In the era of e-commerce, payment processors have become the internet’s unofficial content moderators—because when banks threaten to revoke service, platforms listen

A woman is lying in bed, fully-clothed and half-covered in a floral bedspread. The sweatpants she’s wearing are gray, unisex, and unremarkable in every way—except, of course, for the fact that they’re stained with period blood. The woman is Rupi Kaur, and her photo was removed from Instagram in 2015 for violating community guidelines—subsequently spurring viral discourse about what is and isn’t acceptable on social media, and who gets to decide.

Now, it’s 2023, and sex workers are fighting against the same thing—because on OnlyFans and a bevy of other adult websites, they’re not allowed to post content depicting period blood. This means that women—who comprise 85 percent of top earners on the platform—whose work involves depictions of penetrative sex must either stop creating content for one week out of the month, or go to great lengths to obscure a normal bodily process that has long been stigmatized. “The ban is particularly frustrating because it’s targeting something you can’t stop,” says Sanguine, a sex worker and content creator on OnlyFans. “Men are so grossed out by tampons in porn that you’re expected to go through some age-old stripper trick with a sponge in your vagina, just to be able to work.”

According to sex worker Liara Roux, the erasure of menstruation from porn only serves to further alienate men from the natural bodily processes experienced by half the world’s population. “It explains so many of the hangups that young straight guys have,” she says. “They’ve never seen period blood while they’re jerking off, so they just don’t understand when it happens in real life.”

OnlyFans has not responded to Document’s questions on the matter. But according to its terms of service—and sex workers who have offered insight on how they are enforced— the company’s policy on bodily fluids seems to be determined on a case-by-case basis; “excrement-related material” like breast milk and urine are banned, cum is allowed, and squirting is okay, as long as it doesn’t look like pee. Also forbidden on OnlyFans is a variety of queer-coded or otherwise non-normative sex acts, like “extreme” fisting and “hardcore” bondage, which apparently refers to any instance in which all four limbs are bound during sexual penetration. (Three limbs, however, is a-okay.)

You won’t be surprised to hear that such restrictions dramatically impact the ability of sex workers to monetize their content on OnlyFans, and other platforms like it. You may, however, be surprised that they don’t originate from adult websites themselves, but from the payment processors used to purchase content. With financial transactions increasingly taking place online, financial institutions have come to play a crucial role in regulating porn, simply by determining what kind of content can be monetized. As the debate around social media censorship rages on, the fact that credit card companies have become de-facto regulators of the internet begs the question: In a world where cash is king, who really controls free speech?

“With financial transactions increasingly taking place online, financial institutions have come to play a crucial role in regulating porn, simply by determining what kind of content can be monetized.”

Asphyxia, period, blood, menstruation, cervix, consent. These are just a few of the words OnlyFans prohibits, likely in adherence to policies set by Visa and Mastercard, two of the largest payment processing networks in the world. Though neither responded to Document’s interview requests at the time of writing, reporting by the Financial Times revealed that—rather than being stated directly on the companies’ terms of service—these restrictions on the porn industry are determined through an ongoing process of interpretation by financial intermediaries like MobiusPay, which acts as a bridge between “high-risk” businesses and credit card companies. In essence, credit card giants lay down a series of core principles for the kind of content they allow, and partners like MobiusPay then hazard a guess about what that might mean in practice—often in the broadest possible sense. For instance, ‘no mutilation’ is taken to mean that all blood is off-limits, even as a result of menstruation; ‘no rape’ means they should ban all content in which the person being penetrated is tied up.

Equally problematic are categories like erotic hypnosis, which—in manipulating a person’s state of mind—could be seen to impact their ability to consent. Despite the fact that, in almost every instance, the hypnotisms depicted in porn—like a majority of cumshots—are fake, this remains a frequent sticking point for financial institutions, leading to widespread bans across a variety of adult sites. At one point, the social media website FetLife—specifically created for kinksters—was forced to ban hypnosis content. But why, exactly, would a private financial institution leave money on the table by refusing to process payments related to popular content categories—and what stake do they have in controlling what kind of porn people watch?

Some hypothesize that these companies crack down on certain kinks due to fear of chargebacks—an issue that, according to one writer, dates back to the early-2000s, when a user of the porn site Clips4Sale allegedly paid thousands to a hypnosis-themed digital dominatrix, and later disputed the charges, claiming that he was under her spell. Others think it’s the result of lobbying from anti-sex organizations like Exodus Cry, which was responsible for the highly-publicized #TraffickingHub campaign that led Mastercard to cut ties with Pornhub. Still others hold that these mandates are a form of reputational risk assessment—furries, for instance, are only allowed to fuck each other, lest the content be mistaken for bestiality. But no matter how you slice it, most people can agree that, of all the entities vying for control over what’s allowed online, the limits of free speech shouldn’t be determined by Wells Fargo.

 “For as long as sex work—and sexuality in general—is conflated with harm, we’re going to be combating paternalistic moral panic that allows people and corporations to over-police our communities.”

But according to Aaron Mackey, a lawyer with the Electronic Freedom Foundation, there’s no law preventing it—and payment processors possess disproportionate control over the policies of online platforms like OnlyFans, simply because they literally can’t afford to run afoul of them. As a result, many are willing to adapt their content moderation policies according to the preferences of financial service providers—meaning that these institutions play a key role in determining what kind of content we encounter, effectively reshaping our online ecosystem at speeds that consistently outpace governmental legislation.

They’re allowed to do this because, at the end of the day, financial institutions have the right to decide who they want to do business with, and under what terms—and, according to Mackey, passing a law that compels banks to serve everyone would violate their constitutional rights.

So, how do we fix this?

For technologist and advocate Gabriella Garcia, the answer is complicated—but one thing is painfully apparent. “For as long as sex work—and sexuality in general—is conflated with harm, we’re going to be combating paternalistic moral panic that allows people and corporations to over-police our communities,” she says, adding that this kind of regulation not only jeopardizes the ability of sex workers to make a living in the present, but also potentially increases their criminal risk in the future. “OnlyFans’s response to Mastercard’s requirements was to make sure every person who appears on their website has a verifiable identity—which means that, suddenly, there’s a database of the legal identities of digital adult content creators, waiting to either be sold or given to a government entity, if being an adult content creator were to become illegal.”

Put simply, OnlyFans’s new approach to content moderation might serve to get Mastercard off its back—“but the system does not respond to the issue at hand, which is the stigmatization of sex work and policing of body autonomy,” Garcia says.

We need to approach this issue from all sides: not only by destigmatizing sex work on a social level, but also by repealing the laws that incentivize credit card companies to censor it. “We can’t force credit card companies to change their policies, but we can alleviate some of the pressure they feel to avoid situations where they could be liable for a crime,” says Mackey, citing the negative impact of bills like FOSTA-SESTA, which purport to protect against child trafficking, but in fact erode the rights and safety of sex workers while making real criminals harder to catch. “The limitations on free speech caused by FOSTA have essentially censored harm reduction and safety information sharing, removed tools that sex workers used to keep themselves and others safe, and interrupted organizing and legislative endeavors to make policies that will enhance the well-being of sex workers and trafficking survivors alike,” states Mackey in an article about the fight to overturn FOSTA-SESTA, in which he is a key player.

“While the waters of online censorship may be muddy, one thing is clear: Money talks—and when payment processors speak, platforms listen.”

In theory, FOSTA-SESTA promises to hold online platforms accountable for the harmful content they host, chipping away at Section 230’s protections in the name of decreasing sexual exploitation. The reality, however, is that sex—and the people who sell it—is being expunged from online platforms and social media sites.

Conservative groups continue to weaponize “threat to children” as a means of advancing anti-sex ideals, putting forth policies that sound, to the uninformed ear, like a good way of protecting people from exploitation—but, in practice, only serve to endanger the well-being of those who are already vulnerable. The result is that, in refusing to stand up to the Evangelical war on porn, credit card companies are complicit in the disenfranchisement and deplatforming of thousands of sex workers—not only stripping them of their independence, but also pushing them into potentially more dangerous and exploitative working conditions.

It’s clear that financial institutions are under pressure from anti-sex lobbyists; in fact, Mastercard’s new policies earned them a ‘corporate leadership award’ from NCOSE (formerly known as ‘Morality in Media’), one of the many conservative organizations working against the best interests of sex workers. Similarly, Exodus Cry—which purports to “break the cycle of sexual exploitation”—originated from a Kansas City megachurch. And while it claimed that its campaign against Pornhub is not “anti-sex worker,” its 2018 tax filings show that the group’s mission statement includes not only ending sex trafficking, but also “abolishing the commercial sex industry” altogether.

For better or worse, this kind of social pressure produces tangible results—so, in turn, advocates for the safety and freedom of sex workers need to “put social pressure on payment processors to make their policies more transparent, to invest in non-discriminatory values that champion freedom of expression, and to recognize that they have an outsized role in determining who can speak,” says Mackey. “For that reason, they should step back from making decisions around content moderation.” In the past, such campaigns have been successful: They’re why OnlyFans repealed its controversial decision to ban all adult content in 2019, following a host of new requirements from Mastercard policing which kinds of transactions they would allow.

As adult film director Vex Ashley put it, “This is the time to fight for the online world you want to see.” And while the waters of online censorship may be muddy, one thing is clear: Money talks—and when payment processors speak, platforms listen.