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'I Felt Betrayed’: OnlyFans Creators Scramble to Adapt to Imminent Ban

The announcement that OnlyFans will prohibit "sexually explicit" content starting October 1 has left many sex workers wondering what's next.
August 20, 2021, 5:29pm

On Thursday, OnlyFans—a content subscription platform that's become a household name for selling nudes online—announced that it will ban all "sexually explicit" content from the site, starting October 1. 

The company said in a statement that the decision was made following pressure from banking partners and payment processors. In April, Mastercard announced it would require banks to ensure that sellers demand “clear, unambiguous and documented consent” from adult content companies. OnlyFans does require robust documentation of consent and age verification. But years of assault from mostly religious organization's that want to eradicate sex from the internet, amplified by growing paranoia and conspiracy theories about sex trafficking, are proving successful. The internet is becoming increasingly hostile to sex workers and adult content creators, making it harder for them to make a living safely. OnlyFans, which is blaming its decision on banks—historically prudish and discriminatory against sex work—is just the most recent example.

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As a platform, OnlyFans failed its users this week. People who've spent years building audiences and supporting the company with 20 percent of their income are given weeks to decide what to do next. It made this announcement without any specific details to offer creators about how they'll actually be affected. As anti-sex work organizations praise the change as a positive one that will prevent exploitation, thousands of workers who actually use the site to earn the income that keeps them housed and fed say that it will do the exact opposite. Panic and misleading information is also spreading online as OnlyFans users try to decipher the company's vague and sometimes contradictory statements about the imminent policy changes. 

"This is despicable that they have used our content to make billions in revenue and now that they can't 'secure' more, they are quite literally cutting off the hand that feeds them," Lizzi Downs, a single mom and adult content creator, told Motherboard. Downs said she relies on income from her OnlyFans to make car payments, feed her children, and pay rent. "How do they expect to keep subscribers when almost all creators are NSFW? Do they feel this move will start to attract mainstream creators? It won't." 

Adult content creator Joshbigosh is in the process of buying a house after years of work building his brand on OnlyFans. The platform has "completely changed" his life, he said—he was working at a job he hated, making little to no money, when he opened his account in 2019. 

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"I make money that I would have never dreamed to make, six figures plus," he told me. "I keep trying to further evolve and give my fans the best experience possible. Only Fans made that possible to do so. The platform was unique. I could post stories, photos, videos, go live with full creative control free of censorship. I feel like OnlyFans built itself off the backs of sex workers and now is turning a blind eye to them. We as content creators risk losing everything. I’m in the process of buying a home right now, am I going to lose everything I just worked so hard for?" 

SEEING IT COMING 

Sex workers have been forced to migrate from one platform to another as restrictions against sexual speech tighten since before the internet—when newspapers and alt-weeklies stopped allowing escort ads in the 1990s, workers moved online to platforms like Rentboy, Redbook, and Backpage. Each of these went under either because of federal investigations—where the owners took plea deals and the sites went down—or pressure from banks, payment processors and politicians. 

Alex Sim-Wise, a creator who now runs the online sex work consultancy Get Your Bits Out, told me that she was among those driven off Patreon when that platform cracked down on adult content several years ago. "I left Patreon for OnlyFans that month, having lost all trust in Patreon as a platform. Previously Patreon had assured adult creators that they were 'safe' much like OnlyFans did," she said.  

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Israel Tapia, who set up an OnlyFans in December 2020, said he'd planned to join the Pornhub model program (a platform where models can earn ad revenue on Pornhub) at the same time, but payment processors pulled support from Pornhub that same month, following pressure from anti-trafficking groups and an investigation from the New York Times.

"I felt betrayed," he said. "Because I know that they make most of their money through adult content, through their creators. We kind of feel used, you know." 

OnlyFans is not the best platform out there in terms of site design, discoverability, navigation, or even creator support. Sex workers flocked to it because it has a decent chat system for talking to fans directly, and takes a relatively low commission on earnings, at 20 percent. But what makes OnlyFans unique in the industry is its mainstream name recognition: It's become culturally pseudonymous with selling nudes, having been name-checked in Beyonce lyrics and adopted by Cardi B. In the last decade, independent sex work has exploded, as content creators broke away from the traditional porn studio system and started building their own brands. OnlyFans has been a big part of that. 

“It's clear, as it always has been, that they don't give even the slightest shit about us”

When adult content creators get pushed off an internet platform, especially a site as big as OnlyFans, it's not as simple as moving your content to a new site; losing a platform means losing a hard-earned audience that creators can only hope will follow them to the next one. 

"Creators are reliant on having a fan base dedicated enough to find them again whenever this happens and some drop off is inevitable," Sim-Wise said. "Platforms going down or certain content being suddenly banned represents a huge loss in income for most and oftentimes it happens with no prior warning which means you always have to be on your toes and ready to start again from scratch at a moment’s notice." 

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Adult content creator Lily Marquis told me that the most exhausting thing about all of this is the lack of clarity and communication from the company. 

"I've *never* felt OnlyFans had any real respect for any of its NSFW 'creators,' especially creators who weren't skinny, white, and cis, but it really fucking rings through with this," Marquis said. "No news, no message anywhere accessible, just a statement given to media outlets... It's clear, as it always has been, that they don't give even the slightest shit about us. And now sex workers like myself get to watch people joke about the platform tanking as we wonder about how we'll pay rent. I'm heartbroken, frustrated, and exhausted." 

Vivid Vivka, an adult content creator who's been in the industry for 15 years, only does full nude images and videos—no penetration involved. According to OnlyFans' statement, nudity will still be allowed, which should mean that her content is safe, but she's not convinced. 

"Whereas I would love to say I feel safe, this feels like the start of a pattern I've seen many times before," she said. "First go the 'explicit' creators. The rules stay incredibly vague, and up to their discretion. Slowly and quietly, sex workers are pushed off the site. This helps mitigate the outrage, and allows them to continue to poach earnings as they gradually 'clean house.'" 

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The lack of specificity around "explicit" makes it difficult to gauge when a nude violates the rules. "At what angle does my leg need to be bent at, before a nude turns 'explicit?' Is it an artistic nude until I look like I'm enjoying it? Do my hands need to stay so many inches away from certain body parts?" Vivka said. "It's a guessing game that we all eventually lose."

The vagueness of what "explicit sexual content" might encompass is made more confusing by responses from OnlyFans support staff since the announcement. Several OnlyFans creators contacted the platform's support team to try to clarify what will and won't be allowed in October. In some cases, support staff replied saying that news reports about the ban—which are based on statements made by the company itself—are false, and that there are no plans to implement such changes. "Please rest assured that if we implement any changes, we will inform our users via the mentioned channels," a support staffer told ArkCollegeGirl in an email, viewed by Motherboard. 

Do you have inside knowledge about OnlyFans’ operations? We’d love to hear from you. Email samantha.cole@vice.com, DM @samleecole on Twitter, text (646) 926-1726 on secure messaging app Signal, or use encrypted email: samleecole@protonmail.ch

A spokesperson OnlyFans declined to comment on these responses from support, but said that the company would be "sharing more details in the coming days." 

WHAT'S NEXT 

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Several content creators I spoke to said they planned to find a new platform. Some sites, like Just For Fans and FanCentro, have integrated migration systems that will move content over. Other sites include ManyVids, and Pornhub's Modelhub program—OnlyFans is far from the only platform in the game right now. 

"The best thing adult creators can do right now is hold tight, back up their content and not do anything rash," Sim-Wise said. 

She suggests waiting for more details on the updated guidelines, deleting anything that goes against the new rules, and researching other platforms in the meantime.

"If you can, set up a survey for your fans where you can collect their emails to create a mailing list so that you still have a way to contact them should you lose your platforms," she said. 

Every time a platform goes down, people are left in the lurch—and they have to make up that income to survive. "The reality is that being pushed off online platforms will ultimately lead directly to performers looking for income offline," Lena, a former full service sex worker, told me. They said that during the pandemic, they met several full service workers who were happily growing their OnlyFans, and were excited to exit in-person work.

"Many of them are going to have to turn to in-person sex work," they said, made all the more dangerous by the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, which has made it incredibly difficult to screen clients or seek communities of safety online since its passage in 2018.

“Every problem, from child sexual abuse material to trafficking, that banning porn is supposed to solve is actually exacerbated by stigmatizing and criminalizing online porn.”

As workers scramble to figure out how to stay afloat post-OnlyFans, anti-porn groups are celebrating the change. The National Center on Sexual Exploitation (formerly called Morality in Media), which consulted with Rep. Ann Wagner in a letter to the DOJ demanding an investigation into OnlyFans, took credit for influencing the change in a press release. NCOSE consistently pressures politicians to investigate or take stances against pornography, under the guise of anti-trafficking work. One of the easiest things politicians can get behind is child sexual abuse and sex trafficking; it's why FOSTA, a failure in every way, was passed in an overwhelming majority vote.

"[Mastercard and Visa] have controlled what is and what is not allowed online for decades, using their market power to harm millions of sex workers, this is just the most visible effort since PornHub," said Mary Moody, a founding board member at the Adult Industry Laborers & Artists Association. "It's going to kill sex workers and that blood is on [CEO fo Mastercard] Michael Miebach, MasterCard, and Visa's hands." 

"I’m angry our deeply sex-negative, whorephobic society allows lying evangelicals and SWERFs [sex-worker exclusionary feminists] to dictate the limits of our freedom of speech and put sex workers’ lives and livelihoods in jeopardy for no benefit to anyone," Cathy Reisenwitz, writer of Sex and the State and OnlyFans creator, said. "Every problem, from child sexual abuse material to trafficking, that banning porn is supposed to solve is actually exacerbated by stigmatizing and criminalizing online porn.”

OnlyFans made $2.2 billion last year from the type of content it's announced it will ban in October—and it's just one company hosting adult content. The demand for adult entertainment is massive, and sex workers and adult content creators have shown time and again their ability to withstand such attacks on their livelihoods. Deplatforming sex won't change either of those facts; the industry will continue to exist, and its consumers will keep seeking it out. The result of pushing sex work to the margins isn't a safer industry, but a more vulnerable, devalued, and exploitable workforce. 

"OnlyFans is the latest to cave in a long, hypocritical tradition of prioritizing the moral concerns of major financial institutions by deplatforming the very people responsible for the website’s success: sex workers," Lia Holland, Campaigns & Communications Director at Fight for the Future, told me. "Banning sexual content is not going to make anyone safer—in fact, it will put sex workers in harm’s way by eliminating a safer revenue stream for a lot of marginalized folks. It is laughable that OnlyFans would call this an 'inclusive' move when it literally excludes the primary marginalized community that has been using their services to generate safer, sustainable income since its inception.”