After OnlyFans, will sex workers find a new home on the internet?
Scarlett Bloom had been working as a mainstream porn actor for only a few months when she decided that she had to rethink her business model.
Bloom had come to Los Angeles in late 2018 to film adult entertainment under a contract with a porn studio, but it quickly became obvious that she couldn’t rely on that source of income alone to sustain herself. She didn’t get royalties from her performances, so once she spent the money she made from a shoot, it was gone. And she had to get booked over and over again to keep the cash flowing, which meant leaving her financial fate in other people’s hands.
“I realized I needed to diversify my income by making my own content,” said Bloom, who described her studio contract as predatory. “That was when I more seriously got into OnlyFans.”
Until very recently, OnlyFans was for porn what Substack is for writing, Bandcamp is for music and Patreon is for art. Rather than work through the middlemen of studios and distributors, adult entertainers could use the site to sell their content directly to paying customers, with OnlyFans taking a flat 20% cut. The platform became Bloom’s primary source of income, allowing her to move back home to Chicago.
But all that came crashing down last week when OnlyFans suddenly announced that it would stop allowing sexually explicit content starting in October — a major change for a site that has become synonymous with pornography, and one that now leaves many sex workers unsure of where they’ll go next.
“In order to ensure the long-term sustainability of the platform, and to continue to host an inclusive community of creators and fans, we must evolve our content guidelines,” a company spokesperson said Thursday in a statement announcing the shift.
Creators will still be allowed to make posts containing nudity that’s “consistent with our Acceptable Use Policy,” the spokesperson said — but subsequent updates to the platform’s terms of service made clear that pornographic content including “actual or simulated sexual intercourse,” “actual or simulated masturbation” and “actual or simulated material depicting bodily fluids commonly secreted during sexual conduct” would all be banned.
Although OnlyFans’ move against porn is a financial and logistical crisis for the many sex workers who earn their livings on the app, it also isn’t too big a surprise. For one thing, there have been “rumors every few months or so that they’re either shutting down or … banning sex workers,” Bloom said.
Moreover, the platform is hardly the first of its kind to crack down on adult content. It’s just the latest battlefield in the internet’s love-hate relationship with porn.
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The microblogging platform Tumblr banned adult content in 2018 — a move that company leadership said would create “a better, more positive” environment on the site, but that outside observers suspected had to do with the platform’s struggles to filter out child pornography. More than a decade before that, the blogging platform LiveJournal purged “hundreds of sex-themed discussion groups” in hopes of “protecting children,” CNET reported at the time, resulting in the removal of not just clear-cut pedophilic content but also fan fiction and discussions of the literary classic “Lolita.”
And last year, the free-to-use adult entertainment site Pornhub deleted millions of videos that had been uploaded by unverified accounts after a New York Times opinion piece accused the site of hosting rape and child sexual abuse videos, and Mastercard, Visa and Discover stopped processing payments to the site.
Tolerating child sex abuse is also among the allegations leveled at OnlyFans. Investigations by the BBC have suggested that the platform doesn’t consistently remove explicit videos of children under 18, and that accounts that break the terms of service are not automatically banned.
Although the platform said its policies were changed “to comply with the requests of our banking partners and payout providers,” some sex workers have drawn a line between those credit card companies and controversial anti-porn groups such as Exodus Cry and the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, which they say leverage concerns around child sex trafficking to obscure more broadly puritanical aims. (A spokeswoman for the latter group said it is “nonpartisan and nonsectarian because the fight to end sexual exploitation knows no political or religious boundaries.”)
OnlyFans founder Tim Stokely told the Financial Times on Tuesday that banks including Bank of New York Mellon and JPMorgan Chase forced the decision by repeatedly flagging and rejecting wire transfers involved in paying sex workers. Stokely denied a new policy adopted by Mastercard had anything to do with it.
Bloom was no big fan of Pornhub before its purge — in letting anyone upload videos, the so-called tube site helped people pirate porn they might have otherwise paid for — but she did note that the site’s Modelhub monetization feature “was doing really well until the Visa / MasterCard pull.”
“I think for everybody that was a huge chunk taken out of their monthly income,” she said. “So it really made OnlyFans my main, main, main, main income.”
Now, another domino has fallen and that revenue stream too will soon be gone.
Alternatives do exist. In the wake of OnlyFans’ announcement, lists of other direct-to-consumer platforms that still allow explicit content have circulated among sex workers, with companies such as Fansly, JustFor.Fans, Loyalfans, PocketStars and AVN Stars suggested as possible next steps for former OnlyFans creators. Google search data suggest that the OnlyFans announcement led to increased interest in all five, but especially Fansly.
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Dominic Ford, owner and founder of JustFor.Fans, said via email that although OnlyFans “never seemingly wanted to be a porn site,” JustFor.Fans has been openly and exactly that from Day One, and is now “well-positioned to take over and do things better.”
“Our industry is full of companies who came in, made their money off the backs of sex workers, and left,” Ford wrote. “Our staff is comprised 100% of sex workers and people who have been in the porn industry for a long time. That makes us already light years different in terms of who we are and how we work within the sex worker community.”
Eduard Braileanu, co-founder of Loyalfans, similarly pointed to his team’s long-standing involvement with the adult entertainment industry as evidence of the platform’s openness to “all forms of creative, consensual expression.”
But even if there are other websites that sex workers can now migrate to — and if those sites can somehow negotiate the same obstacles with banks and credit card companies — it won’t be an easy transition.
Mary Moody, a sex worker and the co-chair of the grassroots Adult Industry Laborers and Artists Assn., said via Twitter that sex workers will “lose access to the market share that OnlyFans has, and also lose access to their subscriber lists, which is going to be very painful for some.”
Those are among the issues worrying Savannah Skye. Based in Orange County, Skye makes the bulk of her income through OnlyFans; an estimated 80% of her subscribers use the platform. To get them to follow her elsewhere, she said, will take some convincing.
“To move those people over, it’s definitely possible, and sex workers have definitely dealt with this type of thing before — having to adapt to the different biases, the different rules, the jumping through hoops,” Skye said. “But it’s not always guaranteed that you’re going to make the same money, or that you’re going to keep your fans engaged, on a new site.”
And losing OnlyFans as a revenue stream could also mean losing the independence that made the platform so appealing to her, Bloom and other sex workers in the first place.
“Am I going to be able to upload what I’ve been uploading this whole time?” Skye asked. “Or am I going to have to conform to other people’s biases and gatekeeping?”
With a long history of platforms cracking down on sexual content, and no clear heir to the OnlyFans throne ahead, it’s a question Skye and others in the industry have been left asking in the wake of last week’s policy change. Once again, sex workers find their fates lying in the hands of others — exactly the sort of situation OnlyFans was supposed to help them avoid.