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Instagram's sex censorship sweeps up educators, adult stars and sex workers

Adult stars and sex workers say Instagram unfairly patrols their accounts while letting celebrities dodge the same rules.
Photo illustration: Rounded rectangles show parts of faces. White tape with text that reads," Your post was removed" run across the images.
Three adult stars provided NBC News with screenshots of notifications they received from Instagram about violating policies, along with the pictures that were struck down.Anjali Nair / NBC News

Cherie DeVille lives in perpetual fear of losing her 3.7 million Instagram followers.

DeVille is a well-known porn star who also has an OnlyFans account. She’s one of the many adult performers who have built up sizable presences on Instagram, which now serves as a crucial part of their personal marketing.

“Every morning when I first log into my phone, even if it takes a moment to load Instagram, I have an adrenaline rush,” DeVille said. “Imagine that stress, imagine waking up every morning and wondering if you’ve lost your career.”

Over the past seven years, DeVille said platforms like Instagram have become “completely invaluable” for driving traffic to personal websites where performers make money. And while people like her have long had to tread carefully to stay within Instagram’s rules, many say the company’s moderation efforts have gotten more punitive and less predictable after policies put in place in 2018, following the passage of a federal law targeting human trafficking on the internet called SESTA-FOSTA

Ten people in the sex-work industry who spoke with NBC News said they go to great lengths to stay within the boundaries of Instagram’s guidelines, keenly aware that their content could be struck and their accounts restricted at any moment. Still, they said Instagram has removed their content and banned or suspended them even when they believe they were following the platform’s rules. 

Many of the adult performers who spoke with NBC News said they feel those guidelines are not enforced consistently, noting that many celebrities such as Kim Kardashian and Britney Spears post risqué and near-nude photos and don’t get hit with the same bans.

“When our accounts are ripped away without breaking community guidelines, you might not be able to pay rent, you might not be able to pay your mortgage, you might not be able to feed yourself,” DeVille said.

Cherie Deville
Cherie DeVille has been one of porn's biggest names for years, and has millions of followers on Instagram.Nolwen Cifuentes for NBC News

The 10 people who spoke to NBC News included famous porn stars, OnlyFans models who have never posed nude and people who have done sex work. All of them said Instagram has become indispensable for their careers, for their incomes and for organizing the larger community of sex workers. 

“We don’t want anyone to feel marginalized by our policies, including adult creators, but it’s important to consider our youngest users when we decide what we do and don’t allow on Instagram, as teens as young as 13 use our platform,” said a Meta spokesperson in a statement. Meta is the parent company of Facebook and Instagram.

The moderation around sex has become so sweeping that a wide variety of accounts — not just porn performers — have faced restrictions that they view as unwarranted, from the business account of one of the largest pornography websites in the world, Pornhub, to sex educators and nonpornographic OnlyFans creators. Creators say that inconsistencies in the site’s policies abound, making the rules and guidelines difficult to navigate. While Pornhub’s account was removed, OnlyFans’ account is allowed to exist. Some adult actresses’ accounts remain intact while others don’t.

Since 2020, accounts that post about sex education have reported being unexpectedly deactivated, which can be appealed, and having their posts permanently taken down by the platform. 

Erika Moen, an artist and author who makes educational content about bodies and sex, said Instagram can be a particularly important platform as sex education comes under fire in some parts of the U.S.

“It’s depriving people. This is their one resource for finding this information,” Moen said, referencing recent efforts that have targeted sex education in schools and libraries. 

Many of the people who spoke with NBC News said that their content has been banned from Instagram under its Sexual Solicitation policy. The policy says Meta allows for the discussion of “sex worker rights advocacy” but doesn’t allow content that “facilitates, encourages or coordinates” commercial sex work, to avoid facilitating sex trafficking. 

That policy was introduced in October 2018, six months after SESTA-FOSTA was signed into law, making tech companies liable if ads for prostitution are found on their websites. 

Not long after that law was enacted, the internet economics for adult creators changed.

Platforms that let people directly sell porn and nude or sensual images, like OnlyFans, have exploded in popularity since 2020, creating a new line of monetization for influencers. 

That has left adult content creators to walk a fine line, striving to stay within the rules by posting pictures of themselves in lingerie or bikinis. Still, their accounts can be suspended. Two adult stars with more than 2.5 million followers each shared screenshots of notifications from Instagram saying they had violated the Sexual Solicitation policy. The posts showed the performers in lingerie, which the women say doesn’t violate Instagram’s policies. 

That conflict between the rise of major adult online platforms and Instagram’s sex crackdown has left some creators struggling and sometimes pushed into more dangerous sex work, two people in the industry said. 

SESTA-FOSTA was supposed to counter sex trafficking but, in practice, four performers, the national trade organization for the adult industry and a tech policy expert told NBC News that it has led social media platforms, including Instagram, to clamp down on content they say is completely unrelated to trafficking.

“Because it’s so ambiguous and platforms aren’t really sure what might get them in trouble with content that’s even adjacent to sexual content, they err on the side of over-removal,” said Evan Greer, director of digital rights non-profit Fight for the Future. 

A three-year report on sex trafficking from the U.S. Government Accountability Office published in 2021 found that SESTA-FOSTA had only been successfully used once by a federal prosecutor, and that the online commercial sex market had fragmented since the introduction of the legislation, making it more difficult for law enforcement to gather tips and evidence. 

Sex workers and those impacted by Instagram’s heightened moderation of their accounts say the actions taken against them have undeniably changed their experience using the application, and interfered with their income driven by the app. They say how Instagram moderates them can make the difference between them thriving and barely surviving. 

Cherie Deville
"Imagine that stress, imagine waking up every morning and wondering if you’ve lost your career," DeVille said about checking Instagram at the beginning of the day.Nolwen Cifuentes for NBC News

Elle Stanger, a sex worker, podcaster and certified sex educator, said she has been suspended three times from Instagram, where she has 164,000 Instagram followers, and lost 40%  of her income since 2019, when Instagram made changes to its Sexual Solicitation policy.

“People working in the industry became poorer because they couldn’t advertise,” she said. “They were endangered, because in order to make ends meet, we started doing more dangerous jobs.”

Adult star Abigail Mac, who has 2.6 million Instagram followers, said her account has been suspended at least four times. She said she has gotten it back each time by emailing Instagram 10 to 15 times every day for three to four weeks. 

And each time, Mac said, she gets emails from Instagram that say her account was accidentally taken down and is now restored.

Trip Richards, a transgender man who originally did sex work to fund his transition, said his Instagram account with 35,000 followers was suspended twice. He said both times he was only able to get it back after contacting a personal connection at Instagram. Richards said that part of his consideration when uploading to Instagram is the phrasing of captions, since using the word “sex” can result in a post being removed, even if it’s educational. 

“I quoted myself from an article I was writing about trans sex work issues,” Richards said. “I forgot to censor every time I wrote the word ‘sex,’ with an asterisk or whatever. I forgot, I pressed ‘post,’ two seconds later the post was down. There was nothing salacious about it, just using the word ‘sex,’ and that’s another strike against my account.”

Natassia Dreams, a Black trans porn performer with 20,000 Instagram followers now, said her first Instagram account with 70,000 followers was permanently deleted in 2020 after 10 years of the account’s existence. She has since made around 12 new accounts, Dreams said.  

Before joining Pornhub as a creator ambassador and restarting her current Instagram, Dreams said she gave up on the platform entirely.

“Now I have it back and I’m treading lightly, very carefully, but the last time I got deplatformed I didn’t post anything explicit, I posted a workout picture in the gym,” Dreams said. “It’s very frustrating to me because I feel like they’re trying to erase my existence in the world and I’m already fighting society for my existence and my place in the world.”