Tumblr Should Not Ban Porn

It should welcome more porn!

Photo illustration of a censored nude image with Tumblr's logo superimposed. There is an X through the logo.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Ioana Cristiana on Unsplash.

Tumblr has been a safe and reliable place to look at pornographic images for more than a decade whether those images were drawings, GIFs, photographs, or short videos. But that’s changing in two weeks. The platform’s CEO announced in a lengthy Tumblr post on Monday that the service plans to ban all adult content. There will be some exceptions, like for art with nudity, but for the most part, the days are numbered for existing Tumblr posts featuring nudity or other pornographic content. The policy comes two weeks after Tumblr was kicked off the Apple App Store because some child pornography reportedly slipped through its filters. It’s unclear if Tumblr didn’t respond to just these reports of child porn fast enough, or if this is a long-standing problem.

It’s certainly true that Tumblr, which now is owned by Verizon, needs to work vigilantly and hire people to make sure that its services aren’t used to abuse minors and traffic in child pornography. Pedophilic material is something that all live-to-post services need to seriously contend with and actively engage in rooting out, whether they are Facebook, YouTube, Twitter’s Periscope—where I found last year that apparent pedophiles were frequently preying on young users—or Tumblr. But the platform’s fix is the equivalent of hammering a nail with a skyscraper, only to have it slip through an open window. It’s an overreaching solution that won’t protect children who are victims of child pornography, seekers of which will all but certainly find another place to go.

What banning “adult content” will do, however, is eradicate one of the few mainstream, safe, and non-taboo places where people could participate in communities that openly congregate around sex and sexuality. Sex is great, and it’s no wonder that people like to consume sexual images—much of the internet is dedicated to this. Knowing that one could roll onto Tumblr, a very popular social media site, find a blog dedicated to whatever flavor of porn one likes, and look at images that turn one on, made the whole ordeal of seeking sexual imagery less daunting, demeaning, and dangerous.

Popular porn sites like Pornhub or YouPorn also have something for everyone, but that something is often accompanied by shady online ads and recommendations for porn that you may find insulting or troubling. (Porn about incest and rape abounds on those sites, for example.) And having one of those sites show up in your browsing history or an open tab could lead to uncomfortable conversations.

But individual Tumblrs that feature adult content generally feel like appreciation pages, because that’s what they are. Go to a Tumblr dedicated to sexy images of women in lingerie, drawings of naked people, queer people making out, or real and different-size women reaching sexual climax and it feels like you’ve found a community of people who like what you like—not one where you have to identify yourself, or be exposed to eye-popping ads about penis size that may also be peddling some nasty malware. It’s no wonder that Tumblr has become a place for people who are curious about their sexuality to explore imagery that they find appealing. Porn is experienced on Tumblr the way a lot of things are experienced on Tumblr, from memes to artworks to history to puns. And that impacted how one might view porn there. Finding pages with dedicated collections of sexual imagery among all the other fan pages made the perfectly normal and healthy activity of enjoying sex and things that make one think about sex feel perfectly normal.

Tumblr CEO Jeff D’Onofrio noted in his post that eradicating adult content—and drawing lines to determine how to classify it—won’t be easy. He’s certainly right. Facebook, one of the most powerful companies in the world, has repeatedly fumbled at it. YouTube has struggled with it. So has Twitter. As D’Onofrio notes, “filtering this type of content versus say, a political protest with nudity or the statue of David, is not simple at scale. We’re relying on automated tools to identify adult content and humans to help train and keep our systems in check,” which he adds will certainly lead to mistakes with attempts to enforce the policy. It’s not easy to do this kind of work “at scale,” which is tech-speak for “with software,” because there’s really not that much of difference between an artistic photo of a naked person and one that’s, well, for porn. It’s the type of thing that even humans can’t always parse. All of this is why taking user reports of child abuse and revenge porn seriously and hiring professionals to work with digital tools to find and ferret it out is a way more effective way of keeping Tumblr safe than attempting to ban all adult content all together. But that means heavily investing in human filters, too, not just attempting to perfect A.I. ones.

Censorship is something a private company has the power and right to do. And it’s a tool that large, influential online platforms should wield very carefully. Banning child porn and revenge porn—and doing so consistently and aggressively—is a good use of censorship. So is banning Nazis and white supremacists, since their entire organizing principle revolves around elimination of racial and religious groups or hate that historically leads to violence. These are all harmful. Censoring content that isn’t harmful, however, like images shared in sexually themed communities, isn’t just a blunt solution: It’s counterproductive. If the point is to make the internet safer, don’t zero out one of the safer, more mainstream places online to enjoy porn. Do a better job at removing harmful and exploitative content. Take user complaints seriously. Search for bad actors. Take harmful posts down fast. Banning all porn not only adds another needless layer of demonization to something that’s perfectly normal, it’s probably not even going to work.