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Opinion | Tumblr’s porn ban hurts sex workers

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Opinion | Tumblr’s porn ban hurts sex workers

Daniel Walsh | Staff Illustrator

Daniel Walsh | Staff Illustrator

Daniel Walsh | Staff Illustrator

By Cammy Morsberger, Staff Columnist

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The International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers was Dec. 17, 2018, but it was also the day social media website Tumblr decided to ban pornography from its platform. This means that any content deemed explicit — displaying nudity, as outlined by their new policy — will be removed.

But this effort to create a safer, more friendly interface for a younger audience has extreme drawbacks. By banning NSFW content, Tumblr will inevitably hurt sex workers, adult models and their businesses in the process. These individuals rely on their blogs and online presence as a source of income, and Tumblr’s new policy curtails their freedom of expression and threatens their stability.

Sex workers are able to make money on Tumblr by monetizing ads, generating substantial web traffic and selling exclusive content. But due to the policy change, many accounts will be removed, meaning that many people will lose a large source of income.

These users are understandably worried for their livelihood. In an interview with Wired Magazine, sex worker Liara Roux explained the danger of expelling sexual content from Tumblr, especially content from smaller subcultures.

“As mainstream sites slowly remove sexual content, which often is how queer and other marginalized communities are able to connect, it will become difficult for both sex workers and these communities to have an online space to exist,” she said.

A Bell Labs research study of online pornography found 50 percent of 130 milllion Tumblr users examined were exposed to pornography on the site, meaning that a large majority of blog posts have been or will be removed. And if this type of content is so pervasive, then it will be even harder for the site to find and delete all of it.

The intentions of the site-wide ban were fair. CEO Jeff D’Onofrio, in a blog post detailing the change, cited that it was Tumblr’s goal to “[create] the most welcoming environment possible for our community,” and that “posting anything that is harmful to minors, including child pornography, is abhorrent and has no place in our community.”

Despite D’Onofrio’s intentions, the computer algorithm, which automatically flags unacceptable posts on the website, has often confused harmless posts for inappropriate ones. According to some users, the system wrongfully targets safe posts, such as animal pictures.

And there were already site policies in place to prevent minors from viewing adult content. For instance, Tumblr had previously required a minimum age of 18 to view blog posts deemed sexually graphic, meaning that restricted content would be inaccessible to minors. Another feature which filtered out “adult” content was the default “Safe Mode,” which any user could apply to their account. In this way, the social media site was already taking preventative measures to reduce exposure to young users.

But even when content is blocked, pornography is still incredibly present. Because of Tumblr’s reblogging feature, pornography “spreads widely in the network,” according to the previous study. By simply following accounts that like or repost such content, many 18+ users are “unintentionally exposed” when those posts appear on their feed.

It is important to note that Tumblr is, by design, a space for mature content. Given that a lot of imagery on the website is graphic and a large portion of its users are consumers of such media, sex workers — like all Tumblr users — should be defended. Sex work is voluntary, consensual and can be safe to produce over the Internet.

Because of the pervasiveness of pornography on Tumblr, banning sexually explicit blogs does not eliminate the issue entirely, if at all. And because pornography is so prevalent on the website, it is unlikely that Tumblr can sweep it all away effortlessly.

Now that sex workers have been suspended from the platform, some users have created specialized blogs providing job assistance and advice about temporary housing opportunities, business promotion and costume sales.

While it appears that sex workers still have a large network of support on Tumblr, they will still have to search for income elsewhere, but options are continuously dwindling.

Craigslist was among the few remaining sites where such content was not restricted. A bill passed last March called the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act caused websites like Craigslist to eliminate pages that often hosted illegal activity, but it also shut down legal sex work in the process.

This bill and others, such as the Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act, are inadvertently harming sex workers engaging in safe and consensual interactions. Without the safety of posting content online, sex workers could be forced to search for clients in physical spaces, where they are at a higher risk for violence. A 2017 study found that the personals section of Craigslist actually reduced the overall female homicide rate by 17.4 percent. Without these websites that offer security, the lives of sex workers are in danger.

For now, it seems that Tumblr will remain firm in their decision that punishes sex workers, but there is clear pushback from the community. One particular petition to overturn the ban has nearly 600,000 signatures and counting.

Banning sexual content may seem reasonable and safe, but it can have unforeseen and devastating consequences. Tumblr should continue to provide a platform for sex workers, offering them the creative liberty and protected spaces it extends to all its other users.

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Opinion | Tumblr’s porn ban hurts sex workers