OnlyFans Is Exploitive, But Not In The Way Elites And Prostitutes Claim

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OnlyFans claimed last week it will ban sexually explicit imagery starting in October, although nudity posted in compliance with platform guidelines will reportedly still be permitted. The cultural establishment is siding with OnlyFans’ DIY pornographers, echoing and amplifying criticisms of the company for making its money “on the backs” of creators and then cutting off their income under pressure from payment processors.

It’s true that OnlyFans rocketed to success during the lockdowns by exploiting creators, referred to sympathetically in the corporate media as “sex workers,” because the platform made it easier for them to commodify their bodies. That also made it easier for consumers of pornography to access and commission amateur content.

Neither the creators nor consumers on this platform are engaging with a healthy or moral product. OnlyFans was always exploiting our human weakness for cheap sexual pleasure, along with the socioeconomically disenfranchised creators who used the platform to sell their bodies.

But the cultural establishment, including legacy media outlets and mainstream celebrities, bears equal responsibility for this dynamic of exploitation. Without a culture that normalizes and lionizes pornographers, OnlyFans would be much less successful. The journalists who laud “sex work” are normalizing conduct for desperate working people in which New York Times reporters would never want their own daughters and sons to engage. They may not be honest about that or capable of articulating why, but it’s true.

Having the freedom to engage in such behavior, by the way, is morally different than actually engaging in it. I’m not of the belief it should be illegal, but it’s clearly immoral and our lack of consensus on that question speaks to the swift radicalization of our culture. When your education and corporate style guide both insist on referring to pornography as “sex work,” calling into question its morality is made much more difficult because we’ve softened the reality.

The conflict about payment processors is critical. OnlyFans’ move to ban sexually explicit content, its main offering, apparently comes in response to investor anxieties over the company’s pornographic product. An Axios report listed three reasons potential investors were steering clear:

“Some VC funds are prohibited from investing in adult content, per limited partnership agreements.
“Several investors are concerned about minors creating subscription accounts, although the company says it has controls in place to prevent that.
“Some investors say they could get past the porn, but worry that the company’s reputation would prevent it from attracting brand partners (despite this week announcing a ‘safe for work’ product that features its growing number of clothed creators).”

This is really interesting because it suggests our culture still stigmatizes so-called “sex work,” and the market is naturally directing a moral outcome. That’s not exactly true for several reasons.

First, to the extent investors are worried, as Axios reported, about subscriptions from minors, that’s all well and good but should extend beyond fears about minors’ exposure to pornography. Second, the Axios report also suggests some of the VC funds are hampered from investing in the product by their limited partnership agreements, not their worldview. Perhaps those agreements still reflect a cultural stigma, but given the media’s broadly positive treatment of OnlyFans, I’m not sure how durable those restrictions are right now.

OnlyFans gets negative treatment and media coverage when pornographers are exploited and endangered, which is great but stops short of conceding those dangers are inevitable byproducts of “sex work” and a culture that normalizes it. (Again, normalizing and legalizing are different concepts, and the distinction is important.) Normalized pornography warps and numbs men, consequentially hurts women, and absolutely commodifies bodies and intimacy to psychologically scarring effects.

Tellingly, OnlyFans pledged in the wake of the announcement to be working towards a solution for its pornography creators, a decent indication the company is not worried about the stigma so much as it’s worried about profits. (The company’s tweet was hashtagged “#SexWorkIsWork.”) It’s understandable, then, that people who designed their business models and professional lives around the platform, selling their bodies with unfathomable ease, would now feel callously discarded by the company’s decision.

Yet it’s the entirely predictable consequence of reducing your body and your sex life to a product. In a decadent culture, capitalists will sell whatever you’re willing to sell. If that happens to be your body, they’ll sell it just like they sell cars and data and hamburgers. You’re an object.

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