OnlyFans reversed its policy, but sex workers are still wary

Kimberly Adams Sep 2, 2021
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A man reviews pictures of himself on his cellphone while making content for his OnlyFans profile in 2020. Cristian Hernandez/AFP via Getty Images

OnlyFans reversed its policy, but sex workers are still wary

Kimberly Adams Sep 2, 2021
A man reviews pictures of himself on his cellphone while making content for his OnlyFans profile in 2020. Cristian Hernandez/AFP via Getty Images
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The public backlash against subscription video site OnlyFans continued this week, as content creators using the site continued to sign up for competing platforms, and some sex workers organized protests starting Wednesday against payments processors, who they say unfairly discriminate against the adult entertainment industry.

“Well before the OnlyFans ban, sex workers have been dealing with the effects of systemic banking and financial discrimination,” said Angela Jones, who teaches sociology at Farmingdale State College, State University of New York, and is the author of “Camming: Money, Power, and Pleasure in the Sex Work Industry.” 

Processors like Mastercard, which is targeted in the campaign, say restrictions are designed to prevent illegal activity and don’t target those who engage in legal sex work

But for those who engage in that work, the OnlyFans ban, even though it’s been suspended, was a reminder of the precarious nature of the business. 

Consensual, legal work

“We do this work because there’s a demand for it. And it’s legal work. It’s consensual legal work,” said online performer Taylor (we are withholding her full name to protect her privacy), “And if there wasn’t a demand for it, we wouldn’t be doing it. And we wouldn’t be making so much money.”

Taylor said she makes $6,000 to $10,000 a month on OnlyFans from around 1,000 to 1,300 subscribers who pay for her nude photos, videos of her on her own or with partners, and trans fetish scenes.

Controlling their own content

She said one of the reasons sites like OnlyFans became popular with sex workers is because it helped them do something many have been attempting for decades: control their own content and cut out some of the intermediaries. 

“They don’t have a boss at a strip club or an agent at a talent agency running their shoots for them,” she said. “They just work for themselves, and they produce their own content. And this is not something that people were able to do five or 10 years ago.”

But there are other changes beyond new technology and platforms, according to sex worker advocates. Primarily, the public response to the OnlyFans original announcement. 

Celebrity presence on OnlyFans

“OnlyFans is the household name that has Cardi B, and Bella Thorne, and so many other musicians and reality TV stars having pages, that it became far more acceptable in that way, and it provided a financial means for so many to care for their families during the pandemic. And these are people that are not traditionally a part of the adult industry,” said Alana Evans, president of the Adult Performance Artists Guild. “And so now, everyone is so comfortable with this idea of sexuality that is attached to OnlyFans that when it became under attack, I think your average person felt that their own freedoms were being attacked.”

OnlyFans declined to comment for this story.

The public outcry after the OnlyFans announcement also reveals some of the nuances around perceptions of sex work, said Samantha Majic, who teaches political science at the City University of New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice and wrote the book “Sex Work Politics: From Protest to Service Provision.”

“The sex industry is vast, and it includes a range of activities,” she said. “And so these sexual services are a wide range of activities from those that in the United States are legal, such as pornography and dancing, to those that are illegal, which is prostitution, which is criminalized in almost every state except Nevada. And so there’s this very wide spectrum of activities.”

And the public response to those activities tends to be aligned with where on the spectrum of activities someone’s sex work sits. 

The “whorearchy”

“I think part of [the OnlyFans] story is about what sex worker organizers call the ‘whorearchy,’” said Heather Berg, author of the book “Porn Work” and professor of women, gender and sexuality studies at Washington University in St. Louis.

The whorearchy is the idea that some sex work is more respectable than others.

“The whorearchy is both within sex worker communities, but also in terms of how outsiders understand sex work labor,” Berg said. “And so there is a hierarchy, I think, in the public imagination.”

“Camming” author Jones also points to the hierarchy as an impetus for the more mainstream opposition to the now-suspended OnlyFans ban, which she said affected many adult content creators from less marginalized groups.  

“There isn’t a lot of public outcry when full-service providers and people who are engaged in, you know, clinical prostitution are being harmed, whether that’s whether they’re being harmed by legal policies, whether they’re being harmed by law enforcement, whether they’re being harmed by banking institutions, there’s far less outcry,” said Jones.

Shifting to other websites

And for now, many sex workers like Taylor are viewing OnlyFans with suspicion and shifting or mirroring content on sites like Fansly or PocketStars. 

She’s also solidifying her other income streams — photography and dog training — and she’s part of a community of trans women sex workers who share information and resources.

“I am going to make sure that I’m not in a position where, if something like this happens, I don’t feel like the rug was pulled out from under me,” she said. “And I know a lot of other girls are thinking the same thing.”

Like her, they’re diversifying their income and joining new platforms, including some run by sex workers themselves.

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