OnlyFans is the latest digital platform to push out sex workers since a law change in 2018 – and it’s putting creators in physical and financial peril, advocates say

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  • Digital platforms have always routinely banned sex worker accounts, and more frequently since a law change in 2018.
  • OnlyFans, which made its name as a space for sex workers, has been criticized for its guideline change affecting sexually explicit content.
  • Advocates say the change puts sex workers in physical and financial danger, and treats them as disposable.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

With strip clubs and brothels closed during most of the pandemic, social media platforms like Instagram, TikTok, and OnlyFans became a lifeline for sex workers trying to make ends meet.

But those lifelines have been repeatedly cut off, as each platform instated guidelines that prohibited certain sex-related content, reportedly under pressure from investors and credit card companies.

It’s a perilous game of whack-a-mole sex workers have been fighting steadily for years, but it reached a crescendo on August 19, when OnlyFans joined the fray.

OnlyFans announced new guidelines that prohibit sexually explicit content, starting October 1. As a platform that became a household name as a space for sex workers, the new policy has created more of a stir than changes previously announced by Instagram and TikTok.

Losing a social media account might seem like a minor inconvenience, but for sex workers there are serious implications, advocates say. They lose income, the security of regular clients and a virtual platform, and, according to a recent report, are put at risk of physical danger.

Sex workers told Insider they feel like they’ve been used and spit out.

“We got visibility and now it’s an aesthetic,” BeeBee Gunn, a Minnesota-based stripper of three years who posts on OnlyFans and has 736,600 followers on TikTok, told Insider. “We’re not human beings.”

Digital platforms have a history of flagging sex worker accounts for explicit content

The forced mass exodus of sex workers from entire media platforms is nothing new.

Facebook, Instagram, and Tumblr have a history of censoring sex workers to avoid liability, a policy that perpetuates whorephobia, or discrimination against sex workers and sexually promiscuous people.

Tumblr implemented a porn ban in December 2018, effectively removing sex workers, artists, and sex educators from the site. Patreon, a subscription site once similar to OnlyFans, put a ban on pornography in June 2018. Craigslist, which was once a safe way for sex workers to vet their clients and set up meetings, banned personal ads in 2018.

In December 2020, Instagram changed its terms of use, banning posts with sexual solicitation of any kind and “suggestive elements” like “regional sexualised slang” or “commonly sexual emojis” like the eggplant emoji, which is used to symbolize a penis. (Despite an ongoing petition, which amassed 70,000 signatures in the first three days, the policy has not been reversed.)

A week later, TikTok followed suit, bringing in new guidelines on December 29, saying “content that commits, promotes, or glorifies sexual solicitation or sexual objectification” would be removed. That included any promotion of OnlyFans – which is what many sex workers use TikTok for.

NovaCaine, a stripper who has been in the industry for 13 years, has had to learn a new platform every year in order to evade complete censorship.

‘Your social following is your money’

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The pandemic has left sex workers with few options to bring in income, as lawmakers excluded strippers, dominatrices, and brothel workers from government’s coronavirus aid.

Lauren Salinas, a stripper with TikTok 600,000 followers, said her account was deleted with no warning in November. Three days later AfterWitchingHours, another stripper with 143,000 followers, had their account deleted, they told Insider. Then Christine Ashley who had amassed 45,000 followers over nine months.

This all happened in the month before Instagram and TikTok changed their guidelines.

Salinas said she, like many other sex workers, was relying on these platforms as an alternative to dancing in clubs during a new COVID-19 surge across the US.

Salinas, who has a four-year-old daughter, said her monthly earnings dropped from $US8,000 ($AU11,207) to $US10,000 ($AU14,009) a month to $US2,000 ($AU2,802) to $US3,000 ($AU4,203) in the span of a month after losing her TikTok account.

AfterWitchingHours said they lost $US800 ($AU1,121) in one month when their account was deleted, as it cut off their pipeline of followers who hopped from TikTok to OnlyFans.

“For sites like OnlyFans, your social following is your money. No promotion on social media means no sales, no sales means hunger, unpaid bills, and evictions,” AfterWitchingHours told Insider.

‘It opens the door for more danger and disrespect’

Losing social media followings puts sex workers’ physical safety at risk because they can’t rely on clients they’ve previously vetted for income, Kate D’Adamo, a legal advocate for sex workers, told Insider.

When a sex worker’s Instagram, TikTok, or OnlyFans account suddenly disappears due to new guidelines, they lose a subset of their followers who can’t or don’t want to find other ways to contact that sex worker.

“And all of a sudden you have seven inquiries instead of 10. That means that you can only say no to two. You can’t say no to five. And that means that you’re more likely to take clients that you might’ve not taken before,” said D’Adamo. “It opens the door for more danger and disrespect and further stigmatization of sex workers.”

According to a 2020 report from Hacking Hustling, a collective of sex workers, survivors, and advocates aiming to interrupt government intervention in sex work, 43.75% of sex workers reported their images, videos, and other content being disseminated on fake accounts they didn’t authorize.

Celebrities fueled a ‘digital gentrification’ of platforms that sex workers built, creators say

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Sex workers on OnlyFans always knew their days were numbered, Ana Valens, a reporter, editor, and sex worker, told Insider.

“OnlyFans relied on sex workers to turn OF into a hip, popular website, then kicked us out when financially viable,” Valens said.

This “digital gentrification” sped up when celebrities like Bella Thorne and Tana Mongeau started joining the site in droves.

Less than a week after Thorne made $US1 ($AU1) million in her first day on OnlyFans, the platform put new restrictions on how much creators could charge for content, deeply impacting how much money sex workers could bring home.

“OnlyFans was always going to remove sexually explicit content eventually, and payment processors, and banks were always going to put pressure on them to do so,” Valens said. “It was a matter of when, not if.”

Platforms have been under pressure from credit card companies to push out sex workers since 2018, when new legislation passed in the US called FOSTA-SESTA.

The law, aimed at ending sex trafficking, lumped sex work into its censorship policies. It does not distinguish consensual sex work from non-consensual sex trafficking. According to the bill, online platforms could be penalized if users post ads for sex work, incentivizing them to write guidelines that push sex workers off the platforms.

“I can understand why they’re doing it from a financial perspective, they now have the platform they wanted,” Tilly Lawless, an OnlyFans sex worker in Australia and the author of “Nothing But My Body,” told the BBC’s Today Programme.

“They can kick sex workers off, they’ve got influencers on it, celebrities on it, they’ve got fitness people on it, they can make money that way. They don’t need sex workers like they did when they started.”

OnlyFans won’t be the last platform to discard sex workers

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Models present creations at the Yummie Tummie by Heather Thomson Spring 2009 collection during New York Fashion Week September 4, 2008. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

Since the early days of the internet, sex workers have known their purported value lies in what others can get from them. When that’s been achieved, they’ve become collateral, sex workers told Insider.

Sex workers on OnlyFans can move to other platforms in October 1, but the same pressure from banks and investors remains on all digital platforms.

“OnlyFans is part of a much larger history in that regard, and they are responding to who really controls free speech online: financial institutions,” Valens said.

“Follow the money, and you’ll find why we’re being censored.”