Are You Really Missing Tumblr Porn Right Now? You’re Not Alone

Michelle Santiago Cortés
·7 min read

It’s 2014 and Tumblr rules your virtual life. Scrolling through the seas of fandoms and subcultures, you witness everything from surreal fights over Hitler kinship to the proliferation of hyper-specific identity labels. You eventually come across a post that stuns you, but instead of stopping you in your tracks, it just shocks you into scrolling faster. It’s something you want to revisit when the coast is clear; something much hotter even than Alex Turner’s love letter to Alexa Chung.

What is it? A fast-paced video, a sex scene from a movie? Maybe — GIFs of undulating torsos, panting chests, or fingers hooking underwear to the side were also extremely popular. It could be something from the wealth of amateur porn so many couples uploaded straight to the platform. And because Tumblr is Tumblr, it could also be steamy diary entries, graphic fan art, or smutty fanfic. “Tumblr porn” covered a range of era-specific content that reflected a young generation’s sexual hopes and desires. In 2014 on Tumblr, it could have been anything.

Whatever it was, at the time, Tumblr was the catalyst for many a sexual awakening. Especially for queer people and women, Tumblr porn was a doorway to a world of stimulating content that was far, far away from Pornhub’s “uh-huh do you like that” offerings. Tumblr porn was smoldering, erotic, artful, suggestive, and only occasionally dirty. According to women’s magazines and blogs, it was the perfect gateway porn.

No wonder, then, that in 2021, Tumblr porn nostalgia is a generational dog-whistle all its own, a frequent topic on Sad Twitter and Queer TikTok. Maybe it’s become heightened right now because quarantine — although declared sexless — has actually given us way more solo time than we know what to do with, and plenty of downtime to think about what once got us off. We’re spending more time online and by ourselves than ever before, so a renewed reverence for Tumblr porn makes perfect sense.

For Christina*, a 24-year old living in London, England, Tumblr porn was a crucial part of her sexual awakening; she remembers it as “the porn you sort of found by accident, by virtue of just being there.” One minute, you were a happy camper, scrolling your feed, and suddenly you’d stumble upon a pair of nipples that Instagram would never allow. It might have felt fated, but it was hardly coincidental: Porn was ubiquitous on Tumblr — in fact, researchers determined that while 22% of Tumblr users consumed porn intentionally on the platform, an additional 28% were being “unintentionally exposed.” That was part of the magic of Tumblr porn: Much like a wet dream, it found you first.

The rest of the magic came from how communal the Tumblr porn experience was: “A lot of my key and formative relationships as a teenager were friends and crushes I knew online,” Christina explained. When younger millennials and older Gen Z lacked the sexual experience to articulate their desires, Tumblr porn served as a shorthand for peer-approved sexual exploration and when it came to queer and female sexual desires, things felt less prickly.

Jackie* is a 26-year-old living in Brooklyn and for her, Tumblr porn was key in making her comfortable talking about sex and sexual desire with friends. “The people we shared this content with were our friends,” Jackie said. “They might have been internet friends, but you had that level of comfort with your friends to discuss these things. It definitely played a part in my adult sexual life.”

Because porn was all over Tumblr, you didn’t need to lurk in some little-known corner or feel like finding it required some type of unsavory hunger. It existed naturally, much like sex in real life. Users reblogged sex GIFs and erotic content with the same “this is who I am spirit” that they felt when reblogging song lyrics or TV show moments. “The people I followed on Tumblr were my friends and we were all in a mini-clique where we shared that kind of stuff among ourselves,” said Jackie.

And then it all disappeared. In December 2018, the platform announced that “a better, more positive Tumblr” would be one without explicit adult content that excluded “real-life human genitals and female-presenting nipples.” The now-infamous “Tumblr porn ban” gutted communities and triggered a mass exodus off the site. The new Community Guidelines’ careful mention of GIFs, photo-realistic depictions of nudity, and sexual acts show just how varied and rich Tumblr’s horny content wast made headlines and inspired eulogies, and started a Tumblr porn nostalgia machine.

Tumblr had its reasons for banning porn — some safety-related and some business-related. It’s complicated and expensive for a platform to play whack-a-mole with illicit sexual content, but morality laws and sweeping bans on sex have never helped the vulnerable. Today, Tumblr maintains that “the removal of NSFW content in 2018 did not stop the site from being a destination for a diversity of expression — it’s still what “makes us unique today,” according to a spokesperson. But former users would beg to differ.

Jackie remembers the exact Tumblr post that changed everything: “So basically it was this girl,” Jackie said; a text post of a girl describing a day in her room. “She was horny and she wanted to play with herself. And she did it, with the family in the house and she wrote about how that made her feel.” This made a young Jackie wonder if she could feel similarly confident in her sexuality. If it wasn’t for the ban, 20- and 30-somethings today would be able to log into their old Tumblr accounts and revisit all the videos and pictures that used to get them off, and possibly even led them to masturbate for the first time.

But there are those who will always argue that there is still porn on Tumblr: Liz*, 24, began their own porn-based Tumblr just months after the ban: “I started just to mostly write posts about my experiences and maybe share some erotic art. But the more NSFW blogs that I followed, the more I realized that porn is really not gone from Tumblr.” Liz said that a lot of their early sexual experiences weren’t consensual and that Tumblr porn helped them shape their sexual identity: “Now I have what I call a shrine to my sexual interests. I can be openly sexual there without fear of being judged.”

One thing that’s happened over the last few of years is that people who left the site took the lessons of Tumblr porn with them. In other words, a more educated consumer emerged from Tumblr’s Golden Age of Porn — one who seeks out ethically produced pornography and has created a market for anything-but-Bang-Bros porn. Now it’s possible to go to sites like Archive of Our Own or to sexcapade Reddit for steamy stories, thoroughly tagged to make Tumblr proud. Granted, we still don’t have a virtual space where our sexuality — not just sexual orientation — can be a celebrated part of our online presence, much as it’s a part of our physical presence, but perhaps that will evolve, in the same way that IRL sexuality so often does.

Tumblr porn nostalgia yearns for that blossoming feeling of coming into one’s own sexual agency. It longs for those formative moments when we first realized what it felt like to be turned on; when we first became aware of our desires. Tumblr porn nostalgia is becoming a ritual, something a generation will want to revisit and remember for years to come.

It’s also possible that, even if Tumblr porn still existed as it once was, its former enthusiasts wouldn’t be as interested anymore. “An artful, smoldering GIF of a naked person isn’t going to do it for me anymore,” said Christina. “It was so palatable when sex felt like something huge and monumental and terrifying and exciting, but it loses that quality over time.” Being a happy sexual being can be awkward and hard, and Tumblr porn was a non-threatening, sultry and glamorous companion, the ideal place to explore and think about sexuality. Maybe it was only a beginning, and maybe that’s okay.

*Some names have been changed in order to protect the sources’ privacy.

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