Revisions to Patreon’s Adult Content Policies Raise Concern

downloads_logomark_color_on_white@2xChanges to Patreon’s guidelines for adult content have raised concerns among users of the crowdfunding platform. The company has previously been widely praised for their acceptance of legal adult content, enabling the creators of such content to obtain a revenue stream when other major platforms, such as PayPal and Kickstarter, make it difficult to do so. But the company recently revised their policies regarding adult content in such a way that it appears to impinge on individuals who produce it.

The revised passage that raises the most concern reads as follows:

Lastly, you 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.

It should be noted that the passage appears to specifically exempt individuals who produce drawn and animated erotic material by specifying that the prohibited content involves real people. But it still limits constitutionally protected free expression, and there’s little to keep the company from eventually including illustrated expressive content among the adult material that is prohibited.

The platform already has robust tools in place to ensure that adult content is not viewed by underage users or individuals who have no interest in it. And as a private company, Patreon has a right to establish its own content policies. However, there have been numerous cases of private companies, such as Apple, Facebook, Google, and Amazon, arbitrarily enforcing such policies. In particular, content from marginalized populations, such as LGBTQ creators, people of color, and women, is often more vulnerable to the inconsistent enforcement of content policies.

More than 1,000 people have signed an open letter to Patreon regarding the revised policy, expressing concern that it will disproportionately impact vulnerable populations and that Patreon’s definitions of adult content and pornography are unclear. “Who is it, at Patreon or anywhere, who decides what is art? When is there too much porn, not enough aesthetics?” the letter asks.

Patreon CEO Jack Conte responded to the letter, insisting that pornography had always been prohibited on the platform and the policy changes are not “cracking down on adult content” but instead address material depicting “bestiality, incest, sexual depiction of minors, and suggestive sexual violence.” Presumably, illustrated and animated content that falls into those categories would be forbidden as well.

Conte explains that the policy revisions impact only a very small number of users, and he cites the company’s obligation to take content policies seriously:

I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again — I personally take content policy issues with the utmost seriousness. My personal belief is that online content policy is in its infancy right now — most of tech doesn’t do content policy well. In fact, I think tech on the whole under-invests in content policy. Especially for payments products. We’re talking about a person’s income here — we’re talking about a person’s livelihood. We have to be clear, rigorous, and caring. It’s what’s best for Patreon, it’s what’s best for our creators, and it’s also just the right thing to do.

Erika Lynae, who uses Patreon to support the production of sex education videos and articles reviewing sex toys, explained to Buzzfeed that the policy revision and Conte’s response don’t really fall in step with the company’s prior practice:

“It seemed like porn (both funding it through the site and offering it was a patron reward) was perfectly fine as long as it wasn’t explicitly called porn and it was marked as NSFW. They’ve always seemed very supportive of adult creators earning money through their site. So this is definitely a change, not a clarification, because it doesn’t mesh with what their policy has actually been in practice thus far.”

So far, Patreon doesn’t appear to have removed any content, but Kotaku reports that several erotic video games and RPGs — which are big business on the platform — have been suspended pending review. At least one producer was asked to make changes to the project page, but not the game, to fall into compliance.

The policy changes do raise some questions that might impact people engaged in making illustrated adult content. For example, if the suspended video games don’t include bestiality, incest, minors engaged in sex, and sexual violence, then should they be reviewed at all if the company’s own policy is that pornographic content involves real people? Or how will Patreon handle adult content that includes common manga and anime motifs, like cat girls? Could that be considered bestiality? Manga and anime also include characters that can be perceived as underage (which has already caused problems in other parts of the U.S. and Canada). How will Patreon address such material?

It remains to be seen how the policy changes will impact comics creators who use the platform. Hopefully, the company will remain “clear, rigorous, and caring” in the implementation of their revised policy.

Help support CBLDF’s important First Amendment work in 2017 by visiting the Rewards Zonemaking a donation, or becoming a member of CBLDF!

Betsy Gomez is the Editorial Director for CBLDF.