Thanks to technology, the ways in which we share and consume x-rated content online are changing. Maybe it's time we finally rethink our tolerance for porn.

Written by Michael Thomsen (@mike_thomsen)

Last week Apple allowed the photo-sharing app 500px to return to the App Store after having removed it following complaints it featured pornographic material. The app was not designed to expedite the sharing of sexual imagery, but as an open-ended tool it was inevitable someone would use it for something sexual and some distant viewer would stumble on it unaware. To get its spot back in the App Store, 500px had to accept an age-gate requirement, acknowledging it contains “Frequent/Intense Sexual Content or Nudity” and require its users be at least 17 years old.

The case is not an anomaly, but characteristic of how pornography as a prejudicial label is gradually losing its meaning in an era of digital sharing. Twitter's new video service Vine inadvertently linked to a video of a woman masturbating with a dildo as its "Editor's Pick." Some have fretted that Snapchat will become a breeding ground for sexual imagery, doubly so because of the service's time-limited nature. And Tumblr's iOS app was recently given the same "17+" distinction as 500px because of the tool's countless active and popular sex blogs.

Apple has a long history of disdaining pornography. In 2010 Steve Jobs celebrated the iPad's "Freedom from pornography," after a diverse number of apps with varying sexual content were removed from the app store, including a digital Kama Sutra and a gay travel guide. "You might care more about porn when you have kids," Jobs wrote in an email to a user who had said he didn't want his iPad free of porn.

In wanting to protect children from sexual videos and imagery, Jobs is echoing the Supreme Court, which decided in the 1968 Ginsberg v. New York case, that the government could regulate the sale of sexual content to minors on the grounds that it was obscene and protection from obscenity was in the best interests of minors. That case built on a definition of obscenity laid out in 1957's Roth v. U.S., in which the Court declared obscene speech was "utterly without redeeming social importance," and was not protected by the First Amendment.


What is forbidden content on one platform becomes instantly acceptable in a new window, tab, or app.


Justice William Brennan relied on Webster's Dictionary to delimit obscenity material that appealed to "prurient interest" and produced "'... Itching; longing; uneasy with desire or longing; of persons, having itching, morbid, or lascivious longings; of desire, curiosity, or propensity, lewd.' ... 'a shameful or morbid interest in nudity, sex, or excretion.'" In that way pornography becomes obscenely illicit not because of what it is, but for the laundry list of effects we fear it has on us.

What's most characteristic of the social and political efforts to limit sexual media is the dependence on speculation as to how being exposed to it might somehow destroy a young person's moral and emotional development. For decades, this standard was easy enough to enforce because of the relatively limited number of media distributors able to reach national audiences. The advent of portable computers and mobile Internet connections has inverted the old standards of media creation and distribution. In this environment, where teens can experiment sexually with a new variety of digital implements, while also stumbling onto documents of other people's curious sexual imaginations, the foundation of pornography is dissolving.

Porn was never particularly expressive or meaningful with its heaving hyperboles, trapeze postures, and mall-chic couture. Now that technology has turned us all into junior pornographers, it seems the alien extremes of porn were mostly a byproduct of our suspicion that exposure to sex is corrosive. For porn to be what it is, it had to embody the worst fears its critics had of it. It became valuable as a taboo-ized modeling of what we most feared in our own sexualities.

Technology is now leading us toward a point of confrontation between porn as a repository of our anxieties and fragmented documents of our physical sex lives as captured and shared on iPhones and Tumblrs and Twitter pics. What is forbidden content on one platform becomes instantly acceptable in a new window, tab, or app.

While it is absurd to see innocuous apps like 500px labeled as "17+" and categorized with the ominous "Frequent/Intense Sexual Content or Nudity" label when the bulk of their content are dull vacation photos, Apple seems content to acknowledge not much can be done to actually eliminate sexuality on social networks or in content sharing tools. Like humor, friendship, politics, art, and music, sex has always been a daily part of the human experience, and as the tools we use to navigate and record our daily human experiences grow, there is no way to erase sex from them. In accepting that essential truth, may be the beginning of the end for pornography. As we're becoming more comfortable encountering sex in our daily media streams, the antiquated insistence on keeping it separate is beginning to seem inhuman.