In November of last year, porn performer Ginger Banks’s Instagram account was shut down. Overnight, her 134,000 followers were gone. A few days later, someone going by the name Omid on Twitter claimed responsibility. First, he said that he’d hacked her account. Then, he changed his story and said he’d reported her account for violating Instagram’s terms of service. Before long, he was doing the same with other porn performers. “I hate your career. u have the most terrible job, it ruins the youth’s future,” he tweeted to Aidra Fox, a porn performer whose account had just been shut down. Omid claimed responsibility for reporting it to Instagram. “U must realize that Porn ruins the values of humanity,” he wrote.
In the months since, Omid has claimed responsibility for shutting down several dozen performers’ accounts—providing evidence in the form of screenshots of the messages he’s allegedly received from Instagram. “Thanks for reporting this account,” reads one such screenshot. “We’ve removed it from Instagram because it violated our Community Guidelines.” Often, he accompanies these tweet with hashtags like “#no_porn,” “#no_porn_on_IG,” and “#no_pornstar_on_IG.”
By taking advantage of Instagram’s hazy guidelines on sex and nudity, Omid claims to be waging a broader campaign against porn, stripping performers of the platforms where they find their fans, and thus their livelihoods. As he put it in Twitter, “I warn ya’ll who are contributed in the porn industry. Every pornstar, every porn site every porn photographers or even fans of pornstars, u won’t survive!” In a series of DMs to Jezebel, Omid described himself as a “victim” of pornography, having been introduced to it by a friend in high school.
Omid’s is just the latest, and so far a relatively brief, chapter in the online harassment of sex workers, but it’s a revealing one. If he is behind the shutdowns, it shows how successfully a single ideologically driven person can haunt a marginalized community on Instagram. If he’s not responsible for the shutdowns, it shows how successfully a single ideologically driven person can haunt a marginalized community on Twitter. In either case, Instagram’s broad standards, coupled with the subjectivity of its moderation guidelines, can put porn performers’ at risk of loosing their footholds on platforms. In fact, many of Omid’s alleged targets have had accounts taken down long before he came around.
In recent months, uneasiness has spread within the adult industry, with some performers preemptively blocking him on Twitter. Banks says fellow performers message her daily asking for advice after Omid has zeroed in on them. “He’s taken out so many prominent people in our industry it’s crazy to me,” she said.
Omid alleged to Jezebel that he has successfully reported and shut down between 250 to 300 porn performers’ Instagram accounts. At Jezebel’s request, Instagram reviewed the shutdowns for which Omid has taken credit on Twitter and a spokesperson reported back that there is no evidence of a single person being responsible. This could mean any number of things, including that Omid has not reported these accounts; that he used multiple Instagram accounts to report the accounts; or that multiple people, not just Omid, have reported these accounts.
Most of the shuttered accounts were “correctly removed for violating our sexual solicitation policies,” said an Instagram spokesperson. During Instagram’s review at Jezebel’s request, it found that “a small number were removed in error.” As a result, those accounts have now been restored.
But the confusion points to the broader difficulty of discerning which posts fit into Instagram’s narrow window for sexually-tinged content. “We allow sex-positive content and discussion on Instagram, but given the wide-ranging ages and cultures of the people who use our service, we do not allow content that facilitates, encourages or coordinates sexual encounters between adults,” said the spokesperson. (Last week, Instagram announced that it would also begin demoting “sexually suggestive” content.)
Facebook, Instagram’s parent company, restricts “sexually explicit language that may lead to solicitation because some audiences within our global community may be sensitive to this type of content and it may impede the ability for people to connect with their friends and the broader community.” As written, these standards are broad enough that they might apply to any number of behaviors that fall far short of violating Instagram’s prohibitions on certain forms of nudity. In theory, anything a porn performer does online to promote their work could be construed as encouraging “sexual encounters between adults” or having the potential to lead to solicitation.
Back in January, at the Adult Entertainment Expo in Las Vegas, Instagram account shutdowns were one of the most frequent topics of conversation. “Everybody I know has had their Instagram taken down,” Abigail Mac told me at the time, “You can be a woman and show your skin as long as you’re not affiliated with the adult industry.” Many performers point to celebrities like Kim Kardashian, who has repeatedly posed nude on her Instagram account without shutdown. (Of course, Kardashian has her own past in porn, but of the leaked variety.)
At the event, rumors of people making offers to restore accounts online, for a fee of anywhere from $1,500 to $2,500, were circulating. Adriana Chechik has lost her Instagram account multiple times and, in January, Omid took credit. When she’s complained on Twitter about Instagram shutdowns, she told me, “I’ve had multiple men reach out to me telling me they can get it back for me because they know someone who knows someone who works at Instagram.” Instagram’s spokesperson said that the company will never ask for money in order to recover an account.
Many, like Chanell Heart, eventually just abandon their unanswered attempts to retrieve their accounts, despite the measurable impact it has on their careers. She says she was careful not to violate Instagram’s guidelines around nudity, but her account was shut down in March, and Omid took credit for reporting her. “your IG account was deleted do to your porn activities. Leave porn, live a better and respectful life,” he wrote in a tweet. In addition to the loss of her highly popular account, she says his message “was, like, kind of a smack to the face.”
When Heart’s account was removed, she says she had 252,000 followers. Her new account has only 18,000. Despite multiple attempts to reach out to Instagram, she has not been able to recover the original account. “I lost access to so many fans,” she said. “That’s the way I promote myself. I was doing so well.” Given the tube-driven devaluation of porn, platforms like Instagram have become ever more essential for attracting fans to monetized social media sites, like OnlyFans. Heart says her original Instagram account successfully referred roughly 10 to 15 new subscribers a day to her OnlyFans account, for which she charges $12.99 a month. Now, she only gets a couple referrals per day.
Recently, Omid took credit for reporting and shuttering Exotic Cancer, the Instagram account of an Australian artist whose work is inspired by her five years working as a stripper. Her illustrations sometimes feature breasts and labia (as well as the occasional man rendered as a bloody tampon). When Omid realized that Caitlin, the woman behind the account, was not a porn performer, he apologized. After a few days of appeal, and complaints from fans, Caitlin’s account was returned to her.
“It’s actually life-changing,” she said of the shutdown. “You can go from having a steady, consistent income one day and have that all taken away from you the next. I was really worried to be honest.” But, even with her account restored, she still worries. “Instagram’s terms of service are quite vague when it comes to art,” she said. For example, it stipulates that “some digitally-created content that show sexual intercourse, genitals, and close-ups of fully-nude buttocks,” is allowed. “What is ‘some’?” she asked.
Given the uncertainty of just what it takes to violate Instagram’s terms, and the presence of someone purportedly bent on ridding sex workers from the site, many performers are now exercising extreme caution. For Banks, whose account was reactivated in February, Instagram is essential for building a fan base, and yet any reference to her actual work feels dangerous. “I’m so paranoid,” she said of her Instagram account. “I avoid talking about my job at all if I can because that’s how scared I am.” This, one might argue, is the aim of Omid’s alleged mission, and an inevitable consequence of Instagram’s nebulous policies.