Sex Positive Social Media

About the Manifesto

Origins of the Manifesto

At the 10th anniversary of the RightsCon Summit on Human Rights in the Digital Age, a virtual international conference in June 2021, community organisations, advocates, and academic experts held a Community Lab on Alternative Frameworks for Sexual Content Moderation. This group considered how social media platforms could better understand sexual content, responding to platform policies that restrict or prohibit consensual sexual communication, expression, and representation.

Sex on social media

Social media is taking on an increasingly central role in shaping and constraining cultural life, popular discourse, and human sociality. Sex is an important part of this. Yet, social media policies are not very sex-positive. Through their community standards documents and content moderation practices, platforms currently make private, arbitrary and unaccountable decisions about the kinds of sex and sexualities that are visible in online space.

We want that to change. Social media rules around what can and can’t be posted shape broader attitudes towards sex and nudity, which in turn directly impact on all of our safety and wellbeing. We believe that we’re healthiest and happiest when sex is not a source of shame but accepted as part of human experience.

Why does this matter?

Current trends in regulation create a hostile environment for those for whom sex is an active, visible part of life, especially legislation that incentivises platforms to remove all sexual content. Platforms have pre-emptively shut down spaces that have been safe havens for systemically marginalised communities and actively shadowbanned, demoted, de-monetised, suspended and deplatformed groups as diverse as sex workers, sex educators, women, queer folk, disabled folk, trans folk, fat folk, Black folk, activists, and sexual subcultures.

Major social media platforms have a history of exploiting sexual content to grow their user-base and then purging sexual content creators once they’ve ‘made it.’ This process of economic exploitation and gentrification treats sexual content creators as disposable. Such platforms employ surveillance technologies that screen for sexual content and nudity, share user information with law enforcement and advertisers and hold double-standards when assessing the explicitness of content created by lay users as opposed to celebrities. While over-policing sexual content, platforms still lack a holistic response to addressing harassment, image-based abuse, malicious flagging, sexual racism, theft of sexual content and the unethical scraping of sexual databases.

What can platforms do?

We believe platforms can learn from existing human rights principles and theoretical work on sexual rights, digital sexual citizenship, and sex-positive thinking. Human rights principles outline what sexual rights look like at an international policy level, and academic discourse on digital sexual citizenship explores access to online technologies, self-representation and participatory cultures as practices of intimacy and sociability. In addition, a long history of grassroots sex positive thinking offers insights into consent culture and the non-hierarchical valuing of diverse genders, bodies, desires, identities, sexualities, sexual practices, sexual labour and relationship-styles. This work can improve platforms by contributing important dimensions to research on platform governance, surveillance capitalism, and online gentrification.

Why sex-positive?

In this Manifesto, we use the term ‘sex positive’, because we see value in bringing sex positive thinking to regulatory approaches and platform governance. In doing so, we do not suggest that all sex is positive. Nor are we suggesting that sex be compulsory or universally enjoyed. Rather, we use this term to reject the sexual stigmas underlying many platforms’ and governments’ approaches to sex; to affirm a diversity of desires, practices, activities and identities; to value pleasure-focused, non-judgmental, culturally relevant sex education, consent training and relationship skills; to support people to communicate their needs and boundaries and respect others; and to actively build sexual cultures that are accessible, equitable, decolonised, and accountable. 

Because dominant social media platforms see sexual content as a source of data, profit and surveillance, and simultaneously see the removal of it as a means to political capital, creating sex-positive social media will therefore require structural and systemic changes to the current assemblage of power, labour and value.

How can I use this Manifesto?

This Manifesto sets out guiding principles that platforms, governments, policy-makers and other stakeholders ought to take into account in their design, moderation and regulation practices. It does not offer a set of technical instructions, as their implementation will differ across diverse platforms and contexts and their operationalisation requires further investment and resourcing. Instead, the Manifesto builds upon the generative work currently underway with the proliferation of alternative, independent collectives and cooperatives, who are designing new spaces, ethical standards and governance mechanisms for sexual content. As platforms are sites where identities, values and politics are perpetually negotiated and contested, this Manifesto remains a living document and a work in progress.