In October 2018, Facebook quietly added a Sexual Solicitation section to their terms of service. While some of the policy is pretty standard — such as banning nudity unless it’s deemed “art,” “medical” and/or relates to breastfeeding — other sections have people concerned. “Using sexual hints” is banned, which could not only include descriptive and explicit posts, but also mentioning things as vague as “fetish scenarios,” “sexual roles” and “sexual preference/sexual partner preference.” The concern is that, while this type of language might be used to sell sex online, it’s also used by LGBTQ and other marginalized groups who rely on Facebook to discuss sexuality. Could asking for advice on safe lubricants, or how to take care of a UTI, run afoul of the updated language?
The additions went unnoticed until Tumblr, a site known for hosting images of alternative expressions of sexuality, banned adult content in a sweeping move to address the issue of child pornography being shared on their site. Some journalists started to explore similar policies on other sites, thus discovering Facebook’s most recent unannounced additions.
But Facebook has always had issues when it comes to supporting marginalized people. From their Real Name policy to their unevenly applied hate speech policies, Facebook has faced criticism that they are at best negligent, and at worst hostile, towards users who aren’t white, cisgender, and/or men. Earlier this year, in another overnight move, Facebook blocked ad targeting based on sexual orientation, leaving many LGBTQ community organizations scrambling to figure out how to do outreach. At the same time, conversion therapy advertisements appeared to be not only allowed to target LGBTQ people, but specifically LGBTQ youth.
For over a year, sex workers and free speech advocates have been openly warning the public how anti-trafficking laws like the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) could be used as a stepping stone to ban discussion of sex entirely online. Now, Tumblr and Facebook are making policies that appear to do just that. A spokesperson from Facebook says that this was not a response to FOSTA but rather to clarify an already existing policy. But other people aren’t so sure. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, for example, believes that the timing is undeniable. “While we don’t know if the Facebook policy change came as a response to SESTA/FOSTA, it is a perfect example of what we feared would happen: platforms would decide that the only way to avoid liability is to ban a vast range of discussions of sex,” says Elliot Harman, EFF’s activism director. “Wrongheaded as it is, the new rule should come as no surprise. After all, Facebook endorsed SESTA/FOSTA.” The EFF also points out how ripe this policy is for abuse by trolls, who have been known to mass report a person, group or page they don’t like in order to get them banned. Though Facebook has an appeal process, harassment via mass-reporting has become an effective silencing tool often abused by bullies.
While many are discussing how this will impact frank discussions about sex on Facebook, some are also worried about how it could lead to a blacklisting of vital online resources, such as sex position guides for people with disabilities or advice on engaging in kinky sex safely. Since the emergence of social networking, queer people have been using these platforms to reach out to each other, and this policy seems poised to put those communities at risk. Since resources revolving around sex — like sex education in schools, or relationship counseling services — often focus on white, able-bodied, cisgender straight people, groups that speak to a more diverse (and divisive) community run the risk of banishment if targeted by bullies. Trans women, for example, have been harassed by trans-exclusionary “radical” feminists, with their pages for support closed due to mass reporting. Such a shutdown would be a huge potential loss of information and community.
One group impacted by this policy will be sex educators, especially those who are marginalized themselves and have relied on Facebook to connect with their peers and their audience. Sex tips have been the bread and butter of many sex educators’ work, and this is particularly true when the mainstream media doesn’t cater to alternative sexualities. Katie de Long, a romance writer and former sex worker whose advocacy often touches on safer sex information, notes that most of the time policies such as this end up shutting down vital discussions. “We already face steep barriers in advertising due to mainstream society’s tendency to frame LGBT as inherently sexual, regardless of heat level,” she says. “This is only gonna get worse under policies that say simply mentioning terms related to our sexuality or identities can get us banned.”
It also can cut down on outreach to marginalized populations, many of whom are at-risk and/or ignored by the medical industry at large. “As a queer person, it impacts my ability to engage in professional groups devoted to queer research and mental health care. People have until now been able to post things like calls for research participants, solicitations for therapist referrals, and requests for information related to queer and trans sexual health, all of which are vulnerable to FB’s new rules,” says Dr. Sheila Addison, a marriage and family therapist with her own practice serving a diverse population, Margin to Center Consulting.
It’s not just formal sex education that’s an important online resource, either. Peer-to-peer exchanges of information are also at risk. Many trans women, for example, find advice and comfort in Facebook groups when the overarching queer community has not typically been welcoming. “The policy does not prohibit discussion of sexuality,” says the spokesperson from Facebook. But is there a chance it will effectively silence discussion of non-normative sexualities? That is already under threat and has already had consequences, according to Ari Dennis, a queer and nonbinary person who relies on Facebook for they support they struggle to find offline.
“Across all of my Facebook groups, members are fearful of how they will be monitored since the new rules basically forbid us from using terminology that relates to our identities,” Dennis tells Rolling Stone.
Dennis is also concerned about what the policy may mean for groups focused on other issues, like birth, that sometimes intersect with sexuality. “I am a parent, and I recently had a baby,” they say. “The last two years I have been a member of multiple groups specifically catered to transgender and queer people who are pregnant, or trying to conceive. We talk about sex and intercourse, physical biology including genitals, and other totally normal aspects of the pregnancy and birth process. I’m now concerned, because our communities also reference queer and transgender experiences, that they will be flagged a sexual and inappropriate and nature in a way that heterosexual or cisgender birth groups will not be.” (In an email, Facebook clarified that the language would have to include “an offer or ask to engage in a sexual act.”)
For some who are new to exploring their identity, Facebook feels like a library of support and advice that’s being closed down. “I’ve still only recently started exploring more with my community and my identity,” says M.E.G., a genderqueer and queer Facebook user. “I wasn’t even out until about two years ago, and people still “forget” or mis-identify me all the time. Facebook is one of the few places where I can affirm and talk about my identity in a safe way with my family and friends but now I’m nervous because talking about how I’m queer or genderqueer could be taken down.”
“Most of the support groups I belong to are on Facebook,” they added. “And it’s scary to think that they could disappear leaving a lot of people without access to help or support.”
Correction: This article now includes additional comment from Facebook, clarifying that for a post to violate the policy, it would have to include “an offer or ask to engage in a sexual act.” This story has also been updated to include a mention of Facebook’s appeal process.