Tumblr taught me two things: how to code and how to have sex.
This story is about the latter.
What is Tumblr?
Here’s how it works:
- Users create a profile for free
- Your username becomes your domain name (ie. girlmeetsweb3.tumblr.com)
- This domain acts as your own “website” and can be customized with themes, plugins, and custom code
- Users can post their own photos, videos, and text posts, as well as reblog other people’s posts all of which then appear on their site
The platform is versatile and dynamic. It attracts a diverse range of creative and artistic types, from graphic novelists to aspiring fashion designers.
While the platform is still operating today, its usership has all but died off.
How do Tumblr profiles work?
Each Tumblr profile acts as individual blog or webpage. The best profiles were often a curation of other people’s images rather than original content.
Most people did not have a single profile, but operated many separate and distinct profiles under different usernames. On Tumblr, a cohesive, singular self-image was preferred to a holistic, accurate picture of yourself. This required having multiple pages for multiple interests.
I had several pseudo-anonymous Tumblr profiles in high school including:
- A personal site for blogging pictures
- A health site for talking about fitness and veganism
- A poetry site for sharing my writing
All of these profiles existed independently from one another, with each one representing only a specifically curated aspect of my personality.
What was Tumblr culture?
Tumblr had a cult-like following 10 years ago. While other social media sites forced you in to a box, Tumblr pushed you outside of it.
This created a community-centered space rich of subculture.
- Aesthetic came first
- Differences were celebrated
- Pseudonymity was preferred
- Authenticity was everything
The platform encouraged free expression, but not without a few flaws.
As it turned out, the community-centered, moderation-free experience that people adored on Tumblr, inadvertently amplified the teenage angst of its young, female user base.
Self-harm, thinspo, and cyberbullying ran rampant on the platform. It was often criticized for glamorizing suicide and encouraging eating disorders.
Even so, it was a breath of fresh air compared to the highly-commoditized Instagram profiles we were used to. On Instagram, we would post pictures of ourselves at the beach with our friends.
On Tumblr, we would post pictures of girls crying naked in a bathtub.
That was the difference with Tumblr.
What was Tumblr After Dark?
The richest subculture of all was the underbelly of sexually explicit content. Not only did Tumblr allow nudity, they allowed pornography completely unfiltered.
Sensual black and white GIFs were a dime a dozen on Tumblr. And if you clicked down the right rabbit hole, you quickly found yourself in a different part of the platform: Tumblr After Dark.
Here you saw:
- Women gagged and tied up in Japanese knots
- Men in business suits choking girls in pigtails
- Adult women in diapers
- 18-year-olds dressed in heavy bondage
- Cosplayers touching themselves
- Lesbians having foursomes
Profiles were themed depending on the kink. There were influencers with faceless avatar images and names like daddy_dom6969 amassing hundreds of thousands of followers.
Pictures of genitalia were welcomed with enthusiasm. Every post was accompanied with a caption about banging your sister. My friend made thousands of dollars selling pictures of her feet.
It was unlike any other platform that existed.
The importance of sex on Tumblr
Tumblr was one of the few safe spaces on the internet where sexuality was celebrated without judgement. This had two main consequences:
- Adult workers flocked to Tumblr
- Kink communities thrived on the platform
Adult Creators on Tumblr
Creating adult content on the internet is not easy. Most platforms have community guidelines that ban any sort of sexually explicit content. If you are trying to produce and profit off adult content, you have to:
- Find a platform to host the content
- Find a platform to promote the content
This is rarely the same platform. If you start an OnlyFans for example, you will have to promote outside of the platform, as they don’t have great shareability or discoverability within the platform itself.
Tumblr was unique because everything was self-contained. Users could run an entire adult production scheme using nothing but Tumblr and PayPal. This made it incredibly appealing to adult creators.
Sexual Community on Tumblr
Tumblr also offered a vibrant support system for those with unusual sexual preferences. It was a place where people could express themselves openly without fear.
Tumblr offered people a release for their suppressed sexual desires. It gave them a safe space to explore their sexuality in a consensual manner, when they may not feel comfortable doing so in real life.
People had real relationships, with real people, in the digital space.
Why did Tumblr lose popularity?
Sexual content was at the core of Tumblr culture. There was no other mainstream social media platform that allowed sexually explicit content with the permissible freedom that Tumblr did.
Which is why it completely rattled the community when Tumblr banned NSFW images in 2019. Images showing any sort of genitalia were now completely prohibited and would be removed from the platform.
The ban was in response to discovering child pornography, a legitimate concern of many social media platforms. It is the reason why most community guidelines exist in the first place.
The irony here is that social media platforms perpetuate the hyper sexualization of their young users, while simultaneously eliminating any kind of safe havens for sexual exploration.
Social media is failing our youth.
Sex and Social Media
The general rule of thumb on social media is this: sexually suggestive is okay, sexually explicit is not.
This is how social media works:
- Popular [sexual] content gets more engagement
- The algorithms push high engagement content to your feed
- Your feed is now covered in hot girls getting attention
- You copy their tactics to be popular online
This creates a self-fulfilling feedback loop wherein sexual content gets more engagement, therefore the platform shows more sexual content.
The problem is when young people realize they can gain followers by exploiting themselves. They lean in to creating this content without understanding what they’re doing because there are no safe places for sexual conversations to be had.
And while Instagram profits off the premature sexual maturation of young people on and off line, they continue to ban you if you are female and you show your nipple.
Sexual freedom on the internet
Sex communities on the internet are shockingly civil.
As long as it is legal and there is consent and respect on both sides, sex in the digital world is often a trove of positivity for people.
Sexual relationships on the internet can:
- Create a sense of connection
- Fulfill desires for those who are socially isolated
- Provide a sense of community
- Allow a safe space to explore kinks and fetishes
- Empower people to own their sexuality
And while we don’t want to think of young people as engaging in sexual activities on the internet, they do. Teenagers will learn about sex on the internet and they need a place to do that safely.
10 years ago, Tumblr was that place. It taught us more about sex than anyone else when I was a high schooler.
It taught us what we liked and disliked. It taught us things that we could explore in our personal relationships. Best of all, it taught us that sex can be for girls too and it was okay to enjoy sex as a female.
The open discussion and exploration of sexuality on Tumblr empowered the people who were a part of it.
It wasn’t perfect by any means. But for a lot of us, it shaped our sexual development in overwhelmingly positive ways.
Lessons for the future
Allowing sex on social media is high risk.
Young girls will receive unsolicited dick pics and be made to feel uncomfortable. There will be grooming and harassment and trauma will occur.
But sex will always exist on the internet. It exists now, under the guise of suggestive content on TikTok of explicit content on Reddit (looking at you, r/gonewild).
What is important is offering a safe space where people can explore their sexuality and receive a sense of community in an otherwise anti-sex world.
If social media will inadvertently profit off the hyper sexualization of young people, then the least they can do is give people a safe space to discover their own sexuality. One day.