Internet | September 2, 2020 8:13 am

What Does “NSFW” Mean in the Age of Work From Home?

A problematic phrase has reached a new level of obsolescence in quarantine

what does nsfw mean
The acronym took on new meaning long ago, and it continues to evolve
Vishal Santo/Unsplash

If there’s one upside to indefinite pandemic-imposed work-from-home orders, it’s the freedom to watch as much porn during the workday as our horny little hearts desire.

Free from the judgmental eyes of bosses, co-workers and HR overlords in the privacy of our own homes/makeshift home offices, it seems no variety of internet content, however salacious, is truly “not safe for work,” or “NSFW,” the acronym that has long alerted internet surfers that they are entering a potentially racy space.

Ostensibly, the NSFW label seeks to prevent awkward workplace scenarios by warning idle Googlers and scrollers of sexual or otherwise work-inappropriate material before they click. Over the years, however, the acronym has come to function more generally as a synonym for “risqué” or otherwise “sexually explicit.” (The New York City-based members only sex club NSFW, aka the New Society For Wellness, riffs on this sense of the term.)

But at a time in which most traditional office workers are working from home for the foreseeable future, a term that hinges on the idea of people working in offices surrounded by coworkers seems destined for obsolescence — and that might be a good thing.

Writing for Vice in 2017, Jessica Brown suggested that the term had devolved from its original meaning into mere headline clickbait, to the extent that “NSFW” had already lost its meaning well before any of us ever imagined a world in which a pandemic would render the physical workplace a thing of the past.

“What was once an altruistic warning has become shorthand for ‘mildly rude,’ and used as a tool by the online press to reel in traffic,” wrote Brown, who also cited a Reddit post in which a user argued that “The meaning of ‘NSFW’ is becoming devalued to the point that it no longer serves as the warning it is intended to be.” These days, it seems, the NSFW label functions less as a cautionary red flag than a titillating teaser. Rather than, “Be careful with this content,” NSFW tends to read more like, “Click here for boobs.”

Devolution from workplace warning to lurid clickbait aside, the acronym’s original meaning seems a bit dated and regressive, even if we pretend for a moment that we live in a world where physical workspaces are still a thing.

Aside from reducing self-determined, working adults to the level of troublesome teens whose browser histories must be rigorously policed lest a stray glimpse of nudity interfere with their productivity, the implicit idea of sexual content as inherently “unsafe” also reinforces toxic, retrograde notions of sex as inherently bad or dangerous.

Moreover, the term “NSFW” perpetuates a sex-work exclusionary understanding of sex and work as mutually exclusive and opposed entities, completely ignoring the reality that for many people, sex is work. “NSFW,” then, represents particularly harmful rhetoric for sex workers, who are already forced to defend the legitimacy of their work against whorephobic discrimination and legislation on a near-constant basis.

But the implication that sex and work should never mix is simply untrue, even outside of the sex industry itself. Case in point: me, a sex writer, who can often be found scouring the internet for sex toys and Santa porn during the work day as part of my actual job. As Brown noted, similar circumstances prompted sex columnist Dan Savage to suggest the more appropriate alternative, “NSFYW,” or “not safe for your work.”

“I look at these websites constantly,” Savage told the AV Club in 2017. “I have to, it’s my job.”

While I’ll concede there’s rarely a pressing need for most employees in the vast majority of industries to be searching Pornhub during office hours, we’re all adults here; not to mention the unfortunate reality that far worse sexual conduct violations have taken place in most offices than an employee catching a brief glimpse of internet nudity.

Fortunately, now that a viral pandemic has trapped us all in our homes, there’s no such thing as NSFW. When home and work are one, it’s hard to imagine a level of sexually explicit content truly unsafe for work from home. Forced to abandon our offices and isolated, perhaps forever, from the prying eyes of our coworkers and superiors, we are finally free to consume as much explicit content during working hours as we want. With that, I urge you to go forth and masturbate in the middle of the work day. Just kidding, I know you’ve already been doing that for months.

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