The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Sex workers fear OnlyFans decision to ban explicit content will push them further into the shadows

OnlyFans announced on Aug. 19 that beginning Oct. 1, it would no longer allow sexually explicit content. (Andrew Kelly/Reuters)
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N’jaila Rhee saw the writing on the wall for sex workers on OnlyFans when mainstream celebrities such as Beyoncé, Cardi B and former Disney star Bella Thorne shouted out the site in songs and began creating accounts that overshadowed smaller creators.

It wasn’t just that Thorne had created an account earning more than $1 million within the first 24 hours of launching that caught Rhee’s eye; it was the company itself promoting her account and others with large followings not based on X-rated content.

“You could see where the platform’s head was,” the Bergen County, N.J., resident told The Washington Post. “[OnlyFans] used the traffic of sex workers to add valuation to their company. That means they’re either looking for more funding to expand or they’re looking to inflate their value so they can sell and profit.”

The 30-something, who advocates for sex workers rights with the New Jersey Red Umbrella Alliance, said her suspicions about OnlyFans proved to be prescient when the company announced Thursday it would no longer allow sexually explicit content, beginning Oct. 1 — marking a major shift for a site bolstered by sex workers and setting off financial concerns among creators dependent on the platform for income.

“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,” the company said in a statement. “Creators will continue to be allowed to post content containing nudity as long as it is consistent with our Acceptable Use Policy.”

The subscription-based content creation platform said the shift complies with requests from it banking partners.

OnlyFans did not specify what it will consider to be sexually explicit or how it will monitor content to ensure that it doesn’t violate its terms. The company said more details will be shared in the coming days.

The lack of guidance for sex workers on the platform is creating uncertainty in an already precarious, centuries-old profession that managed to find its footing online. Many sex workers affected by coronavirus restrictions were able to earn a steady living and often did so in the safety of their own homes. The platform lets creators take home up to 80 percent of their earnings — far more than other streaming sites.

Sex workers see the pending ban on sexually explicit content as a snub after helping OnlyFans obtain a valuation above a billion dollars. The new policy also underscores the limited ways in which sex workers can financially participate in society, former and present sex workers told The Post.

“It’s the fact that we feel like we find a platform that welcomes or tolerates us and then once that platforms gets the engagement from us, now they want more money,” Rhee said shortly after the announcement. “Not only do they want more money, but they want more corporate money. Corporate money means it has to be more puritan.”

Although OnlyFans became a site where sex workers could pocket most of their profit without sharing their earnings with production companies and clubs, its inception didn’t necessarily seek to revolutionize the way adult content is consumed.

The company was started by British businessman Timothy Stokely in 2016 as a place where artists and performers shared their work with fans for a fee. It shifted to more adult content when Leonid Radvinsky acquired 75 percent of the company two years later.

Adult entertainers flocked to the platform not just for the autonomy it provided, but also because it offered them a way to engage with clients that other sites did not, providing proof of financial transactions, which are usually limited, sex workers said.

San Diego resident and veteran porn actress and entertainer Alana Evans said the platform helped her rebuild her credit and finances since she joined it in 2016. She said that she seriously started filling her page with content right before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic and that the move has been fruitful.

The financial paper trail and the amount of profit she’s been able to keep for herself are two of the many selling points for sex workers who’ve chosen the site, she said. The direct deposits allow performers to show proof of income and income history, which can be important when trying to rent a house or buy a car, Evans noted.

The 45-year-old president of the Adult Performance Artists Guild, which fights for better working conditions and protections for adult performers, said she is concerned about the financial and mental health of guild members facing a loss of income.

Removing adult entertainers from OnlyFans is troublesome yet also indicates that Internet companies value sex workers until they don’t need them, she said.

“Tumblr was filled with hardcore content, and Patreon did the exact same thing,” Evans said, noting similar bans imposed by the companies in 2018 and 2019. “Then, all of a sudden, no more adult content, and the industry falls into an uproar. With OnlyFans, we’ve been getting sideways warnings.”

Two of the red flags came when Mastercard updated its requirements and policies and Visa stood with its competitor to discontinue the use of payments on the popular pornography site Pornhub in December over illegal content.

Mastercard announced in April that banks connected with merchants in its network would need to certify that sellers of adult content have “effective controls in place to monitor, block and, where necessary, take down all illegal content.”

Political interests that conflate consensual sex work with trafficking have also influenced forms of payment, workers and advocates told The Post.

“This is literally forcing us to kind of be sharecroppers where we’re going to be nickeled and dimed out of being able to take care for ourselves,” Rhee said.

The National Center on Sexual Exploitation is one of the groups celebrating the decision by OnlyFans to bar sexually explicit content from its site.

Dawn Hawkins, chief executive of the organization, said in a statement that the move comes after a year of advocacy from her group and others that pushed OnlyFans and Pornhub to verify age and consent for everyone shown in videos.

“With the refusal of the payment industry to continue as partners unless they change, OnlyFans is finally being seen for what it is — a website set up solely to profit from the exploitation of vulnerable persons who then pay the high price of psychological, emotional, and physical harm that the sex industry imparts,” Hawkins said.

Lumping consensual sex workers with those who are trafficked only further pushes sex workers, especially those from marginalized communities, deeper into the shadows and dangerous working conditions, advocates said.

“There are more creators that have smaller followings that depend on OnlyFans paychecks to buy groceries,” Evans said, noting that only a small percentage of creators earn thousands of dollars or more.

“It’s a bit maddening that OnlyFans is trying to make a platform sustainable for them while making life unstable for sex workers that built it,” Rhee said.