OnlyFans Lifts Explicit Content Ban, But Creators Aren't Reassured
When subscription site OnlyFans unveiled a new change to their Acceptable Use Policies on August 20 that would prohibit any sexually explicit content come October 1, the backlash was almost immediate. In fact, criticism of the decision was so strong that OnlyFans issued another statement indefinitely suspending the October 1 decision on August 25, only five days following their initial decision.
The announcement came as a surprise for creators and subscribers, although rumors that OnlyFans would ban sexually explicit content due to problems with investors had been circulating for several months at the time of the announcement.
OnlyFans catapulted onto the internet in 2016 following the model of other content creation, subscription-based sites like Patreon or Substack. Unlike these other sites, however, the U.K.-based OnlyFans allowed sexually explicit content that other platforms avoided (or, like Tumblr, had begun to ban). OnlyFans provided a place for online sex workers to market and sell their content, with features like the initial subscription fee, a "tipping" option and pay-per-view messages.
The site isn't actually founder Timothy Stokely's first foray into sex-work-supported platforms. Stokely, the son of a wealthy investment banker, started the site GlamWorship.com in 2011, after discovering that Reddit users interested in fetish porn had a relatively small number of sites to find content suited to their desires. He proceeded to establish Customs4u in 2013, a site that allowed viewers to directly request and buy custom-made porn from specific adult entertainers.
To many creators, this ability to control their own content and not rely on an external company or agency is a huge benefit of the platform.
Unlike his other ventures, the success of OnlyFans skyrocketed—the site grew from 8 million registered users in 2019 to an estimated 130 million users today, and as many as 2 million creators. This meteoric growth—according to Stokely and a quick Google search—is largely attributed to the rise in unemployment and time spent at home due to the pandemic, as well as publicity from high-profile figures including Cardi B, Beyoncé and Bella Thorne.
While most creators on the site don't rake in major cash (the average creator makes approximately $180 a month), top creators can make as much as six figures a month, even after the 20 percent fee OnlyFans takes from creators' gross earnings.
"Even the couple hundred dollars I would make from OnlyFans made all the difference," said creator Maya Moreno, who started on OnlyFans in 2017 and is now in the top 1 percent of creators on the site. The website ranks their users on a percentage scale by earnings. "During the [beginning], I was pursuing a career and mainstream pornography, but I didn't do well and only lasted about seven to eight months. Relying on an agency and companies to hire me for work was very hard…It took a huge toll on my mental health to have to divide my attention so much." To many creators, this ability to control their own content and not rely on an external company or agency is a huge benefit of the platform.
There are downsides to the independent contractor model
"Banks make it incredibly hard to start accounts when you do anything related to sex work," said Carmen, a creator on the site who first created her account in 2019. "I started off making around $1,800 to $2,000 a month for my first year or so. At that time, I used it mostly as a supplemental income to my 9 to 5 job so I could pay off my insane student loans…I decided to quit my in-person 9 to 5 in August 2020, when I had begun to make around $13,000 per month from OnlyFans, depending on how much work I'm putting in each month."
Carmen decided to create an LLC under her name to avoid the high tax rate associated with self-employed income. This didn't prevent her from running into issues with banking, however. "When I was trying to set up an account, I ran into huge issues with the bank once I mentioned OnlyFans, because they made it clear they're not interested in banking with anyone who does any kind of sex work, from stripping and camming."
'Banks make it incredibly hard to start accounts when you do anything related to sex work.'
Stokely, the founder and CEO of the site, cites these difficulties with financial institutions as the reason for the ban. "The change in policy, we had no choice—the short answer is banks," Stokely told Financial Times in an interview. However, some creators believe the ban was about more than just banking difficulties.
"My initial reaction was…unsurprised," said Gigi Grey, a veteran camgirl who has used the site since 2019. "I think OnlyFans had been dropping hints about this change for a while—they made a very visible pivot to marketing themselves as an app for fitness instructors and chefs both on their website and in ads…The suspension, however, surprised me greatly. It's clear that they only announced the suspension once they realized sex workers were leaving the platform en masse, but I really didn't expect it," she added.
But now, OnlyFans has second thoughts
After the company's first announcement, social media set fire with support for sex workers on OnlyFans. Many pointed out that online sex work was what launched the site into stardom in the first place, and accused Stokely of abandoning the very creators who made the site what it was. While much of the response to the proposed ban was in support of creators, it also gave rise to widespread derision and harassment. "Seeing so many people just gawking at 'OnlyFans girls' and laughing at what for many people meant a complete loss of income, just sucked. There really isn't a better word for it," said Carmen. Even amid the support and push for OnlyFans to reverse the decision, mocking posts telling creators to "get a real job" or featuring McDonald's job applications peppered the comments sections of many creators' posts.
When OnlyFans decided to suspend their policy change, they said, "OnlyFans stands for inclusion and we will continue to provide a home for all creators." The suspension came as a surprise and relief for many creators, as it allowed them to continue creating content based on the previous, less stringent guidelines.
OnlyFans' popularity, media coverage and massive user base makes it hard to leave the site for another, less-established platform. However, the reversal is not definite—the site's announcement states that it would suspend the October 1 decision, not reverse it, a choice of words that leaves room for concern.
Moreno has suspected the OnlyFans ban has included concerns about image and reputation, plus banking issues. "I did expect that [sexually explicit content] was going to be eliminated from OnlyFans…. I think explicit content is on its way out—they're putting too many regulations and rules on what you can or can't do. It's really easy to get kicked off platforms now. It won't be sustainable for many of us," she worries.
Grey is, albeit cautiously, more optimistic: "I'm not sure about the future of sex work and OnlyFans. I think the powers that be are capable of making OnlyFans do virtually anything they want and I know they're not done trying. I'm still incredibly wary, but we've also never seen a platform backtrack like this! It's encouraging to see that sex workers hold that much bargaining power, and I'm actually hopeful about the outcome for the first time ever."
Since the suspension of the October 1 ban, many creators are proceeding with caution.
"Leaving OnlyFans would just be a bad business decision. That being said, I don't trust that the decision reversal is permanent. I'm working on transferring my backlog of content to another platform so I can be more prepared if OnlyFans goes through with the ban," said Carmen.
Despite the sting of the initial ban, the popularity and name brand of the site is key to many creators' work on the site. "There really aren't any other platforms with such a concentrated consumer base and such high visibility," said Grey. "I'm definitely joining other platforms as a backup and I would advise every sex worker to do the same—you never know when OnlyFans might suspend us again."
Whether creators are making $100 or $10,000 a month, whether it's their sole source of income or a side gig, the uncertainty is terrifying. For creators who depend on OnlyFans and similar platforms to survive, watching another site where sex workers could control their own work and circumstances shut down or kick them out is more than just a minor inconvenience.
"It feels like your life isn't really truly yours," Maya reflected. "When someone else pulls the strings on whether or not you get to work, or live."