You’ve probably heard by now that effective October 1, 2021, OnlyFans will be banning sexually explicit content on its site that is all but exclusively known for hosting sexually explicitly content.

OnlyFans has done what every start-up aspires to, at least in one sense. Both consumers and creators of content on OnlyFans have transcended mere ‘user profile’-status and have penetrated the mainstream, becoming infinitely stereotyped, talked about and joked about archetypes. When someone quips that a woman ‘probably has an OnlyFans’, it doesn’t matter if she actually has one or not. That kind of signifier means something. OnlyFans has left a real mark on Western culture; something that few tech companies are able to achieve. And to take it a step further, from a business-model standpoint, OnlyFans is not the ‘X of’ something. Other companies are now emerging that are the ‘OnlyFans of’ X.

It’s a truism that sex sells — it’s one of these things that’s not even worth pointing out. It may as well be a fundamental principle of advertising. And OnlyFans has done so, so effectively that it’s now reached coveted unicorn status. Why self-destruct now? Is this really about pearl-clutching? I have serious doubts.

For some sex workers and sex-work activists, the decision to ban sex workers from their platform comes as no surprise. Some argue the now all too familiar position: OnlyFans built itself on the backs of sex workers’ labor, and now that they’re a unicorn, they’re discarding a marginalized group who lack the tools to defend themselves.

The most vulnerable populations of sex workers (including and perhaps especially trans sex workers of color) will now be left without a valuable source of income. OnlyFans, the tech behemoth that it is, will be able to seamlessly pivot into a family-friendly website, perhaps even being able to challenge companies like Substack or Patreon. It worked well enough for Tumblr, Craigslist and Backpage, right? (OK, OK, I know Backpage is unique and still, apparently, incredibly, awaiting trial thanks to COVID-19.)

To these sex workers, the OnlyFans debacle is a fundamentally moral problem; they feel that our increasingly sex-negative culture exploits them and then discards them once they’ve served their purpose. Sex is all well and good when it’s building your business, but when it’s no longer needed, its purveyors are the first on the chopping block.

This camp will point to so-called moral panics about sex trafficking; revenge porn; child pornography. They liberally reference Nick Kristof’s New York Times piece about Pornhub hosting all manners of exploitative and illegal sexual content, being sure to emphasize that it was fueled by Christian anti-porn advocates. It’s not that these things aren’t real problems, they argue. It’s just that they’re not the problems that the usually dominionist Christian lobbyists who simply want to put an end to the sex industry argue they are. Some may also remind us of 2018’s FOSTA-SESTA Act, which was intended to ‘curb sex trafficking’, but may have only just increased online censorship and individual surveillance, while screwing over sex workers in the process.

Other sex workers, like the now infamous rationalist-camgirl-cum-OnlyFans-superstar Aella, argue that the ‘real’ villain here is the payment processors. Writer Indian Bronson echoed that on OnlyFans’s part: clearly this is just a logistics problem. If payment processors are going to drop OnlyFans, or at a bare minimum force them to verify the personal information and ages of their users, it’s more expedient to just ban porn, or at least look like it’s banning porn on its face.

I’m inclined to agree with both of them. Those points seem obvious enough. But it still feels like there’s some missing piece to this story. I’m not convinced that these crackdowns ever have anything to do with being anti-sex, or even anti-trafficking. There’s something else going on here — we just don’t know what yet.

Corporations are amoral (or immoral, depending on where you’re standing): if sex sells, then sex sells. Let’s set aside OnlyFans for a second. If you can become successful financial institution facilitating the sale of sex, then why stop? Well, sex has become a liability. But why?

My question in all of this is: do payment processors think that sex is a liability because of moral pearl-clutching (least likely); real or imagined (in my opinion, real) concerns about sex trafficking, revenge porn and other forms of sexual misconduct; or, as Indian Bronson also suggests, the potential need to comply with global laws?

Indian’s theory is the most interesting in my opinion. Could it be that there are ‘invisible’ or at least less visible stakeholders who, for whatever reason, have gripes against porn? Indian suggested maybe Saudi Arabia — could they lose business in these stricter countries?

Well, a cursory glance at Visa’s operational data, at least, shows that they do the most business in areas of the world where the internet is most strictly censored. And China, which might top this list, notoriously shutdown something like 45,000 porn sites in 2014.

In an article for Foreign Policy published shortly after this happened, Zhang Jialong asserted that China’s problem with certain online content, including pornography, was really about ‘ensuring party organs, and not the Chinese grassroots, have the loudest voice on the country’s internet’. So, maybe there’s something about porn that’s harder to police, and it’s just shrouded in more believable moral panic in the media. That might be one lead, though it still feels like a stretch.

A second theory, one I hadn’t seen before, was proffered in an old HackerNews thread:

In the adult/porn world, there’s a high amount of chargebacks and fraud relative to low-risk industries like SaaS software. If you pass a certain chargeback threshold in the adult industry, your account is terminated, and no payment processor will do business with you.

‘To reduce the likelihood of passing that chargeback threshold and being banned, OnlyFans uses “cascading payments”, which essentially load balances the payments across multiple payment processors in order to reduce their chargeback ratios across their merchant accounts.’

Could this have been a fraud prevention problem all along? According to an older theory that was much more popular in the early 2010s, maybe so. This theory alleges that the Department of Justice is behind of all this, with Operation Choke Point. It’s not that payment processors and banks want to police certain industries; the DoJ is forcing them to.

‘If a bank doesn’t shut down a questionable account when directed to do so, Justice slaps the institution with a penalty for wrongdoing that may or may not have happened,’ writes Frank Keating in the Wall Street Journal.

There’s something going on here — but I’m not so sure it has anything to do with oppressing sex workers.