It only took a few words from pop superstar Beyonce to catapult OnlyFans into the mainstream. In a lyric on the early lockdown hit Savage, Beyonce sings: “On that demon time she might start an OnlyFans.”

Her reference to the 18+ and very much “not-suitable-for-work” social network sent growth into overdrive at UK-headquartered OnlyFans.

Until then a niche site popular with sex workers and adult performers, in April 2020 the site began recording 200,000 new sign-ups a day and up to 8,000 new creators. Many people stuck at home or on furlough were joining the site to post videos.

But for the last two weeks, that growth has been in doubt. The site’s meteoric, pandemic-fuelled rise has been knocked off course by a row after it threatened to clean up the site by banning “sexually explicit” material.  A sudden about-turn, just six days later, has done little to rebuild trust.

Founded in 2016 by Essex entrepreneur Tim Stokely, OnlyFans has 2m creators and 130m users – and no shortage of adult-orientated posts and homemade pornography. Unlike the vast majority of the web where such content is pirated or given away for free, users are able to easily charge a fee, starting at around £3.60, to view exclusive posts, videos or messages.

Mixed in are a growing cohort of mainstream celebrities, such as rap superstar Cardi B or producer DJ Khaled. The result is a hedonistic cocktail of Hollywood glitterati mixing with glamour models and adult stars once confined to darker corners of the web or the top shelves of newsagents. 

Mainstream celebrities such as rap superstar Cardi B have joined the site, which provides an opportunity for stars to earn money from subscriptions

Credit: Getty

This has proved great business. OnlyFans is arguably the UK’s most successful social media enterprise and has been chasing a $1bn (£730m) valuation. It is expecting revenues of $1.2bn this year, from the 20pc cut it takes from subscribers, and $2.2bn next year.

But on Aug 19, OnlyFans issued a brief statement saying that from Oct 1 it would “prohibit the posting of any content containing sexually-explicit conduct” to “ensure the long-term sustainability of the platform”. It went on to blame its financial partners: “These changes are to comply with the requests of our banking partners and payout providers.”

Adult performers were furious. Alex Sim-Wise, a glamour model and TV presenter, says: “Obviously the sex worker community is angry and disappointed, but I find the long-term implications of platforms folding to payments processor pressure to be the most worrying.”

Sim-Wise, 39, made a career of modelling for FHM and Playboy before turning to OnlyFans and runs a consultancy for adult models – Get Your Bits Out. “It has been devastating for many of my clients, many of whom are new to the platform.”

A backlash spread across social media. Twitter accounts of adult models were filled with screeds against OnlyFans and threats to leave.

OnlyFans boss Tim Stokely named BNY Mellon, JP Morgan and Metro Bank as financial partners which had barred previous payments

Credit: JULIAN SIMMONDS

Despite its efforts to diversify, there is little doubt the majority of OnlyFans’ revenue has been driven by adult – if not sexually explicit – content. Sim-Wise estimated 80-90pc of videos are adult in nature “at a conservative estimate”.

Stokely, OnlyFans’ suave 38-year-old chief executive who runs the company with his former investment banker father, publicly lashed out at its banking partners for the decision to bar sexualised posts.

“The change in policy, we had no choice – the short answer is banks,” he told the Financial Times on Tuesday. “We pay over 1m creators $300m every month, and making sure that these funds get to creators involves using the banking sector”.

He named BNY Mellon, JP Morgan and Metro Bank as financial partners which had barred previous payments, but refused to name the company’s current bankers. Mastercard, the payments provider, was singled out by critics for new rules that will force sites to more rigorously verify adult performers to check they are not under age – but Stokely said OnlyFans was compliant with its demands.

Scarlett Woodford, an analyst at Juniper Research, said: “Credit card companies and financial institutions consider adult entertainment to be a high-risk sector.”

According to Axios, OnlyFans had also faced difficulties in finding mainstream investors or venture capitalists to help Leonid Radvinsky, the billionaire pornographer who holds a majority share in the business, cash out some of his stake.

For sex workers, however, the ban was just the latest effort to blacklist their employment. Performers argue bans by payments providers are being driven by US religious groups, dressed up as efforts to prevent child abuse.

A woman is seen in the screen of a photo camera during a photo shoot to make content for her OnlyFans profile

Credit: Getty

OnlyFans, like other sites, has been forced to grapple with illegal content. In July, it says it deleted 15 accounts for apparent child sexual abuse.

Researchers into sex work say they were unsurprised at how OnlyFans performers were cut off from the site. “Growing means being palatable to a bigger, more diverse user base and a more diverse set of stakeholder groups,” said Katrin Tiidenberg, a research at Tallinn University and author of Sex and Social Media. She adds that payments providers had become “arbiters of sociality, culture, sexuality… which they are doing by basically telling us what we can spend our money on”.

Yet after a week of heated criticism, on Wednesday, OnlyFans hit the brakes. In an about-turn, the site said its Oct 1 change had been “suspended”. 

But performers were already on the move. Many had found themselves previously barred from other corners of the web after blocks on adult content on photo-sharing site Tumblr and subscription service Patreon. Kat Revenga, at rival app FanCentro, said it was signing up 5,000 performers a day.

In the short term, OnlyFans appears to have rescued its main source of revenue – its adult performers – and bought time to continue its efforts to diversify. But many creators are not convinced the change of heart will last. “It is interesting language – the stand out word being ‘suspended’,” says Sim-Wise. “OnlyFans are merely delaying the inevitable. By showing sex workers that they are willing to throw them under the proverbial bus they have shown their true colours.

“I think it will be difficult for anyone to trust them again.”