Why the Tumblr ban on 'adult content' is bad for LGBTQ youth

Restrictions on nudity limit free expression and discovery, according to media scholars.
Tumblr was designed with the intention of fostering free and creative content, and became a safe space for LGBTQ youth who didn't feel represented on other platforms. (LUCAS BARIOULET/Getty Images; LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP/Getty Images)

Tumblr is officially safe for work. This change, however, has left many users feeling unsafe in a space that used to be a haven.

As of Dec. 17, 2018, the popular social media app no longer allows "adult content." This ban includes any imagery that features "real-life human genitals or female-presenting nipples, and any content — including photos, videos, GIFs and illustrations — that depicts sex acts."

Founded in 2007, Tumblr was designed with the intention of fostering free and creative content, especially compared to the stricter content policies of other social media sites.

The app promises a "better, more positive" version of itself with the Dec. 17 change. (Tumblr)

Despite the move being branded as an improvement, Tumblr's new squeaky-clean image is not sitting well with many users, especially those in marginalized communities who came to rely on the site as a safe space for self-expression.

As for why Tumblr took this step, the explanation is unclear. According to the initial statement, this ban is part of an effort to make the site a "better, more positive" version of itself. However, there's widespread speculation about the timing of it all.

In November 2017, shortly before the announcement of the ban, Apple removed Tumblr's app from the iOS store because of reported child pornography on the platform. This resulted in a Tumblr-wide purge of pornographic content, which users complain has unfairly targeted their NSFW material, from artwork to fan fiction.

Unintended consequences

Stefanie Duguay, an assistant professor of Communications at Concordia University in Montreal, describes Tumblr as a more diverse and inclusive online space than many others.

"Tumblr is a constellation of a wide range of different content," she told Spark host Nora Young. "It is probably one of the last messy places left on the internet."

Many sex workers, NSFW artists, photographers and other users have been speaking out about how the changes will result in losing income as well as the communities they've built.

Duguay explores a lesser-known potential consequence: how Tumblr's ban is bad for LGBTQ youth.

She explained how instrumental Tumblr has been in fostering LGBTQ identity and self-discovery, especially when compared to other platforms like Facebook and Instagram, which have stricter policies, share more data and are more likely to be found by family.

"Having Tumblr separate makes it sort of alcove for young people; it's this outlet," the associate professor said.

"They share GIFs and videos and content around queer celebrities, queer characters, and fanfiction. Sometimes nudity and adult content is in this … It's a general part of people's self discovery, especially when you're a young person and you're determining things about yourself and your sexual identity."
Stefanie Duguay is an assistant professor of Communications at Concordia University. (Submitted by Stefanie Duguay)

This self-realization, said Duguay, means a lot more to the young people who don't see themselves represented in mainstream media.

This sentiment is supported by the results of an Australian survey from 2017, which found that LGBTQ youth use Tumblr far more frequently than the rest of the population.

Alexander Cho, a postdoctoral fellow at UC Irvine, studied how Tumblr came to be this "queer ecosystem" where LGBTQ youth didn't have to feel like they needed to articulate themselves in relation to the norm.

"Users felt okay with flirting with each other, with owning their sexuality," he said. "We have to remember that Tumblr is a very image-based platform, so there was a lot of affective-exchange feeling and queer sentiment, and erotics was part of that."

Why can't you build community and explore identity without nudity?

"[Nudity] is a general part of people's self-discovery, especially when you're a young person and you're determining things about yourself and your sexual identity," said Duguay.

"Being able to log on and see this vast representation of different sexual identities and gender identities, see content of relationships, of embraces, of kisses, of more sexual content, knowing that that's a possibility for queer people as much as it is for heterosexual people."

Since Dec. 17, Tumblr users are seeing warnings like this throughout the app. (Tumblr)

Duguay notes how social media platforms' decisions have an impact on shaping our social and cultural norms. She describes how this move by Tumblr is furthering the isolation and stigmatization of LGBTQ people because it's telling them their interests are "deviant" and shouldn't be taking place in a free and public space.

"If it's not allowed on Tumblr, this content seems more marginalized, it seems more to-the-side and more stigmatized than it was before," she said.

What now?

Duguay believes that Tumblr's move will probably lead to a mass migration to various other lesser-known platforms, but doesn't see that as a solution.
Alexander Cho is a postdoctoral fellow at UC Irvine, who's researched how Tumblr has been an essential outlet for LGBTQ youth. (Submitted by Alexander Cho)

"If these queer communities splinter off onto different platforms, different more sheltered and harder-to-find communities, then young people who are not familiar with those platforms will have a harder time finding the content that represents them," she explained. 

Cho, however, doesn't expect to see an exodus from the app, stating that Tumblr, despite the ban, is still the best available option for LGBTQ youth.

"I think the discourse is going to change. I think it's not going to be as edgy as it used to be. But I'm not sure where else these queer kids are going to be able to go."