Since its founding in 2007, Tumblr was generally considered one of the most porn-friendly social media platforms. It was a place where users could form communities around their shared love of hardcore GIFs and soft-core photos, where porn performers could set up their own mini-websites without fear of being kicked off the service for posting obscene content.

Earlier this month, all that came to an end. After over eleven years of tacitly — and sometimes actively — supporting the porn fans and porn creators using their platform, on December 17, 2018, Tumblr’s leadership announced that pornography would no longer be allowed on the platform.

For many, the move came as a shock; a betrayal of the anything-goes attitude that’s long been assumed to underpin the infrastructure of the internet. But Tumblr isn’t alone in its newfound aversion to adult content. The week before the company’s porn ban announcement, Starbucks announced plans to debut a porn filter on its in-store WiFi, and the United Kingdom has spent over a year working out the details of an age verification system that would require all would-be porn viewers to register with a database before accessing adult content.

The recent crackdowns on pornography, Stabile says, are the culmination of a mounting anti-porn panic.

After decades of helping to define the internet, porn seems to be on the verge of becoming taboo again, pushed out of the public eye and segregated into the dark, seedy corners of the internet. For those who’ve long been accustomed to adult content having free reign of the internet, it’s a shift that feels dramatic and sudden. And yet the truth is that these changes are the result of a slowly building backlash, one that’s been gaining ground for years.


There’s always anxiety about sex,” says Michael Stabile, Communication Director for the Free Speech Coalition, the adult industry’s national trade association. “But there are points at which the fever builds more.” Stabile says that anxiety about porn comes in waves, with major cultural events like the debut of the birth control pill, the explosion of the AIDS crisis, and the introduction of the internet as flash points for panic around open depictions of sex. The recent crackdowns on pornography, Stabile says, are the culmination of a mounting anti-porn panic.

At its inception, the internet was heralded as a liberalizing force — particularly when it came to attitudes about sex. And the discretion and privacy afforded by the internet have indeed been a boon to the adult industry. People who may have been far too shy to go see a porn movie at the theater, or rent a triple X-rated VHS tape at their local video store, have far fewer compunctions about accessing an adult site in the privacy of their own homes. The introduction of smartphones added to that sense of discretion, and proliferation of free porn sites like Pornhub made made access even easier.

But just as the internet was making it easier to discreetly explore pornography — and reducing the shame and stigma of porn consumption in the process — it also sparked backlash to that very same normalization.

Some of that resistance came from cultural commentators, including liberal feminists who would generally consider themselves on the side of sexual freedom. Long before the launch of Pornhub, cultural commentators like Pamela Paul and Ariel Levy were warning of a rapidly “pornifying” culture that would render young people incapable of having healthy sex lives — a fear that’s been amplified by discussions of “porn addiction” (a designation that remains controversial among mental health professionals, and has never been included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders).

A recent Atlantic piece examining the potential causes of a documented downturn in the frequency with which we’re having sex demonstrates the deeply ingrained idea that porn is detrimental to sex. Even as author Kate Julian dismisses the idea of “porn addiction,” she still sees reason to raise a red flag about the proliferation of porn, writing that, even if it’s not addictive, many young people are still “pick[ing] messing around online over actual messing around,” and that, more chillingly, “there’s reason to think that porn may be contributing to some particularly unpleasant early sexual experiences,” by normalizing violent and extreme sex acts.

Long before the launch of Pornhub, cultural commentators like Pamela Paul and Ariel Levy were warning of a rapidly “pornifying” culture.

These notions of porn as something dangerous and damaging were well in place by the time the internet itself started to shape-shift. Although it began as something of a libertarian paradise — a place where anyone could do pretty much whatever they wanted — in the early 2000s, corporations began exerting control over the internet’s infrastructure.

In 2002, Visa and Mastercard announced that porn sites would now be considered “high risk,” a designation that meant pornographers who wanted to accept money on the internet would be slapped with additional fees and, as a result, banned from most mainstream payment processors, including PayPal, Amazon Pay, SquareCash, and Stripe. In 2008, Apple launched the App Store with a strict no porn policy. The iPhone may have helped make our porn consumption more intimate, but apps have remained squeaky clean — a significant barrier for pornographers, as apps have become an increasingly popular way to consume online content.

Indeed, Tumblr’s decision to ban adult content from its servers was the endpoint of a years-long evolution in the company, one which moved it towards becoming more corporate. Tumblr’s transformation kicked off in 2013 when the plucky startup was acquired by Yahoo!, and only intensified last year when Verizon took ownership and founder David Karp departed. Notably, it wasn’t public outcry or government pressure that led Tumblr to give porn the ax — it was a dispute with Apple over the Tumblr app’s ability to comply with the App Store’s terms and regulations.

Meanwhile, politicians have consistently attempted to regulate online porn and the adult industry as well. During the George W. Bush years, the Justice Department was fond of pursuing obscenity litigation, and a collection of onerous regulations, known as 18 USC 2257, pushed many adult companies completely out of business. Although the Obama Administration was relatively hands-off about pornography, that period was defined by state level attempts to severely regulate the adult industry, with numerous proposals requiring extensive safety precautions and expensive permits for porn production floated as potential legislation.

When the Republican Party officially declared porn to be a “public health crisis” in their 2016 party platform, it was a bold new strike against an empowered adult industry, one that mirrored anti-porn actions being taken across the globe. In the United Kingdom, the Digital Economy Act of 2017 kicked off the development of a nationwide age verification database that’s intended to ensure no one views any porn without proving they’re of legal age (the database, which was set to debut this spring, has been delayed multiple times and is currently scheduled to launch in spring 2019). In India, the government recently renewed efforts to block all porn sites; in Malaysia, the police now routinely monitor the online habits of local porn consumers.

For Conner Habib, a sex workers’ rights activist and host of the podcast Against Everyone With Conner Habib, this extended history puts the lie to the idea that porn was ever seen as acceptable in American culture. Habib, who started shooting porn in 2007, tells me that “the idea that [our views on porn] got better is a myth,” one that gave ammunition to anyone looking to make the claim that porn had conquered our culture and needed to be reined in.


Even as porn has faced consistent pushback and increased regulation, there’s still been a shift toward acceptance in how we talk about adult content. This change is particularly apparent in the media, which has become dramatically more open to discussing adult content in recent years. Stormy Daniels’ job may be fodder for late night talk show one-liners, but she’s still been treated with significantly more respect than porn performers have been in the past. After the passage of the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), numerous mainstream outlets weighed in with thoughtful pieces about the harm the bill would cause to sex workers. Even teen-focused sites like Teen Vogue routinely acknowledge the existence of porn, sometimes even in positive and affirming ways.

And even as the porn industry faces a number of legal setbacks, they have also achieved some undeniable political gains. After numerous legal challenges, regulation 18 USC 2257 has been largely dismantled.

Voters, too, have seemed to be increasingly aligned with pornographers. In 2012, Los Angeles voters overwhelmingly backed a ballot initiative that required all productions shot within the city limits to employ condoms and file for expensive health permits — restrictions that ultimately drove most productions out of the city (or, in some cases, underground). In 2016, a similar initiative failed to pass at the California state level. “In the midst of all the dark times of 2016, we defeated Proposition 60,” says Ela Darling, porn performer and CMO of VR headset company, PVR. In the aftermath of that victory, “everyone was riding high…. The victory there gave us reassurance that we weren’t standing by ourselves. That the state in which the porn industry grew and thrived had our back.”

And these shifts in opinion may explain why John Stagliano, the founder and owner of the taboo-busting porn company Evil Angel, positions the recent trend towards censorship as merely a bump in the road. Over his thirty-five year career, Stagliano has weathered numerous attacks on his business, including being the subject of a federal obscenity prosecution that was ultimately dropped in 2010. Unlike Habib, Stagliano takes the long view of society’s perception of porn. In comparison to earlier movements that argued for the eradication of porn itself, and the jailing of pornographers, movements that merely attempt to curtail its distribution and spread can seem like a welcome change — and, for Stagliano, they’re a sign that, in spite of the battles the adult industry may lose, pornography is, in the end, winning the culture war.

“Culture is evolving to be more tolerant of divergent viewpoints,” Stagliano tells me, citing increased acceptance of marijuana use, same-sex relationships, and trans and non-binary gender identities, as examples. “Clearly, from when I started in the 1980s until now, people are becoming more accepting of porn.”

The loss of Tumblr as a platform for distributing adult content is a significant shift from the anything-goes environment of the early 2000s, but it’s small potatoes when compared to the litigation that once landed pornographers in prison. Pornography may always be under attack, but over time, the attacks seem to cede ground to the pro-porn side. And, that, ultimately, seems like a sign in favor of Stagliano’s confident assessment that — as he tells me towards the end of our call — “we’re winning.”