Melissa Harris-Perry: Go ahead and mark October 1 because this is the date when the video and image-sharing site OnlyFans will ban all sexually explicit content. Given that sexually explicit content is primarily responsible for the site's popularity, the company's announcement of the ban late last week has many people asking, why and why now? Joining me now is Taylor Lorenz, technology reporter for The New York Times. Thank you for being here, Taylor.
Taylor Lorenz: Yes, thank you so much for having me.
Melissa: Taylor, can you start by just explaining what exactly is OnlyFans?
Taylor: OnlyFans is basically a social media site that allows users to post photos and videos, usually sexually explicit ones, and charge users a monthly fee. It's like a subscription service for individual content creators. Most of it is porn. In order to access the content, you have to pay certain amounts per month determined by the different content creators. It's not exactly like Instagram or Twitter where you can just scroll lots of free content, it's like Patreon if you've ever heard of that.
Melissa: Yes, absolutely. That's helpful. Now, help me to understand where it sits in the broader social media or content creation worldview. Is it hot, is it popular, is it exciting, is it something that only the young people care about? Where is it in that overall world?
Taylor: OnlyFans has really exploded in the past year and a half and gone mainstream. It's definitely, I would say, a major social platform and player in the online creator space, but when the pandemic hit, it became this lifeline for a lot of people that were selling content. It went mainstream because it was adopted by a lot of influencers and celebrities in the past year. Cardi B famously joined, you had influencer Caroline Calloway. You have a lot of people that maybe you didn't traditionally think of as porn creators, like TikTok stars and YouTubers suddenly creating borderline explicit content on the site and monetizing that way. You also had a lot of former adult performers and strippers turning to OnlyFans as a lifeline during the pandemic to monetize digitally. It's just become this massive subscription site that's really normalized creating sexually explicit content too in the eyes of a lot of content creators.
Melissa: If it's working, why break it? Why put out new acceptable use terms, why decide on October 1st that you're done allowing this very content that made the site grow?
Taylor: It's crazy because sexually explicit content is core to the site's user base, but basically what happened is the platform has been struggling to find outside investments. Like every tech company, it wants to scale. OnlyFans has about 114 million users, but they want to get to billions. They started to look for outside investment and they encountered a bunch of problems. Despite the fact that they have tons of revenue, a lot of investors were really wary of investing in a site that was so heavily reliant on sexually explicit content, and specifically, they were worried about payment processing.
Last year, MasterCard and Visa pulled out of Pornhub and it was over concerns around child abuse and rape and things like that. The concern is that some of that type of more problematic content could be on OnlyFans and we don't really know if the site is moderating it well enough. Even if they're moderating it really well, these payment processors still might just consider it too much of a liability and pullout which would leave the site in a really hard position. Investors are also-- they have a lot of clauses. A lot of them have these vice clauses so that they can't invest in porn-related sites. They're basically looking to clean up the sites that they can get more money and put themselves in a more financially secure standing, I guess.
Melissa: What's their current revenue model?
Taylor: They're currently making huge amounts of money. They have net revenues of $1.2 billion in 2021. Basically, over 50% of OnlyFans revenue comes from paid subscriptions. You pay a performer or an influencer $10 a month, OnlyFans takes a cut of that subscription fee which amounts to a huge amount of revenue when you add it all up.
Melissa: Again, it's like the sexy version of if you are a hairdresser and you rent your chair in a salon, then your customers are coming, they're paying you, but then you're paying a cutback, right? What I'm wondering here is that question of exploitation. I was reading the first version of acceptable use versus the new one, and there was very clear language about minors in the first one saying you can't use OnlyFans in any way they could exploit or harm, or attempt to exploit or harm any individual under 18. But I'm wondering, what do we know about general exploitation on the site? Yes, it's important to protect children, but what if you were filming someone who's 24 without their knowledge, isn't that also exploitation?
Taylor: Yes, absolutely. We've seen, especially, as the site has become so popularized in the last year or two, we're seeing these OnlyFans content houses where people are moved in to create content and most of the revenue can often go to a management company. We've seen a lot of shady managers emerge in this space. In some ways, there are concerns about that, but I will say, OnlyFans is actually a lot more safe and transparent than other facets of the porn industry, for instance. A lot of these porn production companies have been notoriously exploitative to their workers. I think with OnlyFans, a lot of content creators on the site said, "Hey, this platform actually allows me autonomy. For the first time in my career creating sexually explicit content, I own the content, I can monetize it directly. I don't have to go through one of these predatory middlemen."
I think that's why you saw so many people outraged about the closure. In terms of moderation, we just don't know. The company attached a transparency report in the press release last Thursday saying that they had taken down a certain amount of content and tried to make the case that, "Look, we really do look for this problematic stuff, we want to make sure that there's no rape or things like that happening that's being uploaded,'' like footage of actual crimes which had happened with Pornhub. It's a closed platform, so it's really hard for journalists or watchdogs to get a sense of the entire platform because everything is pay-gated. It's not like Instagram where you can go around and run a search and see lots of stuff. You harden and you have to trust the company which obviously we just don't know.
Melissa: Trust the company is typically not a good journalistic rule. [chuckles] Taylor Lorenz, thank you for joining us and for sharing your reporting.
Taylor: Thanks for having me.
Melissa: For many sex workers, OnlyFans was a lifeline during the pandemic offering an opportunity to pivot to virtual interactions while continuing to earn income. With me now is Elexus Jionde who is an adult content creator, author of Angry Black Girl, and founder of Intellectual Media, a site dedicated to creating essays and videos on topics such as race, sexuality, and history. Elexus, welcome.
Elexus Jionde: Hi, how are you?
Melissa: I am thrilled to have you join us today on The Takeaway. Start by just telling me what your initial reaction was to the OnlyFans content ban?
Elexus: Disgust but not surprised because sex workers have been warning us about this for a while, seasoned sex workers. A lot of people who joined the platform in the past year out of extreme need or just wanting to see what the hype was about, maybe they weren't fully aware of the impending doom that was coming, way before FOSTA and SESTA in 2018, but that's been brewing for the past few decades with groups like National Center on Sexual Exploitation formerly known as Morality in Media. I'm not surprised, a lot of us aren't surprised, we're used to being kicked off of platforms after making money for these platforms.
Melissa: Let's talk about the National Center on Sexual Exploitation which has described OnlyFans as just like another site for the movement for exploitation, and certainly, we know what happened, or at least those who've been following this know some of what happened around Pornhub. Talk to me about the extent to which those concerns are real and realistic, and the extent to which they are a moral panic that are joined up?
Elexus: Trafficking is an extremely important issue worldwide, not just sexual trafficking but human labor trafficking that a lot of these groups don't even seem to focus on especially those with billionaire backers who are very interested in protecting their business interests. They're more concerned with the morality of sex and pornography, but they're not concerned with child laborers or illegal people being brought across state lines, being brought into the country for cheap labor. I just like to say the National Center on Sexual Exploitation for anybody who is thinking that this is just about people on OnlFans who are doing dirty, nasty sexual things, the National Center on Sexual Exploitation is also targeting Amazon, Discord, Netflix, Reddit, Twitter. If you enjoy any of those apps or any of those services, they're not concerned about the human trafficking part of it, they are concerned about these apps being accessible to those who are sexually liberated. They're obsessed with policing the sex lives of consenting adults under the guise of tracking sexually exploited children.
Melissa: Elexus, I just want to dig in on your point around sexual liberation because one of the things that I love about the work that you create is that you've talked about this work as work, so that when we say it's sex work is work or adult content creation is work, you make some really clear points about the necessity of being paid, earning an income, making a living, and not that it's all exclusively about some theory of empowerment.
Elexus: Yes, it's not exclusively about empowerment. When I mention liberating, I'm talking about the people who are enjoying the pornography that they're paying for as consenting adults. As for the people creating the pornography, sometimes it's liberating, sometimes it's just a job, the same way I have friends who wake up to go to their retail jobs, or they go to their call center jobs, or they have jobs. They're not passionate about their jobs, but they pay their bills with their jobs. A lot of people are more concerned with adults and their sexual activities than why we have so much wealth inequality in this country.
The people who have a lot of problems with OnlyFans don't want to talk about how Facebook has reported over 84 million cases of child sex abuse material in three years, compared to Pornhub's 118 in that same period of time. I appreciate Taylor Lorenz's work from the previous segment, but it is worth noting that the companies need to be investing more in moderating across the board. OnlyFans does do a better job than these porn sites, but there are also issues with Facebook and sites that do not let sex workers on Facebook and Instagram being the prime examples I'm discussing here. I'm sorry if I'm getting away from it. I'm a little angry [laughs].
Melissa: You have a whole book about being angry around this.
Elexus: Yes. I have a couple of things going on. I'm a writer and a content creator. I'm speaking from a place of privilege, I'm hurt for the people I know who have been able to come up on OnlyFans. Because there are a lot of Black women, trans women, a lot of people who exist outside of typical standards of beauty, typical standards of what is sexy, what should be paid for. If you look up the studies, you'll see that women of color, particularly Black women are usually paid less for their sexual labor. There's a study in the early 2000s in strip clubs showing that Black women usually get tipped less, so they're expected to do more. OnlyFans really leveled the playing field for a lot of people and--
Melissa: Save one more beat on OnlyFans for me around control, and particularly as you're talking about marginalized folks who are paid less, also talk to me about the safety for sex workers and for content creators and the ways that OnlyFans addresses that.
Elexus: For those people who will not be able to monetize themselves on OnlyFans or if they'll have to turn away to sites that charge way more than 20% of the cut, yes. Some of them, their lives are going to be impacted. Some of them may be in danger because they may need to turn to alternative modes to making money, and because FOSTA-SESTA targeted Backpage and Craigslist and all the other sites that full-service sex workers were able to keep themselves safe with you will be hearing about lives being lost in the future. It will be dangerous.
Melissa: I'm wondering if you're now feeling exploited by OnlyFans and other creators feeling exploited by OnlyFans, which clearly built its brand off of the work that you all were doing and is now planning to ban the work that you all have been doing?
Elexus: Yes, I do feel exploited but I want to make it very clear to anybody listening to this how much sex work is an issue for all of us as workers in this country. Just because I have been exploited by OnlyFans, a lot of us have felt exploited by companies. This is a labor issue. More than anything else, yes, there's misogyny with this, there is religious pure intent, there are a lot of things at play. But at its core, and the thing that other Americans need to understand so that we can tackle not just issues with Onlyfans, but issues with let's say Amazon and their inability to pay their workers living wages and offer benefits while Jeff Bezos barely pays taxes, that kind of stuff. We need to start looking at it all as a labor issue.
Yes, I do feel exploited by Onlyfans but it's nothing new. It's nothing different from when I worked at my little $8.50 cent job at Victoria's Secret when I was 18, not allowed to sit down, had to wear heels, needed to be talked to any way by rude people all the time for $8.50 cent an hour. Exploitation is a core part of the American experience at this point.
Melissa: What I appreciate, again, so much about not only this conversation but about your work, in general, is how you provide that expansive framework and context. Sex workers work, so let's think about work and labor and unionization and collective bargaining and all of those questions. Talk to me a little bit about something you were framing up for me earlier in our conversation between the moral [unintelligible 00:16:44], pearl grabbing, pearl-clutching distress that so much of the American public has about sex, while often not having that same distress about violence. The ways that we want to protect, for example, young people from any so-called explicit content that is sexualized, even if it's consensual, and not particularly graphic or something, but tend to allow very graphic, nonconsensual images of violence to enter children's lives much earlier on. What do you think is going on there in American culture?
Elexus: Misogyny, racism, a lot of things go into play with this. People's religious beliefs that believe they should be able to interfere in the lives of others and control what they do, but these are all deep-rooted things as deep-rooted as racism and classism in this country. It's something that I explore in-depth on my series, Let's Talk About Sex History, which is available on YouTube. I talk about the ways that Americans not just because of America, but a worldwide history of misogyny, and how we view women who dare to live outside of certain parameters. Of course, those things leak into other things, homophobia, transphobia, and it's a big deep issue that we can only tackle if we're being honest with each other about everything else, from racism to classism, ableism, all of these things. It's a complex issue that people really just need to discuss. In addition to why we are so okay with violence everywhere. Why is violence okay for the children to see, why is violence okay for children to discuss? It's strange, but it's American culture and it's our history, and it's something we have to grapple with because none of this is new at all.
Melissa: I got one last question for you around OnlyFans more specifically. It's about the vacuum that will occur starting October 1. Do you know, are you expecting, will you be surprised if basically an entrepreneurial new startup space occurs that allows this content to migrate? Because it does. It got big fast in terms of the importance of the content creators that it was definitely providing platform for.
Elexus: Yes, but there are several other sites and there always have been and that's the thing that's bothered me with this is OnlyFans is a brand. That's where a lot of the support comes from. You had Beyonce name dropping OnlyFans, Cardi B joining Onlyfans, but there have been sites like this, [laughs] and there will continue to be sites like this. For how much longer, I'm not sure because of the payment processing and all of that stuff, but there won't be another site like OnlyFans in the immediate future with as much brand power. That's unfortunate. I don't see that happening right now because 20%-- when you measure all the other apps, next to OnlyFans, they're saying 25, 30.
Melissa: Elexus Jionde, thank you for joining us. Thank you for sharing your story. Thank you for bringing fire analysis. Elexus Jionde is Adult Content Creator, author of Angry Black Girl, and Founder of Intellectual media. Thank you.
Elexus: Thank you so much for having me.
[00:20:41] [END OF AUDIO]
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