Sex

This App's Like A Throwback To Tumblr Porn's Heyday — Only Better

Lips is a platform where sexual content isn’t just allowed, but celebrated.

Lips app celebrates feminist porn and sexual expression.
Westend61/Getty Images, Sergey Filimonov, Studio Firma, Ulas & Merve/Stocksy

In December 2018, the microblogging platform Tumblr announced an official, permanent ban on all adult content, in order to cut down on abusive posts. Any explicit material, Tumblr warned, would be flagged and deleted by an algorithm. The move shocked the core of Tumblr’s audience — queer folks, women, artists, teens, people under 35 — who had come to rely on the platform for feminist, pleasure-centric sexual content.

Annie Brown, a tech developer, was extremely familiar with the NSFW side of Tumblr. “I used to watch the little porn .gifs a lot,” Brown tells Bustle. Her interest in Tumblr blogs and alternative porn was both personal and professional: As a freshman at the College of William and Mary in 2007, Brown had started an on-campus zine called Lips to combat the lack of information about pleasure “outside of a cis male perspective.” Later, as Brown grew her start-up career, she saw potential for an online version of her zine.

“The majority of the start-up world is male-owned and dominated,” Brown, now in her thirties, says. “I realized Lips could be a digital platform in a field that really needed alternative perspectives.” As Tumblr lost its core user base, Brown planted the seeds for what would become Lips, the app: a feminist social media platform where sexual content wasn’t just allowed, but celebrated.

Imagine a safe haven for your best nudes, the artsy, queer porn you jerk off to, the sex workers you love, and the erotic art you want to cover your walls — that’s Lips, which launched in January 2021. “Everyone is welcome,” says Brown, “but we center sex workers, BIPOC, LGBTQ folks, Indigenous peoples, and anti-racist activists.” At its core, Lips is an online community without the harassment, censorship, and plagiarism creators often experience on bigger, more mainstream platforms. The first month it was live, the social network gained 10,000 users without any advertising. Six months later, the user base doubled. “The positive reaction has really shown how needed this space is,” says Brown.

On Lips, I’m able to post myself in bikinis or my birthday suit. My creativity has no limitations.

For Kate, 30, Lips is a space where she can promote her art — exclusive content from a zine that explores “​​the fat-bodied kink community” — without the fear of censorship she experiences on platforms like Instagram and TikTok. The topics she illustrates — “sex, BDSM, queerness, and fat bodies” are ones that often get flagged as community guideline violations, the London-based artist tells Bustle. Self-censoring her illustrations has prevented violations on Instagram so far, but Kate’s first-ever TikTok was immediately deleted for featuring work of a fat, topless woman. “I’m always at risk of having my posts taken down — or, worse, losing my account.”

Cierra, a 28-year-old California-based sex worker, was considering quitting social media before she found Lips. In the past nine months, Cierra says multiple posts have been taken down on Instagram and TikTok, like a non-sexual Instagram Story of her in a sports bra and shorts, or posts promoting her OnlyFans account. Cierra blurs images, makes cryptic captions, and puts stickers over her body parts in photos, but estimates about 70% of her content is removed anyway. “On Lips, I’m able to post myself in bikinis or my birthday suit,” she says. “My creativity has no limitations.”

The app is free to download from Lips’ website and feels a lot like Instagram with its customizable profile, grid-style posts, and Explore page. The biggest difference is that unlike Instagram or TikTok, content about pleasure or sexual education isn’t hiding in hashtags like “#seggs,” pencil sharpener ASMR, or taken down before it can even be seen. Encouraged by a recent successful fundraising effort, Brown and her team are working on developing features like direct messaging and comments. Creator monetization is also on the agenda, says Lips Chief Technology Officer Barbara Bickham, which will allow users to not only support one another but to protect ownership of the work that’s posted.

Lips’ goal, Brown argues, isn’t returning to the golden era of Tumblr porn. It’s about making something better altogether.

While in the early stages of the app’s development, Brown and her team saw Lips as a complement to Tumblr. This, however, was before the passage of FOSTA-SESTA in 2017, a pair of bills that purport to restrict sex trafficking. But in practice, sex workers claim these bills jeopardize their access to safe, reliable income and pressure Internet platforms to censor users. Sex workers and erotic content creators claim that OnlyFan’s rapid about-face on hosting porn, for example, can be seen as an after-effect of the sex-negative environment created by FOSTA-SESTA. Lips is able to avoid the legal hurdles posed by the bills by asking users to frame their sexual content as art or personal expression, such that it’s protected by the First Amendment, says Brown. (Technically, Lips isn’t an adult site — it’s a publishing platform the same way Tumblr is.)

But Lips’ goal, Brown argues, isn’t returning to the golden era of Tumblr porn. It’s about making something better altogether.

“The harsh truth is, when the Tumblr porn ban was enacted, there was a lot of non-consensual, exploitative sexual content being distributed on the platform, and [...] much of that content still exists on the site despite failed efforts,” says Brown. (Tumblr declined to comment for this article.) “What folks are really searching for is a better solution. One that can apply a nuanced, intersectional understanding of art, porn, and erotica to moderation policies in order to allow for creative expression and bodily autonomy and yet still prevent the proliferation of unconsensual, exploitative content.”

A conscious process of moderation starts when a user first applies to join Lips: They must agree to community guidelines and write why they want to join the platform. Bickham is developing algorithms for detecting hate speech and harassment, and Lips relies on a panel, made up of feminist, tech, art, and philosophy experts — as well as members — to review flagged content and “determine if any additional actions [are needed] to protect the platform” and its users. Those who are found to harass, stalk, or otherwise harm others can be removed. The hope, says Brown, is to develop an algorithm that differentiates between good sexual content (like sex ed) and the bad (like nonconsensual or abusive posts).

For people who are used to being banned from social media simply for being themselves, however, the chance to be more open on Lips is a welcome return to a less restrictive internet. Killi, 29, a digital sex worker, decided to leave both Instagram and OnlyFans in the wake of the latter’s (since reversed) porn ban, and find social media where she doesn’t have to separate her work and her art. “On Lips, I’m able to be a whole person,” she tells Bustle. “I can’t tell you how cathartic that is for me.”