Tumblr’s Decision to Deplatform Sex Will Harm Sexually Marginalized People

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Note: While this piece was being edited, articles and social media posts began to appear noting that Facebook has updated its Community Standards to effectively bar depictions and discussions of sex on the Platform.

Tumblr’s announcement that it will ban all visual content deemed pornographic from its platform starting on December 17th has been met with widespread incredulity and disbelief. The social media peanut gallery asks questions like “what else is Tumblr even used for?,” or simply declares the platform dead: “RIP Tumblr lol.” After all, the site is understood by many to primarily be a platform for the consumption and circulation of pornographic media - and specifically, of niche or kinky pornography that is difficult to find on major websites. Tumblr’s unique interface and the dominance of animated GIFs and short videos that can be easily (and anonymously) posted and shared make it an ideal venue for the consumption and distribution of media among communities with shared sexual interests. It follows logically that Tumblr’s decision to deplatform sex - or, perhaps, to de-sex its platform - will have ramifications for both its bottom line and its user-base.

“many queers, kinksters, people who engage in various kinds of sexual commerce, and transfolk who use the platform… are going to get shafted by the decision (and not in a good way).”

It is impossible to say what the full ramifications of Tumblr’s choice to scrub all visual sexual media from the platform will ultimately be for the company, its investors, and its users. However, what is clear is that many queers, kinksters, people who engage in various kinds of sexual commerce, and transfolk who use the platform - who I often refer to collectively as “sexually marginalized people” or “queers” - are going to get shafted by the decision (and not in a good way).

On the one hand, queers and pornography have long been targeted by the state, media, universities, and other institutions for censorship and other forms of repression. Understood in this way, Tumblr appear as simply the most recent addition to that particular bandwagon. On the other hand, though, Tumblr’s decision is a truly unprecedented attempt by a platform replete with sexual imagery and sexual social networks to de-platform sexuality. To do this work, Tumblr will need to develop and employ new algorithmic filtration technologies in a changing legal environment regarding sexual commerce, sexual media, and digital content liability policy. The ongoing Tumblr drama therefore raises important questions about the politics of sexuality and digital technology in a moment of heightened sexual anxiety and attacks on digital platforms that facilitate sexual economies in American culture.

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Why Would a Platform Built on Sexual Content Deplatform Sex?

Before exploring the ramifications of Tumblr’s decision, it helps to start with a very basic question: why did Tumblr choose to purge its pornographic content, which is seemingly against the desires of its user-base and its economic interests? In the official announcement, the firm does not provide a reason. Tumblr is owned by a company called Oath, which is a subsidiary of the tech giant Verizon. Only those in the Verizon C-Suite (and their teams of lawyers and consultants) can say why the site has chosen to deplatform sex in the way that it has.

However, some best guesses have been floating around the tech and sex industry media ecosystems. Tumblr’s decision could have been made in anticipation of federal “anti-trafficking” legislation called FOSTA/SESTA signed by President Trump in April. This law makes platforms liable for the content they host and expands definitions of “trafficking” to include essentially all sex work. Tumblr’s choice to scrub itself of all sexual content could be reaction to a recent content moderation-related snafu that caused Tumblr to be removed from Apple’s App Store. Or perhaps Tumblr is just responding to newly-invigorated and generalized conditions of sex panic in American society. Current anxieties around sex in American culture have led to the proactive suppression of sexual media, imagery, and even language in venues as varied as Wal-Mart check-out aisles, Facebook (and its subsidiary Instagram), Starbucks, McDonald’s, and Microsoft’s cross-platform Terms of Service.

While Tumblr’s reasons for effectively deplatforming sex will likely remain inscrutable, the decision appears in a different light when presented as just one development in an ongoing national sex panic.

 Trump signing SESTA/FOSTA on 4/11/18

Trump signing SESTA/FOSTA on 4/11/18

Tumblr is Shafting Sexually Marginalized People

Whatever Oath/Verizon/Tumblr’s motivations are, some of the ramifications of the decision for queers and sexually marginalized people are fairly clear.

Firstly, on December 17th - when graphical porn currently hosted on Tumblr will be converted to “private” and new uploads will be banned - a large number of distinct communities of sexually marginalized people in Leather, kink, fetish, and BDSM cultures that exist exclusively or largely on Tumblr will almost immediately vaporize. Scholars and journalists have written about the formation of sexual communities online generally and on Tumblr specifically. These sexy digital communities, to expand on a concept coined by sexual ethnographer Jason Orne, are crucibles of identity-formation for many people whose desires are non-normative or taboo. Tumblr provides people who experience queer desires with access to media where they see their desires represented, and the platform has features that help users interact with other people like them (if they so choose). This provides opportunities for people to cultivate new modes of self-understanding and to build support infrastructures. On the current course, after December 17th, many of these social networks on Tumblr will be gone and people will be forced to find other platforms.

Which raises the question: what other platforms?

Many small platforms for sexual commerce, media circulation, and community-formation among the sexually marginalized are changing how they regulate content or are going away entirely in the wake of FOSTA/SESTA’s passage. The best example is the closure of Pounced.org, which served the Furry community, and shut down due to fears of potential prosecution following FOSTA/SESTA’s revisions to section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the so-called “safe harbor provision.” Similarly, websites of varying sizes that cater to gay men and other communities have engaged in exceptional kinds of content moderation or the elimination of entire sections of their websites.

“Queers stand to benefit by paying close attention to the precise mechanisms, means, and justifications that Tumblr uses to effectuate its deplatforming of sex.”

Secondly, consumers of niche sexual media on Tumblr who do not engage in practices of “community formation” or “content sharing” per se - but who engage in what porn studies scholar Susanna Paasonen describes as “lurking” and what the less-academically-inclined might call “watching porn” - will find themselves with fewer places to go to consume the media they enjoy. In an environment where the range of venues to find niche pornographic media appears to be shrinking, the question of where these users will go to find what they are looking for is relevant and important to ask for those who are concerned with sexual freedom.

Thirdly, sex workers who advertise their services on Tumblr and/or who rely on the circulation of porn on Tumblr that features them will be shut out of a major segment of the market after December 17th. FOSTA/SESTA has already caused huge shifts in the sexual marketplace that initial reports suggest are overwhelmingly negative for sex workers. Tumblr’s decision to deplatform sex in the manner that it has will both materially deprive independent sex workers of a place to do business and will add to already-elevated anxiety among sex workers as we face an uncertain digital future.

Fourthly, transfolk who use Tumblr are likely to be negatively affected by Tumblr’s decision to deplatform sex. Many trans people use Tumblr and other media to document their transitions, to share strategies and stories, and to form communities. Tumblr’s announcement bans media that depict “female-presenting nipples.” While the company has seemingly worked to carve out exceptions for depictions of nipples when shown as part of breastfeeding, gender transitions, and health-related matters, the algorithms used to make decisions about which nipples get to appear on the site and which get filtered or scrubbed will inevitably be imperfect and will flag nipples incorrectly. Negative effects of Tumblr’s decision on trans communities are just one likely ripple effect of the broader decision to deplatform sexual media on the site.

Staying Vigilant as Tumblr Deplatforms Sex

As queers face a national sex panic, and as sexually marginalized users of Tumblr are forced to turn to an increasingly small number of alternative platforms, Tumblr’s choice to deplatform sex offers a chance to critically reflect on how queers will continue to make spaces for ourselves in new digital sexual economies. In 2018, many sexually marginalized people live increasingly precarious digital existences that can be radically reshaped by the whims of a new class of digital media technology oligarchs. This breed of elites has shown itself to be all-too-willing to bend the knee to powerful interests and to various iterations of moralism when called upon to do so and when it is in their economic interests. This sort of bending-of-the-knee is, in fact, what Tumblr is doing now.

Queers stand to benefit by paying close attention to the precise mechanisms, means, and justifications that Tumblr uses to effectuate its deplatforming of sex. The strategies the firm employs to get the job done in the coming months are worth understanding and discussing collectively and on an ongoing basis. This is because they are, unfortunately, potential harbingers for struggles that likely lie ahead in other efforts to deplatform sex.


Stephen Molldrem lives in Midtown, Atlanta.