Long before OnlyFans bowed to the banks, Cindy Gallop took them on

Justin Hendrix / Aug 25, 2021

The founder of MakeLoveNotPorn makes the case for adult businesses that respect people, if they can ever get access to capital.

OnlyFans, a UK-based site that built a billion dollar business enabling creators to post and get paid for sexually explicit material, announced last week that as of October 1st it will no longer permit anything much more salacious than nudity. This came as a surprise to its legion of creators and its many paying fans. But the reason is straightforward: financial firms will simply not support businesses that deal in sex and pornography.

“The change in policy, we had no choice — the short answer is banks,” the company's founder and CEO, Tim Stokely, explained to the Financial Times in an interview published today. Not only is it an operational challenge for the company, but carrying explicit content depicting sexual acts is apparently a turn off to investors, as well.

When I read about OnlyFans' predicament, I immediately thought about another venture that encountered many of the same issues when it got up and running a decade ago- MakeLoveNotPorn. Founded by Cindy Gallop, Make LoveNotPorn bills itself as "the world’s first user-generated, human-curated social sex video-sharing platform."

I caught up with Cindy to hear more about her experience with these issues, get perspective on the OnlyFans announcement, and talk about what it says about a fundamental predicament for the adult content and services industry. Along the way she also offered commentary on the broader tech culture and the way it approaches content moderation and regard for the safety of users that points to a vision of a different kind of internet that is lost in Big Tech's current obsession with scale. And, we talked about whether (or when) cryptocurrencies might be the answer.

What I think is fascinating about Cindy's story is that her initial insight is one we've explored at Tech Policy Press in a variety of ways- that human behavior is being altered at scale by consumption and engagement with digital and social media platforms. Her goal is to fight back against the negative impacts of such perturbations, and against social and cultural issues that underlie them, in order to unlock the benefits of the internet to improve human experience- and, indeed, promote us all having better sex.

The following is a lightly edited transcript of the discussion. Subscribe to the Tech Policy Press podcast here.

Justin Hendrix:

I always ask- just for the record- for folks to say their name, title and affiliation.

Cindy Gallop:

Sure. So I'm Cindy Gallop, I'm the founder and CEO of MakeLoveNotPorn. Until I raise the kind of funding for MakeLoveNotPorn I really want to, I support myself alongside that working as a public speaker and a consultant. I characterize my approach to business speaking and consultancy as "I like to blow shit up. I'm the Michael Bay of business."

Justin Hendrix:

Absolutely. I met you a decade ago, I think right around the time that you'd launched MakeLoveNotPorn. And I remember early on you telling me about the troubles that you were having getting going in particular because of issues in getting financed, and getting banking services. Can you maybe just tell my listeners the quick history of MakeLoveNotPorn? What you're trying to do, and how you got it off the ground?

Cindy Gallop:

So essentially MakeLoveNotPorn is an accident, in the sense that I never consciously or intentionally set out to do anything I find myself doing now. It came about through my direct personal experience dating younger men. The men I date tend to be in their twenties. I realized 13 or 14 years ago, through dating younger men, that I was encountering what happens when two things converge. And I stress the dual convergence, Justin, because most people think it's only one thing. I realized I was experiencing what happens when today's total freedom of access to hardcore porn online meets our society's equally total reluctance to talk openly and honestly about sex. When those two things converge, porn becomes sex education by default- and not in a good way. And so I found myself encountering a number of sexual behavioral memes in bed. I went, ‘whoa, I know where that's coming from.’

I thought, 'gosh, if I'm experiencing this, other people must be as well'. I didn't know that because 13-14 years ago, nobody was talking about this. Nobody was writing about it. And as a naturally action oriented person, I went, ‘I want to do something about this.’ So 12 years ago, I put up- on no money- a tiny clunky website at makelovenotporn.com, that in its original version was just words. The construct was ‘porn world versus real world.’ Here's what happens in the porn world, here's what really happens in the real world.

I launched at TED in 2009, and became the only TED speaker to say the words "come on my face" on the TED stage, six times in succession. The talk went viral as a result, and it drove this extraordinary global response to my tiny clunky website that I'd never anticipated. And I realized I'd uncovered a huge global social issue.

Cindy Gallop, photographed by Kevin Abosch

And so that was what led me to turn MakeLoveNotPorn into something much more far-reaching, helpful, and effective, which is the world's first and only user-generated, human curated, social sex video sharing platform. So we are pro sex, pro porn, pro knowing the difference. If porn is the Hollywood blockbuster movie, MakeLoveNotPorn is the real-world documentary. We are what Facebook would be if Facebook allowed you to socially, sexually self-express, which obviously it doesn't. So we're socializing sex. Normalizing sex in the real world to make it easier for everyone to talk about. To promote consent, communication, good sexual values, and good sexual behavior. We call ourselves The Social Sex Revolution. The revolution part is not the sex. It's the social.

And to your question, Justin, the one thing I did not realize when embarked on this venture 12 years ago, was that I and my tiny team would fight an enormous battle every single day to build this. Essentially, because every piece of business infrastructure that any other tech startup gets taken for granted, we can't. The small print always says ‘no adult content’. And this is all pervasive across every area of the business in ways that people outside this sphere don't realize.

As you mentioned, I can't get funded. I can't get banked. It took me four years to find one bank here in America that would allow us to open a business bank account for MakeLoveNotPorn. Far and away our biggest operational challenge is payments. PayPal won't work with us. Stripe can't. Mainstream credit card processes won't.

But it goes way beyond that. Every tech service I need to use to operate my video streaming platform- be it hosting, encoding, encrypting- the terms of service always say no adult content. In every single case, I have to deal with people at the top of the company, explain what I'm doing, beg to be allowed to use their service. Sometimes they'll let me, sometimes they don't. It's a very labor-intensive process.

We had to build our entire video sharing platform from scratch as proprietary technology because existing streaming services will not stream adult content. I'm so jealous of friends who built video start-ups on top of Vimeo. Quick, easy, simple. I can't do that. Even something as simple as sending out membership emails. MailChimp will not work with adult content. We're rejected by six or seven email partners until we found someone that would. And to give you some idea of the ridiculous extremes all of this goes to, a couple of years ago, I needed a contract user experience designer. I put a perfectly standard job description up on Upwork. 20 minutes later, Upwork took it down and told us because we are MakeLoveNotPorn, we are not allowed to advertise jobs on Upwork. That's how ridiculous all of this is.

Justin Hendrix:

So this is a site that promotes body positivity, a healthy approach to relationships and sex, and to sharing ideas related to sex, in addition to actually depicting sex, which is something that a lot of people obviously have an interest in. Of course, these problems came into the news a little bit in the last week or so when this site called OnlyFans had some similar problems, and I immediately thought of you. I figured you were probably, on some level, on the sidelines watching this situation unfold and might have something to say about it. What do you make of the situation with OnlyFans- which, to be clear, I don't necessarily regard as a competitor, but is certainly in a similar space.

Cindy Gallop:

No, no. It absolutely isn't. You're right. So, let me respond your question in two parts, if that's okay. I want to speak to the MakeLoveNotPorn perspective on it, and I'll speak to OnlyFans. Because you're quite right, Justin. Here's the enormous irony of my situation, because MakeLoveNotPorn is a venture and a platform unlike any other.

So first of all, our mission is to end rape culture. And we do that by doing something incredibly simple that nevertheless nobody else is doing. We end rape culture by showing you how wonderful great, consensual, communicative sex is in the real world. Our social sex videos role model good sexual values and behavior. And we make all of that aspirational versus what you see in porn and popular culture. That's the first point. We are out to end rape culture and we can't get the infrastructure and the financial support we need.

The second thing is that MakeLoveNotPorn is a no risk venture in what is deemed a high-risk category. And by the way, given the work you do, I actually want to contextualize MakeLoveNotPorn within the broader tech landscape. Because the young white male founders of the giant tech platforms that dominate our lives today are not the primary targets online and offline of harassment, abuse, sexual assault, racism, rape, revenge porn. Therefore they did not and they do not proactively design for the prevention of any of those things on their platforms. And we see the results around us every single day. Those of us who are at risk every single day- women, Black people, people of color, LGBTQ, the disabled- we design safe spaces and safe experiences. I and my tiny team spent literally years concepting and designing MakeLoveNotPorn before we ever built it, because we knew it was to invite people to do something they'd never done before- socially share their real-world sex- we had to think through every possible ramification to create a completely safe and trustworthy space.

And as a result, not only does MakeLoveNotPorn operate unlike anybody else in the adult sphere, we operate unlike anybody else on the internet period. And what I mean by that is I designed MakeLoveNotPorn around what everybody else should have, but nobody else did- human curation. There is no self publishing of anything on MakeLoveNotPorn. Our curators watch every single real-world sex video submitted from beginning to end before we approve- or reject- and publish it. Nobody else does that. We review every single post on every single member profile- photos, texts, illustration, before we approve it and publish it. And by the way, our member social posts can be as safe or not safe for work as you like, but we approve every single one.

We review every single comment on every single video before we approve it and publish it. And that is why MakeLoveNotPorn is the safest place on the internet, because we can vouch for every single piece of content on our platform in a way that nobody else can. Now bear in mind, everything else I've just said, Justin, because we are tiny. We're bootstrapping. We have no money. We've been human curating everything for nine years. If MakeLoveNotPorn can do it, OnlyFans with that revenue, Facebook, Instagram, boy oh boy, they could do it as well. You know, it's like diversity and inclusion. If you really want, if you really want to do it, you can. If you really want to human curate, you can.

And the third reason why MakeLoveNotPorn is a no risk venture is because the thing that the financial world is most concerned about when it comes to adult content is chargebacks. And I will just explain for the benefit of our listeners that chargebacks are what happens when the wife goes to the husband, "oh, darling, what's this funny charge on our credit card." And the husband goes, "whoa, whoa, no, I don't know what that is. It's fraud, that’s what it is, we're not paying it." Now, MakeLoveNotPorn has a virtually zero chargeback record because we're social sex. Couples watch our videos together. Nobody's hiding anything from anybody.

MakeLoveNotPorn is a decade-old business

So those three things mean it's outrageous that we are not welcomed by credit card processes: PayPal, Stripe, everywhere. Now, my perspective on what's happened with OnlyFans is first of all, that is a really sad indictment of what I've been fighting for 12 years, because nothing's changed on the infrastructure, FinTech, payments front. The very fact that a venture like OnlyFans can fall victim, that is extraordinary.

But the second thing is that both OnlyFans and MasterCard and Visa and Stripe and PayPal, they are missing out on a huge opportunity. This isn't OnlyFans’ agenda- I very much wish it was. But turbo charged by the pandemic, OnlyFans spectacularly mainstreamed sexual content as entertainment, and the ability to earn a living generating sexual content, entertainment, whoever you are. Because obviously the growth was propelled in the first instance by professional sex workers, but with the pandemic financially impacting everybody, that opened up the opportunity for many other people to decide to do something on OnlyFans in some form of sexual related content that enabled them to earn money. And honestly, I would have loved OnlyFans to have wanted to mainstream all of this on behalf of all of us, because they are the best bridge we've ever had to mainstream acceptance. Now, that isn't their agenda, because unfortunately, again, as we've seen, they are absolutely bowing to the old world order demand that ‘if you want to grow, you do not do it with adult content.’

And I find it astonishing that, with those extraordinary financials, that they have had to bend the knee. But that for me, they end up really also just missing out on this enormous opportunity, because if you look, as I said, at what we do at MakeLoveNotPorn and our tiny bootstrapping impoverished way, it is absolutely possible to design for completely safe, legal, consensual adult entertainment and adult content. And we need people like OnlyFans to take up that mission, again, on all of our behalf and show that you make so much more money when you embrace it. Because the point is just that- and I've been saying this for 12 years, ever since I realized all the barriers I faced and set out to educate everybody and also to get people to see that the answer to everything that worries people about porn and sex is not to shut down, censor, clampdown, block, repress. It is instead to open up. Open up the dialogue around all of this.

And actually that was the one good thing about what's happening with OnlyFans. It is that all of this has been broken wide open and talked about, and really analyzed and observed very differently from 12 years ago. The answer is to open up to supporting and welcoming and funding entrepreneurs like me, who like the OnlyFans team wants to disrupt all of this for the better and open up to let us do business the same way everybody else does. Because when you do that, you completely transform the landscape of what is deemed adult.

I'd like to repurpose in this context, Wayne LaPierre of the NRA’s infamous gun control quote: "the only thing that stops a bad guy with a business is a good guy with a better business". Doing what I've just talked about, opening up instead of censoring and blocking, leads to quite frankly, so much more in terms of money. Way bigger financial returns.

We are talking about the universal human experience. We are talking about something that everybody wants and enjoys and is willing to pay for in a way that you can say about very few other things. And so that is the huge opportunity that OnlyFans and the payments processes and the FinTech world they're missing out on.

Justin Hendrix:

So what do you make of the broader content moderation arguments that go on? We perpetually now spend our time talking about de-platforming and censorship and Section 230 and all of these related things. From your vantage running a site that seems to do content moderation in such an intense and focused way, what do you make of the broader conversation around this issue and how to make platforms safe?

Cindy Gallop:

With MakeLoveNotPorn, you are looking at what happens when the female lens is brought to bear on building technology. And there are a couple of very important principles about why we operate the way we do, which are why the white male bro founded platforms have such a huge problem.

So the first principle, Justin, is that we designed MakeLoveNotPorn around human curation, because it is designed around enormous respect for our community, okay? Respect for our wonderful members and especially respect for our contributors. We call them our MakeLoveNotPornstars. We consider it a privilege that these people have been willing to share this most intimate part of their lives with us. So in that context, we take human curation to extraordinary levels. I mean, we were already curated in a way that nobody else does, but we take curation to unheard of levels.

I mentioned to you earlier that we review every comment on every video before we approve or reject and publish them. We build a personal relationship with every one of our MakeLoveNotPornstars. And one of the things that we do when we onboard a new MakeLoveNotPornstar, is we ask them what comments they do and don't want to see on their videos. And we then curate accordingly. And the reason for that- I'll give a couple of instances. You know, our members are awfully respectful and very appreciative, but in their comments, they may use language that that MakeLoveNotPornstar would rather not see. In which case they just have to tell us, and we will not publish those comments.

Those of us who are at risk every single day- women, Black people, people of color, LGBTQ, the disabled- we design safe spaces and safe experiences.

MakeLoveNotPorn is all inclusive and diverse. We have many male, female, trans, non-binary MakeLoveNotPornstars, and with our trans, non binary contributors, while we have pronouns and you absolutely see how people self identify, they may present as a different gender. Enthusiastic and appreciative members may be triggering in comments that reference that gender. And so they can tell us again what they do and don't want to see the comments and we will curate accordingly. Nobody else even goes remotely near anything like that. And that is because I go back to the key point, Justin, we designed around respect for our community. And most platforms out there do not respect their community. They see their community as numbers, and they see that community as dollar signs. And quite honestly, OnlyFans is a case in point, because I would have loved to see OnlyFans respect sex workers and design for sex workers- design to keep them safe, protected. Make their lives easier. Not be 24-7 content farms. So, that's principle number one. I watch what's happening on OnlyFans and I think, “respect your community and design around that.” You create extraordinary experiences and also keep people safe.

The second thing is, the reason MakeLoveNotPorn is the safest place on the internet is because our approach to our content starts before you ever come anywhere near the site. And what I mean by that is when you put out there what kind of content you designed your platform for, that is the only kind of content you get. I designed MakeLoveNotPorn to celebrate the funny, messy, wonderful, comical, fabulous ways we all have sex in the real world. And we make it crystal clear what we mean when we say we are a social sex, real world sex video sharing platform. We make it crystal clear, not only in our FAQ's on the platform, but across all our social channels, in every media interview, in every blog post. And so we only get the kind of content submitted that we want to receive.

Other platforms could absolutely learn from that principle as well, because you can't be Facebook and go, "we just want to connect the world. Everybody come on in" and expect that you will then not have to deal with a ton of shit. I designed MakeLoveNotPorn around my own beliefs and philosophies, one of which is that everything in life starts with you and your values. We know exactly what our values are at MakeLoveNotPorn, and we designed for them. I believe the business model of the future is ‘shared values plus shared action equals shared profit’. Financial profit and social profit. And by the way, that's what my startup, IfWeRanTheWorld is all about- and I designed to MakeLoveNotPorn around that same business model.

You cannot stand for nothing and then squawk about the fact that you have a complete and total shit show going on your platform. Decide what you are for. Decide what you want on your platform, and then design for that and project that outwards and make it very clear that that is what you welcome, and that you do not want the kind of content that you don't want on your platform. Does that make sense?

Justin Hendrix:

It does. Over the years, have you had much interaction or any interaction with regulators or lawmakers, any that have been curious about your predicament or interested in what it is that you're doing?

Cindy Gallop:

I haven't. I mean, first of all, I should just say that MakeLoveNotPorn is more legal than legal. I spent a huge amount of my seed funding on lawyers, setting us up at the start. And by the way, that is the enormous irony. Of all of the protestations around adult content, we can't operate online unless we are fully legal. But it's a great question, Justin, because I haven't, but I want to. And what I mean by that is I've been saying for years to open up the tech and business worlds minds. The three huge disruption opportunities in tech today are sex, cannabis, and the blockchain, and ironically investors are flooding into the other two more than they are the first, which means that VCs and startups in cannabis and blockchain and crypto can afford to fund lobbyists, regulation change, public education initiatives, foundations.

We need all of that in sex-tech, because we need a new legal definition of adult content. At the moment compliance is knee jerk. But that little phrase 'no adult content' is blanket coverage for everything, and as you have just heard, MakeLoveNotPorn is the safest place on the internet, but we are still are blocked from so many things because we are adult content. We need to update the legislation. We need to update the understanding. We need to educate around the fact that there are a ton- like me- of utterly ethical, legal, transparent sextech ventures, where there is no risk in working with us whatsoever.

Justin Hendrix:

Well, I hope that you and I can discuss that effort in the future. Is there anything I didn't ask you about that you wanted to kind of get across today about the general context around content moderation?

Cindy Gallop:

Well, obviously on the content moderation front, I go back to my point- if MakeLoveNotPorn, tiny bootstrapping, with no money has for nine years been able to review with human eyes every single video, every single post, and every single comment, so can everybody else, okay? Everybody else should be looking at our model and learning from it. But the other thing I would say is, we need everybody off the back of what has happened with OnlyFans to rally around and support all of us working in sex-tech, in sex-ed adventures, because- and I've been saying this for years about MMakeLoveNotPorn, Justin- it applies to all of us. MakeLoveNotPorn operates in the single biggest market of them all: not sex, not porn. The market of human happiness.

I started MakeLoveNotPorn because of the thousands of emails that I received after my TED talk from every single country in the world, from young and old, male and female, straight and gay who poured their hearts out to me, told me things about their sex lives and the porn watching habits they'd never told anybody else before, simply because, as one man wrote to me in a really long email, "I can't believe that at the age of 38, I am pouring all of this out to a woman I'd never met because she is the only person I've ever seen speak honestly about all of this."

I've spent 12 years looking at my email inbox, the comments on our videos, the conversations I have... I have seen the enormous human shame, misery, and unhappiness caused by the guilt and embarrassment that we imbue on everything to do with sex. And that is why it is so important that this moment is seized. And this opportunity with OnlyFans, which as I said, has mainstreamed the enjoyment of sexual content more than any other venture. This is why I want to see everybody rally around and go, it's time to change all of this.

Justin Hendrix:

I would hope that in future, we do see the type of change that you refer to- strikes me that the internet might be a safer place, while I suppose many people listening to this would say, "well, YouTube could never review every single video uploaded."

Cindy Gallop:

Oh yes, they could if they really wanted to. And just so you know, Justin, because I'm about to set out to raise a serious round of funding for MakeLoveNotPorn to scale to be the Facebook of social sex. That's what I want us to be- a billion dollar venture. And human curation is built into our business plan and is eminently scalable. The analogy I draw, because this is the way to think about it, is human curation, scalable human curation, is our version of a software as a service enterprise sales force. Okay? Those enterprise software unicorns have built into their business plans tons and tons and tons of salespeople, because that's what you need to sell that kind of software. This is the same thing. If YouTube wanted to review every single video uploaded to the platform it could. And by the way, the moment- to my point earlier- that you announce you're doing that, that flood of content reduces immediately to the kind of content you want on your platform, because when the child abusers and the racists and the Nazis know that you are now human curating for the content you want, they stop submitting it.

Justin Hendrix:

You definitely create a kind of picture of an internet that I hope we can get to. You mentioned blockchain- does blockchain or crypto figure generally into your business model plans? Does that seem like an opportunity to you, or is it still too early?

Cindy Gallop:

Do you know, ironically, it's still too early. And it's ironic because, Justin, when I ran up against all of these financial barriers, I absolutely have been monitoring the future of FinTech every day since I started MakeLoveNotPorn. So I was talking to the Bitcoin, the crypto community way back when, and by the way, I'm bloody kicking myself- had I bought Bitcoin at the time, obviously. But here's the issue. And in fact, I said this to the audience at Crypto Springs in 2019- which is a wonderful, diverse female founded crypto event, where I spoke on a panel about these challenges. And I said to the crypto community at MakeLoveNotPorn, we need you to get a whole lot better at telling your story. To mainstream it. Because that's the issue. MakeLoveNotPorn is a mass market mainstream brand and crypto at the moment does not have the widespread mainstream mass market understanding and comfort level with giving it mainstream adoption in a way that means that we could then leverage the hell out of it.

So that's my challenge to the crypto community. I mean, we need you to do what OnlyFans did, actually. Massively accelerate mainstream use cases in a way that people like me will absolutely welcome because it will be a much easier sell to our members and our community.

Justin Hendrix:

Cindy Gallop, I hope I don't wait 10 years to talk to you again.

Cindy Gallop:

Thank you, Justin. It's been a pleasure.


Justin Hendrix
Justin Hendrix is CEO and Editor of Tech Policy Press, a new nonprofit media venture concerned with the intersection of technology and democracy. Previously, he was Executive Director of NYC Media Lab. He spent over a decade at The Economist in roles including Vice President, Business Development & ...