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December 1, 2021

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OnlyFans’ reversal on adult content ban leaves Nevada sex workers in limbo

OnlyFans

Tali Arbel / AP

This photo shows a phone app for OnlyFans, a site where fans pay creators for their photos and videos.

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Sabina Steele

Transgender adult model Sabina Steele lost her job at Starbucks in July 2020 and had to act quickly to overcome the income loss. Living in Chicago, she turned to OnlyFans to supplement her income, posting adult images and videos on the online platform.

Her fanbase skyrocketed, garnering her over 57,000 followers on Twitter and hoisting her to the top 1% of OnlyFans creators. She pursued the work full time and relocated in February to Las Vegas.

“I kind of knew that trans women were sought after in this type of work, and I figured, ‘Why not give it a shot?’” she said.

OnlyFans — a subscription-based website for consumers to directly pay creators for exclusive content — rapidly became a primary source of income for Steele, who also does paid shoots with companies in addition to trade content, where two creators agree to post the work on their respective platforms.

A subscription to her OnlyFans content is $6 per month, a discount from its usual $9.99. Models can determine the price for their subscription or to view individual photos or videos.

But for a moment, Steele thought she would forgo her business for another direction. OnlyFans’ surprising Aug. 19 policy update would have banned explicit content on its platform commencing Oct. 1. It was a crushing move that would have significantly affected her and other sex workers in Nevada, Steele said.

Then, less than a week later, the platform on Wednesday reversed its decision. In an email to creators, OnlyFans wrote it had received confirmation from its banking partners assuring the platform could “support all genres of creators,” making the Oct. 1 change unnecessary.

“I’m excited that they’re going to reverse it, but … the trust is still damaged, and it’s gonna take time to build that back up,” Steele said.

In December, Visa and Mastercard ended their connections to Pornhub after a New York Times story that exposed the presence of sexual assault victims’ content on the website. Sex workers rejected the Visa-Mastercard decisions, calling it a move to abolish sex work rather than make the sex industry safer.

Though OnlyFans is not solely a porn website, sex workers dominate its platform, using social media like Twitter or Reddit to promote the pages they often operate by themselves. Approximately 130 million users populate the platform, paying direct monthly fees to any of OnlyFans’ 2 million creators.

The platform saw expeditious growth during the pandemic in particular, both from workers like Steele, who sought extra income after being laid off, and sex workers whose clubs had shut down due to the pandemic. Sex workers in Nevada, like those at Pahrump’s legal brothels, turned to OnlyFans and other online resources to continue their work.

Steele said she appreciated the freedom OnlyFans offers, especially when she first started producing sexual content and as a transgender creator. She will continue using the platform while also eyeing other subscription-based websites like Fansly, which offers both free and paid options for users. Her application for Fansly was approved Tuesday, one day before OnlyFans’ reversal.

“They’re dealing with, I think, a pretty competitive, insurgent site with Fansly,” she said. “I’ve been pretty impressed using it, and they’re adding new features while approving a massive load of creators.”

Las Vegas hosts a bounty of transgender sex workers — whom Steele said enriched an already diverse, creative city — and there is plentiful demand for their content. Another transgender actor based in Las Vegas is Roxxie Moth, who started her OnlyFans content in 2019.

After hearing the news Wednesday morning, Moth said she was exasperated and planned to move her content elsewhere, like Fansly. She will use OnlyFans in the interim to maintain her current fanbase as well as continue work on a full-length feature film for her own platform Femtop, which highlights transgender-specific actors.

“This is just one more instance of [OnlyFans] being completely tone deaf toward the people that helped build their platform into what it is,” she said. “I don’t want to stay somewhere where I’m not wanted.”

Bambi Bliss, a Las Vegas-based porn talent consultant, said that before OnlyFans went back on its ban, she saw clients leaving the base entirely. Her advice would be to instead work within OnlyFans’ guidelines, should it make any other adjustments.

“The popularity and the culture behind OnlyFans isn’t going anywhere,” she said. “I see a lot of people just jumping off the platform and closing down their entire thing when that doesn’t necessarily need to be the case.”

Online platforms can be ingrained safety nets for sex workers, allowing them to screen clients and avoid dangerous meetups, said Barb Brents, professor in UNLV’s department of sociology. Eradicating sex work or banning the industry, typically in the name of anti-sex-trafficking, does not provide further security either, she said.

“The ones who can, will find other places,” Brents said. “Other people will go back to the streets or go back to doing more unsafe things.”

Previously worried about how OnlyFans’ initial ban would harm smaller creators, Steele now said she thought OnlyFans’ new decision would ease the pressure to gather and transfer their content without help.

“Those are the people that make the culture of OnlyFans,” Steele said. “Letting them just relax, let things get normalized again, is very good for them, especially that they’re not going to get pushed toward some of the other less-than-legal areas of sex work or just more dangerous type of things.”

In the case of two Trump administration bills — Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) and Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) — Las Vegas sex workers argued these measures discredited consenting industry workers and pushed them toward illicit avenues. Nevada is the only state that has legal, regulated brothels, although only in its less-populated counties. Much of the sex trade occurs illegally in Las Vegas and Reno, according to the national organization Decriminalize Sex Work.

“We see a lot of folks conflating human trafficking with consensual adult sex work,” said Ariela Moscowitz, director of communications at Decriminalize Sex Work. “The sex industry isn’t going anywhere, so the only thing we should most be concerned with at this point is how to make it safer.”

After years of reaping the benefits of sex workers using its platform, OnlyFans’ initial decision would have turned its back on the very people who made it popular, Brents said. It was for this reason that OnlyFans creators voiced hurt and frustration when they believed their livelihood was endangered.

“The majority of people who engage in sex work do so by choice or by circumstance,” she said. “Maybe some of those circumstances aren’t great, and that’s what we need to help people with, but we don’t help them by shutting down avenues for them to advertise and communicate with each other.”