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Inside Instagram’s Long Guerrilla War on Porn—and the Users Who Keep Coming Back

Inside Instagram’s Long Guerrilla War on Porn—and the Users Who Keep Coming Back

“Why am I looking at dicks?!?” one shrieked after peeking over at my phone, while pushing her eggs benedict as far away from me as possible, like genitalia was contagious.

I offered the table a reasonable explanation: that a corner of Instagram had become a flourishing nude-sharing community, that it was managing to thrive despite the company’s staunch dedication to scrubbing errant body parts from the site, that, oh for god’s sake, hadn’t they heard of the term “Eggplant Fridays,” where users share photos of their penile bulges?

They had not.

Even after swearing that I wasn’t really looking at the penises as much I was looking for a specific penis—one whose owner had posted it for fun, who wasn’t trying to sell me a cam site membership (“How can you tell the difference?” “You just can!”)—my friends remained unplacated. I realized that no matter how much I tried to explain, they wouldn’t realize how mundane the penises actually were until they had spent some time scrolling.

As for me? After a month of trying to understand the deep rift between Instagram and its, um, headstrong streakers, I had gotten used to them.

It’s not just penises that are taking Instagram’s backchannels by storm, it’s all manners of sexy bits: 15-second jerkoff videos, exposed anuses, a bevy of braless breasts—the latter of which are sometimes part of a highly politicized battle to “Free the Nipple” on the photo-sharing app. 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.

But as many porn hashtags as there are, many more have been quietly erased by Instagram, revealing nothing when you search for them. Pop in #sex and you’re told “No posts found.” Ditto #adult, #stripper, #vagina, #penis, #cleavage. Even the Internet’s ultimate innuendo, the eggplant, wasn’t safe. You can still tag your posts with banned hashtags and emojis, but good luck finding your community within. Typo-laden tags have popped up to accommodate these arbitrary bans: #boobs is gone, but as I write this, #boobss has well over 600,000 posts; #adult’s spinoff #adule is quickly closing in on 100,000. The tag for #seduce may now be useless, but variants like #seduced and #seductivsaturday cropped up in its place—though it’s worth noting that in the weeks since I’ve been writing this article, #seductiv, the tag that brought me into this world to begin with, has vanished entirely, as has #boobss, #adule, and #eggplantparm, after BuzzFeed caught wind of the fact that the eggplant emoji was not searchable on the app. The goalposts on these hashtags have moved considerably: In 2012, Huffington Post reporter Bianca Bosker wrote about Instagram’s early porn community, but back then, the banned hashtags were far more intuitive: #instaporn, for instance, or #fuckme.

Instagram’s puritanical and often gender-biased stance towards stark nudity and the more nebulous moral boundaries it imposes on its members is nothing new. Since their launch in 2010, the app, which is open to use for anyone aged 13 and above with a valid email account, has been constantly battling the problem of how to keep the community as open as possible while also protecting its members from things deemed unsavory, like naked body parts.

Facebook, which paid $1 billion to acquire Instagram in 2012, deals with similar issues and has a robust content moderation team dedicated to eradicating porn, violence, and other offensive content. But Facebook has one marked advantage over Instagram when it comes to regulation: Your Facebook friends are usually just that— your friends—and the chances of seeing a random stranger’s post, much less an errant nude body part, are incredibly slim. While public groups do make the chances of seeing an unknown user’s content slightly possible, search functionality on Facebook is still primarily limited to users within your network. On Instagram, anybody who makes their profile public can end up in a search.

Search for #sex and you’re told “No posts found.” Ditto #adult, #stripper, #vagina, #penis, #cleavage.

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.

Instagram does ban a few non-illicit hashtags as well; #iphone was blocked briefly in 2013 and #ilovemyinstagram still is. Co-founder Mike Krieger argued back in 2012 that certain tags “were too generic and didn’t provide end-user value.” (Instagram declined to comment on this story.) But that logic is part of the problem: While banning drug use, child pornography, explicit violence and the like can all be understood, Instagram is still positioning itself as the arbiter of what is acceptable to share, and what doesn’t provide “end-user value.” While Instagram says it’s bound by the app stores’ nudity restrictions and that their guidelines are intended to make the platform safe for even its younger users, their scrubbed hashtags bring up a larger issue about censorship—namely, whether Instagram should foist morality onto its 300 million users.

The owners of those dick pics livening up my brunch don’t appear to give a shit about any of this. Their photos aren’t adorned with any #freetheeggplant hashtags. Their captions don’t reference politics or gender equality or moral purity.

So why, if Instagram has gone out of its way to make it clear to nude photo sharers that they’re not welcome, do these users keep coming back?

Social media is “a really good way to connect sexually and relationally to others that are outside of your social world,” says Chris Donaghue, a psychologist and author of Sex Outside the Lines: Authentic Sexuality in a Sexually Dysfunctional Culture. Donaghue 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 media event.

Pornography’s history has long been rooted in group settings.

It was only after the advent of the VCR, and then the Internet, that pornography reverted back to a private pastime. Last year, Sharif Mowlabocus, a media studies lecturer at the University of Sussex, told the Guardian that the rise of videotape was responsible for forcing porn underground. “The videotape took porn off the street, out of the movie theatres and into the intimate and domestic spaces of the home,” he said.

Now, thanks to mobile devices, it’s at once stealth and ubiquitous. And like most Internet porn, the quality and nature of Instagram smut varies widely. A majority of it is from 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.

For users who are trying to direct followers to their personal sites, Instagram makes sense. Reddit is too heavily moderated, and Tumblr too time-intensive, to be good platforms for spambots and those looking to make a quick buck on nudes. For the aggregators, what better place to go than a platform of 300 million people, all of whom are on the app already because, on some level, they like sharing their lives?

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.

For a casual voyeur, these distinctions may not matter: A vagina is a vagina is a vagina, after all, whether that vagina was photographed and uploaded by its owner or by a quasi-paid porn site looking for new members with credit cards. But for all the diehard users I spoke with, Instagram isn’t just about voyeurism and getting off to sexy photos of strangers. It’s a conduit for finding your people.

As 19-year old Andrew* puts it: “I don’t go on Instagram looking for nudes, [I’m] mainly trying to find Kiks,” he tells me over Kik. “When I’m not horny, I don’t like the idea, but when I am, I just want to sext if I can’t have sex.” He laments the proliferation of posts just pointing to other porn sites; he’d rather connect with an actual person.

For users who are posting their own photos on Instagram, the appeal isn’t far off from Andrew’s—it all still boils down to seeking validation and connection from like-minded individuals.

“I use Instagram because a lot of people are on there, and people like our stuff,” 18-year old Rih explained to me over Kik, about the account she shares with two friends. “We started with three followers, now we have 415.” Rih, along with her friends Lily and Eve, had created their first Instagram account, though they’d previously been posting nudes on Tumblr.

When I first discovered the account, their bio featured a photo of Lily’s breast, with an introduction: “We’re Lily, Eve & Rih. Welcome to our page, just DM us don’t ask, on private because people are reporting us.” The 29 photos the girls had posted were all from the last hour, and featured the three ladies in various states of nudity: some scantily clad, others completely nude, still others showing the women mid-masturbation. Save for one photo of Rih and Lily laughing on a set of gymnasium bleachers, the photos were all faceless.

Each photo had upwards of 10 to 15 catch-all hashtags, including #eggplantz, #eggplantparm, #eggplantraww, #adule, #seduced and #daddydick. As the account amassed followers at a rapid clip, the trick became ensuring that their fan base could be maintained and grown without landing on the radar of Instagram. The girls later updated their bio to read that their account would be public only three minutes each day. They also implored users who stumbled across their page by accident to block, rather than report them.

“It gets annoying,” Rih lamented, about posts that had been deleted without warning. “If you don’t like nudes, don’t click that hashtag. Don’t follow that page.”

Her precautions and frustrations are not unique. The majority of the nude Instagram accounts I’ve been scrolling through contain similarly-worded caveats begging fellow Instagram users to take pity on them. Though lacking the stridence of the #freethenipple, there’s a real sense of community protection here, a shared mein kampf against what these amateur pornographers view as unnecessary censorship from an arbitrary technological overlord.

But the question remains: 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?

“If you don’t like nudes, don’t click that hashtag. Don’t follow that page.”

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 accepting 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.

Ramon*, a 28-year-old from Rhode Island with a particularly impressive penis, says he’s had both photos pulled and profiles banned by Instagram, and yet has rejoined under various handles several times. “All you need is an email [address] and you open an account. It’s simple,” he says. “I’ll do it when I’m bored.”

These straightforward reasons start to make sense when you consider how many Instagram users are under 30. Fifty-three percent of its users in 2014 were adults 18 to 29 years old. Fifty-six percent of all teens in America use Instagram, and 91 percent access the Internet from a mobile device. And as it turns out, a lot of those teenagers like sharing nudes—a fact I first learned the hard way after a 14-year-old direct-messaged me an unsolicited photo of his penis from an Instagram account of otherwise fully-clothed photos of the teenager with his family and friends. Click on one of the many penises and breasts available under nudity-filled hashtags and it’s not at all uncommon to see a bio that proudly boasts that the user is 16 or 17, and looking for other kids their age to connect with. Teens were so ubiquitous on even the most hardcore hashtags that it became a Herculean task just to keep their naked flesh at bay, lest the line between reporter and child pornographer become blurred.

“Instagram is the most popular app for teens, after Facebook,” says Amanda Hess, a reporter who regularly covers Internet culture, teens and sexuality (and dutifully investigated the origins of “Eggplant Fridays” in Slate). “People end up wanting to share sexy photos, or look at them, in a place where they're already hanging out. They don't want to download some special porn app.”

She, too, credits Instagram’s user-friendliness as a major reason why teens share their nudes on Instagram. Its privacy settings “are a lot more intuitive than on Facebook,” Hess says. “Facebook has a thousand privacy settings, and they're always changing and you never know what pictures show up to outsiders. Instagram is just open or locked.” And unlike with Facebook, Instagram protects anonymity. “You can create some screen name that your parents don't know about, and you don't have to add your grandparents and your cousins and your mom's boss.”

Of course, as with any sexual communiqué, consent is everything—and when teenagers are involved, the water gets murky. As Hanna Rosin pointed out when investigating a “teen sexting ring" in Virginia last fall for The Atlantic, sharing nudes, even by choice, isn’t without its potential consequences. As the deputy sheriff of Louisa County, Virginia told her, “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.” BuzzFeed’s Katie Notopolous ran into similar issues while trying to investigate the deluge of unsolicited dick pictures she was receiving on Snapchat, often from teenagers. (The best BuzzFeed’s legal team could offer her was that she “probably” would not end up in jail.)

Still, in its purest, mutually-desired form, sharing nudes on apps like Instagram has the potential to help teens healthily explore and develop their sexual identities. And regardless of age, it can be surprisingly liberating.

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, so much so that I was reticent to put their hashtags on blast, lest I send the robust community further underground.

Then again, I’m not very worried, given the tenacity of users like Rih and Ramon. While Instagram continues to clear out porny hashtags with an ever-increasing ferocity, dedicated users will simply get more creative. (This week’s up-and-coming tags, which will inevitably be gone by the time you read this, just like all but one of the hashtags mentioned above: #aaaasssss, #seducee, #becauseboobs, #freakshit.)

Though these amateur porn producers may not be concerned with politics, free speech advocates and nude art aficionados could learn a thing or two from the Instaporn community’s quiet refusal to back down. Regardless of the users’ political leanings, users like Rih and Ramon are living, breathing examples of how to stick it, hard, to censorship and limits on sexual freedom. Instagram now finds itself in the crosshairs of being on the wrong side of history, and it may behoove them to surrender a losing fight.

For now, Ramon plans to keep coming back for more, even if he has to continually create new accounts to do so. He may be apolitical, but when it comes to Instagram’s assessment of porn’s negative “end-user value,” he begs to differ.

“When you have thousands of the same hashtags,” he says, “you realize you’re not the only one who enjoys doing it.”

*Not his real name

Illustrations by Bill Rebholz

Beejoli Shah is a writer based in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in SPIN, New York Mag, The Guardian, and other publications. You can reach her on Twitter @beejoli, but please, no underage dick pics.