Instagram has sparked an outcry by censoring the hashtag #stripper and several related keywords that dancers use to find each other and organize online. Now, sex workers are taking to social media to spread the word, decry censorship, and suggest workarounds.
Currently, when you search Instagram for #stripper or #strippers, you are given a preview of just a couple “top” posts in the category. But if you click through to view the entire hashtag, the following message appears: “Recent posts from #strippers are currently hidden because the community has reported some content that may not meet Instagram’s community guidelines.” The same thing was reportedly happening until very recently with a handful of related hashtags, including #yesastripper, #stripperstyle, and #stripperlife—but those appear to be back in action, demonstrating how quickly the sex work community has to adapt and change.
The censorship of the #strippers hashtag is not new, according to Jacq The Stripper, author of The Inquisitive Stripper, who says she has noticed it similarly shuttered in the past. But, she explains, outrage exploded online recently because dancers began to take note of related hashtags that were censored, as well. Many of these hashtags were developed in response to #strippers censorship—these alternatives were a way “to survive as a community online,” as she put it. Jacq also pointed out that, while #stripper and #femalestripper are censored, #malestripper is not.
In response to the censorship, dancers and popular accounts like @thestripteaseagency are taking to Instagram with photos of lists of silenced hashtags, as well as tags that can still be used. Some warned against using the censored hashtags, for fear that doing so would get people shadowbanned, which is when a user’s posts are hidden from people who don’t follow them, or outright deleted.
Perhaps the muting of a hashtag seems inconsequential, but, as Jacq explains, “a lot of strippers use social media to connect with each other”—and hashtags like #strippers and #stripperlife are a key way for dancers to find each other. Reese Piper, a stripper and journalist, took to Twitter to explain that there are frightening consequences to silencing these hashtags. “The ability to share info publicly is a survival tool,” she said. “Without access to public strippers, I would have never learned techniques on how to stay safe in the industry. We live in silence - the internet is our only place to congregate.”
The reason for the censorship is unknown and Instagram has yet to comment, but some worry that it is the result of the passage of the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), a new law that broadly holds online platforms responsible for any content determined to be related to sex trafficking, and which has resulted, as the bill’s opponents warned, in sweeping censorship of online platforms used by sex workers.
Others suggested that it might be a temporary bug—but, as journalist Melissa Gira Grant said on Twitter, even if it is, “every time one of these services disappears sex workers, it results in fear and isolation.” It’s especially frightening and isolating amid recent FOSTA-related shutdowns—of Craigslist’s personals section, sex work-related subreddits, and The Erotic Review’s U.S.-based ad boards, just to name a few. As Jacq put it, “It’s scary because social media is what we use to support each other, and being erased from it is some scary fucking Gilead shit.”
Instagram did not provide a comment by press time.
Update (May 31, 8:35 a.m.): Instagram has provided Jezebel with the following statement: “The safety of our community is our number one priority and we spend a lot of time thinking about how we can create a safe and open environment for everyone. This includes constantly monitoring hashtag behavior by using a variety of different signals, including community member reports. Access to recent posts and following hashtags are sometimes restricted based on content being posted with those hashtags. The hashtag #stripper can again be used and seen by the community in the spirit in which they are intended.”