Tumblr's NSFW Content Ban May Do More Harm Than Good & Here's Why

By now, you've probably heard that Tumblr — safe haven for space nerds, indie kids, and chic weirdos — has put a NSFW content ban into effect. As of Dec. 17, gone are the days of scrolling through Tumblr with baited breath, rife with worry that a rogue breast will disrupt the class or work day. Tumblr's new community guidelines ban users from uploading photos, illustrations, GIFs, and/or videos that show sex acts, genitals, or "female-presenting nipples."

Tumblr's reason for the crackdown? A statement released by Tumblr on Dec. 3 said, "There are no shortage of sites on the internet that feature adult content. We will leave it to them and focus our efforts on creating the most welcoming environment possible for our community."

What's more is that the ban comes on the heels of a Tumblr child pornography controversy, resulting in the app's deletion from the iTunes App Store. In a Nov. 16 statement, Tumblr said that its standard practice is to cross-reference all images uploaded to the site with a child pornography database, maintained by groups such as the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. The platform also announced it had discovered and removed child pornography that had flown under the radar of the database.

Elite Daily has reached out to Tumblr for comment on the NSFW content ban, but has not heard back from the site.

I, like many users of Tumblr and consumers of adult content, am mourning the loss. Catch me in black slacks, black Zara boots, and a black beret for the occasion. I'm also annoyed. Going forward, it feels like Tumblr will be scrubbed of the vibrant communities that make it a place I want to be.

Tumblr has long been my go-to platform because it felt like freedom and indulgence were at the forefront. It's largely anonymous. But instead of that turning Tumblr into the YouTube comments section, it brought out the best in people. Relax! You finally get to be your true, undiluted yourself. In my case, over six years, Tumblr gave me permission to: be as into Paramore as I wanted, to study as much 18th-century culture as I desired, and to become unapologetically black and obsessed with The Hobbit to my heart's content.

It also gave me an opportunity to explore my sexuality.

Tumblr / Caroline Colvin

I grew up in a socially conservative household. Sex was discussed as either a path to procreation or to ruin. Spending my teenage years enrolled in Catholic school in South Carolina didn't quite broaden the conversation. So, what's a 16-year-old girl to do? Turn to the internet — mainly, Tumblr dot com.

This phenomenon is common. A 2015 study from The Journal of Sex Research, for example, shows just how much teenagers turn to porn for information and brainstorming what to do with their partner — especially when living in communities where sex education is lacking. As mentioned in the study, 23 percent of American kids aged 10 to 15 have "purposefully sought out X-rated material." About 73 percent of the college-aged participants in a 2008 University of New Hampshire survey said they had watched porn before they were 18.

When it came to my own teenage relationship with porn, I fell down a smut hole on Tumblr. For the uninitiated: "smut" on Tumblr refers to sexually explicit fan fiction. My hole of choice? Smut about Loki Laufeyson. Yes, girl, that Loki. I hadn't seen Thor when I saw The Avengers, so I wasn't hip. Tony Stark was cute or whatever, but I definitely wanted that mischievous raven-haired god to do bad things to me.

So I hopped on Tumblr and started reading about all the dirty possibilities. For Loki and Jane Foster's ride-or-die b*tch Darcy, for Loki and Thor's ride-or-die b*tch Lady Sif, for Loki and me — if I had dreamed it, someone had written it.

A Tumblr user had probably drawn it, too. Tumblr is primarily a picture platform, after all. You'd be hard-pressed to find a fandom where artists aren't putting pen to paper (or stylus to tablet) to create beautiful, spicy fan art. If a picture is worth a 1,000 words, then the fan art on Tumblr is worth 1,000 vibrator passes.

I wouldn't say that I graduated to classic porn. But I did get curious about what life would look like as a thot on Earth instead of a thot on Asgard. Like many who prefer Tumblr over PornHub, I found Tumblr's NSFW content easier to get off to. I mean, I'm not that pretentious: mainstream porn will get the job done. But there's something to be said about aesthetically pleasing gifs of slow makeout sessions, photo sets of covetable people in expensive lingerie, and erotic text posts to match the each blog's vibe.

Tumblr / Caroline Colvin

Just as NSFW blog curation come from Tumblr users, so does a lot of the porn itself. Individuals and couples upload nudes and snippets of various, drool-inducing acts. Tumblr's whole porn mood, even with the rough sex and BDSM, is intimate. You can't find that on a site with obnoxious gifs crammed into every banner and pop-ups urging you to hook up with hot, busty singles in your area.

Looking back as an adult, I do see that watching porn, even if it was on a beautiful, indie platform like Tumblr, still could have been harmful in my early understandings of how sex should work. Emily Rothman, a researcher behind that 2015 study on teenagers turning to porn, emphasizes that no porn is really better than the other when it comes to sex ed.

"Porn is intended to be fantasy and entertainment — not an instruction manual," Rothman tells Elite Daily.

I can see what good Tumblr could bring about with an adult content ban. It's not just about preventing minors from seeing breasts. It's about ensuring porn doesn't exist in a vacuum for the impressionable. According to Global Web Index, about 45 percent of Tumblr users are between ages 16 and 24. Tumblr's largest demographic is comprised of people in a key, formative period of their lives. It's only luck that porn sparked my curiosity and led me to do research about sex and kinks — outside of the fantasy-based, NSFW content on Tumblr.

In its Dec. 3 post, Tumblr emphasized that these changes — to create a "better, more positive Tumblr" — were born from its "understanding of [Tumblr's] impact on our world" and its "responsibility to consider that impact across different age groups, demographics, cultures, and mindsets." With Tumblr's mention of age groups as a deciding factor and in the wake of the child pornography controversy, it's understandable where the platform is coming from with the ban. But even if the crackdown was about sex ed, Rothman points out, the ban could still be harmful to the greater sexuality conversation.

Rothman says the algorithm could censor "legitimate" materials. This could include instructive materials, such as information about anatomy, sexual orientations, and periods. And we've already seen examples of this before. Facebook, YouTube, and Apple are notorious for blocking access to sex ed content.

The ban is also problematic because of its stance on nipples.

"Images of women breastfeeding or other non-sexualized images of naked human bodies should not be considered obscene," Rothman says. "And the fact that Tumblr cannot distinguish between erotic sexually explicit media and non-sexual explicit media is creating a problem."

Tumblr / Caroline Colvin

Another problem it's creating, too, is one for sex workers and LGBTQ community. Not all, but many sex workers come from marginalized backgrounds. In particular, trans women of color often turn to sex work to survive. A 2015 study from the National Center for Transgender Equality found that 12 percent of its respondents had participated in sex work. The study noted higher rates among women of color. With targeted language like "female-presenting nipples" too, the whole ban just feels extra ugly. It's as if Tumblr is taking extra special care to police not just cisgender women's sexuality, but that of trans women and non-binary folks, too.

In response to this backlash, the site responded on Dec. 17 in post attempting to soothe users' anger. Tumblr's statement read, "We fully recognize Tumblr’s special obligation to these communities and are committed to ensuring that our new policy on adult content does not silence the vital conversations that take place here every day. LGBTQ+ conversations, exploration of sexuality and gender, efforts to document the lives and challenges of those in the sex worker industry, and posts with pictures, videos, and GIFs of gender-confirmation surgery are all examples of content that is not only permitted on Tumblr but actively encouraged."

And of course, still, gone is one of the last places where mainstream and counterculture desires meet. Because Tumblr has (had?) that reputation of freedom and indulgence, it was where kink culture could exist. It was whole-heartedly sex-positive and frequently, very queer. In a world where it often seems only heteronormative, corny, or vanilla depictions of sex sells, Tumblr just created a huge void.

I also know I'm not alone in my feelings on Tumblr's NSFW content ban — from nostalgia to discomfort to the need to throw major shade. As soon as the ban was announced, Tumblr-adjacent spaces like the r/Tumblr subreddit roasted the algorithm for flagging innocent posts. Reddit has also been home to earnest threads by porn consumers and producers about Tumblr alternatives. Because, I guess, what's the point of staying on Tumblr?

Tumblr / Caroline Colvin

While I am taking part in the boycott — as of 10:00 a.m. EST on Dec. 17, almost 14,000 fellow Tumblr users voiced their solidarity — I don't think I'm going to pack up and leave. My appetite for ridiculous clothes, faraway places, rowdy memes, and frothy lattes outweighs my appetite for sex. But do expect me to log in, fully clothed, a little bit grumpy, and longing for the liberated, inclusive Tumblr Gen Z didn't quite get to know.