OnlyFans and the debate over a safe place for online sex

·Senior Editor
·6 min read

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

The content subscription service OnlyFans announced Wednesday that it is scrapping a plan to ban sexually explicit material from its platform following an outcry from adult-content creators who have helped the site soar in popularity since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

Before reversing the ban, OnlyFans explained that it was forced into the decision because it was struggling to establish relationships with banks and investors who were wary of going into business with a platform that relies heavily, though not exclusively, on sexual content. The company said the policy change was no longer necessary because it had received assurances from its banking partners that it could support “all genres of creators.”

The OnlyFans saga is the most recent example of what has become a familiar pattern: Platforms that have capitalized on explicit content to spur growth begin reconsidering their policies as they break into the mainstream. The microblogging platform Tumblr banned pornography in 2018. Patreon, a subscription service similar to OnlyFans, cracked down on adult performers a year earlier. More than a decade ago, the blogging platform LiveJournal drew ire from users for its clumsy attempt to purge sex-related discussion groups.

Many of these moves are were made in direct response to pressure from business partners amid concerns that the platforms could be featuring illegal content like underage sex or non-consenual sex. In April, the porn streaming site PornHub, one of the 10 most popular websites in the world, deleted millions of videos and revised its content policies following a New York Times story that accused the site of hosting clips featuring sexual assault and child pornography — which prompted credit card companies to stop processing payments on its platform.

Why there’s debate

The question of where sexually explicit content does and doesn’t belong online — and who should make that determination — is one of the foundational debates of the internet, and the recent back-and-forth from OnlyFans shows it’s far from resolved.

Sex workers and adult-content creators say these are not neutral content decisions. They argue that what they see as overzealous crackdowns on legal sexual content carry a heavy price by not only undercutting their livelihoods but also by taking away tools they use to protect themselves from violence and exploitation endemic to in-person sex work. Some experts say the decisions are often made in response to pressure from anti-trafficking groups that use the worthy cause of protecting children as a smokescreen to push a broader anti-sex agenda.

Supporters of stricter guidelines, many of whom say they have no issue with legal pornography, argue that online platforms have a duty to do everything they can to root out illegal content — even if doing so has knock-on effects for legitimate creators. There are some conservatives and religious groups who say porn and sex work, regardless of legality, are harmful and should be banished to the fringes of the internet.

To some, the OnlyFans example shows the worrisome power that banks and payment processing companies have to censor what’s allowed to appear online, an issue they argue poses a threat to free speech. Content moderation decisions made by social media sites get enormous attention, but these companies have even more power to control free expression because they provide the infrastructure that the modern internet is built upon.

What’s next

A potential factor that could drastically reorient the debate over online adult content is the ongoing effort by some members of Congress to reform Section 230, a provision of the Communications Decency Act that permits tech companies to moderate content on their platforms. Any change to Section 230 — proposed plans vary widely in their scope and structure — could affect the legal ground that current sexual content policies use.


Stopping sex crimes is a worthy cause, but targeting legal sex work isn’t the solution

“Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that sites like OnlyFans should be allowed to operate without any restrictions whatsoever. Nor am I saying that payment processors don’t have a responsibility to ensure they’re not facilitating illegal or unethical practices. The point is, increased censorship is rarely the solution to complex problems.” — Arwa Mahdawi, Guardian

Safe online platforms prevent sexual abuse

“The internet has helped improve sex workers’ lives, including by keeping them safer. … However, sex workers laboring offline and on the street remain at high risk. Continued criminalization of in-person sex work in the U.S. and other countries and governmental attempts at regulating sexual commerce online, limit consensual sex workers’ opportunities.” — Angela Jones, Conversation

Every available step should be taken to root out illegal sexual content

“The issue isn’t pornography but rape. It is not prudishness to feel revulsion at global companies that monetize sexual assaults on children; it’s compassion.” — Nicholas Kristof, New York Times

Adult-content creators must have more power over their own content

“Creators should have full view into what they can or can’t do and a seat at the table as policies are being created and adapted. Platforms’ content moderation decisions and the algorithms behind demonetization are often opaque, broadly applied and decided without consulting the creators they will impact. They should also have visibility into the size of the overall revenue pie and their share.” — Bremner Morris, TechCrunch

Misguided crackdowns are a threat to everyone’s freedoms

“When financial institutions, tech companies, and conservative politicians conflate legal adult entertainment with abuse, there is a chilling effect on freedom of sexual expression. This means that the labor issues of sex workers have implications for everyone.” — Tina Horn, Rolling Stone

Porn should be banned entirely

“I’d be delighted if we banned it entirely. ... It clearly contributes to suicides – and I don’t think just the children and young women whose lives are ruined by appearing in videos, often not having any idea what they were getting into. In 2020, middle school means the boy you have a crush on asking for a naked video. These poor children. Do they even have a chance in this culture?” — Kathryn Jean Lopez, National Review

Porn consumers can help eliminate illegal content if provided the tools to do so

“Ideally, any web user in regular contact with explicit content could have some sense of what to do when met with material that ought to be brought to the attention of authorities. But that would require much more guidance than adolescents—let alone adults—are given now.” — Elizabeth Bruenig, Atlantic

Banks and payment companies shouldn’t be the arbiters of online expression

“In an increasingly cashless economy, the banking industry exerts a terrifying degree of control over us all, but sex workers have long been especially vulnerable to denial of accounts, loans, and mortgages, regardless of whether or not their work is technically legal.” — Charlotte Shane, New York

Legislation that targets sex trafficking is often counterproductive

“Sex industry workers are understandably skeptical when it comes to government regulation of the industry. It’s never clear how the next administration will legislate, and when policymakers have drafted legislation, it often misses the mark — sometimes by a lot.” — Amelia Pollard, American Prospect

Platforms and banks are being manipulated into imposing a far-right religious agenda

“The campaign against OnlyFans is part of a larger project: It’s not about ending violence and abuse, and it’s not about sex negativity or controlling women (though that’s part of it)—it’s about fighting to establish a fundamentalist Christian nation.” — New Republic writer Melissa Gira Grant

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