In the age of Pornhub and OnlyFans, complaints about “morality” don't get your call returned.
Blog Post Written By: Mike Stabile
In 2006, FBI agents suddenly began appearing at the doors of adult businesses across the country. The agents demanded immediate access to model records, no warrant or warning required. The government had no evidence, nor even reasonable suspicion, that anyone involved in the productions was doing anything illegal, but under Sec 2257 of the US Criminal Code, if they found so much as a misalpabetized model release, they could send you to federal prison.
A twelve-year legal battle effectively ended the government’s ability to enforce 2257 earlier this year, but those days may be returning, albeit in a different form. In April, under pressure from religious anti-porn groups, MasterCard instituted strict rules for platforms that accept content from independent adult creators.
The 2257 regulations were originally created as a backdoor way for the FBI to prosecute producers who were otherwise protected by the First Amendment, and they were nearly impossible to comply with. The government might not be able to police your content, but they could put you out of business with a record-keeping violation, and that was almost as good.
Like 2257, the MasterCard regulations don’t do much to prevent the production of illegal content. Model releases have long been an industry standard, necessary to avoid lawsuits and establish ownership of content. The same is true for ID checks, which are essential to avoid the 15-year mandatory minimum prison sentence that comes with shooting an underage model. People who create illegal content aren’t affected by these regulations because they don’t sell it on legal platforms to begin with.
Since MasterCard can’t reach illegal producers, they’ve settled for policing legal producers, primarily independent adult content creators, through a system of record-keeping tripwires. Platforms like OnlyFans, FanCentro or ManyVids are so terrified of losing access to credit card payments that they’ve taken to increasingly absurd standards for the creators on their site.
In the past few months, creators have reported having their content removed for including a vintage poster in the background of a shot, appearing in cosplay make-up that doesn’t match their ID, not having ID for someone who is clothed, and not using the official model release of the platform — despite the content predating the existence of that release. Platforms now have to remove content where an ID has expired, even if it was current at the time of production.
It’s going to get worse. When the new rules finally take effect on October 15, they will require platforms to review every single piece of content before publication, as well as real-time monitoring of live broadcasts like cam shows. For creators, that likely to mean backlogs on uploaded content, broad censorship of content like public sex, arbitrary content deletions and overzealous account suspensions.
The new MasterCard regulations emerged from last year’s #traffickinghub campaign, an intense push by Christian conservatives to shut down Pornhub over allegations of illegal content. Religious groups like the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE) have pushed credit card companies to stop working with adult platforms for years. The rise of user-generated content, and the cultural anxiety around it, finally gave them a foothold.
NCOSE calls itself an anti-trafficking organization, but it’s actual mission is to abolish sex work and sexual content. Adult producers tend to talk about them mockingly, but even in their original incarnation — as the faith-based “Morality in Media” — it hasn’t been without success. It successfully fought against safer sex information, campaigned to ban government funding for “obscene” artists, and pressured WalMart to remove Cosmopolitan magazine from checkout aisles.
More recently, NCOSE led the charge to take down Backpage and was one of the principal supporters of SESTA-FOSTA and the EARN IT Act. Last year, it was a co-sponsor (along with evangelical group Exodus Cry) behind the #traffickinghub campaign that got MasterCard and VISA to suspend payments on Pornhub.
The similarities between 2257 and MasterCard are not coincidental.
The current president of NCOSE is Patrick Trueman, a longtime anti-porn activist who previously served with the Department of Justice shortly after 2257 regulations were first passed. It was Trueman’s team that began raiding adult businesses across the country. (Today, he brags that they “would have succeeded in completely eliminating the adult industry” had it not been for the election of Bill Clinton.)
Trueman routinely claims that adult creators aren’t protected by the 1st Amendment. Depictions of sex, whether real or simulated — even in a Hollywood movie — are not covered by the Consitution. The government can and should arrest those who create it. “Unless it’s just waist-up nudity of a woman’s breasts, it probably can be found obscene somewhere in the country,” Trueman told The Daily Caller in 2012.
But today, NCOSE uses markedly different language. They no longer preach about “obscenity” but “trafficking” — a catch-all that, for NCOSE, that just happens to include almost all sex work, even when it’s a solo shot by, starring and owned by a single person.
“OnlyFans is the latest iteration of the online sexual exploitation marketplace,” claimed NCOSE when it named the site to its 2021 “Dirty Dozen” List. “OnlyFans makes money off of vulnerable people’s bodies – especially the bodies of women and minors … [it] encourages grooming and pimping through its referral system which allows individuals to profit 5% of anyone’s earnings who signs up via their referral link.”
In the age of Pornhub and OnlyFans, complaints about “morality” don't get your call returned. But labeling a corporation a sex trafficker? That makes headlines and legislation and anxious shareholders. After all, you’re not calling for censorship of content anymore, merely “minor” changes to policy to prevent potential exploitation. If a platform or sex worker can’t abide by those policy changes without losing business, they reason, maybe you aren’t as free from trafficking as you claim.
This is their ultimate tripwire. Those who complain about MasterCard’s new rules should be viewed as suspected traffickers. Just as those who challenged 2257 were accused of wanting to film children. If you question the authority of a preacher, you’re likely a witch.
“When you're living in the flesh, you crowd out the spiritual,” Trueman recently told the podcast Catholic Drive Time. “That spiritual life doesn't exist in a regular pornography user."
2257 regulations were effectively defeated in February, following a twelve-year legal battle by the Free Speech Coalition and others. Despite countless hours and tens of millions of dollars spent by the federal government to enforce them, they failed to ever get a serious conviction.
The regulations were badly written and badly argued, but significant in their eventual defeat was the industry’s compliance with the regulations. Without a serious conviction, it became harder and harder to justify the moral panic. It became easier to show that this wasn’t about catching predators, but silencing legal creators.
The lesson for MasterCard is quite similar. The rules may be unjust, but until we’re able to overturn or change them, until we’re able to fully fight back against religious harassment, make sure you comply.
By all means, protest on social media. Call out NCOSE and Exodus Cry for what they are — ministries. When your content gets censored, speak out. But while you’re doing that, make sure your model releases are spotless, even with your partners. Make sure you have got current IDs and clear shots and signatures. And most of all, make sure that others realize that when they’re going after your filing system, it’s really about your freedom.