youtubesensorship

YouTube Is (Still) Silencing LGBTQ Sex Ed

Why it’s doing so is unclear, but the impact — shutting down one of the few places the queer community can get good information about sex — is undeniable

The video opens on two men sitting next to each other in a well-lit living room smiling expectantly and drinking what looks to be a Moscow Mule. One is Amp Somers, the other is his guest host Bolt; together, they are Watts the Safeword, a LGBTQ and kink-friendly sex education channel on YouTube with just over 187,000 subscribers. Today’s lesson? Cleaning out your ass in preparation for anal sex.

“Anal sex doesn’t just happen magically,” begins Bolt. “It’s something you plan for.” Over the course of the remaining seven minutes, I learn just how true that really is: They cover bowel movements, enemas, dildos, and of course, Metamucil — all with a lighthearted, funny and approachable G-rated tone that teaches me more about anal sex preparedness than I’ve learned in my entire 29 years of having a butt. It’s far from the type of sex education most of us get in school, but according to Somers, it’s also the kind many LGBTQ people are in dire need of. “When queer people get these kinds of sex-positive perspectives on their bodies and identities, it not only gives people the courage to be themselves, but to have safer forms of sex,” he says.

Unfortunately, however, it’s also the kind of video that YouTube has been censoring, which according to Somers, has been happening to his channel a lot lately. It’s been happening to many such channels, actually — since the start of 2017, dozens of LGBTQ sex ed vloggers like Rowan Ellis, Stevie Boebi and Tyler Oakley have come forward saying that YouTube has been censoring, demonetizing and shadow-banning their content, even though it contains nothing that violates the platform’s policies. Meanwhile, straight sex ed videos don’t appear to be having the same problem (at least not on the same scale). So as tame, patently non-sexual content like this kinky Wish haul video from Watts the Safeword is removed or demonetized, violent, explicit or bigoted videos that seem to be in clear violation of YouTube’s community guidelines are allowed to flourish. This has lead many people to fear that YouTube’s vibrant LGBTQ sex ed community — which has always been a source of accurate, non-judgmental advice and information not available in schools — is losing its voice.

When the first big wave of LGBTQ vloggers started calling out YouTube for censoring their sex ed videos in 2017, the company jumped on the issue. It acknowledged the problem in a tweet that announced it was “proud to represent LGBTQ+ voices on [its] platform,” and posted an article on its Creators Blog where it admitted that the feature that was censoring LGBTQ content wasn’t working the way it should. “We’re sorry and we’re going to fix it,” YouTube promised. In the same post, it noted a handful of videos that were mistakenly filtered out — e.g., a lesbian wedding ceremony — and vowed to use those examples to improve the ways it filtered out “mature topics.”

However, according to Somers, YouTube’s filters haven’t improved and LGBTQ sex ed content is still being censored. In fact, for some creators like himself, the problem has only gotten worse. “The rate of restriction and demonetization is happening faster and faster nowadays with the way they’ve ‘improved’ their computer learning,” he says. “A few years ago, we’d get dinged every so often, but now, our videos won’t even be finished uploading before they get a little yellow check mark on them indicating they’ll be censored and not properly monetized.” His videos don’t even have to be sex-related for this to happen, either. Even if it’s just a simple rope tutorial or a run-of-the-mill discussion about consent, his content will be censored or hidden, even from his own subscribers. At this point, he says, about 70 percent of his library is restricted in some form or fashion.

As Somers explains, the problem is, and always has been, with something called “Restricted Mode,” an optional filter designed to sort out what YouTube considers mature or explicit content. According to YouTube, the filter is triggered by content that’s flagged by other users or is age-restricted, but it also looks at a video’s title and the language used in the video. When the filter comes into contact with content it deems inappropriate, it makes it unavailable to watch. This decreases the amount of traffic and subscribers content creators can get to their channels and reduces the amount of views their individual videos can receive. Lesbian vloggers Bria Michelle Kam and Chrissy Chambers from the Bria and Chrissy channel experienced this last year when YouTube started hiding their channel from their subscribers. In a video explaining why their content had become harder to find, they alleged that this was because YouTube was preferentially targeting LGBTQ channels, effectively murdering their traffic.

A flaw in Restricted Mode also recently caused the removal of a completely innocuous underwear review from the mononymous Alex of the channel Trans Thetics, which promotes and reviews prosthetics and products for trans men. Though the video violated nothing in YouTube’s guidelines, Alex tells me it was flagged and removed anyway. He had to make another version of the same video, and was given the first of three “strikes” from YouTube as a warning.

Since then, many of Alex’s videos have been flagged or removed multiple times, often in a way he feels is “totally discretionary.” “Nothing in my videos goes against YouTube’s policies,” he tells me. “Nudity and sexual content are permitted in an educational context, which my videos always are, but they don’t train their moderators or design their algorithms well, so they get removed despite not violating any of YouTube’s community guidelines.”

Restricted Mode can also wreak havoc by messing with the thumbnail images for certain videos. Sometimes, it’ll cause them to appear pixelated. Other times, it removes them entirely and replaces them with random screengrabs. According to Somers, this makes clicking on them less attractive, dissuading viewers from checking them out. YouTube seems to agree: “Well designed thumbnails and titles can attract more fans to your channel and encourage viewers to watch through your videos because they know what to expect,” it notes in its informational materials for users.

Kink, BDSM and alternative lifestyle sex educator Evie Lupine recently tweeted that she was experiencing the same thing. “Still happening to me,” she wrote. “My issue with this whole situation is that, if there was a legitimate reason to remove thumbnails for some videos, why does it not happen in ALL places? Just in certain ones? The logic just seems fishy. I don’t buy YouTube’s justification.”

As for YouTube, their justification is the same as always: No filter is 100 percent accurate. It’s something they readily admit, and seem to state as often as possible in their blog and policy guidelines. Technical limitations like an imperfect filter might be a legitimate excuse to some, but to others like Somers, any excuse YouTube gives for a technological mishap is immediately canceled out by the barrage of issues he and other LGBTQ creators have faced as well. Namely, their videos are being demonetized, which basically means the ads at the beginning of videos are being removed. That’s a huge problem, not only because it deprives creators from profiting off their hard work, but because it implies LGBTQ content is somehow inappropriate for advertising. The effects are real and serious: Somers told VICE that when YouTube started demonetizing his content in 2017, he lost 80 percent of his normal revenue. He says he knows of 40 fellow creators who have had this happen to them as well.

One particularly notable example comes from Chase Ross, a long-time vlogger who creates videos touching on his personal experiences as a trans person, and the trans community as a whole. As reported by The Verge, Ross went through a period in 2017 in which YouTube’s demonetization algorithms seemed to be specifically triggered by the word “trans.” “I’ve done multiple tests in proving that the word ‘transgender’ on my channels has demonetized my videos,” he says in one video. “It’s a trigger word.”

To demonstrate his theory, he tweeted screenshots of two videos that were originally uploaded with the word “trans” in the title, both of which were demonetized like magic. However when Ross removed the term, alakazam — they were monetized again, good as new. It happened again a few months later when he posted a video about what his life has been like since having surgery. Just to make sure the video wasn’t taken down, he made two copies, one with the word “trans” in the title, one without. Then, he posted a screenshot comparing the two videos on Twitter. To no one’s surprise, the “trans” video was flagged and marked “not suitable” for most advertisers. “Every single one of my Trans 101 videos has been demonetized,” he says. “You’re going to tell me that trans people aren’t directly attacked?”  

According to Somers, this is a clear indication that the computer learning systems that govern YouTube’s content filtering are restricting search terms that are directly related to LGBTQ content. The only thing the people who create that content can do about it, he says, is to work three times as hard to make sure it’s censor-proof. “All this has created a never-ending circle of extra work that we have to do, self-policing ourselves and checking our content in the back end to see if we’re even being monetized,” he explains. “We have to over-edit what we’re doing and make sure we’re not saying certain words YouTube’s algorithm might pick up.”

Not that over-editing is an easy thing to do when you’re talking about sex. If a vlogger is making a video about something like condom usage, HIV prevention or alternatives to anal sex for gay men, it’s common for them to have to use certain words like “penis,” “sex,” “cum,” “orgasm” and “anus” over and over again. Likewise, if someone like Boebi is making a video explaining lesbian sex, there’s going to have to be some discussion of clits, labias, fingering, toys and cunnilingus. However if those words or tags are picked up too often, the video could get age-restricted, demonetized or removed, regardless of the video’s actual content.

In February, that exact thing happened when gay porn star Calvin Banks shared his story of sexual abuse in an interview with YouTuber Davey Wavey on his channel. According to New Now Next, “When the interview was first published, survivors of sexual assault emailed to say that it encouraged them to share their own stories of abuse. After the video was effectively erased, many of these same people asked why it had been removed.” When Wavey reached out to YouTube about the issue, it claimed the video had been blocked due to “misleading tags,” which included “Gay Porn, “Porn,” and “Gay Sex.” Though no gay porn or sex was actually happening in the video — it was just an inspiring story of surviving trauma shared between two men doing nothing more than sitting next to each other — YouTube’s algorithm nixed it because, well, that’s what it’s designed to do. “I know YouTube doesn’t personally believe this, but it’s almost as though it’s saying, ‘Stories like this should not be told,’” Wavey remarked.

And while that might not be something the average YouTube user picks up on as they’re scrolling through videos, censoring or removing the ones that cater to the LGBTQ community does send the subliminal message that discussions or demonstrations of certain types of sex and identities aren’t desirable or important. The fact that many queer content creators have had their videos monetized by blatant anti-LGBTQ advertising doesn’t help, either.

For its part, YouTube is adamant instances like these are flukes, and not indicative of any sort of bias against LGBTQ channels. “To be clear, we do not have a list of LGBTQ- related words that trigger demonetization and we are constantly evaluating our systems to ensure they are enforcing our policies without any bias,” they write to me in a statement. “We’re committed to testing for and improving our systems’ inclusiveness across dimensions like gender, race or sexual orientation. We’ve been working hard to improve our systems in a holistic sense, both through launches and policies, [but] sometimes our systems get it wrong.”

Many people have theorized these “bugs” have something to do with SESTA and FOSTA, the pair of bills passed last year that hold internet platforms accountable for material that might promote illegal sex trafficking or online sex work. Because the repercussions for allowing that kind of material on their sites can be catastrophic — up to 10 years in prison and hefty fines — platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Tumblr have had to start policing their users’ content more than ever. Filters and algorithms like the ones causing trouble on YouTube offer a way to do this consistently, and en masse.

“SESTA/FOSTA creates a legal environment that encourages self-censorship,” explains Chelsea Reynolds, an assistant professor at California State University, Fullerton, who teaches sexual communication and researches SESTA/FOSTA. “If YouTube is actively pulling LGBTQ sex ed content, it’s possible it’s because their management or algorithms think the videos were somehow facilitating sex work. SESTA/FOSTA doesn’t make a distinction between sex trafficking and consensual prostitution. So if LGBTQ sex educators are providing information about best practices for sex workers — or that could aid them in some way — that could potentially put YouTube in violation of the law.”

And while a YouTube spokesperson confirms that its filters and algorithms aren’t directly related to SESTA or FOSTA — and it’s true that many queer sex ed channels were being shadow-banned and demonetized long before those bills passed — it’s worth noting that there was a conspicuous uptick in censorship complaints after they were signed into law. Likewise, it’s also important to situate what’s happening on YouTube within the larger conversation of censoring sex education in general. In recent years, abstinence-only education has received more funding than ever before, and teachers are still being fired for saying words like “clitoris” in class. This kind of censorship of in-person educational material has been shown time and time again to lead to negative health outcomes like increased risk of STIs, so there’s little reason to believe that online censorship wouldn’t have the same effect.

This is an especially important issue in a culture in which LGBTQ-inclusive sex ed is either sorely lacking or completely non-existent — both in schools and beyond. Only nine states require public school curriculums to cover LGBTQ sexuality and queer history, and while that number is increasing — thanks, California — the number of people who’ve come into contact with this information is still staggeringly small. According to the 2017 GLSEN National School Climate Survey, only 6.7 percent of students receive LGBTQ sex education in school. Meanwhile, nearly three times that many students are “educated” with inaccurate information about LGBTQ sexuality that is both negative and stigmatizing: GLSEN found that some school curriculums equate homosexuality with child abuse, or imply that gay men are responsible for the AIDS epidemic.

In Alabama, for instance, teachers are required to make their condemnation of LGBTQ sex overt, telling students that homosexuality is a criminal offense and “not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public.” Not only does “information” like this lead to worse mental health and poorer performance in school for LGBTQ youth, but it can keep straight students in the dark about alternative sexualities as well. This can foster bullying, promote a culture of intolerance and encourage LGBTQ students to stay in the closest, where they’re more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety and suicidality.

It’s common then for queer students — and people in general — to turn to places like YouTube and other forms of digital media for accurate sex advice and information. In fact, according to the Guttmacher Institute, 78 percent of kids between the ages of 13 and 18 used the internet to look up sexual health information in the past year. And while the internet is often touted as a flaming trash fire of inaccurate information, studies show that sites such as YouTube can actually improve some aspects of sexual health knowledge and foster a better understanding of the risks of STIs and pregnancy.

And so, if their content continues to be censored, sex ed vloggers worry that queer people won’t have access to information and advice, which Somers says can save their lives. That’s not a figurative statement, either. At a time when the current administration is doing everything it can to roll back LGBTQ rights and an alarming 47.7 percent of gay, lesbian and bisexual students have seriously considered suicide, it’s vital that platforms like YouTube do a better job of making accurate, inclusive information about sex and gender available to everyone who needs it.

“Kinky people can be ashamed of their kinks or sex preferences so they turn to find content like ours to normalize their sex and feel human,” Somers told VICE. “If they don’t have outlets and representation, they can become depressed or have dark thoughts. We get messages all the time from people who found our channel, and it saved them from a very dark place.”