Last week, the paid subscription platform OnlyFans announced it was cracking down on the very content that built its business: pornography. The news, first reported by Bloomberg’s Lucas Shaw, created an infinite scroll of jokes on social media, but also a great deal of outrage and distress among the two million people for whom the platform had become a source of income. “OnlyFans is how I pay my rent,” one OnlyFans creator told The Times. “I feed myself from this.”

Pornography has been a subject of sustained national debate since the 1960s, but the battle lines have shifted and blurred over the decades: In the wake of the #MeToo movement, many liberals are now taking a closer look at the ubiquity of online porn and its treatment of women. At the same time, social media has given pornography and its creators a larger platform than they’ve ever had before.

Is pornography a vice to be regulated, or is it a kind of speech to be left largely alone? And what does the answer mean for the people whose livelihoods depend on it? Here’s what people are saying.

After the sexual revolution, pornography became a central preoccupation of the American right, at one point even more so than abortion and homosexuality. “Smut,” President Richard Nixon said in 1970, “should not be simply contained at its present level; it should be outlawed in every state in the Union.”

The cause found willing recruits in Christian conservatives like Jerry Falwell, but also in influential feminists on the left like the legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon and the activist and writer Andrea Dworkin. Dworkin believed that pornography constituted a violation of women’s civil rights: “Every rule of sexual abuse, every nuance of sexual sadism, every highway, and byway of sexual exploitation, is encoded in it,” she wrote.

But by the end of the 1980s, the movement to censor pornography had foundered on First Amendment grounds, and American culture had largely moved on too. “High heels, lipstick, and sex-positivity were in,” Moira Donegan wrote for Bookforum in 2019. “Dworkin — and her gruesome, angry characterization of sexual violence — was decidedly out.”

In recent years, however, the proliferation of pornography online has revived interest in its regulation. As Maggie Jones wrote for The Times Magazine in 2018, pornography is now the de facto sex educator for American youth, prompting concern that internet-native generations are being taught ideas about heterosexual sex that are unrealistic at best and violently misogynistic at worst. (For gay and bisexual youth, Jones noted, studies show that pornography can be a source of affirmation.)

There is little research on what children are watching and whether it affects their behavior. “But you don’t have to believe that porn leads to sexual assault or that it’s creating a generation of brutal men to wonder how it helps shape how teenagers talk and think about sex and, by extension, their ideas about masculinity, femininity, intimacy and power,” Jones wrote.

Online pornography has drawn the strictest scrutiny for how it facilitates the abuse of women and girls. Within the past 10 years, nearly every state has criminalized “revenge porn,” the nonconsensual sharing of sexually explicit photos or videos. Revenge porn primarily affects women, as Rebekah Wells wrote for The Times in 2019, and it can devastate the health and long-term financial prospects of its victims.

Last year, The Times columnist Nicholas Kristof detailed how pornography sites profit off this and other forms of abuse. One of the most-visited pornography websites, Pornhub, attracts 3.5 billion visits a month, more than Netflix or Amazon, and it’s “infested with rape videos,” he wrote. “It monetizes child rapes, revenge pornography, spycam videos of women showering, racist and misogynist content, and footage of women being asphyxiated in plastic bags.”

Shortly after that column’s publication, Discover, Mastercard, and Visa suspended payments to Pornhub. Mastercard later announced new rules for banks that process payments to sellers of adult content: Starting in October, sites will have to verify the age and identity of anyone who is depicted in or uploads adult content, institute a pre-publication content review system, and offer speedy complaint resolutions and appeals.

These rule changes appear to have played a key role in OnlyFans’s recent ban. In a statement, the company said the move was made “to comply with the requests of our banking partners and payout providers.”

While the porn industry surely plays a role in facilitating sexual and economic exploitation, many performers reject the narrative that it’s a root cause of sex trafficking. Alana Evans, the head of the Adult Performers Actors Guild, notes in The Daily Beast that, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, Pornhub’s parent company, which owns several other popular porn sites, accounted for 13,229 reports of “child sexual abuse material” in 2020; Facebook, on the other hand, accounted for 20.3 million — nearly 95 percent of all such reports. The majority of online recruitment in active sex trafficking cases in 2020 also occurred on Facebook, according to the Human Trafficking Institute.

So why the focus on pornography sites? In The New Republic, Melissa Gira Grant argues that pornography is just the latest target of Christian conservative organizations engaged in a “holy war” against what they see as America’s moral decay. Concerns about sex trafficking, she writes, offer a way for such groups — like Morality in the Media, an anti-porn organization founded in the 1960s that in 2015 rebranded itself as the National Center on Sexual Exploitation — to cast their mission as one of social justice.

Many pornography creators say the intensifying crackdown will only put them at greater personal and financial risk. “Companies like Mastercard are now accomplices in the disenfranchisement of millions of sex workers, complicit in pushing workers away from independence into potentially more dangerous and exploitative conditions,” the Free Speech Coalition, a trade association for the adult entertainment industry, said in a statement.

The paradox is especially bitter when it comes to OnlyFans, which took power and money away from studios and sites like Pornhub and put it into the hands of individual creators. When the pandemic hit, the platform also became a lifeline, offering countless performers a way to earn income in the safety of their own homes.

As Charlotte Shane writes in The Times Magazine, OnlyFans has its faults: The company takes a 20 percent cut of earnings, and while some performers rake in millions of dollars, “a vast majority are lucky if they see a few hundred.” And though the company has a policy of barring minors and blocking posts containing sexual assault, violence, or bestiality, a recent investigation by the BBC found enforcement lax.

On the whole, however, “Direct-to-consumer sites like OnlyFans have been a boon to workers in significant ways,” Heather Berg, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis and author of “Porn Work,” told Shane. One of the best measures of that, Berg said, is that traditional porn managers are really angry about their existence.

On top of its consequences for porn creators, OnlyFans’s decision raises important questions about the power that payment processors have over online speech. “Who gets to decide what stays and goes on the internet?” asks Protocol’s Issie Lapowsky. In the case of OnlyFans, “The answer as to who’s calling the shots appears to be Visa and Mastercard.” Comparisons have been drawn to the content moderation regimes of social media giants like Facebook, but Lapowsky notes that the stakes are in some ways higher when it comes to credit-card companies because their policy decisions cut across industries.

Today, you can still find plenty of conservatives who believe, as Nixon, MacKinnon, and Dworkin did, that porn should be outlawed. One of them is The Times columnist Ross Douthat, who wrote in 2018 that pornographic education produces a kind of toxic male personality, “at once entitled and resentful, angry and undermotivated.” Banning porn, he argued, “would dramatically reduce its pedagogical role, its cultural normalcy, its power over libidos everywhere.”

As Douthat acknowledged, however, this is not a proposal that’s likely to win most Americans over. For one thing, whether porn cultivates harmful attitudes toward women — the “negative effects paradigm,” as academics call it — is still a live question: One 2019 study found that “porn superfans” actually held more progressive views of gender roles than the general U.S. public.

But even if you concede the problem of porn’s pedagogical influence, other ways of countering it besides prohibition have been proposed. One, as The Atlantic’s Elizabeth Bruenig has explored, is “porn literacy” instruction designed to help adolescents think more critically about pornography and how to consume it ethically. Bruenig, for her part, is skeptical that school educators are up to the task. And she’s not alone: The Oxford philosopher Amia Srinivasan has said that a superior sex education program would enlist sex workers themselves.

Industry exploitation is perhaps an even thornier issue to solve, but Shane says the answer is to give creators more power, not less. OnlyFans offered many women a way to control their labor and keep most of their income, she writes in The Cut. But “what the internet gave — easy and no-cost means of advertisement, better tools for screening clients, cheaper ways to record and distribute porn — the government, with the devastatingly effective propaganda arm of anti-sex-industry civilian coalitions, keeps taking away.”