Extra: Full Interview with Ashley Barron
A conversation on online sex work, the relationship between adult creators and social media platforms, the importance of pre-ban Tumblr, and the power of these platforms
When Tumblr announced that nudity was coming back to the platform, I started work on a piece talking about the relationship between sex workers and social media platforms. It’s a subject I’m passionate about, and I’m very happy with the final result, which you can read in The Spectator. The summary is this quote:
Conservatives worry about deplatforming and shadow bans, but sex workers are Americas most censored, financially harassed and socially ostracized group. Tumblr is impotent to change that, and Twitter may be too economically fucked to even try.
During my research, I spoke with many sex workers and adult creators, and my email exchange with Ashley Barron - a cosplay artist who became immensely popular on Tumblr - was so enlightening that I thought it was worth republishing below. If you’re interested at all in sex work, Tumblr, self-expression online, and the power of tech platforms, I’m sure you’ll learn something.
With Ashley’s permission (and minor polish edits) have a read:
Ross Anderson: For those who aren't aware, what was adult content and nudity like on Tumblr before the ban?
Ashley Barron Pre-ban, Tumblr was a much more open platform and what I felt to be a less judgmental space. I feel like everything from art, to boudoir photography, to even short fiction and blogs were more creative. Finding something that fed to your interests, kinks, or even as a source of figuring out your own sexuality was much more available and easy.
Unlike most social platforms now, I feel like Tumblr is/was always less pushy about trying to get you to see new content it thinks you want. Basically if you followed one nude artist on Tumblr back in the day, it never felt like for the next year that was all they pushed to your “timeline”. If you wanted to see NSFW content, you could find it, if you didn’t, it wasn’t being forced on you.
I slowly started posting more NSFW content there after years of being too shy to do so - mainly due to my own self judgment and shame around my gender identity. But when I began doing it, it felt very liberating, and as a genderfluid/trans photography and cosplay artist - it meant I could express myself in a way that wasn’t bombarded by judgement and I could post in a space were I didn’t feel hated by the world.
RA: What were the core demographics of your followers there? Did it differ from other social platforms?
AB: My core followers on Tumblr pre-ban were all much more active, engaged, and creative when it came to following and interacting with me. Pre-Ban I had a follower count of 150k people, built up over only 4 years - and I would say that at least 90% of those followers reached out to me at least at one point via messaging or via my posts. This was massively different from other platforms were direct interaction was more like 25% from my fans.
The blog format really helped me vary up my content - I would write fiction, post travel, post photography, post links to other articles, and it never felt like an algorithm held back what it wanted to push. People followed my blog - because they wanted to see what I was doing there.
Generally my followers were between 22-58, 70% male. But also a large portion of that follower base were trans/fluid folks or folks who were in the process of coming out.
A large amount of messages I used to receive there (and still receive on my other socials but not as extensively) were people reaching out to tell me they felt more seen by my blog, or suddenly were coming to terms with their own gender identity because of my work. I really loved hearing that from folks.
RA: What was distinct about Tumblr from other social networks for sex workers and online adult content?
AB: I think the main thing that made Tumblr feel distinct from other platforms at the time was the absence of negative or critical posting on things I was creating.
For example, I currently post completely safe for work content on the iChive site once or twice a week - there are people who actively follow me there just to let other folks know “Hey, this girl has a dick! Haha isn’t that gross and funny?” or try their best to tear me down. Admittedly across the board on other social sites I get this from people. I literally will have people follow my on other socials to downvote my content as soon as I post it - it’s weird.
But on Tumblr, people had to find you, and people who followed you, always seemed to want to see your work. This was especially rewarding for sex-work - people were there because they liked your work - so asking them to support you on paid platform wasn’t some shock to them or annoying to see. I rarely can recall anyone on that site actively trying to tear me down or let others know my “secret” - if you were there commenting and following, you kind of had to be somebody who admittedly had to try and find me - they weren’t stumbling across me in the wild unless they were looking for the kind of content I was making.
RA: How important was pre-2018 Tumblr for adult content and sex workers? Were you affected by the 2018 ban?
AB: PreBan Tumblr was essential to my success. The only reason I have a successful Patreon and OnlyFans now is because of PreBan Tumblr. I never intended to start making money off of what I do, but Tumblr literally opened the door to that world for me - they literally put me in front of thousands of people who actually supported and asked me to not only make more content, but volunteered to help assist me to make more of it. PreBan Tumblr made me one of Patreon’s most successful content creators from about 2016-2018. At one point I was in their top 1,000. But Tumblr gave me the freedom to put out some of the work I was creating on my paid sites, and lead people to it if they wanted more - in a judgment free space.
And Tumblr never seemed to limit or try and hide any post I made linking to my OnlyFans or Patreon - it would send out that post to my followers regardless of what I was linking to. Where as right now - Instagram and Twitter straight up hide or reduce posts to my paid pages. A typical Twitter post I make gets 3,000-5,000 interactions - but if I make the same post with the link to my OnlyFans included, I get about 200 interactions… And Instagram straight up will hide posts if you use the word “OnlyFans” in the description. Tumblr used to be a space where me saying “hey, I do sex work here at this site” was actually posted like a normal post.
So, that being said, I was immediately affected by the Tumblr ban. Not only did I have to spend weeks wiping 25% of my old posts over the last 4 years to try and “survive” the upcoming ban that played like a countdown to my demise. But even after purging my whole page, and then only posting SFW content from that point on. I survived Post-Ban Tumblr for about two months before they just straight up deleted my account with no warning and no contact. One day I woke up to post something and it was just gone - along with my 150K followers. I spent three months trying to get my page back, but I never got a response to a single message I sent - still haven’t.
Since then, I have created a new account there and gotten about 20k of my followers back (4 years to make back only about a seventh of my audience), but especially since then all of the traffic to my OnlyFans and Patreon has halved (if not more) as to what it used to be. I can literally see in my Patreon demographics were a follow came from - Tumblr basically disappeared off the map. I basically was tossed out like I was nothing after years and years of using a platform I loved and supported fully.
RA: What role does social media play for sex workers? Why is being engaged in these platforms important?
AB: Social Media is literally like our life blood. As I mentioned, I never jumped into what I do ever intending to make money off of it. It was a way for me to deal with my own identity and feel safe expressing it. But social platforms allowed me to find an audience, and created a job for me that I never thought would be possible. And I love it.
On top of that, social media has allowed me to be safe. I can exist, and do what I do, and bring joy to folks, and I don’t have to put myself in a dangerous situation - I do what I want, on my terms, and I don’t have to answer to anyone about my content except me. If someone gets angry that I’m not “doing enough for them” I can block them, or, walk away. I’m not having to put myself into that situation in person.
And engaging in these platforms and sharing via these platforms is a way to let people see me - and my personality. It makes me human. And it helps them even find me in the first place. Without other platforms I am a name in a paid site that nobody can find simply by scrolling through it.
RA: Generally, what relationship do social media companies and their users have with sex workers? How have you found using Instagram, Reddit, TikTok, Twitter etc. for your work?
AB: I hate to say it, but I think most social media platforms would rather ignore us. It feels like a “you can do what you do, but I am mostly going to ignore it” kind of mentality. On top of that, most people still can’t get over themselves and see sex work as a job or something that is actually genuinely stressful and hard work - I spent 6 years making a social media presence before I received one dime from people online.
When OnlyFans scared us all by putting out that they might have to ban sex work on their site - most of the population went to Twitter to make fun of us. We literally were being threatened with losing our jobs and safe livelihoods - and people flooded to the streets to laugh at us about it… and no site made a stance about that - they would rather ignore us for now - we’re a tricking social entity that can be a bit too hot button to make a stance on.
But, if I were to praise any social media site, currently I would praise Imgur. I have been a long time safe for work cosplay poster there and they have been nothing but supportive. I don’t advertise my sex work there, but the platform knows I do that on the side. Despite that, their whole team knows I have a huge following on Imgur and they even reach out to me to collaborate on occasion - for example last week I joined their team to help raise money for Extra Life - an even for children’s hospitals, and they promoted the funny post I made for them, and I helped them raise $2,100 dollars in only a week for the cause. Me being a sex worker isn’t even something that is brought up - I am a cool cosplayer people love there, and so they are supportive. It feels nice.
RA: Do you intend to move back to Tumblr now that it has reintroduced nudity, but not "visual depictions of sexually explicit acts"? Are you excited about this change, and how are you going to use Tumblr in relation to your work?
AB: As mentioned, I am currently back on there as a different but similar username. And I can’t say I’m excited, I’ve already been burned by them. And last week my private messaging capabilities were suddenly taken away there with no explanation - so, I can’t say they have done much to prove they care at all.
I figure I will just keep doing what I do now that I’m back on - posting relatively tame pics that even instagram would be okay with. Heaven forbid somebody looking for it might see my dick and be offended and then they just nuke my account again with no explanation.
RA: Reddit seems to be the dominant platform for OnlyFans conversions, with TikTok at second place. Do you think Tumblr will also function in this way, or will the no-sex-acts limits prevent that?
AB: I think they are opening the door for more conversation, but I also think that they basically burned a bridge with a large portion of their original NSFW userbase. I have no excitement or hopes for them to become anything outside of what they have been for the last 4 years - but admittedly as someone burned by them, I have a pretty hot take lol. I think anytime you tell someone “You can have this, but there are loose rules that only we can decide matter.” You are already proving to people that you don’t really respect them as a creator.
RA: Are you hopeful for the future of social media being more pro-sex work/adult content?
AB: I am hopeful for the future of social media being more pro-sex work, but that’s because I kind of have to be right? Because that would also mean the world as a whole is becoming more Pro-Sex Work. Sometimes I really wish people would get over themselves a bit and realize sex doesn’t have to be this taboo, scary entity. Talk to us, we’re willing to talk - we’re just as human as the rest of you… we just orgasm more.
Thanks for reading,