2020 was a bizarre year for all of us, and many of us developed new obsessions, one of which was OnlyFans. This subscription-based adult content platform allows users to pay for explicit images or videos directly. To an average “boomer” Internet user like myself, the advent of this platform came as a shocker due to its sudden growth and the existence of free websites such as Pornhub that provide similar content. The questions linger: Why does OnlyFans perform so well despite its paywall, where people so eagerly and willingly pay for its service? And what ramifications will its development have on the Internet?
Surprisingly, the history of OnlyFans dates all the way back to 2016, where it was founded by British entrepreneur Tim Stokely. Their objective was simple: To “help content creators and artists “monetize their content while developing authentic relationships with their fanbase.” Thus, the mechanics of OnlyFans are straightforward: users subscribe to creators for their content (ranging from $4.99 to $49.99) and can directly message and request tailored on-demand erotic photos and videos from creators. This feature is one of the many reasons why OnlyFans has thrived and overtaken other similar services as people can gain access to content catered specifically to their tastes. It also incorporates social media elements, with many users appreciating its interactive approach and deviation from just straight pornography. In essence, OnlyFans is a hybrid of YouTube/ Cameo and Instagram/ Twitter, where users can enjoy content and interactions with the subscribed stars, but with a price.
The Stars, The Company, and The Fans
Contrary to common belief, OnlyFans creators are not, by default, sex workers or porn stars. Their profiles range from sex workers to fitness instructors, dancers, athletes (like Floyd Mayweather), and even renowned artists like DJ Khaled and Cardi B (!). This business model has been so insanely successful, where the OnlyFans creators do earn big bucks. Jem Wolfie, an OnlyFans creator known for her “her Kardashianesque proportions, squatting in really tight leggings and squeezing her breasts together,” has 10,000 subscribers, with each paying $10 a month (you can do the math). Dannii Harwood, another OnlyFans mogul, earned nearly $53,000 in November 2020. And even when the platform only keeps 20% of its revenue, the company still profits at a staggering figure of $60 million.
Since the platform is so lucrative, more and more have jumped on this bandwagon for quick and easy cash. However, OnlyFans veterans dismiss this line of thought, claiming it is much more challenging than it appears. For instance, Arabelle Raphael, an OnlyFans influencer, stated how “you have to build that following before you can make that money [because] if no one is paying attention or knows what you’re doing, how are you going to sell that service?” OnlyFans creator Brooklyn Rose also shared that it “took about a year” before she started making real money, where it “definitely takes hard work.”
OnlyFans presents a provocative paradox: In an era where we are so adamant about paying for content like news and always scrape for free access, it is astonishing to witness the platform’s fervent growth in such a short time.
So how many actual people sign up to enjoy this type of sexual content? Well, as of June 2021, a whopping 130 million registered users. This astronomical growth had the helping hand (a 15% bump, to be exact) from Queen B(eyoncé) with her reference to the platform in the Savage remix. All in all, OnlyFans presents a provocative paradox: In an era where we are so adamant about paying for content like news and always scrape for free access, it is astonishing to witness the platform’s fervent growth in such a short time.
Everything Goes and Strange Connections
The boundaries are blurred on OnlyFans, where creators “can post whatever they think they can get people to pay for — sexually explicit or otherwise.” However, the platform has been trying to pivot from its “porn” label as it attempts to break into the mainstream and turns the platform into a place for celebrities to meet with fans. Hence, OnlyFans strays away from the traditional and stereotypical pornography scene as users can converse and get to know their favorite celebrities. As some OnlyFans creators have pointed out, users seek a more intimate and personal relationship, where the stars are often fantasized as the users’ boyfriends or girlfriends. Professor Clarissa Smith, the Journal of Porn Studies co-editor, adds how the platform provides a space for fans to see “the other side of the professional performer.” So, yes, connections can be made even in the oddest and most unexpected places.
Lifeboat in the Pandemic
A countless number of people have lost their jobs in the pandemic and had their livelihood greatly endangered. Thus, OnlyFans creators, many of whom were laid off from their regular jobs, sought after this “gold mine,” hoping to turn their lives around or merely stay afloat. Some creators even use OnlyFans to finance their dreams, as one joined the platform to continue her nursing education. After all, a creator affirms that sex work “is sort of gig of last resort for people,” where it’s an “emergency source of informal income that they can get when they’re in a bind.” On a different note, many OnlyFans stars have also opened up about how the platform has partially liberated the stigmatization around sex work and empowered female sex workers as a tool and a vehicle to achieve autonomy.
Welcome the Dark Side
Of course, like any other app, OnlyFans does not necessarily keep an entirely clean slate. The most infamous incident, which coincidentally was how I became aware of the platform, to begin with, was the Bella Thorne incident. The situation blew up after she earned $2 million in a few days from OnlyFans subscribers and allegedly charged them $200 each for her “nudes.” In other words, she scammed them. This questionable move angered many genuine OnlyFans creators whose livelihood depends on the platform. In an article with Rolling Stone, OnlyFans creator Aussie Rachel criticized how the entrance of celebrities, especially those with an established reputation, “spells doom for the sex workers who rely on it for income.” Although Thorne later apologized for her careless actions, this incident only proves how volatile and vulnerable the business model is.
fans can be bats**t crazy, and at the very least, the platform needs to be able to protect its breadwinners.
The platform is not always glamorous like the fantasy it portrays, especially with the protection of its creators. According to the BBC, creators have experienced stalking, terror videos, rape threats, harassment, and racial abuse because the platform is not responsible for moderating its content. The company seems to shrug off any protection duty of its creators, as one creator’s report of death threats was only met with an apathetic categorization of merely “rude messages,” which did not violate their guidelines. And when these “rude” users are blocked for their indecency, they immediately receive a refund from the platform, which is ridiculous and unjust from financial and moral standpoints. Yes, the app is for only fans, but fans can be bats**t crazy, and at the very least, the platform needs to be able to protect its breadwinners.
Protect our Children
However, another worrying loophole of OnlyFans concerns underage users and creators. While the platform established strict guidelines and profile checks of their supposedly adult user base by demanding government-issued ID, things can obviously fall through the cracks. Underage users often use fake identification to create accounts, both to consume and create content. As young as 13 years old, adolescent users have joined the platform for a myriad of motivations, many of whom seek financial gain. An OnlyFans creator even went on to tell her counselor that she knew “it’s not appropriate for kids [her] age to be doing this, but it’s an easy way to make money.” Another creator even bragged to his friend about “making such an amazing amount of money for just having sex on camera for other people to watch.” While most of this is voluntary, children have also filed complaints of having their images uploaded without consent or even being blackmailed due to account hacking.
This alarming phenomenon has not gone unnoticed by government officials, who condemned the platform of “failing to properly protect children” and “prevent children exploiting the opportunity to generate money, but also for children to be exploited,” and called for more human moderation. OnlyFans responded in the true fashion of any tech company dealing with any criticism: dodging all liability, boasting about its “state-of-the-art” monitoring and verification technology, and assuring the public that they take the issue “very seriously.”
OnlyFans is the new addition to the Internet ecosystem that will continue to inflate as time goes by. The way the platform functions is not problematic as it’s like any other give-and-take transaction. However, because the platform handles such a high-stake subject exposed to many loopholes, the company needs to be even more cautious with and accountable for its impacts on both its creators and users. Regardless, it would be interesting to see whether this racy app would be able to transition to the mainstream while juggling its delicate user base and content. Only time will tell for OnlyFans.
Cover: Jakub Porzycki via Bloomberg
Edited by: Rajal Monga