Unpacking the Sausage: Do you really know it when you see it?

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My TikTok videos keep getting taken down for “adult nudity and sexual activity.”

I’m a “plus-size” burlesque performer, so my posts tend to show plus-size skin. Over the years, I have become somewhat used to my social media content being more heavily censored than my “average-size” counterparts. I accepted the likelihood that having rather more body than some other performers scandalized the algorithm, causing it to miss my standard “stage-legal” thong and pasties. I rationalized that it was likely a matter of proportion.

Bre KidmanLately, though, I’ve been wearing shorts and crop tops as I attempt to document my pole fitness journey. In the most recent video, I was wearing a one-piece bathing suit, laying at the base of my dance pole and petting my two adorable cats. (They love the pole. It’s a whole thing.) 

TikTok defines “adult nudity and sexual activity” as “content that is overtly revealing of breasts, genitals, anus, or buttocks, or behaviors that mimic, imply, or display sex acts.”  Given that my bathing suit revealed no more sideboob than is customary for a person who has breasts, we’re left with mimicking, implying, or displaying a sex act. I think kissing an actual feline is a little bit of a stretch for an implied sex act. Maybe my sensibilities are warped.

The “I know it when I see it” test for obscenity underscores a deep vein of inconsistency in U.S. jurisprudence and it seems to be reflected in the artificial intelligence governing the social content we see every day. Corporations are indeed allowed to regulate the content on their platforms. For that matter, I understand most restrictions on free speech are intended to protect others from harmful exposure to certain types of content.

That said, it chafes to be labeled as “adult nudity and sexual activity” when the content I’m producing is, in my view, pretty friggin’ wholesome. 

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not out of character for me to put something filthy out into the world as art, but TikTok’s guidelines claim they provide exceptions to their prohibitions on nudity for “educational, documentary, scientific, or artistic purposes.”

When I compare my pole fitness videos to the “adult nudity and sexual activities” I have unleashed upon Portland’s many stages in the name of art, the idea that TikTok – or any algorithm-based censorship mechanism – would be prepared to interpret the context becomes hilarious.

For example:

• Would TikTok allow me to post a video of the time I hosted an entire DIY body-positive fashion show wearing nothing but several pounds of glitter and Elmer’s glue? Almost certainly not. I admit the exposure of breasts and buttocks – regardless of glitter – would likely violate TikTok’s terms of service. I wish the appeal process would allow me to present the counterargument generated by the messages I still get from participants years later about how it was the first time they ever truly felt at home in their bodies. Alas, no mechanism exists.

• Would TikTok allow me to share footage of the time I donned a slingshot bikini made of tulle and strawberry frosted donuts before having two friends douse me in fake blood and devour said donuts off of my body while I caterwauled a Marilyn Manson song about abandonment? It might slip by, provided the segment of footage was one where my friends’ bodies were blocking mine. They are both of average size, after all, so when they wear booty shorts it’s probably not “overtly” exposing buttocks.

• Would TikTok allow me to post a clip of the time I pushed an uncooked chicken egg out of my body onstage before cracking it onto a tarp? The performance was pretty extreme (even for me), but I was wearing a tutu, full-coverage rhinestone lingerie, and an enormous feather boa. Unless the algorithm got caught up on my thighs, this one might be the safest bet.

If not for “artistic reasons,” why would anyone do any of these things? 

Maybe I have a self-esteem problem, but I simply cannot be convinced that anyone would watch these acts and immediately assume they were designed to elicit prurient thoughts. They’re not really “sexy” so much as they are a visceral reaction to the experience of having a body. Is that concept itself obscene? Is it art? How can one tell?

Would you know it if you saw it? I suppose, as with many flexible standards, it’s all in the eye of the beholder. 

Of course, the sensibilities of one person (or one algorithm) carrying that much weight strike me as sort of obscene, but nobody asked me. Or you.

Maybe they should?

Bre Kidman is an artist, activist, and attorney (in that order), and the first openly non-binary person in history to run for the U.S. Senate. They would be delighted to hear your thoughts on the political industrial complex at [email protected].