Faith-based

The OnlyFans Fight Isn’t Over

Conservative Christians are trying new tactics when it comes to their anti-pornography crusade.

OnlyFans logo is seen displayed on a phone screen.
Photo Illustration by Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Update, Aug. 25, 2021, at 9:35 a.m.: After this story was published, OnlyFans tweeted a statement announcing its intention to go back on the ban on pornography, saying it had “secured assurances necessary to support our diverse creator community.”

Every year since 2013, the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, or NCOSE, has published a “Dirty Dozen” list of companies they believe are “major contributors to sexual exploitations.” New to the list in 2021 was OnlyFans.com, the hugely popular site for cam models and independent pornographers, described by NCOSE as “the latest iteration of the online sexual exploitation marketplace.” The group insists that OnlyFans “facilitates sexual exploitation, harms minors, and emboldens men to objectify and degrade women,” and the company’s inclusion on the list was a sign that it had become a target for anti-porn crusaders.

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In the days following last week’s announcement by OnlyFans that it would ban sexually explicit videos, “Victory!” was the word prominently displayed on the NCOSE website. The group takes much of the credit for pushing the site to ban porn beginning Oct. 1. It’s the group’s second big victory in under a year: NCOSE also claims some of the credit for pushing Mastercard and Visa to cut major ties with the world’s largest porn site, Pornhub.com, last December. NCOSE’s unequivocal goal is to put companies that peddle in pornography out of business, and supporters of the organization believe they are succeeding.

“Pornographers are committing the biggest crimes of the century!” were the first words I heard from Laurie, an evangelical anti-porn activist and staff member at a large anti-porn organization that hosted a conference I attended as a researcher in 2019. (Laurie is a pseudonym—I had to offer anonymity to staffers for access to the conference.) She was leading a session called “Pornography and the Law.”  I started the day at a continental breakfast where I sat with three white women in their 20s, all friends, who had flown to the East Coast from Portland, Oregon, where one roasts her own coffee beans. They all are “passionate about sex trafficking,” as one described to me, and are members of the same church.

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In the conference session a few hours later, Laurie explained that there are two main crimes committed by pornographic websites: the crime of obscenity, meaning the distribution of any material so offensive that it is not protected by the First Amendment, and the crime of facilitating illegal activities, including sexual assault, rape, and human trafficking. “Obscenity is not now, nor has it ever been, legal in this country,” Laurie explained. “Obscenity in 2019 is as illegal as it was in 1919 and 1819, but nobody is enforcing these laws,” she told us in an exacerbated tone. “Internet pornography is a complete cesspool full of rapists and pedophiles who are documenting their crimes,” Laurie said to nodding heads. “If the laws were enforced, pornographers would be off the streets and where they deserve to be: in jail.”

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Evangelical Christians have been focused on criminalizing pornography and prosecuting the porn industry for well over a century. But as a sociologist who has spent years studying the contemporary anti-pornography movement, I’ve watched evangelicals lean toward new tactics as the pornography industry itself has changed.

In decades past, anti-porn Christian activists have pushed for the enforcement of obscenity laws that date back to the late 19th century as a way to combat the porn industry. Obscenity laws, though, have become notoriously difficult to prosecute since a Supreme Court ruling in 1973, Miller v. California, when the court created what is now called the “Miller standard” that distinguishes obscenity from other forms of protected speech based on varying “community standards” as well as “literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.” Which is to say: Laurie is correct when she says that obscenity is still a crime, but incorrect in describing all pornography as obscene. Since the 1970s, the courts have consistently distinguished pornography from obscenity, the former protected under the First Amendment’s right to free speech.

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The primary strategy of the anti-porn movement in the 21st century is to use laws against sex trafficking to limit porn. The latest of these, SESTA-FOSTA, signed into law in 2018, situates all internet pornography on tenuous grounds: It amends the Communications Decency Act of 1996 to remove the protection granted to websites for the content of its users if that content is found to “promote or facilitate the prostitution of another person.” In other words, under SESTA-FOSTA any website with sexual content could be feasibly held legally liable for sex trafficking, a term only loosely defined. Anti-porn activists take advantage of this.

OnlyFans’ existing terms of use require that all people using the site are over 18 and that they do not display obscenity. This means the site has a long list of words that are banned, from Abduct to Zoophilia. Anti-porn activists have warned that websites with user-uploaded content, like OnlyFans, only superficially comply with the law, and that it’s easy for users to thwart both age and content verifications. But it is perfectly legal for consenting adults on OnlyFans to share pornographic content. That’s part of why it’s a popular option for sex workers, particularly those who want to produce content independently and free from the oversight (and sometimes direct pressure and coercion) of the agents and directors in commercial pornography.

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Though OnlyFans has said publicly that scrutiny from banks motivated their move to ban all sexually explicit videos, fears over government scrutiny may have also played into their decision. Its announcement came just over a week after Republican Rep. Ann Wagner of Missouri sent a letter with over 100 signatures to the Department of Justice urging the attorney general to investigate OnlyFans.com for criminal activity. The letter came at the urging of several inter-connected anti-pornography organizations, including NCOSE.

Though NCOSE touts itself as nonpartisan and nonreligious, the group got its start in the 1960s as “Morality in Media,” an ecumenical group of clergy united in their opposition to pornography. Today, the group maintains its religious ties through a leadership of conservative Christians and alliance with Christian organizations. Still, NCOSE has benefited from alliances with anti-porn feminists concerned about women’s exploitation, including Gail Dines and Julie Bindel, and secular porn addiction recovery groups, such as NoFap.

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While secular feminists and many recovering porn addicts insist their problems with porn are not due to moral opposition to sexual explicitness, they have signed onto a movement that was started by and continues to be led by conservative Christians. And religious activists use these other groups to make the anti-porn movement seem more diverse than it actually is.

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I heard about the so-called diversity of the anti-porn movement repeatedly as I traveled to events across the country. Evangelical activists insisted the problems with porn transcend any religious belief system and instead can be measured as objective forms of harm. Yet in my research, I find that religious actors continue to dominate anti-porn efforts, even if behind the scenes. Whether through resolutions passed by states to declare pornography a “public health crisis,” a petition signed by millions to shut down Pornhub.com, or the latest move to push OnlyFans.com to ban porn, these efforts can be traced back to organizations with religious roots.

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When anti-porn groups use language about “trafficking,” they hope to attract broad support, since all of us can agree that no person should be forced into labor or servitude, sexual or otherwise. Yet groups like NCOSE and others led by conservative Christians use “trafficking” as an umbrella term for all sex work, including that which is legal and consensual. According to NCOSE’s guiding values, “the commodification of sex acts is inherently exploitative.”

As many sex workers have pointed out in the wake of OnlyFans’ announcement, executives will not face the brunt of harm caused by the site’s new policy. Instead, it’s sex workers themselves. Camming is by far one of the safest forms of sex work, and without this major platform, many will be forced to consider riskier forms.

The victory for NCOSE and groups like it when it comes to OnlyFans is not the reduction of sexual exploitation. It is the victory of getting anti–sex work beliefs a firmer hold within politics and corporations.

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