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LGBTQ Agenda: Queer, sex worker rights advocates sound off on OnlyFans flip-flop

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OnlyFans initially said it would ban sexually explicit content but days later reversed itself. Photo illustration: Scott Wazlowski
OnlyFans initially said it would ban sexually explicit content but days later reversed itself. Photo illustration: Scott Wazlowski  

Subscription service OnlyFans' decision to ban sexually explicit content effective October 1 — and its abrupt reversal last week — elicited strong reactions in the LGBTQ and sex work communities.

OnlyFans, based in the United Kingdom and launched five years ago, allows content creators to earn money from subscribers. It became a beacon for the sex worker community, particularly during the era of physical distancing brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. At the end of 2020, OnlyFans boasted 85 million registered users and paid out over $2 billion, according to The Guardian.

That is, until August 19, when the company announced a ban on sexually explicit content. CEO Tim Stokely told the Financial Times that this was due to financial institutions such as J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. threatening to withdraw support.

Nude content itself would have been allowed but there were to be no depictions of sexual intercourse or masturbation.

Stokely denied reports that new MasterCard policies that require verification of performers' ages were behind the new policy. Those policies go into effect October 1. MasterCard and Visa famously cut ties with PornHub last year in a major victory for anti-porn activists.

OnlyFans content creators contacted by the Bay Area Reporter did not respond to requests for comment. But San Francisco's St. James Infirmary, which provides social and medical services to sex workers, issued a statement when the ban was first announced saying that the nonprofit "stands with the sex worker community."

"We understand the concern surrounding income and sustainability for workers who have made their livelihood from the platform," stated St. James operations director Anita O'Shea. "COVID-19 has been hard on everyone, particularly sex workers who rely on in-person meetings. Platforms such as OnlyFans provided a safe avenue for sex workers to tide by. To have this stripped away so abruptly is inconsiderate and cruel.

"While we await further information regarding this development we are taking a stand in saying that we support sex workers and demand the immediate decriminalization of all forms of sex work," O'Shea continued. "The stigma against sex work causes isolation, violence, and even death. Businesses that profit from sex workers' labor should take a stand to defend the community. Otherwise, content creators and patrons will move away from your business or create our own."

Then — just as unexpectedly as the original announcement — OnlyFans reversed itself on August 25, though the issue is almost certain to rear its head again.

Cathy Renna, the communications director for the National LGBTQ Task Force, said that the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit "supports sex workers" and has "made calls to end the criminalization of sex work in the United States."

"Anything that would put at risk those who do sex work we would not be supportive of — sex work is work," Renna said. "So we're happy to see the policy reversed."

Mary Emily O'Hara, a rapid response manager with GLAAD, said that while this is not the LGBTQ nonprofit's "area of expertise," censorship is always dangerous to the LGBTQ community.

"When any site moves to censor content along the lines of sexuality, LGBTQ users are disproportionately silenced," O'Hara stated. "These efforts can also drive sex work further underground and make it less safe. As news reports have shown, some people and groups lobbying against OnlyFans are also historically anti-LGBTQ and frequently spread misinformation about LGBTQ people and seek to restrict information about sexual health. They are not credible sources for any company making policy changes that affect any LGBTQ worker."

Some of those groups include evangelical nonprofit Exodus Cry, according to Kate D'Adamo, a queer femme partner with Reframe Health and Justice Consulting, a collective of advocates for sex worker rights.

"They were the ones who said very publicly that they pressured MasterCard and Visa to stop dealing with the sex industry," D'Adamo said. "They were the ones celebrating and taking credit for it."

ExodusCry, which advocates for the end of sex work as well as pornography and strip clubs, did not respond to a request for comment.

D'Adamo said that OnlyFans did major damage to its brand.

"It eroded a lot of trust and is going to have long-term ramifications for people using their platform," D'Adamo said.

"I think it was a pretty unfortunate business decision," D'Adamo continued. "Looking for investment, [Only Fans] made a decision that is really strategic. I think the backlash was something they did not expect and they reacted to that."

Ricci Joy Levy, a straight ally who is the president and CEO of the Woodhull Freedom Foundation, stated on behalf of the Washington, D.C.-based sexual freedom advocacy nonprofit that "OnlyFans did the right thing in reversing their original decision to ban pornography on the site."

"They faced Goliath in the form of the payment processors and refused to back down," Levy wrote in an email. "But that's today. When pressure increases tomorrow, which site will be on the chopping block? Incidents of child exploitation and sex trafficking are much more frequent on mainstream social media sites, yet only the platforms that embrace human sexuality are targeted.

"There can be no mistaking the war on sex here in the United States," Levy stated.

St. James Infirmary did not respond to a request for comment following the policy change reversal.

OnlyFans did not respond to a request for comment..

LGBTQ Agenda is an online column that appears weekly. Got a tip on queer news? Contact John Ferrannini at j.ferrannini@ebar.com The column will be off next week due to the Labor Day holiday.

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