For artists and creators working on adult content, crowdfunding has been a game changer, allowing them to interact with their audience and monetize their work outside of a studio structure, broadening the scope not only of what they’re able to create, but also who they can reach and how much they can charge. But it also hasn’t been easy, with companies like PayPal denying transactions based on “sexually oriented digital goods.” That policy echoes credit card companies’ long-standing bias against adult services online. Now, crowd-funding adult entertainment has gotten even more difficult following creative platform Patreon’s decision to alter its terms of service to restrict adult content.

The change was made in mid-October. Patreon’s original guidelines read, “Patreon is not for pornography, but some of the world’s most beautiful and historically significant art often depicts nudity and sexual expression…Think of the policy as allowing ‘R Rated’ movies… but not porn.” For comparison, the new policy reads, “[Y]ou cannot sell pornographic material or arrange sexual service(s) as a reward for your patrons. We define pornographic material as real people engaging in sexual acts such as masturbation or sexual intercourse on camera. 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.”

That’s a problem for the many models, photographers, webcam operators and other content creators who have been running Patreon campaigns as their primary source of income. Indeed, it’s such a problem that Patreon users came together to write an open letter to the company. “Your platform has given these people a light. We know people who would be homeless if it wasn’t for making porn on Patreon—and it’s not a small number,” the letter states. “And while we understand the desire to police illegal content off the platform (and support it!), all of this legal content is beautiful. Who is it, at Patreon or anywhere, who decides what is art? When is there too much porn, not enough aesthetics?”

Model and photographer Liara Roux is one of the organizers behind the open letter. “I’m definitely not one of the first to speak out, but I have contacts from a cross section of the community and also felt in a safe enough place to make my name one of the public ones at the start of the letter,” she explains via email. “A lot of people were definitely scared, and still are, to draw any attention to their account. Most of the 'Working Group’ on the letter did not sign publicly when it launched, and a significant number of the people whose ideas were incorporated have still not signed publicly. We also had some people sign, then later ask to be taken off the letter to avoid further attention to their accounts.” The notion of being scared to speak out might seem like an overreaction to some, but it’s worth pointing out that almost immediately after Roux spoke out against Patreon, Twitter suspended her account without explanation. It was later restored after legal counsel stepped in.

Patreon grew with the contributions of our community but is throwing us under the bus now that it no longer needs to be associated with what is considered socially stigmatized.

The open letter prompted a response from Patreon’s CEO, Jack Conte, which created more confusion over what was going on. “I hope you understand that nothing has changed except our stance on four areas of content: bestiality, incest, sexual depiction of minors and suggestive sexual violence,” Conte wrote. “Patreon’s stance on pornography has not changed. We have never allowed pornography or sexual services on Patreon and that stance has been clear in our guidelines since they were first published a few years ago. We used to say we allowed 'R-rated’ content, but that description was ineffective at clearly explaining our policy to the community. It didn’t give you the specificity you needed to understand what’s allowed, and what isn’t.”

While the company’s definition of pornography may not be new, it’s also not something that was previously enforced, rigorously or not. Roux said that she had spoken to people at the company “many times” over her Patreon presence, but only about technical issues. “I’ve asked them specifically if my goals and content were okay and they only gave me the feedback that I needed to put all nudity and sexual content behind the 'Patron’s Only’ section—basically behind the paywall,” she explains. “My goals on the page have always said that I was working toward buying professional equipment and paying models to make hardcore pornography. Tthis is not new information.”

Texas-based model Melissa Drew had a similar experience. “I’ve been posting NSFW content on Patreon since I created my page in 2016 and have never had complaints from the site as far as my content goes,” she writes in email. “I went into the site knowing what its boundaries were—or so I thought. To me, it was clear: no porn means no penetration or cunnilingus, fellatio, et cetera. I work in the fetish industry and what I shoot is primarily fetish content. But Patreon has only set a few strict guidelines and they’ve left the rest unclarified. Are services we’ve been offering suddenly against the rules, therefore disappointing our audience? Will we have our page suspended, therefore having our income snatched away over something that was seemingly okay previously?”

The prospect of breaking rules you didn’t even know existed and finding yourself losing your page as a consequence is a potentially scary one, especially when so many rely on the money generated by that page to survive. “I made almost 100 percent of my income through Patreon,” photographer and model Kassandra Leigh says. “Prior to Patreon, I was in a tough spot emotionally and financially. When Patreon was being lauded as an accepting home to sex workers and LGBTQ alike, it was a breath of air for a drowning person. Being able to make a livable wage off of my art was life-changing.”

Drew agrees. “I’ve been working in the modeling industry for nearly 10 years and in the adult industry for about half of that time,” she writes. “Many of us, myself included, had to come up with creative ways to supplement our income just to survive. Then Patreon came along and gave us a safe space to not only post our work, but to create content with the help of our fans and to really build a community.”

“I’ve always controlled my own brand and image, so I knew I would not be making content for distribution by larger companies,” Roux says when asked about how useful Patreon was for her. “My options were to make my own site—which I’m able to do and is still an option for me—or try Patreon. I decided to use Patreon because I believe in community building among your fans. There are no other outlets that offer the exact system Patreon has, definitely none for adult content.”

That is likely to change; IWantEmpire, which runs cam and clip store sites offering adult content, informs Playboy that it has been working “for months” on a similar offering. “The recent actions by Patreon represent the long and time-honored tradition of mainstream businesses using the erotic arts industry to help themselves and then turn their doors closed to the erotic arts industry once our purpose has been served,” says the company vice president Jay Phillips. “It pains me to see real artists, raw artists, artists who are not afraid to express themselves be confined and excluded as artists from Patreon.” The new site is expected to be launched soon, the company said.

But what for Patreon itself? While the company declined to respond to questions for this story, a spokesperson pointed to a recent post by Violet Blue, one of the co-signers of the Open Letter, as a sign of what the company was doing in the face of continued criticism over this issue. While Blue was vague on the details of a recent meeting with the company—"much of what I discussed with Patreon’s team isn’t ready for prime time yet,“ as she puts it at one point—she did seem hopeful that things would improve for creators of adult content.

"They listened, they didn’t withhold questions, and asked for advice,” she wrote. “Having dealt with companies trying to pacify me over their sex censorship since the days of Tribe net, this surprised me. Input, notes, value sharing, information exchange, discussions of language and making plans to continue the discussion in a meaningful way was not what I expected.”

For Leigh, this attitude is fitting considering the benefits adult content creators have brought to the platform. “Many of us feel as though Patreon grew with the contributions of our community, as statistically the NSFW artist community brought in a significant amount of revenue, but is throwing us under the bus now that it no longer needs to be associated with what is considered socially stigmatized,” she argues. “Sexuality of any kind is considered societally unacceptable to talk about let alone defend. We consume pornographic materials at a gargantuan scale but shame anyone for even masturbating. If we, as a society, could quit demonizing our own nature, maybe having conversations about this kind of thing could be possible.”

Drew, also, welcomes the prospect of improved relations between Patreon and those creating adult entertainment. “This situation has come at a time where content creators are already feeling on edge,” she says. “Facebook and Instagram have halted engagement and sites like Twitter have implemented new algorithms making it harder and harder to reach new fans. We are all grasping at straws here.”