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Sex / The Patriarchy is in the Algorithims

I Learned About Sex and Sexuality Through Instagram: The New Guidelines Will Make That Impossible

I was 20 and desperately trying to understand sexuality and pleasure in their entirety

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Written by Teresa.

Art by Bailey Keo.

When in late December 2019 Instagram updated his community guidelines, adhering in large part to Facebook ones, it was a hard blow for many of the accounts that I was following. In particular, the new Sexual Solicitation rules left multiple creators in doubt on whether they should cancel their previous posts, whether they would have been banned soon, and, more importantly, whether the new Instagram policy was compatible altogether with their work and content. 

In fact, the new guidelines are particularly strict, targeting any form of content that could even remotely be considered sexual, including emojis and a vague ‘sexually explicit language’. Unarguably, the most damaged by the new rules were sex workers, who in the last years had developed an extensive community online, which proved particularly helpful during the pandemic. Yet, online spaces for sex workers have been increasingly targeted, with Twitter recently joining in and purging hundreds of accounts in late January.

At that point, I was 20 and desperately trying to understand sexuality and pleasure in their entirety, having no idea about what “safe” and “good” sex was.

However, the new guidelines impacted many other types of Instagram creators: being so strict regarding sexual innuendos as well as nudity in general, multiple educators, sex- and body-positive activists, and even trans people documenting their journey and reviewing products had to delete posts to avoid repercussions, and many have nonetheless been victims of shadowban. It seems that even the vaguest terms of the new rules, like the ban on “conversations around sexual acts”, are being interpreted in the strictest sense, putting on the spot even erotic art.

As I realized the extent of the censorship I wondered what consequence such policies would have had on myself, had they been implemented just a few years ago. As I scrambled through accounts, liking and saving posts, trying to force the algorithm to keep their content on my homepage, I started reflecting on the impact that Instagram had on my conception of sex and pleasure. I started using Instagram pretty late, in 2015, and I think it wasn’t until a few years later that I started looking for accounts related to sex. At that point, I was 20 and desperately trying to understand sexuality and pleasure in their entirety, having no idea about what “safe” and “good” sex was. This was because my real-life experiences with sex had been close to none, and I was feeling increasingly lost on how to approach erotism. 

Since then, however, I have grown exponentially in terms of personal knowledge and experience: through Instagram, I have learned about consent and stigma but also about more practical issues like lube, kinks, and my own desires. It was thanks to a few sex-positive accounts that I not only decided to buy my first vibrator, but that I made an informed choice of product, based on my wishes, needs, and on some honest reviews. Without online sex educators, I would have probably remained stuck on (and perplexed by) the standard representation of sex, which is extremely uninformative in movies and TV series (with a few exceptions) and even harmful in mainstream porn. 

There are countless reasons why people, and especially teenagers, find it difficult to talk about sex, let alone to discover the nuances of eroticism.

The main issue that prevented me from having informative discussions about sex offline was my own “virginity”, which made me feel like a big loser and made me avoid the subject altogether, while today I am much more open about it, and I’ve come to dislike and criticise the term for the stigma attached to it. However, there are countless reasons why people, and especially teenagers, find it difficult to talk about sex, let alone to discover the nuances of eroticism. Trauma, shame, and the impossibility to find real-life loving communities are unfortunately common circumstances for people all around the world, regardless of how sexually active they are. And while there are definitely accessible resources online beyond Instagram, like blogs and independent websites, the reach that these may have is massively inferior to the one of social media.

Moreover, I recognize that I had it easy: as a white, able-bodied cis-woman, my privileges means that a good portion of content, both on Instagram and online in general (blogs, surveys, medical articles) is addressed to me. The same can’t be said for marginalised people, like POC, disabled, and queer people, especially trans and non-binary. The resources available for them, especially regarding sex and eroticism, are more scarce. Therefore, even though Instagram has a long history of targeting the content of marginalised categories through a biased algorithm, the possibility to follow accounts focused on one’s particular needs and experience has an undeniably positive impact. Addressing both issues of mental health to physical health, online communities fill a huge void which affects especially, but by no means exclusively, minorities.

The new guidelines put all these resources at risk, with the consequence of leaving people exposed to toxic narratives, like the ones common in mainstream porn. Banning sex-positive content from Instagram is not only unfair for the creators and educators that would see their work disappear, but it is also dangerous, as it leaves the field open to the influence of prejudices and misconceptions (for example, that penetrative sex is the only form of “valid sex”). Sexuality is one of the most natural aspects of human life and, at the same time, remains subject to a highly reactionary taboo: therefore, suppressing the few positive and progressive voices from Instagram is more than an issue of online guidelines and security,  since it actively limits processes of sexual liberation and auto-determination.


About The Author

Teresa is an Italian activist, currently studying in Scotland. She began her militancy in Florence and explored new practices of resistance first in Venice and then in London. She tries to write down what makes her angry, what makes her happy, but especially what makes her want to fight.
Always and profoundly Antifascist, she can’t wait to be back on the streets.


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