Why the Tumblr ban on 'adult content' is bad for LGBTQ youth
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.
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.
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.
Tumblr used to be such a great place for creators and people wanting to explore their sexuality. I really don't feel welcome there anymore. Oh and porn bots are still a thing, and they even multiplied wow that's Tumblr at its finest! 👏 <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/tumblrboycott?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#tumblrboycott</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/tumblrpurge2018?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#tumblrpurge2018</a>—@dauinsaru
Hey <a href="https://twitter.com/tumblr?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@tumblr</a>, if classical art with nudity and female presenting nipples is deemed respectable enough to be in <a href="https://twitter.com/metmuseum?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@metmuseum</a>, it is respectable enough to be on your site and does not need to be flagged<a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/tumblr?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#tumblr</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/tumblrboycott?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#tumblrboycott</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/femalepresentingnipples?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#femalepresentingnipples</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/classicalart?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#classicalart</a>—@daviswaldeniv
The adult content ban in Tumblr and subsequent erasure of entire queer communities is analogous to the anti-loitering ordinances aimed at sex workers but that are used to exclude queers, PoCs, and other marginalized folks from public spaces.—@peejsage
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.
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."
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.
"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."