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Behind The OnlyFans Ban Of Sexually Explicit Content

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We wanted to talk more about the surprise announcement this week by the online subscription service OnlyFans that it will bar sexually explicit content from its site starting in October. OnlyFans said its decision to remove explicit content from the platform was prompted by its, quote, "banking partners and payout providers," unquote, the companies that allow users to pay for their subscriptions. But the announcement was a surprise because OnlyFans is best known precisely for its sexually explicit content, even if its estimated 2 million creators are free to offer other fare.

We wanted to hear more about this, so we called Taylor Lorenz, who reports on tech and culture for The New York Times. We wanted her to tell us more about the site and what's behind this change. And I want to note here that because of the nature of the subject matter, this may not be an appropriate conversation for younger listeners. But that being said, Taylor, thanks so much for joining us.

TAYLOR LORENZ: Yeah, thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So first, for people who don't know or maybe are pretending not to know, could you tell us a bit more about OnlyFans? I just wanted to know if the site's always been known for sexually explicit content, and how big of a player is it in that space?

LORENZ: You can think of it sort of as just this subscription site for different creators who create, I mean, a lot of it is what a lot of people would just recognize as porn. A lot of it is potentially more tasteful nudes or feet pics, things like that, sort of for different fetishes. There's about 130 million users, and all of them pay monthly fees to the OnlyFans creators who are the ones creating these photos and videos to get exclusive access or send them direct messages and tips where they can kind of request specific pictures or videos be made on-demand according to their tastes.

MARTIN: A hundred - wait. Can I just say that - 130 million users? That's a not-small country.

LORENZ: (Laughter) It's really large, and it's growing even rapidly. I mean, the past year, the platform has just seen absolute mega-growth because not only have more people turn to it for entertainment, as you know, strip clubs have closed and things like that, a lot more creators have hopped on the platform and started creating content because they've been using it as sort of a lifeline and an extra income stream during the pandemic while they were - a lot of them were laid off or, you know, they couldn't do more traditional sex work.

MARTIN: So, you know, I think it is fair to say that there is a range of content on the site. I mean, there are some well-known celebrities like Cardi B and - who are on the site. But the draw for many of these 130 million users is being able to view sexually explicit content. I mean, that's what sets OnlyFans apart from other video-sharing web sites that have rules that don't allow that. So in your recent story about it, you quoted a creator saying it's like Burger King saying they're not selling burgers anymore. So is it really about the banking partners and payout providers or is there more to this decision by OnlyFans?

LORENZ: Well, there's a lot in this decision. I mean, the banking part is absolutely a huge part of it. You know, OnlyFans set out recently to try and find investors. It wanted to raise more money, you know, potentially go public eventually or sell. You know, they're trying to scale as they grow. And they found it really, really, really hard. Any other company with this kind of cash flow and user base would have no problem raising money, but a lot of investors are actually prohibited from investing in what's called vice content so porn would be part of that - because of these guidelines, like, these investing guidelines. And then a lot of other investors are concerned about minors creating subscription access to porn.

Just last week, over 100 members of Congress urged the Department of Justice to launch a child abuse investigation into OnlyFans, sort of saying that they didn't believe that the platform was doing enough to protect and make sure that it wasn't hosting any underage child porn on there. So it's a lot of things coming together. And I think the payment processing was maybe the, you know, the biggest issue and definitely maybe the straw that broke the camel's back. But it's this sort of whole confluence of things.

MARTIN: Is the concern here that despite whatever controls these companies say that they are imposing that too much illegal content is still getting through? Or is it - you know what I mean? Is there some data that indicates that the fact is that illegal, abusive, you know, content is getting through and that they can't figure out any other way to stop it? Is that part of it?

LORENZ: It's hard to know. When OnlyFans, released this announcement on Thursday that included a link to a transparency report from July just showing how much content they had removed. I think trying to make the case that, look, we have a robust moderation system, but we don't know. You know, think of platforms like Facebook - right? - which, as they've scaled, have struggled to contain the child porn problem. I think that it's a technical challenge that is even more pressing on an app like that.

MARTIN: I want to ask about the other side of this, though. And increasingly, we are hearing in the wake of this announcement from creators - and I think some of these creators might be surprising to many people - there are a lot of people who say that this has actually - sites like OnlyFans specifically have actually made sex work safer because you don't need an intermediary, that creators can control their own environment. They don't need some intermediary to get the content out there who might be exploiting them, drugging them, physically abusing them. They're controlling it. And I was interested in that, if you think that that's true.

LORENZ: Absolutely. I mean, that's what's so heartbreaking about all of this. You know, OnlyFans with such a pioneering platform because it put the control back in the hands of the sex workers and content creators. It allowed them to set boundaries. You know, it allowed them a stable monthly income from the comfort of their home. And especially during the pandemic, you know, they could plan out their revenue streams. And they could really easily say what they would and wouldn't do, you know.

These porn companies and porn production companies are notoriously exploitative. And with OnlyFans, you had the creators themselves capturing the majority of the revenue. You know, they're not getting sucked into bad deals necessarily. So I don't know. I do - I don't think it's, like, crazy to say that it was done very badly. And it's sad for people that were relying on it as a lifeline, right? Like, I wish that there was a way that the company had communicated all of this much better.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, what do you think that we've learned about all this? Because I feel that 130 million users is a huge amount of users, 2 million creators - this is a big industry.

LORENZ: I think we learned exactly how many people would pay and sell and produce porn if there was a clear and easy system to use to do that. This is one of the oldest businesses in the book. You know, pornography has been around for years. And traditionally, the porn industry, you know, has had these intermediaries, right? Like Playboy, you know, you have to audition. And the women don't earn very much or - and it's just sort of this 1% maybe that makes it through the audition and gets in the magazine or gets in some video.

OnlyFans showed the diversity of porn creators. You know, there's women, men, trans people, nonbinary people, all different types of people from all different walks of life catering to lots of different types of consumers. You know, it wasn't - a lot of people talk to me about their fans and just the - having that direct relationship with their audience that they would never get if they were doing, you know, a porn video, for instance. So the content creator world is huge, and I think it's affecting people - it's affecting a lot more people than I think you'd think of as just traditional sex workers.

MARTIN: That was Taylor Lorenz, who reports on culture and technology for The New York Times. Taylor Lorenz, thank you so much for sharing your reporting with us.

LORENZ: Yeah, thank you so much for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.