Sex sells, but maybe not for much longer — that is the message from OnlyFans as it bans the explicit content that the world’s hottest social media platform has become known for.
The family-run company made the shock announcement on Thursday, reversing previous assurances that it would stand by adult performers, many of whom turned to its site during the pandemic to entertain locked-down consumers.
The platform, where sex workers, celebrities and influencers charge fans for pictures, videos and customised content, increased transactions 615 per cent to £1.7bn last year and had been expecting pre-tax profits of £300m this year.
For some time, the UK platform has tried to attract more mainstream influencers and brands that are wary of being associated with porn. But the policy switch came after growing pressure from financial services companies.
“Banks and other financial partners are introducing more controls. We want to ensure the sustainability to our business and the move we are making makes us more acceptable to these people,” Guy Stokely, OnlyFans’ head of finance and father of founder Tim, told the Financial Times.
The company — which is banning sexual content but not nudity — is betting that an initial drop in revenues will pave the way for it to become one of the world’s biggest social media platforms, where influencers can charge fans directly for exclusive pictures, videos and conversations.
The presence of more mainstream creators has grown in recent months, with singer Cardi B and actress Bella Thorne having been among the first celebrities to set up accounts.
In June, OnlyFans began preparations for a share sale as its majority owner Leonid Radvinsky, the Ukrainian-American entrepreneur behind porn site MyFreeCams, wants to profit by offloading part of his stake.
These plans, a person close to OnlyFans said, have been placed on hold as the company realised it could not take on new investors as long as it was plotting the drastic changes to its business model.
Josh Constine, principal investor at venture fund SignalFire, said investors had been “squeamish” around OnlyFans due to a looming risk of being cut off by payment processors such as Mastercard, which will soon implement new rules demanding stricter content review processes over porn and require identity verification of performers to address “risks associated with this activity”.
The ban on porn “might bring in more investors”, Constine said, but it is “bad for sex workers [and] bad for OnlyFans as the line drawn between nude and explicit will be tough to moderate”.
OnlyFans said it had “thorough moderation” on its site and that the changes would not make the task more difficult.
Kat Revenga, vice-president of marketing at OnlyFans’ smaller rival FanCentro, said over 400 new content creators had flocked to its site in the past 24 hours.
She was not surprised by her competitor’s announcement. “They never wanted to say publicly that they’re an adult business, and it is kind of sad because society is so hypocritical about sex so you kind of have to do that survive,” she said.
Dannii Harwood, a friend of the Stokelys and the first glamour model to sign on with the site, disagrees with claims that OnlyFans would lose its essence. “OnlyFans will always be sexy,” she said, adding that she and the roughly 250 OnlyFans models that she manages were already staying within the bounds of the new stricter rules.
“I always tell the girls I manage that less is more. Guys don’t go to OnlyFans for porn, they can get that for free. They want to interact,” Harwood added.
Scott Guthrie, UK-based influencer marketing consultant, said the move marked a “big opportunity” for OnlyFans, as it could help it attract more mainstream celebrities to the site.
As an example, he estimated that if Cristiano Ronaldo were to join to give core fans behind the scenes glimpses into his training or nutrition regime, and 1 per cent of the footballer’s 330m Instagram followers were to sign up at around $10 a month, OnlyFans’ cut could be roughly $8m a month.
But social media has lit up with mockery of OnlyFans, with critics likening the decision to Dominos banning pizza and noting the rapid decline of blogging site Tumblr after its 2018 decision to banish porn.
Twitter will now be one of the few popular social media sites that still allows pornographic content, without requiring users to verify their age.
That site is, however, moving towards facilitating payments through tipping and subscriptions and could encounter the same challenges as OnlyFans. “Anybody who takes credit card payments will eventually grapple with this issue,” Constine said.
Rex Woodbury, a principal at San Francisco investment firm Index Ventures and Instagram influencer, said that the move would push creators to find platforms that allow payments in more loosely regulated cryptocurrencies, or digital tools that allow them to set up their own distribution to fans more directly.
“The story of OnlyFans will be a stark reminder that it’s challenging to ‘build your house on someone else’s land’.”
Some groups have rejoiced. Anti-pornography group The National Center on Sexual Exploitation claimed that OnlyFans’ decision came after the group’s lobbying against “shameless practices which will still foster grooming, sex trafficking, and the exploitation of vulnerable persons”.
OnlyFans would not say how many performers they expect will have to tone down their content or leave the site, but many inside the porn industry have criticised the company for shunning an already marginalised group of workers.
“We’ve seen this before. Online platforms like Tumblr, Patreon, and now OnlyFans boom in popularity and become mainstream thanks to sex workers’ explicit content, but when payment processors threaten to give up on them in the name of morality, they kick sex workers out,” said Erika Lust, a Barcelona-based porn producer.
Katrin Tiidenberg, a sociologist at Tallinn University who studies online sex culture, argued that banks and tech companies were becoming drivers in what she called the “deplatforming” of sex workers.
“We don’t want financial companies to become arbiters of [culture and sexuality] which they are currently doing by basically telling us what we can spend our money on,” she said.