The War on Porn: Cancel Culture on Steroids

The recent decision by OnlyFans—one of the world’s biggest adult industry brands—to stop selling sexually explicit content took everyone by surprise. Social media reacted with amusement, many people suggesting (quite accurately) that this would be akin to KFC giving up chicken. OnlyFans cited pressure from Visa and MasterCard, the effective duopoly that controls the bulk of online payments (American Express had already barred adult content two decades ago, and PayPal won’t touch it). Only days later, the decision was, just as unexpectedly, reversed.

OnlyFans (which was founded in 2016) is a peer-to-peer platform that allows models and performers to make and upload their own content, and sell it to their own subscribers. The platform also provides tools for user interaction and marketing. While it initially attracted porn performers and other sex workers who were already selling their content via their own sites or other platforms, it also broke new ground in mainstream media: the rapper Cardi B is among the best known of numerous celebrities who have opened a channel. Not all OnlyFans channels are sexual—the performer has full freedom over what she publishes—but most are.

OnlyFans was given a huge boost by the pandemic. Many sex workers, faced with the sudden loss of their regular incomes, and stuck at home with time on their hands, flocked to the platform and built new streams of income. Many other women who hadn’t previously been sex workers found they could make use of their lockdown time and earn some extra cash.

I asked some OnlyFans creators what had attracted them to the platform. Miss Matthews pointed out that earning money on the platform isn’t especially about exposing skin: “... flesh is everywhere, gratis. Instead, my ability to tell a story with flair and wit was prized … I was living the Marxist dream, sole owner of the means of production (phone, wits, tits)...” Another veteran model, Ariel Anderssen, suggested that OnlyFans had increased her autonomy and safety: “For the first time, models like me were able to earn money directly from photographing ourselves ... I continued to work for photographers, but my OF income insulated me against cancellations ... we also found ourselves increasingly able to turn down work with people we were unsure about. This gave us a level of safety I'd never enjoyed previously in my 17 year career.”

The surprise announcement that hardcore content was soon to be banned was therefore traumatic to many sex workers who were using the platform. Some reported that their revenues began falling immediately after the announcement due to fans cancelling their subscriptions.

“S” told me: “my immediate reaction was one of sheer panic. Whether I like it or not, the vast majority of my income is through OnlyFans.” Epiphany Jones said: “August 2021 has been one of the toughest months for me not just financially, but emotionally too. OnlyFans let the world media know about their planned changes to ban porn, before letting me or any of their content creators know.”

Miss Matthews noted an apparent lack of female solidarity at her pending loss of earnings: “One evening I found myself overwhelmed by messages from crowing, gleeful women...” and mourned that her “delightful new career had been destroyed at the whim of a handful of virtue-signalling billionaires. I was devastated, then furious. I protested loudly, not only under my porn name but my real name too…” and she recalled her feelings after the policy reversal: “I’d spent a week of sleepless nights facing financial ruin, the loss of everything I’d built these last eighteen months. Financial institutions cannot be allowed to treat us so shabbily.”

Many sex workers expressed their anger at OnlyFans’s abortive attempt to remake their business without sex, but some, more optimistically, noted the increasingly pro-sex work attitudes prevalent in society. Ariel Anderssen saw hope in the “... unexpected backlash from the mainstream media, criticising OF for turning its back on us ... for the first time in my lifetime, non-sex workers aren't prepared to pretend, en masse, that they don't use our services … finally, there are signs that the rest of the population might be on our side.”

Problems with billing in the porn industry are not new, but go back to the early days of online porn in the mid-1990s. As a software developer, I had been involved with the launch of one of the earliest services. The site’s owner had links with a British retail chain, which agreed to process card payments through the merchant account used for its shops. This deal had been done with the approval of the bank’s account manager, whose response (when asked about taking internet payments) was that if we could work out how to do it, then good luck to us! Almost nobody was taking card payments over the internet at that point, and the banks were well behind many of their clients in understanding the commercial potential of the web, which was still largely seen as a curiosity (even Amazon had not yet launched in the UK).

This new porn site began to grow exponentially within a few months of launch. Within a couple of years, its revenues were outweighing the shops with which it shared a merchant account, and the bank began to take notice. Ultimately, the plug was pulled, not because of any moral position on the bank’s part, but because of chargebacks: user-initiated refunds. These had built up to constitute a significant proportion of the site’s revenue. A pile of chargeback letters were being dispatched by the bank each day, and the admin who received them, not knowing what to do with them, had simply dropped them in the trash. The reasons for the chargebacks were various: some cards were simply being used fraudulently (lists of card numbers were freely available online); others likely resulted from wives discovering payments on shared credit card bills. The site’s marketing approach had done it no favours either, headlining “FREE ACCESS,” while the small print explained that recurring monthly payments would be debited after a short trial period. Following the loss of the merchant facilities, the site was switched to a more risk-averse third-party payment processor, with a consequential reduction in revenues and an increase in fees.

This problem replicated itself across the online porn industry in the early 2000s, and one of the leading adult payment processors, DMR, went bust after Visa and MasterCard withdrew its merchant accounts due to excessive chargebacks. DMR's failure rippled through the fledgling online pornography industry. The high levels of fraud and customer dissatisfaction impacted both industries—pornography and banking—and they both went through a maturing process. The online porn industry’s wild west days began to draw to an end, as retaining one’s merchant account became more important than finding creative ways to squeeze out every last drop of potential revenue.

One of the changes resulting from these events was that the card issuers, Visa and MasterCard, as well as intermediate third-party payment processors, began to take a more direct interest in the operation of individual porn sites. This change may have happened initially due to commercial misbehaviour, but now payment providers also started to exert some control over site content. The early rules (which tended to exclude only illegal sex acts) became broader and began to exclude acts (especially in the realm of BDSM) that were legal to perform or depict, but were considered a step too far by the banks. Potentially, the financial system now had a great deal of power to make moralistic decisions and censor sexual content.

OnlyFans’s jumpiness at the possibility of losing their payment facilities was therefore understandable, and especially so considering more recent events. The industry giant MindGeek (which operates the user-generated porn site Pornhub among others) had been dropped by both Visa and MasterCard in December 2020, with almost no notice, following accusations that it had been hosting illegal content. Pornhub's cancellation was carried out by the financial giants despite the company panicking and removing the majority of videos on the site, and despite the fact that social media companies like Facebook and Twitter appeared to have a far bigger problem with underage material than Pornhub. The directors of OnlyFans may have also been eyeing the troubling treatment of the founders of Backpage.com, who are about to stand trial accused of complicity in “sex trafficking” (Backpage was an advertising platform for sex workers).

These events mark the culmination of at least five longer-term trends: increasingly muscular attempts by democratic governments to censor the internet; the use of banks and payment processors as censorship tools; a rising cultural tendency towards censorship of any “problematic” content; the successful linkage of a largely baseless “sex trafficking” narrative with sex work and pornography; and a zero tolerance approach to content platforms that holds them responsible for even a single illegal item of content.

The first trend—government attempts to rein in internet content—is well known. Authoritarian states were quick to clamp down on consumer internet access as soon as it became available. Democratic states have also been alarmed by their loss of control of the media, and have looked for excuses that would allow them to create systems of censorship while still parading their free speech credentials. Pornography has provided one of the prime excuses for this. Australia—which tends to be more authoritarian than most Western democracies—tried more than 20 years ago to implement a state-run porn-blocking system, but this swiftly failed. As China has since demonstrated, half-hearted attempts at censorship don’t work: technology is part of the solution, but this must be backed by an army of bureaucrats and police.

In the UK, I found myself in the frontline of state censorship efforts in around 2007, when I began meeting with the BBFC (the UK’s official film censor) to discuss their plans to move their classification system online. The manager driving this initiative, Peter Johnson, soon became the head of a new state regulator, ATVOD. While his remit was to regulate new TV catch-up services such as the BBC’s iPlayer, in practise most of Johnson’s efforts went into regulating porn sites. His approach was to demand that British publishers should verify the age of each visitor before allowing them to see any sexual content—a demand that was effectively impossible to comply with, and which resulted in most of the (already tiny) British porn industry leaving the country. Johnson’s next step was to begin lobbying for the creation of a state-run “porn block” to keep foreign pornography at bay. This was eventually written into law in the Digital Economy Act (2017), but was scrapped in 2019 because (as previously in Australia) the mechanism managed to be simultaneously expensive and ineffective.

This brings us to the second trend: the use of banks as a proxy for state censorship. As well as the power to block websites, the UK’s Digital Economy Act granted the power to serve notice on foreign payment service providers that a site was in breach of UK law. Although the UK government could have no jurisdiction over foreign porn sites, payment companies, or banks, it could issue a notice to a foreign payment processor that they are supporting a company that breaches UK law. If that processor in turn ignores the notice, their own position can be threatened by reporting them to Visa and MasterCard, who might choose to terminate their merchant accounts. In this way, UK law can extend its reach far beyond British borders. A similar approach has been taken by the US government under a programme called Operation Choke Point, which is described here:

The approach was simple: The Department of Justice, in conjunction with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. (FDIC), realized around 2012 it could exert pressure on politically disfavored industries under the guise of eliminating fraud. The approach involved threatening banks with expensive and reputation-damaging investigations and subpoenas if they failed to coerce payment processors providing services to these industries into cutting them off.

The finance industry may be an amoral one, but like all industries, it prefers life without state harassment, and it has brands to protect. It is therefore susceptible to the third trend: the rise of cancel culture. Associating a brand with a problematic issue is a powerful way in which online mobs can bring about censorship. Long before the woke Left was imagining systemic oppression everywhere, the anti-sex movement (an alliance of the religious Right and radical feminists) was identifying a deeply serious—yet strangely hard to quantify—problem: our fourth trend, sex trafficking.

Sex trafficking is a gloriously flexible term. It originally purported to describe women and children who had been kidnapped and forced into prostitution—effectively, a modern form of slavery. But as used in practise, it usually just refers to sex workers, especially if they are illegal immigrants. The sex trafficking myth is a more mainstream version of the QAnon idea that children are being routinely kidnapped and enslaved by “the elites,” and it has been accepted by the United Nations as well as many national governments. Charities that claim to be fighting trafficking can earn vast sums in grants. A large industry has sprung into being in pursuit of this cash. The author Laura Agustín coined the term “Rescue Industry,” because such charities often work with police to raid brothels and rescue sex workers, usually against their will. The rescued women are then often simply prosecuted for prostitution, or deported.

When (in the early part of the century) British MPs heard about tens of thousands of women being “sex trafficked” into the UK, there was a national outcry, and a nationwide police operation was mounted. This was declared by government to be a great success, but a Guardian investigation found that:

The UK's biggest ever investigation of sex trafficking failed to find a single person who had forced anybody into prostitution in spite of hundreds of raids on sex workers in a six-month campaign by government departments, specialist agencies and every police force in the country.

Similar has happened in the United States. Enormous resources have been raised to fight trafficking, but are then used to suppress prostitution and porn, which have now become synonymous with trafficking. This is cancel culture on steroids: small numbers of activists with access to immense funds are accusing literally every internet platform of trafficking. A single illegal video, a single photo, a single classified ad are now simply referred to as “trafficking,” with the implication that businesses like MindGeek and OnlyFans are directly complicit in rape and child abuse.

Backpage, Pornhub, and OnlyFans have simply been the testing ground for an ultra-conservative backlash that seeks to roll back the sexual revolution and to challenge the First Amendment. Since the 1990s, platforms have been protected from liability for user-generated content by Section 230 (a part of the US Communications Decency Act). This key piece of legislation has protected free speech online, and allowed the internet to become what it is today. For years, authoritarians of various stripes have tried to weaken Section 230, and they won in 2018 when the FOSTA/SESTA acts were passed, which made platforms liable for sex trafficking.

At the head of this assault is Laila Mickelwait of religious-right group Exodus Cry, and NCOSE, another group with roots in the religious Right (although it tries to distance itself from religion). These are supported by anti-porn feminist campaigners, and others on the Left. Perhaps the most influential of these is the New York Times journalist Nick Kristof, who has helped spread anti-trafficking propaganda, including false claims. This coalition is now flexing its muscles and using FOSTA/SESTA to mount full-scale attacks. Now, activists’ ambitions are rising beyond porn sites, and their sights are on Twitter, the least-censored of the large social media platforms, which stands accused of sex trafficking. This movement to hold platforms accountable for their users' activities is possibly the biggest single assault on free expression in American history, and it would be naive to assume it will remain limited to attacking pornography and prostitution.