The OnlyFans Debacle

Listen to this episode

S1: Quick warning here at the top. We are talking about OnlyFans in this episode. That means we will acknowledge the existence of sex. When I called up the writer Charlotte Sheen, I had a kind of embarrassing question to ask right off the bat. What exactly is OnlyFans? I knew that over the last week OnlyFans had sparked controversy. They’d threatened to ban sex work from their platform. But I also knew Cardi B was on there, along with the actress Bella Thorne. Even some fashion designers and fitness influencers. So I wanted to know what makes for a good OnlyFans account anyway.

Advertisement

S2: There’s a lot of like I mean, it sounds absurd, I guess, to say suggestive emoji. But we all know the emoji theater.

S1: We all know what the eggplant emoji means.

S2: Yeah, it’s like little devil smiling devil like water droplets like we got it. You know, I think it was Rebecca Minkoff, the first, you know, established designer to join the site, and she gave interviews and she said, no, I spoke with the founders and they assured me that if people just want to see my content, they’re not going to be like accosted with naked bodies. Right. They’re not going to just be inundated with porn. They can just look at my my bags and my designer and whatever. But Rebecca Minkoff, too, will post these locked posts that are kind of like, oh, like what’s inside our bags, you know, like tongue out emoji or whatever. I mean, it’s frankly, they’re probably having fun, like we’re just showing a handbag, but we’re writing about it like it’s somebody’s genitals. You know, it’s funny.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: I was going to ask you, like, if you had to guess how many members of the OnlyFans community sell sexually explicit content, like what would you say? It sounds like what you’re saying is they’re all sort of in this space, they’re all trafficking in the ideas of sexiness, even if they’re not selling sex.

S2: Absolutely. Yes. They are capitalizing on the cachet of of explicit content, the titillation of who like at any moment I might see someone’s boobies.

S1: Charlotte’s not exactly clutching her pearls over all this. She herself has been a sex worker for a long time. But back when Charlotte was doing Camrose from her apartment in Philadelphia, she was using a site that explicitly marketed itself as adult entertainment. The other thing to know about OnlyFans Charlotte said the reason why so many sex workers were up in arms that they might get kicked off of it is that it allows them to connect with their customers directly. They can set their own employment terms and their own prices.

Advertisement

S2: So you say, OK, well, if you want to look at pictures of me, it’s going to cost this much. If you want to just have a video of me, it’s going to cost this much. If you want to direct the video of me, it’s going to cost this much.

S1: Did you have that control when you were doing Camrose?

S2: You know, it was a flat fee. So I think that is a little bit of the difference here was is that creators can decide and they can offer different packages. It just it gives them a lot of leeway.

S1: And this system, it seemed to be working for everyone. The website got a 20 percent cut off the top. The workers pocketed the rest until this past week. How would you characterize what just happened?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S2: I think totally chaotic. Just baffling, I suppose.

S1: First, the site announced it was kicking sex workers off its platform. And then just as quickly, a couple of hours before Charlotte and I got on the phone, the folks at OnlyFans said, never mind. Sex workers can stay.

S2: In a way, it’s just so exemplary of sex work in the United States. So it is messy and very strange and very unpredictable.

S1: Today on the show, the saga of OnlyFans. What happened here seems like a victory for some of the most marginalised workers out there. How long will it last? I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick around. Can you tell me the story of OnlyFans, like how the site came to be? Was it always an outlet for sex workers?

Advertisement

S2: Well, it was founded in 2016 by this man, Tim Stokeley, who had a history in the adult industry. So OnlyFans official stance for a long time has been kind of like, no, no, we’re for everyone. They don’t usually say explicitly, but they’re happy to host porn providers, porn creators. But they will say we’re we we are for everyone and we support a diverse community. You know, diverse community is kind of their euphemism.

S1: That means like not just sex work.

S2: Well, there they are adamant about that, right? They always want to say yes, like they host fitness influencers. Right. They’re very proud of all the celebrities they have. But the fact is that Tim Stokeley, this man who founded it, had a history and the adult industry creating sites that were catering to the adult industry. And then this other man, Leo Radwanski, who now owns a majority stake in it, also has a past and porn. So they have a past important 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 sort of 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.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: Do we know why they were backing away? Because I agree with you. They were riding this line like earlier this year. OnlyFans released this ad that sort of played with the idea that people thought of it as the place to go for sex. Like it was an ad where it was very Internet, like a woman’s like, I’m going to go see what my partner’s doing while I’m not there.

S2: Got to be kidding me.

S1: He’s on OnlyFans. Are you serious? I’m going to kill him. And she’s like, oh, my gosh, darn, OnlyFans, how could you be on OnlyFans? And he’s like, Dude, I’m here because I’m looking at the pictures of this dude here like he was he was like, it’s not just for sex work. There’s tons of non adult content on here. Really? Yeah. Really. And so they’ve been trying to clearly lay themselves out as like we do other things. And so I’m kind of curious, like, do we know why?

Advertisement

S2: 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 kind of 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. But the other is just that you acquire a target on your back instantly. If you say, you know, 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 then playing dumb is, of course, what was sex workers themselves have kind of done throughout time. So, you know, the whole thing with escorts where you say your escort website very clearly states in huge letters, you’re only paying for my time. You know, you’re not paying for something sexual to happen between us like this kind of I always call it like implausible, plausible deniability. You kind of 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.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: Yeah, it’s funny because I tend to think of the Internet as a Wild West when it comes to explicit content. But 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 impact the way you receive your content. Like 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. And that surprised me. I hadn’t even thought about it.

S2: 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. Right. 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 like sexual engagement. Why don’t you just put up a website and put your menu on your Web site and say, if you want to have a, you know, phone conversation like it’s this much, if you want to do a Carmel 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? You know. 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, right? You can say like you have to contact me. I’ll give you my Venmo handle, I’ll give you my cash app handle. But it’s all these extra levels of effort, you know, and basically like obstacles. Right. So in any other business, you would say 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, for me to ask for someone to send me fifty dollars and then talk to them about sex over the phone. That’s not illegal. But if I go to, you know, Stripp 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 going say, absolutely not. Get out of here, never come back again.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: You’re bringing up another gatekeeper, which is banks who have been increasingly flessa 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. Is it worth telling that story really briefly? Just explain how banks can really move quickly to completely change a business model.

S2: 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, like famously, that’s how they got the mob, right? Where it’s like, oh, the mob is murdering people. But the way you go after them is to say you guys are like racketeering and money laundering. So they’ve applied those same sort of tools to people and the sex industry. And I think what that makes the sex industry so radioactive is you say, you know, you facilitate one transaction for, you know, a recording in which there’s someone in the recording who’s 16 years old. Right. And you could be looking at serving time in federal prison. Right. You don’t get a fine you don’t get like a warning.

Advertisement

S1: Well, and some would say maybe you should face federal time like that, someone who’s under age and maybe the contact was nonconsensual. Like what should the punishment be for someone who’s hosting that kind of content?

S2: Well, that’s the thing is that 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. Hmm.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: So with Pornhub, the credit card companies basically said we were out and they made this decision at the flip of a dime. They were just like, we’re out. And all of a sudden there was no way to pay for your content. Right.

S2: 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 of pornhub.

S3: Let’s be clear that most of the pornography on this site does involve consenting adults. It’s a minority of the videos that are problematic, but a minority of millions and millions of videos is deeply problematic.

S1: And and he suggested, like in that article, Kristof said, I don’t know why the credit card processors don’t just pull out.

S3: This isn’t about porn. This is about rape and about sexual abuse of children. And this is something that corporations, large corporations should not be able to get away with.

S2: Right. 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.

S1: And I think it’s worth saying that those awful things do happen on sites like Porn Hub and on sites like OnlyFans. But what the people who run those sites would say is that the incidence of nonconsensual abusive imagery. Are actually way higher on maybe a Twitter or a Facebook on a different kind of social media site than on an OnlyFans or a porn hub. And, you know, why are we the ones who are being cracked down on. Is that right?

S2: Yeah, you’re absolutely right. I mean, look like 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, you know, for something that unfortunately kind of requires tweezers. And there’s this just like stunning report that Facebook has something like in a year, 20 million violations in terms of what’s galaxias seem like child sexual exploitation material, something like that, whatever the preferred acronym is. 20 million. It doesn’t even sound where it sounds like I’m pulling it out of thin air. Mine geek, the company that owns Pornhub, had, I think a little less than thirteen thousand three hundred. There’s something like thirteen thousand two hundred twenty nine. So that number is so dwarfed by Facebook’s number that it’s it’s not even you know, it’s not even like in the same universe. But people don’t want to go after Facebook.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: Well, it’s interesting, because 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, you know, available on the site. And he’s he’s named names. He said JPMorgan Chase. He said Bank of New York Mellon. These places were, you know, denying payment essentially to our creators. And so, you know, we needed to step in in some kind of way. And I think that’s important. But it makes all of this kind of 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.

S2: Absolutely. Yes. I think you hit the nail on the head. And I spoke with like an organizer who had this frankly unpopular opinion, but who said I think OnlyFans is courting celebrities as a form of protection against this type of targeting, which I don’t know if that’s accurate, but. Yeah, no, 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 of fan content, write content for fans, it does become a lot messier to take it down.

S1: After the break, there are groups out there who want to take sites like OnlyFans down and they’re not motivated by money or risk management. More with Charlotte Shane

S4: in a minute.

S1: Charlotte Shane sees sex work as work. It’s a job, a way you make money and it’s not inherently bad. The way she sees it, it should be no more acceptable to sneer at a sex worker than it is to sneer at a sanitation worker. But of course, there are people who disagree with her who see sex work as a threat. And they’ve been instrumental in drumming up opposition to many of these sites, including OnlyFans. Two groups in particular loom large.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S2: Normally, the two names are Exodus CRI and National Center for Exploited Children. I forget what their new acronym stands for, but they used to be called Morality in Media, which is a more accurate representation of their mission.

S1: Are these groups religious?

S2: Yes. Yes, they’re explicitly Christian religious. They’re they’re anti like LGBTQ rights. They are anti-abortion. And they have disavowed association with neo-Nazis and Kuhnen. But they’re Merche, I think Samantha calls and Vice did a report about. Q and on. And, you know, explicitly neo-Nazi people like embracing the hashtags and the merch of these groups because their priorities really dovetail, which is kind of like sexual purity, heterosexual nuclear family preservation. And they’ve just been really clever at presenting themselves publicly as having concern for exploited children or exploited women.

S1: A lot of people seem to be pointing towards a woman online. McKelway, I’ve

S5: been combating the injustice of sex trafficking for a long time. So now it’s been about 15 years. And I spent the last nine years investigating the relationship between big porn and sexual exploitation.

S2: Yeah. So she she is she is very, you know, as people say, like very online, like she tweets a lot and post Slott most recently in the wake of the OnlyFans announcement. She apparently shared a video that she was saying this is the type of vile stuff that like OnlyFans allows. And it was a video of an assault, I think. And, you know, she pretty quickly took it down because people were like, how could you be sharing this? You know, if you understand, like, how damaging and how traumatizing this material is, why would you be sharing it? And the reason she’s sharing it is because, you know, she she has a larger mission, which is just getting support, getting financial support for her project, which is really kind of establishing this like Christian nation of people who don’t create or look at pornography.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: That sounds extreme when you say it.

S2: Does it you know you’re not on board with it. Yeah. I mean, it’s it’s pretty intense. Like it’s it’s really hard to push back against these people because they they are so effective at creating the illusion that like if you’re not with us, it’s because you’re in favor of child porn. It’s because you want there to be, you know, trafficked women, which is, of course, not the case. But when you come at people like that, it is a good way to ensure that you eliminate some dissent. They’re working very hard to make all forms of sex work synonymous with trafficking, synonymous with exploitation of children, synonymous with like the type of crimes that we tend to revile the most. So when you make consensual adult work synonymous with those things, you make it very difficult to continue, you know, working.

S1: Have you ever gone head to head with one of these anti porn folks, one of these folks who is committed?

S2: Yeah. You know, I did it when I was younger, and I, I think I met them in better faith. Like I thought, oh, they’re being sincere. And like if I tell them what my experience has been like, you know, they’ll be interested to know that or like they’ll be interested in my opinion, my perspective. And I have found it. It’s really upsetting. It’s incredibly degrading. You know, I’ve written a lot about my history, and they will happily use things I’ve written out of context. They’ll happily kind of recast different things I’ve experienced and re characterize how I experienced them. It is a lot to submit yourself to. So I don’t tend to seek that out so much anymore, because I also found it. It’s limited to no utility, really. I’m not going to change Leelah Mikovits mind. I know that right now. And it’s not because I don’t think I have, you know, compelling arguments or a lot of evidence on my side. We’re coming at this on two very different with different goals, frankly. That’s that’s the conflict. I want sex workers to be safe and I want them to have maximum control over their labor. Labor, and she doesn’t want sex workers to exist. So there’s not a field, you know, at which we’re meeting on. There’s no there’s no precept we’re agreeing on.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: I wonder if you spoke to a bunch of OnlyFans creators earlier this year for an article in The Times, 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 like, oh, it might disappear, OK, it’s not. It’s back. What do you think those people will do now? Like, do you stay with the site? That’s kind of almost ghosted you or what?

S2: Clients are really resistant to changing platforms as long as the platform exists. So I do hope this maybe buys some time for for creators to connect with, particularly the people who spent the most on them. Right. And kind of 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, you know, because it’s really it’s more advantageous to just make as much as you can with OnlyFans for as long as you can before you do sort of face the inevitable and move to a different platform.

S1: You really laid out this kind of roller coaster for sex workers where, you know, sites pop up, sites disappear. You know, the same things keep happening over and over again where things start, things are shut down. And I’m kind of I almost do want to ask you this question, because you’ve written a whole article called Stop Asking Sex Workers to Fix Sex Work. But I’m wondering what you think would need to change to to get off this roller coaster, to kind of have sex work, be safe and not be constantly moving sites and, you know, shutting down and opening up again.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S2: 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 know we don’t want another law. We don’t need another suite of laws against trafficking. They’re on the books. We’ve got them. The laws are there. And we don’t want people focusing on busting prostitutes. This is not where we want energy directed. And more and more people really do want to support support us, support them, and the extent to which people know people now who are who have like dabbled in sex work or done sex work. I mean, I don’t know if you remember The New York Post outing this medic who had an OnlyFans account.

S1: I do remember this story because it was in the middle of Covid where this woman was working with Covid patients, and all of a sudden, people at her work started attacking her and saying, you’re on OnlyFans. And she was like, so.

S2: So, I mean, I think that there’s sort of like burgeoning class consciousness and like solidarity. And to that woman, I mean, I have no idea which like what she went through was horrible. But I do think, if I remember correctly, there was like a patriarchy to support her. And people, you know, like met its goal and exceeded its goal instantly. Patron pardon me. The goal for me, go for me to support her, because people were like, this is a paramedic working during a pandemic and she’s not earning enough money to live. So she’s selling like her pictures on OnlyFans. And people were sympathetic to that. That’s encouraging. That’s a good thing.

S1: You sound optimistic.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S2: I yeah, I think it’s an exciting moment because I actually do think that that most people have developed an awareness because of all of these sex worker activist efforts. They’ve developed an awareness like sex worker rights. They’re going to they’re literally gonna to save lives.

S1: Charlotte Shane, thank you so much for joining me. Thank you. Charlotte Shane is the author of the memoir Prostitute Laundry. She’s also the co-founder of TigerBee Press and that is our show. What Next is produced by Elinor Schwartz, Danielle, Hewitt Davis Land Carmel Delshad and Mary Wilson. We’re led each and every day by Alison Benedikte and Alicia Montgomery. And I’m Mary Harris. I’m about to go on a little vacation, but you are going to want to stay tuned to this feed, because while I’m gone, we’re going to have a bunch of fresh new voices right here bringing you the show every day. And you’re going to want to hear from them. I’m super psyched to listen while I’m away. You can keep in touch with me on Twitter. I’m at Mary desk and I’ll catch you in September.