Tumblr and the Fight Against Nipples

The problem with social media’s ban on sexual content and what it means for its users from marginalized backgrounds.

by Trisha

Content Notes: brief references to child pornography, misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia.

Background photo by Jan Antonin Kolar 🇨🇿 on Unsplash
Author’s Note: Tumblr’s guideline changes mark the banning of sexual content on almost every major social media website. This situation proves that Tumblr has the ability to widely ban something, and yet that something involves none of its real problems — not the porn bots, not the TERF harassment, not the actual child pornography. There is a choice here, and Tumblr has made its stance clear. Banning anything sexual altogether does nothing but hurt the sex workers and artists that have relied on Tumblr in the past several years. Tumblr is choosing, directly, as it has over and over again regarding its problems regarding sexual content, to not do the work that is truly necessary.

Last November, in response to the discovery of child pornography within the site, the Tumblr app was taken off the Apple App Store. Shortly afterwards, Tumblr released a new set of guidelines to be implemented from December 17th, 2018 onwards, which bans all sexual content ranging from a kiss to any semblance of nudity to porn. A more long-term No Nut November, if you will. It seems the site had gotten attached enough to consciously choose — after years of every possible fandom drama and porn bot persistence imaginable — to finally, finally, finally self-destruct.

After all, it is not as though Tumblr’s entire lifeblood is based around fandom, a multiple-legged monster of a subculture fed and fuelled mainly by sex and fanwork. No, of course not; we all know Tumblr is founded on the wholesome exchange of non-sexual memes between well-adjusted adult intellectuals. God forbid it owes anything to the SuperWhoLock culture that tore it apart continually in the mid-2000s and stitched it back whole as effectively, a kind of performance art mimicking the rapid expansion and contraction of a supernova.

Yet Tumblr has been just that for years — a dying star, haphazardly but nonetheless functioning through the underground channels of niche art, tentacle erotica, and garishly illicit Renaissance Era blogs that it is now keen to expel for all our sakes. With this new set of guidelines, it seems that Tumblr is saving us all the trouble of watching potential interstellar violence and pulling the plug on itself as we currently understand the site to be. It is purging itself completely, trusting that this ban will leave behind the three blogs that have not once in their histories reblogged or posted even one ‘flesh-coloured’ pixel. A supposedly ‘cleaner’ and purer Tumblr is the intention, because this site understands and respects our years of longing for it to return to its virtuous roots.

The new guidelines take care to note the specific banning of ‘female-presenting nipples’ because of course we all know how to distinguish those from male-presenting ones and find them especially offensive. I know I myself get a little light-headed when I stumble upon an Art History blog and have to see the two and a half female-presenting nipples in Botticelli’s Birth Of Venus. Tumblr understands, and it has since flagged and muted several of these blogs, protecting us from the horrible dangers of ones like ‘Body, Art and Argument’ and leading us back to where we need to be after we have gone astray towards the sex and body positivity movements that blogs like this have been working on in the past half-decade or so.

Who cares if a good majority of Tumblr users are women, or that the art culture on the site is notable for having come alive outside of spaces that straight cisgender men influence and control? Tumblr certainly does not. It has its priorities straight: it cannot let women have self-esteem and body positivity. It cannot let them have the space to create their own art and have an outlet for their self-expression. Nobody tell them they even have skin, for the love of God.

Tumblr does not want to stop at nudity; anything it perceives as sexual content, which of course includes anything related to body positivity and the LGBTQ+ community, needs to go. It has started expunging sex work blogs, a purge coming in the heels of the last widespread banning of LGBTQ+ blogs on the grounds that they are all NSFW. Marginalized communities on the site may work hard, but never fear — Tumblr works harder. The grind never stops; not only have sexuality blogs and adult content creators been banned, but queer support and history blogs have also been muted before the official implementation of the new guidelines — meaning that any new posts will not be seen by anyone except the blog’s owner, which is exactly what people want their public blogs to do.

Unfortunately for Tumblr, it does not get the distinction of being the first to do any of this. It is not the first to ostensibly target a problem related to sexual content only to end up catalyzing its own self-destruction; the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA), a pair of bills signed in April 2018, beat them to it on a more widespread level. These bills not only reveal that the people who named them did not have particularly creative titles for their undergraduate papers, but are also meant to suppress sex trafficking. In doing so, because the Internet never makes anything easy on anyone, FOSTA-SESTA tamper with Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, legally referred to as the ‘safe harbor of the internet’ — a cool name straight out of a questionably researched episode of CSI: Cyber, though not cool enough to distract from Section 230’s job to ensure that platforms and website publishers would not be responsible for what ends up posted on them. A job that FOSTA-SESTA has decided is not necessary, from here on holding websites responsible for third party content that are, essentially, in any way related to sex work, all because the people behind it cannot distinguish between sex work and human trafficking.

Poor Tumblr cannot even dream of achieving anything close to what has befallen Backpage — a site known for displaying ads for sex workers and for issues regarding illegal sex work, things for which it was awarded a special mention in the FOSTA-SESTA. Tumblr may have been taken off the Apple Store in retaliation to its child pornography controversies, but Backpage was found guilty of not intervening in child trafficking. Backpage ran so Tumblr could walk, and this child trafficking complicity is the reason we even have FOSTA-SESTA in the first place, with the bills having been created in the outrage following the fact that Backpage allowed child trafficking ads to be displayed at all.

Regardless of the intention behind the bills, however, all of this leads us to where we are: an online world devoid of nipples, primarily because a child trafficking lawsuit has led to an internet-wide crackdown. A transformed internet where websites now have to be legally accountable for sexual content, a requirement to which they all replied; “Sexual content? You mean sex workers and the LGBTQ+ community? You got it; it will be almost as if they were never here.” And of course, if there is anything bills that lack nuance are unparalleled at accomplishing, it is hurting the marginalized communities that could benefit from legal protection.

Nevermind, after all, that the internet makes it easier to find victims of nonconsensual sex work, and nevermind that it lends a degree of safety to sex workers, allowing them to operate within a regulated online environment. Nevermind that this will likely push sex workers back into physical spaces where there will be no guarantee clients can be screened and there will be one less layer of possible protection from violence and non-consensual interactions. Nevermind all this, for the people that got us here are already using a lot of brainpower in somehow distinguishing the gender of nipples; you cannot expect them to know what truly needs to be targeted in the realm of online sex work, too.

Nevermind, either, that queer content is not automatically sexual, despite the stance Instagram and Facebook have taken. Tumblr may not be the first to equate the most basic queer community references to graphic sexual content, but it is the first to look at the vast majority of its LGBTQ+ users and decide that it did not need users anyway. We can always trust Tumblr to know what to do when the going gets tough — such as, in this case, targeting the very nucleus of its existence. In this generation where humour goes down the self-deprecating route more than it does not, I can respect a good self-sacrificial story.

For — in the same vein that FOSTA-SESTA is successful if its intention was to endanger the people it should protect — what better way to chase away Tumblr’s child pornography issue than for it to ban anything and everything remotely sexual from the site when for years it has functioned as an online museum of exactly these? And why ban the Nazis and pedophiles on the site when it can just work on rejecting the fact that we all have bodies? Why single out child pornography, its main problem to begin with, when it can ban all art and photography from the site, despite being known as the last safe haven for unobstructed sexual information and content? Why improve its already existent filter and safe mode options when it can instead alienate the same artists to whom it had previously given a space and an audience? Why let sex workers have a space to safely move around in the blogging sphere when it can instead throw them out and leave them to fend for themselves in the name of making the site a ‘cleaner’ place?

Since the guidelines have been implemented, the Tumblr staff have attempted damage control and clarified that these new rules will still allow potentially NSFW posts should they be found in a medical, political or artistic context. Ever helpful, they provided posts with examples of these allowable images — all of which were flagged as soon as they were circulated beyond Tumblr’s main account.

Not only, then, has Tumblr successfully alienated the creators that form the majority of its population and missed the mark by a significant distance in targeting its real sexual content problem, it has also started flagging its own posts.

Meanwhile, the porn bots remain on the site.

Congratulations.

This is a world, after all, that does not know how to handle the nuances of social media. It is a world unequipped in dealing with issues that have not been a problem before this generation — and so the bodies governing them never seem to get it right, or perhaps are not interested in getting it right, preoccupied as they are with assumptions and without regard for what something as simplistic as a widespread ban on all sexual content might entail for the millions of people that participate in the internet system everyday.

Tumblr is interested simply in the idea of damage control and the ability to tout that they are doing something — not in targeting real issues. The same goes for every other social media site who cannot seem to be bothered to think about the implications and consequences of guidelines that harm more than they solve. The governing bodies of the internet do not care about that. They do not care about the niches and spaces that people of marginalized identities have been able to whittle for themselves on the internet, and they do not care that the idea of purifying the internet is as idealistic and impossible a thought as they come and therefore not solvable with one slight change in a complicated algorithm.

This, however, should come as no surprise. Tumblr and the rest of the internet, it seems, has achieved a level of thinking that surpasses all our puny hypo-sentient human brains; we can only watch in fascination in the next few months as Tumblr pursues choices none of us will understand.

What matters is that with all this, at least, female and LGBTQ content, whether sexual or not, can once again be regulated by the very people to whom these two labels do not apply. What matters is that, with all this, we might finally be a step closer to the days where social media was only for sharing our favourite Cubist paintings and Dadaist installations, and where the only gifs we can reblog are ones from Classical Hollywood films dating to when the Motion Picture Production Code was enforced — a code that forbade films from depicting couples sharing the same bed, for this counts as sexual perversion and married couples, as we all know, sleep in twin beds separated by a metre to leave room for Jesus. One can suppose that Tumblr has realized this, and now seeks a return to an Orwellian blogging utopia where artistic expression is controlled and the only sex around is a typo of the number six. Only then — only when Tumblr has successfully waited out its black hole stage of the supernova and given birth to a new version of itself no one would want to touch because they have all resorted to posting Naruto gifs on PornHub — can the world be at ease once more.

For this situation, we only have Tumblr’s CEO Jeff D’Onofrio and its parent company Verizon to thank. So thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for making the world’s biggest collection of free sexual content and expression the pinnacle of 21st-century censorship.