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Porn Stars Vs. Instagram: Inside The Battle To Remain On The Platform

Sex workers and Instagram tried to make peace over takedowns in a meeting this summer. Then porn star Jessica Jaymes’ account was incorrectly removed — after she died.

Posted on October 18, 2019, at 8:01 a.m. ET

BuzzFeed News; Getty Images

Porn stars and other sex workers are furious that Instagram continues to take down their accounts with confusing guidelines and explanations — and despite a summer meeting where actors’ union representatives and platform officials tried to hammer out their differences.

Sex censorship online is not new. But as social platforms have come under increasing pressure to figure out how and when to police content, porn stars and other sex workers say the accounts they’ve maintained for years are facing a level of scrutiny that others – like celebrities and influencers who similarly post provocative images and videos – don’t.

“No sex worker can make it anymore,” porn star Sybil Stallone told BuzzFeed News. “It’s discrimination point-blank.”

One of the latest grievances came when porn star Jessica Jaymes’ page was taken down — shortly after she was found dead at home on Sept. 17. “I am sick and tired of [Instagram] doing this to people in my industry. Jessica is never coming back,” said Alana Evans, the president of the Adult Performers Actors Guild. Her group, a chapter of the federally recognized International Entertainment Adult Union, advocates for performers.

Ohrangutang

Sybil Stallone

Adding to the frustration, the account takedowns continued after a June meeting between officials at Instagram; its owner, Facebook; APAG, the union; and a reporter from trade publication XBIZ. The performers’ reps said the company led them to believe it was taking their concerns seriously. Instagram asked for the meeting after sex workers protested outside its London offices in May and APAG planned a similar action at its Silicon Valley headquarters.

“We were concerned following feedback from this community that their accounts were being removed without cause, we investigated the accounts shared with us and found some were incorrectly removed,” a Facebook spokesperson told BuzzFeed News. “From there we conducted a deeper investigation and observed that at times we were incorrectly removing accounts under our sexual solicitation policy. After an investigation, we found that there was confusion around some language in our training materials for content moderators — leading to errors in enforcement. We have clarified our training materials to minimize the number of errors.”

“We do not have policies that target adult performers,” the spokesperson added. “We would never disable an account simply because it's run by an adult performer.”

Right after that meeting, Evans said hundreds of accounts were reinstated — some through Instagram’s standard appeals process and some through the union’s communications with the company — and there were commitments to keep in touch about ongoing issues. “They absolutely did what they said they were going to,” Evans said.

But, she said, the goodwill didn’t last long. Hundreds of actors have reported issues to her in the months since, and Evans said communication with the company has stalled.

“There are so many rules, and it’s so hard to keep up with everything,” said porn star Lisa Daniels, who makes money from sponsorship deals on Instagram and whose account was shut down while she was attending Jaymes’ funeral last week.

Tony Dillinger

Lisa Daniels

Instagram users are subject to the same rules that parent company Facebook lays out for users, which prohibit posting nudity, sexual activity, and sexual solicitation. These rules are far from straightforward, and as Facebook acknowledges, “Our nudity policies have become more nuanced over time.” Content that may violate those policies can be flagged by Facebook’s artificial intelligence and by users who report content. Moderators then use a complex decision tree to determine if a particular piece of content or an account should be removed, and they receive updates on how to interpret the guidelines every two weeks. While the policies are public, the internal guidelines used for enforcement are not.

Daniels said she has had an account on Instagram for about eight years and has had a few posts taken down here and there. Some were removed because they included copyrighted music and she wasn’t sure about the others since, she said, adding, “I’m never nude on there.” But she’s never seen her whole account, with about 666,000 followers, shuttered.

The account has since been reactivated. Facebook said it was “incorrectly disabled for impersonation but reinstated following an appeal from the account holder”. Daniels said she’s afraid of accidentally triggering another takedown. “I have it on private. I’m so scared to post on it,” she said.

The union has been soliciting reports from adult performers about account deactivations since March. Evans said 1,374 individual performers have responded so far — more than 400 did so after she shared the list with the company after the June meeting. Some of those individuals described issues with multiple accounts — some actors keep backup accounts in case their main one is suddenly shuttered. Instagram said when it reviewed the list, a majority of the accounts were live.

Courtesy Alana Evans

Alana Evans (third from right) at a Facebook office for the June meeting.

The porn industry has changed dramatically in recent years and the performers who spoke to BuzzFeed News engage in a range of sex work from traditional studio films to camming, phone sex, and fetish work. Many performers today essentially work as independent content creators, who must aggressively promote their brand and business.

Social media made it “possible for performers to seize the means of production,” said Heather Berg, a professor of women, gender, and sexuality studies at Washington University in St. Louis and who is writing a book on labor in the porn industry. Deactivating the accounts, she adds, puts “the power back in the hands of directors and producers.”

Like content creators, influencers, and celebrities whose businesses rely on social media, sex workers use Instagram to promote their personal brand, direct fans to their own websites and products, and sometimes make money from sponsorships – and they stand to lose money every minute their account is down.

“Ironically, Kim Kardashian’s Instagram account contains numerous pictures of her in varying states of dress,” Jim Felton, the union’s lawyer, wrote in a letter to Instagram in May. “Why is it that she and her sisters aren’t terminated for nudity?”

Felton said he’s sure that some people sometimes cross the line. “Did some [porn stars] probably post inappropriate things? Yeah, I bet they did,” he said. The issue, he said, is when they are treated differently.

Some performers believe many deactivations this year are due to harassment — essentially anti-porn trolls who report sex workers’ accounts to platforms to intentionally cause them trouble. Others blame legal uncertainty around the 2018 law FOSTA-SESTA — which is ostensibly supposed to combat sex trafficking online, but civil liberties organizations and sex worker advocates say it has resulted in the censorship of sex-related content because the law could hold websites and platforms liable for it.

Though Facebook’s spokesperson told BuzzFeed News that FOSTA-SESTA hasn’t had an impact on the company’s policies, the company did update its policy regarding sexual solicitation a few months after the law passed and later announced that it would be demoting “borderline” content, including “sexually suggestive” posts. Facebook said these changes came after a “conversations with our content reviewers” because accounts were being “incorrectly removed.” But Aparajitha Vadlamannati, who is part of Facebook’s public policy team, reportedly said during the union meeting that “this is about stopping sex trafficking.”

Jaymes’ case is an example of Instagram using artificial intelligence to police the platform combined with human moderators who haphazardly interpret the company’s enforcement guidelines.

As soon as she realized Jaymes’ account vanished, Evans wrote to her contacts at the company and asked them to restore it, leading to the following back-and-forth:

  • Monday, Sept. 23: Kim Malfacini, from Instagram’s product policy team, replied to Evans’s message: “I am looking into why this account was removed and am trying to resolve this asap.”

  • Tuesday: Malfacini responded saying Jaymes’ account had been restored — but it was the wrong one. Evans had accidentally provided a link to copycat account — a rampant issue among sex workers — and that’s the one Instagram revived. Evans quickly sent the correct link and asked them to put that page up instead.

  • Wednesday: Malfacini told her that the real account had, in fact, been “correctly removed, so we will not be able to reinstate it.” At first, the company didn’t explain the decision. When Evans pressed, they said it was deactivated because Jaymes’ real account had repeatedly violated their policy on nudity, and Malfacini said she hoped that reinstating the fake account “provides some solace.”

  • Thursday: Evans asked Instagram to take down any content violating the policy and restore the rest, since Jaymes was dead and there was no chance she would violate the rules again.

  • Friday: The company hadn’t responded to to Evans. When BuzzFeed News emailed Instagram inquiring about the account, Evans learned from someone who knew Jaymes that the account had been restored. Malfacini emailed later in the day to tell her the account had been restored but didn’t provide any explanation for the change of heart.

  • Wednesday, Oct. 16: A spokesperson for Facebook said that Jaymes’ account was initially reported by the company’s artificial intelligence and that it was incorrectly assessed by one of the company’s content moderators to be in violation of the nudity policy. “We made a mistake here,” said the spokesperson. “The original message that it was correctly disabled was inaccurate.”

“You’ve just seen the process LIVE lol,” Evans told BuzzFeed News in a text, saying this sort of inconsistent response from the company has become standard for sex workers.

Facebook has an intricate set of internal guidelines that Facebook and Instagram moderators must interpret, according to leaked documents recently revealed by BuzzFeed News. Moderators said the guidelines fail when it comes to cases that skirt the edge of the policies, as many sex workers — and influencers and reality stars — inevitably do.

Facebook has about 15,000 moderators around the world, and instructions on how to interpret content may vary by location. At one facility, for example, moderators were told that a post with the text “DM for pics and videos” was acceptable since there was no indication of nudity, while “See the uncensored version on my NSFW patreon. DM me to buy custom content” was deemed unacceptable.

A former moderator who spoke with BuzzFeed News on the condition of anonymity said that the sexual solicitation guidelines had been particularly hard to enforce and that a rep from Facebook headquarters had to step in because too many posts were being deleted.

“Reps are still missing desiring sex versus soliciting sex,” reads an internal update from a manager in one of the facilities in April that notes the unusually low accuracy numbers in North American facilities in particular — 77% relative to a global average of 93%.

The company’s spokesperson told BuzzFeed News that the June meeting also led them to update their notoriously complex training for moderators but declined to describe the specific changes.

Sex workers told BuzzFeed News that despite the changes, they still had difficulty navigating the rules.

“We don’t know,” said Stallone, who has seen her accounts deactivated around a dozen times over the years. Most recently, her main account, with about 1.5 million followers, was deactivated in late September. “I don’t know if they just hate us, you know, sex workers.”

Danielle Blunt, a dominatrix whose account was deactivated, then reactivated, then deactivated again — after posting about the first deactivation — all in the first week of October, said, “It becomes this form of gaslighting by the platform.” A Facebook spokesperson told BuzzFeed News the account was correctly deactivated for multiple violations including nudity. Blunt disputes this.

“Whether or not you’re actively using the platform to solicit sex, which is against their terms of service, just the fact of being a woman or a feminine person online is enough,” she said.

A Facebook spokesperson told BuzzFeed News, “We absolutely do allow sex-positive content,” and denied that the company had any specific policy against sex workers.

Munir Diaz

Osa Lovely

Performers described carefully editing photos to censor nipples or butts, removing references or links to their adult industry work, avoiding interactions with fans in their DMs, and making accounts private in an attempt to stay within Facebook’s community standards. But performers like Osa Lovely say they were shut down anyway.

“I’m 32. I know how to censor myself,” said Lovely, who, like Daniels, said she had never had any issues before April of this year and hadn’t received any warnings prior to being deactivated. “Whatever pressures they’re having to censor I totally understand. I just wanted to be treated like everybody else.”

Lovely and another performer, High Arch Latina, both told BuzzFeed News that their accounts had been restored after the June meeting — only to be shut down again a few weeks later. Facebook reactivated Higharch Latina's account a second time after an inquiry from BuzzFeed News, saying in this instance it was incorrectly deactivated by automation. "We aim to have high confidence when it comes to automatically deleting content — but mistake are sometimes made," said the Facebook spokesperson.

Facebook told BuzzFeed News that Lovely's account was correctly deactivated for sexual solicitation, but Lovely disputed that, saying, "How can they possibly say it was correct when they were wrong [before]?"

Higharch Latina

Higharch Latina

Higharch Latina, who does foot fetish work and some mainstream modeling under another name, asked BuzzFeed News not use her real name because she didn’t want her family to find out about her work. She said she was surprised by the deactivation because she actually shows more skin on her mainstream account, which has never faced any issues, while her fetish account has been taken down twice. “There are so many women showing so much more. I’m not really showing anything except my feet,” she said.

Dee Siren said her account had also been reactivated once, only to be deactivated again within a few weeks. Like Daniels, Siren’s account was deactivated for impersonation, according to a company spokesperson. The account was only reactivated after an inquiry from BuzzFeed News.

Siren said the impersonation claim was particularly bewildering because she had gone out of her way to include additional documentation in her appeal to Facebook linking her given name with her stage name and showing that she owned the copyright for her stage name. She tried reaching out to Instagram multiple times but eventually gave up and created a new account.

Despite the rollout of new warning and appeal processes on Instagram in July, sex workers say the situation has not improved. While Facebook contends that there is “low awareness” of the appeals process, all of the performers that spoke to BuzzFeed News said they had made numerous attempts to appeal, frequently without success or any kind of response.

Courtesy Dee Siren

Dee Siren

Siren, who runs an adult video production studio with her husband, said that while her husband gets occasional warnings for the content that he posts, she was deactivated without any notice. “My husband has an Instagram for our studio. He has posted things that are a lot more risqué, and he actually gets warnings from them,” Siren said. “He’s warned so he can take that picture down so his account doesn’t get deactivated. I was never warned; I just deactivated for nothing.”

Stallone told BuzzFeed that her account was deactivated without notice in September and estimated that she has contacted the company over 300 times through their appeal process without a response and even tried DM’ing Instagram employees directly to no avail.

“They tend to shut it down right as I have a release coming on Brazzers,” she said. “It always happens the same week I have a film coming out.”

Stallone said she’s careful not to tag the production company or mention that it’s a porn film, and she always posts her own photos rather than the promotional materials the studio provides for fear that doing so would trigger a takedown. It’s hard to say if these measures are necessary though, when companies like Brazzers, PornHub, and Playboy all have accounts that post similar material. Playboy, in particular, regularly posts fully nude butts and nipples so lightly censored that they don’t appear so at first glance.

She has occasionally been able to get the account reactivated by going through the appeal process, and when that happens, she gets a message apologizing and saying the account was disabled by mistake. The Facebook spokesperson told BuzzFeed News that her account had been deactivated correctly this time around, “for multiple violations of our policies - also for posts containing nudity, among other violations.”

When asked about the company's assertion that the account was correctly deactivated, Stallone replied, "Sex workers will rebel🔥."

The task that Instagram and Facebook face is admittedly a challenging one. One performer that BuzzFeed News spoke with, who acknowledged that she would occasionally meet up with fans who DM’d her offering to pay for sex, has since gotten her account back after appealing. The performer said she was careful to take the conversations off Instagram to discuss details and in doing so she may have avoided violating any policies, but the case illustrates the difficulty the company faces in attempting to police the boundaries between online and offline behavior.

Lovely, who sells some cam sessions and clips directly to viewers, said the shutdown has made it harder to make money because she now has to spend time convincing fans that she is the real Osa Lovely and not one of the fan accounts or accounts impersonating her. “Usually my platform would speak for me,” she explained. She has a new account now, “but it only has 1,800 followers, so even booking for modeling jobs, stuff like that, people are like ‘are you really Osa?’ I'll go through so much crap.”

Stallone told BuzzFeed News that she loses about $2,000 every week that her account is deactivated because fans stop visiting her linked website, where she makes money from cam sessions and custom clips.

“Like most sex workers I take care of my kids — my partner my parents — my disabled sibling,” said Stallone via text. “That’s the story they are fucking with my money.”

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