It is hard to overstate the degree to which OnlyFans reversed the general downward trajectory of being an adult entertainment performer.
Before the subscription service arrived in 2016, so-called tube sites — video platforms that aggregated stolen pornographic content, disseminated it for free, and sucked up revenue from banner and video ads — drove many of the biggest studios out of business.
The ones that remained went from paying top performers thousands of dollars per scene to, generally, a few hundred.
OnlyFans’ clean, streamlined interface enabled individuals over the age of 18 to sell and buy monthly subscriptions to a feed of images and video too racy for Instagram. There, the power was in the hands of the people making their own work: A creator with a few thousand monthly subscribers could make upward of $25,000 a month posting content, all while retaining full ownership of those photos and films.
And as these creators built lucrative businesses, they built the company along with them.
That was why an announcement from OnlyFans last Thursday that it would ban sexual activity completely, starting in October, led to some panic in the pornographic industry, said Brian Gross, an industry publicist. He added that among his clients, there was also palpable sadness that at a moment when there was increased respect and empathy for sex workers, a business they’d helped build was gearing up to cast them out in the cold.
Then, in a matter of days, the company reversed its decision, announcing in a tweet on Wednesday: “We have secured assurances necessary to support our diverse creator community and have suspended the planned October 1 policy change.”
“Thank you to everyone for making your voices heard,” it said.
The change was, in part, because of the backlash of creators, who were beginning to leave the platform in numbers.
“You have really successful hard working content creators who put in a lot of time effort and work and have a consumer at the other end who wants to purchase it,” Mr. Gross said. “You see article after article about how successful it is, and for some reason the outside world doesn’t want it recognized.”
Matthew Camp, a performer who posts gay pornographic content multiple times a week, said in an interview that he saw the company’s proposed ban as a means of paying lip service to credit card companies that have grown increasingly uncomfortable with processing pornography-related transactions.
But on Wednesday, the company said it had reached an agreement with its payment processors. An OnlyFans spokeswoman told The New York Times, in an emailed statement: “The proposed October 1, 2021 changes are no longer required due to banking partners’ assurances that OnlyFans can support all genres of creators.”
‘Less Is More?’
Dannii Harwood became OnlyFans’ first content creator in 2016. She has since parlayed her on-camera work into running a management company with more than 200 OnlyFans creators as clients.
According to Ms. Harwood, Tim Stokely — the site’s founder — and his partners “didn’t have much choice” but to change the rules initially. Those credit card companies simply are too powerful, and although their growing hesitancy to process payments for pornography arguably plays into the hands of religious conservatives, there are other legitimate concerns: Consumers of porn are among the most likely to dispute transactions. Credit card companies also do not want to unwittingly process payments for material around which issues of consent later arise.
A representative for Mr. Stokely did not respond to a request for comment, but in an interview on Tuesday with The Financial Times, Mr. Stokely blamed the change entirely on the banks, saying that if the situation with them changed, the new prohibitions around sexual content would be lifted.
Ms. Harwood noted that many of OnlyFans’ most successful performers are not the ones who post sexually explicit content but the ones who master the art of “teasing and titillation.”
She herself never posted sex on her feed.
Instead, she began making upward of $50,000 a month from subscriptions and special requests, which cost extra. Men paid her to take on dares, like answering the door naked and driving around in her underwear.
Through direct messaging, she chatted with fans daily, learning their habits, their sexual predilections and their insecurities, becoming what she likes to call an “online girlfriend.”
“Once subscribers have seen everything they move on to the next creator. It’s been proven time and again with my girls,” she said Friday. “I am constantly telling them: ‘Less is more.’”
But Ms. Harwood did not deny that if the ban had gone as planned, a number of regular pornographic actors would have likely migrated to other sites.
The biggest of those sites is Justfor.fans, which, according to its founder, Dominic Ford, now has more than 14,000 verified creators, 2,000 of whom completed the sign-up process within hours of OnlyFans changing its terms of service.
In an interview, Mr. Ford, a 46-year-old former gay porn producer and actor, said the site was ready to bring in about $20 million in revenue this year. He would love to take the business OnlyFans had planned to reject.
But he faces his own hurdles. He is currently working through plans to require documentation and consent forms for all performers.
“It’s a good thing,” he said, of making things more professional. “We had releases on every film I ever did.”
Still, he will have to hire people to process a lot of paperwork. It will be expensive.
A number of industry players, including Mr. Gross, believe that cryptocurrency will provide a major workaround for payment. But the bulk of revenue for most online sites comes from automated, recurring subscriptions. And there is no way to execute those through most crypto payment systems. “There’s no pull mechanism in place,” Mr. Ford said.
In light of Wednesday’s announcement, performers may feel no urgency to move so quickly to other sites. As for OnlyFans, the decision may have been one made with self-preservation in mind.
“Remember what happened to Tumblr?” Mr. Gross said, referring to its decision in 2018 to ban pornography. “It’s completely irrelevant.”
Mike Isaac contributed reporting.