The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Their OnlyFans checks are clearing, but some sex workers wonder whether their futures lie elsewhere

OnlyFans, the platform where creators can share erotic photos and videos for a fee, announced on Aug. 25 that it has reversed its decision to prohibit sexually explicit content. (Cristian Hernandez/AFP/Getty Images)

Adult performer Rick Twombley-King woke up in his Atlanta home to a screenshot of OnlyFans’s latest statement thinking it was a joke.

He and Griff, his husband and on-screen partner, were reviewing their financial contingency plans and trying to keep panic at bay after the platform announced that sexually explicit content would no longer be allowed on its site, despite the profit generated by adult content. Now the company was reversing its decision.

Twombley-King, 44, felt insulted that the platform he and the thousands of other adult content creators helped build seemed to suddenly kick them out into the rain, only to invite them back with soaking wet clothes.

The account he created with Griff, 35, was among the first to gross more than a million dollars, making them one of the top creators on the site and trusted by the company to be beta testers for new site features, he said.

“I went back and looked at the language they used,” Twombley-King said in an interview with The Washington Post. “The language is suspect. The use of ‘suspend’ versus ‘cancel’ is very questionable.”

With a valuation above a billion dollars, OnlyFans has been steadily pivoting toward becoming a more mainstream platform sans overt sexual content. From promoting mainstream celebrities, online chefs and burgeoning musicians across its social media platforms to creating an app without adult content earlier this year, the company has been trying to move closer to its initial vision — a conventional social media platform where creators can cash in on their content.

With OnlyFans, sex workers who were once beholden to large porn studios could now pick up a camera in the safety of their home and take home a large share of their earnings. The platform offered financial liberation to many who had hit hurdles over the years from banking and financial institutions.

The Washington Post has chosen to use the stage names of performers to protect their identity and safety.

Some sex workers say the reversal could signify a small step toward legitimizing and destigmatizing sex work, but many are still living in a state of uncertainty. Erotic content creators say they must now operate on a platform that betrayed their trust them while also looking for other sites to support their work and their livelihood.

“Do I suggest people utilize them? Absolutely,” Twombley-King said. “They used us, use them back. Everyone knows there are other things coming along. The new thing is that sex workers get to move forward with mainstream attention.”

Sex work has been in the mainstream, but involuntary, nonconsensual exploitations have taken up the most airtime as anti-human-traffic legislation has moved ahead.

Online sex workers have been keenly tuned in to how sites such as Pornhub handled Visa and Mastercard cutting their ties last December after an investigation showed that the platform contained videos of sexual assault and child abuse.

Last month, a hundred lawmakers wrote a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice requesting an investigation into content sold on OnlyFans and its policies surrounding child sexual abuse material.

Critics say many anti-human-trafficking advocates have slowly molded their mission into one that’s simply anti-sex work — a threat online sex workers say could have real consequences.

The democratization of porn ushered in by OnlyFans created a space for people like 31-year-old Trip Richards.

Richards said OnlyFans offered a space for transgender men like himself that likely wouldn’t have existed 10 years ago.

But the thought that OnlyFans could pull another switch has weighed on Richards, who’s been a sex worker for about eight years.

“I have done a lot of soul searching this week,” he said just days after the reversal came. “It can be snatched away for so many reasons. I’d still be a sex worker but with more risk and less safety.”

Richards and other sex workers who spoke with The Post noted that the change in OnlyFans’ tune signified a shift in the public’s view of sex work as legitimate labor.

Some level of acceptance isn’t a mirage.

In April, Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, Jr. announced that his office would no longer prosecute prostitution and unlicensed massage, mentioning that the policies further marginalized already vulnerable populations.

The grass roots activism that surrounded OnlyFans is part of a much longer history of sex worker activism that constantly fights against governmental policies that criminalize their labor, and contribute to stigma and violence many face offline, said Angela Jones, professor of sociology at Farmingdale State College.

“Sex workers are used to fighting. So, this time, sex workers were on the ready,” Jones said. “The government and public must recognize that sex work is work and that the unrelenting occupational discrimination sex workers face is a civil rights issue.”

No public policy or law enforcement activity has eliminated the supply or demand for consensual adult sex for money, and research has shown that most laws criminalizing sex work fail to address other structural issues, Jones said.

The recognition of sex work as legitimate work begins with the appeal of the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act and the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, a package bill signed to law in 2018 that attempts to quash online sex trafficking, Jones and sex workers said.

But what happened with OnlyFans is a microcosm of bigger problems that include systemic banking and financial discrimination from companies such as American Express, Chase Bank and others that have refused to process payments for sex workers across industries, including legal porn, Jones said.

OnlyFans offered adult content creators direct deposits that didn’t send off alarm bells like some other platforms do. Being an OnlyFans creator allowed performers to take home 80 percent of their earnings made on the website compared to much less on other sites.

It was a dream for creators like Miami-based performer King Nasir.

Nasir, 24, said the platform seemed like a godsend that allowed him to rise above a background of a dysfunctional family and foster homes to one where he’s running his own business and pocketing a fortune.

But the platform’s turnaround once again left sex workers, accustomed to the need to be flexible, dashing for the next big thing.

“Since the news [of the reversal] came out, I’ve signed up for four different sites,” he said. “My four new platforms mean new ways to make money and new ways to engage with fan bases on that platform. Again, the overall picture is that you never know. Best that you don’t put all your eggs in one basket.”

Nasir and other adult creators said the process of switching to other platforms isn’t as easy as copying and pasting material.

“I will have to do the work necessary to get people to support me,” Nasir said. “[OnlyFans] is the one [fans are] used to or familiar with and for whatever reason they’re into OnlyFans, I have to tell them to come here, sign up for a new platform, buy my content on this new platform and get them familiar with using this new platform.”

Fans who support sex workers can be fickle and not easily moved, especially since so much content can be found free on other sites, performers said.

“The reality is that most porn consumers are not loyal fans,” Richards said. “They’re just people who want to see hot content. I don’t blame them for that.”

Online sex workers told The Post that other platforms, some owned and operated by sex workers, are emerging as legitimate competitors to OnlyFans as the company’s recent activities have eroded trust among fans and creators.

“OnlyFans will have to scramble two times as hard for people to trust in them while these other platforms show they’re not OnlyFans,” Nasir said. “Their only job right now is to say they’re not like OnlyFans.”

A better future for sex workers is one where they and their peers are accepted, sex workers told The Post. But for now, they’ll take other sites that welcome and acknowledge them — an act missing in the reversal, many noticed.

“If you’re going to reverse a ban that especially targets sex works, speak to sex workers,” Chicago-based sex education and content creator Tyomi Morgan said. “You have our content and livelihood hanging in the balance.”

Read more:

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

OnlyFans reverses ban on sexually explicit content after backlash from users