There are no bad sex workers, just bad laws.
On 17th December last year – which, ironically, also marked the annual International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers – Tumblr announced it would be adopting a harsh new policy to ban huge swathes of adult content from the site.
The news came after a well-documented child pornography scandal which led to the app being removed from Apple, but instead of taking incremental steps to filter out offending content, the site rolled out what was essentially a blanket policy that lacked nuance.
Although Tumblr isn’t just porn and sexed-up selfies, its liberal attitudes towards NSFW content set it apart from other, more conservative social media platforms. Sex workers flocked to the site, but now they’re being unfairly targeted by a policy introduced for crimes they didn’t commit.
The policy included some exceptions – nudity for sex education, protest and other acceptable situations – which offered a glimmer of hope that sex workers might escape censorship, but a combination of bizarre language (seriously, what the fuck is a ‘female-presenting nipple’?) and algorithmic enforcement meant that accounts were unfairly censored left, right and centre. The random censorship demonstrated a huge misunderstanding of what actually constitutes ‘adult content’, leading to the unjustified closure of NSFW art pages.
Viewed in isolation, the misguided policy looks to be an overzealous reaction to a more specific problem, but viewed in the wider context of last year, it represents just one of many attempts to crack down on sex workers’ online presence.
The most damaging example of this crackdown was FOSTA-SESTA, a double-pronged US bill designed to stamp out sex trafficking and stop services being advertised online. Sex workers ended up caught in the crossfire of this law; online resources to vet clients were taken away from them, as were websites like Backpage, which gave them a platform to advertise and the means to solicit safely.
Reports trickled out after the bill passed that sex workers were being pushed onto the streets to find clients in dangerous circumstances, and that pimps and other middle-men were taking advantage of their vulnerability by exploiting them. Even police officers noted the legislation as a disastrous misstep – paradoxically, one which actually made it harder for them to catch traffickers.
Although Tumblr was no Backpage equivalent, it attracted a huge network of sex workers that used it to advertise when other alternatives were snatched from them. They could make money easily by monetizing their pages, selling exclusive content or signposting to subscription services like OnlyFans, thus enabling them to earn a living and – let’s be real here – keep Tumblr afloat.
Sure it was a platform known for hosting impressive art and enabling social activism, but it was predominantly known for its porn – despite adult content making up just a tiny percentage of the site’s content.
This relaxed attitude towards sex represented a welcome break from the intense anti-sex work narrative that largely reigned supreme last year. Not only were countless nasty debates generated by FOSTA-SESTA, Stormy Daniels found herself in the eye of a media tornado after news of her affair with President Trump – and her alleged payoff – hit headlines.
She was slut-shamed from every angle, but the months of vilification earned her widespread admiration. Not only did she become an advocate for marginalized people, she also became the most searched for term on Pornhub in 2018.
Finally, as if to cap things off, a bunch of Reddit bros launched #ThotAudit late last year; by reporting online sex workers to the IRS for undisclosed income, they hoped to penalize women and strip them of resources. According to reports, it was a waste of time.
All of this makes Tumblr’s adult content ban hugely important. Resources are being stripped from sex workers, and governments worldwide refuse to listen to them by granting their demands of full decriminalization.
When implemented in New Zealand, this model was proven to protect sex workers by making them feel safer, improving their relationships with police (officers have been shown to routinely abuse sex workers and other crime victims) and generally fostering a cultural climate which views their work as actual labor, not of something seedy, clandestine and worthy of punishment.
Tumblr may just be trying to protect itself in the wake of a high-profile media scandal, but by failing to differentiate between child pornography and actual pornography it has made life even more difficult for a group of already-marginalised workers.
What sex workers need now – especially in the US – is a platform to advertise their services safely. They need companies need to speak out in support of them instead of blackballing them – Paypal is yet another example of a business whose policies directly targeted sex workers.
Around the world we’re seeing vital organizations like the English Collective of Prostitutes campaign for decriminalization, but for these petitions to succeed we need to change our cultural attitudes towards sex work, as well as sex more generally
By refusing to tackle its child porn scandal with nuanced policy – which already exists in the form of its ‘safe mode’ – Tumblr may well have killed any chance of longevity. But more importantly, it has added to the already long list of obstacles that sex workers are forced to hurdle on a daily basis just to survive.