The Industry

The Indefensible Cruelty of OnlyFans’ Porn Ban

Adult performers gave the platform legitimacy. It’s showing them the door.

A smartphone with a browser showing the OnlyFans logo.
Porn no longer welcome. Andrew Kelly/Reuters

This article has been updated following new reporting on significant failures in OnlyFans’ platform moderation.

Since its launch in 2016, OnlyFans has become one of the biggest players in the so-called creator economy. Most of the company’s peers in that space have relied on a wide array of content providers to help them make their names. YouTube has remained the dominant catchall video platform because of a mix of video game streamers, musicians, actors, athletes, chefs, stylists, architecture experts, and nearly every other kind of person one could imagine. Instagram has whole ecosystems for 8-year-olds who want to watch baseball videos and 50-year-olds who want to trade photography tips. Patreon hosts writers, podcasters, comics, artists, and more. (Disclosure: I co-host a podcast with a Patreon page myself.) The diversity of offerings is the platforms’ strength.

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OnlyFans is not that way. The company launched in November 2016, and if you have heard of it, the reason is probably that OnlyFans has become synonymous with the adult performers who use it to sell content to their fan bases without going through the old-school porn industry. For these performers, OnlyFans has become a source of stability in an industry that offers little of that. Creators keep a reported 80 percent of the revenue they generate from customers who pay to watch them, look at their pictures on the platform, and even interact with them. The exact percentage of OnlyFans content that is porn or porn-adjacent is unknown, but anyone not living under a rock could easily deduce that porn has been the driving factor in the OnlyFans’ rocket growth. On the backs of these performers, OnlyFans has generated a user count widely reported to be north of 130 million.

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Now the company is charting a different course. OnlyFans said Thursday that it will ban sexually explicit content on the platform starting in October, while still allowing nude photos and videos that are consistent with its policies. That is ambiguous enough that it’s not clear what will be allowed and what won’t—maybe filmed sex acts are out, while solo modeling is in, and maybe performers will find workarounds—but the direction the company is heading in seems plain enough. Where previously OnlyFans has made unsubtle branding decisions to bill itself as a platform for things other than porn, it will now move overtly to roll back adult content on the platform. The company says it is making the change in response to pressure from banks and payment providers. At the same time, Bloomberg reports, OnlyFans is raising money in pursuit of a valuation north of $1 billion. In other words, OnlyFans is discarding the people who made it a behemoth and hoping to sell the platform those workers popularized to enough big investors for the company’s insiders to get rich.

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OnlyFans’ decision to sell out porn creators fits neatly into a narrative of greed. Anyone can see that OnlyFans would be a fraction of its current self without this specific class of worker, and few misdeeds in business are easier to grasp than a company freezing out the people who helped build it. But OnlyFans’ move is actually more insidious than that. Because of the relationship the platform has with its creators, the structure of U.S. labor law, and the exploitative and abusive tendencies of the porn industry, what OnlyFans is doing is not just shameful, but fundamentally cruel.

Though creators deliver the content that drives users to the platform and thus makes the company money, they are not OnlyFans’ employees. They function like independent contractors operating their own businesses, even as that business is inextricably linked to OnlyFans’ own. The lack of employee status means a lack of legally recognized collective bargaining rights. There is not a union of OnlyFans creators, and so there is no collective force hanging around to negotiate the terms of a move like this one—whether that would mean contesting it altogether or securing some kind of severance payment for affected creators. (The siloed nature of OnlyFans, where creators work as individuals in an entirely remote setting, would probably work against a union drive even if creators had a right to it.) OnlyFans might portray delaying the policy change until October as an act of compassion on its part, but six weeks during which a creator still has to work if they want to make money is not akin to what they might get if they were classified differently under the law. OnlyFans, free of a legal requirement to collaborate with its workers in executing this decision, doesn’t even have to worry about them.

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Creators on OnlyFans choose to be there, and some workers prefer the flexibility of not working as an employee, even as it carries increased risk. (Another disclosure: I am a freelancer, and I like it.) That does not absolve companies of abusing that designation or pushing to pass laws that help them do it, as the giants of the gig economy, like Uber and Lyft, have done. And it is especially wrong in this instance, because the obvious alternative for some creators on OnlyFans would be to work in an environment with a horrible track record.

There are a lot of sex workers on OnlyFans, and they will make different decisions about what to do if they’re no longer able to make money on the platform. Some may feel pressure to work in the more established commercial porn industry, which is rife with abuse. There are too many articles about the industry’s exploitativeness to pick from, but Vice’s Samantha Cole wrote a good one in 2020 that detailed how casually boundaries are breached on sets. The business is also full of people angling to take big cuts of performers’ earnings. Performer Ariana Marie explained at the Daily Beast in 2020 how her first agent in porn took a 40 percent commission from one shoot, setting her on a search for an agent who wouldn’t rip her off. The appeal of OnlyFans was that it removed power from those intermediaries and offered a controlled production environment for performers.

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OnlyFans is not responsible for the gaps in American labor law or the sins of the porn industry as it has historically existed. But it is definitely aware of those things, and it definitely capitalized on them when it drew in workers who came to rely on the platform to monetize their work. It is capitalizing again by making a public break with the content that doesn’t play well with investors.

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Along the way, OnlyFans gave the people who produced porn on its platform—its workers, in every sense of the word that matters—distribution. In exchange, the company got something more valuable: a name for itself. Now it has a big enough brand to cut its ties to the people who established it. For OnlyFans, that will presumably mean more money from the banks and payment platforms whose approval it craves. For the workers who made it possible, it will only mean uncertainty.

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Update, Aug. 20, 12:43 a.m.: A few hours after OnlyFans announced the policy change on Thursday, the BBC published an investigation into the company’s content moderation practices. The BBC reported that OnlyFans “allows moderators to give multiple warnings to accounts that post illegal content on its online platform before deciding to close them,” which, according to experts interviewed by the news organization, reveals the company’s tolerance for illegal content. The BBC reported earlier this year that OnlyFans was “failing to prevent” minors from illegally selling and appearing in explicit videos. The news outlet says a lawyer directed it to one video in which a woman, whose face is never shown, appears in a room totally covered in rugs, and that the video includes “repeated references to traveling across Europe”—hallmarks, the BBC says, “of trafficking and exploitation.” Further, the BBC also cites moderator sources who say they “have found prostitution services advertised, bestiality and material one moderator believed to be incest.”

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OnlyFans defended itself, saying it exceeds “all relevant global safety standards and regulations,” and sought to portray one of the BBC’s sources as a moderator who had been fired for repeatedly failing to remove unauthorized content from the platform. OnlyFans did not suggest to the BBC that the moderation failures had anything to do with its forthcoming porn ban. It appears, however, that shortly after being approached by the BBC with reporting on significant failures in its moderation practices, OnlyFans announced a new policy that would affect not just wrongdoers but a vast swath of its creators. There will, almost certainly, be more to this story.

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