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Tumblr Was a Safe Space for Women to Consume Porn. Now It's Banning Adult Content.

The social networking site Tumblr has gone through many incarnations. It was originally a hip blogging site beloved by New York media types; later, it got a reputation for being a hotbed of feminism and social justice activism, particularly beloved by young queer women and other marginalized communities. (The phrase “SJW” typically had the word “Tumblr” affixed to it for a while.) By the late 2010s, however, Tumblr became increasingly known for two things: Fandom and porn.

read more: These Two Millennial Moms Are Shattering the Myth of the 'Perfect Social Media Mom'

But now the porn is gone. Starting December 17th, Tumblr will ban all “adult content” from its platform. The decision has vaguely reasonable roots: the site was cited for containing sexually explicit photos of children, and was reportedly plagued by “porn bots” who sent explicit content in DMs or posted it in threads that were likely to be seen by minors. Yet assigning an algorithm to scrub all porn, from what is now essentially a porn hosting site with a few personal blogs attached, has been predictably disastrous. Tumblr has reportedly flagged images of gay pride pins, vases, and Garfield as “explicit.”

Several blogs were reportedly shut down even before the formal adult content ban was announced. Some of that content, admittedly, skates the line — like Jaspurrlock, a (female) artist who draws gay and BDSM renderings of popular anime characters, some in schoolboy outfits — but there have also been reports of sex-education blogs shut down for openly discussing sex workers’ rights and kink safety. In fact, the sheer oddness of all that content, as contrasted against mainstream porn, should stand out to you. Losing Tumblr porn is a big deal in part because its specific audience — young, queer, female — produced a more diverse and femme-centric vision of what was sexy.

Elle Chase is the founder of Lady Cheeky, which curates porn .GIFs and stills. She has over 203,000 followers, and estimates that Lady Cheeky gets 2 million hits per month, 60% of them from women under the age of 45.



“I never categorized my site as being ‘for women,’ nor did I ever consciously gear it toward that,” she says. “Porn for women’ is the description the media gave it based on my content showing a lot of pleasure focused on women subjects.”

Chase says that she was able to draw her strong female following just by being true to her own sense of what was hot.

“With Tumblr, I was able to find and curate my site to my tastes, that’s what made it different,” she said. “I didn’t have to rely on mainstream adult content to tell me what should turn me on. [That] same drive to find sexual content that mirrors our own desires is the reason Tumblr porn was [or] is so popular with many women. The fact is A LOT of women consume and view porn… Less adult content focused on the male gaze and more focused on mutual pleasure and pleasuring — that’s what there needs to be more of and what Tumblr was able to foster.”

“TUMBLR IS THE ONLY WEBSITE WHERE IF YOU SEARCH A TAG LIKE #LESBIAN YOU’LL GET SEX EDUCATION, EROTICA, FAN FICTION, PORN, COMING OUT STORIES, AND FASHION."

That ability to curate and tag search — Chase calls Tumblr “Pinterest for sex” — was instrumental. Sex could be ruled by sensibility, allowing vulnerable and underprivileged communities to connect and start exchanging real information along with nudes. To this day, the top-reviewed and most-followed porn Tumblrs include not just explicit-content curators, but blogs like Orgasmic Tips for Girls,which teaches women how to masturbate, or xxuntilweod, which mixes relatively vanilla clips of women kissing and holding hands with more graphic images of lesbian sex, letting women explore a whole range of queer intimacy without either sensationalizing or censoring it.

“Tumblr is the only website where if you search a tag like #lesbian you’ll get sex education, erotica, fan fiction, porn, coming out stories, and fashion,” says educator Alison Moon. “This has always been Tumblr’s strongest aspect — this ability to search obliquely for what interests a person and discover diverse results. This is key to any form of education, but particularly sex education.”

read more: Women Experience Sexual Performance Anxiety Too - Here's How To Deal

Moon’s own work, Girl Sex 101, is focused on feminist, queer-forward sex education for “ladies and lady-lovers of all genders and identities.” Her most popular Tumblr post is a spread from her book on sex and disability. Like most of the book, it is illustrated, leaving her vulnerable to the impending crackdown.

“There is a myth that kids have access to everything these days, that they’ve seen everything. But this just isn’t true,” Moon says. “Many young people are isolated— geographically, ideologically, emotionally. They may feel alone in the world because of their attractions, interests, or identities. They may have no one in real life to talk to.” The key to reaching those vulnerable kids, Moon says, was to find them in the places they were already hanging out, and “Tumblr was a place where young, often marginalized people gathered to talk about their struggles and curiosities.”

The common thread here is shame, and what women become capable of when they’re not being shamed for their desires. It’s hard to remember, but feminists used to argue about whether women were even capable of liking porn — whether it represented authentic desire, or just internalized misogyny and a need to seem “cool” to potential male partners. The Internet has firmly put the kibosh on that, largely by putting an astonishing range of kinky and weird and firmly, fully self-actualized female sexuality on display to anyone who knows which tags to search; everything from explicit fanfic about Benedict Cumberbatch to Tumblrs full of cunnilingus .GIFs to, yes, aged-up gay BDSM anime.

It is impossible to imagine doing this stuff to impress anyone else, but it can be life-saving for the women who do it. Lux Alptraum, author of Faking It: The Lies Women Tell About Sex — and the Truths They Reveal, says that most Tumblr content is neither weird, in the grand scheme of pornography — “if you go to tube sites it’s not uncommon to see ads for Simpsons porn or Family Guy porn” — nor would it stand out on a mainstream porn site. The difference was in who was made to feel welcome.

WOMEN WILL KEEP MAKING AND CONSUMING PORN, BUT THE SENSE OF COMMUNITY — THE THING THAT MADE TUMBLR PART PORN THEATER, PART CLASSROOM, AND PART SLEEPOVER — WILL BE FRACTURED AS MORE AND MORE SITES DISAPPEAR OR ARE FORCED TO MIGRATE ELSEWHERE. 

“I think Tumblr’s user base is part of why artier porn seemed to do well there,” says Alptraum. “But I think there’s also an inverse relation: porn thrived on Tumblr because it was a safe space for women to consume porn. Going to Tumblr doesn’t have the same stigma as logging onto Pornhub or subscribing to a porn site; and being able to get a quick hit of naughtiness on your dashboard amidst the rest of your regular Tumblr content can feel like a fun (and relatively innocent) way to integrate the smut you want into the rest of your life.”

With that option gone, it’s not clear what else will fill the void. Women will keep making and consuming porn, and sex educators will hopefully keep trying to reach them, but the sense of community — the thing that made Tumblr part porn theater, part classroom, and part sleepover — will be fractured as more and more sites disappear or are forced to migrate elsewhere. When women are allowed to talk about what they want, freely, without being shamed or intimidated, the results are astonishing — and very, very popular. One only hopes some other platform will have the good sense to pick up where Tumblr left off.

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