Porn on Tumblr — a eulogy / love letter

I started taking my clothes off on the internet in 2011, I was 21 and at university looking to make extra money and explore my exhibitionist streak, I found a home on Tumblr.com. The site’s tolerance for NSFW content had introduced me to a global community of Internet Naked Girls™, maybe the first generation to have really grown up on social media - sharing our lives and images online and then realising we could capitalise on it. So I joined them.

welcome to my first tumblr nude and my 2011 backcombed hair.

I started out as an alt porn model, stripping and masturbating on web cam, then set up my own independent porn project, Four Chambers, right there on Tumblr. 6 years later, I’m screening my films around the world and it’s my full time job.

At 21 being “sexy” felt like it was defined by the world of mainstream porn that seemed to require a body type, presentation and level of perceived marketability that I felt excluded from as a weird, goth teenager. Finding DIY porn communities on Tumblr showed me that you didn’t have to be the cookie-cutter image of A Porn Star I had in my head. I could do things my own way, on my own terms.

Away from the immediacy of Twitter’s timeline and the punishing curated Instagram grid, your Tumblr was your intimate space, your messy bedroom. Your parents didn’t even know what “ a Tumblerer?” was. Anonymous enough that it allowed you to be vulnerable, public enough to feel seen. As a community we felt free to share and over share. Sex is too often kept in the shadows, it’s still an almost entirely private experience. What turns us on is confined to our deleted porn search history, away from polite society. The “everybody does it, just no body talks about it” line from Sarah Michelle Geller’s character in Cruel Intentions but on Tumblr, everybody was talking about it.

Tumblr made sex a community experience.

Sex wasn’t this separate, shameful thing, it was allowed it to exist right next to every other facet of our messy, millenial experience. We shared it, discussed it, debated it and curated it. Porn on Tumblr wasn’t treated as disposable, something just to be immediately purged from your browser history, but an aesthetic, artistic component of your page and your life, alongside your complementary colours of sunsets and song lyrics and personal posts. It was out in the open. It allowed you to become a collector of your own desires, displaying them and celebrating them proudly, rather than having them spoon fed by a tube site algorithm. If I look back at my blog I can see the gestation of every idea for every film I’ve made and probably every film I’ll make since.

This sharing was so desperately vital for women and other marginalised people who’s sexualities are often overlooked or infantilised in media about sex in preference for the tastes of the traditional porn consumer — the straight white guy. Tumblr dismantled that. It allowed for sex in a space that didn’t feel like it was dominated by male desire. For many it was the first time they enjoyed porn (see the tumblr porn gif fan club). As young people on Tumblr we explored our exhibitionism on our own terms, often posting nudes and sex confessions not primarily for the consumption of men but often for the support and validation of our friends. It facilitated our experimentation in a self directed, self initiated way.

It helped young, queer people find their communities and sexualities represented, to take control and represent them themselves. Self shot nudes on Tumblr were the first time I saw diverse, gender non conforming bodies presented as sexual on their own terms, bodies that are often censored, ignored or fetishised by mainstream depictions of sex. Existing alongside those communities online expanded my politics and my own perception of sex and attraction.

Although Tumblr (for it’s sins) is probably tasked with the rise of the “call your boyfriend daddy” cultural phenomenon: the domestic and accepting way diverse sex practices were presented by users demystified kink and alternative sexualities for my generation, expanding them from something only for middle aged men in underground sex clubs. You’d see and learn from couples sharing their explorations with fetish and polyamory in a way that felt accessible and relatable. It felt like Tumblr gave space for us as young people to try on and try out diverse sexualities from the relative safety of bedrooms and laptops — age play, pegging, fisting all in posts made by and for amateurs.

There’s often moral handwringing about young people putting themselves in potentially dangerous face-to-face situations while they learn about their boundaries with sex but then the avenues for relatively low risk experimentation and curiosity are being systematically closed as our online life becomes more sterilised and censored.

No one feels this current move towards censorship more than sex workers online, in this climate of post FOSTA/SESTA — a law criminalising websites that facilitates practices that could loosely be related to sex trafficking, resulting in mass extinction of sex workers and sex related content from online spaces — we’re being systematically removed at an exponentially increasing rate. It’s impossible not to see this cleansing of Tumblr in relation to that.

It’s leniency to NSFW media meant it became part of the modern day “real girl next door” sex work revolution, removed from the traditional adult industry and not homogenised and dictated over by old fashioned porn company ideals. On Tumblr you could record yourself masturbating, or fucking your girlfriend with a strap on and sell directly to your community of followers without putting yourself on a intimidating porn site and paying them a huge percentage. Your porn promo posts sat right next to your memes. Some users sold pin badges and patches, some sold homemade porn and worn underwear. Sites like Tumblr allowed people to do sex work and be independent and accessible, integrated with other communities in a way we aren’t permitted to be elsewhere.

People that would have been dismissed as “not marketable” to mainstream porn sites, sold their porn and did well. It allowed people with disabilities, young parents, people of colour, trans and gender non conforming folk (identities that make up a large majority of the community of sex workers and who are too often ostracised by a traditional, capitalist workplace) to make rent. It paid off people’s student loans and vet’s bills. It fed people’s families.

And it did all this from a space that felt safer, that felt more under our control.

As our lives move increasingly online, spaces that are safe for sex are becoming smaller and smaller. If we push our depictions of sexuality into the shadows, we allow them to continue be defined and co-opted by the status quo. Sex is as important as any other facet of the messy, complicated, multifaceted galaxy of what makes us human. To isolate it out only makes it scarier, breeding misinformation, confusion and shame.

For a while communities on Tumblr were a small, strange antidote to that. Thank you for the time we had, we have to preserve what space we have left.