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20 August 2021

OnlyFans is abandoning the sex workers who made the platform a success

“Doing OnlyFans helped me be able to afford my life-saving medications,” says one sex worker who uses the platform. “Now I may not be able to afford medical care.”

By Chris Stokel-Walker

OnlyFans has built up a reputation and a business out of more than $2bn in sales from seven million users willing to pay for sexual content. It’s become shorthand for the burgeoning economy of online sex work – where people post videos and photos of sex acts in exchange for money – and has helped 16,000 people worldwide earn at least $50,000 annually from selling subscriptions to their content, with over 300 earning $1m or more.

But not for much longer. From October, OnlyFans will bar sexually explicit videos from its service – a shock for all but the minority of users who pay to watch clothed, non-sexual fitness videos and cooking tutorials that the controversial London start-up has tried, increasingly desperately, to say illustrates its rounded user base.

It’s a baffling decision, but can be explained by OnlyFans’ struggle to gain external funding to bolster its extraordinary growth. Made popular off the back of the “sex sells” mantra, it’s now found that sex turns off those who can enable its owners to cash out of their business. In a statement, OnlyFans said it had been compelled to ban sexual content because of pressure from its payment processing partners.

Stuck in the middle are the sex workers plying their trade on the platform. “I immediately got anxiety, as I’m sure many other sex workers did, as we begin to wonder about our livelihoods,” says MaraJade Sith, a disabled sex worker based in the United States.

For Sith, OnlyFans was a lifeline. “As a disabled person, doing content creation allowed me to work from home and stay independent, while focusing on my health,” she says. “Doing OnlyFans helped me be able to afford my life-saving medications. I haven’t been able to work ‘traditional’ jobs for a few years. So hearing that they will be taking away content that I do is scary because now I may not be able to afford medical care.”

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Sith is far from the only sex worker likely to be affected by the ban on sexually explicit activity. “The OnlyFans boom at the start of the pandemic has created a lot of sex workers who are new and might not have that experience under their belt, unfortunately, and they’re going to be hit the hardest by this,” says Bellini, an Australian sex worker who has been in the industry for a decade and uses a competing platform, ManyVids.

“It’s not new for social media and other technologies to build up user bases, reputation and content on the backs of sex workers, only to change their terms of use to remove them from their platforms once successful,” says Dr Angelika Strohmayer of Northumbria University, and a board member of the Sex Work Research Hub, an academic group that studies sex work. (Full disclosure: she is also my partner.) “It’s shameful and harmful to those working on these platforms who rely on them for their income.”

[See also: How the rich and famous stole OnlyFans from sex workers]

Bellini used to sell her content through a platform called IndieBill, which closed down in late 2020. “It was really rough because I had something like three days to research other platforms, reorganise my content and then migrate it,” she says. “It was very disruptive and I lost quite a lot of income during that period, and the platform change has meant needing to rebuild a lot of my audience.” She chose ManyVids over OnlyFans because she was worried by the latter’s attempt to rebrand itself as a general home for content creators. The way that OnlyFans tried to promote itself “as a non-pornographic platform scared me off”, she says.

The risk is that sex workers – already vilified by some sections of society – will be left to rebuild their audience from scratch on a new platform. “This is a job that requires so much hidden labour to build up a client base using different advertising and safety strategies for different platforms,” says Strohmayer.

Bellini worries that whichever platform sex workers move to will be next in the firing line. “Lobbying groups will move on to new targets soon,” she says. “They’ve worked out that the most efficient way to shut down sex worker platforms is to go for their payment providers or banking services.” Bellini says it can be easy to characterise this as a problem that only impacts the porn industry, but it’s much wider than that. “It should be everyone’s concern, because even if they manage to shut down all the adult platforms, what will be next? Artists? Anime?”

For now, sex workers appear to be focusing on moving their content and audiences to two key websites – both of which were set up by former or current sex workers. ManyVids was co-founded by Bella French, a former cam performer, while Frisk, which has gained 20,000 followers since it was founded in 2019, is run by Sascha McGee, a British sex worker since 2013.

“After a lot of speculation over the last few months about OnlyFans moving away from adult content, we can’t say we are shocked by today’s news,” says McGee. “However, it is surprising that they have decided to silence and disregard the creators that have built their site up to what it is today.”

Among those likely to move over is Sith, who was contacted by the platform earlier this year. While she hasn’t had the same traffic to her Frisk content that she got on OnlyFans, that could change as OnlyFans loses its sexual content – something she’s hopeful for with $800 of medication bills a month to pay. And she likes the site’s ethos. “They are women, they are sex workers, so seeing them support their creators like that was one reason I made an account,” she says. “The anxiety of being deleted doesn’t exist, because it’s a site for us and run by us.”