The Industry

Why Sex Workers Find the OnlyFans Fiasco So Familiar

OnlyFans logo on a laptop screen
Reuters/Andrew Kelly/File Photo

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Sex workers have gravitated to OnlyFans in recent years because it allows them to connect with customers directly. They could set their own employment terms and their own prices. The website took a 20 percent cut off the top, and the workers pocketed the rest. This system seemed to be working for everyone—until the past week, when OnlyFans abruptly announced it would be kicking sex workers off the platform. And then, just as abruptly, it said: Never mind. Sex workers can stay.

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Charlotte Shane, author of the memoir Prostitute Laundry, says this fiasco was “exemplary of sex work in the United States” precisely because it was so “messy and very strange and very unpredictable.” On Thursday’s episode of What Next, I talked to her about the legal precariousness of sex work and where OnlyFans creators go from here. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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Mary Harris: Can you tell me the story of OnlyFans, like how the site came to be? Was it always an outlet for sex workers?

Charlotte Shane: It was founded in 2016 by this man, Tim Stokely, who had a history in the adult industry. OnlyFans’ official stance for a long time has been kind of like, no, we’re for everyone. They don’t usually say explicitly that they’re happy to host porn providers, porn creators. But they will say we are for everyone and we support a diverse community. “Diverse community” is their euphemism.

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That means not just sex work.

Well, they are adamant about that. They always want to say they host fitness influencers. They’re very proud of all the celebrities they have. But the fact is that Tim Stokely, this man who founded it, had a history in the adult industry creating sites that were catering to the adult industry. And then this other man, Leo Radvinsky, who now owns a majority stake in it, also has a past in porn. So they have a past in porn as businessmen, as far as we know not performers. But that was part of what I think made it frustrating for sex workers as well, when the site’s official statements would try to disavow sex workers. Because it was very obvious, just looking at these two men’s history, like, no, you understand the adult industry and you have existed in that space for a while to try to make money off of it.

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Do we know why they were backing away from being identified with sex work?

I think all of that maneuvering is explicable from a business standpoint. If they had aggressively said from the start we are only for adult creators, that probably would scare off some of the Instagram influencers and chefs and even skateboarders who are happy to play with the idea that they’re posting naughty things or private things, but don’t want people to start saying, “You’re not a skateboarder anymore, you’re a porn star.” So they don’t want to drive away creators unnecessarily by really aggressively saying this is just a space for sexually explicit content. That’s one thing.

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But the other is just that you acquire a target on your back instantly if you say, “We are going to become the premier destination for sexually explicit content on the internet,” because there is so much hostility to the adult industry. So them playing dumb is, of course, what sex workers themselves have kind of done throughout time. You know, the whole thing with escorts, where your escort website very clearly states in huge letters, “You’re only paying for my time. You’re not paying for something sexual to happen between us.” I always call it, like, implausible plausible deniability. You always have to pretend that what’s actually going on isn’t going on because it is so risky to just come out and say, yeah, this is what I’m doing.

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Looking at what’s happened over the last week or two with OnlyFans, I think it really becomes clear who all these content gatekeepers are and how they affect the way you receive your content. I was surprised that OnlyFans has an app, but that app doesn’t feature a lot of the top creators for the site because app stores simply won’t allow it.

Yeah, app stores won’t allow any apps for adult content. The internet kind of has never shaken its reputation from the very early days of being kind of like a cesspool of sex.

I am sympathetic to civilians who might think, look, if you’re, let’s say, a woman who is willing to provide this sort of sexual engagement, why don’t you just put up a website and put your menu on your website and say, “If you want to have a phone conversation, it’s this much. If you want to do a cam show, it’s this much. And if you want me to send you pictures, it’s this much”? Why don’t you just throw up a website? But as a sex worker, you cannot get a payment processor to agree with that for you. So, yeah, you can put up your website and you can try to do workarounds. You can say, “You have to contact me. I’ll give you my Venmo handle or my Cash App handle,” but it’s all these extra levels of effort and basically obstacles.

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In any other business, you don’t want to create more obstacles for people to buy. You want to make buying easy for them. And sex workers can’t do that, because we don’t have the type of systemic or institutional support that a lot of other small-business owners can rely on—even when the work is legal. It’s not illegal for me to ask for someone to send me $50 and then talk to them about sex over the phone. That’s not illegal. But if I go to Stripe and I say, can I set up payment through my site so people pay me money to talk to them about sex on the phone? They’re gonna say, “Absolutely not. Get out of here. Never come back again!”

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You’re bringing up another gatekeeper, which is banks, who’ve been increasingly flexing their muscles around explicit content online. And a lot of people before what happened with OnlyFans had brought up what happened with Pornhub a little bit earlier.

Yeah. I suppose it’s helpful to remind people that federal prosecutors, in the United States especially, have really latched on to tracking the movement of money as a way to come after people. You know, famously, that’s how they got the mob, where it’s like, oh, the mob is murdering people. But the way you go after them is to say, you guys are racketeering and money laundering. So they’ve applied those same sort of tools to people in the sex industry. And I think what then makes the sex industry so radioactive is you facilitate one transaction for a recording in which there’s someone in the recording who’s 16 years old, and you could be looking at serving time in federal prison. You don’t get a fine. You don’t get a warning.

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Some would say maybe you should face federal time, like that’s someone who’s underage and maybe the contact was nonconsensual. What should the punishment be for someone who’s hosting that kind of content?

Well, that’s the thing—you have multiple players, right? You have the person who created the content. Then you have, possibly separately, the person who uploaded the content. You have, again, possibly separately, the platform hosting the content. And then you have, again, separately, the bank that let money pass through hands for this content. So it gets complicated. Banks don’t like risk. Mastercard doesn’t want to be attacked for facilitating trafficking, child porn, whatever. So they just kind of say all of this is too high-risk for us. We don’t want anything to do with it.

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So with Pornhub, the credit card companies basically said, we’re out. They made this decision at the flip of a dime. And all of a sudden there was no way to pay for your content, right?

Yeah. So it was this New York Times op-ed, basically, by Nicholas Kristof, who is a big crusader against the sex industry, where he just kind of leveled these accusations at Pornhub. … It really was that quick. His article came out and Visa, Mastercard, and Discover were like, all right, we’re done with that. Like, hands off.

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Those awful things do happen on sites like Pornhub and OnlyFans, but what the people who run those sites would say is that the incidents of nonconsensual, abusive imagery are actually way higher on maybe a Twitter or a Facebook, on a different kind of social media site, and why are we the ones who are being cracked down on?

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Yeah, you’re absolutely right. I mean, does rape happen in hotels? Oh, absolutely. People are raped in hotels. Do we shut down every hotel because of that? No. So this is like using a sledgehammer for something that unfortunately requires tweezers. And there’s this stunning report that Facebook has something like, in a year, 20 million violations in terms of what looks like child sexual exploitation material. … MindGeek, the company that owns Pornhub, had I think a little less than 13,300. So that number is so dwarfed by Facebook’s number that it’s not even in the same universe. But people don’t want to go after Facebook.

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One of the owners of OnlyFans has been very explicit in blaming the banks for this initial decision to pull out of having sexual imagery available on the site—these places were denying payment, essentially, to our creators, and we needed to step in in some kind of way. But all of this makes their strategy of dancing around their sexual explicitness make more sense, where you can kind of see it as, if we look more like Facebook, maybe we’ll get treated like Facebook, even though we have all of this very explicit content here.

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Absolutely. Yes. I think you hit the nail on the head. And I spoke with an organizer who said, “I think OnlyFans is courting celebrities as a form of protection against this type of targeting.” I don’t know if that’s accurate. But I think you’re absolutely right that if OnlyFans can enter the cultural landscape and really kind of get a grip there as this clearinghouse for all sorts of fan content, content for fans, it does become a lot messier to take it down.

You spoke to a bunch of OnlyFans creators earlier this year for an article in the New York Times Magazine. And they sort of alluded to the fact that they thought it was only a matter of time before OnlyFans disappeared. And now they’ve kind of gotten this warning shot. What do you think those people will do now? Do you stay with the site that’s almost ghosted you?

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Clients are really resistant to changing platforms as long as the platform exists. So I do hope this maybe buys some time for creators to connect with particularly the people who’ve spent the most on them and acquire their contact information and hopefully bring those people with them wherever they go next. But I think it’s really hard for sex workers to decide to leave if the clients stay there, because it’s more advantageous to just make as much as you can with OnlyFans for as long as you can, before you do face the inevitable and move to a different platform.

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You’ve really laid out this kind of roller coaster for sex workers, where sites pop up, sites disappear, the same things keep happening over and over again. I’m wondering what you think would need to change to get off this roller coaster, to have sex work be safe and not be constantly moving sites.

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I think there would just have to be overwhelming, vocal, financial, public support of sex workers and sex worker rights. And just saying: enough criminalization. We don’t want another law. We don’t need another suite of laws against trafficking. They’re on the books, we’ve got ’em. The laws are there. And we don’t want people focusing on busting prostitutes, like this is not where we want energy directed. And more and more people really do want to support us, support them.

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