The Manifesto for Sex-Positive Social Media Is Just What We Needed

The Manifesto for Sex-Positive Social Media is the resource naked and sex-posi online communities, from pole dancers to sex workers, from educators to artists and activists, needed in our lives. Why? Because I for one am tired of hearing: “Yeah social media platforms are bad, but what would you do differently?” Well, if you’ve ever spoken to a researcher, you probably know that there are a lot of things we’d do differently, but it’s very difficult to make a case for them without citing previous, expert-led, peer-reviewed research. The Manifesto for Sex-Positive Social Media is that research, and we need it not just as sexy researches, but as social media users: something we could point people to when they ask us how to make things better.

Why do we need a sex-positive manifesto for social media?

The Manifesto for Sex-Positive Social Media – which I will call ‘The Manifesto’ from now on – writes that: “Current trends in regulation create a hostile environment for those for whom sex is an active, visible part of life, especially legislation that incentivises platforms to remove all sexual content.”

The way social media platforms are governed took a turn for the puritan in 2018, when the United States government approved the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA). Meant to fight sex trafficking, FOSTA/SESTA made platforms over-censor posts worldwide for fear of being accused of enabling trafficking, applying US laws to global content. Since then, sex workers’ accounts have been deleted without warning; athletes, lingerie, sexual health brands, sex educators and activists have had their content deleted or shadowbanned – or hidden from platforms’ main pages without the user knowing, something Instagram apologised to pole dancers for through my blog in 2019. Marginalised creators have been particularly affected by this, being progressively excluded from the visibility and work opportunities that platforms offer because their presence is viewed as inherently dangerous.

As a result of laws like FOSTA/SESTA, “spaces that have been safe havens for systemically marginalised communities” have been shut down, and these communities themselves have been “actively shadowbanned, demoted, de-monetised, suspended and de-platformed.” This, the Manifesto’s authors argue, has disproportionately affected groups as diverse as sex workers, people of colour, LGBTQIA+ folk, disabled people, fat activists, women and sex educators.

At the same time as censorship, the same platforms have been using surveillance technologies to screen for sexual content and nudity, sharing user information with law enforcement and advertisers and holding double-standards when assessing the explicitness of content created by average users as opposed to celebrities and verified accounts. Remember the Wall Street Journal’s investigation into Meta’s X-Check program? Zuck’s platform has been essentially giving famous and ‘newsworthy’ individual a blank cheque over what they post, while those who make a living through their profiles are immediately excluded from those opportunities.

As if the above wasn’t enough, ‘sexy’ users are made unsafe by a platform governance that doesn’t protect them. “While over-policing sexual content,” argue the Manifesto’s authors, “platforms still lack a holistic response to addressing harassment, image-based abuse, malicious flagging, sexual racism, theft of sexual content and the unethical scraping of sexual databases.” In short, platform governance is a shitshow if you happen to not be a white male, and a manifesto for sex-positive social media is very much needed to inspire users to demand platforms to do better.

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Why does seeing sex on social media matter?

The Manifesto’s authors argue that: “Platform design and regulation can shape our sexual imagination, possibilities, and health. When online spaces are sexually sanitised, segregated and gentrified, public discourse on sex, gender and sexuality is impoverished.”

Platforms have an opportunities to enrich sexual culture and discourse instead. De-stigmatising sex, the authors argue, means unlearning cultural narratives. For instance, that kink does not equate to violence, or that “Nudity should not be conflated with sexuality. Fat is not offensive. Pornography can be artistic. Art can be pornographic. Algorithms cannot determine the gender of a person’s nipples, nor should it matter.”

The authors use the term ‘sex positive’ to:

“reject the sexual stigmas underlying many platforms’ and governments’ approaches to sex; to affirm a diversity of desires, practices, activities and identities; to value pleasure-focused, non-judgmental, culturally relevant sex education, consent training and relationship skills; to support people to communicate their needs and boundaries and respect others; and to actively build sexual cultures that are accessible, equitable, decolonised, and accountable.”

Manifesto for Sex Positive Social Media

However, in doing so, they do not suggest that all sex is positive, or that it should be compulsory or universally enjoyed. Instead, through the Manifesto, they problematise how “dominant social media platforms see sexual content as a source of data, profit and surveillance” while simultaneously removing it “as a means to political capital.”

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What are the Manifesto’s demands?

The Manifesto for Sex-Positive Social Media makes seven crucial, research and experience-based demands to ask platforms to improve users’ online sex lives and sexual expression rights. These demands may sound idealistic, but were already at the centre of the digital sexual revolution that had begun… before nipples became scarier than Nazis for Zuck and co. The Manifesto’s demands are:

  1. Destigmatise sex!
    “Sex and sexual content has cultural, social, and political value. Sex is not inherently harmful. Sex can be a positive, pleasurable part of human experience,” write the Manifesto’s authors. And ain’t that the truth.
  2. Cultivate consent!
    “Only upload, reproduce, and share content and data where consent is informed, express, specific and dynamic. Allow platform access without requiring legal names, identification documents, biometric verification or unwanted surveillance.” In short, safety can’t be a one-way street where we provide all our information to platforms without reassurances about how it is going to be used. Platforms should lead by example.
  3. Be accountable!
    “
    Make transparent, accessible, explainable, accountable, equitable and just decisions about sexual content. Give users and creators information and tools so they can understand and contest how their sexual content is classified, sorted and ranked.” Accountability is an issue many a censored user have faced when dealing with their profiles’ removal from platforms. As I argue in a forthcoming paper, it’s hard to know how to do better to avoid deletion… without being told why were deleted in the first place.
  4. Integrate sexual cultures into social media!
    “Banning, deleting, and deplatforming sex harms our sexual rights, imagination, possibilities, literacy and health,” according to the authors authors. We’re already seeing this when it comes to sex ed and access to safe abortion information post Roe V Wade. Banning sexual cultures is the opposite of online safety.
  5. Value the labour of sexual content creators!
    “
    Sex work is work, and sexual labour is valuable. Recognise the value of sexual content creators, avoid exploiting their value, and instead compensate these content creators through visibility, decision-making power and equitable distribution of profit.” In short, drop the whorephobia from your spaces, thnx xxx.
  6. Build safer spaces!
    One of the Manifesto’s authors, Zahra Stardust, has already written one of my favourite articles to cite: the one where she, Gabriela Garcia and Chibundu Egwatu highlight how sex workers always play a huge part in building the popularity of digital technologies, only to be discarded when they’re no longer convenient. Following on from this, in the Manifesto, Stardust et al. ask platforms to work with the communities that make them what they are: “Centre sexual content creators and marginalised communities as knowledgeable platform stakeholders, decision-makers and leaders. Explicitly set out the values and ethics that guide community standards and reflect these in business structures, revenue models and platform design.”
  7. Dismantle structural oppressions!
    Platforms had the power to “actively participate in a broader movement for sexual health, rights, and justice,” something they were already doing before they began over-censorship. So the Manifesto argues they should instead “[w]ork with multiple stakeholders to build enabling, sex-positive legal, policy, economic, social and cultural environments.”
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Do these all sound familiar? If they do, it’s probably because you care about human rights. The Manifesto’s authors write:

“We believe platforms can learn from existing human rights principles and theoretical work on sexual rights, digital sexual citizenship, and sex-positive thinking. Human rights principles outline what sexual rights look like at an international policy level, and academic discourse on digital sexual citizenship explores access to online technologies, self-representation and participatory cultures as practices of intimacy and sociability.

In addition, a long history of grassroots sex positive thinking offers insights into consent culture and the non-hierarchical valuing of diverse genders, bodies, desires, identities, sexualities, sexual practices, sexual labour and relationship-styles. This work can improve platforms by contributing important dimensions to research on platform governance, surveillance capitalism, and online gentrification.”

Manifesto for Sex Positive Social Media

Where does social media governance go from here?

The Manifesto’s authors believe that platforms “should explicitly set out the values and ethics that guide their community standards, rather than feigning neutrality.” They add that the “outdated standards of decency, propriety and offensiveness” they base their community guidelines on “are not appropriate measures through which to assess sexual content.”

Instead, platforms should aim at nuanced content moderation through a blend of “community buy-in (creators tagging and categorising their content without being penalised for it, and audiences knowing they can trust the tags)” and better education for platform moderators, who “should have an in-depth understanding of the platform, be invested in the community, and be well trained, resourced, supported and compensated.”

These and the above demands are not easy ideas to implement into social media governance: as the authors write, they require structural and systemic changes to the current assemblage of power, labour and value. But if we’re stuck with unfair, unequal governance, we gotta go big, right?

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Who authored the Manifesto?

This fantastic resource has been created by a team made of some of my favourite researchers ever. Based at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Automated Decision-Making and Society, the team features:

  • sex work researcher and performer Zahra Stardust
  • Emily van der Nagel
  • Katrin Tiidenberg
  • Jiz Lee
  • Em Coombes
  • Mirelle Miller-Young.

Find out more

  • You can read the Manifesto in full here
  • Find the Manifesto’s website here
  • Read more about the platform governance of sex here
  • Sign the Manifesto here.

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