If you’re a provider or consumer of online adult content, life went sideways last fall.
The Impact of Mastercard's Adult Content Policy on Content Creators
Dr. Valerie Webber the author of The Impact of Mastercard’s Adult Content Policy on Adult Content Creators explains: “In October 2021, Mastercard implemented new restrictions which required ‘the banks that connect merchants to our network... to certify that the seller of adult content has effective controls in place to monitor, block and, where necessary, take down all illegal content.' As a result, OnlyFans announced it would ban ‘sexually explicit content.’ In a statement, OnlyFans explained: "In order to ensure the long-term sustainability of our platform, and continue to host an inclusive community of creators and fans, we must evolve our content guidelines.’”
“Leading up to and immediately following the new Mastercard guidelines, sex workers were tweeting and writing about the fallout,” shares Webber. “Some journalists were reporting accounts about how badly people were being impacted.”
Take Lucy Banks, of Perth, Australia, for example. In 2019, at the age of 29, Banks decided to ditch an unfulfilling marriage and corporate banking career and signed up as a model on OnlyFans. She put everything on the line and told herself, “I’m going to be successful as a sex worker.” Fast forward to the morning she woke to a message from a friend who broke the news that OnlyFans opted to ban all adult content.
“It was chaos,” recalls Banks. “I remember there was a girl who went to college because she could do OnlyFans and had to withdraw. I was in the process of buying a house. Millions of us were out of jobs and it was mass chaos for a couple of days. People were suicidal.” Banks’ personal email was flooded with girls from high school saying, “Haha, I told you so. You’re a loser.”Read: Why Sex Work is Not Desperation
The emotional turmoil Banks and fellow OnlyFans models went through those few days was significant. “We were losing subscribers, left, right, and center – it was a mass exodus. They didn’t know what was happening. And for OnlyFans to flip a few days later, it was really insulting, and it made us all feel insignificant. “
Banks makes a valid point. “It was the sex workers that built the platform, and we make billions of dollars for the website,” she says. “It was only in that event that OnlyFans acknowledged our existence. To this day, OnlyFans, has never promoted a sex worker on its social media.”
Webber had cammed from 2002-2014 and had only been back online about six months when the new guidelines were passed. Within two weeks, her account was flagged and closed. She’d dealt with the ever-shifting landscape of payment processor guidelines back in the day, but what struck her this time was the abruptness and the complete lack of an appeal process or any explanation of what would happen to her outstanding earnings.
She thought it was important to gather some statistical data to be able to prove, on a broader scale, what she already knew was happening. “There are so few researchers that devote their resources towards capturing evidence of how policy directly affects sex workers' lives,” she says.
Webber was just finishing up her PhD and thought “I have this small window where I can still avail of what my institution has to offer, so I better do this now!" She channeled her frustration into an op-ed and the study. “These policies and terms of service – which are all supposedly about ensuring safety – make us so unsafe, so I hope this study can be useful for anyone advocating for sex worker rights.”
The goals of Webber’s research were twofold: to measure the impact of Mastercard’s policy on online sex workers in more quantifiable terms, and to investigate if some kinds of performers and some kinds of content are being disproportionately affected. “Sex workers and other sex-related businesses face discrimination from many online platforms. This includes social media and online services. It also includes financial services like banks, credit card associations, crowdfunding applications, and payment platforms. These products are essential utilities. When they deny services to sex workers it has devastating consequences on our lives,” she wrote.Read: Defying Social Media Censorship: My TongueTok ExperimentSome of the key highlights of Webber’s study:
Respondents were primarily from the U.S. (70%), followed by Canada (10%).
Sixty-eight percent of respondents identified as white.
When it came to gender, cis women (60%) led in responses, followed by non-binary/pangender/gender queer people (20%), and cis men (14%).
Two-thirds identified as queer/bisexual/pansexual/lesbian/gay.
Sixty-eight percent of respondents were 25-39 years old.
When it came to platforms, social media (88%), fan site (82%), and clips (75%) were used the most.
Ninety percent of respondents reported suffering at least one detrimental impact as a result of Mastercard’s policy. Nearly half of respondents (49%) suffered 4-6 different detrimental impacts.
“When platforms have been denied to sex workers and adult content creators for reasons that people might think are good or noble – like a sincere desire to combat human trafficking or revenge porn – the end result has been to harm the very communities we're trying to protect,” says Angie Rowntree, the director and founder of ethical porn site Sssh.com. “It hurts members of marginalized communities even more, because there are so few resources and so little support available to them, to begin with, so denying them online resources removes some of the only truly accessible, affordable tools and support structures they have at their disposal.”
“It's time we started looking at sex work the way we do other work and focus on making it safer and healthier for sex workers, rather than looking at it as a law enforcement issue and endlessly punishing the same people the government professes it's trying to protect from exploitation,” says Rowntree.Read: How Sex Workers are Providing Sex Education
Sex workers are stigmatized, marginalized, and criminalized – they’re also resilient and resourceful. The OnlyFans debacle taught Banks, and other models, to diversify to other platforms and have a Plan B. “Surely, it will happen again,” she says. “When it does, I’m confident we will survive.”
Ryn Pfeuffer is a versatile print and digital writer specializing in sex, lifestyle, and relationship topics. Over the past two decades, her work has appeared in more than 100 media outlets including Marie Claire, Playboy, Refinery29, The Globe and Mail, The Washington Post, WIRED, and Thrillist.
She adopted a pseudonym and was AVN’s (Adult Video Network) first female porn reviewer – while penning children’s books at the same time. More recently, she is the author of 101 Ways to Rock Online Dating (2019). She lives in Seattle with her rescue dog, Mimi. You can find her on Twitter @rynpfeuffer or IG @ryn_says