Twitter and the porn apocalypse that could reshape the industry as we know it

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A substantial portion of the adult entertainment industry lives in perpetual fear not of anti-porn activists or conservative legislation, but of a crackdown on their accounts by Twitter — a move many performers and producers believe is imminent and will be apocalyptic for them. 

A concentrated wave of this fear spread through the industry at the end of last year, when reports began to circulate that Twitter appeared to be ramping up for a crackdown on NSFW content in 2020. A number of porn performers and producers promptly went into panic mode, decrying or lamenting this impending death blow.

These concerns, it appears, were overblown. We’re more than halfway through this year, and there are no signs of a major shift, much less a crackdown. In fact, Twitter tells Mashable that it has not changed, nor does it plan to change, its policies on sensitive media (its euphemism for violent and adult content), or the way it enforces those policies. 

This wasn’t the first time a major wave of Twitter-related paranoia has swept the industry. Similar reports about an oncoming all-out war on porn made the rounds in 2015 and 2017, and notably never amount to much either. 

But the level of concern this coverage stoked just demonstrates how vital Twitter has become — and how devastating its loss would be — to the health and stability of the adult industry. 

And even if a crackdown is not on its way in the short term — a near certainty especially in our current state of pandemic-induced suspended animation — many social media and adult industry experts still believe those working in the porn have good reason to fear an eventual Twitter porn-pocalypse.  

Porn’s social media revolution

About a decade ago, , and the bottom fell out of the old school porn industry. Around the same time, the democratization of online video production, shifts in the way many people think about sex and sexuality, and a host of other factors led to a spike in the number of people making amateur or indie studio porn — or even dipping their toes into mainstream porn production. 

Facing , many porn performers and producers gradually realized that they needed to build strong brands and deep connections with loyal fanbases — to be more connected and personified — to survive or thrive. So naturally, they turned to social media, a tool custom built for that sort of outreach and marketing. 

For years now, performers and producers to send out a constant stream of . These platforms have also allowed them to interact directly (and often and effectively) with their fans. As (usually non-sexual) porn performer and publicist notes, studios (some of whom have started shooting scenes again after months of pandemic-related production holds) now look at performers’ follower counts to figure out who has a large fan base they can market to (or piggyback off of), and thus who to hire. The bulk of these studios’ advertising to those fan bases whenever they release new titles plays out on social media, as well. Ditto for strip clubs (some of which have also reopened), which shell out higher rates for feature dances from performers they believe will draw a crowd. 

Performers also directly monetize their social media followings. Some create private or locked accounts to fans who crave a sense of intimacy and connection with these idealized icons. Most drive loyal fans from their public social media accounts to their personal sites, or to platforms like Clips4Sale, ManyVids, and the , where they sell clips or subscriptions that give fans access to a constant flow of usually self-created and well protected content with a lot of personality baked into it. 

Many performers and producers from social media referrals. As such, social media has been essential, notes , who studies modern porn work, to the rise of profitable independent porn stars. Most of them work safely and on their own terms “without paying high fees to managers and third-party processors.” (These types of stars are also the ones who’ve best weathered the restrictions and upheavals of the pandemic.) 

Surviving by the grace of social media has its risks, however. A number of performers have told me in recent years that porn used to be like a nine-to-five job; they could turn off their onscreen personas, industry drama, and fan chatter and critiques when they went off the clock. Now, they say, they often feel like they have to be on — and exposed to brutal vitriol of trolls and entitlement of keyboard warrior fans — all the time. , this constant pressure and feedback can be grueling 

But, argues Mike Stabile of the , an industry group originally founded 29 years ago to fight obscenity and censorship laws, social media has also made the industry safer. 

“Adult performers use it to , to warn people about… exploitation” with a freedom, reach, and volume amplification they never could before, he says. “For the FSC, we use it to get out information about production holds” after one or more performers test positive for an STI, “report bad actors or policy changes, put out alerts about fraud attempts,” and much more. It is especially useful, he says, for reaching performers who don’t live in Los Angeles, porn’s old (and increasingly irrelevant) physical capital, or work in traditional studios and so would be hard to contact through conventional means. 

Leya Tanit, a performer and founder of , which offers mental health education and does outreach to set adult stars up with services, explains that their team uses social media to keep an eye out for, and offer support to, marginalized or isolated performers who seem to be struggling. 

Social media platforms have also made it easier for porn industry figures to organize politically and share their stories with the mainstream press and broader public, Stabile adds. “I don’t think the awareness around … sex worker rights would be where it is” without social media, he says. 

The problem with platforms

, Twitter has been by far the most important social media platform for the porn world, if only because it has been the least hostile to it — and to discussions and depictions of sex and sexuality in general. Facebook and Instagram have squeezed nudity, and many forms of sexual conversation, off of their platforms to the point that last fall the former started in certain types of user posts and conversations. 

Tumblr, once a haven for erotic talk and imagery, especially for minority sexual communities, . And , despite its origins as a thoroughly sext-focused app, has periodically targeted their accounts for censorship, or just fully purged them, for years. 

Most of these platforms make allowances for moderate sexual dialogue, especially in educational, artistic, or documentary materials. But everyone from non-pornographic artists and models to pole dancers to sexual educators (especially in the queer community) most platforms are overzealous at best in their enforcement, often censoring even what should be allowed, and is by almost any reasonable standard innocuous, sexual (if perhaps vaguely sexualizable) content. 

Porn stars especially argue that these platforms frequently target them with over-harsh enforcement, and often outright bans, even when they play by the rules. Notably, last fall a performer’s group in which Instagram allegedly deleted adult stars’ accounts even when they complied with community guidelines restricting the display or discussion of sex or nudity.

“Every year, we are seeing more and more discrimination towards sex workers on all of the major social media platforms,” argues Tony Rios, president of the porn trade media house AVN.

Except for Twitter, that is. They have long banned nudity and simulated or unstimulated sex acts in profile photos and header images. They require posters to mark any tweets containing adult content, or accounts that frequently feature such material, as sensitive. And they have banned the delivery of unsolicited messages containing sensitive content to others. These are all fairly reasonable efforts to keep people who don’t want to see adult content on Twitter from chancing upon it incidentally. 

But (which they owned) in 2014, they’ve refrained from enacting restrictions anywhere near as stringent as the other social media giants. In fact Twitter has been so friendly to porn performers and producers by comparison that anti-porn groups like and the treat it as one of the greatest abettors of what they see as a leading global health and safety menace.  

The fact that Twitter has held out for so long as a porn-friendly space while the rest of the social media world has turned away from sex and sexuality leaves porn stars waiting for what many feel is an inevitable cave in and crackdown, explains adult star . Hence the mild-to-major industry panic and suspicion anytime Twitter makes literally any move even vaguely related to sexual content or discourse, whether that’s adjusting its policies or going after spam bots. 

Reading between the lines of the terms of service

The recent panic seemingly started when that it would amend its policies at the start of 2020 to comply with new privacy laws in California and the European Union. This led a number of users to dive into the platform’s terms of service (TOS), where they noticed what seemed like new restrictions on sensitive media. Commentators focused especially on the fact that Twitter’s TOS list depictions of “bodily fluids, including blood, feces, [and] semen” within their definition depictions of graphic violence, explicitly forbid any depiction of simulated or actual sexual or sexualized violence in any context, and feature a line about a policy on censoring accounts dedicated to sharing sensitive media. Twitter had actually seemingly slipped this language into its TOS in an attempt to add clarity to old rules, not to substantively alter them. 

Anti-censorship activists have been concerned about vague social media TOS since platforms like Twitter launched, notes of the National Coalition Against Censorship, arguing that they can and do use ambiguity as a blank check to restrict all manner of speech that might cause them trouble with advertisers, app stores, profitable users, or any number of other parties. In that light, one could read these clarifications as a useful free speech protection for porn producers. 

Individuals involved or interested in the kink scene — enthusiasts, content creators, and beyond — that Twitter’s explicit ban on depictions of sexual or sexualized violence blocks the free sexual expression of communities that engage in safe, consensual, and fetishes like flogging or consensual non-consent roleplaying. Twitter’s TOS asserts that it is reasonable and important to limit this sexual speech “to prevent the normalization of sexual assault and non-consensual violence associated with sexual acts.” This is a , but at least clear and public, line of reasoning.

A number of anti-censorship activists Mashable spoke to for this piece argued that Twitter’s current TOS are still worryingly vague. But social media companies to leave a little wiggle room in these texts to account for the infinite unknown unknowns of the internet. It is difficult to figure out the sweet spot between functional and dangerous vagueness. 

No matter how helpful Twitter intended its clarifications to be, they sparked fear, in large part because of phrasing and delivery issues. Case in point, one line reads: “Your account may be permanently suspended if the majority of your activity on Twitter is sharing sensitive media.” Many in the porn world saw this as a notice of Twitter’s right — and implicitly its intent — to start taking down porn-centric accounts. But a Twitter rep told Mashable that they meant that “accounts that consistently share sensitive media that breaks our rules, or consistently share sensitive media in a way — unsolicited and targeted, in profile or header images — that breaks our rules” could face suspension. “Based on feedback that this line isn’t clear enough,” Twitter told Mashable after an interview on the topic, “we’ll be clarifying the policy.” On Tuesday, the company told Mashable that they’ve yet to change the TOS text because of the pandemic, saying, “With COVID-19, our team’s priorities shifted but we are still working to update that page with clarifying language.”  

The looming shadow of shadow banning

However Twitter’s clarifications did make it clear that the site reserves () the right . as a long-awaited admission that Twitter engages in , a term for making hashtags or handles invisible to anyone who doesn’t know exactly how to look for them, without notifying the targeted user or users. Performers and producers have long argued that Twitter shadow bans adult accounts, terms, and accounts that interact with them as a means of “essentially suffocating sex workers from being able to reach their fans,” as Rios puts it. “Each year, they add more levels of shadow banning.” 

Twitter has always balked at the term shadow ban. It has also long denied accusations that it uses shadow bans to suppress speech that doesn’t break its TOS but that the company or its backers disagree with or dislike, or to marginalize and discourage posting by irksome individuals. 

Instead the company says that it uses techy tools to spot “accounts that are engaging in what may be abusive or spammy behavior” then limits “certain account functionality, such as only distributing their Tweets to their followers.” The company also notes that its safe search mode automatically screens out “Tweets that contain potentially sensitive content” from conversations, searches, and timelines. It further specifies that the company is “constantly running experiments on Twitter, which may limit the reach of certain Tweets.” 

This could explain a fair amount of purported porn-targeted shadow banning. As performer Alura Jenson acknowledges, while many porn performers and producers abide by Twitter’s rules, tons of unscrupulous accounts still “publicly force [pornographic] images and videos down the throats of the average Twitter user.” And Twitter has with porn spam bots, automated accounts that use adult content and language to phish for users’ personal and payment information. These bots were especially active last year. “I blocked hundreds of spam accounts,” notes adult performer Ginger Banks. “The couple of years [before 2019] it was more like 10 or 20 a year.” 

Twitter has been ramping up its safeguards against abuse and spam, a rep told Mashable. In theory that should not lead to systematic problems for legitimate and compliant porn accounts. But Banks suspects there are enough similarities between what the above-board porn world tweets or does and what abusive or spam accounts do to cause difficulties. The legitimate industry may be of a well-intentioned user protection program. “The real kick in the teeth,” Jenson argues, “is that when genuine accounts get shadow banned, fraudulent and predatory accounts,” including fake accounts for banned performers, are often “still searchable. Fans tend to fall for these, succumbing to scams and [their] parasitic demands for money.” 

The subtlety and opacity of content limitation (slash shadow banning) also makes it incredibly difficult for porn performers to know when their accounts, and thus their livelihoods, might be suffering from it and why, Jenson notes. , a performer who consults on social media account building and management for other adult stars and publicly protests shadow banning, argues that the only logical explanation for Twitter’s lack of clarity on the specific content that leads to content limitation is the existence of an active, duplicitous, and sinister project aiming to slowly and silently squeeze adult content and its creators off of the platform. But it seems more likely that Twitter just doesn’t clarify everything that can lead to content limitation for fear that doing so would be a field guide for bad actors to use to game safeguards and harm users. 

What would a crackdown actually look like?

Even if Twitter’s goals are all currently noble, Stabile argues this content limitation clause creates potential for future less honorable, more arbitrary and insidious suppression or bans. “Just having something on the books that allows people to censor or shut down things is concerning to us,” he explains. “People say, ‘It’s not going to be used this way,’ or, ‘It won’t affect you.’ What we’ve found historically, particularly with legislation but also at the corporate level, is that [blank checks like this] do get used. A new administration comes in. A press scandal arises. A financial incentive changes. And suddenly, well, you know.” Then adult content writ large is in the crosshairs. 

“These are the things we saw Tumblr do before going for the jugular” and fully banning adult content from its platform in December 2018, Stabile adds of the clarifications in Twitter’s current TOS. “The adult community in general is right to be nervous.” 

A few performers actually argue that a crackdown on adult content on Twitter could be a good thing for the industry. Sure, a sudden ban on all nude or sexual imagery might cause an initial shock, forcing every performer to spend weeks locking down and cleaning up their accounts, argues performer . Some may even lose accounts in the scrum and face the daunting task of rebuilding their follower bases from scratch. (A number of performers have told me that they’ve actually been preparing for this potential eventuality, creating secret SFW backup accounts that they’ll switch over to as soon as their old accounts face new scrutiny or go dark.)

Yet, as Banks notes, performers often find that they develop a more loyal, considerate, and profitable fan base by posting only PG content on their Twitters — by using them purely for SFW interactions and personal brand building. DeVille notes that many stars can keep things clean enough to stay on Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat as well despite their crackdowns — and still get plenty of traffic from them. And the race to gain visibility and numbers on Twitter by posting the sort of explicit content that fans love, argues Dubai, just contributes to the industry’s free porn crisis. Cutting off the flow of explicit clips and pics on Twitter could, she suggests, force some people who depend on this sort of easily accessible promo material for their porn fixes to become paying customers and so help performers waste less time and earn more. 

However, implicit in these “it could be good for us” arguments is the idea that a crackdown on adult content would be transparent, fair, and consistent — three terms most performers would never apply to social media censorship enforcement. The feared risk of a crackdown is often less that Twitter will get rid of, say, pics of explicit penetration, and more that it will make haphazard, ill-informed, or secretly malicious and discriminatory judgements about when and how to apply vague, and as such potentially overbroad, new enforcement standards. (Twitter has long stressed that it allows anyone to appeal any actions it may take against their accounts or content. But this presumes that people know they have been targeted and so may not cover some forms of content limitation. Also, the availability of an appeals process does not always avoid harm or chilling effects for the targets. Just ask anyone in the United States.) 

Rios argues that social media companies have historically been more permissive when applying their sex and nudity standards to pop stars, and more arbitrary or harsh when applying them to any sort of sex worker. Pelazzari and Stabile both argue that bias or ignorance on the part of users flagging and moderators reviewing content has always led nudity and sexuality censorship rules to have disproportionately severe — and often outright harmful — effects on sexual minorities. 

Major porn stars believe they would be able to weather even a chaotic, severe, or even total war on adult content and workers on Twitter. They’re able to shift their focus onto other social media accounts they are less worried about, or reach out to their well established fan bases via their web sites, cam chat rooms, or any other number of adult industry venues. And since Tumblr’s great porn apocalypse, have attempted to bill themselves as fast growing, functional, and attractive mainstream alternatives with explicitly sex- and porn-positive outlooks. (Rios notes that AVN recently built its own monetizable social media platform, AVN Stars.) “Creating accounts on these alternative social media platforms will preserve a sense of survival for those feeling the Twitter pinch,” Jenson argues. “Every giant began as a novice.” 

“It’s not that things can’t be done elsewhere,” counters Stabile. “It’s just tremendously difficult.” Maintaining multiple accounts and fan bases across the internet is a time-consuming task, and may be infeasible for new, small, or marginalized creators who rely on Twitter as a potent central hub.   

In theory, some new and niche adult-friendly platforms could become hubs for adult performers, partially or fully replacing Twitter as an internal organizing and safety promotion tool at least. But none could fully replace Twitter, especially for brand and career building. As Rothfield notes, they don’t have the money or the manpower to expand. Most don’t even have an app. Even if they had the resources of a giant company like Pornhub (who seems to have no interest in this game), performer points out, most consumers wouldn’t want to have accounts on, much less publicly view, a site explicitly focused on or friendly to adult content. 

What people want is a one-site-fits-all platform, she argues, where they can view porn and engage with adult stars casually, with a veneer of deniability. A number of fans in countries that ban porn sites , looking the other way on its porn content, would likely not be permitted to engage with these new platforms even if they did want to. Not even many art models, who might get booted from mainstream platforms in adult content clamp downs for nude photos, would want to be associated with a porn platform, argues adult star . And to top it all off, Mel Magazine reports many new or niche platforms seem to have . 

So if the central, far-reaching, and socially acceptable hub of Twitter were to start seriously purging adult content or accounts from its platform — or to start seriously, if subtly, suppressing adult content or accounts — it would not cripple the adult industry. A few actors might not even feel a pinch. But it would be devastating to wide swathes of the adult world. 

Rothfield is sure that small to mid-sized producers and performers would lose gobs of eyes and income. Stabile is sure that worker exploitation and endangerment would increase substantially. Performer and producer is sure that it would seriously set back evolving public dialogue on sex work and sex workers’ rights. “I can’t overstate it,” stresses Stabile. “It really is a scary prospect.” 

The ripple effects of a porn-pocalypse

Stabile also argues that if Twitter ever does seriously escalate restrictions on adult content, it should cause concern for more than just the porn world. “The adult industry is always the canary in the coal mines,” he argues. “We’re the ones they come after first. We’re a strawman for going after larger issues around sexuality, whether that’s LGBTQ, BDSM, or women’s issues. Because it is really not a huge jump from cracking down on porn to declaring a whole host of things obscene and pornographic. That’s the way that this has happened globally and historically.” 

In the face of fears of this grim prospect, Twitter has always touted its commitment to free speech. And social media researcher points out that they certainly don’t seem to have any immediate interests or goals that would lead them to walk back that commitment in favor of limits on adult content or voices. “In Twitter’s summary of its latest transparency report,” she notes, the document in which it sets forth its key priorities, values, and concerns, “the company foregrounds issues like abuse, hate speech, and terrorism — the three biggest moderation-related criticisms currently leveled at the company. The summary page doesn’t even mention adult content.”  

Still, this means the health and stability of the adult industry — and thus the safety and security of thousands of already marginalized workers — rides on Twitter continuing to honestly and diligently respect free speech for adult producers even though it has no legal obligation to do so and may face strong incentives to do otherwise in the future. Companies have demonstrated repeatedly that pressure from payment processors, investors, advertisers, or juicy potential markets can at times override respect for the speech and wellbeing of certain politically or financially unimportant groups, like porn stars.

also suggest that social media sites especially have been willing to step away from adult content — and certain types of wider sexual dialogue — entirely just to avoid the as of yet uncertain risk of legal trouble due to passed in early 2018 by America’s Congress. (Known as FOSTA-SESTA, it holds online platforms liable for hosting user-created content that can be construed, broadly, as facilitating sex trafficking. Note that some anti-porn activists argue that all adult content does just that.) “It’s likely,” Pellazari, adds, “that the company would rather be criticized for restricting speech than for hosting a piece of content deemed violent or damaging” by powerful social or political actors or media figures. 

“All it takes,” argues Stabile, “is a new administration, or a political push, to make it happen… Everything is set up for this to happen. All that isn’t there now is the will to do it.” 

Once that incentive arrives — that spark of censorship — “suddenly it all falls like dominoes.” 

Performers Crystal Rush, Kimberly Chi, and Roxie Rae, and Suzanne Kelder of PervCity.com also shared their thoughts and insights for consideration in the research for this piece.





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