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Like It or Not, TikTok Is Driving the New Digital Sex Economy

The app remains a major influence on adult content. Meanwhile, it’s cutting off users who happen to get naked elsewhere

OnlyFans provided the platform; the pandemic provided the need. But it’s really TikTok that’s responsible for the modernized girl-next-door aesthetic that dominates adult content today. Of course, TikTok probably never intended to be such an influence on porn: It’s always prohibited anything that might warrant more than a PG-13 rating, and the app is indeed heavily used by minors. Nevertheless, among its adult users, the idea of someone dancing alone in their bedroom for the camera is almost inherently erotic, and this eroticism has led countless TikTok creators to pivot to OnlyFans (and vice versa).

Now, though, TikTok seems determined to erase that.

In mid-December, TikTok released an update to its Community Guidelines. Shortly thereafter, multiple TikTokers reported that their accounts had been deleted, despite exclusively posting safe-for-work videos. What most of these TikTokers had in common, though, was their presence on OnlyFans.

Although TikTok’s guidelines had previously focused on the nature of TikToks themselves, the expanded rules now prohibit “content that depicts, promotes or glorifies sexual solicitation, including offering or asking for sexual partners, sexual chats or imagery, sexual services, premium sexual content or sexcamming.” As such, discussing having an OnlyFans or linking to it on one’s profile is now grounds for a ban from TikTok.

Oddly enough, many of the women whose accounts were deleted reported to Rolling Stone that they’d never explicitly referenced an OnlyFans in their videos. Some said they had only linked to their OnlyFans via a third-party platform like Linktree.

Regardless of the specifics, this shift comes at a time when OnlyFans and independent adult content creators have never been more popular — or more vilified. Around the same time as TikTok, Instagram also implemented changes to its Terms of Service that worsened the bans and shadowbans that sex workers of all varieties experience.

Ironically, adult content creators have been — and could continue to be — a boon for both TikTok and Instagram. From a viewership standpoint, TikTok-related porn has become massively popular. A year ago, r/TikTokNSFW had less than 40,000 members; today it has nearly 700,000 and ranks 54th in the 100 most popular NSFW subreddits. Among NSFW-related searches on Google, four of the year’s top 25 breakout searches are related to TikTok. Often, the content that appears from these searches doesn’t violate the app’s Community Guidelines, but is nevertheless found to be “sexy.” TikTok could continue to allow this content without breaking any original rules.

The bigger issue, of course, isn’t that TikTok misses the opportunity to drive traffic and ad money via these adult content creators. Instead, the issue is increasingly puritanical restrictions that limit the speech and creativity of people who simply happen to perform adult work beyond the confines of the apps they use for fun. With even congresspeople supporting the idea that sex work is work (or at least not worthy of stigmatization), why can’t our most popular and innovative public apps do the same?

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