Tumblr, a site long known for its independent creative communities, has announced it will be banning adult content on Dec. 17 — which happens to be the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, a day set aside to memorialize the many losses felt by a particularly at-risk community.
It can’t be stated clearly enough: Tumblr’s ban on porn will harm sex workers and other queer communities. Taken as part of an overall anti-sex, pro-censorship trend currently racking the internet, it’s even more frightening.
I’m a sex worker, erotic content creator and a longtime Tumblr user. I started using the platform around the time of its launch in 2007. I went to the site to find poetry and art I appreciated, but I also discovered a vibrant queer community that flourished there. Through Tumblr, I learned words to explain my sexuality and gender identity. As I grew older and started my career, I began using Tumblr to promote my sex work, specifically my porn.
It breaks my heart that the platform which gave me a safe space to explore my sexuality is now reinforcing the stigma and shame sex workers face daily.
Sex work is not easy work. We face high levels of violence (including from law enforcement), difficulties finding acceptance in our personal life (even suffering bans from dating apps) and a lack of access to basic resources like bank accounts. Tumblr was a place I could safely promote my content, earn money and form a community that became almost like family.
It breaks my heart that the platform that gave me a safe space to explore my sexuality and helped me cultivate a sense of pride in my identity as a queer person and a sex worker is now reinforcing the stigma and shame sex workers face daily.
Tumblr’s announcement comes two weeks after the discovery of child pornography on the site. While it’s a noble endeavor to want to eliminate illegal content on their site, there is little evidence to suggest that overbroad algorithm-based bans of adult content are an effective way to combat sexual exploitation. Aside from the many false positives already flagged, experts have noted that pushing legitimate content creators off the public internet doesn’t eliminate the illegal content, it simply makes bad actors harder to find.
Unfortunately, legislation like FOSTA/SESTA (which was passed earlier this year) was written to encourage such broad crackdowns on adult material, allowing sites to absolve themselves of responsibility by using automated banning mechanisms. Websites can find themselves at increased legal risk if they try to craft policies that require individual and nuanced attention. These automated banning policies make it harder for consensual workers to safely conduct their business, report abuse and share safety resources that can help trafficking victims.
Rather than distancing themselves from all sexual content, society would be better served by tech companies working alongside sex workers, who are natural experts and allies in the fight against exploitation and continuously work to improve harm reduction resources in their communities. Sex workers can recommend policies that will help protect their safety, including devising reporting systems specifically to deal with harassment, violence, underage content or forced labor.
Society would be better served by tech companies working alongside sex workers, who are natural experts and allies in the fight against exploitation.
We know better than anyone the downsides and challenges of the job, and we know that those should never be faced by minors. Many of us have been victims of abuse at some time, and many of us worked while we were younger than we would have liked — but now that we are independent and keeping our incomes, we focus on protecting those around us. We are passionate about protecting our community.
When I was just starting my career, it was other sex workers on Tumblr (who I often originally found through their adult content posts) who helped me with tips on how to avoid dangerous clients and predators, keep myself safe from STIs, and offered me self-care tips alongside basic business advice. Under Tumblr’s new guidelines, those protective communities will disappear.
Tumblr is following in the footsteps of other sites (like Patreon) that have begun banning porn outright, stating that other there are other places people can find adult content. However, these options are becoming increasingly limited and trending towards sites operated by massive corporations like MindGeek, a media conglomerate that essentially holds the monopoly on internet pornography.
When our content is in the hands of massive pornography corporations, it takes control away from independent creators and communities. That means less content geared toward sexual interests that are considered niche — often queer porn or porn that isn’t centered on thin, cis bodies.
Sure, the technology is out there to allow users to continue browsing a variety of porn from independent producers, but it will require a real effort on the part of content producers and platform creators to regain the same freedoms of the early internet. With Tumblr becoming the latest in a long line of casualties (we’ve tracked over 150), it should be blatantly obvious that we can’t leave the future of online communication to a handful of massive corporations.
Access to online opportunities have been an essential part of the safety sex workers have gained in this industry. Every platform we lose means some of that hard-earned safety is lost.
By pushing us off of its site, Tumblr is forcing sex workers further into the margins of society. Tumblr is communicating that any and all pornography is not art, but dirty and wrong, and that sex workers should be hidden from sight and ghettoized. Phrasing this as an attempt to make the site “more positive” (while hate speech on the site continues to be public) rubs salt into the wound.
The world of internet pornography is more than just a place for adult sexual content, it’s also a community of like-minded people. Porn is often how people are introduced to and able to understand their queer sexualities and identities. Pornography is a space that allows LGBTQ people to finally see themselves and their sex lives written, drawn or filmed and not treated like it’s something bad or abnormal.
If consensual sexual content is censored, limited views on queer sexuality may follow. Queer communities have been able to make great strides in recent years in part because of the humanizing force of social media; it would be painful to have that stigma rear up once more.
If the trend of silencing sex workers continues, the results will be devastating. Access to the same platforms and online opportunities as everyone else have been an essential part of the safety we have gained in this industry — female homicide rates dropped overall in this country after Craigslist launched its erotic services sections — and every platform we lose means some of that hard-earned safety is lost.
Tumblr’s decision to ban adult content will hurt more than it will help. If the platform really wants to create a “better, more positive Tumblr,” it should embrace and protect the marginalized communities on its site — something they should be proud of — and take more effective steps to engage in a community solidly dedicated to ending sexual exploitation and creating a better, more positive world for human sexuality.
Disclosure: Tumblr and HuffPost share a parent company, Oath.
Liara Roux is a sex worker, independent adult media producer and director, a political organizer focused on freedom of expression for adult workers online, and an advocate for decriminalization and protection of consensual adult activity including queer and sex worker rights and safety worldwide.