Prototype

Observing liberalism’s adaption to the information age

Feb 8, 2019

Tumblr and the Futility of Porn Censorship

Disproven claims of pornography’s harm don’t justify the exclusion of sexuality from public life.

Tumblr and the Futility of Porn Censorship

Once an adult content honeypot, Tumblr has cleaned up its act - to the dismay of many observers. Tumblr’s new porn ban, which bars “real-life human genitals” and “female-presenting nipples” has sparked talk of the social media firm’s impending demise, and, more broadly, the limits of the platform internet.

Social media platforms remain the predominant means of communicating online, however, this sudden crackdown traduces the Internet’s original spirit. At the dawn of the net in the mid-1990s, the mega-network with pleasingly unobtrusive defense department roots and a dazzling interface appeared as a font of content for all. “At its inception the world wide web seemed to promise an escape from corporate and governmental powers, an egalitarian free-for-all,” writes Guardian analyst Stuart Jeffries.

How exhilarating it was to log on to the information superhighway as it was idealistically called at first, a quarter century ago. The name of the browser that popularized the new libertarian highway, Mosaic, reflected the variety of content it served up. In Mosaic’s wake came smoother, bolder options - Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer, whose names emphasized that the global information-sharing network was all about discovery driven by ground-breaking search engines like Altavista, whose name implies scope. Likewise, search engines like Magellan and Copernicus cemented the sense that this new space, created by a public-spirited English physicist, allowed anyone to embark on a virtual adventure of the mind.

Cyberspace enabled first-wave netizens to read about “weird stuff”, from frogs raining down from the skies to drive-through condom stores. You could expand your general knowledge just through punching your queries into the growing search engine armada or Encarta, the Microsoft encyclopedia soon to be eclipsed by its open-source successor, Wikipedia. Plus, suddenly, newspapers that had been out-of-bounds on geo-location grounds mushroomed digitally, offering insight on everywhere from Amiens to Zagreb. Plus, the first oddly offbeat porn sites, including Wasteland and GameLink surfaced untrammeled.

In today’s world, where the internet hosts over a billion web pages and counting, it seems like the frontiers of freedom are retracting, as with the “Tumblocalypse.” On December 17, Tumblr began scrubbing its site of pornography: tens of billions of photos, GIFs, and videos were flagged.

In prim, politically correct style, the only remaining content with any remotely sensual vibe that merits toleration is that which is seen as valuable to the cause of social justice. That is, supposedly vital LGBTQ+ conversations, discussion exploring sexuality and gender, and GIFs of gender-confirmation surgery. “Examples of exceptions that are still permitted are exposed female-presenting nipples in connection with breastfeeding, birth or after-birth moments, and health-related situations, such as post-mastectomy or gender confirmation surgery,” Tumblr’s clinical policy FAQ says.

The new draconian constraints fall under the rubric of that inescapable buzzword, “diversity.” This begs the age-old question; who is not supportive of diversity? However, the libertarian approach differs from Tumblr’s for a simple reason; nobody has proven that porn is harmful. 

Psychology Today encapsulates matters nicely when it poses the question of whether any evidence exists that porn harms relationships and answers with three terse words: “No; there isn’t.” Even the argument that not-safe-for-work content can be addictive seems iffy. Porn addiction is not listed as disorder in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, effectively the bible of psychiatry.

According to Nicole Prause, Chief Executive of Liberos, a brain-centric biotech firm, porn use should not be likened to drug or alcohol addiction. When someone views porn, their brain only resembles that of a person afflicted by a recognized addiction up to a point. Then divergence arises.

In the case of, say, gambling addiction, when a cue occurs, addicts’ brains respond markedly. By contrast, with porn, the magnitude of response is far more limited. The evidence suggests that porn addiction is not a genuine phenomenon; nor does it appear to fuel sexual assault.

While anti-porn activists in the Julie Bindel camp claim that X-rated content turns men into maniacs, if anything, ironically, the reverse appears to be true.

Porn has become widely available in large part due to the internet, but rape rates have dipped sharply, just as violence has dropped despite violent video games being more available than ever.

In the Czech Republic, Denmark, Japan, China and Hong Kong, more porn has been found to mean less rape, according to sex researcher Michael Castleman. Additionally, UCLA researchers found that, across sex criminals’ lives, they consume less porn than other people, curiously putting them in the same bed as the anti-porn puritans.

In a Scientific American Mind article titled The Sunny Side of Smut, science writer Melinda Wenner Moyer confirms that for most users, porn use has no ill effects. In fact, in another mighty irony, it may even deter sexual violence. She quotes human sexuality expert Milton Diamond as saying: “There’s absolutely no evidence that pornography does anything negative. It’s a moral issue, not a factual issue.”

Wade through research on the issue and you will be left with the overwhelming impression that the anti-porn lobby are not critical thinkers but puritanical dogmatists. The evidence that the content cranked out by the multibillion-dollar­ porn industry screws men up is mostly anecdotal: witness the tales of predators like Ted Bundy who had serious porn habits - just like many men. Amusingly, in 2009, it emerged that University of Montreal scientists who embarked on a quest for men who had never seen porn failed to find a single abstainer.

The Canadian researchers had planned to contrast the outlook of men in their 20s who had never seen porno with that of routine consumers. Alas, the Canadians’ initiative wobbled at the first hurdle. “We started our research seeking men in their 20s who had never consumed pornography. We couldn’t find any,” said the study’s head researcher Professor Simon Louis Lajeunesse.

His findings raise the question of how, if a case existed for doing so, porn could be stopped when its viewership is so widespread. Stopping it would be a tremendous waste of resources for law enforcement officers who may feel that their time could be better used catching thieves rather than hunting down habitual porn viewers.

Despite the strong case for letting porn be, censorship is rife and surprisingly stringent. Delicate souls have their sensibilities protected via widespread low-key corporate self-censorship. For instance, nudity generally is kept off Facebook. “We restrict the display of nudity or sexual activity because some people in our community may be sensitive to this type of content,” the social media giant says, adding that its Nudity Policies have gradually grown more nuanced, though they are no less legalistic.

Facebook permits nudity in protests and awareness raising activities and allows for nude images in educational or medical contexts. The nuanced rules are best exemplified by the general prohibition on images featuring female breasts or nipples, modified by the following caveats; breastfeeding and post-mastectomy photos, along with pictures from topless protests, are permitted. Photos of paintings, sculptures and other art presenting nude bodies are similarly given a seal of approval.

On one hand, you must give Facebook credit for having the courage to map its criteria, Tumblr-style – it is hard to detail censorship rules without sounding a bit silly. On the other hand, its criteria seem pretentious, given the wide latitude afforded to highbrow artistic expression.

Across the valley at Google, by default, Moderate SafeSearch is switched on, excluding explicit images from search results. More surprisingly, the privacy-geared search engine DuckDuckGo automatically presents the same conservative setting, which as Google, can be tweaked should the user wish to step outside the walled garden that excludes hardcore content.

In an example without an easy op-out, the subscription crowdfunding platform Patreon has suspended adult content creators. Reportedly, in Patreon’s caring, sharing economy space, mere implied nudity was enough to cause a fall from grace – a big blow, especially for sex workers touting their wares.

I am not making the case that real and threatening obscenity – child abuse photographs and footage – does not require rigorous censorship. Rightly, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that the filth is not shielded by the First Amendment. The 1982 precedential Supreme Court decision known as New York v. Ferber found unanimously that the right to free speech only goes so far, with reason. Arguing for the total removal of censorship seems seriously out of line.

But the problem lies in walling off porn from the rest of public online life. Through this separation, porn’s more lurid elements are amplified and exacerbated. As the internet pornography market has matured, it increasingly caters to the tastes of the median paying viewer. Platform porn bans accelerate this process by driving more internet users toward whatever pornography Pornhub’s parent company, MindGeek, has decided to produce.

It isn’t that we can’t find pornography on the internet. All manner of hardcore tube sites exist. However, spaces for alternative and artsy porn, Tumblr in particular having served as valuable repository of this kind of content, are disappearing. Regardless of the veracity of complaints about the effects of pornography, it is exactly the sort of airbrushed, professionally scripted pornography advantaged by this dynamic that most frequently spurs concerns about porn teaching unhealthy sexual behavior. So the trend towards barricading niche porn sites is counter-productive as well as a betrayal of the early Internet’s halcyon spirit.

There are cases where censorship is needed, but America has never maintained an ironclad barrier between sexuality and public life. No less a personage than Constitution contributor Gouverneur Morris, who coined the phrase “We the People”, penned erotica.

Morris’ journals are laced with accounts of his escapades that he mapped graphically, rejecting the code that other early Americans used in regard to sensual subjects. Most of the Bronx-born maverick’s flings happened while he served as an ambassador for the new nation in revolution-era France. His chief squeeze – a married woman - lived in The Louvre back when it was a palace and hangout for friends of the king. Naughtily, the risk-taker and his love interest used the venue as a stage for trysts with an exhibitionist side, as logged in his explicit diaries.

“Go to the Louvre,” Morris writes. “We take the chance of interruption and celebrate in the passage while [Mademoiselle] is at the harpsichord in the drawing room. The husband is below. Visitors are hourly expected. The doors are all open.” Were the US founding father with a pronounced candid streak around now, he might upload his antics to one of the web’s myriad voyeur sites.

Today, the web’s founding father Tim Berners-Lee is on a mission to decentralize it, spurred by a belief in the importance of freedom from interference. “I imagined the web as an open platform that would allow everyone, everywhere to share information, access opportunities, and collaborate across geographic and cultural boundaries. In many ways, the web has lived up to this vision, though it has been a recurring battle to keep it open,” Berners-Lee told the Guardian in March 2017.

The truth is we can do without nanny state-minded corporates banning clips and GIFs of naked flesh. While private censorship undeniably provides for greater exit opportunities than state censorship, it is motivated by the same paternalistic instincts. In many cases, state policy, from the UK’s soon to be implemented porn filtering requirements, to FOSTA in the US, tip the scales against the private toleration of nudity, incentivizing firms to censor content they might have otherwise left alone. An open internet is not aided by additional anti-nudity lobbying, much less lobbying in the service of discredited porn addiction claims. 

So, it may well be time to call a halt on the sanitization - the insidious censorship creep, because we are adults. We can cope with female-presenting nipples, genuine genitals and much more. However nuanced they purport to be, policies of wide-ranging regulation and private bowdlerization should be scrapped