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Lithium The rise (and fall?) of OnlyFans

Oct. 13, 2020
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“Would you still be my boyfriend if I had an OnlyFans?” I asked innocently.

“Only if I got early access,” my boyfriend joked.

His nonchalance was jarring and disappointing. What do you mean, you don’t want to shield my body from the lustful eyes of many? I suppose I was hoping for a protective, borderline-toxic rant about how I belonged to him, how I wasn’t to exude sexual energy to anyone besides him. Or maybe that’s what I’ve been socialized to find romantic—but I digress.

OnlyFans, founded in 2016, is a subscription-based website best known for the exclusive sexual content its users can provide for a monthly fee. This NSFW side of OnlyFans has gained a lot of traction amongst young adults, with some content creators racking up thousands of dollars a month. It’s been meme-ified, both scrutinized and venerated by people positioned all across the political spectrum. This has only helped boost the platform’s popularity.

Despite the representation of OnlyFans as a porn website, the platform wasn’t created for the sole purpose of providing NSFW content. Content creators can post different types of exclusive content, ranging from fitness tips to plain old selfies. But there’s no denying that OnlyFans took social media by storm mainly because of its X-rated content.

This rapid growth baffled me. Why did the platform blow up so quickly? It’s not like OnlyFans completely reinvented the wheel of amateur porn—so how has it become the poster child for modern-day sex work?

Four words: right time, right place. 

Ever since COVID-19 shoved us into our homes, took away face-to-face communication, and left us stranded in our own heads, we’ve all been looking for forms of escapism. 

Enter stage right: OnlyFans. The savior of, and cure to, the bored and hustlers alike. With people caged inside and freed of (on-site) work responsibilities, OnlyFans has become the go-to center for profitable entertainment. Workers and lurkers alike can access (and post) content at any time and from anywhere their hearts desire. Given that quarantine has freed up everyone’s time (and calendars), OnlyFans has grown exponentially over the last few months. This growth has only been exacerbated by popular influencers such as Blac Chyna and Bella Thorne’s appearance on the site. These changes have allowed the platform to boast an astonishing 200,000 new daily users ever since the start of the pandemic. The end-all-be-all cherry on top? Beyonce casually name-dropping the platform on “Savage.”

But OnlyFans’ growth still doesn’t answer one burning question: what makes it stand out compared to other websites and platforms for sex work? How does it differ from your day-to-day forms of steamy content? 

Its normalization. OnlyFans has been ingrained in pop culture, destigmatizing the idea of a layperson dipping their toes into sex work. It’s bridged the gap between sex workers’ often-hidden alter egos and their real-life personas. Content creators now openly promote homegrown NSFW content on their personal social media accounts in order to gain new subscribers. The platform is synonymous with the girl- or boy-next-door fantasy: with the click of a payment button, you get to see a good girl or boy turned bad.

Of course, this isn’t to say that “typical” full-time sex workers can’t benefit from an additional stream of income via OnlyFans—especially considers sex workers were already shifting away from agency-run work. The fees, contracts, and relatively lower pay implied by said agencies have resulted in sex workers undertaking more independent labor. The freedom to enact and embody whatever and whoever they want—unbounded by contracts or directorial vision—is lucrative and liberating. Honey Gold, an adult actress, stated, “I’ve made more money working on OnlyFans, from home, from my cellphone, than I have in my entire professional porn career.”

An additional feature of OnlyFans that distinguishes it from other forms of sex work is the different payment plans offered by creators. This adds an extra level of interactivity: subscribers can pay to message creators privately, and/or request personalized pictures and videos. Essentially, it can double as the pornified version of Patreon.

When you think about it, OnlyFans doesn’t differ from other types of sex work too much: it has the obvious voyeuristic aspects of porn, the intimate elements of webcamming, and the potential girlfriend experience a sugar baby can offer. It’s the merging of several worlds pertaining to sex work that makes OnlyFans alluring.

But despite creators’ ability to generate income on OnlyFans during a period of economic uncertainty, it isn’t all rainbows and sunshine. The blasé and nonchalant self-promotion of adult entertainment by influencers on social media platforms is bound to have some negative implications. 

A recent documentary entitled #Nudes4Sale dove into the world of OnlyFans, revealing the ease with which underage girls can create and sell explicit content using fake IDs. It also explored how OnlyFans functions as a magnet for vulnerable women who resort to sex work out of desperation. At that point, sex work is no longer a choice; partaking in OnlyFans when success isn’t guaranteed can further aggravate one’s situation, since the personal cost of selling nudes can be high. One of the content creators interviewed remarked, “[OnlyFans is] a rabbit hole. You can go further and further. Something that could’ve started as innocent fun can turn sour more quickly.”

In this sense, the advertising of OnlyFans is destructive: its normalization by public figures leads to the turning of a blind eye to an essential cost-benefit analysis. The potential content leaks, harm to one’s emotional well-being, and changes in creators’ social reputation all have to be accounted for when thinking about creating raunchy content.

Given the special circumstances of today’s pandemic-riddled world, how feasible will OnlyFans be in the long run, when the world returns to normal and people are free to roam around sans health-related hesitations? Some might say that the upcoming recession is bound to restrict most people’s ability to work outside; others may propose that once social venues open up again, those with plenty of money to spare will spend their money elsewhere. So will OnlyFans continue on its current uprise to becoming the platform for sex work, or will it lose traction, getting lost in the sea of sex work websites once its hype dies down?

Cited as the oldest profession known to man, sex sells. Sexual currency has value no matter where you go in the world. Whether it’s restricted or idolized, the power of sex remains rife no matter the time, place, or medium. While the memeification of OnlyFans––and its subsequent submergence into pop culture––has shot the platform into stardom overnight, the current state of affairs heavily emphasizes the importance of financial stability. The rise of OnlyFans may just be a means to an end for those bored and/or jobless. But it might just as well be the platform en route to detaching and eradicating stigma around sex work.

Illustration by Yoo Young Chun