AdeY, "Bottoms Up" (2017) deleted by Instagram for "sexual solicitation" (courtesy the artist)

A few weeks ago, I opened Instagram and up popped a familiar alert: “Your post has been removed.” As I scrolled down to discover why, I was shocked to find the strange accusation: “Your post goes against our guidelines on adult sexual solicitation.”

I am unfortunately accustomed to my artwork being removed from Instagram for “nudity,” despite Meta’s explicit allowance for nudity in art. Instagram’s lack of nuance in how their “nudity” guidelines are applied to art is a long-standing concern for many artists, but this new “sexual solicitation” notification was not only wrong, it is also offensive. This was no simple misreading of an image’s artistic merits, but an accusation and an overt sexualization of my artwork and my body.

At first willing to chalk this up to an AI malfunction, I soon ran across stories and posts from fellow artists who received the very same notification. Something else was happening, and is continuing now, weeks later. Artists are being included in a misguided purge of “sexual” material on social media, and this is no glitch; it denotes an immediate concern facing not just artistic expression, but our other freedoms.

Post removal notifications from well-known artists Robert Andy Coombs @robertandycoombs2, Paz Bernstein @Priklut, Savannah Spirit @savannah.spirit_, Tiffany Cole @tiffanycole, and the Exposure Therapy Project @nipeople (images courtesy the artists)

The claim of “sexual solicitation” is not just a misunderstanding, it is linked to sweeping changes to our legal landscape. In April 2018, Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act and Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (SESTA/FOSTA) was signed into law, modifying Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act to remove websites’ immunity from crimes related to sex trafficking and child sex abuse imagery.

Up to this point, Section 230, known as the “safe harbor” rule, had been crucial to our freedom online, and by extension our general freedom of speech and expression. The rule protected websites from prosecution over user-generated speech, meaning they were not liable for what users posted or commented on a platform. For example, an inflammatory statement written in a comments section would not be the legal responsibility of that website. This protection has meant that, as users, we have been able to enjoy the internet as a space to freely exchange ideas and expression, build networks and create opportunities without fear of broad censorship. It is important to point out that Section 230 only protected sites, not their users, from prosecution — a user posting obscene material such as child sex abuse imagery may face legal consequences, but under Section 230 the website would not. The passing of SESTA/FOSTA changed that.

SESTA/FOSTA was passed under the guise of protecting children and inhibiting sex trafficking online, but in practice it has actually had a negative impact on the communities it purports to protect. Implementation of SESTA/FOSTA has only driven sex workers back into unsafe environments and made it harder to track sex trafficking and sex abuse online. As of June 2021, the Government Accountability Office reported that SESTA/FOSTA had been used only once to prosecute, but it seems that the threat of prosecution has done enough damage. In their efforts to avoid prosecution, platforms have weaponized their lack of nuance when it comes to images of the body and censored not just sex workers and pornographers, but artists too.

Nowhere has the indiscriminate impact of this law been more clear than on Instagram, the platform that has transformed the way artists and creators share and connect with their community and opportunities for success.

Between January and March of 2020, 39.5 million pieces of content were removed for violating Meta’s guidelines on “adult nudity or sexual activity.” The appeals process which follows a deletion is subject to the discretion of moderators who are now under extra pressure to comply with SESTA/FOSTA or expose the company to prosecution. To comply with SESTA/FOSTA, Meta often assumes that content including the naked body is sexual and therefore in violation, which is a faulty line of logic as Dr. Carolina Are points out in “The Shadowban Cycle,” as it “conflate[s] sex trafficking with sex, sex with a lack of safety, and lack of safety with women’s bodies.”

Among the artists being accused of “sexual solicitation” are those who do not consider their artwork to be explicit or even sexual. Tiffany Cole, a popular figurative artist, faces unrelenting deletion of her artwork on Instagram. Speaking with the Don’t Delete Art campaign, Cole says:

I feel that my art and all its intricate communications has been reduced to sex. What these deletions are saying to artists is that a representation of the female form cannot be anything other than a solicitation of sex.

SESTA/FOSTA’s impact has been compounded by banking institutions likewise cutting off creators from not just a way to share their work, but a way to earn a living. Mastercard and Visa have changed their guidelines to take a hard line on sex workers and explicit content, encouraged by groups like the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE), formerly known as Morality in Media. The NCOSE campaigns against pornography and has been outspoken and litigious in their effort to “expos[e] the links between all forms of sexual exploitation.” Most recently, the NCOSE brought a lawsuit against Twitter, one of the last popular platforms that still allows nudity and sexual content.

AdeY, “Weigh Up” (2021), photograph deleted by Instagram for “sexual solicitation” (courtesy the artist)

The legal and financial pressures facing platforms today threaten the most vulnerable creators, as the Electronic Frontier Foundation points out. The EFF says: “It justifies the continuing concentration of free speech chokepoints — chokepoints that have always been used against LGBTQ speech, and women’s and minority rights — whenever a moral crusade needs an undemocratic hand.”

The continual labeling and deletion of artwork deemed explicitly sexual creates an illusory truth effect, where the accusation itself affirms and perpetuates sexualization of the body in art and beyond. The implication of continued censorship of this kind is that artists who try to challenge traditional perception of the body will continue to be censored regardless of their intentions. The charge that artists are engaging in “sexual solicitation” is not just misguided, the accusation signals a dangerous future for all artists and proponents of freedom of expression — online and off.

Emma Shapiro is an American artist and activist based in Spain. She is the creator of the international body equality project Exposure Therapy and is the Editor-at-Large for the Don’t Delete Art campaign....