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Why OnlyFans’ porn U-turn hasn’t stopped adult performers worrying

Creators fear further financial censorship

Why OnlyFans’ porn U-turn hasn’t stopped adult performers worrying
Thomas Macaulay
Story by

Thomas Macaulay

Writer at Neural by TNW — Thomas covers AI in all its iterations. Likes Werner Herzog films and Arsenal FC. Writer at Neural by TNW — Thomas covers AI in all its iterations. Likes Werner Herzog films and Arsenal FC.

Did you know that Ela Darling, the adult performer and VR pioneer who was interviewed for this article, is speaking at TNW2021 this year? You can get tickets for the event here.

OnlyFans may have suspended its plans to ban porn, but the U-turn hasn’t dispelled the concerns of sex workers.

Adult performers fear that the move has merely been postponed. They also worry that other platforms will enact similar restrictions.

“It was a wake-up call that I need to diversify where I’m hosting content, and make sure my fans know where to find me if something like that happens again,” Ela Darling, an adult performer and tech entrepreneur, tells TNW.

Darling is also concerned that a domino effect will ensue. Mounting pressure from banks and conservative lobbyists may spark new waves of de-platforming and censorship.

Sex sells

OnlyFans doesn’t solely feature sexual content, but the site has become synonymous with porn.

The company offers adult performers an attractive deal. They can choose exactly what they create, directly monetize their audience, and keep 80% of what they charge. 

“We make more money and have more control over our image on OnlyFans than we ever had on a porn site,” says Darling. “We’re our own bosses now.”

Their content has also proven lucrative for OnlyFans. The company took in revenues of $390 million and pre-tax profits of nearly $74 million in the year to November 2020.

When OnlyFans announced its plan to ban porn, many creators said they felt betrayed by a company that they’d made rich.

It also looked, on the surface, like a self-destructive business move. The platform was prohibiting its main attraction.

OnlyFans said the decision was taken to comply with the requests of financial providers. The company’s founder told the Financial Times that “unfair” treatment from banks was making it hard to pay performers.

The announcement sparked a furious backlash from creators and their supporters.

Days later, the company backtracked. The site said the ban had been suspended “due to banking partners’ assurances that OnlyFans can support all genres of creators.”

The reversal provided short-term relief for adult performers, but the episode exposed their fragile status in the creator economy.

Dirty business

OnlyFans blamed the proposed ban on payment providers, but the platform’s sexual content has also reportedly deterred investors.

Financial services firms have long been wary of adult entertainment’s high risk of disputed charges and scandals. But Darling points to another factor in their clampdown: heavy pressure from anti-porn crusaders, such as Exodus Cry and the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE).

Both organizations have roots in the Christian Right. The groups say their mission is to end sex trafficking, but critics argue that they conflate consensual sex work with trafficking. Activists also warn that banning porn will push people into more dangerous conditions.

When OnlyFans announced its plan to ban porn, NCOSE issued a statement claiming that its work with payment processors had forced the move. Unsurprisingly, the group criticized the policy reversal. 

“OnlyFans has chosen to continue its exploitation, despite knowing that it will face increasing criminal scrutiny over reports  of filmed child sexual abuse, sex trafficking, and other non-consensually recorded sex acts being sold on its website,” said Haley McNamara, vice president of NCOSE.

Darling says the OnlyFans debacle was “terrifying” because it showed the power that these organizations possess:

It’s the signal from MasterCard that they’re listening to these massive Evangelical Christian groups, telling them that we’re being trafficked —  which we’re not.

El Darling on OnlyFans
Credit: Ela Darling
El Darling earned a master’s and worked as a librarian prior to becoming an adult performer.

NCOSE and Exodus Cry had previously pressured Mastercard and Visa to cut their ties with Pornhub. Last year, the companies suspended payments on the site following reports that the platform hosted videos of child abuse and rape.

Another of their high-profile scalps is Cosmopolitan, which NCOSE compares to porn. In 2018, the group successfully campaigned for Walmart to remove the magazine from the retailer’s checkout aisle.

NCOSE has also taken legal action after Twitter, another platform used by adult performers.

Unlike Facebook and Instagram, Twitter still allows users to post porn. The company also recently launched, an OnlyFans-like feature, Super Follows, that lets users charge subscribers for exclusive content.

The Super Follows policies don’t provide specific details on how adult content will be moderated, but if they follow the site’s regular standards, it could allow users to post porn.

Darling, however, worries that the feature will have an adverse effect on adult performers, who currently use Twitter to convert followers into paying fans. Super Follows, she says, could make the company “very financially motivated to remove us from the platform and cut our direct tie to our fans.”

OnlyFans may have escaped financial censorship for now, but Darling fears that banks and right-wings lobbyists will push more businesses to stifle freedom of expression.

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