Pole dancing on TikTok is getting harder and harder. When I reached out to the platform about multiple bans on my account, someone from the support team told me that if I posted “implied nudity” the system would flag me and take my posts down. After having had my account permanently banned three times last week, I have decided to share my experiences of moderation on TikTok, my (limited) communications with the platform and my musings on what their recent, amped up moderation may mean for pole dancers and other users.
My experience of pole dancing on TikTok in 2021
Before I start, it’s important to remember that while my experiences of being censored on TikTok do affect my livelihood and visibility as a blogger and pole dance instructor promoting items and classes through the platform, I am certainly not the only censored user. As other, better writers have written before me, sex workers have been booted off the platform way earlier, showing that the online space for nudity, sexuality, bodies and sex work is shrinking. So if you think that censorship of sex work doesn’t touch you, think again: my experiences of pole dancing on TikTok will hit average users sooner or later, just like censorship of sex work is trickling down to pole dancers. In short: a safer, more inclusive social media space for sex workers means a safer, more inclusive space for everyone. So you should care about censorship, whether it’s of sex workers, of pole dancers or of more “safe for work” accounts.
Now that I’ve reminded you of that, here’s my story.
If you read this blog, you probably know that I did a viral in February, reaching about 70,000 TikTok followers at the time, and that as a result a bunch of users who hated my content because they found it didn’t belong on TikTok started flagging it as a way to better curate their feeds.
TikTok’s “For You” page – the platform’s version of Instagram’s “Explore” page – seems to be moved by a commitment to avoid filter bubbles and limiting content’s growth. This is why the TikTok algorithm seems different from the Instagram or Twitter algorithm, in the sense that it tends to propel your content to many people who bloody hate it, moving from the “showing like for like” to “showing this to everyone”. While I can sympathise with the idea that you may hate something a platform decides to show you, these users’ reaction – and the fact that TikTok’s infrastructure allows for content flagging to be used as a form of feed curation – has resulted in some pretty messed up experiences for me and for many people who are pole dancing on TikTok.
In February, as a result of this infrastructural loophole, I was banned from posting multiple times until my account was permanently deleted. I only got my posting rights and my account back, together with an apology from TikTok, when a journalist, the amazing Chris Stokel-Walker, wrote a story about me for Input Mag, musing on the irony of a content moderation expert with a PhD in online abuse and active research on biased content governance being banned by the platform.
TikTok wasn’t always like this: I started pole dancing on TikTok in January 2020, and amassed 8,000 followers like it was nothing. Then, as the platform started growing exponentially throughout the first lockdown, it started becoming stricter in its moderation of nudity. A more detailed account of my first few months of pole dancing on TikTok can be found here, while my considerations on the platform’s increased censorship following Chris Stokel Walker’s story can be found in this more recent blog post, where I address the powerlessness of being targeted with online abuse when you’re the one the platform decides to take actions against.
While TikTok has now introduced a set of “be kind” features to help creators filter comments and to encourage users to stop abusing others on the platform, the onus remains on us to both protect ourselves and post according to what is an increasingly puritanical set of community guidelines. In short, as I told Connor Perrett at Business Insider, this is a cop-out: TikTok wants us to do the work of avoiding abuse – I still see the filtered rape threats when I have to approve or delete comments – while doing nothing against mass flagging as a form of silencing. The platform’s infrastructure isn’t kind, and its users exploit that.
Pole dancing on TikTok got me banned four times
There is only one way I can describe my experience of pole dancing on TikTok and the platform’s governance in the past month. And that is…
Throughout the end of April and in early May, I began experiencing repeated video take-downs and bans from posting, liking or commenting on TikTok. Other users who followed me or checked out my profile would receive this warning as soon as they went on the @bloggeronpole TikTok page:
Then things got worse. Aside from the temporary ban my account was mistakenly targeted with in February, I’ve been deleted three times for pole dancing on TikTok in the second week of May alone. Each time, TikTok’s Creator Support and their community managers and communication leads would apologise or respond by saying my account didn’t actually violate community guidelines. My profile was reinstated… only to be deleted shortly after, sometimes within days or hours from the last apology.
I documented this experience constantly on Twitter, maybe because that’s where most of my academic colleagues interested in moderation are, and maybe because last time, when Chris Stokel-Walker wrote the Input story, he first heard about what was happening through my Twitter. Since after every apology by TikTok I kept offering my help and feedback in a similar fashion to what I did for Instagram, but with no acknowledgement of this offer by their team, I was hoping for more media interest in my story towards this purpose (and to help me get my account back, of course).
Despite multiple reassurance from @tiktok_uk that my account doesnâ€™t violate community guidelines, today it was permanently banned for the 2nd time. This has been going on for weeks. My profile is targeted by mass flagging, and yet TikTok do nothing when I directly ask for help pic.twitter.com/YB0G2zSHmNâ€” Dr Carolina Are / Blogger On Pole (@bloggeronpole) May 8, 2021
So yesterday I did not violate community guidelines, while this morning @tiktok_uk said I canâ€™t ever login with my account again. This is inefficient and inconsistent, and shows how creators are hostage of reports by users who flag others as a form to curate feeds. #tiktok https://t.co/L5xBeZq27J pic.twitter.com/xAR9t7n6hjâ€” Dr Carolina Are / Blogger On Pole (@bloggeronpole) May 13, 2021
Pole dancing TikTok and “implied nudity”
What really transpires from my experiences of pole dancing on TikTok in the past month is that the platform has become a nastier place for nudity, sexuality, bodies, pole dancing and sex work than Instagram has. Videos that are left to thrive on Instagram are either deleted immediately and algorithmically by TikTok, or flagged by users and never reinstated. Often, these videos are very tame – like the pole fitness flowy freestyle I did wearing a very covering outfit as part of a brand partnership (example below of the same video on Instagram).
Why is pole dancing (or just existing, tbh) on TikTok harder than on Instagram? Because, it seems, the platform is now applying a ban first, ask questions later approach – and even appeals are less consistent than the already quite confusing IG governance system.
What seems to be happening here is that the external, public-facing TikTok community guidelines differ greatly from their internal ones. I know, shocker, right? Specifically, TikTok’s community guidelines with regards to adult nudity and sexual activity ban:
– Content that explicitly or implicitly depicts sexual activities including penetrative and non-penetrative sex, oral sex, or erotic kissing
– Content that depicts sexual arousal or sexual stimulation
– Content that depicts a sexual fetish
– Content that depicts exposed human genitalia, female nipples or areola, pubic regions, or buttocks
– Content that contains sexually explicit language for sexual gratificationTikTok Community Guidelines
This is, of course, bad enough: it’s kink-shamey, very broad and can hit even forms of sex education or self-expression. What’s more terrifying in its broadness and in the extent of its puritanical distaste towards sex and nudity is the fact that even “implied” or “partial” nudity are banned on the platform. How do I know this? Because that’s what someone from Creator Support told me in the email below.
I asked TikTok for further clarifications about this, as it could have been a colloquial, informal way of expressing larger and more complex policies by one specific employee. They did not confirm or deny this.
The apparent banning of partial or implied nudity is striking. What constitute partial nudity? And why are certain users allowed to wear a bikini while sex workers are booted out of the platform, and pole dancers like me who sometimes wear outfits featuring sleeves or high-waisted bottoms instantly flagged?
So far, we can’t know much about that, but the idea that there might be internal guidelines banning “partial” or even “implied” nudity is concerning. If, as one of RuPaul’s frequent catch-phrases goes, we’re all born naked and the rest is drag… TikTok can arbitrarily decide that anyone is “implying” nudity and ban them. And that’ll be it.
Getting my account back
As artist Armando Cabba said to me in an Instagram DM, I seem to be in an abusive relationship with TikTok. As an abusive relationship survivor, this actually isn’t too much of a stretch: the whole “we want you, but we don’t, but we delete you, but we want you back, but not like this” is distressing, frustrating… and just not an efficient moderation system for either creators or TikTok themselves.
If you haven’t followed my saga on my social media, you can stop holding your breath: I did get my account back, even when, after the third permanent ban of the week, TikTok said I could no longer login and that my account was lost. Sadly, I didn’t get it back because their infrastructure allowed me to appeal, but only because Chris Stokel-Walker took pity on me and called their PRs, who said this was a case of mismoderation and ended up investigating on the issue.
Thanks to the legend that is @stokel my 86K @tiktok_uk account has been reinstated (after already being deleted twice in the past 5 days). This moderation system is clearly inefficient. Would LOVE to feedback to Tiktok on this to stop it happening to me & other creators https://t.co/h3cVtV57Au pic.twitter.com/9nHerhYeWcâ€” Dr Carolina Are / Blogger On Pole (@bloggeronpole) May 13, 2021
I’ve now received the following non-apology from TikTok twice – in February and last week:
“We combine advanced technologies with thousands of experts all around the world to mitigate misuse and misconduct. We’re open about the fact that we won’t catch every instance of inappropriate content or account activity – that’s why we combine advanced technologies with thousands of experts all around the world to mitigate misuse and misconduct, and we continue to invest at scale in these resources.”
Aside from this, TikTok assured me that they’re speaking to their Trust and Safety team, who are looking into how they can improve my experience on the app.
My story is one more example of the sense of powerlessness TikTok users face when dealing with the platform’s moderation. If I’d permanently lost my profile, I would have lost 86,000 followers, an outlet to promote my classes and a brand partnership tool. I didn’t lose it because of my media contacts and because of who I am, an online moderation researcher, a blogger, and activist and someone with connections and privilege. However, users with less contacts, less of a profile or of an opportunity to ‘make TikTok look bad’ for their moderation are left to their own devices – i.e. without an account. This is a form of silencing, deplatforming and, as I’ve argued multiple times, of banishment and discrimination that is at odds from the safe, happy place that social media platforms claim to want to build.
“You just have to be covered”: pole dancers self-censor to fight the ban
So how do other pole dancers cope with TikTok’s moderation? Some of the conversations I’ve recently had hint at self-censoring to manage the platform’s increasingly puritanical infrastructure.
I spoke with @angelaaerial, one of the most successful pole dancers on TikTok, with 612,900 followers at the time of writing. I asked her how she managed to be so successful and to not get banned. She told me more about her experience of pole dancing on TikTok, saying:
I’ve been on it for a year and I feel like I’ve picked up on some things! But honestly, it’s what I wear now. If I do a video wearing pole bottoms, it’ll get taken down and I have to appeal. So I’m way more covered up now, which works ok because I mostly do choreo.@angelaaerial
She has tips for “getting out of jail” – i.e. not being shadowbanned and having good engagement – too: “I hear people saying consistency is important. So posting regularly every day or every other day. And actively commenting and engaging with other TikTok videos.”
When I met Jack Scott Lee, pole instructor, studio owner and all-round flips and splits king, at the recent X-Pole UK photoshoot, he asked me how I managed to remain on TikTok despite having my ass out all the time. “I was like, how is she staying up!” he said. He concluded that it’s about “booty cheeks”: the more you show them, the more you get banned. As a result, Jack, who posts regularly without too much of a hassle, wears fairly covering speedos.
@marie4pole, studio owner and pole influencer, has also been struggling to post on TikTok. Despite her nearly 275,000 thousands followers, her content hardly stays up.
She told me: “My stuff is always getting removed on TikTok. I’m almost always banned. Nearly every week. I literally get to post for a few days then I”m banned.”
Kheanna Walker, a Glasgow-based pole instructor and pole tricks machine, is currently banned from posting on the platform too, having “violated” their nudity and sexuality Community Guidelines too much.
Kheanna described TikTok’s current moderation as “unacceptable,” saying she is “sick of it.” She told me: “TikTok heavily discriminates against pole dancers. It’s so incredibly frustrating to have my work and my art banned for absolutely no reason.”
Italian pole dance instructor and studio owner Marika Waldorf is also struggling with TikTok. After going viral with one of her videos, her experience mirrored my own: harassment, threats, insults merely for posting videos of her choreographies. She brought some of these to the police.
However, while threats and harassment were allowed to go on on TikTok, Marika’s videos are increasingly being removed, often without the ability to get them back, because even her appeals are unsuccessful.
In short, TikTok seems to be amping up its algorithmic and user moderation of nudity, with no apparent reason other than some very general sense of safety – most likely since the platform has been under pressure for months due to its younger audience. Yet, this is disproportionately affecting sex workers, pole dancers, sex educators and accounts who have every right to be visible, but that are clearly not a priority for TikTok. It’s bringing users to self-censor, and turning our mere existence on the platform into a challenge.
In my latest communications with TikTok, their comms team shared the following stats with me:
- 89,132,938 TikTok videos were removed globally for violating their Community Guidelines or Terms of Service
- 92.4% of these videos were removedÂ beforeÂ a user reported them
- 83.3% were removed before they received any views
- 93.5% were removed within 24 hours of being posted.
Of course, while deleting harmful content is essential towards creating a safe space for users on the app, it becomes inefficient, frustrating and discriminatory when users who should not be censored are censored, when the appeals system is inconsistent and the platform unapproachable, and when mistakes platforms apologise for aren’t fed into machine learning and AI.
I really hope that, following the frustration I’ve felt in the past few weeks, my profile will finally be left alone. However, the bigger picture issue here is that TikTok’s infrastructure really does need to change, adapt and improve to include crucial elements of our lives such as nudity, sexuality and bodies.
TikTok seem to be trying to improve their moderation, and have a Safety Advisory Council as a result – an advisory council I’d LOVE to be part of, if it’s something you could apply for. At the moment, its approach seems very “combat online harms while everything else seems gets caught in it” – which is how current social media-related laws and governance systems seem to operate. For fairer moderation, we should implement human rights into social media governance and ensure that capable moderators and appeals systems rule a platform, not glitches or users’ pet peeves.
As the legend that is Tiff Finney recently summed up, social media are crucial to the pole dance industry: they helped pole blow up, they’re a constant source of learning, of inspiration, of networking, of friendship, connection and inspiration. If these spaces shrink for us – and, even more worryingly, for marginalised users – we would lose huge parts of our identity. Hopefully TikTok will start listening.