What defines ‘adult content’ and what exactly do you mean by explicit?

Melissa Ditmore

Researchers investigating online access to information about sexuality find out that the service they use to communicate has a policy prohibiting adult content. Will it affect them beyond being part of the study?

I’m working on a research project about women’s use of the Internet to get information about sexuality. I posted this to the site project partners use to communicate, about the site we use.


Many servers and forums are based in the US, therefore the US research team’s description of context is relevant to each of Erotics Project research countries. Sex Work Awareness is the US organization, and co-founder Audacia Ray pointed out to me that Ning, the networking site used for the Erotics Project, instituted a policy excluding ‘adult’ groups on the site. The research project information is not ‘adult’ but this is part of the context that we will include, which we discuss on Ning, bringing this exercise to a meta-level. The real question is how this plays out and affects users.

Ning’s blog points out that the adult groups were the subject of more complaints than others and required more work for the company than other groups because of this. This is reasonable. However, if complaints are the criteria, such justification could be used to shut down forums about any topic, including non-adult themes like our research project discussion, if enough people complain. In other realms, this fear leads people to over-censor their speech and actions. The lack of clarity about what constitutes adult content and groups could contribute to exactly this kind of self-censorship. For example, the US requires an "anti-prostitution pledge": grant recipients must have a policy "explicitly opposing prostitution and sex trafficking". No aid agency promotes prostitution, but because there is no clarity or guidance on what this means in practice, organizations have become hyper-vigilant and in some places, this has led to excluding sex workers from services, including health clinics.

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Ning has not eliminated sex workers’ groups and hosts groups like ours that address sexual issues. But where is the line where these groups become ‘adult’? It is imperative not to let complaints be the only criteria because then complaints become a tool that could be used politically to censor ideas and discussions that some people don’t want to happen. Sensitive topics could include sexual harassment, breast health, reproductive health, and many more.

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