I watched a recently released Netflix original movie called Cam this past weekend. It’s a thriller set in the world of live camera online sex work. After watching, Cam felt to me like a tiny step forward in presenting pornography and sex work in a good light. The conflict of the story wasn’t the salaciousness of the work itself, but a switched identity plot device. The main protagonist, Alice, is an ambitious cam model with full control over her body, career, and upward mobility within the industry. Even her mother got on board with her line of work. There may be flaws in the plot, but mostly, former cam model and screenwriter, Isa Mazzei, crafted a pretty cool narrative without falling into victim tropes and ultimately making the audience root for a sex worker to continue her trade.
Then the very next day, I read that Tumblr announced that they are going scorched earth with pornographic content by removing it from the site entirely, save for a few types of nudity related to things like breastfeeding and health. Sex acts, genitalia, and “female-presenting nipples” are on the chopping block.
These two events seem like two ends of a tug-of-war when it comes to how the public views sex work, a historically maligned profession which has in recent history taken many positive steps to allow its workers to be safe, more respected, and empowered. Successful entrepreneurs in the industry are common, partially due to platforms which allow their content to be marketed. Tumblr’s decision feels very much like a condemnation of sex work and pornography as a whole, and specifically ends up targeting marginalized groups who rely on the site in a number of ways.
Tumblr’s decision feels like a condemnation of sex work as a whole, and ends up targeting marginalized groups who rely on the site.
If you’re unfamiliar, Tumblr is a microblogging site that hosts user-created content from every spectrum of life: art, politics, personal journals, pop culture, philosophy, science, and a large space carved out for adult content. This content, which often promotes the professional work of its creators (artists, filmmakers, sex workers, writers, and many other subcultures), has previously flourished when many, many other platforms have banned it. Marketing, financial transactions, and operations for these businesses are already hamstrung by banks, PayPal, Patreon, and other social networks who ban or won’t allow promotion of the content. For those of us who support safe and consensual adult sex work, this has the appearance of making it unnecessarily harder for folks to make a living online. For others, it feels like the only way to save the children (why won’t somebody think of the children?!).
Tumblr has been a haven to non-heterosexual and non-cisgender markets: queer people looking for advice, representation, and sex education (which is severely lacking in schools), sex workers, and also queer people with absolutely no adult content. All of these users may have content on their blogs with would be labeled as “NSFW” purely because sexuality and gender are often only seen within the lens of sex, especially by those not within those communities. You know, the ones making these decisions and creating the bots to ban them. Removing one of the last mainstream platforms for this type of content, both pornographic and purely educational, leaves these segments of the population even more bereft than they had been previously.
So sure, people with access to other resources and adult content where people look like them will still be out, but there are communities and business owners who will be especially affected, and it’s not hard to see that it could be intentional.
This is all extremely unfair to sex workers, and also for users whose creative expression and social networking strategy involves sexuality. Usually, queer sexuality.
Speaking for myself, I’ve been using Tumblr as a promotional tool for my sex work, as well as a way to meet clients for private online sex work. I’ve been doing this since 2014, and it has been a vital survival strategy for me. I have thousands of followers on Tumblr, and now I have to start all over again on a brand new platform. A platform that, honestly, is not much more friendly towards sex workers than Tumblr.
But also, this is about more than just sex workers. This is also catastrophic for the LGBT community on Tumblr as a whole. Terms associated with queerness regularly get flagged as pornographic. SafeSearch, on many platforms, filters out words as innocent as ‘gay.’ Already, we can see lots of SFW content being flagged for deletion on Tumblr due to the inaccuracy of their algorithms. This is going to devastate a platform that has been a safe haven for queer youth, especially transgender youth.
Are personal note, Tumblr has been important to me, both monetarily and socially. I met some of my closest friends, also sex workers, through Tumblr. I’ve met clients who help me pay my rent. And, prior to transitioning, exploring my sexuality on Tumblr felt like a safe way to express my femininity and experiment with gender. I don’t know if I would have figured it all out if I didn’t have that space.
Tumblr claims that targeting adult content is an effort to help stop sex trafficking and child pornography, but it’s interesting that it coincides with the need to remain in Apple’s App Store, which prohibits adult content. Apple’s aversion to pornography on its platforms has been well publicized and has a sanitizing effect on the internet as a whole. Tumblr has a lot of problems that aren’t related to adult content: huge numbers of Nazi blogs, violent content blogs, discriminatory blogs, Russian troll farms, and oh so much more. Social media has been notoriously bad at stamping out those types of content and allowing trolls and bots to overrun it.
This is also catastrophic for the LGBT community on Tumblr as a whole. Terms associated with queerness regularly get flagged as pornographic.
Tackling sex trafficking and other criminal content is important, but it’s nuanced and can easily be destructive to perfectly healthy communities. It takes a lot more than a blanket ban on a lot of great content and computer algorithm moderators banning Renaissance paintings and queer education. So we struggle on with our dichotomy of “morals” and “safety” and all things good and bad just as we do in politics and within our increasingly divided communities.
And it looks like Tumblr may not be able to cash in on the App Store when its users bolt leaving it a boneyard. A boneryard? Post banned!