TikTok keeps recommending live ‘simulated sex’ videos to users

Person holding a phone in front of a TikTok logo

Have you seen the latest TikTok trend? You know, those livestreams.

The live videos in question involve a user, typically a young, clothed woman, simulating sex. The problem with the videos is that they’re being pushed to users who are not consenting to viewing sexual content or seeking it out on the app. TikTok removes these simulated sex livestreams once they are aware of them, but that is not always immediate because it generally depends on users to report the content. It can be quite jarring to see on your For You Page.

The videos are prohibited under TikTok’s adult nudity and sexual activities guidelines, which specifically mentions content that even “mimic, imply, or display sex acts.” TikTok in general has a large base of young users — according to the statistics site Statista, approximately 25 percent of TikTok users are are ages 10 to 19. However, as TikTok has grown, a majority of its users are now adults.

The trend has enough momentum that it’s generating a fair amount of conversation about the “disturbing” videos online. Interestingly, every post about the trend we came across was from users who encountered the video via TikTok’s For You Page, which is a personalized feed based off of an algorithm that delivers content it thinks users will enjoy. It’s a large part of why TikTok is so popular. You never know what video may pop up next.

This viral Twitter thread is full of people posting clips that were apparently recommended to them on their For You Page.

In a majority of these videos a person is seen on camera, usually shot from the shoulders up. They’re often laying down on a bed and simulating sex with a seemingly nonexistent or imaginary partner just off camera. Sometimes the creators start doing something mundane like eating or reading a book. In some streams, they talk with their followers as normal, like nothing is going on, while going through the motions.

Now, this is the internet. The videos are weird but in the hierarchy of weird things online, this doesn’t rank anywhere near the top. But again, this is against TikTok’s policies. And it’s clear from at least some of these videos that the people in the clips are monetizing their performance, sometimes receiving gifts in the chat from their viewers via TikTok’s Live Gifting program, which can then be turned into cash.

What is noteworthy here, however, is that TikTok seems to be promoting these videos to users who don’t want to see them at all.

It’s important to note that platforms like TikTok and Instagram have become increasingly hostile to sex workers, leaving many scrambling to find revenue streams or a new audience. It’s possible this trend started as such — or maybe it’s just a trend.

TikTok’s recommendation algorithm has been known for being freakishly in tune with what type of content its users want to see. Unsurprisingly, it looks like these live videos also get a lot of engagement, which likely informs the algorithm to further recommend the livestreams, even to those who don’t want it. Users can report videos and inform the app that they are not interested in specific content, but only after they have viewed it.

In addition to the removal of the stream, TikTok bans users who post such content from being able to use the platform’s live video feature. TikTok declined to comment on record.

TikTok isn’t the only platform having issues with mobile livestreaming. Streaming content has long provided a challenge to social media platforms, as automated systems that usually flag problematic uploaded clips will often miss the same type of content in a live video. In the aftermath of the Christchurch mass shooting in 2019, for instance, Facebook was heavily criticized as live video of the terrorist attack spread on its platform. YouTube recently faced backlash after limiting the amount of viewers on livestreams from users with low subscriber counts, a precautionary measure to limit prohibited live content on its platform.

Regardless, based on complaints from users, it appears these live videos continue to proliferate on TikTok’s For You Page.