Using Blockchain, MintStars Hopes to Give Sex Workers A Better Deal Than OnlyFans
While it’s not necessarily an enterprise application of blockchain, MintStars.com perfectly exemplifies the degree to which blockchain is not only the basis for disrupting existing businesses (even relatively new ones that are wildly successful), it also demonstrates how the financial rails of cryptocurrency can be thoroughly disruptive to traditional financial rails (sometimes called “TradFi”) as well as the governments who are in a position to control industries and business by virtue of their oversight of those TradFi rails.
One such industry, controversial as it may be, is the sex work industry that has given a significant rise to the OnlyFans platform; a content subscription marketplace for creators predominantly known for its role in facilitating independently produced sex worker-created content. According to MintStars co-founder and COO Jessica Van Meir who is also a Ph.D. student at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government (studying sex workers’ rights), OnlyFans did a great job of unencumbering sex workers from an exploitative industry culture and structure. Said Van Meir of the platform, “[OnlyFans] has done a tremendous thing in the industry, which is [to] create independence for creators to be able to make money directly from their fans rather than having to work with a studio or other middlemen.”
However, as much as OnlyFans has thoroughly disrupted the adult industry, MintStars was founded on the principle that blockchain can take the creator independence pioneered by OnlyFans to an entirely different level. According to Van Meir, the opportunity is grounded in OnlyFans’ reliance on traditional finance rails for payments and the fees that creators must pay to OnlyFans which she says can be exorbitant at times. And so, MintStars.com — the tagline of which is “Take control of your content and earnings” — was born.
One problem with OnlyFans’ TradFi approach, says Van Meir, is that the credit card companies get to make the rules. If OnlyFans wants to be able to process credit card payments, the credit card companies have a say in what creator content can and cannot be published and even what language creators use in their content. But once those traditional rails are bypassed using blockchains and cryptocurrencies (MintStars relies on USDC), MintStars can bypass the fees of a platform like OnlyFans and disintermediates the credit cards from any governing role (which in turn is influenced by governments and lobbyists).
Given MintStars's multi-faceted approach to disrupting OnlyFans, one question for enterprises is, "Where do similar opportunities for blockchain-driven disruption and financial efficiencies exist in their markets and industries?"
By David BerlindPublished:April 11, 2023
David Berlind: Today is April 1st, 2023. This is the Blockchain Journal podcast. I'm David Berlind. I'm coming to you from Cambridge, Massachusetts, where the Harvard Blockchain Conference is currently taking place. Sitting with me is Jessica Van Meir, she is the COO and co-founder of a company called MintStars. We were talking, sitting, and eating lunch, and you were telling me a little bit about your journey and your story, and I thought, "Hey, this is pretty interesting. Let's have a little interview." And here we are. Why don't you tell me first what MintStars is?
Jessica Van Meir: Sure. MintStars is an inclusive, sex-positive content subscription platform with a resale marketplace that helps creators earn more from their content and particularly protects sex workers from financial discrimination and censorship.
Berlind: Well, when I hear that and you say financial discrimination and hardship, it sounds to me like you are addressing a problem that exists somewhere else. Is this a place where sex workers, [and] entertainers can go because they can't ply their trade somewhere else?
Van Meir: Yeah. I'm a Ph.D. student as well at the Harvard Kennedy School, and my research is on sex workers' rights. Unfortunately, sex workers face immense amounts of discrimination from payment apps and banks, who often shut down their accounts even though what they're doing is completely legal. As a result, they are entirely reliant on websites like OnlyFans and other sites, which take 20% to sometimes even up to 70% of their earnings and really don't do a lot to advocate for them or protect them from things like chargebacks, piracy, getting their accounts shut down, and censorship from credit card companies.
Berlind: All right. So, OnlyFans is a pretty popular site out there, and it's a place where... What's the primary business of that site?
Van Meir: It's a content subscription platform where you can subscribe to a creator to get access to all of their photos, kind of like a payload Instagram, and 95% of the creators on it post adult content.
Berlind: Okay. How is it that you're able to do or circumvent the financial restrictions that otherwise happen on other platforms or the exorbitant taxes that OnlyFans is placing on its creators?
Van Meir: So, we use crypto-based payments. Customers on MintStars can pay with a debit card to top up their wallet with USDC, which is a Stablecoin worth $1. What this means is that because we use crypto, first of all, we're not subject to the restrictions of credit card companies, who make very strange rules about what kind of content is allowed and isn't and we also aren't subject to high-risk payment processor fees. Traditional payment processors discriminate against sex-positive businesses by charging them exorbitant fees. We're not subject to that because we're able to use USDC payments, and we give each user on the platform a self-custodied wallet so the fans' payments go directly to the creator and so the funds are completely within their control. They can cash them out anytime they like. We are not able to freeze their funds.
Berlind: What does that mean, sex-positive?
Van Meir: It means that we value bodily autonomy. We believe that sexuality is a healthy thing, and we welcome any kind of creator who wants to make a living from their body, be that sex work, be that professional modeling, fitness instructors, dancers. We don't discriminate against people for doing what they want to do with their bodies.
Berlind: So, OnlyFans itself was disruptive in what it provided to creators, and now you're coming along and disrupting them?
Van Meir: Yeah. I think they have done a tremendous thing in the industry, which is to create independence for creators to be able to make money directly from their fans rather than having to work with a studio or other middlemen. But unfortunately, most of their creators are very frustrated and angry with the platform, especially stemming from in October of 2021, they announced they were going to ban sex workers from the platform because their banks and payment processors were forcing them to. Although they ultimately reversed course, they really lost the trust of their community when they did that because they built their business off of this community and really haven't done enough to advocate for them.
Berlind: Explain how it is that credit card companies can be an obstacle to this whole ecosystem.
Van Meir: Right. In our whole financial system, to be able to make payments, we're really dependent on two companies, Visa and MasterCard, and then there's a few other credit card companies, which means that they get to set the rules for what kind of payments can be made. These companies have been under immense pressure in recent years from the Anti-Porn Lobby, which is a group of people who are ostensibly trying to combat sex trafficking, which is something that I very much want to combat as well. But it's really a front for a more moralistic campaign by religious fundamentalist groups who are trying to get these companies to prevent legitimate adult businesses from operating at all by cutting off their access to payment services. Many legitimate companies have lost their ability to accept credit card payments due to some of these new rules.
Berlind: Is OnlyFans one of those? Do they take credit card payments, or are we talking about other platforms?
Van Meir: They do take credit card payments, but there's very strict rules that they have to comply with in order to do so. There's also censorship of certain types of content. This is going to sound a little bit absurd, but they don't allow things like hypnosis content or they don't allow tentacle content because it's considered non-consensual. So, very strange things that are old white dudes in some compliance office making these decisions without actually understanding what this content looks like in reality.
Berlind: Is it the credit card company that's putting... They're saying, "No hypnosis content" and then the platform responds to that by saying, "Okay, we can't take a credit card. This is hypnosis." They look at it, they say, "This is hypnosis content. We can't take a credit card for that." Then what happens? What does the hypnosis content creator do? Are they out of luck? Can they not get payments at all? Or is there another way around?
Van Meir: They're forced to remove that content. There's also a very long list of words they're not allowed to use. The creators constantly have to be trying to keep up with all these changes because it changes and then it's not always transparent what they're allowed to do and what they're not allowed to do.
Berlind: By removing certain constituents from the equation, banks, credit card companies, the government, and moving to crypto as more of the payment platform, you're just giving the ultimate freedom to all these content creators that they actually originally wanted in the first place.
Van Meir: Freedom, yes. Now, that doesn't mean that we don't have content guidelines. We still want to prevent harmful content. We want to prevent illegal content and make sure everyone on the platform is safe. But it means that we as a community get to write those content guidelines according to what we think is safe and acceptable on a platform, not according to what some guy in a compliance office says.
Berlind: When you say we as a community, I know that with a lot of decentralized autonomous organizations, they turn the governance of the whole DAO over to the members of the community. Are you doing that sort of thing, or are you more centrally setting those policies?
Van Meir: We are a more centralized startup, at least to begin with and part of that is we've seen some other startups try to do similar things, but that we're much more crypto-native. That can be very intimidating to people who've never used crypto before because they hear something like DAO, or decentralized, or set up your MetaMask, and they don't know what that means, so they're like, "I don't understand this. I'm not going to take part." Our goal is to really create a very accessible platform that requires no crypto knowledge to use but enables people to take advantage of the benefits of blockchain technology. But we are very close to our community in that we're talking to our creators all the time. We have creators on our team, on our cap table, and we do want to introduce shared ownership in the future.
Berlind: So they take payment in USDC?
Van Meir: Yes. But then they can cash it out to their bank account using an off-ramp provider.
Berlind: So they have to go to another exchange or something with that and turn it into fiat?
Van Meir: Yeah. So we offer, on the MintStars platform, off-ramp options, or if they have another crypto wallet, they can send to their crypto wallet if they prefer to do it that way.
Berlind: Now, a lot of people who see this are going to be interested in your personal journey. They're going to hear that you're a Harvard PhD student, but somehow you are engaged in an industry that would be considered atypical of somebody who's going to Harvard. How did you find your way into this?
Van Meir: The first thing I would say to that is that there's a lot of grad students who are sex workers who do it to pay their way through school because universities don't pay their student workers enough, so you would be surprised. But the second thing I'd say is, I began my research career at Duke University doing research on human trafficking, and I began researching sex work because I came to see it as a labor rights issue. I saw what many sex worker activists had done to advocate for themselves in improving their working conditions and also discussing ways in which the anti-trafficking movement had sometimes not listened to them and had done things that ended up harming them, even if they were done with the best intentions. I did research in Latin America and sex work for my undergrad honors thesis, and now my PhD project is continuing that work.
Berlind: So you're doing your Ph.D. work at the same time that you're the chief operating officer and co-founder of MintStars?
Van Meir: Yes. I like to keep myself busy.
Berlind: You sure are keeping yourself busy. Thank you very much for joining us on the Blockchain Journal podcast.
Van Meir: Thank you so much. Anyone who's interested, you can check us out at mintstars.com.
Berlind: Perfect. Thank you.