Banning ‘adult content’ won’t make Tumblr better or healthier

What does Tumblr's decision mean for those who rely on the site as one of the only sexually permissible online spaces? Jillian York asks.

The Tumblr application is seen on a mobile phone in this illustration photo 7 March 2018. REUTERS/Thomas White/Illustration

Over the years, Tumblr has been many things: The butt of jokes about precocious ‘woke’ teens, a site where fan fiction and pro-eating disorder writing both thrive, a place where robust communities centered around extremely specific topics have blossomed, and yes, one of the centralized Internet’s most sex-friendly locations.

But as of December 17, no longer: This week, Tumblr announced that going forward, all ‘adult content’ – defined as photos, videos, and GIFs ‘that show real-life human genitals or female-presenting nipples’ or imagery ‘depicting sex acts’ – will be banned on the site. Written content, such as erotica, remains permitted.

While Tumblr CEO Jeff D’Onofrio denied in a blog post that the decision was related, it’s worth noting that Tumblr’s iOS app has been unavailable in Apple’s App Store since mid-November after a routine audit by Apple found child sexual abuse material. Tumblr, for its part, quickly removed the material, which it had not found through its own database scans.

The announcement came as a surprise to many of Tumblr’s users, which include erotic and nude photographers, porn actors, breastfeeding moms, trans communities, and many others who rely on the site as one of the only sexually permissible centralized online spaces. After all, Facebook and its properties are notoriously prudish; the various App stores have been known to censor women’s bodies as well as anything they deem ‘adult content’; and Microsoft has been known to boot users just for storing or sharing nude imagery on its private services. Of all of the social networks, only Twitter remains as a semi-safe place for adult content, so long as it’s properly labeled.

Gender inequality?

‘Is there a dumber phrase in the English language than ‘female-presenting nipple?’ tweeted my colleague, Eva Galperin. Indeed. In an era where gender is increasingly recognized as fluid, it seems an odd time for Tumblr to include in its adult content ban ‘female-presenting nipples’.

What, exactly, is a ‘female-presenting nipple’? According to one frustrated Tumblr user who took to Twitter to complain about the ban, the definition could include drag queens, in addition to cis- and transgender women. It’s unclear where Tumblr stands on non-binary individuals whose breasts might present as ‘female’ to content moderators, although Instagram has in at least one instance provided such an exception.

The situation is absurd: Women’s bodies – be they cis, trans, or costume – are immediately rendered ‘sexual’ or ‘adult’ by Tumblr’s new policy, thus reinforcing existing biases and inequality. What, exactly, makes a woman’s nipples ‘adult content’? Why are Silicon Valley executives reinforcing gender inequality perpetuated for centuries by religious fundamentalists?

The answer is complex: A rise in the use of automated tools makes filtering out adult content much cheaper and easier – and of course, it’s next to impossible for a human or algorithm to tell the difference between a 16-year-old and a legal adult, so putting a blanket ban on all women’s nipples is easier. But let’s be real: There are workarounds, such as requiring individuals who post nude imagery to share their ID with the company privately.

Another reason for the decision could be related to Apple’s famous prudishness. The company forbids a great deal of adult content from the App Store, and it’s entirely possible that Tumblr struck a deal to ensure that their app would be reinstated. But more likely, it’s just yet another in a series of unnecessarily restrictive decisions made by mostly-male Silicon Valley executives.

As it turns out, the automated tools that Tumblr has employed aren’t working so well, leading one photographer to declare ‘the death of Tumblr’. Nate Igor Smith logged on today to find that the majority of his posts from the past couple of years had been flagged as explicit. Those shots included women in underwear, ‘male-presenting’ nipples, an image of a woman eating an ice cream cone, and pictures of people smoking. The review form, intended to allow users to appeal content decisions, wasn’t working.

A space for expression

Beyond the issues of gender and the inherent inequality that comes with allowing topless masculine bodies but not topless femme bodies is the fact that Tumblr’s adult content is different. As the CEO wrote, ‘There are no shortage of sites on the internet that feature adult content.’ That’s true, but most of those that are readily accessible feature misogynist, heterosexual pornography, not the diverse sexualities, genders, and images that can be found on Tumblr.

For many young people, Tumblr offered a space where they could explore and express any number of things, including their sexuality. It was a place where artists could share non-mainstream art, where queer and trans and kink communities could thrive. It wasn’t without its issues – the company famously had to ban ‘thinspiration’ imagery a few years back – but it was a unique space in the corporate Web.

Tumblr’s decision is a sad one, almost certainly made for business reasons, and spun as a means of creating healthier communities. But healthy communities are those that are able to govern themselves, and unfortunately, that’s increasingly no longer the Web we inhabit.