A few weeks ago, Labour MP Jess Phillips commented that one of the ways sex education could be improved is by discussing female pleasure. “We should be telling girls about orgasms during sex education,” she said in an interview with Grazia. “I’m not suggesting we teach children how to masturbate, I’m suggesting we talk to them about the things they’re doing anyway.” I was reminded of her words a few days ago, when Tumblr announced it would be banning all adult content from its network.
“What on earth will be the point of Tumblr, then?” half-joked pretty much everyone – but then we realised that this news was Actually Quite Bad. Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, this is a huge blow for the sex workers and sex bloggers who use it as a business platform. People have built their careers on the site. And while it appears there have been genuine safety issues that have led to this decision (Apple removed the Tumblr app from the App Store amid concerns about child porn), it seems cavalier at best to sweep all adult content off the site in one hit, rather than tackling the specific problem. Especially given that, let’s be honest, it was the NSFW stuff that kept it going. In 2013, it was reported that 11.4% of the top 200,000 Tumblrs were offering decidedly adult material. That same year, Tumblr was acquired by Yahoo, and the NSFW content has been getting harder to find ever since.
Besides, hosting a blog on Tumblr (or WordPress or wherever) makes it really easy to put your content out into the world. Self-hosting is easier than it’s ever been, sure, but having a domain name and a hosting plan requires actual money – so for the people running sexy Tumblrs as a hobby, forcing them to put their content elsewhere immediately un-democratises the whole thing.
But this is also about taking away a space that women and the LGBT community felt safe in. I think – though I could be wrong – a lot of women of my generation have grown up thinking that porn is not for them. I have no idea where straight guys are getting their porn these days, but I’d hazard a guess that the majority of what they’re getting off to is made by other straight men. So there’s not necessarily going to be a huge amount there for anyone who doesn’t identify as a heterosexual male. And I know female-friendly – and crucially, female-made – porn is on the increase, and we are seeing more of a focus on female pleasure (remember Emma Watson introducing us to OMGYes?) but the pleasure scales still aren’t balanced. Which is why it’s such a shame to see this happening to Tumblr. Where are we supposed to go?
I’ve written this before I know but it will always bear repeating: as a girl, one of the first things you learn about sex is that it will hurt the first time*. Which immediately makes it something to fear, rather than something to find utter joy in. And how quickly the fear goes away will depend entirely on how your first few sexual encounters go. You might be lucky – your first time might be all rose petals and candle-light. That’s unlikely, but I’m sure it’s been known to happen. Or you might have a more average sort of time. Or, you know, worse.
*if you’re sleeping with a guy – please note that I can only write from my own perspective here
The point is, for straight women, sex isn’t usually all fun and delight straight off the bat. As young girls and teenagers, we’re taught that there’s far more to fear than there is to look forward to. And that takes an undefined amount of time to overcome. You can’t explore your own sexuality unless you feel comfortable and safe to do so – which is why it’s gutting to see this happen to Tumblr. It felt like a non-threatening space for figuring out what turns you on, and that’s a precious thing for women, LGBT people, and people with more unusual kinks.
Because kink – and indeed, sex generally – isn’t something where you want to jump straight into the deep end. It’s not that kind of thing; you need time to paddle safely in the shallows. Tumblr was perfect for facilitating that. Years ago, I dated someone who was into something fairly niche, and as the more vanilla partner in that relationship, I found Tumblr to be a useful, friendly starting point for exploring his kink. Rather than him saying, “look, here’s this 11-minute video”, I could dabble happily in gifs and images, and get to know what he was into slowly, one easily-digestible snapshot at a time. And that was what was so great about the site – it was a bit like Sex Pinterest. There was a certain degree of curation – rather than wham, bam, here’s a video of a hardcore, niche sexual practice that looks painful and distressing for everyone involved, quite frankly, ma’am.
I’m sure something else will appear to fulfil Tumblr’s NSFW function – there’ll be another site along soon, and until then, there’s probably a subreddit to satisfy you. But that doesn’t help the content providers, and it makes exploring one’s sexuality safely that little bit harder. Which, in times like these, is honestly the last thing we need.