On October 17th, crowdfunding website Patreon amended the terms of its acceptable use policy as part of a wider program of reform. The new document was now much more proscriptive about what the site's users could and could not use its payments platform for. Beyond tightening provisions around hate speech and illegal content, the site essentially banned sex workers and adult content of a sexual nature. Patreon had always described itself as "not for pornography" but offered a broad latitude for projects that contained erotic content, and the change has caused much upset in the community that produces such material.
Despite Patreon's claims to the contrary, the site has clearly backed pornographers and sex workers in their projects. In 2016, the site very publicly enabled users to receive donations through PayPal subsidiary Braintree after a long battle with the e-commerce provider. It even emailed its adult content creators (a copy is available here), telling them that "as a company we are not happy with [PayPal's] lack of transparency since it impacts the livelihoods of Adult Content creators." Now, sex workers feel betrayed.
In her Open Letter to Patreon, artist Liara Roux describes that sense of betrayal, since Patreon had previously made moves to openly court sex workers. The artist even claims that the site offered tips on how adult content creators could use Patreon to fund movies and create websites to "reliably deliver rewards to our patrons." The letter, at the time of writing, had around 250 signatures from creators who feel that their livelihoods are now under threat.
Patreon's revised document not only excised references to erotic art, however, but also included a number of new provisions related to sex work. These included forbidding the use of Patreon donations to produce pornographic material, maintain an adults-only website or solicit money in exchange for a private webcam session. All of which were apparently endorsed by Patreon previously, and are key mechanisms to enable sex workers to get paid.
An excerpt from Patreon's previous policy that permitted sexual imagery.
Roux told Engadget that Patreon's stance has caused a great deal of nervousness for the sex workers and artists who use the platform. "They can't say they run a platform for niche artists and freedom of expression," Roux said, "and also arbitrarily decide what is and is not 'acceptable' adult content." The artist feels that any trust between the community and Patreon has now broken down as a result of the policy change. "The PayPal thing was huge," said Roux. "It was definitely a big part of them gaining our trust."
The only way that Roux can envisage Patreon becoming a trusted brand again is if the site says that it will welcome adult content and pornography onto its platform, even if that means placing it in a hidden, adults-only section. "It's going to be very hard to believe them," she added. "I've worked with them in the past on revising my portfolio, and they just changed the game again."
The fallout from Patreon's decision may mean that performers lose their entire income stream, since there are so few available options. "There are reasons porn is dominated by big companies," Roux explained. "It's very hard work to start your own site and start using a porn-safe [credit card] processor which is why you usually only see it from big stars." Patreon, she said, "was that niche platform where those just starting out could still find their audience." And there are very few alternatives available to those people who do not have the initial backing to launch such an enterprise.
Patreon's policy was expanded as the result of controversy the site found itself mired in over the summer. In July, Patreon was forced to suspend a number of accounts that it found had violated its content policies. Lauren Southern and the members of Defend Europe had their pages shut down after using pledged cash to attempt to block efforts to save refugees. Not long after, Patreon also withdrew funding to It's Going Down, a hardline left-wing news website.
In response to the backlash, Patreon CEO Jack Conte was prompted to post an explanation to YouTube. Conte explained that Southern and her colleagues "directly obstructed a search and rescue ship in the Mediterranean," a violation of the rules on threatening or harming others. Southern denied her involvement in the project, but Conte used footage Southern herself filmed to back his claim. Similarly, It's Going Down was suspended for doxing -- the practice of publishing an individual's address and phone number online -- and advocating a number of property crimes like "pouring concrete over railway tracks."
"The authority to take away a person's income is a sobering responsibility and it is not something to be done on a whim." —Patreon CEO Jack Conte
"We didn't properly invest in an external communications plan," said Conte, explaining Patreon's alleged lack of transparency. The CEO said that while the decision to take down the accounts was the right thing to do, failure to communicate that properly was not. The company affirmed that it would hire more human moderators in its Trust and Safety team, develop an appeals process and improve policy education. Conte even ends the video with the line "The authority to take away a person's income is a sobering responsibility and it is not something to be done on a whim."
On October 18th, Patreon legal chief Colin Sullivan posted a lengthy essay in which he talked about "taking a clearer stance on some fringe areas of adult content." Sullivan specifically mentioned taboo, illegal topics like incest, bestiality, sexual depiction of minors and aggressive sexual violence. But there is a disconnect between Sullivan and Conte's stance and the revised policy that was made available, because the new policy expressly bans activity that the site has previously had no issue with, as outlined in the penultimate paragraph in the relevant section:
"Lastly, you cannot sell pornographic material or arrange sexual service(s) as a reward for your patrons. You can't use Patreon to raise funds in order to produce pornographic material such as maintaining a website, funding the production of movies, or providing a private webcam session." —Patreon's revised guidelines
But as Motherboard's Lux Alptraum wrote back in 2016, a long-standing problem for creators has been Patreon's equivocation on what pornography actually is. The shorthand for what constitutes pornography in the United States comes from Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, in the 1964 case Jacobellis v. Ohio. The justice, when describing what constitutes pornography, famously said, "I know it when I see it."
Motherboard's report even drew attention to Four Chambers, which describes itself as "part art project, part erotica cinemascope" and would certainly constitute pornography in the eyes of plenty of folks. And yet, at the time, the page was apparently considered safe enough to remain. (Alptraum joked that the page "apparently gets a pass because the hard cocks and penetration are arty.")
We sat down with a Patreon spokesperson who declined to be named for the purposes of this interview. That person reiterated that "any kind of porn has never been allowed on Patreon." So why has the site, for so long, been silently (and sometimes vocally) accepting of accounts related to sex work? The spokesperson explained that Patreon's Trust and Safety team does not go "scraping the site" looking for accounts to suspend, and relies upon user-based referrals.
"The TL;DR is that if what you were doing before was okay, then probably what you're continuing to do is okay. And if what you're doing is in too much of a gray area, then we'll be reaching out." —Patreon spokesperson
Instead, the company has doubled its Trust and Safety team and has provided the email address email@example.com for creators concerned that they now violate the rules. "Let me be clear," said Patreon's spokesperson. "We're not kicking off a bunch of creators en masse. Instead, we're telling creators that there are things about their pages that need to be updated." The spokesperson added that any creator who really is "concerned about how it's going to affect their page and career, just reach out to us. It's an open invitation."
Engadget presented Patreon's representative with pages* that, while adult in nature, violate only the new terms of service. One adult performer uses her account to create "sexy content for her fans." In addition, one of the reward tiers offered "personalized sexy pictures" and "access to a secret Instagram account." Higher-tier members were offered a "10 minute live webcam session, through Skype, once per month."
Interestingly, even though this account appears to violate both the conditions for pornography and using webcam sessions as an incentive, the spokesperson didn't feel like that the account would likely be deleted. That stance cannot be taken as a blanket statement that providers have nothing to fear, but also that the definitions are fuzzy. Because Patreon doesn't appear to have a strict definition of what constitutes pornography, it may be that the accounts affected are an order of magnitude smaller than it would appear.
The spokesperson also tried to reassure creators by saying that "the TL;DR is that if what you were doing before was okay, then probably what you're continuing to do is okay. And if what you're doing is in too much of a gray area, then we'll be reaching out." As before, the spokesperson added, if users are worried, they can contact the company at the aforementioned email address to receive "personalized guidance" about "what you need to do to make sure your page can stay up."
Despite Patreon's reassurances, the content creators now find themselves concerned that their livelihood could be stopped at any point. Girl on the Net is the pseudonym for a British sex blogger who uses Patreon to fund a project creating "audio erotica." The effort, which began as a way of enabling people with visual impairments to enjoy sexual content, has been running for less than six months. In that time, "the money I made from it meant that I could dedicate time to making a different, more accessible kind of erotic art," the blogger said. She added that she was "using Patreon exactly the way it was intended: to fund art for people who were interested in that kind of art."
The future of the audio erotica project now rests on whether Patreon judges it to be porn or erotica. Girl on the Net explained that, while this was a side project for her, "some of my colleagues have used Patreon to build a large platform or make a full-time living, and made Patreon a significant chunk of cash in the process." The blogger posed the question "We have to wonder how many platforms have to censor sex before we say enough is enough. How much of it has to disappear before you start to notice?"
There is a prolonged history of direct and indirect violence carried out toward the sex work community. As Liara Roux explains, "the people who are going to have the most trouble working with them will be the most vulnerable." She believes that Patreon's decision threatens "vulnerable people," including those who are "queer, trans and people of color," who are often the ones most in need of the resources to build their own platforms to produce content.
In the UK, a law banning the practice of "kerb crawling" -- driving a car slowly along the road for the purposes of solicitation -- has had disastrous consequences. A 2002 report by The Guardian found that sex workers in the city of Sheffield previously operated in a well-lit, non-residential street with CCTV cameras. But a crackdown on prostitution forced the sex workers to move to a poorly lit industrial estate with no security cameras. There was a commensurate spike in violent attacks and murder.
There is a similar program of antagonism against sex work in the online space. Financial institutions like PayPal, JPMorgan Chase, Visa, Mastercard and Square have all sought to eradicate commerce undertaken by sex workers. Our 2015 report on the issue found that the process of redlining -- a banking practice used to block service to black and Latino people, which was outlawed in 1968 -- is alive and well online.
As a key conduit between the traditional banking providers and the internet, PayPal has a big say in how e-commerce is conducted online. Its acceptable use policy prohibits the purchase of items that it considers to be "obscene," such as sex toys and other adult paraphernalia. In addition, users cannot use the service to buy "sexually oriented materials or services." That's why Patreon's victory enabling payments from the platform was such a big deal back in 2016.
Adam Grayson, CFO of the hardcore porn company Evil Angel, feels that there is a disproportionate amount of discrimination against the industry. "I would be more surprised if Patreon didn't take this stance," he told Engadget. "The financial industry always, almost without fail, discriminates against sex industries, legal or not. The time and energy our company puts into securing our basic banking needs is mind-blowing. And we're a pretty boring taxpaying employer which just happens to sell pornography."
On October 25th, Patreon published a response to Liara Roux's Open Letter, written by CEO Jack Conte. The CEO says that it "broke" his "heart" that the creators who signed the letter "expressed fear for their pages." Conte then reiterated that the site's position has not changed beyond a firmer restriction on the aforementioned illegal content. Conte again justified the action, saying that Patreon has always restricted pornography on its platform and added that the policy would soon include restrictions on "real people engaging in sexual acts, such as masturbation or sexual intercourse on camera."
"The financial industry always, almost without fail, discriminates against sex industries, legal or not." —Evil Angel CFO Adam Grayson
There does seem to be some dissonance between Patreon's stance, which is to restrict adult content, and the statements it is making. It claims to support creators and to not want to block accounts, but at the same time, it seems impossible that any sex worker or erotic artist can remain on the platform with the current policy framework.
The affected users remain unconvinced and posted a rebuttal to Conte's letter shortly after his note was published. The group believes that Conte's email has, if anything, made the situation worse than it already was. "We are sorry to hear that the way his company has handled our community 'bugs' him, but it's hard for us to have empathy for those in power while we are fighting simply to be heard, create and survive." Later, the group charged that "Patreon is saying that they believe sex workers unable to change or censor their work to fit new requirements should lose their income and that legal expressions of sexual creativity do not have a home on their platform."
"This email exemplifies the mentality of Patreon and other tech companies that their image, perhaps to investors or banking partners, is more important than the wellbeing of the legal content creators who rely on Patreon as a source of income and one of the only "safe" spaces for us."
*Engadget received assurance that pages discussed in the conversation would not be flagged to the Trust and Safety team, and we will not publish those specific addresses in this report.