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Employment

Sex workers hit out at OnlyFans: ‘Businesses don’t view us as people’

OnlyFans will ban “sexually explicit” content this October. It came as a blow to sex workers who relied on it for income during the pandemic.

The rapid rise of OnlyFans, founded in 2016, was built on the back of sex workers who used the platform to sell their pictures, videos, livestreams and more. When Covid-19 shut down businesses and sent countries around the world into lockdown, thousands more turned to it to earn an income, and the company’s profits boomed. But in a move which has rocked the sex industry, the startup has announced it will ban “sexually explicit” material from October.

For sex workers, the announcement was “completely unsurprising”. But it puts the safety and livelihoods of thousands in the UK at risk.

“We were talking about this a year ago, when one of the founders said publicly it was intended to be more like Patreon, for artists and musicians to share their work,” Lydia Caradonna, a writer and sex worker, told The Big Issue.

“We knew then it was coming. And it’s part of a long history of businesses discarding sex workers after we made them relevant. But for people who rely on OnlyFans to make a living, to pay their rent, this is a huge blow.”

More than 1.5 million people sell content on OnlyFans, according to the platform, while 150 million people are registered users of the site. Users pay a monthly fee – plus optional tips and pay-per-view charges – to unlock a creator’s paywall, giving them access to photos, videos and the chance to interact one-on-one. 

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Subscription fees can be as low as $4.99 (£3.67) all the way up to $49.99 (£36.73). The company, based in London, claims to pay out nearly £3.7bn to creators per year and Blac Chyna, a model and influencer in the US, reportedly makes $20m (£14.7m) per month.

For those who will see their livelihood disappear in October, finding an alternative income is  not as simple as moving to another platform such as AdmireMe, Caradonna said. A sex worker is unlikely to shift their whole following to a new site quickly, and there’s no guarantee other websites won’t, for example, take a larger cut of someone’s earnings than OnlyFans’ 20 per cent.

“There is an incredibly strong link between sex work and poverty. The demand in this industry isn’t driven by clients, it’s driven by people who need money. They will still need money if OnlyFans bans their work.

“Lots of people are likely to leave the sex industry altogether, but others will turn to other kinds of sex work, like escorting,” she explained. 

“We had a small influx of new escorts at the start of the pandemic when people were losing their jobs but this would be much bigger. It dilutes the market and drives up competition, which is a problem for both new and existing escorts in a number of ways.”

It can drive down rates, Caradonna said, because “people feel they need to see clients for something rather than get no work at all”. It can also make it more difficult to organise for better conditions for workers, she added, such as pushing for condom usage across the industry.

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“But it also means you have all these new escorts who haven’t had a chance to learn [how to keep themselves safe] or build important links with other escorts.”

For Catherine Stephens an activist and volunteer with the International Union of Sex Workers and someone who has worked in the sex industry for 20 years, there are parallels with Deliveroo and Uber in how new technology platforms have found ways to exploit workers.

“Relatively small companies and organisations who make enormous amounts of money actually have very little accountability regarding those that use their services,” she told The Big Issue.

“There seems to be this core movement to try and eradicate the sex industry. We want to see a situation where people in the sex industry have equal access to goods and services and also where people in the industry can control what happens to the material they produce.”

OnlyFans’ announcement is vague on how it defines “sexually explicit” content, with more details expected before October. Nudity will still be allowed. But the decision appears influenced by payment processors such as MasterCard which, on October 1, will introduce an exhaustive list of new requirements for adult websites which use its systems.

These businesses build their success on sex workers’ labour then turn their backs on themLydia Caradonna

Lydia Caradonna

These will include full verification of every person who appears in a picture or video plus a full manual review of every piece of content before it is published. It could be that OnlyFans didn’t deem the extra work worth it, but it also demonstrates the common dehumanisation of sex workers, according to Caradonna.

“It’s not just OnlyFans. Businesses don’t ever consider sex workers as part of their client base,” she said. “It’s like there are the people who might use a service, and there are sex workers. They don’t view sex workers as 3D human beings. 

“PayPal banned sex workers. Tumblr did it and that didn’t exactly go well for them [the blogging platform banned adult content in 2018 and its value subsequently tanked]. It pushed people onto OnlyFans. These businesses repeatedly build their success on sex workers’ labour then turn their backs on them.”

The platform’s decision comes as a “very painful blow”, according to SWARM, a leading campaign group founded and led by sex workers. OnlyFans was the “solution to a struggle for income during the pandemic,” the group said in a tweet, adding that it would hit marginalised workers such as carers, disabled people and those without savings hardest.

“Ideologically driven financial exclusion does nothing to effectively tackle trafficking or violence against sex workers,” said Stephens. “In fact, by depriving us of equal access to services, it forces us into dependency on third parties who have impunity to abuse and exploit in the knowledge we have few other options.”

Details are being kept under wraps for now, but collective action is being considered among sex workers in the UK. 

“We won’t go down without a fight,” Caradonna said.

Additional reporting by Cachella Smith

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