Tumblr announced on Monday that it would ban all explicit content on December 17, spurring a flood of memes, cartoons, and bitter farewells that overtook queer social media. The announcement was a blow to porn performers, curators, and fans everywhere who had used the platform to easily catalogue and share explicit material, and it’s the latest in a string of moves that further marginalize sex workers, erotic artists, and queer people in general.
For years, Tumblr has been the go-to site for curating and reblogging pirated porn clips, videos, and GIFS, and for those in various online communities — kink communities and sex communities for example — it was a vital space to meet others. For a subset of users, particularly trans women of color who may depend on sex work to survive, Tumblr has also been a viable platform to post original NSFW content in order to cultivate followers and find potential clients.
Since August, the micro-blogging service founded in 2007 had been flagging X-rated media with a heavier hand. Having been known in part for being more permissive than other services about this sort of content, in November it was revealed that this crackdown was an attempt to pushback on child pornography which was found on the company’s servers. But this wasn’t enough.
On November 16 Tumblr confirmed that its mobile app had been removed from Apple’s App Store after the tech giant found that child pornography was still on the site. With the adult content ban coming only 17 days after this removal, it is widely believed that the two are directly related. And while there are real concerns surrounding child pornograhy and human trafficking online, many still see the move as a knee-jerk overreach and another loss in a darkening wave of internet censorship.
For many queer sex workers, that wave started when Congress passed the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) in March and President Trump signed them into law. These bills, sponsored by Rep. Ann Wagner (R-MO) and Sen. Portman, Rob (R-OH) respectively, claimed to aid sex trafficking victims by holding websites criminally liable for content uploaded by their users. Long before these laws were passed though, sex workers and advocates spoke out against them, arguing that their terms were vague and overreaching and would potentially decimate the digital platforms that have specifically provided a space for workers to meet, vet clients, and engage in consensual business in an online environment far safer than working on the street.
“Lawmakers must listen to the needs and concerns of sex trafficking victims before passing legislation affecting them,” Kristen DiAngelo, co-founder and executive director of the Sacramento Sex Workers Outreach Project, said in a statement. DiAngelo is herself a survivor of sex trafficking. “After all, nobody wants to stop sex trafficking more than those who have been victims of this heinous crime. The unintended consequences of bad policy decisions are deadly. It deeply disheartens me to see lobbyists saying they want to help fight trafficking but proposing policies that will do the exact opposite.”
“When trafficking victims are pushed off of online platforms and onto the streets, we become invisible to the outside world as well as to law enforcement, thus putting us in more danger of violence.”
The sex workers’ fears did materialize. Craigslist immediately deleted its Personals section, a valuable resource for countless sex workers, and Backpage.com, a sex market website, was seized by the FBI. Multiple sex work forums disappeared immediately following FOSTA/SESTA’s passage, harming and isolating queer people who depend on them for advice, safety, and community. On top of that, these laws actually worsened conditions for victims of sex trafficking by eliminating safer venues for finding work and pushing trafficking victims further underground where they are more at the mercy of pimps.
Meg Munoz, a sex-trafficking survivor and founder of the OC Umbrella Collective, an organization that serves sex workers and those being domestically trafficked in Southern California, told Rolling Stone in May that “the immediate impact was swift and, honestly, terrifying. We watched people literally walk back to their pimps knowing they had lost any bit of autonomy they had. We watched people wind up homeless overnight. We watched members of our community disappear.”
What does all this have to do with Tumblr? Tumblr’s content ban is part of a trend across the internet where adult content is seen as threatening, regardless of its value, content, or importance. And as a part of that, queer media, in particular, has has been adversely affected.
In October, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit that works to defend free speech and user privacy, reported that in recent years “policy restrictions on ‘adult’ content have an outsized impact on LGBTQ+ and other marginalized communities.” Over the past few months alone Recon, a fetish dating site for gay men, saw their Youtube temporarily suspended and reinstated only after a Twitter backlash and negative press coverage (this has happened more than once); Naked Boys Reading saw their Facebook page temporarily banned, a decision that was reversed after the organizers accused Facebook of “queer erasure; and many queer YouTubers like Amp Somers of Watts the Safeword, have seen their content flagged and their exposure limited in YouTube’s algorithm.
“When queer youth can’t access sex education and find representation in what they’re being taught, they feel they don’t belong,” Somers told OUT. Watts the Safeword creates lighthearted, non-explicit sex education videos about kink and BDSM. “They feel they aren’t entitled to proper safe forms of sex and will be forced to turn to less trustworthy means of learning about sex.”
In October, Facebook was revealed to be blocking many LGBTQ+ ads as part of its new advertising policy. The company told the Washington Post that many of these blockings were in error, but such errors show problems with algorithms that disproportionately flag queer content. Facebook’s LGBTQ+ record is hardly spotless — queer artists, performers and the trans community have battled its “real name” policy for years.
Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, has also appeared to be censoring the queer community with algorithms that, intentionally or otherwise, flag queer content at a higher rate than non-queer content. And while many workers in the adult industry use Instagram, its explicit policy against sexual solicitation makes account shutdowns quite common. Just this week, my own Instagram was disabled, likely because the words “sex worker” were in my bio (I have not received an explanation from Instagram at the time of this writing).
Via Twitter, I asked if any fellow sex workers have experienced something similar. Within hours, I received over 100 messages from sex workers and adult performers who say their accounts have been flagged, disabled, or shadow banned in recent months. Many said these instances have happened with greater frequency since the passage of FOSTA/SESTA.
Maggie Mayhem, a former sex worker and HIV Prevention Specialist and sex worker rights activist, thinks this censorship wave will worsen before the general public reacts.
“It’s long after porn bans when the mainstream starts to feel their expression inhibited that changes are made,” she said.
Mayhem is worried that, along with the loss of internet space for queer sex workers and sexual education platforms, banning will censor content that is vital for healthcare.
“We’re also losing significant ground in terms of reproductive justice,” she said. “If images of genitals are automatically banned by AI, the algorithm won’t distinguish between a condom diagram or a pelvic self-exam and porn.”
“Early obscenity prosecution in America was centered directly on sex education and contraception. This is like history repeating itself.”
Eric Leue, executive director of the Free Speech Coalition, the national trade association for the adult industries, believes the loss of online communities is the most devastating blow.
“Many people in straight, heteronormative communities don’t understand what the big deal is, because their lives and cultures are represented everywhere,” Leue said. “For those in queer, or niche, or fetish communities, Tumblr was one of the few accessible spaces to build communities and share content.”
Leue added that large tech companies need to understand that nuance and human regulation are needed, not outright banning and algorithms that flag content with a wide brush. “Apple’s own content restriction filters block not just porn but sex education and queer resources. Most of America might not notice the absence, but for a closeted queer kid, it’s devastating.”
Kyaa Chimera is a queer sex worker who is worried about more than the loss of platforms that help them conduct business and find clients. “As a queer nonbinary person, the internet is the only reason I have community and know who I am,” they said. “Every single other person who identifies similarly to me that I know, I met online.” Their story is not singular.
But that is a precarious relationship: Chimera’s Instagram was shut down at 25k followers. (Chimera says they have been unable to get an explanation from Instagram as to why.) Without Instagram, Chimera’s way to contact fellow industry professionals as well as clients was gone. And while they are worried about the loss of work, there’s more than that.
“[It’s] not just my work, but me, my family,” they said. “If we aren’t allowed to exist on social media, where else will we be erased?”