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Before Tumblr announced plan to ban adult content, it was a safe space for exploring identity

(Tumblr) ((Screengrab from Tumblr))

When chief executive Jeff D’Onofrio announced that Tumblr will ban adult content, he promised a “better, more positive Tumblr” as a result. But for a 27-year-old Atlanta man who calls himself Mutabear on Tumblr, the announcement hurt. Tumblr was where Mutabear found, and safely explored, a part of himself.

Mutabear is out to his friends, family and acquaintances as gay but not as “kinky.” Instead that part of his identity lived mostly on Tumblr, where he runs a blog that posts written and visual gay erotica that centers on his kinks. “It was a safe space for me to explore things online that I would not necessarily want to try [in] real life, where that might not be safe realistically. More importantly, it was a way for me to connect with other like-minded people,” Mutabear, who asked not to be named for fear of professional repercussions, said in an interview conducted over email.

After the ban announcement, Mutabear told his followers that he was leaving the site. “We had some good times, pity others decided to ruin it for us all,” he wrote. He’s not sure what will come next — an alternative platform with the same community and safety doesn’t exist.

The new rules will ban “images, videos, or GIFs that show real-life human genitals” or “female-presenting nipples,” a phrase that became a derisive meme about the new policy — along with a genuine source of concern among non-binary Tumblr users over concerns on how the new policy would apply to them. Although there are exceptions for artistic, educational and newsworthy content containing nudity, Tumblr will no longer allow “any content, including images, videos, GIFs, or illustrations, that depicts sex acts.” The policy will apply retroactively and will be enforced mainly through automated systems. Written erotica appears to be safe, for now.

There’s a long-running joke about Tumblr, which is that it is the home of some of the weirdest things a horny mind can make on the Internet (see: pregnant Clippy, as in Clippy the Microsoft Word helper; I’m not linking, and you’re welcome). But beyond the jokes about finding strange stuff was a more complicated reality.

The ban may be intended to keep Tumblr safe after its filters for child pornography — content that has long been banned on the platform — failed to screen out some content that was found in an audit (which resulted in Tumblr being removed from the App Store).

“Without this content we have the opportunity to create a place where more people feel comfortable expressing themselves,” Tumblr’s announcement says. But the decision to ban adult content, some creators say, eliminates a space that helped LGBT, kinky, and other people with marginalized gender and sexual identities find safety and support.

Tumblr’s nudity ban removes one of the last major refuges for pornography on social media

“I frequently got messages from folks who saw my work and said it helped them understand part of themselves better,” ReaperSun, an anonymous Tumblr erotica artist who participates in multiple fandoms, said in an interview. “That’s primarily what I saw on Tumblr, in my curated bubble: women and LGBT creators exploring sexual concepts that they didn’t feel comfortable sharing anywhere else.”

“I have had dozens of people message me, a lot of which started out simply pertaining to the content I was posting, but it evolved into a dialogue between the two of us,” Mutabear said. His audience tended to be young adult gay males — ages 18 to 25, he guessed — who were exploring their identity and sexuality on Tumblr. “While the conversation focused a lot on kink and sex, there were plenty of times I got the opportunity to talk to people about how to get healthier, how to try to date, or general questions about being gay without having a strong support network,” Mutabear said.

Tumblr porn isn’t quite like what you’re imagining: Rather than professionally produced videos, adult content on the website tends to be connected to fandom or specific identities — particularly those identities that might not be represented very well in mainstream pornography. ReaperSun’s drawings are based on relationships between fictional characters, mostly two male characters together. They’re as likely to draw explicit depictions of, say, Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter (of, well, “Hannibal”) in an alternative-universe romantic relationship as they are to draw the couple holding hands and fully clothed, taking their kid trick-or-treating.

As the news of the ban spread, adult content Tumblr creators and their audiences scrambled to figure out how to respond. ReaperSun has been on Tumblr since 2011. Their blog hosts seven years of their artwork. Tumblr has been the core of their online community since then. Tumblr was how they found other people who liked the same shows they liked, and organized fandom activities like gift exchanges or drawing prompts. “It connected me to fandom in a way I’d never experienced before,” they said.

Talk on social media among users turned to migration and whether a new suitable home could be found. Years ago, the blogging platform LiveJournal was an important platform for fan communities online. When it started making changes to limit obscene or adult content in 2007, fans began to move elsewhere. One of those places?: Tumblr.

“The mass exodus from LiveJournal was pretty striking,” said Casey Fiesler, an information science professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Fiesler has studied how fandoms use spaces online — and explained why LiveJournal lost its importance to Slate earlier this year.

Like LiveJournal, Tumblr now faces the task of enforcing its new policy without hurting the communities it says it still wants to feel welcome there. LiveJournal struggled: When the platform banned a wave of blogs over concerns of child pornography in 2007, it also swept a bunch of fan blogs into the mix. And, Fiesler said, the sweep deleted blogs and groups that served as “support groups for sexual violence.”

Tumblr appears to be in the process of flagging content that will run against the new policy when it goes into effect on Dec. 17. One Twitter thread has been collecting some of the stranger examples. “Ping Pong: too horny” wrote one Tumblr user, showing a piece of art depicting (fully clothed) people playing ping-pong that was flagged by Tumblr. Tumblr was also apparently bothered by a digital painting of a cave.

But unlike a decade ago, there’s no next big thing for creators to move their communities — and their archives — to now. “I’m completely at a loss,” ReaperSun said. “Tumblr said there are many places for us to go, but there aren’t.”