By last December, pandemic life had left teacher Oni Crawford void of energy, entirely depleted by teaching humanities to sixth-graders online while caring for her toddler daughter and mourning the recent death of her grandmother.
So the 27-year-old Maryland resident submitted her resignation and switched on her light-purple iPhone to record seductive images of herself for an OnlyFans account, joining the thousands who signed up to the adult subscription site last year as content creators amid job losses brought on by the pandemic.
Crawford said the grief that came with losing multiple family members to non-coronavirus illnesses was a factor in her decision to sign up for the popular platform and enter the field of exotic dancing.
"At end of day, in real life, it doesn't matter how many degrees I have," she said, nodding to her undergraduate degree in English and master's in women's, gender and sexuality studies. "All those systemic successes failed me once I got to the pandemic and was being asked to choose other people's children over my child."
Video: Deaf content creators lobby for improved accessibility on social platforms
Dancing and making content gave Crawford time and freedom to be with her daughter, who is now 4, something she said she couldn't do as a teacher stuck to online instruction all day.
But Crawford, a small-scale performer with fewer than 100 subscribers, and other creators of adult content were shaken when OnlyFans announced in August that it would ban adult content (it would reverse its stance only days later after an outcry).
Now, creators, especially those from marginalized backgrounds and with smaller subscriber counts, say they are bracing for further disruption. Groups campaigning against sex trafficking and the sexual exploitation of children are pushing credit card companies to impose new requirements for processing payments on behalf of sexually explicit sites, aiming to restrict illegal content.
Sites for creators of adult content have proliferated in recent years. They differ from traditional pornography sites because they eliminate talent scouts, producers and camera crews, allowing performers to take home a larger share of money earned from the content they post.
Last month, Mastercard began requiring the sites to introduce content review processes and verify identities, ages and proof of consent for people appearing in the content. Anti-trafficking groups such as the National Center on Sexual Exploitation and Exodus Cry are pushing Visa, Discover and other credit card companies to impose similar requirements.
But, although the policies are aimed at protecting those who might be forced into sex work, content creators and their advocates say they could hurt legitimate performers.
The rules, which require that creators of sexual content obtain documentation of all people depicted in scenes and that sites review material before it is posted, seem innocuous on the surface. But they can be time-consuming and confusing, creators say, creating a bureaucracy that threatens their livelihoods.
Many sites have set their own standards, compelling creators to handle a crush of paperwork to meet differing criteria. In addition, the new monitoring requirements for sites are delaying payments, creators say.
"It just feels really crummy. This is not protecting us," said Scarlett Lush, a D.C.-area creator of adult content and dominatrix who spoke on the condition that she be identified only by her performance name to protect her privacy. "It's making it harder for us to be financially successful and independent," she said in an interview.
Mastercard said it made changes announced in April because of the risks associated with illegal content and the ease with which it can be put online.
"When we established the rules and standards for our payments network, we placed the law at the center of them," Mastercard's senior vice president for communications, Seth Eisen, said in a statement. "The bottom line: We do not allow illegal activity on our network."
OnlyFans said in a statement that it complies with Mastercard's policy changes. The company did not respond to a follow-up request for comment about what measures it took to become compliant.
The pandemic ushered in a new wave of adult-content creators, some of them amateurs who decided to record themselves for profit and became heavily reliant on the Internet to earn a living.
The most prominent hosting site is OnlyFans, a platform where content creators can upload their work and earn money from users who subscribe to their individual channels. As many as 8,000 creators and 200,000 users signed up daily after Beyoncé shouted out the site in a song lyric, OnlyFans founder and chief executive Tim Stokely told BuzzFeed News in May 2020.
Creators also flocked to video clip sites such as Clips4Sale and iWantClips to sell their content. The sites take a percentage of creators' earnings - up to 20 percent or more - according to creators.
For performers such as Crawford, OnlyFans helps fill in gaps when money from in-person stripping doesn't flow as smoothly. On nights when dancing is slow or when she has pent-up energy from performing in clubs, Crawford applies strip lashes to her top lash line, accentuates her cheekbones with a metallic-gold highlighter and swoops gloss across her lips to get ready to film for her OnlyFans account.
When she finishes filming her scenes, she'll spend more time on social media promoting her OnlyFans account.
Although Crawford won't feel much of a burden from the new requirements herself - as a solo performer, she won't have to track down identifying material for other performers - she sympathizes with others on the platform who will be affected.
"With the frequency in which you have to upload to maintain your subscribers, it's going to be a lot," Crawford said.
Some adult creators have already felt an impact, saying in interviews that their OnlyFans subscriber numbers dipped after the short-lived ban in August; the ban spurred some paying fans to cancel their subscriptions permanently.
OnlyFans performer Allie Eve Knox, who spoke on the condition that she be identified only by her stage name out of concern for her safety, said she has been in distress at her home in Texas since the new policies became effective, throwing off her schedule for filming fetish and financial-dominatrix content.
Knox said that her income has fallen by 25 percent since August, when OnlyFans announced and then revoked its ban, and that her revenue has shrunk even more as she waits for clips to be approved.
"OnlyFans was our lifeline prior," she said. "It's just a crazy struggle. I live primarily on my content."
Sites trying to comply with Mastercard's policies have taken down full catalogues of content for review, Knox said, creating a backlog of content awaiting approval and leaving creators waiting for their content to be uploaded so they can make money.
"I'm hopping from platform to platform to whomever will take me," Knox said, counting upward of 21 sites she has joined. "Nothing is safe."
Preparing for the new Mastercard policies was somewhat difficult as the rules were not clearly defined, sex workers and their advocates said.
One site, iWantClips, apologized to creators for delays in approving and uploading content as it gets used to an artificial intelligence system that flags banned words or props used in cosplay or kink genres. The flags create another hurdle because a moderator has manually to approve the images before they are posted, the company said on Twitter.
iWantClips did not respond to requests for comment.
Michael Etelis, the chief executive of Fansly, a subscription site whose content includes adult material, said in a statement that his site was diligent about reviewing content before the Mastercard decision and that he didn't see anything inherently problematic about consent and identification documentation.
"If they use these rules as an excuse to kick off good actors like Fansly where a lot of the content is user-generated and more 'amateur' by really hammering down on every single piece of content posted on the site, then I would say it is very anti-porn," he said. "If the rules are to reinforce age of majority, keep illegal content to a minimum, and to prevent revenge porn, I think this is something every sex worker and website would get behind."
Kelly Gilbert, a transgender adult performer and secretary for the Adult Performance Artists Guild, said she worries that transgender members could be pushed back into in-person street work if they can't make ends meet under the restrictions.
"There are not a lot of options for trans models," she said. "Even if trans models migrate to other sites. How long is it going to take them to rebuild the fan base? That's going to be an issue if they don't have a large fan base. Trans models are going to have to go back to doing full-service sex work."
Veljko Fotak, associate professor of finance at the University at Buffalo School of Management, who teaches corporate finance and international financial management, said "sin" businesses, which include the alcohol, tobacco and pornography industries, have traditionally produced stable and recession-proof cash flows.
But they remain vulnerable to law enforcement crackdowns or pressure from financial institutions, he said.
"It is not surprising that the payment processors are cutting ties with the pornography industry," Fotak said. "Yet, I think it sets a dangerous precedent. Do we really want private businesses, in this case financial institutions, to act as arbiters and guardians of our moral codes?"
Some content creators and their advocates say they are unfairly targeted by the new restrictions, since mainstream sites such as Facebook have been found to have illegal sexual content.
A 2020 report from the Human Trafficking Institute, an organization focused on fighting human trafficking and freeing victims, found that the Facebook platform was commonly used for recruiting child and adult victims in sex trafficking cases that year. Instagram, WeChat and Snapchat followed Facebook as tools also used for recruiting victims, the report said.
Facebook said the company prohibits human exploitation "in no uncertain terms."
"We've been combatting human trafficking on our platform for many years and our goal remains to prevent anyone who seeks to exploit others from having a home on our platform," Jeanne Moran, a Meta spokesperson, said.
Tencent, which operates WeChat, declined to comment on the report.
SnapChat said in a statement that the platform's design makes it very difficult for predators to identify and meet its young users and that it worked with a nonprofit that works to help reduce the number of missing and sexually exploited children. "We send every report to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children" the statement said, adding that the company is also using tools to help identify keywords and account behaviors that suggested prohibited and abusive activity.
Credit card companies Mastercard, Visa and Discover blocked payments and severed ties with Pornhub, an internet pornography site, late last year after reports that it carried illegal content that showed child sexual abuse and sexual violence.
OnlyFans was the subject of two BBC investigations this year. In May, the BBC found children under age 18 with fake identifications were selling sexual and featuring in explicit videos on the site. A second investigation based on leaked OnlyFans documents revealed the site's moderators issued multiple warnings to accounts that posted illegal content before moving to shut them down.
OnlyFans told the BBC that underage instances were rare on its platforms and that it does not tolerate violates of its terms of service, taking swift action to maintain the safety and security of its users.
The site did not respond to requests from The Post for comment about the investigations or about the amount of illegal content that the company has found on its site.
Haley McNamara, a vice president of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation and the director of the International Centre on Sexual Exploitation, said in a statement that her organizations have been calling on credit card companies since 2020 to improve policies to help thwart sexual exploitation on pornography platforms.
[Their OnlyFans checks are clearing, but some sex workers wonder whether their futures lie elsewhere]
"Content creators deserve better," she said. "They deserve platforms that take their safety seriously. Any attempts by OnlyFans to vilify these common-sense standards is raw, corporate greed, and exposes the reality that the pornography industry is inherently exploitative."
Mike Stabile, the director of public affairs for the Free Speech Coalition, a trade association of the pornography and adult entertainment industry, said the campaign is intended to undermine the legitimate adult entertainment business.
"This is the latest salvo to deplatform sex workers," he said.
Stabile said the level of administrative work is more worrisome for new content creators, adding that a performer recently told him that half his day was spent doing paperwork to be compliant with policies.
"The burden falls most heavily on performers because they're the ones at greatest risk of deplatforming if they're somehow in violation of a platform's newly revised terms of service, or if the paperwork isn't correct," Stabile said.
The most common forms, such as the 2257, or model release form, are not inherently difficult to fill out. But performers said the process can be tedious if different sites don't take the same forms or create their own versions of the form with additional requirements.
Although Mastercard has been clear that the new rules apply only to content posted after the date the rules became effective, performers said that many sites are retroactively applying the rules, forcing the performers to dig into their virtual rolodexes.
After finding a degree of financial autonomy during the pandemic with online sex work, some performers said they have resumed in-person work or find other ways of earning a living, or go into live performances. If Knox has to go back to shooting scenes in-person instead of the solo content she's able to produce now, she says, so be it.
For Knox, who said she gained enough subscribers to help pay off her student loans after appearing on a short-lived online reality show called the "Sex Factor" in 2016, the new policies won't push her out of the sex industry, she said.
Others, with fewer followers, won't have that option, she said. "The whole thing was trying to help and save sex workers but it's pushing people further underground and into the streets."