What is OnlyFans and why are sex workers upset about celebrities using it?
I heard about OnlyFans at the beginning of the year when friends who were sex workers started using the platform during the first Covid-19 lockdown. Back in March, few people outside of sex workers and their supporters understood or used the platform. That has changed significantly in just a few months.
This week alone I’ve seen dozens of women say they’re joining up as creators. Some of this might be attributed to lockdown boredom, but a significant part will be due to former Disney star Bella Thorne last week earning more than US$1 million in a mere 24 hours on the platform.
Even before Thorne joined the site, OnlyFans was starting to explode. In May, CEO Tim Stokely told BuzzFeed the site had around 200,000 new users every 24 hours and 7,000 to 8,000 new creators joining every day.
OnlyFans is a not-safe-for-work content subscription service. It’s like Patreon with nudes. A Substack newsletter with sex toys. It’s for fans, and only fans. Hence the name. Sure there are some fitness types and musicians on there, but OnlyFans is a platform that sex and sex workers use for work. Whether it intended to be that or not, that’s what it is.
In general, sex work is not a “work from home” profession, so when lockdown came many sex workers struggled with a sudden complete loss of income. Even in level two, when work was able to begin again, sex workers told me their income never went back to previous levels, due to the challenges of balancing client privacy with the need to record contact tracing information.
OnlyFans provided a safer alternative for some sex workers to regain some of their income.
But over the last few months many have seen an increase in people using the platform who are taking customers from sex workers. And those in the adult industry are not happy about it.
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Olivia, 30, turned to sex work on OnlyFans after her mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. She laughs bitterly down the phone at the increasing use of OnlyFans by those who think it’s easy money, or claim it isn’t sex work.
“Not only do you have to create content, you have to talk to every customer and the people that are subscribing and paying for the content that you put up. You don’t get every single dollar either. You get a percentage of it and the rest goes to OnlyFans. It’s hard work, honestly. And it is absolutely sex work because you are providing a customer base with sexualised images of yourself. It’s legitimate work. I have to use social media to get business just like any other self-employed person needs to.”
It’s a 24-7 job made harder by a wage gap created by race, ethnicity, disability and body size. For sex workers, building a social media profile to promote their OnlyFans account is nearly a fulltime job. Bella Thorne has 23.7 million followers on Instagram alone, she has 6.7 million followers on Twitter.
“As a brown, fat woman,” says Olivia, “I’ve literally had Instagram pictures of my already censored body taken down and my account threatened, just because I’m being brown and fat unapologetically on the gram. The average consumer wants a skinny blonde chick with big tits to masturbate on camera and that’s socially acceptable to consume. But a customer who likes BBW (big beautiful women) – well, there’s shame in that. He’s not likely to tell his friends he looks at that type of pornography so there’s no referred clients.”
Olivia says brown and fat people have to work harder for less money than thin white women.
“Bella charges $20 a month and some POC are charging around $3 per month. It’s another wage gap fuelled by anti-fat bias. There are expectations of fat bodies [that they should] take any attention they can. Westernised views of beauty uphold skinny white women as the ideal and that works against our bodies every single day of our lives and on platforms like OnlyFans. Brown people, fat people, disabled people feel worth less in day to day life and then they’re seen in the [sex work] market as being worth less. We can see that across all markers of life.”
White, thin women experimenting in an already crowded market without showing solidarity for sex workers – or understanding their privilege with regard to race and disability – makes Olivia’s job even harder, she says. And when they say it’s not “sex work” it’s another kick in the teeth.
“It makes me feel sick that so many skinny white women who have a [cultural] monopoly anyway are now using OnlyFans in a way that silences black and brown bodies. People who have privilege jumping on OnlyFans is a choice they’re making. They’re a tourist, somebody who can put their feet in and out if they want to; it’s not a survival mechanism. They’re taking the customer base of people who genuinely need these platforms and they’re taking customers and money from people who work really fucking hard to survive as well.”
Prostitutes Collective national co-ordinator Dame Catherine Healy says 2020 has been uniquely difficult for sex workers. “It is a very, very tough time for sex workers at the moment to have your work stop overnight, as has happened to our sex workers in Auckland. It has been extraordinarily difficult for them.”
OnlyFans is an alternative space, but it’s still work. “Of course it’s work and the money doesn’t come easily either. It’s a crowded market place.” A lack of experience or understanding of the industry can cause issues for those trying out OnlyFans as a gimmick, Healy says.
“We always say to people to make sure you’re well informed before you put your identity out there. There can be some great benefits but unforeseeable things can happen and your identity can be exposed in ways that you can’t control. No matter what kind of work you do, you need to know your rights in terms of the context of the work.”
While contact sex work and the advertising of sex work in adult forums is decriminalised in New Zealand, it is definitely not in other parts of the world. Keeping your identity hidden matters for many sex workers, who can face stigma for undertaking what is legal work. That’s something those dabbling in OnlyFans might not understand.
“We call it the whore-archy,” Healy says, describing those who insist what they’re doing isn’t sex work. “For example ‘sugar’ dating sites are built on the premise that this isn’t about being a sex worker. But of course there’s a commercial sex component in most of those scenarios. They’re trading sex for goods and money and assistance but there’s this effort to distance themselves from sex workers. And you get it too when people say ‘I’m not a sex worker, I’m really a social worker and I just talk to my clients.’ I mean come on,” she laughs.
While Healy says she understands the self-protection that can be involved in avoiding the “sex worker” name, doing so only reinforces the stigma undergirding laws harmful to sex workers. Whether you describe yourself as a sex worker or not, she has some advice for you if you’re thinking about jumping on the OnlyFans bandwagon: “Seek support if something goes wrong.”
Vixen Temple is a sex worker in Auckland. She’s scathing of celebrities she says are “cosplaying” sex work – people like Bella Thorne on OnlyFans, FKA Twigs in a music video, and Jennifer Lopez in Hustlers.
“They have so much privilege. They have the protection of their loyal fans, the public, they’re idolised. They don’t face the same stigma and fear of being ostracised by their family, their community, their friends and their loved ones for being sex worker. They can cosplay as sex workers, they can play dress ups, and they get to leave. You’re already a minority when you’re a sex worker, but within sex work if you’re trans or non-binary, if you’re disabled, or if you’re not white, you are facing so much more danger just by being on the internet. [Thorne] doesn’t face any of that.”
Thorne’s choice to take over a platform for sex workers during a global pandemic horrifies Vixen. “She has a net worth of $12 million dollars and she made $2 million in a week. They already have so much wealth and success and glory”. And Thorne’s involvement in OnlyFans isn’t just taking clients from sex workers, she says. Many potential clients are already fearful of being scammed and sex workers like Temple spend a lot of time and emotional labour convincing clients they will get what they’re paying for.
“When Bella Thorne says you’ll get nudes and instead you get her eating a hot dog in a bikini she is stealing our customers and then scamming them, which means they don’t trust us. Sex workers will never scam you. We are ethical people, we are hardworking. We need that trust to get the work, because we need it to live.”
After interviewing Vixen, news arrived that OnlyFans had changed its payment policy after Bella Thorne’s mega-pay day. They have limited the amount creators can charge for exclusive content to $50 and the amount creators can be tipped to $100. This will have a devastating impact on the incomes of sex workers using the app.
If anyone thinks sex work is easy, Vixen’s message is simple. It’s not.
These difficult times require people to show support and solidarity with sex workers, she says. It’s not the time to play tourist.
“We need empathy.” she says. “I have to remind people that we have pets, we have children, we have mouths to feed, including our own.
“I have to remind people that we’re human.”