How Tumblr’s adult content ban is erasing one of the internet’s last safe spaces

The fallout from Tumblr’s adult content ban is the destruction of one of the last inclusive online communities

December 6, 2018

It’s easy to write off Tumblr’s impending adult content ban, effective December 17th, as coming from a place that’s both clumsy and shortsighted which is already clear from countless flaggings of innocuous, non-nude content despite the platform’s reassurances that “illustrations and art that feature nudity are still okay”:

This new protocol is largely in response to Tumblr’s removal from the App store following the discovery of images depicting child abuse on their website. It’s more than a reactionary move that ignores the site’s administrative shortcomings at the expense of an entire community: With the removal of adult content comes the erasure of Tumblr as a safe space for numerous sex-positive communities.

Of the many subcultures that comprise the site’s user base, one of the most prominent is that of Internet fandom communities, specifically “shipping.” if you’re unfamiliar with the term, here’s a breakdown: Shipping refers to a fandom’s admiration of a (usually otherwise-hypothetical) relationship, often featuring a queer or unconventional pairing of two characters. This admiration is creatively expressed by “shippers” through mediums such as fanart and fanfiction that ranges in its explicitness.



With the anonymity-afforded mean-spiritedness of the Internet, it’s not easy to find a place where one can be open about their emotional investment in the hypothetical relationship of a  fictional character. Tumblr offered a place for these communities to thrive in their (often erotic) celebration, surrounded by people who shared their loves and shielded one another from hate. With Tumblr’s adult content ban, a significant point of connection and organization for these communities—erotic fanart—will be torn away.

This sex-positive nature extends beyond Tumblr’s fandom communities. Tumblr is known for a user base that contrasts that of Reddit or 4Chan by being more welcoming to women and LGBT+ communities. The pornographic content hosted on the website reflects the diversity of these voices, offering a reprieve from the male-gaze-dominated, cis, and heterosexual approaches that comprise the majority of pornographic material found elsewhere on the internet. Tumblr as a space where diverse sexual expression, be it rooted in identity or fetishes, is nurtured and stimulated is just another aspect of the community that withers away with the banning of adult content.

Perhaps those most significantly affected by Tumblr’s adult content ban will be the community of sex workers. The site offered a network connecting those working in the industry with one another, along with being a channel for sex workers to grow and communicate with their client base.

Earlier this year, the passing of two U.S.  bills: the “Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act” and the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (otherwise known as FOSTA/SESTA), despite the goal implied by their names, created significant negative effects on the online channels of visibility and communication available to sex workers. Not only did this include the closure of many websites promoting sex work, but a fundamental change in the way pre-existing sites such as Twitter and Google handled the visibility of sex workers on their platforms. With Tumblr’s impending adult content policies, sex workers lose one of their last remaining online platforms.

The fallout from Tumblr’s adult content ban is more than a shoddy algorithm thinking your painting of a cave is some sort of pornography: it’s a number of marginalized communities—whether based on media preferences, sexual preferences, gender identity, or career—losing one of the only spaces where they were welcome to be themselves.

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