“Where will we wank now?”, went the cries from the internet as Tumblr announced it was ending sexual content on its platform. On 17 December, in response to child abuse images skipping past the filters, porn will be no more on Tumblr.
What’s bizarre about the proportionality of this action is the intended consequence - to stop child abuse images being circulated. Aren’t they already illegal? Don’t Tumblr already cover it in their T&Cs? If such images are already banned, how will banning adult content entirely change the fact that if people want to upload illegal content, they still can?
All adult sites with user-generated content find themselves in the murky business of separating what is acceptable from what is not. This is especially true of sites that exist as a mobile app. These are not just attempting to please the law of the countries in which they operate, or their own rules and guidelines, but that of the various stores in which they distribute their app. Apple’s App Store bans porn entirely, as does Google’s Play Store. How Tumblr circumvented these rules until now when other apps found themselves suspended is anybody’s guess, but it makes the news, sadly, a known inevitability.
So then, what is porn? Are exposed nipples porn? What about the odd arty arse pic? How much of a bulge is too much of a bulge? How far down the belly-button hair-trail can you go before it becomes unacceptable to the Filth Police? You may laugh, but these are the grey areas upon which an app can find itself unceremoniously banned without warning, in many cases with thousands of users affected, not to mention the livelihoods of those who work at the company who produce it.
I previously worked for a gay hookup app that specialised in the fetish world and, in this arena, you really do see just how merciless the big mobile players are when it comes to sexual content. If there is any platform that has helped those into the more niche areas of sex curate their own content, you’d struggle to find an example more prolific or established than Tumblr. It has given a voice and an outlet for those more niche consensual and adult sexual interests that previously had none, and this is to be celebrated. Plenty of content producers on the site make their money from it too. But that doesn’t matter does it? After all, this is filth and filth isn’t a way to earn a buck. Not on our platforms!
Kink specifically is an area that often finds itself on the wrong end of political or commercial decisions. Why? Well that’s simple. It’s already on the margins and whilst there may be many many people into all sorts of delightful and fascinating things, understandably few are willing to stand up and speak for risk of making public their very private delectations. As for those with power, ask yourself whether a Member of Parliament is likely to stand up in the Commons and say “what about the BDSM community?”. When it comes to the sexual arena, especially with regards to fetish, enthusiasm for civil liberties is replaced with puritanical moralism.
In the commercial sphere it’s fascinating watching the cognitive dissonance, especially on sexual marginalisation. Google and Apple will throw big bucks at every Pride march to have the best and most visible float. “Gayglers”, as gay Google employees call themselves, proudly espouse the LGBT credentials of the company. Yet when it comes to the apps they are happy hosting, it’s very clear that Google love gays - until they start having sex.
The Tumblr news may have given a slight poke of inconvenience to vanilla porn-consumers who will have to spend a few minutes searching subreddits or YouPorn for their fixes, but it will be a real blow for the niche communities who rely on the platform to communicate with and meet similar minded people without the glare of morality telling them that their specific kink doesn’t pass the acceptability tests. It’ll be even more devastating for the content producers and sex workers who rely on the site for their user base and, subsequently in many cases, their income.
You can tackle illegal content without throwing the baby out with the bathwater. This is a sledgehammer to crack a nut, almost certainly in place to comply with the strangling anti-sex and anti-smut morality police in Silicon Valley. This will not stop the dissemination of child abuse, but will be yet again another hit on those who are engaging in nothing more than consenting adult enjoyment.
Tech’s fixation on policing sex isn’t just tedious, it’s dangerous and has a real impact. It’s about time all of us challenged it, no matter our own personal tastes.
Editor’s note: HuffPost and Tumblr share a parent company, Oath Inc, which is a subsidiary of Verizon