Sex Workers Fear Tumblr Ban Will Destroy Their Bottom Line
Tumblr had a more relaxed attitude toward sexual images than Facebook and Instagram did.
Tumblr, the blogging platform once heralded for its laissez-faire posting policies, is banning adult content. The change has spurred jokes about the loss of free porn GIFs and topless selfies, but the site’s devoted user base of sex workers isn’t laughing. They are worried about what the censorship will do to their community—and their bottom line.
Porn stars, cam girls, and other sex workers have long flocked to the social media platform due to its relatively lax policy on sexual images. Unlike sites like Facebook and Instagram, which prohibit nudity except in highly restricted circumstances, Tumblr opted to simply categorize such content with “sensitive” or “explicit” filters—allowing sex workers to build an audience and market their products with few limitations. As a result, ads for phone sex lines and web-cam services existed side-by-side on the site with street-style photography and hand-scrawled amateur poetry.
No longer. Under a new policy quietly announced Monday, Tumblr will ban all “adult content” from its platform starting next month. That includes photos, videos, or GIFs that show human genitals or “female-presenting nipples,” as well as any content depicting sex acts. Nudity related to art, political speech, or “health-related situations” such as breastfeeding will be exempt, along with written erotica. The ban is set to take effect Dec. 17—which is also the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers.
“It was pretty much panic from all of us,” Lanae, a 28-year-old sex worker from Kentucky, told The Daily Beast of the reaction of the ban.
“[We’re] talking about if we’re going to be able to keep our blogs or if we’re going to have to just abandon Tumblr and work on different platforms,” she added. “We’re all like, ‘Oh, we really need to make a plan right now.’”
The new policy was announced two weeks after Tumblr was removed from the iOS App Store over allegations of hosting child pornography. At the time, Tumblr said a routine audit had turned up content not yet included in an industry child sexual abuse database, which was quickly deleted. But a number of sex workers and erotic artists said their blogs were deleted from the site in the aftermath, even though they complied with the community guidelines—a phenomenon that spawned the hashtag #tumblrpurge.
On Monday, Tumblr CEO Jeff D'Onofrio attempted to distance the latest policy change from the App Store dust-up, saying that the company always had a zero-tolerance policy for child pornography. The adult content ban, he wrote in a blog post, was about making Tumblr a “safe place for creative expression, self-discovery, and a deep sense of community.”
“Bottom line: There are no shortage of sites on the internet that feature adult content,” D'Onofrio wrote. “We will leave it to them and focus our efforts on creating the most welcoming environment possible for our community.”
But Laura Dilley, executive director of the sex-worker advocacy group PACE Society, said the number of welcoming environments for her constituency is dwindling. In the wake of FOSTA/SESTA—an anti-trafficking bill that lead to the closure of several sex-work forums—sex workers are increasingly being “pushed to the margins and pushed off the internet,” Dilley said.
“Sex workers share important info on Tumblr like providing folks with education, and resources, and really just much-needed community, which is hard to find when you’re in a stigmatized profession like sex work,” Dilley said.
Many sex workers also worry the curtailment of their Tumblrs will lead to a loss in profits. Daisy, an 18-year-old sex worker from Mississippi, told The Daily Beast she regularly used the website to advertise sexting services and webcam streaming to her more than 45,000 followers. After her blog was deleted in the most recent purge, she said, her profits were cut in half.
Daisy said she attempted to set up an Instagram account to promote her work, but was quickly removed for posting sexual content. Twitter was less strict about nudity, she said, but she struggled to build a following. Only Tumblr allowed her both the freedom and the fanbase to shop her work around safely.
“Tumblr was a site that allowed adult content; embraced it,” Daisy said. “There's a whole community there of people that are all doing the same thing.”
“To lose that is losing a lot more than my sales,” she added. “To see people that I talk to everyday get deleted, [to see] my own blog deleted, it really is heartbreaking.”