Last month the website OnlyFans announced that it would ban sexually explicit content from its platform, only to reverse the ban six days later, to the shock of creators and users alike.
The subscriber-only social media site, known for its popularity with sex workers and adult entertainment creators, announced the ban on Aug. 19. OnlyFans CEO Tim Stokely cited a growing lack of cooperation with the site’s business model from banks and payment processors as the reason for policy change, according to CNN.
By Aug. 25, after a wave of press mania and online backlash, the company had reversed the ban in a tweet. “We have secured assurances necessary to support our diverse creator community,” the announcement read.
“I was like, no, that’s not real,” said ASU student Adonis Williams of her reaction to the initial announcement.
Williams, a senior studying exploratory humanities, fine arts and design, started creating sexually explicit content on OnlyFans about two months ago, but the job has already become her main source of income. She feels the news has not been taken seriously by the general public.
“This isn’t funny,” Williams said. “This is people losing money and getting out of a job. It’s definitely not taken seriously at all" by the public.
Ginger Banks, a former ASU student and adult film star turned OnlyFans creator, was skeptical of the announcement at first. As a prominent sex worker advocate, she spent the last year monitoring rumors that the company would try to distance itself from sex workers.
Banks was used to dismissing the unverified gossip, but when she saw sex workers talking about the ban on social media, she knew it was legitimate.
“My sister does OnlyFans too. She called me crying, freaking out. She was really scared,” Banks said. “Multiple people called me crying because this is where they get their income.”
Banks called OnlyFans “the most beneficial thing to happen to sex work in decades.” She said the site has granted sex workers greater control over their work and more financial freedom.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the popularity of the site exploded under quarantine guidelines and limited public gatherings.
“I know a lot of in-person sex workers who, during the pandemic, OnlyFans literally saved them in so many ways,” Banks said.
Williams said she feels in control of her work on OnlyFans and that it has been compatible with her lifestyle as a college student. Still, the recent flurry of news has made her worried about her job security.
“My mindset right now is I’m not going to get my hopes up about either decision that’s being made, because no matter what things can change,” Williams said. “I think they can easily do that again.”
The anti-porn lobby
Job insecurity is a familiar struggle for sex workers, but the expanding world of online adult entertainment has created new conflicts between entertainers, interest groups and government.
In December 2020, Visa and Mastercard suspended use of their payment processing services from the popular adult entertainment site PornHub after confirmation that illegal content containing minors was being hosted on the platform following a New York Times story. In response, PornHub removed all unverified content from its site.
Many sex workers argue recent pressure from banks and payment processors is part of a larger anti-porn agenda. Banks said the movement to combat sex trafficking on the internet has been co-opted by an influential fringe of anti-sex work religious extremist groups.
“I kind of saw this happening,” Banks said. “It seemed like the religious extremist groups, after they were moving on from PornHub, it was very obvious they were starting to focus on OnlyFans.”
According to Banks, the religious extremist groups in question are Exodus Cry and the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE), formerly known as “Morality in Media.” Both trace their origins to religious anti-porn advocacy and have current ties to right-wing Christian groups. NCOSE in particular explicitly touts the goal of ending the internet pornography industry.
These groups have come under media criticism for pushing banks and payment processors to abandon critical platforms for sex workers. In the weeks before OnlyFans announced its short-lived ban on sexually explicit content, NCOSE encouraged a Department of Justice probe into the company.
“They’re manipulating all these people in financial institutions into thinking this is how we’re going to stop sex trafficking,” Banks said. “It is just a lie.”
She said targeting prominent adult content platforms, like OnlyFans, is an illogical method of addressing online sex trafficking. Instead, she said they need to work with major sites which already have the capacity and resources to moderate illegal content.
Based on her own experience, Williams said she believes that OnlyFans “makes sure that safety is their main priority.”
“If someone tries to screenshot or screen record something and post it outside OnlyFans, they’re actually very quick with finding it and making sure it gets taken down immediately,” Williams said.
A BBC investigation widely shared by groups like Exodus Cry determined that OnlyFans moderation policies have “some tolerance” when it comes to banning accounts guilty of posting illegal material. The investigation found documents that outlined a three strikes policy for accounts that uploaded illegal content.
Still, Banks argues that banning payment processing is an ineffective way to combat sex trafficking given the sheer scope of the internet. Undermining mainstream platforms like OnlyFans could empower sex traffickers by normalizing low-profile adult content sites with less moderation and transparency.
“What they’re doing is going to hurt people,” she said. “It is going to push this stuff on to websites that are worse at regulating it.”
She also continues to question the real motivations of anti-porn organizations pushing for banks to abandon sex work platforms. She said personal experience has shown her that groups like Exodus Cry and NCOSE are more interested in abolishing all sex work than protecting trafficking victims.
“I hope people wake up to the discrimination that sex workers are facing,” Banks said.
“Banks shouldn’t do this to sex workers. But we’re in that grey area. We’re in a really grey area in a lot of ways.”
Clarification: This story was updated at 5:25 p.m. to clarify what Adonis Williams is currently studying. The title has also been updated to clarify who provided reactions.
Continue supporting student journalism and donate to The State Press today.