In August, the popular website Only Fans decided to implement a ban on “sexually explicit content”. Users and content creators raised hell. They have since decided to reverse their decision and are (at least for now) planning to continue hosting pornographic content, but this close call is just a little too close for comfort; it is indicative of a larger trend in sex industry politics that we all need to be paying close attention to.
The assault on sex work accelerated extremely quickly during the Trump years. In April of 2018 the President signed a bill into law called Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA for short), that devastated sex workers all over the United States. SESTA was a watershed moment in sex worker politics because it essentially amended the Communications Decency Act of 1996 and made websites with third party content (think Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.) liable for whatever anyone out there in internet land posted. This may sound initially like a great thing - a law that says it is going to make it harder for people to commit sex trafficking related crimes. But think again. Sex workers and sex work focused nonprofits and policy think tanks are unanimous that this is not the way to address the problem of sex trafficking online.
SESTA ushered in a new(er) era in which policymakers on the Hill think that conflating sex trafficking with sex work is an appropriate response to ending sex trafficking. Only Fans’ initial decision to ban adult content and go more “mainstream '' is - some think - a relief. Others who rely on it for a bulk of their income, which is a significant number of sex industry professionals, feel that Only Fans’ flip-flopping leaves their income more insecure. It is true that if Only Fans changed its mind once, it could easily do so again at any time and without warning.
What is really going on here? The answer, disturbingly, is that it’s definitely not just Only Fans trying to get out of the adult business. This is hardly the first time Sex workers have been de-platformed, and it won’t be the last. Powerful nonprofit organizations working to end sex trafficking (and sex work, I might add) do a bulk of their work putting pressure on policymakers and private companies like MasterCard and PayPal to not accept payments from adult industry venues under the guise that they participate and encourage sex trafficking. These organizations are very typically based in Christian evangelical fundamentalism and oppose adult industry work because it is “inherently exploitative”. Last month, a hundred policy makers wrote letters to the U.S. Department of Justice calling for an investigation into Only Fans for allegedly hosting child sex abuse materials on it’s site. It’s no wonder, with all of this pressure from prostitution “abolitionists”, that OF initially decided to ban adult content.
What bothers many sex workers about Only Fans’ first decision is not just the potential loss in income, but also the fact that Only Fans has only very recently become a well-known, household name among non-sex workers. Many sex workers feel that OF only used the labor of millions of sex workers until it could get “legitimacy,” whereby OF promptly decided to dump the people who made their site what it is. According to Bloomberg Business, OF received more than two billion in sales last year and is projected to do at least 20% more than that this year, as the pandemic only served to increase business to the site.
While OF has come along only in recent years, stigma against sex workers is hardly new. Many sex workers - though the decision has been reversed - still feel betrayed by a website that desperately needed their content and their labor to get started. So the question remains: how will sex workers proceed with OF?
A company based in the U.K., Only Fans has recently said it has “new relationships' ' with new intermediary banking partners (though will not disclose who). So how long before the sex work “abolitionists” (as they call themselves) put pressure on these new banks to drop adult content creation? Sex workers are going to need a back-up plan to OF, and this is the harsh reality of the OF flip-flop. We as a community clearly can’t rely on companies who change their minds every time the wind blows, and this is really the saddest part about this OF decision/reversal. It is a hollow victory, and possibly a short lived one, so we can only enjoy the platform while it lasts. Sex workers are strong, smart, and resourceful. We will definitely survive, with or without an OF platform.