For five days, it looked as if one of Britain’s most successful tech startups was on the verge of a make-or-break gamble, one that would either see it burst on to the global stage or destroy its billion-dollar business.
OnlyFans, a self-described “subscription social network”, announced last week that it would ban sexually explicit content from October. The ban was a shock because, behind the generic branding, such content is perceived to be OnlyFans’ biggest draw.
The site’s name has become shorthand for homegrown pornography thanks to its slick interface, easy user experience and, importantly, loose content policy. Anyone can post pictures or videos, charge for views and, if they’ve got the fans, make a living.
After news of the impending ban broke, sex workers began sharing advice about other platforms that would still work with them. They also expressed fears that the decision could serve to drive the business back underground – or back on to the street – after losing one of the few sites that allows individuals to earn real money from adult content. They worried the company was seeking to do what so many others had: build a business on the back of adult content then abandon it when mainstream success came calling.
Then, as suddenly as it had begun, the pivot was abandoned. On Wednesday, the day after its co-founder and adult performance entrepreneur Tim Stokely had given an interview blaming the decision on banks refusing to work with the platform, the firm announced it had struck a deal that would allow normal service to resume. It thanked its “diverse” community but held back from outright acknowledgment of the importance of explicit content on the website.
“Considering that they’ve said ‘suspended’ the ban – not that they aren’t going through with it – I think they’re going to go through with the ban in a few weeks’ time,” said Lola Hunt, a Melbourne-based sex worker. “The community is very on edge at the moment. Every time a site goes down, our client base is fractured. It’s like running a bricks-and-mortar shop and being chased out of town by religious zealots every six months.”
The site has undergone rapid transformation since it was founded in 2016 as the latest project from Stokely, a member of a wealthy Essex family. OnlyFans was originally a family business, backed with a loan from Stokely’s banker father Guy, a former executive at Barclays Bank who continues to sit on the board. Stokely’s brother, Tom, is chief operating officer, and his mother, Deborah, was also a director of its parent company.
The Stokelys continue to be the public faces of the business in the media and run the company on a day-to-day basis, but they no longer own any shares in its parent company. Corporate filings show the entire company was sold to a low-key Florida-based businessman, Leonid Radvinsky, in 2018, although the Stokely family still extracted tens of millions of pounds from the business in the last year.
OnlyFans, which still has its headquarters in the UK, finds itself in an uneasy financial and cultural position. At a time when the audience for online pornography in the UK is estimated by the industry to be as many as 25 million people, the site remains rarely talked about in public – and proves toxic to many financial institutions.
OnlyFans has always marketed itself publicly as a way for any creator to sell subscription content, heavily promoting its cooking and fitness users while playing down the extent to which the core business is porn. A launch just days before the explicit content ban of OFTV, a smartphone app and TV service exclusively for less explicit content, was widely mocked for its attempt to airbrush out the seamier side of the company.
It is a booming business that is generating substantial amounts of cash, with its cut of sales projected to hit $2.5bn by 2022, much of which is pure profit. Yet hedge funds and private equity firms are reluctant to take the reputational risk of investing in a high-profile porn business that has been dogged by reports of allowing underage material to be sold. OnlyFans has said its age verification systems go over and above regulatory requirements.
OnlyFans has also gone on a publicity push, employing the mainstream PR agency W Communications. The agency works for large mainstream businesses such as British Airways, Disney, and Jaguar Land Rover, but has not formally announced its work for the website.
OnlyFans continues to operate as an adult business, but it faces a wide-ranging collection of opponents. Some, such as the US anti-pornography non-profit National Center on Sexual Exploitation, have their roots in the religious community and generally oppose all such content. Others focus on the problems unique to OnlyFans and its ilk: a lack of oversight that can allow underage users and “revenge porn” to flourish.
When a BBC report, published shortly after OnlyFans announced its short-lived ban, found that the company’s moderators were instructed to give three or more warnings for users posting “illegal” content before closing their account, there were calls for action.
In a statement, OnlyFans denied the instructions were official guidance, and said: “We do not tolerate any violation of our terms of service, and we take immediate action to uphold the safety and security of our users.” It says it uses “a combination of state-of-the-art technology together with human monitoring and review to prevent children under the age of 18 from sharing content on OnlyFans”.