Earlier this year, artist and sex worker Lena Chen co-created an interactive game called OnlyBans in which players take on the role of a sex worker on a digital platform parodying subscription websites like OnlyFans. The objective of the game is to establish a following and earn “money,” all while “encounter[ing] images and stories from real erotic content creators who face censorship, shadow-banning, and de-platforming,” Chen tells Rolling Stone.
OnlyBans turned out to be as prophetic as it was satirical.
On August 19th, OnlyFans announced that they would be “evolving” their content guidelines. “Effective 1 October, 2021, OnlyFans will prohibit the posting of any content containing sexually explicit conduct,” their statement read, a move that shocked most people who have come to associate the brand with nude selfies and X-rated cam shows. Why the sudden change? Well, unlike strip clubs or legal brothels — which can accept cash from customers — online businesses must maintain their relationships with credit card companies and other forms of digital payment processing. And, according to the August 19th statement, OnlyFans’ new policy was the result of “the requests of our banking partners and payout providers.”
The platform walked back their decision not even a week later — likely due to an avalanche of backlash — but the damage has been done. “I think they thought they may gave gotten away with this without people caring. That doesn’t seem to be the case,” Aedan Rayne, sex worker and adult entertainer tells Rolling Stone. “Quite honestly, with our industry being under attack with NCOSE [National Center on Sexual Exploitation] and [sex work abolitionist group] Exodus Cry putting pressure on Mastercard and payment processors, we have an insecure future. The question is what will happen to these other platforms?… We still have the question: What will happen to the industry as a whole?”
Experienced pornographers, tech culture researchers, and labor rights activists say they were far from surprised by OnlyFans’ initial pull-back from sex work. “This is just another example in a long, long line of websites building their entire brands on our labor, our bodies, and our influence, and then turning their backs on us as soon as it might benefit them financially,” says Lydia Caradonna, a sex worker and founding member of Decrim Now, a grassroots group which campaigns for the decriminalization of sex work in the U.K.
In recent years, OnlyFans has been synonymous with gig economy sex tech: Uber for internet porn. The company launched in 2016 as a service for online influencers of all kinds to monetize their social feeds. During the Covid-19 quarantine, the brand gained mainstream name recognition, as many people used it to try out remote sex work for the first time. Tim Stokely, the company’s founder and CEO, has a long background in porn startups, while its majority owner Leo Radvinsky previously founded the adult cam site MyFreeCams. OnlyFans has become a popular platform for both workers and consumers in the influencer era of entertainment where custom content, direct conversation, and the cult of personality are the keys to success.
In many ways, the OnlyFans business model has been a welcome development for porn stars, who can use it to run their own business without the control of managers or producers. The site allows creators to monetize user-generated content, while subscribers pay for access to custom videos or virtual interactions. OnlyFans says their two million creators have earned over $5 billion on the platform.
To the layperson, OnlyFan’s initial move away from sex work may seem baffling — it’s a profitable industry, after all. However, those working in and studying sex tech had been bracing for it. Dr. Elissa Redmiles — a Faculty Member at the Max Planck Institute for Software Systems in Germany who is currently conducting a study on sex workers who moved to OnlyFans as a result of pandemic lockdowns — says that she was disappointed but not shocked. “De-platforming — people being harmed by and kicked off of both adult and non-adult platforms like AirBnB and PayPal just for being sex workers — has been going on for a long time,” she tells Rolling Stone.
“We’re finding that experienced sex workers were very much already anticipating that OnlyFans could go down at any time,” Redmiles adds, saying that “newer creators, however, were likely not as prepared for this change.”
Adult entertainment companies have always had to stay in compliance with content standards dictated by payment processors, but OnlyFans’ initial announcement may be the latest in an intensifying pattern. In late 2020, Mastercard and Visa announced they were prohibiting the use of their cards on behemoth adult video hosting website Pornhub. It’s possible that banks are under renewed pressure to distance themselves from alleged associations of trafficking and exploitation following a recent letter from religious-right Republican Representative Ann Wagner to the Justice Department accusing OnlyFans of being a “major marketplace for Child Sexual Abuse Material.” Wagner, the original drafter of the controversial law FOSTA-SESTA, did not offer any evidence of illegal activity.
OnlyFans did not respond to Rolling Stone’s requests for comment and their August 25th statement does not include any plans for how to handle future issues with financial institutions. It merely reads: “We have secured assurances necessary to support our diverse creator community and have suspended the planned October 1 policy change. OnlyFans stands for inclusion and we will continue to provide a home for all creators.”
It should be noted that OnlyFans’ initial policy change did not rule out nudity entirely, but the now-nixed Acceptable Use Policy made it clear that sex workers specializing in hardcore sex and fetish clips would be excluded. Many prohibitions, such as using the site to solicit prostitution and other illegal activities, remained unchanged, but depictions of or references to sadomasochism and all forms of intercourse would have been against policy. Many of the updates emphasized that not only “violent” content, but a simulation of certain scenarios would be banned. Users would have been no longer able to publish videos or images depicting popular erotic fantasies including “incest, hypnosis, torture, fisting, urine,” and more. Since pornographers and erotic artists often produce content involving fictional scenarios, the policy represented a serious restriction on what creators could post, and what users could expect from their subscriptions.
OnlyFans has said that they use a combination of “automated systems and human moderators,” to review content. So it would have been up to algorithms and employees to determine what forms of nudity were “extreme or offensive” and what made certain bondage “hardcore.” All this added up to sex workers fearing that OnlyFans could censor content arbitrarily. Even more insidious was the implication that more niche erotic representations such as queer bodies and kink-themed imagery would suffer while normative creators could still thrive on the platform.
“Often when platforms try to draw these types of lines, marginalized groups — Black creators, LGBTQ creators, creators who do not fit the standard Euro-American beauty ideals — are most likely to have their content removed and suffer the most harm,” Redmiles observes, citing the recent research of Gabriella M. Garcia.
So what did the Fans of OnlyFans think about this proposed sea change? Angela, a healthcare professional who lives in New England, signed up as an OnlyFans user in 2017 to follow one particular model. She’s ordered custom video clips, audio, and photos, and exchanges sexts with the model through the site’s direct messaging service almost daily.
“I mostly just love how it made it possible to, in a limited capacity, have intimacy with a really awesome person. Especially during the pandemic, when I as a polyamorous person, wasn’t able to see my other IRL partners,” Angela told Rolling Stone. She says she will stay an OnlyFans subscriber as long as her favorite model is able to post pornographic content on their account, and will follow them if they migrate to other platforms. She thinks the now-aborted policy change was a “shitty move.”
Steven, an artist from Toronto, says he started using OnlyFans in 2019 and prefers it to the free pirated porn available elsewhere online. “The performers I follow aren’t big industry names, and OnlyFans felt like it was like a sexy Patreon where I could support smaller, independent adult performers directly,” he says, adding that he feels “indignation” on their behalf.
While sex workers are accustomed to preparing for disruptions like these — researching, educating, organizing, and learning not to rely on a single platform for their income — Cameron Glover, a coach for sexuality professionals, wants sex workers to take even more control over their work. Especially if OnlyFans pulls the rug out once more. “Everyone in the field needs to have digital platforms that they own,” she tells Rolling Stone. “This means having your own website and mailing list where you’re regularly directing followers, fans, and community members to add themselves. It’s also important to think about the structure of your business: What are you doing? How can you create ways for that to be done without you being physically present and build demand for your work?”
Amberly Rothfield, a model marketing consultant, advises OnlyFans creators, especially those who only started during the pandemic, to back up their digital assets and start diversifying right away. “Being dependent on any singular platform is just not wise. They could shut down without ever telling you. Get emails, learn about push notifications and own your own website that you can use to push traffic to your preferred platforms.”
OnlyFans is not, nor has ever been, the only content subscription game in town. Clips4Sale, LoyalFans, Nightflirt, Unlockd, AVN Stars, JustForFans, Sextpanther, ManyVids, ModelHub, Peep.me, Admire.me, FanCentro: these are just a few sites that explicitly allow user-generated sexually explicit content and communication between adult creators and consumers. However, most of these sites use the same payment processors as OnlyFans, and it’s likely they will also one day face pressure to change their terms of service.
Decrim Now founder Caradonna stresses the importance of unity among workers in the industry. “It is undeniable that our work has value. That’s why it’s a multi-billion dollar industry. We need to start talking about our labor rights. Join unions, or local advocacy groups, and get organized. We can fight this but we can only fight it as a united group.”
Although OnlyFans’ proposed policy has since been walked back, it was still a huge blow to online adult performers, from those who use OnlyFans to make ends meet to big names who bring in millions, their livelihood precariously hanging in the balance. And this sort of controversy doesn’t just affect sex workers. It sets a precedent for any sexually themed online speech, including hook-up apps, outsider art, and health education. “We take for granted that we will always have access to apps, payment processors, and social media,” Chen says. “We assume that the Internet is this Wild West of free expression, where anyone can make money or become famous. In reality, our digital freedom is shrinking by the day.”
When financial institutions, tech companies, and conservative politicians conflate legal adult entertainment with abuse, there is a chilling effect on freedom of sexual expression. This means that the labor issues of sex workers have implications for everyone. Chen names the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation as organizations that have demonstrated an understanding that “censorship facing sex workers is a critical threat to the civil liberties of all of us.”
It’s possible that many sex workers will continue using OnlyFans, who takes a 20 percent cut of their earnings, after this about face. But they will also have to take on the burden of stigma, never knowing if the platform is a secure form of income. Meanwhile, their followers will have to decide whether or not to continue using the service.
“If the adult performers I like are leaving OnlyFans, then so will I. There’s little point for me to use it if they’re not on there,” says Steven. “How can you not empathize with them? They [were] being de-platformed and shunted around online while their ability to earn a living [was] being threatened. You’d have to be blind to not see it.”