Demystifying Nakedness (and Pornography) on Instagram

Debbie says:

First, let me apologize for how quiet it’s been around here. Laurie has been on vacation and blogging has been my job, and I forgot for a week, and just thought about it today. Special apologies to the commenters on Lynne Murray’s last post, whose comments languished in limbo for too long.


Beejoli Shah’s long-form essay on Talking Points Monthly–“Inside Instagram’s Long Guerrilla War on Porn—and the Users Who Keep Coming Back” is not just excellent on a variety of levels. Shah is clear and informative about Instagram’s platform, Instagram’s policies, the social role of user-generated nudity, erotica, and pornography, and her own changing responses as she delved into these issues.

Shah is writing about photos of at least three different kinds of things: general nudity, specific sexualized body parts (dicks, anuses, nipples), and actual sexual acts or sexual reactions. She knows they are not the same thing, but from the point of view of Instagram’s censors, she has chosen to discuss the three of them together.

Though nudity is banned by Instagram’s community guidelines, a cottage industry of illicit hashtags has sprung up to find and share these photos, everything from the more mundanely-phrased #seduced and #exposed for broad nudity, to the community-specific tags such as #femdomme and #daddydick, intended more for kink. And that’s saying nothing of the droves of cleverly-punned tags such as #eggplantparm, which may turn you off Italian food for quite some time. These naked photos are so ubiquitous that I’ve yet to search a kink that hasn’t pulled up at least a few steamy selfies.

It’s not hard to figure out that #femdomme and #daddydick were kink tags, let alone that #exposed was a nudity tag. This makes me wonder why the Instagram censors are so far behind the curve, but then they probably have an incomprehensible number of tags to wade through.

One messagesof Shah’s article is that the battle to keep “adult content” off Instagram is simply not winnable. which is a problem for the censors, since the site is open to anyone 13 or older.

The battle for Instagram’s virtue garnered national attention in the summer of 2014, when Rihanna found her Instagram account temporarily disabled after she posted topless photos featuring nipples. Scout Willis and Miley Cyrus, whose nipple photo had also been deleted, teamed up with the creators of a film, whose name became the hashtag for the movement, “Free The Nipple,” and continued to post photos flouting the ban. Comedian Chelsea Handler took a similar tactic, posting topless photos of herself side-by-side with unbanned photos of topless men, like Russian president Vladimir Putin, to protest the discrepancies.

While #FreeTheNipple has precious little to do with porn, it has shined a light on Instagram’s guerrilla war on nudity and other “offensive” content. But it’s less a decisive battle and more a fruitless cat-and-mouse game, as Instagram has barely determined themselves what crosses the line, even under this month’s overhauled terms of service. Though the company finally granted users the right to share breastfeeding photos without being banned (a mitzvah previously reserved only for works of art), they still enforce subjective bans on things like stretch marks and menstrual blood.

I could quibble with Shah here, because I think all bans are subjective, but I’m more interested in her larger point, that what is “unacceptable” is a moving target. No one has ever been able to come up with any level of consensus community standards for social nudity, in any community.  Here’s some of the history:

Chris Donaghue, a psychologist and author of Sex Outside the Lines: Authentic Sexuality in a Sexually Dysfunctional Culture … advocates strongly for porn to become more acceptable, and often encourages his patients to explore their sexuality through platforms like Instagram so they can find out that their proclivities may not be as niche as they thought. “The most beautiful thing is technology’s use for shame reduction and acceptance of self,” he says.

Yet the phenomenon of sharing porn openly and brazenly is not a byproduct of our current tech revolution; pornography’s history has long been rooted in group settings.

“Viewing pornography was, at certain points in time, much more of a communal, shared experience, rather than a private activity,” says Lynn Comella, a professor of gender and sexuality studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. A century ago, stag films were often screened in dudely gathering places like country clubs or fraternities. And during porn’s “golden era” in the 1970s, seeing an x-rated film was a social event.

It was only after the advent of the VCR, and then the Internet, that pornography reverted back to a private pastime.

It’s a well-known fact that any new communications or media technology will instantly become a pornography delivery mechanism, but what Shah is talking about here is not whether or even how pornography/erotica moves into a new technology, but what effect the style of that technology has on the huge social/cultural consequences of how pornography is delivered. We don’t tend to think of pornography as social (though I commend Samuel R. Delany’s Times Square Red, Times Square Blue to anyone who wants to understand the culture of the Times Square gay porn theaters of the 1970s) because we live in a time when available technology has pushed it to be largely private, though that may be shifting.

Shah talks about the appeal of Instagram in particular to people who want to share their own nude and/or sexualized images.

Why not stick to the significantly more accepting communities of Reddit and Tumblr, or even the newer knockoff apps dedicated solely to porn, such as Uplust or Pinsex, that welcome your community with open arms?

The irony is that as actively as tech powers-that-be try to keep deviance off Instagram, it’s the platform’s tech power that brings these naked sharers to Instagram over more welcoming corners of the Internet. Reddit and Tumblr can be accessed via mobile, but smartphone posting is far more laborious than on a laptop (as Rih and friends discovered). Instagram’s onboarding process is much easier—point, shoot, post—and cameras, Instagram and Kik are all on one device that goes anywhere its user goes.

Like all other kinds of content, nudity, erotica and porn will be drawn to ease of use. This is even more true because of the tendency of teenagers and young adults to embrace new, easy platforms, and the (no surprise) fascination of many people in those age groups with the boundaries of their own bodies and sexuality.

Another thing Shah brings to the table is the contrast between “for profit” and “for pleasure.” Note that the examples she gives of “for profit” are personal, which is probably due in part to Instagram policies and the likelihood that your pictures or hashtag will be removed without warning. She does mention “larger-scale pornographers” in the quote below, but she doesn’t discuss what their presence on Instagram is like.

… like most Internet porn, the quality and nature of Instagram smut varies widely. A majority of it is aggregation accounts that cull photos of naked people— generally women—seemingly out of benevolence, and those soliciting money, usually by directing voyeurs to the user’s personal webcam site. All the accounts’ photos are no older than a few hours at most, likely due to the fact that accounts featuring nudity are reported by other users and banned by Instagram almost as quickly as they’re created.

But among the hustlers and larger-scale pornographers is a sliver of individual users who simply want to share their nudes for a variety of personal reasons: fun, horniness, boredom, a desire to connect. These users are harder to find but very much there, often sharing just a handful of photos of themselves, with captions instructing other users to either direct message the poster or contact them on Kik, a messaging app that’s quickly become synonymous with sexting strangers, as users’ personal contact info isn’t automatically shared.

Maybe those are people to sext with. Maybe they’re people who share your niche proclivity. Maybe they’re even people you can talk to about your fears, hopes, desires.  Maybe they’re law enforcement, looking for illegal pictures of minors.

As the deputy sheriff of Louisa County, Virginia told [Hanna Rosin, a journalist], “Possessing or sending a nude photo of a minor—even if it’s a photo of yourself—can be prosecuted as a felony under state child-porn laws.” 

Shah herself has been changed by her research.

Whereas it used to take a stiff drink and breaks every 20 minutes to work my way through the porn archives of Instagram, I now can flit through gracefully. Though some photos are decidedly sexy, they’re no longer stigmatized for me, no longer something to frantically clear from my Instagram history. Even as a voyeur, I now feel a part of the group.

These are difficult paths, and no one: not Instagram’s policymakers, not parents of sexting teens, not the sexting teens themselves, not the journalists watching the phenomena, can really know how to walk them, or where the pitfalls are, let alone where the lasting rewards are.

Because I’m not about to go sifting through dick pics on Instagram to find out what I might learn, I’m grateful that thoughtful, nuanced analysts like Shah are out there, weaving boring repetitive flesh into conceptual gold.