OnlyFans ban just the latest in campaign against adult content online, industry watchers say
Such platforms 'grow on the backs of sex workers' — then force them out, says advocate
Image and video subscription platform OnlyFans is not only one of the most popular such sites on Earth; it's quickly become one of the fastest growing sites out there — bar none.
The U.K.-based company only launched in 2016, but due to celebrity shout-outs and COVID-19 forcing social interaction to increasingly take place online, its user base — and brand recognition — has skyrocketed.
In April, it reported a 553 per cent increase in revenue for 2020, and an active user count of more than 120 million — up from 20 million before the pandemic. According to a recent statement, that number now sits north of 130 million users, who pay a monthly fee to access the content the site's creators post.
That success came almost entirely from the site's popularity as a haven for adult, erotic content, explained Toronto-based sex journalist Kate Sloan.
So when OnlyFans announced earlier this week that they would be banning "the posting of any content containing sexually explicit conduct," it came as both a shock — and a betrayal.
"A lot of people are upset that, essentially, OnlyFans has made their fortune on sex workers — and then thrown them under the bus entirely," said Sloan.
While it may seem nonsensical for a platform that has recently found immense success with a specific type of content to turn around and ban it, Sloan said it was inevitable.
Following in the footsteps of sites like Patreon, Tumblr, Instagram and more, Sloan said OnlyFans bowed to "puritanical" ideals from banks, payment processors and lobbyists — the very ideals that sex workers and adult content creators who built those platforms say put them at risk by driving the industry underground.
"People are very, very sensitive about sex in the financial industry for some reason, and a lot of companies will bow to those pressures," Sloan said.
"And so it would make sense that they would try to eliminate the most financially risky aspect of their business, even though it's the part of their business that literally made them famous."
Payment processors and adult content
In the statement announcing the ban, an OnlyFans spokesperson noted that the changes were made "to comply with the requests of our banking partners and payout providers."
Such situations happen frequently, said Mike Stabile, president of the Los Angeles-based Free Speech Coalition, a non-profit trade association for the adult entertainment industry, noting pressure by payment processors is often what causes websites to adopt stricter policies around adult content.
In 2018, membership platform Patreon similarly began banning adult content creators due to demands from payment partners. At the same time, lesser known sites, like Backpage, Smashwords and FetLife, all similarly saw their operations imperilled when payment processors threatened to revoke services.
"What a lot of these platforms are facing is pressure from credit card companies and banks, which are incredibly conservative institutions," said Stabile. "[It's] much more conservative than the federal government, saying you cannot sell this or we're going to create restrictions that make it so difficult for you to sell this, that you're going to stop."
Because of that, what happens with a lot of these platforms, Stabile said, is "as they grow, they grow on the backs of sex workers," until they are then forced out.
Exactly how much banking and payment companies directly pressured OnlyFans to change is unclear.
Visa, which is among the payment processors OnlyFans uses, did not respond to a request for comment, while a spokesperson for MasterCard told CBC News the company did not know about the decision beforehand.
"We only found out about [OnlyFans'] action through media coverage on Thursday," the spokesperson wrote. "It's a decision they came to themselves."
But Stabile said he believes OnlyFans' decision is definitely connected. MasterCard recently released more stringent guidelines for banks that process payments dealing with adult content. Those guidelines will come into play on Oct. 15 — two weeks after the OnlyFans ban takes effect.
"I don't think it's a coincidence," Stabile said.
While MasterCard told CBC News that their new guidelines have "no impact on legal content and activity," Stabile said the new protocols required by OnlyFans and other sites — like reviewing all content before it's posted — make it impossible for them to follow on a large scale.
Meanwhile, Stripe, another payment processor that works with OnlyFans, already has a no "pornography and other obscene materials" rule.
Payment processors' reckoning with adult content is nothing new, but Stabile said it has accelerated recently, as recent anti-trafficking legislation in the U.S. has made payment processors more wary of prosecution.
Late last year, both MasterCard and Visa cut ties with Pornhub after a New York Times piece revealed the massively popular website hosted child sexual exploitation material (CSEM). Pornhub has since required all users to go through an age verification process, and said it removed all videos previously uploaded by non-verified users.
Some say that's far from enough.
Lloyd Richardson, director of technology for the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, said in a statement to CBC News that CSEM often "hides in plain sight on many fringe and even mainstream adult content websites."
"New safety rules from credit card companies designed to protect children are clearly having an effect on companies like OnlyFans, whose content is higher risk in terms of potential for abuse on minors," he said.
Stabile, though, said these kinds of actions only focus on high-profile sites, instead of the little-known ones where there is less regulation and review.
Making difficult work harder
Madison Winter, a Toronto-based companion and adult content creator, agrees. At the same time, she said all-encompassing bans make the already-difficult and dangerous job of sex work all the more tough.
That's especially true during a pandemic, she said, when job losses mean many more people have turned to pornography production and online sex work.
"I think myself and most of my colleagues are still kind of scrambling with the news and trying to figure out, do we jump ship? Do we find another platform? Do we abandon this business model altogether?" she said. "Essentially, what I'm looking at is definitely a decreased income every month."
Switching to another platform isn't a tenable solution either, Winter said, because as soon as a significant number of creators switch and inevitably build up that site, bringing with them more customers, that brand recognition is likely to force the site to shut down, she said. Or, as OnlyFans has done, ban adult content creators and sex workers in favour of less risky clientele.
"It would be naive to think that we can just jump ship and hope to God that this doesn't happen again," said Winter. "If you manage to do all that, are you just going to lose the same business model yet again?"
Toronto-based adult content creator Gwen Adora depends on OnlyFans as a significant part of her income. She said she's seen people defending the validity of sex work in response to the ban, but that it's come too late.
She's also upset by what she calls overly stringent internet regulation, and how it so directly affects online content creators.
"I think people need to be talking about online censorship and how the current laws that are in effect are impacting this — and how it will impact everybody down the line," said Adora.
"Because sex workers right now are fighting the fight for everybody on the internet. And it's really [upsetting] to not have that support from people [for] the bigger conversation around online censorship."