OnlyFans’ policy switch is the latest victory in Big Banking’s war on sex

·Senior Editor
·9-min read

OnlyFans, the platform that allows creators to sell material directly to customers, will soon implement new restrictions on the publication of adult content. Starting in October, the company will ban the sale of sexually explicit content and depictions of sexual acts. The move does not cover all nudity, but says that specific rules will be outlined in an as-yet unpublished acceptable use policy. In a statement, OnlyFans said that the changes were prompted by “requests” made by its “banking partners and payout providers.” In short, the company’s arm has been twisted by the same big banks that have waged war on online sex work for years.

Big Business

The business can certainly attribute much of its success to enabling sex work and helping sex workers to get paid. Over the last two years, OnlyFans has grown from relative obscurity into a brand that is synonymous with adult content. Earlier this year, it boasted that its creators had earned more than $3 billion, and the platform was name-checked in a Beyoncé remix. It’s believed that the company, which had around 7 million users in 2019, has seen that figure reach closer to 130 million in recent months. And, on June 16th, Bloomberg reported that the site was looking to attract investors in order to raise more funding at a valuation of more than $1 billion.

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It is clear, however, that a number of people who both create content for, and use, the site feel that the impending adult content ban is a betrayal. In a statement shared with Engadget, Isaac Hayes III, founder of Fanbase — a social media site that lets users sell their content — summed up the general sentiment rather neatly. Hayes said that the move was “disgraceful,” and that OnlyFans had “made billions off that user base.” He added that dumping sex workers after becoming a household name was “exactly what these platforms do. Discard the users who make it popular once they get what they want.” And in this case, it does seem as if the twin aims of securing more money from investors and retaining access to banking is what prompted the move. It’s a story that we’ve heard several times before.

Deja Vu

The most recent example, and one that we covered extensively at the time, was the cultivation and subsequent dumping of a sex work community on Patreon. Before 2017, the site had passionately and publicly courted sex workers, encouraging them to use its platform. In 2016, it loudly defied PayPal’s longstanding ban on payments to sex workers, allowing users to support content creators through its platform. At the time, Patreon even criticized PayPal’s lack of transparency, saying that its opaque policy “impacts the lives of Adult Content creators.”

This attitude did not, however, last very long. On September 15th, 2017, Patreon raised $60 million from investors, and updated its content policy a month later, seeming to repudiate the sex workers it had previously courted. In subsequent interviews, the updated policy was described as not a big deal, with the company pledging to work with creators to ensure compliance. The general notion was that Patreon would crack down on content that was illegal or otherwise nonconsensual.

A year later, however, and the site would further toughen its rules, saying that any and all adult content — including the famous erotic art project Four Chambers — was no longer permitted. (Four Chambers, the name of a British art-erotica collective led by artist Vex Ashley, was long held as the canary in the Patreon coal mine.) Patreon said that it had stepped up “proactive review of content [...] due to requirements from our payment partners.” In short, the same banks that Patreon had battled so loudly the year before had tied the site in knots, demanding it hunt out any and all content that could be considered adult.

It's worth noting that swerving away from sex work doesn't ensure the future prosperity of a business. In 2019, Patreon CEO Jack Conte told CNBC that its business model was not sustainable, and in April 2021, the Wall Street Journal said the site was still not profitable. Tumblr meanwhile, which under Engadget’s parent company mass-purged adult content from its site in 2018 but left a wide variety of neo Nazi content on its platform, saw its valuation fall from $1.1 billion in 2013 to just $3 million in 2019.

Tangled up in Paperwork

Back in April, MasterCard announced that it would further toughen the reporting requirements around adult content. John Verdeschi, Senior Vice President, wrote that banks using its network would 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.” This includes rules requiring platforms to keep a record of the identity of every performer shown, as well as who uploads the content. In addition, all content would need to be reviewed prior to release, and all platforms need to run a beefed-up complaints resolution process to take down illegal or non-consensual material within seven days.

As TechDirt wrote back then, as reasonable as these policies sound, they seem intentionally designed to block all adult content, not just the illegal stuff. As it explains, “the new policy [...] makes it impossible for streaming platforms to comply with the new rules. Since they’re not able to prescreen streamed content, they’re [sic] just going to start blocking anything that seems like it might lead to MasterCard pulling the plug.” Mary Moody tweeted, upon announcement of the policy change, that “OnlyFans, MyFreeCams & more are in danger.” As with Patreon, MasterCard's reporting requirements appear to be such a burden that companies would rather avoid the issue altogether than attempt to comply.

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This isn’t a new story, however, and in 2015 Engadget laid out in detail how banks were systematically withdrawing access for adult content platforms. This isn’t just prohibitions on working with select adult content sites, but a blanket-ban that impacted individuals beyond their life in the sex industry. JPMorgan Chase shut down a number of bank accounts owned by adult performers, and refused banking services to a company that makes condoms. This crackdown had an disproportionate impact on individual accounts held by women and LGBTQ people.

The Right

This crackdown is part of a broader alliance between banks, lawmakers, right-wing pressure groups and religious extremists. As The New Republic explained late last year, these groups have been able to use the cover of sex trafficking to push an anti-porn, anti-sex agenda. The movement’s most successful victory was the passing of FOSTA-SESTA, a US law designed to tackle human trafficking by neutering the safe harbor provisions of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act 1996. Despite contravening the first amendment, the move has not shut down many groups of human traffickers, but has closed safety services created for, and used by, sex workers, and even forced Barnes & Noble to purge its ebook store of erotica.

Naturally, OnlyFans became a clear target of those campaigners both because of its success and because it contradicted their narrative. By enabling individuals to sell their material to consumers without intermediaries, it was allowing people to make a living. You can also argue that sites like OnlyFans have enabled people otherwise excluded from the workforce — this report from Arousability explains that a person with chronic pain who can’t work a 9-to-5 job found that sex work offered them financial independence they couldn’t have found otherwise.

Alternatives

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While creators wait for OnlyFans to detail just what content will be allowed, in its brave new world, many may wish to take their business elsewhere. There are a number of platforms that occupy a similar space in the market, including AVN Stars, FanCentro, Unlockd and AdultNode. Just For Fans, for instance, says that it is a sex worker owned-and-operated platform, and that it will welcome any and all creators that OnlyFans has “abandoned.” Similarly, a number of in-progress projects to build more sex-worker owned and operated platforms are currently underway.

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It’s likely that this will be seen as another reason to switch to a blockchain and cryptocurrency-based system as a way of escaping the reach of big banking. There are several, including SpankCoin and Nafty, that offer sex workers the ability to sell content through their systems. And as more major platforms are picked off by a combination of payment processors and regulators, this space is going to grow. 

But there are inherent risks to switching, including currency fluctuations and the risk that a sex work-specific currency can still be excluded from mainstream exchanges. And then there’s the fact that if a platform gets big enough, it gets noticed — and targeted — by anti-sex advocates. Crypto can shore up the finances, but pressure can always be exerted on providers, hosts and platform owners wherever they may be. 

And that often forces creators to leap from platform to platform to keep one jump ahead of the people who want to strip them of their ability to make money. But every time they do so, they risk losing their user bases, and have to expend time and energy to recover the fans that they already had. Either way, until there is better political and corporate leadership who can handle the nuanced situation of online sex work, individuals will often be left with no choice but to keep moving, or sink.

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