On August 17, 2021, the content subscription service OnlyFans announced that it would ban most sexually explicit content on its platform beginning on October 1st. In an interview with The Financial Times, OnlyFans’ founder blamed the ban on “increasingly unfair actions” of the company’s banking and payment processing partners. But just one week after the initial announcement, OnlyFans reversed its decision and said it would not implement the ban.
Ultimately, the recent debacle surrounding OnlyFans’ proposed (then reversed) ban on adult content has highlighted the immense influence large banks and payment processors have on the pornography industry and other industry categories considered to be high-risk.
So how did this happen?
For those who aren’t aware, OnlyFans is a London based content subscription service that enables content creators to earn money from their subscribers (or fans.) While the company is home to a slew of content creators, including fitness experts, chefs, celebrities, and musicians, it is best known for its sex workers and influencers that sell access to illicit adult content.
Fueled in large part by social distancing concerns and high unemployment rates during COVID-19, adult content creators flocked to the site in 2020. In fact, the number of content creators jumped from 120,000 in 2019 to over 2 million creators today.
The announcement of the ban was met with swift backlash from adult content creators, whose large followings played a key role in the OnlyFans’ rapid growth since the pandemic emerged.
This short-lived proposed ban comes just months after Mastercard, Visa, and Discover began blocking customers from using their credit and debit cards to make payments on Pornhub. The Pornhub ban stemmed from a New York Times investigation that revealed that some Pornhub videos contained instances of child abuse, non-consensual sexual behavior, and human trafficking.
Just days prior to this, Pornhub had announced steps to protect against this type of content, which included banning unverified users from uploading material. Unfortunately, the damage was already done. It now relies heavily on cryptocurrencies as a way for users to pay for premium content.
Mastercard also recently issued new guidelines for banks that process payments for sellers of adult content. Under the new guidelines, banks can only work with sellers that have documented consent, age verification, and identity verification for anyone involved in the content.
Some have speculated that Mastercard’s new rules were behind OnlyFans’ original decision to prohibit sexually explicit content. However, OnlyFans CEO and founder Tim Stokely shut down that speculation and instead pointed the finger of blame at banks. Stokely name-dropped JPMorgan, BNY Mellon, and Britain’s Metro Bank as particularly difficult banks that would often refuse OnlyFans business due to “reputational risk.” Mastercard also denied its involvement in the ban, saying that OnlyFans came to the decision to ban explicit content on its own.
There have also been other instances of payment and banking players deciding not to process payments for adult content. American Express cards can’t be used on online pornography, Stripe won’t process adult content, and PayPal stopped supporting payouts for Pornhub in 2019, prior to abuse allegations.
It’s also worth noting that highly regulated markets are often those that have been politicized or are seen as morally contentious, including sex work, cannabis, and sports gambling. For some financial institutions, the unwillingness to process payments extends to include businesses such as firearm sellers and even fossil fuel corporations.
That has raised concerns that banks have too much power over the nature of online content. But is understandable that payment processors want to protect themselves against legal and reputational consequences that could arise from processing such payments. And ethical debates aside, card companies and banks have the legal right to determine which businesses they will and won’t support.
In an interesting turn of events, OnlyFans backtracked on its decision to forbid sexually explicit content just one week after announcing the ban. In a statement to the public, the company said that the proposed changes “are no longer required due to banking partners’ assurances that OnlyFans can support all genres of creators.”
That said, it will be interesting to see how this situation continues to unfold and how banks and payment processors will work with adult content providers in the coming years.