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  • James Davidson

More than porn... the deep human meaning behind Only Fans

Updated: Sep 21, 2021

The user-generated site Only Fans recently saw widespread backlash after it announced it would ban sexually explicit content after pressure from its payment providers. For those unaware, Only Fans is a platform of paid, user-generated content where audience members can follow accounts and pay to gain access to exclusive content, which goes directly to the creators.

The announcement was followed by huge uproar from many of the app’s creators, users and wider community who felt like they had been betrayed by the platform which they had helped build.

After lockdowns forced drastic changes to the daily lives of sex workers they were forced to adapt, with many becoming self-employed content creators. This led to an explosive year of growth for Only Fans with transactions rising seven-fold to £1.7 billion ($2.4 billion) across 2020, and user numbers now exceeding 120 million.

Fast forward 18 months when the app announced it was going to turn its back on the very community who helped build it. Moreover, there was widespread concern that the move would drive much of the sex industry underground with even less control over content. Only Fans has since backtracked and said that they have reached a resolution with payment providers. But has the move caused irreparable damage to the brand?

While branches of the media would paint a black and white picture of this issue, at its core is a nuanced human values conflict.

On one hand, we have a community of creators and sex workers hit hard by lockdowns striving for empowerment and control over their bodies and careers. The welfare of sex workers is fundamentality an issue of equality, magnified due their position on the fringes of society as well as their historic and ongoing involvement in the advancement of LGBTQ+ rights. Sex workers were standing shoulder to shoulder with drag queens when the first brick was thrown in the Stonewall riots. However, while drag has sashayed its way into the spotlight in popular culture, sex workers are yet to experience the same cultural acceptance.

On the other side of the fence, there are very obvious safety concerns that come with the challenges of regulating content which is potentially non-consensual, underage or otherwise illegal. Interestingly, this pits one branch of liberalism against another - the progress of equality for all versus the protection of consent and the vulnerable in society.

Safety concerns were the reason the payment providers and financial institutions cited when they decided to ban sexually explicit content. What has happened since to make them reconsider? Was it the realisation that this content will probably just migrate to a dark hole of the internet with even less protections in place? Was it understanding the nuanced human values at the core of the issue?

These issues link into bigger questions relevant for all social media platforms of consent, explicit material and hate. While many platforms may have advanced algorithms and AI to detect and take down content, they don’t catch it all. And moreover, where is the line? Who decides?

There will likely always be an undercurrent of toxic, hateful and explicit material on the internet. What platforms can do is channel resources into keeping their users safe while still staying true to their values. As well as using a payment wall, Only Fans requires that all of its users engage in an official verification process. All users, whether they are content creators or viewers, have to verify their identity when signing up for an account.

Verification is something potentially at the disposal of all social media platforms. Doing so would have 3 huge consequences for behaviour and content on platforms…

  1. The volume and extremity of toxicity would fall due to every user being traceable

  2. Which would also mean there could be real repercussions for unacceptable behaviour

  3. There could also be more control over age consent, as it's currently very easy for underage users to lie and have their profile approved

However, the reality of implementing such measures is likely more challenging and nuanced than described here. One such challenge is one that we know from talking to social media users: official verification can lead to distrust and suspicion around what information is being collected - and for what means.

Despite the obvious misstep from Only Fans of turning its back on the very community that helped build it, there are lessons to be learned here about the importance of checking in with your brand values and truly listening to the humans at the core of your business.

Get in touch to understand how we help brands truly listen to the humans at the core of their business using our unique human values approach.

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