Cassie Delaney explains the recent OnlyFans ban on (and subsequent reinstatement of) adult content…
In 2019 OnlyFans was hailed by The New York Times as the innovation that would change sex work forever. The platform – which allows creators to monetise content through subscription payments – was dubbed the porn paywall.[restrict]
Adult entertainers gained control of their output and income, celebrities asserted authority over their own images and even amateur creators found audiences and built serious revenue. But revolutionising the adult entertainment industry seems to have an unintended consequence of the company’s overall mission. Simply put, founders Thomas and Tim Stokley really just wanted to help people get paid for digital content. The controversy over the last two weeks is less about adult content and more about the control and influence financial institutions have in Start-Up Land.
In 2016, Tim Stokely took a 10k loan from his father and teamed up with brother Thomas to build Only Fans. The premise was to enable content creators to earn money from users who subscribe to their content—the “fans”. It allows content creators to receive funding directly from their fans on a monthly basis as well as one-time tips and the pay-per-view (PPV) feature.
It was Tim’s third foray into business. His previous businesses were the adult performance websites GlamGirls and Customs4U, and a site to connect customers to tradespeople. In 2018, Tim sold a 75% stake in OnlyFans’ parent company Fenix International to Leonid Radvinsky, a Ukrainian-American businessman and the owner of porn site MyFreeCams. After this, OnlyFans became increasingly focused on not safe for work (NSFW) content and “gained a pop culture reputation for being a hive of pornography”.
Serendipitously, OnlyFans rose to prominence at a time when the adult entertainment industry was in dire need of transformation. Porn went the way most media did – YouTube-like platforms that aggregated stolen pornographic content, disseminated it for free and sucked up revenue from banner and video ads. Creators earned less and less and the large production houses lacked the resources and political backing to fight these platforms in the courts.
Creators craved the opportunity to connect directly with viewers, cut out the expensive middle man and sustain a living by offering content directly to following of loyal customers. And with Leonid Radvinsky’s background and Stokely’s connections, OnlyFans resonated with adult entertainment industry professionals.
It really worked.
By 2020, CEO Stokely claimed OnlyFans was “seeing about 200,000 new users every 24 hours and 7,000 to 8,000 new creators joining every day.” Beyoncé sang about it in the remix of the Megan Thee Stallion song, Savage. Actress Bella Thorne earned over $1 million within 24 hours of joining the platform in August 2020 and more than $2 million in less than a week. And Love Island star Megan Barton-Hanson claimed OnlyFans was the source of her lucrative income.
According to Tech Crunch, OnlyFans has paid out more than $3 billion in creator earnings since its founding in 2016 — in particular, revenue grew over 553% in 2020, when many people turned to OnlyFans for an income stream in a time of pandemic-induced financial strain.
With its 20% commission on all sales, OnlyFans’ revenue reached $375 million in 2020 and is projected to grow to $1.2 billion in 2021 and then $2.5 billion in 2022, according to a pitch deck obtained by Axios.
On paper, OnlyFans projects the growth, scalability and story that venture capitalists crave. But when the company attempted to raise investment this year, financers balked. The trouble is not, as one might expect, pornographic content, but rather the absence of regulation around minors selling porn on the platform.
A BBC Three documentary alleged in 2020 that a third of Twitter profiles globally advertising ‘nudes4sale’ (or similar) belong to underage individuals, many of whom used OnlyFans to share their content. In May 2021, the BBC reported that OnlyFans was “failing to prevent underage users from selling and appearing in explicit videos” after an investigation. This included reports from UK Police, schools and Childline.
So while OnlyFans has revolutionised the sex work industry by enabling creators to connect easily with fans, it has also unfortunately created the opportunity for abuse. Potential investors were cautious of the fact and advised the company to implement additional regulation and protection to safe guard both the company and its creators.
It’s a move not dissimilar to Mastercard and Visa’s stance against revenge porn and image based sexual abuse. Last December, both payment companies announced a ban on customers using the credit cards to make purchases on Pornhub following accusations the pornographic website showed videos of child abuse and rape.
They reacted following an investigation by the opinion columnist Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times that also alleged the site depicts revenge pornography and video taken without the consent of participants.
Mastercard said it is terminating use of its cards on Pornhub after its own investigation confirmed violations of standards prohibiting unlawful conduct on the site. It is worth noting that OnlyFans outperforms its competitors in identify verification and authentication but as a whole, the industry is too vulnerable to attract venture capitalist cash or to raise debt from institutions.
In response to the lack of investment, OnlyFans announced a blanket ban sexually explicit content on the platform starting in October, but would still allow nude photos and videos that are consistent with its policies. A statement stated the decision was “in order to ensure the long-term sustainability of our platform, and to continue to host an inclusive community of creators and fans, we must evolve our content guidelines.” Inevitably the backlash from creators began, Stokely pointed the blame finger at the banks and investors. They, rightly, pointed right back.
As creators began publicly sharing recommendations for alternative platforms, Stokely rescinded the decision saying that the company the had struck a deal that would allow normal service to resume. But the damage had already been done. As one sex worker, Lola Hunt put it “The community is very on edge at the moment. Every time a site goes down, our client base is fractured. It’s like running a bricks-and-mortar shop and being chased out of town by religious zealots every six months.”
An op-ed from Slate called the decision selfish and highlighted the greed of the company owners. “Anyone can see that OnlyFans would be a fraction of its current self without this specific class of worker, and few misdeeds in business are easier to grasp than a company freezing out the people who helped build it,” writes Alex Kirshner.
The future of the platform now seems uncertain. Without investment will the platform reach its potential and fulfil its growth ambitions? Will creators forgive and forget this whiplash moment? Will the industry regulate and compete in the mainstream?
Seems OnlyTime will tell.