The Damage Already Done By OnlyFans Reinforces The Stigma of Sex Work
BY EMMA FLINT
In less than a week, OnlyFans controversially banned, then quickly reinstated sexually explicit content - in a move that reeks of prejudice.
When OnlyFans (sometimes shortened to OF) launched in 2016, it steadily became a startup that was synonymous with providing a safe and secure platform for sex workers to create various content. In a day and age where sex work still maintains the unfair taboo that it has carried for centuries, a website like this one appeared to be a haven sorely needed.
Since its start, the site has helped its creators earn $3.2 billion in total (Source: Axios), with approximately 16,000 creators earning $50,000 per year. Those are substantial figures, ones that emphasise not just the appeal such a site offers, but also how important the brand has been in creating safe and regular incomes.
The need for secure channels to work within has always been in demand for sex workers, a truth that became even more painfully apparent when the pandemic hit. Suddenly, it wasn’t just experienced sex workers using OnlyFans, but those who moved into this work to try and combat the instability that came with national lockdowns, furlough, and unemployment.
Yet, in just five days, the very stability OnlyFans once seemed to promise dramatically changed.
On August 19th 2021, thousands of sex workers awoke to the shock decision that the site was going to ban all explicit content by October 2021. According to a spokesperson for the brand, the decision came from pressures received from payment processors about the type of content it showcases.
Payment providers stepping in and determining what is and isn’t acceptable isn’t a new trend, as Tommie McD, porn producer and founder of FanXO, explains: “Visa and Mastercard have taken it upon themselves to be censors of the internet for some time, using financial discrimination to censor content they disagree with or are pressured to remove. OnlyFans and porn is the tip of the iceberg.”
Tommie’s commentary definitely has the ring of truth to it, especially when you consider how Mastercard temporarily suspended payments related to MindGeek, the owners of Pornhub, in 2020. Given the questionable - and sometimes dangerous - content that Pornhub frequently shares and doesn’t properly moderate, it’s understandable that companies may be concerned.
However, targeting all pornography in a blanket payment suspension typically doesn’t hurt those they’re trying to target. Instead, it’s the remaining sex workers, those who operate ethically and safely, who bear the brunt of such a monumental decision.
Unfortunately, this treatment is by no means a new challenge sex workers have to face, as Mistress Harley, a US based sex worker, shares. “Honestly this kind of behavior is ‘business as usual’ for those of us in the adult industry. The industry is constantly losing income streams and gaining new ones.”
It’s true - often sex workers have to move their content elsewhere on a regular basis, with the discrimination they face seen as the price they pay for what they do. Yet, as Mistress Harley also discussed with me, most sex workers are legally operating in compliance with the laws in place.
“What's frustrating is that for those of us who operate legally by adhering to 2257 compliance regulations and pay taxes, this kind of legal discrimination can happen at any time under the guise of pressure from merchant banks, fighting illegal content, but there are zero protections for those of us who operate legally.”
Even OnlyFans’ decision to undo its ban does little but pay lip service to those who rely on its services; the fact that such anxiety and grief had to be experienced by so many creators, without consideration of its impacts, seems far from acknowledged in the company’s reversal.
“It’s definitely made me not fully trust OnlyFans. We didn’t even get any apology email which I feel we were owed,” reveals Michelle De Feo, a sex worker, and model, who reached out to me about the current situation.
Some will argue that there’s a risk with all employment, however, those people often haven’t had to live with stigma attached to their line of work. Even though adult content is consumed so readily, sites like OnlyFans have demonstrated a flippancy to sex workers that only care about their welfare if and when it serves them.