With the Coronavirus pandemic forcing a large portion of workers online, having a voice and being visible on the Internet is essential towards still being able to work. For people in the pole dance, fitness, modeling, art, sex education, sex work and adult industries however, being visible online isn’t always possible due to excessive censorship. So I thought it was the perfect time to speak with Myles Jackman, known as “The obscenity lawyer”, to get his views on how social media platforms should deal with nudity and bodies, and on why visibility matters.
About Myles Jackman
Myles Jackman has dedicated his career to “challenging the legal framework by which sexual morality is constrained through activism, litigation and advocacy.” He campaigns for the recognition and rights of the BDSM, LGBTQ, Adult industry and sex work communities and lobbies for privacy and freedom of sexual expression for all consenting adults.
Jackman went into obscenity law in 2008, shortly after qualifying as a solicitor. He chose this field by triangulating his interests in alternative sexuality, law and film theory to create a job for himself that he could enjoy – and from what he told me, it’s been working.
Why Should You Care About Online Nudity and Its Moderation?
In shallow business terms – certainly when it comes to my pole dance classes, or to my blog’s views – if no one sees my content because an algorithm hates my butt, it means I don’t make money. Athletes, sex educators, artists, activists and, even more so, sex workers have been affected by censorship on social media because they share posts containing some form of nudity, and this can both affect their livelihoods as well as their self-worth and their campaigns.
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The choice to censor certain users as opposed to others becomes, for me, an issue of freedom of expression: if we let private businesses interested in profit regulate who gets to have a voice, society can soon become very different, and all of our freedoms – whether you care about nudity or not – will be affected. I’ve been writing papers about this as part of my activism and my PhD, which is why I thought it was time to talk to a pro who actually deals with censorship of nudity and sexual content on a daily basis due to his work.
Myles Jackman thinks “Nudity is an essential part of human behaviour,” and that the need to represent sexuality in many forms has been a crucial part of human nature since the beginning of time. However, he argues that while before the Internet pornography could be contained to physical libraries, now nudity, pornography and sexual content “can no longer be contained.”
For Jackman, it would be simplistic to restrict access to sexual content online for matters of safety. He says:
“The statistics show that prior to lockdown half of the adult population went on PornHub once a week in the UK. Before lockdown. So if at least half of the adults in this country use pornography occasionally, I think most of the arguments about total prescription of all pornography have been comprehensively defeated.”Myles Jackman (Stats based on Pornhub’s own 20/25million statistic to sign up to AV within first month).
Aside from being an essential part of human behaviour, showing, discussing and consuming content containing nudity is for Jackman an important step towards cultural evolution and sex education:
“In the 25 years I’ve been on the Internet, sexual values have evolved more than they have in the past nearly thousand years. The democratising influence of availability of information on the Internet has meant that anyone can theoretically access sexual content if they choose to – which can be really liberating for, say, LGBTQ people who are not necessarily out and need some way to understand their sexuality and their desires.”Myles Jackman
Online Nudity During The Coronavirus Pandemic
Online freedom of speech and visibility of content have become even more of an issue during the pandemic, given the fact that right now, during lockdowns, our social and work spaces have moved online.
Offline businesses, self-employed people and sex workers have had to change the way they operate. With regards to sex workers, Jackman says:
“As much as they have told me and as I have seen it in operation, many older sex workers who have been around a while had to migrate to a digital domain that they were perhaps less familiar with, along with other people who may already have had a successful digital presence, having to then ramp it up.”
With a variety of celebrities and influencers moving to subscription based photo platform OnlyFans during the Coronavirus pandemic – so much that BeyoncÃ© gave it a shout-out in that amazing Savage remix – sex workers are finding themselves either being kicked off the platform or having to work in a much more saturated environment.
Issues of censorship on platforms such as Instagram were already a hot topic before Covid-19 struck, but when people and businesses only have social media platforms as a way to thrive during lockdowns, the issue of visibility of online content including nudity – whether that’s for performers, athletes or sex workers – becomes even more crucial, which is why I was so keen to speak to Jackman about it now.
Online Moderation of Nudity
Jackman views nudity on social media as a relatively “new area of obscenity law,” in the sense that it is “yet undecided.” He says: “There’s no written law about social media nudity. There is a series of terms and conditions from platforms that are largely impenetrable and subjective.”
For Jackman, the main tensions arise from age appropriateness and from confusions about what’s allowed. Considering that certain platforms – such as the Facebook owned Instagram – have an age requirement of 14 years old to get on the platform, they have argued that it is appropriate to hide nudity and sexual content.
Jackman says that it’s fair to say that different age requirements call for different content. For him: “We need to allow platforms to make a decision to a certain extent on content they will allow, but the problems become more pronounced on platforms like Twitter etc., when people are ‘shadowbanned’.”
The shadowban is a form of censorship meaning that although users are able to have an account on a platform and to exercise their free speech, their visibility is limited deliberately by the algorithm in a way that doesn’t allow many people outside their bubble to see it.
Yours truly has been shadowbanned by Instagram multiple times, and although the platform apologised to pole dancers about the shadowban through this blog, it sure hasn’t stopped shadowbanning content that appears to still be within its community guidelines.
Jackman thinks that in terms of online nudity regulation, “There is a lot of confusion between what is legal and what is permissible,” and that the shadowban is outside of what reasonable content regulation should be.
Influences On Content Moderation
I’m working on an academic paper focusing on how social media censorship seems heavier on nudity than on hate speech or harassment, and I was curious to hear Myles Jackman’s opinion on it.
Turns out we were largely on the same page. He argues that since the majority of the systems involved in supporting social media platforms are North American, North American culture is influencing what’s acceptable to share on these social networks:
“Clearly the Americans have a slightly different set of sexual mores or attitudes compared to the British or European perspectives. We can see this quite clearly in American mainstream cinema, with the commonality of extraordinary amounts of simulated violence but seldom sexual content that is other than titillating.”Myles Jackman
For him, British and European cultural perspectives may be much more relaxed than the American ones in terms of nudity. He thinks that much of censorship revolves around taught “performances of shame and guilt rather than actual shame and guilt.”
It’s impossible to talk about North American perspectives on nudity and censorship without mentioning FOSTA/SESTA. FOSTA/SESTA is an exception to Section 230 of the US Communication Decency Act, which shielded website operators from liability for user-generated content. It has already been deemed as responsible for the majority of social media censorship in terms of nudity and sex work and, for Jackman, tensions surrounding it are going to play out for the next 25 years on the Internet. These tensions include, for Jackman, “the great hypocrisy about the tracking of sex workers under FOSTA/SESTA when they deeply want to remain anonymous as it is their right to be.”
How Can Online Nudity Be Moderated In A Fairer Way?
My approach in my academic work has mainly been to compare offline regulation and law to online regulation, to find discrepancies and see how these can be solved by looking at offline precedent. Interestingly, Jackman thinks this is not feasible when it comes to online nudity.
While he thinks there might be some benefit in trying to establish what spaces are private and what spaces are public in cyberspace, it might be more difficult to compare online activities involving nudity with their offline counterparts. The main issue is that, offline, we don’t have a strong sense of non-sexual nudity in public, unless we talk about designated areas such as nudist beaches.
“I think there are a lot of problems with equivocation of offline and online – as there are clearly very great differences. If we’re talking about sexual content, then I think the important question is: how is it consumed, where and by whom? So if we’re looking at content that is purely online, that’s a very different method of consumption of adult content than, say, it being consumed in paper version, or in a place where other people can see it or project it at the cinema, or an erotic novel being read on the train.”Myles Jackman
Jackman thinks the ideal scenario would be creating a global standard for obscenity, but he argues that this is almost impossible because of local cultural values – people have different tastes and perspectives about sexuality and sexual content, and will want specific things hidden or published.
He thinks it is difficult to predict the exact direction in which social media moderation will change. He uses a recent change to the Obscene Publications Act 1959 following a campaign he led as an example. The act listed certain sexual acts taking place between consenting adults as “obscene”, making their distribution a criminal offence. Acts included were spanking, bondage, female ejaculation and sadomasochism, and their depiction and distribution was taken off the list of obscene acts only in January 2019.
Jackman says that, considering this change which allows anything that is legal to be recorded, it seems unlikely that the situation is going to roll backwards. “If it’s legal to do it it should be legal to film it, with the usual caveats of consent, age, mental capacity etc.,” he argues. “But it seems unlikely to go further than that.”
You can follow Myles Jackman on Twitter at @MylesJackman.
Find his website, with more info on his background, here.