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OnlyFans’ Policy Fiasco Illustrates the Enduring Complications of Online Sex Work

One of the largest subscription platforms almost betrayed its creators, exposing the fragility of safe virtual spaces for producers of adult content.
September 10, 2021
12 mins read

The 21st century has seen almost every aspect of life migrate to the internet, a technological shift that has spawned incomprehensibly large websites that are frequented by millions on a daily basis. Statista.com has compiled a list of the 20 most visited websites as of June 2021, with each included site having well north of 1 billion visits each month. Google, YouTube and Facebook predictably occupy the top three slots, yet nestled only a handful of places beneath these tech goliaths are three porn sites.

Pornographic content has proliferated online over the last 25 years, with sites curating an impossibly vast catalog of content that is easily accessible. Many websites that curate porn have been termed tube sites, containing reuploaded third-party content.

However, one more recent addition to the virtual landscape has simplified the distribution process and empowered creators to reap the full rewards of their labor. Launched in 2016, OnlyFans was designed as a monthly subscription platform in which creators could directly upload a variety of content behind a paywall.

Tim Stokely, the company’s CEO, had founded several adult content sites before OnlyFans and decided to launch his most famous platform after seeing social media apps crack down on sexual content. OnlyFans quickly became a haven for independently produced pornographic content by adopting the atmosphere of a social media platform where creators could monetize their media.

The revolution of online porn was fantastic for consumers, but it has been most thoroughly transformative for those that produce it. Adult sites generate income by embedded advertisements, allowing the site to gain a sizeable revenue stream without greatly inconveniencing visitors. The growth in the popularity of tube sites led to a steep decline in the profitability of large, professional porn production companies, which began to close shop or decrease performers’ salaries.

OnlyFans came to fruition during this time when the existing network of online adult content was not particularly profitable for sex workers and offered a solution through its subscription model. The platform not only offered financial stability but safety for many, particularly transgender sex workers who are disproportionately more likely to become the victims of discriminatory violence on the job.

Stacey Monroe is a trans OnlyFans creator who has been particularly vocal about the benefits offered by OnlyFans, explaining how, “[a] lot of us have found safety in not having to see customers in person, one, because of COVID-19, and two, because of the violence against trans people…” Monroe’s concerns speak to both the general hazards of the industry and the unique struggles of trans sex workers, and OnlyFans’ launch offered a safer environment for all who work in the industry.

Unsurprisingly, formerly outcast adult creators began flocking to OnlyFans in droves. Both established figures within the adult entertainment industry and those looking for a new way to make money saw the clear advantages of a secure and profitable platform and have built OnlyFans into a ubiquitous brand. Despite its roots being firmly planted in the world of sex work, a quick trip to OnlyFans’ official Twitter tells the story of a website eager to be seen as anything but a stronghold of porn. Many tweets profile athletes, singers or lifestyle influencers who have chosen to carve out their niches on the platform.

The company is willing to do more than just advertise; on Aug. 19, it announced that it would ban “sexually explicit conduct” on its site starting Oct. 1. The announcement instantly upended the careers of tens of thousands who had previously relied on the site for their income, yet it was not a surprising pivot for many who have felt previous hostility from online businesses.

A therapist who goes by the moniker Jet Setting Jasmine is one of many sex workers who view the decision as part of a long arc of discrimination. “There is a power dynamic that’s not often talked about. It’s almost like OnlyFans created some amazing things and we’re partners and making it great. But the reality is, we can’t create the same structure when they pull the rug from underneath us,” she remarked. Creators can profit from OnlyFans but have not been able to diversify their streams of revenue such that they can sustain sudden changes that jeopardize their careers.

OnlyFans has created a self-contained ecosystem of content, but it is entirely dependent upon credit card companies to fund its creators and preserve the incentive to remain on the platform. Stokely has detailed the great pressure that credit card companies have indirectly placed on him due to their hesitancy to manage transactions involving porn. Apart from concerns about the optics of managing these charges, many credit card companies have found that payments for porn are some of the most frequently disputed transactions from their customer bases.

In addition to the logistical burden of interacting with adult sites, many companies are concerned with the prevalence of child pornography on large platforms. Uneasiness about the presence of illegal content is valid, as OnlyFans has primarily cracked down on channels that upload illegal content routinely. Many companies have continually predicated their argument on a lack of accountability for those uploading illegal activity, but it is also important to be mindful of the cultural stigmas around the adult industry even when it is safe and legal.

Individuals that exert influence within the world of business and are morally opposed to sex work can often derail the industry by refusing to interact with it, a trend that has historically driven the industry underground and made working conditions more difficult and unsafe. On paper, banking and credit card companies are exercising the same rights as social media networks that ban adult content, yet the decisions of financial institutions are more consequential because there is presently no easy way to migrate away from their services in the way that creators have shifted between platforms.

Stokely has been eager to shift the blame entirely to the financial institutions that process transactions, but creators have not been so quick to accept the idea that OnlyFans is simply caught in the middle of a financial struggle. Mastercard is one of the largest companies that OnlyFans payments rely on, yet its regulations are already in line with OnlyFans’ policies. The company has stated that partners “need to certify that the seller of adult content has effective controls in place to monitor, block and, where necessary, take down all illegal content.”

There is some ambiguity as to how meticulous Mastercard wants its partners to be, but by and large, OnlyFans does penalize and ban users who upload illegal content. In light of the failure to make smaller tweaks to adjust the platform to the requirements of external forces, questions were raised as to the sincerity of OnlyFans’ dedication to its identity. Jasmine Rice, a creator on OnlyFans, took to Twitter and expressed skepticism about the foundational premise of the platform, stating, “it’s pretty clear that onlyfans is no longer a platform for sex workers, and I would no longer trust any sex work platform that isn’t founded by sex workers.”

Tim Stokely has made his money from content produced by sex workers but is detached from the immediate difficulties of the industry. The ban represents an unwillingness to negotiate on behalf of the community that has given the platform its success, and Jasmine Rice and the thousands that share her sentiment have made it known that they deserve greater empathy from the company they work with.

The outpouring of surprise and criticism over the controversy has not gone to waste; on Aug. 25, the company announced that it would not implement the Oct. 1 ban. The company offered a few solemn words in its statement, claiming that it has “secured assurances necessary to support our diverse creator community.” For now, the numerous creators who voiced opposition to the decision may breathe a sigh of relief, for their activism has been repaid and their collective push has demonstrated that companies are willing to listen to their perspectives.

OnlyFans creator Mary Moody is one of these activists who has used her large following to spread awareness of the obstacles faced by sex workers. Following the suspension of the ban, Moody was interviewed on BBC and expressed appreciation that “enough sex workers are finally getting heard [and] we’re making enough noise and finally getting noticed and people are realizing that this is a human rights issue and … it’s not okay what’s happening.”

The ingrained opposition to sex workers securing stable livelihoods will likely never fade, and it is possible that financial institutions will continue to push OnlyFans to implement a ban later. OnlyFans creators can never truly relish in the certainty of their jobs, but many are used to adversity. Anshuman Iddamsetty spoke with WIRED about their reaction to the ban, and their words embody the resilience it takes to work in the industry. “Just like any other field, you have to stay innovative to keep up with the changing times. Sex workers will find a way. We always do.”

Niall Calvert, Wesleyan University

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Niall Calvert

Wesleyan University

Niall Calvert is a resident of Maine and prospective government major at Wesleyan University, where he is a leader of the Outing Club and a middle school tutor. His interests include cycling and jazz.

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