The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why social media sites shouldn’t censor erotic images

Photography gives marginalized populations a voice.

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Next week, Tumblr and Facebook will enact a new Community Standards policy designed to stop the consumption and circulation of explicit images, in response to charges that their algorithms failed to stop child pornography from appearing on their platforms.

The backlash against this new policy from users has been swift. The policy — which takes a broad-strokes approach to the matter by targeting the depiction of suggestively posed bodies, erotic talk and self-imagery as inherently pornographic, no matter the claim to artfulness or intent — has raised the issue of the role of corporations in controlling self-expression. At the center of this moral panic are photos taken by average people for everyday consumption, whether as art, education or titillation.

The overreaction to these sorts of images is new only in the venue. It reflects age-old tensions around photography’s place on the border between art and obscenity, and who gets to decide which is which. The history of photography shows that how we deal with the challenge of erotic self-expression says much about how we negotiate democracy itself.

Since its earliest days in the 1820s and ’30s, photography has both threatened and reinforced the status quo. From Joseph Nicéphore Niépce’s first heliographic renderings, photography possessed the capacity to reveal and share the intimate details of life as experienced by the masses. Elites used photography to justify their right to impose their values on the masses, and European powers used it to survey and subdue entire swaths of the globe. The middle class clamored for portraits, while social critics turned their lenses on the poor and the slums of London, Paris, Berlin and, later, New York.

As cameras and camera stock became more affordable and film development less toxic, entrepreneurs such as George Eastman capitalized on the burning desire to take images by telling consumers “you press the button, and we’ll do the rest.” By the mid-20th century, film no longer had to be sent away for development. This advance was followed by personal darkrooms, Polaroids, camera phones and social media archives, where people could curate their lives, advertise wares and create art out of the everyday. These advances help make photography a highly democratic medium, one that visualized the rise of modernity, mass politics and consumption.

Photography captured all aspects of society, making the marginal visible, challenging taste and decorum, and blurring the line between art and smut.

This capacity has always raised alarm bells because it endangered established social mores. Nowhere has this been more pronounced than in photographs of the naked human form.

In Paris in the 1840s, photographs of nude models, seated in academic-style poses with plants and furniture serving to dampen the erotic impulse of the image, received a frosty response from the art community. Legislation was quickly passed to regulate the circulation of these images to safeguard society from their ill effects. Yet photographers continued to take nudes. Though these images weren’t officially recognized as art, they still found an avid following among art collectors and artists. The trade in explicit images had begun.

This trade enabled a whole range of desires and identities that fell afoul of community mores and conventions. The photographs of Sicilian boys by Prussian traveler-photographer Wilhelm von Gloeden enjoyed a robust trade among Europe’s closeted elites precisely because sodomy laws made it impossible for same-sex attraction to coexist alongside Victorian (or in this case, Wilhelminian) values.

And these images empowered people marginalized by elite norms. The mysterious images of smiling prostitutes in E.J Bellocq’s Storyville portraits in the red-light district of New Orleans show women appearing to revel in their sexuality while showcasing their wares. They are anything but disempowered, victimized and fallen. While the dominant classes could shape, if not dictate completely, societal mores, these images indicated that they could not impose shame on those who ignored these norms.

The 20th century would pose new challenges for photography’s double-edged power to both reinforce and flout convention.

Photographers such as George Platt Lynes would have to mask the homoeroticism of their images as high fashion to evade censorship. Lynes’s most intimate renderings of the male form were so incriminating that he felt compelled to deposit them with the Kinsey Institute to prevent their possible destruction should they fall into police hands. In fact, the archive of the famed sexologist houses many such examples of photographs taken in intimate settings that landed in police files as evidence of amoral sexuality.

Today, they are a treasure trove for historians seeking evidence of nonnormative, nontraditional sex. Some of these — including the images of West German photographer Herbert Tobias, who took photographs of rent boys he picked up of the streets of Berlin — have moved from the realm of smut to high art, displayed at distinguished art galleries and housed in national collections.

This has not been without its own challenges. The intense battle in the 1980s over Robert Mapplethorpe’s gay sadomasochistic self-photography — a seminal moment in the culture wars — was not a one-off. Even after a famous Canadian legal battle was resolved, lesbian images like the ones sent across the U.S.-Canada border prompting the case continued to earn the ire of customs’ officials for skirting around obscenity law. While feminist and queer-themed images have increasingly acquired recognition as art, debates around community mores have also accompanied this transition, showcasing the ongoing struggle to represent nonnormative sexuality in the public realm.

The decision of social-media companies to regulate sexually charged photography in the name of preventing child pornography is a 21st-century version of the same debate that has existed for centuries. In the hands of everyday people, who now, more than ever, have turned the camera on themselves, photography is a powerful tool for narrating, visualizing and understanding one’s erotic power and subjectivity, especially for those with non-mainstream sexual desires. There is nothing inherently dangerous here.

And yet, because underground images, historically as well as today, both reinforce and challenge social norms, they threaten the powerful — especially when wielded by ordinary people. Those pushing to limit them recognize that these images hold tremendous potential to empower excluded and marginalized populations and to break the elite stranglehold on defining cultural norms.

In other words, whose desires, bodies and self-presentation circulate online says much about whose desires, bodies and selves matter in society. It is not insignificant that Facebook and Tumblr’s policies on explicit content encapsulate all talk and imagery of sex positivity, sexual empowerment, body positivity and self-display at precisely the moment that women and queer-identified men and women are gravitating to photography to lay a claim to desire.

Cultural participation in online social networks through the production, consumption and networking of images need not be met with moral outrage and panic. Photography’s history shows us that the art has always held tremendous democratic potential in lending visibility to the marginalized and speaking truth to power. There is no need to weaken this tremendous potential — especially since social media already has a process for allowing consumers to help regulate the boundaries of acceptability with crowdsourced review processes for flagging inappropriate content. We are living through an era where democratic institutions are coming under siege every single day. We would do best to keep social media as a space of social mediation.