NSFReddit? Sex Workers Say One Of Their Most Important Platforms Is Quietly Banning Them

Vanniall has been using Reddit for the past seven years, since she initially started her account in 2015. At first, she used it largely for fun, checking out subreddits like r/nosleep every night before bed and also fan subreddits for games like Elden Ring to get tips about gameplay. But when she started using it to share adult content of herself, she found that not only was it a tremendous confidence booster — “it was a big contributor, along with Tumblr, to my confidence in my body and with my gender,” says Vanniall — but also a significant source of income when people started offering to tip her for custom content or doing a video call.

At the time, Vanniall was working in retail, but she says Reddit subsequently became an essential part of her burgeoning adult content business, using the platform to interact with existing fans, recruit new ones, and promote her services on other platforms like OnlyFans or Chaturbate. Even as other platforms started changing their terms of service to ban NSFW content, Reddit was one of the few mainstays where the posting guidelines remained relatively lax. Last week, however, she logged onto her account and noticed that her posts were not getting as many upvotes as usual. She contacted Reddit support, which told her that her account had been marked as spam. Her fan subreddits, or subcommunities, were also removed, which Reddit explained was because she had been removed as a moderator — essentially, the head of the group who determines what content can and can’t be posted — due to restrictions on her account.

Though Vanniall got her account back, she still has no idea why it had been taken down in the first place. “These several day interruptions very quickly impact someone’s income — a week can feel like a month to waiting fans” looking to connect with their favorite creator, she says. Plus, “without a notification or any warning in advance, it means fans aren’t even left with a place to ask questions about where their stars or friends disappeared to.”

Vanniall is not the only adult content creator who has recently found themselves abruptly removed or had their Reddit account limited without warning. Sex workers have long been subject to deplatforming on most social media platforms, from Instagram to TikTok to Tumblr. Yet even though Reddit has a reputation for being relatively sex-positive compared to other Big Tech sites, sex workers are increasingly finding themselves restricted or even outright permanently banned on the platform, often without notice or any explanation from Reddit support. The site’s moderator-based system also provides little transparency and makes it difficult to know if content guidelines are being consistently applied.

“The fact that sex workers are reporting an uptick on Reddit is particularly concerning because it has been one of the last places where this type of content is allowed,” says Evan Greer, director of the digital rights organization Fight for the Future, citing Twitter as the only other example of a platform that still continues to allow NSFW content.

This is particularly surprising given that Reddit is a bastion of adult content, with various subreddits existing for virtually any kink, and creators have historically been free to post provided they abide by community guidelines and post in NSFW communities.

“They said that I broke Reddit’s content policy somehow. By posting pictures of feet on foot fetish-related communities,” adult content creator Sweet Toes 4 U tells Rolling Stone. She says she was permanently banned after Reddit sent her an email saying she had violated its content policy. “I personally didn’t even have a clue what I would have done, outside of creating a post on a  message board on the internet to ‘lick my toes’ or ‘take a whiff,’” she says.

Content creator Tiny Toni also found herself banned without warning a few weeks ago after spending two years promoting her NSFW content on the platform without incident. She received a message saying she had “violated content guidelines,” but she had labeled her content NSFW and could not figure out exactly which guidelines she had violated. Toni says a number of her mutuals on social media have also found themselves banned on Reddit without explanation in recent weeks as well, with some even having their personal SFW accounts removed.

“I’m not entirely sure what to make of this but it’s scary,” she tells Rolling Stone.”It’s terrifying knowing people are having a form of their income ripped away with no explanation as to why.”

The issue has apparently gotten so bad that Ashley, a sex worker peer organizer who specializes in platform policy and working moderation cases, is partnering with Valerie Webber, PhD, a researcher in community health, sexuality, and sex work; to distribute a survey among sex workers to collect data on how many people are being banned and which communities are predominantly being affected. “When these policy changes happen, the platforms really rely on the hope that people are isolated and silenced in their experience through the process of deplatforming and not be able to note changes like this,” says Webber. “The reasoning here is to try and document trends across a larger group of people to get a picture of what is happening on the ground.”

Ashley says the loss for sex workers if Reddit officially issued a ban would be incalculable — not just to their incomes, but also from an organizing perspective. “It’s important to remember that what makes a site essential for sex workers is not that it simply allows sex work technically but that it allows sex workers to be a part of society and interact with other people,” she says.

Reddit has not officially announced any policy changes, which makes the moderation process even more murky for adult content creators to navigate. In response to questions from Rolling Stone, a spokesperson declined to provide comment, though said that the platform had not issued instructions to moderators to crack down on NSFW content nor had it instituted an official change in policy.

Compared to other social media platforms like Instagram or TikTok, Reddit has historically enjoyed a reputation for being more sex-positive, thanks in part to the popularity of subreddits like r/gonewild for amateur porn. Its guidelines prohibit the exchange of “paid services involving physical sexual contact,” but sexually explicit content is permitted provided it is clearly labeled as such and posted in communities that allow it. Because subreddits are governed by moderators who determine whether or not users are breaking specific community rules, moderation can be somewhat dependent on the specific individuals in charge, which has in the past occasionally led to issues for adult content creators.”Reddit has the appearance of free speech, but often comes with the assholery of an ever-changing group of mods for every subreddit with all sorts of posting rules and separate opinions,” says Sweet Toes 4 U.  “[Depending] the subreddit you’re working in,  I would say it could be super [sex worker]- friendly, and on the same token, pending the mods/rules,  a complete opposite end of that spectrum.”

It is these precise groups that are most often at risk when subject to increased moderation efforts on social media, according to Webber, who last year published research on the effects of deplatforming following Mastercard’s decision to implement more stringent guidelines for adult cotent merchants. “There’s a pretty profound anti-sex rhetoric now, particularly if it’s commercial, non-heteronormative, non-cis,” they say. “We found with Mastercard black and trans and fat and queer performers were more impacted, people making kink and fetish content. I suspect we will find similar trends here, [with] certain performers targeted more than others.”

Over the past few years, it has become increasingly common for sex workers to raise concerns about potential deplatforming on social media. In 2018, the microblogging platform Tumblr issued a ban on NSFW content, cracking down on many sex-positive and LGBTQ-friendly online communities and significantly impacting creators’ ability to post on the website. Legislation like FOSTA/SESTA, a bill passed that same year that was ostensibly intended to curb sex trafficking, significantly impeded sex workers’ ability to organize and communicate with each other online, resulting in the collapse of safety networks that have further put them in danger.

Yet these alarm bells have been particularly loud in the wake of two significant actions that took place following the pandemic: Visa and Mastercard announcing they would be refusing to process payments on websites like Pornhub in late 2020 following intense pressure from anti-pornography groups like the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE, formerly Morality in Media); and the subscription-based platform OnlyFans, which was popularized by sex workers, announcing it would be banning NSFW content in the summer of 2021.

The OnlyFans ban was ultimately reversed, thanks in large part to intense organizing on behalf of sex workers. Yet it has made many sex workers all too aware of the precariousness of their existence even on social platforms that had previously welcomed them. “I think it’s important to see this as cumulative,” says Angela Jones, professor of sociology at Farmingdale State College at the State University of New York. “Once [deplatforming has] happened across a significant number of platforms, the fear is at what point are sex workers going to have no online work spaces anymore? What’s happening with Reddit is a microcosm of a much more significant issue: The increase of deplatforming on all platforms [and] this looming fear that at some point, these folks will have no places left to work, which does have implications for harm reduction and their safety.”

With platforms increasingly facing calls to challenge Section 230, or the Communications Decency Act, which protects websites from being liable for content produced by third parties; as well as increased pressure to remove hate speech and other types of harmful content online, it’s clear that moderation efforts are being ramped up across the board, says Greer. But “it’s important to recognize,” she says, that many users and marginalized people may fall by the wayside as a result of these efforts. “There’s significant harm done by not just the content platforms host and allow but by the content they suppress,” she says. “Progressives are over focused on what platforms should remove. Sex workers are collateral damage in that quest to build the perfect internet.”

In the meantime, without any clear answers from Reddit or other social platforms, sex workers are left waiting for the other shoe to drop. “This just causes a lot of worry for me,” says Toni. “I’ve been a sex worker for almost six years now, and in the last couple it’s getting harder & harder for us to exist online, especially in spaces that were once safe for us to use. I’m just really hoping there will be some sort of reasoning for this that doesn’t lead to us being kicked off another platform.”

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