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OnlyFans banning 'explicit content' won't end well for anyone

An ultimatum from Mastercard, pressure from evangelical groups and the hunt for more cash are all at work.
Photo illustration: Images of a half closed laptop in a dark room, a hand holding a phone with a person taking their photo with a scribble over it and the logo for OnlyFans.
Sex workers made OnlyFans into a juggernaut. Now they're being betrayed.MSNBC / Getty Images

There are a lot of reasons that OnlyFans, the social networking site that’s become a favorite with adult content providers, is getting out of the porn business. None of them are good — not for the company itself, not for what it says about the country’s financial system, and certainly not for the sex workers who have built the site into the juggernaut that it is.

The site was not created exclusively to host adult content, but its ability to monetize photos and videos became an attractive way for amateur sex workers to make some above-board cash. In March 2020, soon after the first wave of Covid-related shutdowns hit, the site reported that 60,000 new creators had signed up that month, a 75 percent jump.

Since then, OnlyFan’s clout has only grown, up to and including getting a namedrop from Beyoncé in the remix of Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage.” Which is why it was such a surprise on Thursday when Bloomberg News first reported that the site will prohibit users from posting any sexually explicit conduct, starting in October.

In its full statement, the company explained that creators will still “be allowed to post content containing nudity as long is it's consistent with our Acceptable Use Policy.” While that means we’re not looking at a total ban on adult content, the back half of that sentence is doing a lot of work. There’s no guarantee that those terms won’t change in the near future. In the meantime, it reads as a de facto ban on “hardcore” content that sellers can charge premium prices for from subscribers.

So, why the shift? Days before the announcement, Axios reported that OnlyFans is having trouble raising funds from venture capitalists, who see the site as a risky investment. This despite, according to a pitch deck leaked to Axios, the company having facilitated $2.2 billion in sales from users to customers and gaining $375 million in net revenue. (It’s unclear how much of that was actually either profit for the company. It's also unclear how much came from subscriptions to, and sales of, adult content specifically.)

At first, it seems like it may be a simple story of greedy capitalists killing the goose that’s laying their golden eggs

At first, then, it seems like it may be a simple story of greedy capitalists killing the goose that’s laying their golden eggs. If investors are uncomfortable partnering with a company that provides access to porn, simply ditch the sex workers that actually made the company what it is. But OnlyFans’ statement added another potential reason for the shift: “These changes are to comply with the requests of our banking partners and payout providers.”

That’s likely a reference to an April decision from Mastercard. Starting Oct. 15, if a bank wants to connect a seller to Mastercard’s network, they will 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.”

That sounds like a good thing — but the controls that Mastercard is demanding include the kind of layers of moderation that require a lot of time, effort and resources, including reviewing all content before publishing and a “complaint resolution process that addresses illegal or nonconsensual content within seven business days.” And sex workers worry that the steps may be the beginning of a total ban on transactions related to porn using Mastercard’s systems.

It’s not an unfounded fear. Mastercard and Visa both announced last year that they’d no longer allow purchases on Pornhub. That decision followed a targeted outrage campaign from the evangelical, anti-pornography groups Exodus Cry and the National Center on Sexual Exploitation that want to abolish the porn industry entirely. Those same groups have had their sights on OnlyFans for years now; the Center on Sexual Exploitation even took credit for OnlyFans’ policy change.

In actuality, the pending changes are likely a combination of all of those factors — clout chasing, financial threats and moral outrage — which together are most likely to lead to entry into the bag fumble hall of fame.

First, it immediately reads as a bad business decision, one made to try to shed the stigma of pornography to lure in major investors. The site has already launched an entirely safe for-work app in recent months to get a toehold in the App Store and Google Play — but there’s no guarantee that it will be successful.

Second, the rapid shift comes across as cruel toward the sex workers who have used OnlyFans as a (mostly) safe lifeline during a pandemic. It also provided a way for struggling mothers to pay their bills as retail and service jobs vanished during that time. Already creators are worried about what the upcoming changes will mean for them and the rushed rollout means that some aren’t trusting that the news of the changes is even true.

The attempts to pressure OnlyFans to provide less explicit content only moves the industry back into the shadow

And, finally, there’s the issue of MasterCard and Visa getting to make these decisions on what are and aren’t morally acceptable transactions. Most internet purchases are done via a card issued from these two financial giants. For them to get to have the final say on what is and is not a legitimate purchase for something that is, at its heart, legal is worrying.

These all come back around to how public policy around prostitution, pornography and sex work are created. While there’s often a “won’t someone please think of the children!” aspect, as seen in the BBC’s look last year at underage posters to OnlyFans, just think about attempts to combat “human trafficking” online — like the 2018 laws known as FOSTA/SESTA — which almost always sensationalize a small percentage of cases as the norm. Those efforts then come back to hurt the very vulnerable men and women who are just trying to make a buck and survive.

In effect, the attempts to pressure OnlyFans to provide less explicit content only moves the industry back into the shadows. Rather than having a trusted website with multiple layers of verification and guaranteed payment processes, we’re sure to see numerous, less secure knockoffs pop-up in the coming weeks and months and attempt to get a cut of the fleeing user base. And given the amount of personal information that creators are now used to providing to verify their age and identify, I’m worried that some panicking members of an exodus from OnlyFans will get their identities stolen while looking for a new haven.

In summary: Thursday’s announcement makes OnlyFans as a company less likely to survive, exposes the people who made it successful to hardship and exploitation, and does nothing to actually crack down on the exploitation of minors or any of the other excuses anti-porn crusaders deploy as cover.