Imagine a smiling woman. Her legs are sprawled apart and hinged at the ankles by lacy underwear. Someone’s finger sinks into her. This may sound like a still from Pornhub’s “Popular With Women” section, but it lives on a platform averse to showing so much as a woman’s nipple.
That platform is Instagram, the photo and video-sharing app that’s accrued over 800 million users in its eight-year existence. The image, which bears the caption “Strip poke-her,” is one in a long series of erotic drawings by French artist Simon Frankart (also known as @petitesluxures). This particular illustration is characteristic of all of Frankart’s work; rendered in confident black strokes, and blocked with suggestive negative space. His series is playful, revealing little bits of titillating information, but leaving room for the viewer to fill in the blank. A cleverly placed glass of wine becomes a triangle of pubic hair, Pinocchio gets repurposed as a sex toy, and long splashes of liquid are synonymous with orgasm. Still, where many complain about Instagram’s strict censorship policies, Frankfart has managed to largely skirt any offenses.
The social media company, which was bought by Facebook in 2012, is known for its strict, often Puritanical stance on depicting the naked body. Instagram’s community guidelines prohibit “photos, videos, and some digitally-created content that show sexual intercourse, genitals, and close-ups of fully-nude buttocks. It also includes some photos of female nipples.” The platform amended this clause in 2015, when the app was met with criticism for censoring photos of post-mastectomy scars and women breastfeeding. Instagram now green-lights such images, but its code of decency remains rigid when addressing the female body and sexuality, and therefore one might ask how a lewd visual like “Strip poke-her” could remain on the site. Fortunately Frankart’s work falls under another newly approved Instagram category: “Nudity in photos of paintings and sculptures.”
And the move to allow such work to be showcased on the site has proven successful with his feed. The ad agency art director by day has been drawing for @petitesluxures in his spare time since 2014, amassing one million fans of his quintessentially French approach to sexuality that is all together sweet, dirty and humorous. Given the platform’s criteria, Frankart rarely encounters flagging or post removal on Instagram’s part, but this wasn’t always the case. “When launching Petites Luxures, I started to work with minimalism because I thought it was a creative way of representing sex,” he says. “But then I realized it was a strong weapon against the automatic censorship of Instagram. I had some drawings removed at the beginning, but that never changed my way of drawing. ” Instead, he removed certain hashtags, such as #art and #love, that he believes directed people who were sensitive to the art on account. Instagram has created a paradox for artists like Frankart—on one hand, limiting their mode of expression with a narrow perception of nudity, and on another, providing the very platform on which their art becomes visible to millions. Erotic art accounts—like @apollonia.sntclr, @scientwehst, @twofacedkitten, and @alphachanneling—have accumulated followers in the tens and hundreds of thousands, signaling a renaissance in the style.
Beyond Instagram offering a platform to boost popularity, its nudity embargo can at times become inspiration for the art they make. Joanne Leah, behind the pop-pigmented abstract nudes of @twofacedkitten, has a long history with censorship on the platform. “I think women objectifying women is an issue for a lot of people,” says Leah. Speaking with the artist in her Brooklyn studio, surrounded by her large candy-colored crops of the female figure, it’s hard to imagine such engaging, nuanced work censored, but for Leah, the backlash has been fierce. She is currently on her second Instagram account, after the first was deleted for relentless flagging. Her banned body of work differed greatly from Leah’s current portfolio; it was soft and naturally lit, often inspired by classical painting and sculpture. Before Leah honed her confectionary palette, she worked in subdued earth tones and naturalistic settings. But the biggest difference was Leah’s approach to the body. “People were obviously nude, it wasn’t as abstract.” Leah says. “I would censor nipples, but I would try to get away with censoring the least amount possible, so maybe an areola was sticking out and that’s what caused the account to get deleted.” Fueled by frustration, Leah chose to leverage Instagram’s constraints in her work. In her new series of photographs, the artist attempts to confuse the eyes that befall it—whether those are human or algorithmic. “I’m like, ‘what can I use to trick it? What can I use to be suggestive without it being a vagina?’ So, blocking [the image] with something that looks just like a vagina but isn’t [one].” She works to transform household objects into emblems of arousal. Spools of Bubble Tape become engorged nipples; a mound of moss and smartly placed pink cloth evoke a psychedelic merkin. “I’m always thinking, ‘How can I use Instagram’s censorship rules as the basis for an idea?’” Leah continues. “If I zoom in really close to a nipple, will it still detect the nipple?” Her images still elicit strong reactions, exemplified by the framed photograph she shows me: A woman smears red food coloring onto her upper lip, bearing her teeth like a wildcat. The subject is naked, but visible only from her nose to the top of her breasts. There are no nipples, not even a stray areola is pictured. Leah claims that this photo has been removed by Instagram repeatedly. And while spectators are quick to hurl the word “pornographic”, she insists otherwise. “I myself don’t think it’s pornographic because I do so much extensive research on art history, psychology, philosophy,” Leah explains. “It’s not just two people fucking.”
In addition to being “against censorship 100 percent” Leah admits ambivalence about the way it affects her own work. “In one respect, I’m very influenced by censorship and I really work well under constraints like that,” she says. “But I do have a lot of work that I can’t show on social media.” Ultimately, she feels that the rules need to be re-written for fine art photography dealing with the human body. “The rules are okay most of the time for paintings, drawings… but just because it’s photography doesn’t mean it’s not art, even if it’s a nude body.” Despite their differences in execution, both Frankart and Leah maintain similar ideologies when it comes to censorship and the delineation between art and pornography. “I always prefer the French word ‘intime’” Frankart says of his style. “It means private, intimate, personal. I really like to think that the scenes I represent are always taking [place] in the privacy of a room, between people that love each other. That can hardly be done in a porn movie, where your imagination has no room to excite you.” And he understands that pornography should be veiled for certain eyes, but affirms that “simple nudity is just the pure expression of a natural human being.” He continues, “Hiding a [blow job]? Okay I understand, but hiding a woman’s nipples? Why? Is a nipple so shocking? Is pubic hair more shocking than a terrorism video?” Like Leah, Frankfart occasionally conducts his own tests challenging Instagram’s algorithms. His latest experiment was just last week on his personal account. “I shared a topless picture of Lorrie Menconi, a 1969 Playmate, twice: First, the original photograph, then the same, but with the nipples hidden behind Nazi symbols. Five seconds later, the original picture was removed by Instagram, but they never censored the Nazi version.” He then asks a crucial question: “Are nipples more dangerous than Nazis? I don’t think so.”
At the same time as Frankart expresses gratitude for Instagram and its global sharing abilities, he maintains that “a few small companies based in California” shouldn’t have the power to set cultural standards for the entire world. He finds it dangerous, and verging on totalitarian. “Each culture has its own idea of what’s shocking or not, and it is pretty hard to melt all these opinions online,” he claims. “I hope popular erotic art will help to soften these Puritan rules.” Frankart’s bottom line as an artist and as a human being is simple, and likely shared by his erotic art peers: “We should just assume that we all come from a pussy, and that it is neither shocking nor dirty.”