In eighth grade, I followed my first porn blog on Tumblr using my family’s computer. One late night scrolling through black-and-white GIFs of straight couples getting down led me on a long journey of learning how to masturbate and discovering where to find the finest homemade material to assist me.
My pubescent, 13-year-old self would be devastated to hear that Tumblr banned “adult content,” or any media featuring nudity or erotica, in December 2018. Tumblr claims it changed the policy to filter out child pornography, but this promise to remove “non-artistic adult content” further projects a stigma of illegitimacy for sex-based businesses that don’t break the law and provide a reliable source of income for hardworking individuals.
The online sex industry ranges from “cam girls” to online sex shops, sex-positive bloggers, erotica artists offering niche porn, intercourse advice, vibrators, and more. These businesses fulfill the sexual needs of consumers and make a profit but, beyond that, they provide a safe space to discuss intercourse and pleasure. Sex-based businesses provide in-demand products and services, from essentials such as condoms to custom porn clips for customers. Policies such as the Tumblr ban hurt these ventures by reinforcing taboos and old-fashioned stigmas surrounding the topic of sex.
Many venerable sex-based businesses and websites such as Tumblr allowed for open conversations about sex, which led to the sex industry thriving on the platform. Motherboard reported in 2016 that although only one percent of blogs on the platform produced porn, 22 percent of users on the website consumed it.
There’s no denying that sex sells. “Cam girls,” who perform and interact with customers in live online shows, can make between $2,500 and $20,000 per month, according to Forbes. On a larger scale, in July 2016, Forbes reported that sex toys and technology make up a $15 billion industry that may surpass $50 billion by 2020. Countries such as Japan and the Netherlands have booming sex industries that range from niche toys such as artificial intelligence sex robots to legalized red-light districts, or parts of a city with a high concentration of sex shops, strip clubs, and other sex-oriented businesses.
Sex-centric businesses generate large profits that allow the people working in these industries to live comfortably, but the validity of this entrepreneurship is often undermined by the way online platforms such as Tumblr treat them. These policies further negative stigmas that hurt individuals working in the industry.
“As a professional myself, I experience the delegitimization of my job. A lot of people think that it’s just kind of funny instead of seeing the ways it’s really critical and really impactful,” Ruby Vail—the manager of Good Vibrations, a sex toy and education shop with locations in Brookline and Harvard Square—said. “There are certainly people who don’t want for us to advertise with them, don’t want to work with us, or don’t want to rent space to us.”
Instagram and other sites often suspend businesses promoting vibrators and other products due to the sexual nature of their content, even if the images do not violate nudity guidelines. The app recently took down an account run by New York City-based online sex shop Wildflower Sex, but restored the page following a strong response from its followers. Tumblr took a brave stand against the dangerous and offensive “female nipple” with its recent policy change, but it‘s not alone in this quest—platforms including YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook also face criticism for their strict, poorly executed guidelines relating to sexual content and algorithms that often wrongfully flag posts that don’t break the rules.
These websites have been called out for adopting stricter adult content policies to appease advertisers instead of making guidelines that reflect the values of the platforms’ users.
“Having things less visible makes them more stigmatized,” Vail said.
These businesses make money, but beyond this capitalistic value, they also serve as a space for people to talk about the stigmatized topics of sexual pleasure and safety. Sex-based spaces, both online and in the real world, facilitate conversations that make many people uncomfortable. Uneasy patrons can feel more comfortable talking about the subject in a sex store rather than formal spaces such as a health clinic, Vail said.
“[Sex-based companies are] pretty viable businesses, but the other piece is sex is an almost universal experience,” Vail said. “I would argue for folks who are asexual or not engaging in sex are still encountering sex and sexuality, even if they decided not to engage. There are very few things we can say are universal besides sex.”
Vail, who started working in sex education 12 years ago, said the Tumblr ban and similar online censoring further stigmatize and negatively impact both those working in the sex industry and businesses such as Good Vibes. The latter hosts sex education workshops and offers a vast online catalog from dildos to free sex explainers on pegging.
“People don’t really value learning about sex in the way they value learning about other things,” Vail said.
If you’re not in the market for a new butt plug or any X-rated clips, you can still support these marginalized creators by purchasing their merchandise or art. If you want to support the sex industry but you’re low on cash, you can show your favorite business and influencers love with your likes and comments on social media. Start by checking out artist and writer Jacq the Stripper as well as actress and dancer Kyra Cherie.
Whether you prefer to keep sex in the bedroom or to use it to line your wallet, remember to support all laborers—even those working in 12-inch platform heels and designing artificial intelligence sex robots.