Tumblr is banning all “adult” content. Besides being a terrible business move, this is also one of the most disingenuous decisions I’ve ever seen from an internet company. And I’ve seen a lot.
Yes, the change is happening because the Tumblr app was temporarily removed from the iOS App Store due to child pornography. (The collaborative database Tumblr shares with other companies that’s supposed to filter out probable child porn apparently let some posts through that shouldn’t have been.) Rather than justifying the new policy, though, that just adds insult to injury. In my (very heavily-regulated) field, we have a term for this: CYA.
The disingenuity of Tumblr’s statement starts very early on, when they describe their position on posting child porn: “Let’s first be unequivocal about something that should not be confused with today’s policy change: posting anything that is harmful to minors, including child pornography, is abhorrent and has no place in our community.”
That’s nice, but if you don’t want this policy change to be “confused” with banning child pornography, you might try not instituting it in response to getting criticized for allowing child pornography.
We spent considerable time weighing the pros and cons of expression in the community that includes adult content. In doing so, it became clear that without this content we have the opportunity to create a place where more people feel comfortable expressing themselves.
Which people? Who feels “uncomfortable” posting on a site that also allows adult content, and who will be made to feel uncomfortable—or even unsafe—now that this change is happening?
There are no shortage of sites on the internet that feature adult content. We will leave it to them and focus our efforts on creating the most welcoming environment possible for our community.
Are there? I mean, yes, there’s YouPorn and Fetlife and whatnot. These are very different types of websites than Tumblr. While I’m sure sex-friendly alternatives to Tumblr exist, I honestly can’t name any off the top of my head. Given how entrenched I am in internet culture, that suggests that there may well be a “shortage.”
Another thing, filtering this type of content versus say, a political protest with nudity or the statue of David, is not simple at scale. We’re relying on automated tools to identify adult content and humans to help train and keep our systems in check. We know there will be mistakes, but we’ve done our best to create and enforce a policy that acknowledges the breadth of expression we see in the community.
This is perhaps the most honest part of this entire statement, as it at least admits that there’s going to be collateral damage. Except realistically, it won’t be statues of David or even “political protests with nudity.” It will be queer, trans, and non-white individuals sharing their experiences and identities—the exact sorts of people who use Tumblr to “speak freely about topics like art, sex positivity, your relationships, your sexuality, and your personal journey,” as the statement admits.
What this means in practice is that, like Facebook and Instagram, Tumblr’s “automated tools” (along with the biased humans supposed to keep them “in check”) are going to ban photos of breastfeeding mothers, topless photos of trans men, references to menstrual blood, and the like. Many Tumblr users are already testing this, with hilarious but also depressing results.
And on the topic of topless photos. In their definition of “adult content,” the Tumblr team writes: “Adult content primarily includes photos, videos, or GIFs that show real-life human genitals or female-presenting nipples, and any content—including photos, videos, GIFs and illustrations—that depicts sex acts.”
What the fuck are “female-presenting nipples” and why are they less appropriate than “male-presenting nipples”? (What happens with nipples that are evidently nonbinary?)
The definition continues:
Examples of exceptions that are still permitted are exposed female-presenting nipples in connection with breastfeeding, birth or after-birth moments, and health-related situations, such as post-mastectomy or gender confirmation surgery.
Why are “female-presenting nipples” acceptable when it comes to birth or breastfeeding, but not when it comes to just existing on their own, without cancer or surgery?
Once my mastectomy scars heal, they’ll be barely visible, and once I buy fake adhesive nipples, my breasts are going to look extremely realistic (not to mention totally bangin’, but that’s a separate conversation). Say I want to post a photo to reassure other survivors that they are able to get these fantastic results too. Why wouldn’t my photo get flagged and removed?
The difference is pretty obvious. It’s not really about the gender of the nipples’ owners or whether or not they’re laying in a hospital bed. It’s simply this: tits are okay as long as they’re not there to titillate.
To that end, nipples that aren’t “female-presenting” are fine, because the assumption is that they’re not pornographic to anyone—nobody gets off on them. (That’s obviously false.)
What is all this for? What is Tumblr trying to change about the way their platform is used?
One word that keeps coming up in their communications about the change is “positive.” “A better, more positive Tumblr.” “We won’t always get this right, especially in the beginning, but we are determined to make your experience a positive one.”
The word “positive” is doing some interesting work in this statement and I want to unpack that a bit. In what way is a community without (consensual, legal) adult content a more “positive” (or more “welcoming”) community? What is “negative” about the presence of consensual, legal adult content? What is negative about “female-presenting” nipples as opposed to other kinds? Why is a breast uncovered for feeding a baby more “positive” than a breast that’s just hanging out?
The staff writes in their update to the community guidelines that “we do not judge anyone for their desire to post, engage with, or view this stuff,” yet they also say that a space without “this stuff” is “more positive.” What is that if not judgment?
There’s only one neutral word to accurately describe the new Tumblr, and that’s “more child-friendly.” The only reason for removing adult content is to make it (more) possible for children to exist safely in a space. But Tumblr already had a Safe Mode for that reason—a feature that is now being discontinued because it is no longer needed.
“More child-friendly” is not “more positive.” It’s just more child-friendly. And unfortunately, even that can be a loaded term. Many websites, most notably YouTube, have been criticized for removing LGBTQ content in the name of the children, even when the same content would be deemed appropriate if it featured straight, cisgender people.
(As an example, just think about how many people screech “BUT THE CHILDREN” if a same-sex couple cuddles or shares a quick kiss in front of kids. Yet these kids see similar forms of affection between their straight parents all the time. [I mean, judging by how shitty some of these people are at relationships, maybe not.])
Competing access needs are a thing. Yes, a space where people can freely post pornographic content will not be as open to minors, even if there is a Safe Mode. However, children as a group do not seem to be suffering right now for lack of websites to use. But queer and trans people, and sex workers (many of whom rely on Tumblr to make a living), absolutely are. And these are the types of people who have made Tumblr what it is. For example, many people I know used to enthusiastically follow Cliff Pervocracy’s Tumblr, an invaluable resource on consent and sex-positivity. As Cliff pointed out on Twitter, his Tumblr account was already banned even before this change was made.
I get freaking out because you’ve messed up something as serious as banning child pornography from your website. I really do. And I’d be more understanding of this change if the Tumblr team were at least upfront about that.
Instead, they literally come right out and state that a Tumblr without consensual adult content is a “more positive” Tumblr. They conflate consensual adult content with child pornography, which is as offensive as conflating consensual BDSM with violence and consensual sex work with trafficking.
And speaking of conflating sex work with trafficking: this is bigger than Tumblr and it’s bigger than getting kicked out of the iOS App Store. It’s a direct consequence of SESTA/FOSTA, and will probably get worse.
Our society’s irrational and extreme fear of sex is killing people and ruining lives.
But back to Tumblr: unless they reverse this change (unlikely), I’ll be ending my presence there. Whether or not you have a Tumblr account and do the same, here’s my charge to you—do not let anyone get away with framing these types of changes as “positive” or “friendlier” or even “safer.” At best, these changes make spaces more accessible to minors. At worst, they further stigmatize marginalized people and cut them off from community and financial support.
If that’s what we’re doing, let’s at least be honest about it.