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The payments mess that almost scared OnlyFans away from sex work

When paying for porn gets complicated

Last week, OnlyFans — one of the internet’s best-known porn platforms — almost banned porn. The company said it would no longer allow “explicit sexual content” in the future, before reversing the policy unexpectedly the next week.

Sex workers had built OnlyFans into a multibillion-dollar subscription platform, and after the news, many have explained why the proposed change was such a betrayal. They helped make the company valuable, and in return, it nearly kicked them out.

Less immediately clear, however, was OnlyFans’ rationale. Early reports speculated that a new set of Mastercard rules were responsible for the change. A later Financial Times interview placed the blame on banks. While we might never know exactly what happened at OnlyFans, its decision — and reversal — shines a light on the complicated and fraught world of paying for porn online.

What is OnlyFans?

OnlyFans is a UK-based online subscription platform that was founded in 2016. Users can “follow” creators and get access to exclusive content, paying with a monthly fee or one-time tip, while OnlyFans takes a 20 percent cut of the funds. While the app is general-purpose, OnlyFans has proven particularly useful for sex workers who want to sell pictures and videos or hold personal chats with clients. It’s exploded in popularity during the coronavirus pandemic, currently reporting 1.5 million content creators, 150 million registered users, and $5 billion paid annually to creators.

What’s been happening with OnlyFans and sexual content?

Late last week, OnlyFans announced that it would ban content that posted, advertised, or referred to “sexually explicit content.” It would allow nudity, but not real or simulated sexual activity or a variety of other conduct. The change was set to take place on October 1st, leaving many OnlyFans sex workers scrambling for alternatives.

Then OnlyFans reversed course. On Wednesday, it declared that it had “secured assurances necessary to support our diverse creator community.” It suspended its plans for the new policy, and as of this writing, there’s no indication it will reimplement the ban.

Why did OnlyFans plan to ban porn?

The short answer, according to OnlyFans CEO Tim Stokely, was “banks” — which Stokely said wouldn’t work with OnlyFans because of its reputation as a porn platform. But that answer followed a heated discussion about the complicated world of paying for sex work online.

Payment processing can be opaque and costly for all kinds of web platforms, but adult sites particularly struggle at nearly every step of the financial chain. That’s on top of problems that individual sex workers face with banks and payment processors, which might ban them with little recourse even for non-sex-related transactions.

Mike Stabile, director of public affairs at the adult industry group Free Speech Coalition, explains that launching a platform requires establishing a direct relationship with a bank or using a payment processor that accepts adult industry clients. In turn, banks and processing gateways need to comply with rules set by Mastercard and Visa. (American Express doesn’t support digital adult content at all.) “At every point, there’s a potential where someone is not going to want to work with you, because you’re adult content,” says Stabile.

Beyond the policies of any one specific institution, these issues all contribute to an environment where losing support from any partner can be risky for a company like OnlyFans.

Why don’t financial companies want to work with adult sites?

Part of the problem is an unusually high risk of disputed charges — from customers who make a purchase but deny it out of embarrassment, for instance, and try to get their money back. Stabile says there’s also a ripple effect where financial companies worry about violating Visa and Mastercard’s adult content rules and may act even more conservatively, overshooting the mark of the actual policies.

These issues are nearly as old as online porn payments, but they’ve been exacerbated by a recent effort to cut off revenue to adult services. As longtime sex work reporter Melissa Gira Grant has documented, religious organizations like Exodus Cry and the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (formerly Morality in Media) have pushed regulators and companies to crack down on major adult platforms. While they’ve framed this fight as an anti-trafficking movement and pointed out real instances of abuse, they target sexual content as a whole, even that made voluntarily by independent sex workers.

Anti-porn activists scored a major victory when Visa and Mastercard cut off payments to Pornhub — the video site run by adult services juggernaut MindGeek — following a New York Times report pointing to nonconsensual pornography and videos of children on the site. In April, Mastercard introduced new rules for all adult services, requiring them to verify performers’ ages and their consent to have content posted. The rules are set to take effect in October.

The OnlyFans and Pornhub conflicts take place against a long-running online legal crackdown on sex work. OnlyFans became popular in the wake of FOSTA-SESTA, the law that removed substantial legal protections for sex workers and the platforms that host them. After it announced its ban, writer and porn performer Stoya detailed years of political decisions and social factors that helped set the stage, as well as sex workers’ ongoing efforts to organize against them.

Is OnlyFans in the same position as Pornhub?

OnlyFans and Pornhub share one big similarity: they’re major adult content providers that are receiving a lot of outside scrutiny. Around OnlyFans’ announcement, the BBC published a report that OnlyFans was giving popular accounts extra leeway when they posted illegal content. And in March, Forensic News published a report alleging that OnlyFans’ majority owner Leonid Radvinsky could be linked with money laundering operations, directly highlighting banks that had flagged suspicious activity around Radvinsky.

Stokely suggested that banks had been spooked by negative reporting on OnlyFans. “Banks read the same media as everyone else,” he said.

But the two services otherwise work very differently. Pornhub is a huge streaming portal full of content that’s historically gotten limited vetting, along the lines of YouTube. (It introduced new verification rules after the Visa and Mastercard ban.) OnlyFans is more like Patreon: a monetization platform connecting users with specific creators.

In some ways, OnlyFans’ subscription system is part of a direct backlash against Pornhub’s free distribution model, which has drawn harsh criticism from sex workers for hosting pirated and nonconsensually posted content. Like many creator platforms, OnlyFans has huge disparities in income — but some users can earn big payouts by cultivating a direct feedback loop between OnlyFans and social media.

What do Mastercard’s rules mean for OnlyFans-style subscription sites?

The new rules place more responsibility on platforms to check creators’ identities and documentation. “It’s something that we can do, but it’s also time-consuming and expensive,” says Kat Revenga, vice president of subscription service FanCentro. Revenga says the new rules require maintaining extra records, and as FanCentro has tested age verification tools like facial age estimation, it’s had to balance them with privacy concerns.

But to some extent, these sites are simply building out an existing system. “We never allowed people to upload content if they weren’t verified — and we verify age, we verify that their ID is not fake, we verify it’s them in the ID,” says Dominic Ford, creator of the platform JustForFans. “We were already doing that.”

For its part, OnlyFans has denied the planned changes were related to Mastercard’s policies. “We’re already fully compliant with the new MasterCard rules, so that had no bearing on the decision,” Stokely told the Financial Times.

Websites obviously sold porn before OnlyFans. Why can’t it work with whatever payment companies they use?

OnlyFans hasn’t outlined exactly which companies it works with. But Stabile says it appears to have built more mainstream banking relationships than many adult companies. The platform has so far avoided being pigeonholed as exclusively a sex-related platform, frequently highlighting its creators in other industries and launching a fully safe-for-work mobile app.

If OnlyFans isn’t being treated like an adult company, that probably saves it a massive amount of money. Partly because of the risks mentioned above, companies that focus on sex typically face much higher fees than generic platforms. “Anybody that we touch charges us because we work in adult [services],” says Ford — from JustForFans’ payment processors to its payroll services. “There’s absolutely no comparison.”

Lower rates could help OnlyFans pass more money to creators. Ford says JustForFans, which recently dropped its commission from 30 to 20 percent, has struggled to support the kind of rates it wants to offer thanks to fees. But it means sex workers also have to weigh the risk that OnlyFans might abandon them like it almost did last week. “They’ve never wanted to be a porn site,” says Ford. “At what point do you as a sex worker say, this site does not want me — let me go to a site that does?”

Could platforms bypass all these problems with cryptocurrency?

Some porn platforms accept cryptocurrency or help sex workers sell NFTs. But right now, Visa and Mastercard remain indispensable. Lots of users don’t hold cryptocurrency and aren’t going to acquire it specifically to spend on a subscription site, especially when there’s the chance of holding it until it appreciates. To reach even a fraction of OnlyFans’ size, you simply have to accommodate non-crypto users.

“For the immediate time, we don’t have a choice. We can try to work with these institutions or we can lose the ability to process payments,” says Revenga. JustForFans users can choose to bypass payment processing fees by using cryptocurrency, but Ford says it’s not a popular option: since its launch in 2018, its entire crypto-based earnings equal about one day’s worth of traditional payments.

Now that OnlyFans reversed its plans, what happens next?

Even if nothing explicitly changed, OnlyFans has probably shaken some users’ faith in the service. JustForFans, FanCentro, and other competitors like ManyVids both saw a huge jump in signups after the ban was announced, although it’s too early to say if those users and creators will stick around. But it’s tough for creators to leave a platform where they’ve built their fan base, especially when they face the added challenge of selling adult content.

Meanwhile, OnlyFans may still eventually have to decide between serving adult content creators and keeping its mainstream status — and even if it won this round, banks still hold a lot of the cards. “Given the cost of losing a bank, you have to do what they say,” says Stabile. “If you’re making $300 million [a month] and that’s what you’re fundraising on, and that’s going to be cut in half because you’re going to lose the mainstream bank that processes with you, that’s going to affect everything.”

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