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Ban Nazis, Unban Sex Workers on Substack
Which speech should you fight for?
2015 Oslo sex workers rights parade. CC BY-SA 2.0
You can find an index of all my substack posts on fascism here.
Last week, Substack CEO Chris Best embarrassed himself in an interview with the Verge’s Nilay Patel.
Asked whether Substack would ban posts on Notes that said “all brown people are animals and they shouldn’t be allowed in America,” Best simply refused to answer the question. “I’m not going to get into gotcha content moderation,” he said, as if informing his users about what is and what is not allowed on the platform were some sort of trick.
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Chris Best vs. His Own Terms of Service
As Patel points out in his article, this shouldn’t necessarily be a hard question. Substack’s content moderation policy says the following:
Substack cannot be used to publish content or fund initiatives that incite violence based on protected classes. Offending behavior includes credible threats of physical harm to people based on their race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, disability or medical condition.
Patel acknowledges that his example is debatable; is it inciting violence to call brown people animals and say they shouldn’t be in the country? Rhetoric similar to this—great replacement conspiracy theories—have in fact led to terrorist attacks on multiple occasions. But Best could perhaps have argued that it wasn’t a direct threat of physical harm.
However, Best didn’t do that. He refused to engage at all. What’s with that?
Probably a big part of what’s with that is that moderating hate speech on social media platforms is very controversial because there’s a massive white identity movement known as the Republican party which want to mainstream racism and bigotry.
Fascists have in public discourse largely coopted the “free speech” movement, and turned it into one long demand that racists be given every platform and that all the critics of racists be silenced. Best sees standing against racism as a “gotcha” question because so many racists are radicalized around “free speech”. The racists are vocal and often violent. They seem to have (ahem) made Best afraid to speak.
Ask Him About Porn
The issue of moderating racism is extremely controversial. But banning porn? That seems to receive universal acclaim. And sure enough, the ban on adult material on substack is quite wide-ranging.
We don’t allow porn or sexually exploitative content on Substack, including any depictions of sexual acts for the sole purpose of sexual gratification. We do allow depictions of nudity for artistic, journalistic, or related purposes, as well as erotic literature, however, we have a strict no nudity policy for profile images. We may hide or remove explicit content from Substack’s discovery features, including search and on Substack.com.
I don’t know for sure, but my guess is that Best would have cheerfully admitted that Substack bans adult content. If Patel had asked, “Would you ban someone posting a photo of a blowjob on Notes?” Best wouldn’t have refused to answer. He would have said, “Yes. We’re not OnlyFans,” or some such.
Meg Conley on Notes pointed out the hypocrisy.
porn made by consenting adults definitely falls under the umbrella of free speech/freedom of the press. The umbrella that Substack says it’s holding over all our heads.
A porn Substack could exist in its own community bubble, with its own terms of engagement. Which is what Substack is currently offering instead of saying, “No overt racism or antisemitism on our platform.”
So why isn’t porn allowed? Well, becoming a porn site just isn’t good for business unless you want to be in the porn business. So Substack has made a business decision by excluding legally made pornography.
Best’s defenders insist that he’s fighting for free speech. But all platforms limit some speech. Best has decided to welcome hateful bigots like (say) Graham Linehan or Chaya Raichik, but not sex workers who want to post nudes like (say) Stormy Daniels or Zayla.
Stormy Daniels probably doesn’t want to post nudes on Notes. But if she did, she couldn’t. Don’t you feel safer knowing that?
Image: Glenn Francis of www.PacificProDigital.com CC BY-SA 4.0
Supporting Hate Is Consistent With Banning Sex Workers
Conley is careful to say that banning adult content is a reasonable choice and an understandable business decision. That’s generally the approach progressives have taken in talking about freedom of speech and hate speech. We’ve mostly argued that platforms should ban hate and porn, or that banning adult content provides a blueprint for banning hate.
I think we should reconsider. We should demand stronger rules around hate speech and we should demand that platforms commit to defending the speech of sex workers.
There are two arguments here.
First, sex workers really need defending. Over the last years, legislators, payment processors, and social media platforms have engaged in an all out war on sex workers, conflating them with sex traffickers and abusers and making it more and more difficult for them to exist online. The censorship prevents them from advertising services, but it also silences their advocacy, preventing them from speaking up about the stigma and violence they face.
This is especially disturbing because there’s strong research showing that sex workers forced offline end up on the streets, where they face skyrocketing violence and murder rates. For sex workers, banning by social media platforms can be a matter of life and death. Progressives have a moral obligation to stand with them.
Which brings us to the second argument. Fascists love to stigmatize and target marginalized groups. They do that for its own sake. But the stigmatization is also useful to them because it can then be leveraged against other people they hate. When you allow anyone to be targeted, you cede ground to fascists.
That’s exactly what has happened with sex workers. Progressives have largely failed to fight for the free speech, or the bodily autonomy, or the human rights of sex workers either at the federal level or on platforms.
Ceding the argument about adult content to the right, has led to disastrous results. The right is currently conflating any book that includes LGBT content with pornography. There’s a full blown moral panic about trans people which frames their health care as deviant sexual practice.
It’s not a coincidence that Substack is both a friendly place for vicious transphobes and a no-go location for sex workers. The refusal to moderate hate speech is of a Christofascist piece with the refusal to allow sex workers on the platform. The throughline is an enforced “morality” which upholds cishet patriarchal mores and sees “freedom” as the power to erase undesirables from public life, and from life itself.
Supporting Sex Workers is Antifascist
If we want to defeat fascists, we need to deny them platforms to spread hate. But we also need to push back against Christofascist patriarchal norms around sexual expression, and against the stigmatization of marginalized people. We’re not really removing hate from these platforms as long as sex workers are stigmatized, silenced, and put at risk.
Substack currently treats nudes as if they’re more of a danger to free speech than hate and fascism. That’s backwards. Progressives on the platform should demand better.
You can find an index of all my substack posts on fascism here.
Image: Into Action
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