You may have heard whispers about shadow banning—that thing social media platform do where they block or partly block users and/or their content in a sneaky way so that, as Wikipedia puts it, “it will not be readily apparent to the user that they have been banned.” The practice seems to have started as a way to defuse purveyors of abusive language and other troll-like behavior in online communities, but the term was co-opted by conservative Republicans in recent years when they claimed that Twitter was shadow banning their accounts — which Twitter vehemently denied. Today, however, shadow banning goes beyond trolls and conservatives — it’s frequently used against LGBTQIA+ folks, sex workers, and women all over the internet. And me — a queer woman who’s trying to independently publish my graphic novel about sex work, sexual freedom, and self-expression.
It came as kind of a surprise, honestly. That may sound silly, given that I’ve been writing professionally about the intersection of voluntary sex work, gender, identity, and feminism for over a decade. It hasn’t always been easy. My parents are utterly disgusted with my work and I’ve been scoffed at by lots of anti-sex feminists. After winning a Feminist Porn Award that was actually a butt plug with a magnetic bunny tail attached, or after winning an Independent Book Award for my memoir, which is called Watching Porn, I’ll never be elected to a school board.
But then again, I have won awards. And I’ve successfully Kickstarted four books already — including the first volume of the eight-part Tracy Queen back in 2018, to the tune of nearly $10,000. I know my way around a crowdfunding campaign.
So, when I launched a Kickstarter for Tracy Queen, Volume 2: Dangerous Experiments last month, with a much more modest goal of $4,500, an already-beloved character and story, five amazing guest artists contributing work to the volume, and a strong rewards game in play, I was expecting a relatively easy month of crowdfunding to ensue.
I was wrong.
It’s not that people aren’t interested in supporting the book. It’s that they don’t even know I’m trying to Kickstart it. Because I’m certain that I am being shadow banned.
Between the two of us, my illustrator, Jayel Draco, and I (working together as indie publishers Oneshi Press) have a robust social media following across multiple platforms. My days as a porn industry journalist have set me up with a strong Twitter following of sex-positive and porn-friendly folks. Jayel Draco has thousands of Facebook friends. Oneshi Press has a strong community of progressive followers across multiple platforms. Most of our posts generate at least several dozen likes, far more views, and at least a few shares.
Not so when we started promoting Tracy Queen Volume 2 on Kickstarter. Aside from a core group of die-hard fans of our work who see nearly everything we post, we were getting almost zero views on any social media platform we tried.
We knew that some platforms aren’t friendly toward links to Kickstarter campaigns in general. So we posted photos and put the link to the Kickstarter in the comments below them.
We got creative with hashtags and tagging folks.
We exhorted our friends, fans, followers, and families to please share the link.
And then we realized the Kickstarter was using the word “sex” in the copy. It was used primarily in mentions of sexual identity, empowerment, and positivity. And, given that “sex” isn’t a bad word but, you know, a basic building block of life, I hadn’t thought the word itself would pose a threat to my campaign. It didn’t the last time. But clearly, something had changed.
We were being allowed to participate on these platforms. Nobody was banning us or putting us in social media jail, but our attempts to promote our sex-positive, feminist graphic novel were being suppressed because they were talking about s-e-x.
Let me be clear: We weren’t using explicit sexual imagery. In a few of the illustrations, a drawn outline of a fictional character’s (gasp!) nipples could be made out through clothing, but that’s as sexy as it got. Nowhere on the Kickstarter or even in the book is there explicit, pornographic imagery — we don’t show any genitals at all. There are, I’ll admit, a few boobs here and there. But we certainly aren’t displaying those on Kickstarter, or on social media.
We’re just talking about sex. Because that’s the whole thing about Tracy Queen — she’s fighting back against centuries of repression and a few decades of her own personal experience of it. Her story is one that’s rarely told — of a woman who likes sex, feels good about herself because of it, and isn’t afraid to share that with the world. Who seeks out voluntary sex work as a career because she’s found a way to do it on her own terms, enjoy what she does, and make a profit on it. Who explores her sexual desires, seeks out new experiences, discovers her own queerness, and finds herself in the process.
It’s a story that, in my time as a porn journalist, I heard over and over again. There are so many people out there who found themselves through sex, and often through sex work. But their stories are dangerous to the status quo that tells us that women cannot and should not control their bodies or their sexuality. That women who do are to be at best pitied or at worst destroyed for their transgressions. You know — the patriarchy.
I know that the shadow banning isn’t personal. It’s the result of a lot of larger forces, like Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act and the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, bundled together in a law known as SESTA/FOSTA. This disastrous piece of legislation passed the U.S. Senate unanimously in 2018 to become law, and it’s supposed to curb sex trafficking by holding tech companies liable for for user-generated content that used to be protected under the Communications Decency Act. In other words, social media platforms are now responsible if the government finds that one of their users was making posts that facilitated sex trafficking. But here’s the thing — instead of putting the kibosh on a monstrous crime, it’s actually caused more trafficking of minors. That’s because adult sex workers who would provide their services voluntarily are bereft of places to advertise their services, screen clients, and form safe online communities to share information amongst themselves. Remember when Craigslist removed its entire “Personals” section? Or when Tumblr came out against sexually explicit content — and summarily destroyed itself? When Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter rolled out new terms of service (TOS) that came down harder on sexual imagery and language? When mainstream publications’ coverage of sexual matters dried up around the turn of 2018/2019? That was all SESTA/FOSTA.
And now, under that law, which has routed safe online spaces for sex workers and other sexually oriented online communities and put thousands of people at risk, it’s become increasingly difficult to talk about sex on the internet. The internet. The once-bastion of all things weird and sexy. The place where you go for free porn, but where you’re no longer free to talk about that porn, especially if you’d like to discuss how that porn gets made —namely by sex workers. Like the one I wrote my graphic novel about. The one that’s gotten me shadow banned.
Sure, I’m free to post about these topics. And as long as those posts don’t flagrantly violate the TOS on any given platform, I’m likely to be able to keep that post up unless someone reports it. (And people do. And those algorithms that crawl posts looking for errant nipples and depictions of sex sure do love to come down hard on women, people of color, queers, trans folks, fat folks, and pretty much anyone who isn’t “doing it right.” But those are different articles that others have written, and I’ll leave the details to them.)
But my being able to post these things doesn’t mean they’re being seen. Social media is dictated by a mind-boggling array of algorithms that prioritize certain posts and deprioritize others. And those algorithms, guided as they are by TOS, SESTA/FOSTA, and hundreds of years of sexual repression filtered through the programmers that created them, don’t like frank discussions of sexuality. Especially female sexuality.
Still, I didn’t want to complain about being shadow banned until I was sure it was happening. After all, it’s not just algorithms behind repression. I’ve been writing about these topics for most of my adult life by now, but I’ve always found my comments sections to be vast, empty echo chambers. Far from attracting the ire of trolls like so many other women who write about these topics, my work has always seemed to invite timid souls who don’t hit the “like” button, don’t comment, don’t share. They’re worried about what their friends and families, their next job interviewer, everyone else will think.
And, given the doomsday tone of so much of the conversation around sex in the wake of #MeToo, perhaps my positive take on sex isn’t striking the raw nerve that a book dedicated to vengeance after sexual assault might. Maybe it’s just a dud.
But, look. Sex has been used as a weapon against all of us for a long, long time. Especially those of us who aren’t straight, cisgender, white, able-bodied men. We’ve been taught that our sexuality is shameful, aberrant, evil. We’ve been used, abused, assaulted. We’ve been beaten down and made to hate our bodies. All by the wielding of sex as the enemy.
But I believe that sex can also be the site of our resistance. Women who choose to enjoy sex, to talk about sex, to use sex to their own ends are powerful because they’re going against the grain, breaking the rules, telling the algorithms to go fuck themselves. Women who like sex and refuse to shut up about it, like Tracy Queen, are part of our revolution.
Oneshi Press has since updated their Tracy Queen, Volume 2: Dangerous Experiments Kickstarter to remove direct references to s*x and p0rn in hopes of getting around the apparent shadow banning. The result has been a slight uptick in funding that seems to confirm their shadow ban suspicions. The Kickstarter runs until March 20, 2020.