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Sex worker financial discrimination protest
Illustration Lena @lenawtflol

OnlyFans ban: sex workers fight back against financial discrimination

Over 2,000 people have signed an open letter calling on Mastercard to suspend its forthcoming policies that will ‘defund and restrict’ adult creators

Last month, OnlyFans announced that it would be banning sexually explicit content on the site, blaming “banking partners and payout providers” as instigating the change. Then, five days later, the subscription site suspended the ban, telling creators it had “secured assurances necessary to support our diverse creator community”.

Now, sex workers – the primary user base of the platform – are fighting back against this financial discrimination by banks – in particular, Mastercard. Over 2,000 sex workers, LGBTQ+ and QTPOC workers, adult creators, erotic artists, pornographers, sex educators, and allies have signed an open letter calling on Mastercard to suspend forthcoming changes to its adult content policies which will irrevocably harm sex workers.

There’s a lot to unpack here. First, some context: while OnlyFans hosts all kinds of creators, sex workers bring in the most subscribers and therefore the most revenue for the site. When adult performers flocked to the site after the pandemic made them unable to work IRL, the platform grew from 120,000 creators to over one million in the space of a year.

Because of this, OnlyFans’ decision was widely criticised by sex workers and allies alike, who questioned how the platform could abandon its most loyal creators. In an interview with the Financial Times, OnlyFans founder Tim Stokely blamed “unfair” treatment by banks for forcing the porn ban. He said banks were flagging and rejecting every wire connected to the company, “making it difficult to pay our creators”.

Banking companies have a habit of persecuting sex workers. In December, Mastercard, Visa, and Discover cut ties with Pornhub, blocking their customers from making payments on the site (therefore blocking many sex workers’ incomes). This move – along with the recent OnlyFans trouble – was ignited by journalist Nick Kristof’s New York Times investigation into the prevalence of non-consensual content on the adult site. Kristof’s primary source for the piece was Laila Mickelwait, the founder of the anti-Pornhub campaign Traffickinghub and the former ‘Director of Abolition’ of a Christian organisation called Exodus Cry.

As well as cutting ties with Pornhub, Mastercard announced changes to its adult content policy, which will require adult services to verify performers’ ages and consent to have content posted. Sex workers say the rules – which are set to come into effect on October 15 – will make it more difficult for them to upload content, and will therefore negatively impact their earnings and livelihoods.

Going deeper into the bank’s sordid history of targeting sex workers, the letter discusses how Mastercard’s defunding of adult site Backpage led to its shutdown in 2018. “(By) denying the platform credit card payments, (Mastercard sent) independent sex workers into more precarious situations and (set) the platform up for seizure and money laundering charges as it scrambled to survive,” it reads.

Furthermore, it cites Mastercard’s actions as “among those used to press for FOSTA-SESTA”, a 2018 US bill which intended to curb trafficking, but has instead resulted in the overpolicing of nudity, kicking sex workers out of online spaces and forcing them into less safe methods of working.

The letter goes on to criticise the hypocrisy of Mastercard running a Pride campaign called #AcceptanceMatters while cutting off many LGBTQ+ people’s livelihoods. “The LGBTQ+ and QTPOC community has a unique stake in sex work,” the letter reads, “which is both overlooked in your materials about LGBTQ+ businesses and directly discriminated against through your actions defunding and restricting adult industry workers.”

“Every major LGBTQ+ advocacy organisation has an explicit position supporting the full decriminalisation of sex work as a matter of LGBTQ+ rights,” it continues. “Sex worker rights to economic security are an LGBTQ+ equity issue.”

Alongside the letter, on Wednesday (September 1), sex workers and allies took to the streets of New York to protest financial discrimination. Then, in a digital demonstration, adult creators co-opted Mastercard’s #AcceptanceMatters hashtag, flooding it with videos about how the bank’s new policies will impact them.

“Porn performers like me depend on platforms like Pornhub to pay our bills,” adult performer Allie Awesome said in her video, “and losing them is absolutely devastating, especially during a pandemic. Sex work is highly stigmatised and many of us occupy marginalised identities. On top of that, they are taking away our ability to put food on the table and to pay our rent in the middle of a pandemic, which is nothing short of cruel.”

In another video, sex worker Gwen Adora said: “It’s not fair that we don’t get the right to exist online. Adult companies already require in-depth paperwork and IDs on sign-up, so these new policies will not aid in stopping illegal material from being uploaded. Unfortunately illegal material exists on every website, but the adult industry is one of the only industries that requires IDs and paperwork to make content. Our industry is being unfairly targeted, even though we have extremely rigid practices.”

While OnlyFans appears to have been forced into its decision to ban adult content, many sex workers have now lost faith in the platform. “Most sex workers have stopped trusting OF,” stripper Heaven told Dazed last week. “Platforms such as AVN Stars and LoyalFans will, I’m sure, be taking the custom that OF once held.”

Sign the open letter and see some of the sex workers’ videos here, as well as via the #AcceptanceMatters hashtag here.