“Sex, a great and mysterious motive force in human life, has indisputably been a subject of absorbing interest to mankind through the ages.” — Supreme Court Justice William Brennan
On December 17th, Tumblr permanently banned adult content from its platform. Under the new community guidelines, any image that depicts sex acts, real-life human genitalia, or (with a few exceptions) female nipples will be hidden from public view. Despite the company’s claims, the new guidelines will not create a “better, more positive” Tumblr. On the contrary, the overly broad nature of the ban will chill free speech, stifle artistic freedom, further marginalize underrepresented groups, and feed into the damaging social shaming of sexual expression.
We agree with the Electronic Frontier Foundation that the guidelines are overly broad and confusing. The marginalized groups who turn to Tumblr for sexual expression, the many artists who have found followings and community on the platform, and everybody else interested in this age-old subject will be forced to self-censor or risk losing access. Worse, enforcement of the policy relies on automated tools, which have already mistakenly flagged the website’s own examples of “permitted” nudity.
Since its founding in 2007, Tumblr has grown into a safe space for users to explore their sexual identities and celebrate body positivity. Many young people, especially in the LGBTQ+ community, were drawn to Tumblr to discuss their sexuality and access sex education resources outside of school. Tumblr’s blanket ban on sexual expression is removing a life-saving resource and putting these young users at risk.
Another casualty of the new ban is artistic expression. Art depicting human sexuality–a subject artists have depicted for centuries–will be sent to ever-less-accessible corners of the Internet. What will be the fate of Rubens’ Leda and the Swan? Or Giordano’s The Abduction of the Sabine Women? Or Jeff Koons more recent sculptures in his “Made in Heaven” series?
As a private company, Tumblr can establish its community guidelines as it wishes. However, the overly broad guidelines transform the platform into the very opposite of the “place to speak freely about topics like art, sex positivity, your sexuality and your personal journey” that it purports to be. Users who still wish to speak freely need to migrate elsewhere.