On Monday, Tumblr announced plans to ban sexually explicit content starting December 17, and it’s already (badly) flagging offending posts. The new policy is a sucker punch to creators and users, particularly those who had come to appreciate that platform’s uniquely inclusive environment, including its linchpin of sex-positive content. But Tumblr’s sanitization directly impacts one community in particular: sex workers.
The Tumblr porn ban follows this year’s passage of controversial anti-sex-trafficking law SESTA/FOSTA, which led to the erasure of online spaces vital for sex workers. Now, sex workers say, they have been further silenced with the loss of yet another space—one that grew thanks in part to the communities they built.
Tumblr’s new Community Guidelines policy on adult content bans “images, videos, or GIFs that show real-life human genitals or female-presenting nipples—this includes content that is so photorealistic that it could be mistaken for featuring real-life humans (nice try, though).” This won’t include “certain types of artistic, educational, newsworthy, or political content featuring nudity,” but it does include any content “that depicts sex acts.”
Liara Roux, a sex worker and activist, told Gizmodo that her first reaction to the news that Tumblr would no longer allow people to post adult content “was one of betrayal.” Tumblr has “for a long time been a place where people who are sex workers or people in the queer community especially have been able to build spaces where they can like cultivate these very niche communities and promote their work,” she said.
Roux added that she’s already witnessing people self-censor or have their content flagged, and she plans to go through her own Tumblr account to ensure she deletes any content that might violate the new policy. She points out that this is especially sad because she loved her Tumblr fans, and feels they were “more respectful” than people on other social networks.
Last month, Tumblr disappeared from Apple’s app store. At the same time, users who posted adult content claimed that their blogs were being deleted. The push to scrub the service of sexually-explicit content has been partly attributed to Tumblr’s parent company, Verizon’s Oath, ramping-up efforts to eradicate “child sexual abuse material” from the platform, although the company has implied that child pornography and the ban of legal adult content are unrelated.
In an email to Gizmodo, an Oath spokesperson noted that SESTA/FOSTA was nowhere to be found in Tumblr’s blog post explaining the decision to ban porn. Instead, the company said it was based on a desire to “create a place where more people feel comfortable expressing themselves.” But the result for sex workers is exactly the opposite.
“Tumblr provided a free service that many sex workers relied on to share their content and market themselves,” Danielle Blunt, an NYC-based prodomme, told Gizmodo. Blunt said that she created a Tumblr profile after SESTA/FOSTA was signed into law because she was concerned her website would be taken down. “The resources that we use to build community and work are disappearing. Platforms are erasing us from the web,” Blunt said. “Whorephobic and femmephobic censorship, like the TUMBLR ban, will continue to harm already marginalized communities.”
Tumblr’s adult-content ban “is another example of how companies use the labor, imagery and content of sex workers to build their businesses on our backs—and then kick us off their platforms when it becomes inconvenient,” Blunt added.
Roux said that she knows sex workers who have been kicked off of Facebook, Tinder, OkCupid, and Instagram. Tumblr’s following where the internet seems to be headed—one that is unwelcoming to sexual content, forcing users to self-censor or risk being erased. “What this does is it reinforces this stigma, and it’s really isolating when you’re no longer able to use the same apps that your friends use,” Roux said, adding that “this results in a real sense of shame.”
“And so when you force sex workers off of platforms like this you’re making it even harder for them to build positive social lives, to end stigma,” Roux said, “because there’s no way to make people see us as human if we’re no longer allowed to share our stories in a personal way on social media.”