OnlyFans bans sexual content, leaving its future uncertain

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OnlyFans will ban sexually explicit content starting in October, prohibiting the very material that has made the platform popular, especially in the last year-plus that much of the world has been locked down.

In a statement provided to TechRadar and widely disseminated online, OnlyFans stated that the platform is adopting the changes “to comply with the requests of our banking partners and payout providers”. 

“In order to ensure the long-term sustainability of the platform, and to continue to host an inclusive community of creators and fans, we must evolve our content guidelines. Creators will continue to be allowed to post content containing nudity as long as it is consistent with our Acceptable Use Policy,” the statement reads. 

OnlyFans did not comment beyond the statement, nor clarify its position on non-sexual nudity; the company’s Acceptable Use Policy (opens in new tab) only prohibits public nudity if it was recorded in or broadcast from regions or countries in which such nudity is illegal. 

The full statement reads:

“Effective 1 October, 2021, OnlyFans will prohibit the posting of any content containing sexually-explicit conduct. In order to ensure the long-term sustainability of the platform, and to continue to host an inclusive community of creators and fans, we must evolve our content guidelines. Creators will continue to be allowed to post content containing nudity as long as it is consistent with our Acceptable Use Policy.

These changes are to comply with the requests of our banking partners and payout providers.

We will be sharing more details in the coming days and we will actively support and guide our creators through this change in content guidelines. 

We remain dedicated to our community of 130 million users and over 2 million creators that have earned over $5 billion on our platform.

OnlyFans remains committed to the highest levels of safety and content moderation of any social platform. All creators are verified prior to being able to upload any content to OnlyFans, and all uploaded content is checked by automated systems and human moderators.

As part of our commitment to safety and transparency, we are releasing our first Monthly Transparency Report for July 2021. (opens in new tab)

OnlyFans ban could end the platform’s massive growth seen during pandemic

OnlyFans’ content creators don’t just post adult and sexually explicit material, as musicians and other artists have used the platform to charge fans for access to photos, videos, and other content, but it’s unquestionable that the site became known largely for the former. 

It’s also indisputable that the site’s popularity exploded during the pandemic: OnlyFans parent company Fenix International released (opens in new tab) its strategic report up to November 2020 stating that total creator count leapt from 348,000 in 2019 to over 1.6 million toward the end of 2020, with fan numbers jumping from 13.4 million to 82 million. The company raked in £1.7 billion (around $2.32B/ AU$3.24B) in payments from fans, compared to £238 million ($324M / AU$454M) up to the same point in 2019. Given OnlyFans takes a 20% cut of that, its income rose from £44M to £283M, according to Musically (opens in new tab).  

Since then, that number has grown to 130 million users, as per OnlyFans’ statement above. Those additional numbers include creators who have used the online platform as a source of income while global lockdowns have disrupted other industries, like retail, food, and hospitality. Banning sexually explicit content will also effectively kick off creators of adult material who were relying on the platform for income.

Online response has been a mix of critics decrying (opens in new tab) OnlyFans for abandoning creators of sexually explicit content who had been central to its growth, along with bemusement that the platform is turning its back on its biggest appeal (and revenue stream). 

But banning sexual content closes a crucial revenue stream for some in a time of crisis, says Dr Barbara Brents, a sociology professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and an expert on the sex industry and sexual commerce.

“During the pandemic, a lot of people’s selling of sexual services have come to depend on online platforms,” Dr Brents told TechRadar over a phone call. “ There’s all sorts of ways in which people have bought and sold intimacy and connection, and OnlyFans has been one of those ways that people could make a living and to shut this off like this, the people who depend on that are unable to make an income.”

Online services empower sex workers with a level of safety and physical control over screening clients, and it helps that OnlyFans in particular is easy to use for creators and consumers and didn’t rely on many third parties, encouraging independent business. When one service gets cut off, sex workers will transition to another, but not easily. 

“Sex workers are resilient and many will [move on to another platform] but it’s not easy, and when you lose your source of income like this, you sort of lose your ability to invest in the next thing,” Dr Brents said. “The sex workers with the most resources and the most ability do so.”

It’s unclear exactly how much of OnlyFans’ creators and fans use the platform to make and consume sexually explicit content, and we can only wait for October to see how much of the site’s community leaves following the ban. But we can turn to history – even recent history – to see how other sites and platforms have fared after booting adult content, though it's the sex workers and independent creators who have suffered most.

OnlyFans: the latest platform partially grown by sex workers to then ban sex workers

OnlyFans is far from the first platform to grow thanks to communities creating and sharing sexually explicit material before banning that content for a handful of reasons. For the most part, these sanitization efforts are made to comply with policies from even larger platforms, but like in OnlyFans’ case, have also been done to satisfy the demands of financial institutions. 

One of the most well-known examples is Tumblr, which banned adult and not-safe-for-work (NSFW) content in December 2018 – reportedly as a long-delayed condition of its acquisition by Yahoo in 2016, but also after its iOS app was banned following the discovery of child pornography images on the site. This was perceived as a betrayal by adult content creators, who had built communities on the platform, as well as the LGBTQ community that had thrived on sharing adult content, as reported by Vice (opens in new tab). After a mass exodus of users, the site was sold in 2019 for $3 million, a fraction of the $1.1 billion price Verizon paid to acquire it in 2013, per The Verge (opens in new tab).

In the same year, online marketplace Craigslist shut down its personal ads section, which was a crucial platform for organizing adult erotic exchanges and meet-ups, including sex work – a move Craigslist made in response to the passage of the controversial anti sex trafficking FOSTA and SESTA bills. That shuttered another conduit that sex workers used to safely coordinate with clientele online, as well as shutting down a queer connection space, as The Washington Post (opens in new tab) reported. Another site, Backpage, was similarly pressured into closing in 2019, according to the Slate (opens in new tab).

On the financial side, crowdfunding and payment platforms like Patreon and PayPal have frozen funds or canceled accounts used by sex workers, per The Daily Dot (opens in new tab). Over the years, banks have closed accounts of porn stars, as Chase did in 2014, as Buzzfeed (opens in new tab) reported, which is one of the more popularized incidents of financial institutions restricting adult content creators – when romance and erotic writers were banned from their platforms in 2012 by PayPal, the payment service pointed to Visa and Mastercard, which pointed to federal government regulations, Engadget (opens in new tab) wrote.

OnlyFans is just the latest in a long line of online platforms restricting and banning adult content and sex work in the last decade. While the internet has changed in that time, it’s increasingly shaped only by a handful of colossal corporations across the content, service, and financial industries rather than content creators and consumers. 

David Lumb

David is now a mobile reporter at Cnet. Formerly Mobile Editor, US for TechRadar, he covered phones, tablets, and wearables. He still thinks the iPhone 4 is the best-looking smartphone ever made. He's most interested in technology, gaming and culture – and where they overlap and change our lives. His current beat explores how our on-the-go existence is affected by new gadgets, carrier coverage expansions, and corporate strategy shifts.