On Wednesday, OnlyFans abruptly backpedaled its decision to ban sexually explicit content after a major public backlash, a reversal that sex workers say is a victory for their activism and a sign that public opinion about their profession may be shifting.

“We have such a large sex worker population on OnlyFans that I knew the organizing around this would be kind of great and that we would have support,” said LaLa Zannell, a sex worker and the trans justice campaign manager at the American Civil Liberties Union. “That was exciting to see, and for them to change the decision, that was due to sex worker organizing.”

OnlyFans explained their sudden pivot in a tweet: “Thank you to everyone for making your voices heard,” the statement read. “We have secured assurances necessary to support our diverse creator community and have suspended the planned October 1 policy change. OnlyFans stands for inclusion and we will continue to provide a home for all creators.”

Online, sex workers responded with excitement — and a bit of apprehension.

“I have no memory of a policy reversal like this EVER happening before in response to community outrage and grief. This is absolutely stunning,” wrote writer, performer and sex work organizer Lorelei Lee on Twitter. “I’m too traumatized by past closures to feel like I can trust any statement like this. And yet! Even for a company to make this kind of statement is unprecedented in my 20 years of doing this work.”

OnlyFans allows users to subscribe to creators, free or for a fee, so they can access their photos and videos, chat with them or send them tips. While not all OnlyFans content is sexual — some creators distribute makeup tutorials, photography lessons or cooking videos — it has become a popular way for sex workers to distribute nudes, porn, sexts or racy photos to clients from the safety of their own home.

Sex workers have long faced high rates of violence and sexual assault, a risk that some workers mitigate by using online platforms to first screen and negotiate with clients, or to work fully remote. The pandemic has only heightened the risks of in-person work as well as the economic precarity for many sex workers. Black, transgender, unhoused, disabled and other marginalized workers have felt the effects most dramatically, advocates say.

Zannell said she has been a sex worker long enough to remember the transition from street-based sex work to newspaper personal ads and then to digital platforms such as Only Fans. Each step, she said, put more control and safety measures into the hands of sex workers.

With 150 million users and 1.5 million creators — many of whom have spent the past year and a half at home — OnlyFans has skyrocketed in popularity during the pandemic. In 2022, its projected gross merchandise value was $12.5 billion, a meteoric rise from the previous year’s value of just $5.9 billion, according to Axios. More than half of OnlyFans’ net income came from paid subscriptions and 30 percent came from chats, according to the company. Despite its staggering growth, OnlyFans has reportedly struggled to attract investors — leading many to speculate that the ban was a move to shore up investors skittish about sinking money into a company so closely tied to sex work.

OnlyFans chief executive Tim Stokely denied this in an interview with the Financial Times, saying that the decision had to do with the site’s banking partners. The company did not have additional comment about the decision.

Although many sex workers found the initial ban disheartening, they said it wasn’t necessarily unforeseen, given how frequently they are booted off the digital or financial platforms they rely on.

In 2015, the male escort service Rentboy.com was raided by federal agents. In 2018, Craigslist dropped the personal ads many sex workers use to advertise, citing concerns of legal blowback. Shortly after, the Department of Justice announced the seizure of Backpage.com, the leading site for advertising sex work at the time. Then, President Trump signed into law FOSTA/SESTA, a bill meant to fight sex trafficking that made websites legally responsible if ads for sex work were posted on their platforms. Most recently, Mastercard and Visa announced they would stop accepting payments on Pornhub.

“There’s that devastation as you’re figuring out who is going to be impacted, but I can’t say that it was really a surprise,” said Phoenix Calida, a spokesperson at SWOP-USA, a national social justice network focusing on sex workers. “There was a lot of chaos and panic for the first 24 hours after the announcement.”

Like many in the community, Calida sprung into action — fielding panicked phone calls and text messages from sex workers while making sure condoms, toiletries and, if necessary, cash were distributed to anyone who was considering the risky prospect of returning to work in person, Calida said.

“There is an immediate loss of income and also just the persistent stress of dealing with these ever-changing terms and conditions,” said Heather Berg, author of “Porn Work.” “These policies also have the direct effect, and not a subtle one, of empowering the most exploitative of managers. So the best thing for sex workers and for folks in the trade who would rather not be for whatever reason, is more autonomy, more access to rights and recognition — and the opposite of that is to create stigmatizing and isolating policy.”

Mutual aid and organizing for community safety are common in the wake of such decisions. But this time, sex workers and researchers noted a major difference: Sex workers were carrying out a full-court press across social media and mainstream media, and non-sex workers actually seemed to be listening.

“I believe that enough sex workers are finally getting heard,” said sex worker Mary Moody on BBC World News after OnlyFans made the announcement. “We’re making enough noise and finally getting noticed and people are realizing that this is a human rights issue and this is not okay what’s happening.”

Emily Dall’Ora Warfield wrote for Mic about how economic instability forced her to take risks with in-person clients, and about a friend of an acquaintance who faced devastating consequences for doing so. Charlotte Shane wrote in the Cut about the anti-sex industry organizations from the religious right “leveling relentless, exaggerated, or wholly unfounded allegations of child abuse and sex trafficking at every outlet sex workers rely upon.”

Other sex workers pumped out tweets and media interviews to educate the public about sex work, explaining that experts and advocacy organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union and Amnesty International believe that decriminalization, rather than restrictive legislation, is what will decrease human trafficking.

“What happened recently with OnlyFans is some of the most positive, supportive coverage I have seen of sex workers in the mainstream media in a very long time, and that was refreshing to see,” said Angela Jones, a professor of sociology at Farmingdale State College, a State University of New York, who researches sex work. “It’s really hard for sex workers to shift that public narrative, or at the very least to make their voices more prominent, and I think the way that sex workers have been using social media to do that has been downright outstanding and ingenious.”

Jones said she believes that OnlyFans walking back their decision has “everything to do” with the political education, activism and successful media campaign sex workers carried out in the days following the announcement.

It remains a cautious victory, however. Most sex workers said that OnlyFans lost their trust. And if it isn’t OnlyFans today, it’s likely to be another platform tomorrow.

Still, sex workers said this campaign wasn’t just about changing how one company perceived them — it was about changing how the world perceives them.

“A lot of people don’t really see sex workers as multifaceted human beings; they’re just sort of like stereotypes or characters,” Calida said. “There’s just so much stigma and negativity, and we really want to break through that so people see that sex workers are real people perfectly capable of expressing what we need.”

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