Tumblr’s porn ban and the bigger issue of it all

By Audrey Popa

Updated May 16, 2020 at 10:58 AM

Reading time: 3 minutes

Tumblr’s culture was oddly contrasting when it emerged on the scene several years ago. It resembled characteristics of MySpace, provided anonymity to users and spurred cultures of fandoms across groups of strangers. The important and differentiating factor about Tumblr and millions of users was that whatever obsession and passion (sexual or not), there was a group for you within it. Whether that was the intention of the company founders or a freak result due to the platform’s structure, Tumblr always differed compared to other mainstream platforms.

Even in terms of demographic, the company’s user base differed when compared to others. Yahoo in a 2017 study stated that there were about 100,000 producers of sexually explicit content on the website, and of that, approximately 30 million users engaged with the content. Interestingly, the report found that 68 percent of these consumers were in fact female and that the average age of these consumers was over the age of 26. In a world dominated by male-centric adult content, it’s important to note that Tumblr provided for its audience in ways other companies have failed to.

Recently, the company officially made a decision to ban “photos, videos, or GIFS that show real-life genitals,” as well as “female-presenting nipple.” Funnily enough, even though it’s evident that the company is tackling porn on their pages—the word itself is not mentioned once in the public statement. The current CEO stated in turn that the website was a space for freedom, creativity and a platform to express things like sex positivity and art. However, the company’s latest form of censorship leaves it near impossible for many users to express any forms of sexual positivity, thus destroying an outlet that provided LGBTQ+ communities, sex workers and everyday individuals an outlet for things as simple as forums discussing things such as transitioning, sexual discoveries, struggles or celebration of adult content, whatever the fetish.

These groups and communities, which were heavily geared toward female demographics and queer communities, provided a safe space for many to discover, connect and learn. To be completely honest and annoyingly cliche, “adult content” is a huge part of art in general, and the platform’s ability to give sex workers, actors and directors a platform that allowed for creative expression (which isn’t seen as often through generic unpaid porn websites) was something truly respectable.

The decision—which shocked and angered many—was said to have been in the works for some time now, even though what seems to have pushed the company was Apple’s recent decision to remove the app from its store after child pornography was discovered on the application. But even prior to the scandal, when Verizon bought Yahoo (which had bought Tumblr a few years prior), the company introduced a “safe mode” for the application. The feature provided users with an option to filter out what was deemed sensitive information from their own dashboard, but almost immediately after the feature was introduced, users noticed that non-explicit content was instead being filtered out, and amongst that, large amounts of LGBTQ+ posts.

There is obviously a difference between child pornography and adult content, but identifying that differentiation would involve money and time that might not seem worth it to the company and its stakeholders. Eliminating any and all sensitive or adult content is an easy and inexpensive way to overcorrect the problem at hand. The issues involving child porn on the website, as well as other less publicised issues (including instances of revenge porn), are problems that need to be tackled. But the move for this “all in one” solution has resulted in the continued marginalization of groups who had found a safe space on the platform. Another point worth making is that Tumblr’s public attempt to navigate the complex issue of adult content shows that the company (and possibly our society, too) is more offended by nipples and sexual expression than blatant hate speech and violence (feel free to go on Tumblr and look up White Power or White Genocide).

The adult content on the site has for years catered to demographics that usually are either underrepresented, never primarily considered or completely ignored in the world of online adult content, forums and communities. The message consistently being declared is that there is only one type of sexualised world supported by the internet, and it is white, male, and straight. I am in no way stating that the horrible events that take place online involving child pornography and trafficking are justifiable—there need to be solutions to make the internet safer from these criminal acts. However, the decision to eliminate entire communities off of the internet (which let’s be real, have irreversibly become intertwined with education, sexuality and expression) feels enormously intruding. It’s also a reminder that digital aspects of our lives, which we hold dearly, can be easily taken away.

The good news is that it is unlikely that Tumblr’s decision will leave users without safe platforms for too long. With such an uproar from the online world, it’s evident that there is a need and a demand for these safe spaces, and that users will be more than happy to move somewhere else. From a business standpoint, maybe it is time to start questioning why there’s such a largely untapped market with no businesses truly moving into this area. There’s a need for a platform like this—one that’s inclusive, progressive and safe; one that doesn’t group child pornography and non-consensual sexual acts with adult content, nudity and sex positivity for marginalised groups of people.

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