I can feel my anxiety climbing as I try to find current news stories about sex. Google News shows one lonely result for “porn,” an article that is 26 days old. I log out of everything and try different browsers because this can’t be right.
I pop over to Yahoo News and try the same searches, exhaling relief to see 892 news articles for “porn” from outlets ranging from Associated Press to Rolling Stone. They’re there. It’s just that Google’s 2018 algorithm upgrade filters out news with the word “porn” in it. Like articles about porn performer suicide, tips for revenge porn victims, parents who oppose porn website age-verification (turns out, today’s parents are more afraid of data collection than their kids watching porn).
Stories with the word “porn” in them are important because they’re about censorship, sexual health, business trends, sex work, politics, gender and women. They’re about people.
But not for the world’s most popular search engine. Google’s war on sex took root in 2011 when Google Plus launched with a strict no-sex policy. In 2013, the company enacted a porn purge across Blogger, and Android’s Google Keyboard was updated to exclude more than1,400 “inappropriate” words, like “lovemaking,” “condom,” and “STI.” In 2014 Google Play banned sex-themed apps, and an algorithm change in Search destroyed organic results for sex websites. That same year Google made changes to its AdWords policies to prohibit sex-related advertising.
When Google launched in 1998, Nerve was one of the internet’s leading websites. It was an online magazine about sex with articles and featured erotic artists, busy personals, packed forums. It published terrific sex books by writers and photographers, and had a wildly popular free blogging service (one of the first). From 1997 through the early ’00s, Nerve was the fun, exciting, sex-positive place to be and hang out, bursting with creative communities, optimism, and hope that a vital future was being explored.
For many, Nerve represented a new era in which we could finally, freely talk about sex, gender, orientation, sex culture — and exchange ideas. Thanks to Nerve’s “literate smut” tagline and ethos, private acts of creation could make tortured people feel valid and whole. People don’t make sites like Nerve anymore. No one can.