Britain’s New Moral Panic Part One: The OnlyFans Ad Backlash

Britain currently seems in the grip of a new moral panic over porn – but then, when is Britain ever not in a moral panic over porn? Even so, this week seems especially hysterical.

Recently, billboards have appeared in London advertising an OnlyFans account – not so much the site itself but rather one of its participants, Eliza Rose Watson. We might think well done to Ms Watson for taking the initiative in what seems to be a very crowded market and advertising her work outside of the world of social media – especially as sites like Instagram are becoming a lot less friendly for sex workers of any sort and so putting all your eggs in one basket (and that includes OnlyFans, which is continually adding new rules and regulations in a worthless attempt to placate the censors who will always only demand more and more) seems a foolish way of promoting your business.

The billboards, owned by ad agency Amplify, are not exactly explicit, at least not by sane standards. As Watson herself commented to the BBC, “the image… is simply a torso shot of a 34-year-old woman. I would say it’s no more adult than an ad for alcohol and, actually, less racy even than ads you see for lingerie within big shopping centres.” She’s not wrong. Of course, you might say that context is everything, but we should remember that those lingerie ads also cause outrage from the morally upstanding. It’s not just the OnlyFans connection that is upsetting people – though that gives them a good excuse – but simply the presentation of a female body in a way that they find uncomfortably sexual. Interestingly, the ad simply includes logos for OnlyFans and Instagram with Watson’s @ – it’s an ad for her brand rather than either site and you’d need to know what both are to make sense of it. Of course, everyone does know what OnlyFans is, but that simply reinforces the claim that Watson is hardly advertising porn sites – she’s simply promoting her own presence on those platforms, which is a rather different thing.

But no sooner had the billboards – four in London and two in New York – appeared than the one in Harrow was vandalised, with the OnlyFans logo crossed out and “keep p8rn øff øur streets” plastered across the poster – an interesting approach to spelling that suggests the vandals are so terrified of porn that they can’t even bring themselves to write the word. Locals questioned by the BBC trotted out the usual paranoia, with one claiming that the ad was “very suggestive”, which feels like a bit of a stretch really, and another pointing to the local proximity of schools – just how local is open to question, of course – as a reason for the ads not to be placed here (or, we suspect, anywhere else) – though if kids didn’t know what OnlyFans was, it wouldn’t be an issue and if they did… well, that’s down to the media and its endless fascination with the site, isn’t it?

Here’s a thought – why shouldn’t adult entertainment businesses and entertainers be allowed to advertise? We have erectile dysfunction ads shown at prime time on TV now, with condoms and sexual enhancement device ads shown on late-night TV. Why should porn – a legal industry, we might remind ourselves – be treated any differently? As long as the ads are not explicit – and this poster is the very height of restraint – what is the problem, other than moral objections? And if we allow moral objections to dictate what can or cannot be advertised, where do we draw that line?

Five people – so far – have also complained to the Advertising Standards Authority; we can assume that some of them were also involved in the vandalism.  Five isn’t really many, but as we know, the ASA will act on a single complaint if it happens to coincide with their own beliefs, and history tells us that they are unlikely to approve of this, even though it follows all the rules. The ASA likes to think that it is protecting women from themselves and manages to see sexism and exploitation even in underwear ads, where you might reasonably expect to see a scantily-clad woman – so the mere fact of what this is advertising rather than what it shows might be enough to get its members hot under the collar.

But the most fascinating thing about both the vandalism and the complaints is that there is no way to tell who is responsible – it could be Radical Feminists or Far Right religious moralisers, two groups that are increasingly hard to tell apart these days as they adopt each other’s ideas and sloganeering, driven by a fear of sexual expression and sexual freedom. We’ve often said that the extremes of left and right are closer to each other than they are to their respective political movements and examples like this – where the arguments could easily come from either side – just seem to prove that.


Photos from BBC News.

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