This is disheartening for trans sex workers looking to establish consistent fan bases and income. According to Ashley, a sex worker and peer organizer who researches platform moderation in New York, “Sex workers create and grow a business, and get to know it, and have a community with these sites. They are very keen on keeping their work and not having to start over.” 

Because Reddit has had a large and active NSFW community for years, it has long been popular with sex workers and NSFW content creators like some cosplayers. Subreddits exist for everyone from self-professed “monster fuckers” to users with a preference for trans women with penises, making it an especially attractive option for sex workers looking to share their videos.

For Chloe, a trans sex worker from San Francisco whose content often has sociopolitical commentary, Reddit isn’t even an option for promoting her work. She says her experience with the site, both personally and professionally, has been tainted by subreddits with transphobic requirements for posting. 

“r/Traps has a toxic requirement that all trans women who post there must ‘pass’ as cisgender,” Chloe said. “Much of the site is hyperfixated on the concept of ‘passing,’ which is a threat to the trans community as a whole.” 

Chloe also shared rules from r/gonewildtrans, which include that “[i]t is at the mod team’s discretion to remove posts they believe are low-effort or do not depict trans individuals.” 

“In practice,” Chloe says, “it just means shitting on girls who don’t ‘pass.’” 

The lack of accountability and transparency from Reddit’s internal safety team has created an environment rife with misogyny and transphobia that allows the worst perpetrators to hide behind cries of “free speech says I can do this,” emboldened by Reddit’s own CEO, Steve Huffman, who insists that speech is separate from beliefs. This boils down to an incredibly laissez-faire approach to moderation that allows each individual Reddit community, or subreddit, to set their own policies for acceptable conduct. For subreddits like r/The_Donald, that means planning a white supremacist rally that results in the death of a 32-year-old woman is acceptable conduct. And while Reddit leadership made a few gestures of goodwill during the summer of 2020, such as allegedly banning about 2,000 communities, including r/The_Donald, the site still has not reckoned with the larger culture of bigotry that proliferates in its communities in any meaningful way.

For sex workers without the time or interest to moderate their own communities, Reddit presents its own set of frustrations. Mai, a sex worker, organizer, and content creator from Miami says having content stolen and reposted on the site is a real problem. 

“I posted in r/BBWCosplay, and a user stole my content, using it to scam people,” Mai said. Worse than having their content stolen, many users face hostility or obstinacy from moderators, even after filing DMCA takedown requests. “[The moderator] claims they couldn’t verify it was me and wouldn’t take it down.” Mai says they no longer use Reddit, and even though they watermark all of their content, they have accepted content theft as an inevitability. “As ‘free reign’ as it is, [Reddit] needs a lot of work to become a safer space.”

Following the passage of FOSTA-SESTA and the emergence of copycat legislation like KOSA and SISEA, social media platforms are more reticent than ever to host or acknowledge adult content. FOSTA-SESTA, a dual Senate and House bill passed in March 2018, made social media sites and community forums legally responsible for any user content that could be construed as promotion of human trafficking. KOSA, a proposed Senate bill, would require sites to heavily censor any content viewable by minors under 16. SISEA, a Senate bill that has repeatedly stalled in committee, would require all sites to collect identification and written consent forms from anyone engaged in a sexual performance before content can be uploaded.

This legislative minefield has only increased reluctance to host adult content that’s monetized because it opens platforms to lawsuits from the likes of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE) or even the federal government. Compounding the issue, to grow their $10 billion valuation and attract more advertisers, Reddit must contend with increasingly restrictive regulations from payment processors like Visa and Mastercard. The list of advertisers attempting to conform to the Global Alliance for Responsible Media’s (GARM) standards has also grown in recent years. The growing censorship surrounding social media has left sites like Twitter and Reddit, the only major platforms that still openly allow explicit sexual content, scrambling to find a balance that appeals to shareholders, advertisers, and users alike.

Ashley noticed a disturbing trend emerging in early August. Sex workers with large online audiences often operate their own subreddits to share exclusive content, interact with fans without a paywall, and mitigate the flow of unauthorized content sharing or stealing. Recently, these same sex workers have had their accounts suspended for terms of service violations, often without warning. As the sole moderators for their communities, once those accounts are suspended, the communities themselves are removed in short order. For Ashley, this trend is especially disturbing because there’s “no clear indication of what has changed.”

“No one has been told that they were in danger of having accounts removed or limited,” Ashley said. “They simply experienced moderation and had to untangle it afterwards. We have been able to help recover some accounts, but almost no one has been given an explanation for why they were moderated or how to avoid it in the future.” 

For Iris, a sex worker and content creator, this is a familiar experience. Despite gaining more than 13,000 followers on a promotional account, she was banned from Reddit six months ago without any warning or specific reasoning. 

“At the point of my permanent ban, there was no preemptive notification that I had made any mistake. I received a terms of service violation email after not being active for a few days,” Iris said, adding that she faced harassment from a moderator who accused her of ban evasion for trying to promote her own content after appealing the suspension and threatened to blacklist her with other moderators.

Sex workers are no stranger to sitting in digital purgatory, waiting for platforms to decide their fates. This time, however, the urgency is more pressing. When asked for comment, a Reddit representative said there have been no policy changes specifically aimed at scaling back NSFW content. They also pointed to Reddit’s sitewide policy that prohibits identity-based hate in content, stating they’ve observed less of that content in the last two years and noting the existence of subreddits that offer support to trans users. 

This response doesn’t actually address the concerns of sex workers, particularly trans ones, who say they’ve lost their accounts without warning or recourse. Without any real answers or expediency from Twitter and Reddit, the sex worker community is struggling to find any real virtual haven that allows them to marry personal and professional connections. Even platforms that claim to cater to sexual kinks and fetishes like Fetlife have become openly discriminatory, forcing sex workers to rally and preempt losing yet another community meeting place.

Adrie is a writer and photographer, and reformed academic from Pittsburgh