Work

What We Can Really Learn From the OnlyFans Debacle

Sex workers like me have seen this before. And we know it’s not over.

A person partially visible behind a smartphone on a stand.
Ivan Las Heras/iStock/Getty Images Plus

The OnlyFans saga of the past week came as a shock to many of the site’s loyal users and the press, as one of the biggest pandemic success stories fell into chaos. Last week, the platform announced it would ban explicit content in October, citing promises it made to its credit card processors—and turning its back on the sex workers who made it a household name. Then, on Wednesday, it apparently switched course. “Thank you to everyone for making your voices heard. We have secured assurances necessary to support our diverse creator community and have suspended the planned October 1 policy change,” the company said.

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But to sex workers, this turn of events—the ban, the reversal, the squishy language OnlyFans is using now—cannot quite be called a “shock.” I saw my own rumblings of trouble a few months ago, and sex workers of all stripes are used to coming under attack from every corner of our business. OnlyFans’ latest decision has quickly been cast as a victory for us—but history tells us this reprieve is unlikely to hold.

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I set up an OnlyFans page early in the pandemic to rebuild the income I had suddenly lost as the coronavirus descended on the world. The first weekend in March 2020, I had flown to Minneapolis to perform in a burlesque act; a week later, I could barely leave my apartment in New York. As a performer and pornographer, I couldn’t work on sets, and I couldn’t do events. OnlyFans helped stave off that loss, and it kept my professional photographer roommate and I busy. Followers I had built over years, also now isolated, came with me and had fresh content, too. Crucially, they also had someone to talk to. My DMs are always full.

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I went with OnlyFans because it took one of the lowest cuts, 20 percent, a number that may seem high to some outside of the industry but is a far better rate than most adult work–based operations offer. It’s reasonable when you consider hosting, infrastructure, and what the actual payment processor takes. My main photographer gets 15 percent of my 80 percent; another chunk goes to wardrobe, styling, and locations. I make enough to justify the time spent creating content and corresponding with users. It’s been a fine gig.

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Tens of thousands of others also turned to OnlyFans in the pandemic, many without my base and in far more acute financial distress. These sex workers helped the platform explode. It was work, but for many, it was often fun too. Top ranked Courtney Tillia, a onetime special ed teacher, told me that “it was a platform where I could fully be all of me, and was cherished, praised—and paid for it.” She pulled in up to 12 times her previous earnings.

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Fueled by people like Tillia, OnlyFans infiltrated the culture and saw revenues soar. Now, for the past week, sex workers have felt a familiar kind of whiplash.

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“As much as I wish I was surprised by the OnlyFans’ decision, it was something that I saw many times during my decade in the adult industry,” said Chelsea Poe, a queer porn film director, performer, and OnlyFans creator, who like most others in this article spoke to me before the ban was reversed. “In the United States, there is default criminalization of any sort of sex work, and Silicon Valley is more than happy to go along with it.”

OnlyFans’ initial decision is hardly isolated—or even the biggest blow sex workers have faced in recent years.

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Maybe we can trace this contemporary surge of organized attacks to FOSTA-SESTA—the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act—which were signed into law in 2018 and established penalties of up to 10 years in prison for “a person who, using a facility or means of interstate or foreign commerce, owns, manages, or operates an interactive computer service (or attempts or conspires to do so) to promote or facilitate the prostitution of another person.” The laws also mandate 25 years in prison for a person who “acts with reckless disregard that such conduct contributes to sex trafficking.” These laws did not do much to stop sex trafficking directly, but they did place vague and ill-defined new penalties on prostitution—and whatever could be constructed to be a part of it. This is what took down personal ads on Craigslist, and it had deep chilling effects elsewhere: Remember the day Instagram banned, among others, searches of #woman? That was a reaction to FOSTA-SESTA. The spaces where sex workers organized online—from bad-date lists that providers use to warn one another about dangerous clients to Instagram hashtags where we’d organized to fight the very law causing these problems—were decimated.

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Or maybe it begins earlier, with Operation Choke Point, an Obama-era anti-fraud initiative that resulted in swaths of workers in pornography finding out their bank accounts, both business and personal, had been closed when they received a check for their balance in the mail. Operation Choke Point, later called misguided by Assistant Attorney General Stephen E. Boyd, was a dramatic chapter in a history of finance-infrastructure issues for people who work with sexuality, whether their work is erotic or not. I’d had my own business account denied by Chase months prior to the wave of closures. We could go back to the Backpage shuttering or the “Rentboy raid.” These attempts to curtail erotic services and sexual speech come in waves, locally and nationally, even as Amnesty International has long affirmed that sex workers’ rights are human rights, and the World Health Organization advocates for decriminalization of sex work. We’ve seen over and over what happens after these moves, purportedly in the name of protecting people from the business: Sex workers get even more vulnerable.

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“The answer to everything that worries people about porn and sex is not to clamp down, block, repress, but instead, to open up,” Cindy Gallop, the founder of user-created explicit site MakeLoveNotPorn, told me over the weekend. “When the tech and finance industries do what they’ve done for every other sector—welcome, support, fund, and facilitate disruption and innovation—we will see a dramatic transformation of what is deemed ‘adult.’ The only thing that stops a bad guy with a business is a good guy with a better business—and infinitely better financial returns.” The exclusion of legal, consensual adult work from banking makes the lives of sex workers more precarious and opens workers up further to predation by entities ranging from check-cashing services to exploitative managers.

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One event I am certain was an acute factor in OnlyFans’ decision last week was journalism that quoted me directly. Nicholas Kristof’s December column for the New York Times “The Children of Pornhub” accurately reported a handful of words from an email exchange we had about Pornhub and adult entertainment with my permission:

“Pornhub has already destroyed the business model for pay sites,” said Stoya, an adult film actress and writer. She, too, thinks all platforms—from YouTube to Pornhub—should require proof of consent to upload videos of private individuals.

What Kristof didn’t use also feels significant—an explanation of how, even so, these particular attacks on Pornhub would directly jeopardize low-savings performers. They were part of a broad campaign against porn and sex work led by right-wing Christian groups that have a wide, insidious agenda but purport to be trying to protect women and underage people.

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Mastercard and Visa swiftly reacted to Kristof’s column by terminating the use of their cards on Pornhub’s site. (Mastercard says it took action after its own investigation.) Performers who live payout to payout and were relying mostly on their Pornhub pages for immediate living expenses suffered and scrambled to move to other platforms. This too came in the middle of the pandemic, when pornography producers had pivoted to having performers self-shoot in their homes, porn performers had set up or increased their involvement in fan page sites and custom clips, and sex workers who relied on in-person interaction, like strippers and escorts, had begun trying to navigate the world of online sexual entertainment and services.

OnlyFans, far more than Pornhub, allows people who are rarely hired by mainstream production companies to support themselves financially. Its model is not entirely new, but with great public fanfare, it’s connected many of the most vulnerable and marginalized workers directly to their market, clearing the beliefs of studio heads about what sells out of the way. OnlyFans creator and clinical therapist Jet Setting Jasmine told me OnlyFans created new possibilities: “When people get this autonomy to showcase themselves the way that they want, to monetize themselves the way that they want, that is huge—that shakes up the porn economy.” Today’s consumers like to see themselves represented, and they’re willing to pay for it, she said.

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But of course, the credit card processors who clamped down on Pornhub were not going to stop there.

I noticed when Mastercard announced an upcoming policy change for adult creators back in April, and I anticipated that OnlyFans, and other sites accepting Mastercard, would have an issue sooner or later. And sure enough, after Bloomberg reported OnlyFans’ plans last Thursday, the company has tried to do damage control by blaming the credit card processors and their demands, an iceberg it surely saw coming during the Pornhub debacle.

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OnlyFans just punted these issues beyond October, but they will return. And it’s hard to overstate how destabilizing each new round of bans and reversals can be.

“I have the same sinking feeling I have felt many times over the last 15 years,” said photographer Corwin Prescott, who specializes in still photographs of nude humans in nature. He said it’s impossible to “catalog all of the people who couldn’t continue to create, or ever share their work again, after repeated evictions—the people thrown into danger by our repeated defunding.” There’s a pressing, disastrous cost to the ability of individual workers to feed and house themselves and their dependents, and there’s the long-term cost to art that depicts the human form and human sensuality, to say nothing of the average porn most Americans look at weekly.

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Siouxsie Q, who has been doing sex work since the early 2010s and has been using OnlyFans since 2017, said “so many websites that sex workers used to advertise were shuttered in response to new federal legislation that essentially criminalized speech about sex on the internet,” referring to FOSTA-SESTA. “Now we are seeing the results in the world of content and porn. I fear it will get much worse before it gets better, unless our allies in Congress and mainstream media push back against the conservative evangelical lobby that is spearheading this campaign against marginalized workers in need of resources during a global pandemic.”

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These campaigns now seem to be accelerating. You may have forgotten that Patreon, the favored platform of hip independent podcasts and artists, allowed adult content only a few years ago. After publicly standing up to PayPal over its ability to host, and process payments for, adult content, Patreon announced it was bowing to PayPal’s pressure and banning adult material on its platform in 2017. OnlyFans essentially repeated this statement of support, only to disavow it on a much shorter time scale, only to purportedly allow sex workers again. There is strong cause for suspicion.

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In the pandemic, burlesque stars and strippers alike figured out how to shift their work, and their customer bases, online. We were joined by people who’ve never done sex work. So many of us, across the internet, are now united by the mundane experience of logging in to find some guy had sent multiple hellos overnight, culminating in a “???” We know what it’s like to try to pose and angle the camera in such a way that the light is good for our faces and our nude bodies. Whether it’s become a reality or not, we’ve all imagined what it might be like if someone we know from our daily lives encounters our erotic content. These are universal experiences. Corporate spinelessness, shadow campaigns, and the repeated destruction of our modest livelihoods should not be.

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To newcomers—newcomers to sexual media creation, to digital sex work, to sex work entirely—who’ve started their careers on OnlyFans, this moment has been world-shaking. To Amberly Rothfield, a career sex worker and digital sex work coach, it is another wake-up call. “Gather emails, use push notifications, and own your audience,” she said. “The adult industry is extremely adaptable, but the person with the power in all situations is the one who controls the contact.” (Even this isn’t so easy, as Rothfield acknowledged to me: “OnlyFans doesn’t allow you to link out and send your fan base to your own site. It can be hard to ‘back-up’ your fan base. This leaves models dependent on OnlyFans, and if they get the boot, their income source goes with it.”) Before the forthcoming ban was lifted, Daisy Ducati, a sex worker on OnlyFans and elsewhere, pinned a motivational thread on her Twitter account that argued, in part, “Let’s hit the ground running in a new direction.”

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Her advice still stands. No matter what happens with OnlyFans, we’re going to have to navigate how, exactly, to promote our new accounts on platforms that are increasingly sophisticated about censoring content about sex. That is increasingly difficult to do, especially for people who’d never done sex work and turned to OnlyFans to make ends meet, but the company’s flip-flopping makes the urgency clear.

Cameron Hart, an Australian OnlyFans creator and escort, told me he sees potential now. “I think the overall shock waves from things like this can be positive,” he said. “I hope that the encompassing outrage and discourse surrounding these events could somehow lead to a more positive outcome and existence for sex workers further down the line.”

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Flow Johnson, an OnlyFans creator who did sex work before OnlyFans and intends to continue regardless of what happens, points to the moment as a possible catalyst for organizing among sex workers. “Now would be a great time to create an actual collective that can help back legislation that thinks of us as people, instead of moral failings,” he said. Johnson is already involved with local sex workers’ rights organizations, and there are many. Sinnamon Love, a performer for more than 20 years and founder of the BIPOC Adult Industry Collective, sounded a similar call: “You’re talking about an entire group of people who are working in a legal industry, who are paying their taxes, and they are being discriminated against when it comes to banking,” she said. “I really feel like there needs to be more work done around lobbying and legislation and occupational discrimination for our field so that people can function and survive.”

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Sex workers don’t have to shoulder this burden alone. As another adult industry veteran, King Noire, told me, “adult entertainment is enjoyed by billions of people. There’s a reason it’s a billion-dollar industry that is labeled as recession-proof at times, and the people who are coming after it are usually people who have their own political agenda. They are afraid of the political power that sex workers get when we actually have money in our pockets and people who support what we do.

“It’s important not just for sex workers to know what’s happening,” he said, “but also for our fans to know what’s happening so that they can support politicians and organizations that actually care about the people behind the work.”

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