Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past month, you have undoubtably heard the news that Tumblr is not longer allowing nudity or sexually explicit images on its site. More than likely if you are reading this blog you were directly affected by this policy shift. I know I was. Tumblr was far and away my biggest audience when it came to social media with well over ten-thousand followers. That’s not a lot when compared to many artists and content providers out there but for me ti was significant. It is probably for that reason that this latest wave of internet censorship has got me thinking about the state of the world wide web as we get ever closer to the year 2020.
The official press release and policy change issued by Tumblr describes adult content as such…
Adult content primarily includes photos, videos, or GIFs that show real-life human genitals or female-presenting nipples, and any content—including photos, videos, GIFs and illustrations—that depicts sex acts.
When I read Tumblr’s statement my mind floats back to the early days of the internet. I very much embraced the internet at its inception because I felt like it was a place where artists such as myself could express a vision without restrictions. I spent a lot of time in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s being rejected by art galleries and publications out of fear that depictions of the human body would cost them sales and be offensive to the general public. The internet felt like a place where I could rise above all of that pettiness and in some ways that turned out to be true in the early years. Or at least I felt that way. I don’t ever recall photoshopping blurry squares over nipples before I posted anything on-line back then at least.
As the internet has become more essential to everyday life it also seems to have become a much smaller place. More and more users aren’t carving out their own little corners of the virtual world but are instead cramming themselves into a few platforms like Facebook and Tumblr. Google is more or less the gatekeeper of everything and the ability to be anonymous is few and far between. Many artists and models that I know personally don’t even have their own website and rely exclusively on social media to share the fruits of their creative labor. As such, artists, models, adult content creators, and even writers are increasingly at the mercy of censorship and outdated social norms around issues of nudity and human sexuality. Every single major social media platform has heavy restrictions against depictions of nudity and most outright ban it completely. Artists, model, pornographers, and more have been given a message loud and clear. We aren’t wanted.
I think it is worth noting that compared to many artists and content providers I have it pretty easy. Though there is a lot of nudity in my work very rarely, if ever, does my photography depict a sexual act. Very rarely, if ever, does my work draw attention to genitals on the body. Most of the time it would be difficult to claim my photographs are overtly sexualized or have the intention of making my audience envision a sexual act. And yet I still have to constantly worry and fall victim to policies on websites aimed exclusively at my photographs with the intention that they not be seen.
Twice I have had my PayPal accounts shut down and my funds lost forever for selling content that PayPal deems pornographic. I have been banned from Facebook multiple times, once for six months, for sharing material that depicts a naked human form. Multiple times I have been locked out of Ebay for selling material that is deemed too adult in nature. I’ve lost one Instagram account and had to start from scratch after Instagram claimed one of my posts not sufficiently censored. Twice, other blogs that have featured my work have had sponsorships removed or threatened to be removed. I’ve had videos removed from YouTube even though I supposedly followed the rules and tagged them as “adult content”.
Having my Tumblr blog hidden from public view is only the cherry on top of a very long and difficult censorship sundae. I can only imagine the hoops and trials artists and adult content providers have to go through daily who work in more sexually explicit worlds than I do.
I believe the aspect of all of this that frustrates me the most is the logic website like Tumblr use to justify pushing adult material further into the shadows. When I wrote to Tumblr to complain about the new policy of not allowing nudity or adult content I was told the decision was made to make Tumblr more “inclusive and safe”. Inclusive for whom? People who don’t have the maturity or the intelligence to regulate their own social media feeds? Is this action really safer? Eliminating transparency and pushing material that makes you feel uncomfortable toward less visible parts of the internet is the most unsafe thing you can do. Fostering and legitimizing a culture where the human body is shameful and sex acts are dirty is the opposite of safety. To me, their justifications are lazy at best and dangerous at worst. Driving adult material further into the underground only encourages further bad behavior on the part of those who have moral judgements against it.
Speaking purely about Tumblr for a moment, my sadness and frustration over the platform no longer allowing nudity or adult material goes beyond my own inability to post content there or the fact that I am losing a significant audience. To me, Tumblr always felt like the last hold out of the wild west days of the internet itself. That perception went beyond its acceptance of human skin. I personally knew several Tumblr bloggers who gravitated to the site because it allowed them to post their creations anonymously. I was very close for a time with a blogger who made nothing but posts meant to educate her audience about facts involving female anatomy. We collaborated on a lot of photographs together and she gained a size-able following of several hundred thousand people. She never would have created that blog if she was required to use her real name.
Sure, having incredibly open content policies can invite bad elements to a platform. Racist blogs, white power, and hate speech also seemed to thrive on sites like Tumblr. However, I would argue that Tumblr’s new policy around nudity and sexually explicit material will do nothing to curb that. Look at Facebook for example. They’ve had a strict policy against nudity since their inception and accounts promoting racism, violence, and hate seem to be thriving there as well.
With Tumblr’s policy shift it feels like something much deeper has been lost. It’s one more very big nail in the coffin of users being able to practice self expression to a wide audience without restriction and without necessarily outing yourself to a non-virtual population. Think about that for a moment. That is a huge loss and continues a very dangerous trend that is contrary to what made the internet an attractive place to begin with.
So the question becomes, what can we, the artists, the sex workers, the pornographers, the admirers of the human body, the body positive warriors, and the unashamed do about this? How do we make ourselves heard? I have a few suggestions….
HAVE YOUR OWN WEBSITE
This is one that I recommend for anyone in a creative field, whether your work is appreciated by major social media platforms or not. Always create your own website with a domain that you own on a platform that does not restrict your content. WordPress is a great one if you want ultimate control. SquareSpace isn’t bad either if you aren’t much of a website designer like me. There are plenty of other options. While it is true your website will probably never have the traffic daily that platforms like Instagram or Facebook have, your audience will typically be more engaged.
For example, looking at the analytics of my own website, I get roughly one-hundred unique visitors per day. That’s a drop in the bucket really compared to the thousands of people per day who saw my Tumblr blog. However, the audience that finds me on my personal site will often engage with my work beyond just hitting a “like” button. I receive emails every week from people asking me questions, offering to pose for me, and yes, even the occasional piece of hate mail. All of this is far more rewarding than the interactions that come my way via other platforms and I don’t have to censor myself in the slightest.
FIND SOCIAL MEDIA PLATFORMS THAT WANT YOU
While it is true that the most popular social media platforms are not friendly toward nudity or adult material, there are alternatives. I have had great experiences with Flickr for example which only requires that I mark my photographs as “Restricted”. Personally I am just fine with this compromise as I do not have to deface my own images and those with more puritan sensibilities who don’t want to see naked bodies can easily filter them out of their content feeds. Deviant Art is still more or less friendly toward artistic nudes and even some adult content with similar requirements that you only tag your work as containing potentially questionable content for squeamish viewers.
WRITE TO SOCIAL MEDIA PLATFORMS, LET YOUR VOICE BE HEARD
This one may feel fruitless but I feel that it is important. Facebook, Google, Instagram (owned by Facebook), Tumblr, and others need to hear from their users and they need to be told that the human body, sex, and adult content is not something that should be outright banned. Be reasonable when you contact them and perhaps suggest a compromise that adult content simply be tagged similar to Flickr and users be give the option of whether or not they want to view such material. I honestly feel like that is a compromise that most of us could live with and it shouldn’t be difficult for any social media platform to implement. However, they will never bother unless they are told by massive amounts of people that this is important to them.
Also, express to Google, Facebook, etc. that they should rise to the challenge of explaining what adult content actually is and why. If these websites are going to be the curators of our visual culture they should at least be able to express into words what the lines and limits are to the satisfaction of their user base. They owe us that much at least.
I honestly fear that the world wide web that I grew up with, or rather became an adult with, no longer exists. I’m not going to disappear from it anytime soon mind you. This website should be around for the foreseeable future and I’ll maintain a presence on websites like Flickr for as long as I am able to. Heck, I will continue to even use Instagram though I admit there is a little pain that hits my gut every single time I post an image with the nipples blurred out as if a person’s eyes might burn and melt if they see an uncensored breast. I do however wonder at what point we all just simply say enough is enough? At what point do we all stop moving the line toward a safer more boring less expressive virtual world?
I don’t have an answer and I’m willing to hear suggestions.