Yesterday morning I awoke to a surprise: some of my #hashtags on Instagram had been shadow banned.
I was more than a little confused, as these are hashtags I have been using for over a year and all were very common in Instagram's pole dance community. From the system used to identify our tricks (e.g. #pdbutterfly) to popular apparel brands (e.g. #rarrdesigns) to even our fun on Sundays (#sundaybumday) the list of shadow-banned hashtags was long as my arm.
And I wasn't the only one affected. On many of the pole accounts I followed, they had encountered the same problems. There was a lot of anger, confusion and discord: why had we suddenly been banned?
As usual, Instagram (like most major tech companies) refused to elaborate beyond 'this content violates our user policies' and the general feeling among the Insta Pole community was that we'd been targeted.
Many in the pole community immediately swung into action, demanding the return of our popular #hashtags and going through Instagram's policies with a fine-toothed comb to prove that the majority of our community was not in violation of their community guidelines. A petition was even started on Change.org calling on Instagram to Please Stop Censoring Pole Dance.
But I haven't signed it.
Undoubtedly that will be a surprise to many of you, but what happened (literally) overnight is bigger than the pole community's Instagram #hashtags and I think the petition, while started with good intentions, misses a very valuable point and many of the actions online demanding the return of our #hashtags risk creating a very real division in our community, one that is already widening dangerously and needs to be checked.
I am speaking, of course, of the supposed "difference" between those who pole dance primarily for sport and fitness, and those who are employed as pole dancers and/or strippers in clubs.
Those of us who pole dance for sport come from a place of privilege when discussing pole dancing, why we do it and why we love it. It's a trap I fell into in my early days of pole, feeling the need to justify that 'I pole dance but don't strip', as if I was somehow better than the women who did. But it's a trap the pole-fitness community needs to find a way out of and start avoiding all together, because it's doing nothing good for pole dance as a whole.
As a sport, pole dance is relatively new (some even still consider it fringe) but dancers and strippers have been working as entertainers in clubs for decades longer than pole has been available mainstream. They paved the way for us! When we dismiss them, when we say 'I don't strip!' or try and draw a line between ourselves and the strippers and entertainers of the pole dance community, we are not only participating in sex-shaming, moralising and the policing of an already marginalised and stigmatised workforce, but we are dividing the very community we so love! We should be standing with our stripper sisters, demanding protections for them and others in the sex and adult entertainment industry, including sex workers. If they hadn't brought it out of the clubs and taught it to us, we wouldn't be here right now.
The pole-fitness community seems to have forgotten its roots and the Change.org petition to Instagram asking for the return of our #hashtags enforces this view, opening with the following paragraphs:
For hundreds of thousands of people worldwide, pole dance is a mainstream fitness activity. Pole athletes, dancers, performers, instructors, entrepreneurs and amateur enthusiasts use Instagram daily to connect, share expertise, train and inspire. We have uploaded millions of videos and pictures. We carefully hashtag our tricks, training and dance flows to learn and progress, and cheer each other on as a passionate, supportive and diverse community.
This is true, however it excludes a vast section of the pole community who also use Instagram, and a little digging would have yielded the 'explanation' (and it's a terrible one!) of why our hashtags were suddenly banned overnight.
The answer is two pieces of legislation signed into law in the United States yesterday: FOSTA and SESTA. FOSTA (Fight Online Sex Trafficking) and SESTA (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act) sound great on paper. They provide a loophole for the "Safe Harbour" provision, which states that no website shall be responsible for content posted by its users, in regards to services which advertise sex trafficking or prostitution. These provisions, according to the bills proponents, will make it easier for law enforcement to police these sites and mean that victims of online trafficking who were prostituted over the internet will be able to sue the websites that were complicit in their victimisation.
There's just one problem with the legislation: it doesn't make a distinction between the heinous, inexcusable crime of human trafficking/sex-slavery and those sex-workers who use online platforms to run their business and offer their services.
Whatever your feelings are towards sex-work and sex-workers, it is a valid and legitimate industry that has been stigmatised, marginalised and, in many cases, criminalised, and subject to horrible stereotypes. Dancers in clubs are often characterised as desperate, single-mums who can't find other work, while sex-workers are assumed to be junkies selling their bodies for their next hit.
I'm not claiming that there isn't exploitation going on in the sex industry or that the internet hasn't been used to facilitate illegal sex-trafficking - both of these things are most certainly real, pressing issues! But FOSTA/SESTA is going to do nothing to stop sex-trafficking and, in the process, is going to make is harder and more dangerous for adult sex-workers to solicit clientele safely. The internet allows sex-workers to connect like never before, to share information and blacklists with each other, maintaining networks and working to keep each other safe from potential predators. Sex-workers face violence regularly, but unlike other industries where providers are at risk of assault (health-care, emergency services, customer service etc.) there is very little support for sex-workers who are assaulted, or to pursue justice against those who harm them. Reports of violence against sex-workers are often not taken seriously by law-enforcement or the courts, so it is left up to the workers to protect themselves and others from violent clients. In no other industry is that an acceptable norm!
Now, because of FOSTA/SESTA, those sites that adult sex-workers use are likely to be blocked or taken down, as the providers grapple with the risk of being sued or prosecuted for content posted by users. Now, I'm all for providers being accountable for allowing the solicitation of illegal activity or failing to remove broadcasts of violent events (Facebook's lack of response during the Christchurch massacre looms large in my mind) but these laws go further than that and target legal, consensual, adult activity under the same umbrella as the illegal and abhorrent practice of human trafficking and sex-slavery. Even in places where sex work is illegal (as it is in many states of the US), this bill will cause more hurt than help, as it will drive the industry even further underground.
So, what does FOSTA/SESTA have to do with Instagram's #hashtag ban? It's simple: because these acts don't distinguish between consensual sex-work, including stripping and adult entertainment, and non-consensual sex-slavery and trafficking, Instagram (like many other sites) has taken a blanket-ban approach to protect itself from possible litigation or prosecution. Those of us who pole dance for sport and fitness are simply collateral damage.
Now, that is of itself isn't right and I'm certainly not happy that Instagram has effectively banned one of the pole community's most popular ways of connecting with each other, but I'm equally disappointed that the community is focusing on a single symptom, rather than fighting the cause. If we are serious about destigmatising and legitimising pole dance, then we must include all pole dancers - those who dance for sport, those who dance for employment, and those who work within the sex and adult entertainment industry. In the current climate we must do away with the idea of 'us and them' because we are all affected by FOSTA/SESTA, which is nothing more than a cleverly disguised attempt for the men in power to keep doing what they have always done: police women's bodies, sex-shame women into compliance, and moralise the world according to their values.
AND IT'S WORKING!
Instagram's #hashtag ban is a mere symptom of a broader problem. Pole dancers angry about having their #hashtags shadow-banned should be putting their energies into fighting against FOSTA/SESTA; we should be demanding that sex-work be legalised and properly regulated, with avenues for workers to keep themselves safe at work and laws to protect them from harm and prosecute those who perpetrate it. We should be standing alongside our stripper sisters, who paved the way for our community for grow, and who work just as hard, train just as often and enjoy their dancing just as much as we do. Their work, and the work of consensual, adult sex-workers around the world, is legitimate and only by uniting as a whole community and fighting against the broader issue of the stigma and criminalisation of women's bodies can we truly move forward. If you fight the symptom of disease, you may experience temporary relief, but if you attack the cause, you will stay well. If we simply attack the one aspect of FOSTA/SESTA and the climate that it represents, we create a divided community, an us and them mentality, and any small gains will be outweighed by broader loss. But if we attack the cause, then all pole dancers, along sex-workers and others who opened the doors to our sport, will be able to stand proud, without censorship or shame.
As far as I'm concerned, that seems something more worth fighting for than a few #hashtags.
You can read more about FOSTA/SESTA, what is was intended to do, what it will actually do and why it's a major problem by clicking here.
If you're afraid to fall it means you're prepared to brave the heights from which you might fly.
Me With No Apologies.