The content-sharing website Only Fans – which has become synonymous with adult content – recently reversed a decision to ban sexually explicit content from their platform, following a huge backlash from sex workers and adult content creators.

At first, the platform did not give a reason for banning such material. Many accused it of using sex workers to build it into a multi-billion dollar business and then dumping them. After PR failings, the spokespeople of the platform said that it ‘was the banks’ that forced their hands.

Following a BBC investigation, it was alleged that Only Fans’ approach to illegal content (such as revenge porn) was not only lax but intentionally preferable to users who made the most money and had more followers. It claimed that it was lenient towards the more popular creators and had a three-strike rule for such content, which should never be the case.

Only Fans claim they’ve ‘secured assurances’ to halt the policy change.

Consequently the banks and other independent investors, to prevent reputational damage, pulled out of backing initially, as there is a legal requirement and social responsibility to not promote such material. The sex industry has long been plagued with issues regarding safeguarding, with many platforms accused of not doing enough to prevent illegal and harmful content from being readily accessible.

The decision was reversed shortly afterwards. In a statement, Only Fans said, “Thank you to everyone for making your voices heard. We have secured assurances necessary to support our diverse creator community and have suspended the planned October 1 policy change. OnlyFans stands for inclusion and we will continue to provide a home for all creators.”

It comes after Visa and MasterCard banned adult website PornHub from using their services after an investigation by the New York Times demonstrated the scale of revenge porn featured on the site, among other alleged things such as underage performers and inadequate filtering services.

Moral and social ambiguities

This is a complicated situation to dissect. Whilst there have been questions regarding the future of banking, and whether or not banks should adopt the role of moral guardianship on behalf of their users, it does beg the question as to how and why Only Fans (and the sex industry in general) has this much political power to make banks think twice.

It is understandable why investors were hesitant to be associated with the sex industry. There are legal, moral and social ambiguities in regards to pornography. It is no secret that there are dark realities and uncomfortable truths about the industry.

As demonstrated by the New York Times, PornHub allowed material with underage children and revenge porn to be readily accessible to the world, and the BBC reported Only Fans’ leniency towards high-profile content creators who shared illegal content; and, in some cases, even overlooking the situation entirely.

Non-profit Fight the New Drug says porn is fuelling the demand for sex trafficking. Video credit: Fight the New Drug

There have also been links between adult filmmaking and the sex trafficking trade. According to Fight the New Drug (FTNG, a non-profit organisation), a study of 854 women was conducted, which found that 49% of these women “said that porn had been made of them while they were in prostitution”, and 47% “said they had been harmed by men who had either forced or tried to force their victims to do things the men had seen in porn.”

Social consequence is also a factor to consider. There have been many studies that have shown that pornography has the same effect on the human brain as some hard drugs, forcing people to keep chasing a ‘high’ by consuming more harmful content.

Dr. Gail Dines, professor of sociology and women’s studies at Wheelock College, said,

“we know that trafficking is increasing — which means demand is increasing. This means that men are increasingly willing to have sex with women who are being controlled and abused by pimps and traffickers.”

Dr. Gail Dines, professor of sociology and women’s studies at Wheelock College

“The biggest sex educator of young men today is pornography, which is increasingly violent and dehumanising, and it changes the way men view women.”

FTNG also reported that “when these customers [men looking for sex] show up, many come ready with porn images in hand to show the women they’re exploiting—many of which are human trafficking victims controlled by pimps—what they’ll be forced to do.”

An illustration of the effect that pornography has on the human brain. Video credit: AsapSCIENCE

Irrespective of the concern regarding financial freedom, even the most libertarian person can acknowledge and understand why investors did not want to associate with such an industry. It’s demonstrable that the social, moral and legal issues are inherently linked to each other.

The question, therefore, remains: why did Only Fans and its creators have so much influence to be able to reverse a seemingly wise decision? The simple answer is money.

Many investors find the idea of a regulated sex industry too lucrative a deal to turn down. For the 20/21 fiscal year, Only Fans generated an estimated $400 million in post-tax revenue. During lockdown due to the pandemic, many adult creators used the platform as a means to earn money after they could not perform in real-world adult films due to social distancing guidelines.

Only Fans as a platform has undeniably benefitted financially from adult content to the extent where the platform has become synonymous with this material. To many people, it seems to be a no-brainer to invest in an industry that is highly profitable.

GB News discusses the adult material ban, with adult star Brooklyn Blue. Video credit: GB News

Another answer might be PR and social attitudes towards adult content. The main issue that sex workers had when Only Fans announced their ban was that they felt marginalised and exploited. The platform was all too eager and prepared to profit from sex workers, but as soon as more substantial figures were introduced, they were abandoned.

They argued that it is fundamentally disrespectful to sex workers, as other times in history have shown that sex and prostitutes have been used as little more than a means to an end. They’re used to establish a business to a certain financial level, then discarded when not needed.

It would be, therefore, hypocritical for Only Fans to abandon an entire group of creators who have helped to build up the platform to what it is today. To do so would be to demonstrate the little regard the platform has for its creators and the industry as a whole, as well as potentially put sex workers at risk of exploitation.

There is also the reality that Only Fans has now become a platform synonymous with adult content creation. To not invest in the platform due to adult material would be pointless, nonsensical and counterproductive. It would be like wanting to invest in KFC but not in the purchasing of chicken.

Political commentator Sargon of Akkad discusses the ban (before its reversal).

What this case does show is that, with the right amount of political power and social pressure from certain communities, banks can and will back down from making moral decisions on behalf of their users. It’s a shame that the sex industry is the highlighted group.

Many feel this will be the exception and not the rule. Not all communities have the same political clout, and banks will target them. Although banks want to adhere to legal and social responsibilities, there is no guarantee that they will share your view of what those responsibilities are. 

Alexander Chee, a professor at Dartmouth College, is concerned at the amount of power financial institutions have.

In this case, many would agree with the banks on a moral level, but disagree with other things. Without the appropriate social protection, will personal financial decisions be free to make by the customer, or will banks impose a moral gatekeeping paradigm?

It seems it’s less to do with money and more to do with power. There’s safety in numbers. With social protection, anything is possible. Without it, you are at the mercy of the banks’ moral and ethical standards, which sometimes come into conflict with your own. They’re both poisons, but you’re forced to pick one.

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Aaron Fenton-Hewitt is an aspiring journalist and political commentator. He holds a Bachelor's degree in Film from London Metropolitan University, and a Master's in Writing for Creative and Professional Practice from Middlesex University. He wishes to continue his academic career, with a PhD in Politics or related field.

Aaron is also a freelance photographer, an avid foodie and an Arsenal supporter.

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