Tumblr’s ban on adult content is more than a commercial mistake – it’s a personal loss

The platform’s move just reinforces the social restrictions most of Tumblr’s users sought to escape in the first place

Kuba Shand-Baptiste
Tuesday 04 December 2018 15:50
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Tumblr to ban all adult content

We just simply can’t afford to take risks, went Craigslist’s statement following the passing of a bill that saw personals “regretfully” removed from the website. “To the millions of spouses, partners and couples who met through Craigslist, we wish you every happiness!” they rounded off with, which felt a little bit like having your cake and eating it too.

When Instagram finally articulated its reasoning behind removing mostly harmless posts featuring “female nipples” in 2015, “safety” was cited as one of the “variety of reasons” for doing so. Again, it was all apparently about the mitigation of risk.

Of course, that may be true. The internet is (obviously) a potentially dangerous place for children if they’re exposed to harmful imagery, or people. But in more cases than not, banning adult content isn’t always simply a matter of serving a greater good, or protecting kids – in fact, as is the case with Tumblr’s impending adult content ban, the results for the adults who make and consume it can often be devastating.

Likely in anticipation of backlash, the blogging platform admitted that it “won’t always get [it] right”, but that its adult content ban was being imposed this week “out of love and hope” for its community. That seems like an odd thing to say, given the fact that Tumblr’s so-called “community” is largely made up of marginalised groups who first flocked to Tumblr precisely because of its relaxed approach to nudity and sex.

In fact, anti-censorship was generally understood to be one of Tumblr’s core principles, especially given its founder and former CEO David Karp’s outspokenness about the importance of net neutrality prior to technology giant Verizon’s purchase of the company in 2017, after its acquisition of Yahoo (which bought Tumblr in 2013).

It was the place where I first grasped the true meaning of body positivity, an idea lead by fat activists, which smashed social conventions of beauty into pieces and shaped them around their own bodies – bodies they were supposed to loathe and hide from the world.

Within weeks of signing up, I saw posts of not just fat women but obese women, confident, dancing, and uninterested in anyone’s approval or faux-concern for their health. More often than not, these people were naked. And because they were, I soon realised that aside from my own body, I hadn’t ever seen images of fat people, taken by fat people, without shaming commentary attached.

I soon moved on to follow blogs more exclusively focused on adult content. Sex blogs run by independent feminist porn directors, couples with an equal appetite for activism and sharing sex tips, many of which provided me with more of an education about what consensual, healthy sex could mean for everyone – not just cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied people.

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For queer, fat, disabled people and people of colour especially, Tumblr, the internet cubby of smut and social justice, was a saviour of sorts. And not just in the wholesome sense. Tumblr porn was and still is (up until 17 December, when Tumblr will begin to pull adult content from the website) a means of creating a sense of belonging that you just don’t find on other adult websites. One of few safe and reliable places left online for sex workers to conduct business, it is also a source of income for a great deal of people who have been put out by censorship rules.

What exactly motivated Tumblr’s decision isn’t clear at this stage – but given Verizon’s censor-happy history, it’s not hard to guess. This is a company that, in a 2012 legal brief to the US Court of Appeals over the Federal Communications Commission’s Open Internet Order, argued it should be able to “decide which content to publish and where”, as well as featuring “some content over others”. In 2007, it blocked an abortion rights group from using its services for a text message programme.

Tumblr’s “not safe for work” rule is simply a further extension of increasing controls on what we’re allowed to consume on the internet, especially when it comes to sexual expression. And it doesn’t seem likely to stop soon.

For all its claims of safety, especially for children, forming the basis of its decision, the fact that a company has the power to force an eclipse on what it deems to be unsavoury is a huge problem. It just reinforces the social restrictions most of Tumblr’s users sought to escape in the first place.

Considering the reduction in the amount of new users signing up to the platform and a failure to keep up with its existing ones, this could well be the final nail in the coffin for Tumblr. It only has itself to blame.

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