OnlyFans is an online subscription service in which users pay for access to bespoke content. It has been synonymous with sex work since its inception in 2016.
Plastered in pictures and videos locked behind a paywall, with fees typically around £10 to £20 a month per performer, it allows sex workers autonomy over what they do. It claims to be a “progressive” enterprise, and “inclusive” of those who make a living from the platform.
And Covid-19 proved a rare boon for the site. By July, it had racked up more than 60 million subscribers, with at least 660,000 people currently serving as “content creators”. It also entered the mainstream consciousness; in May, Beyoncé referenced OnlyFans in a song lyric.
Finally, this month, the rapper Cardi B joined the service itself; she’s currently sitting at number one in the US singles chart, thanks to her potty-mouthed sex anthem WAP. And earlier this week, the former Disney child star Bella Thorne signed up, earning $1 million in subscriptions in just 24 hours, a site record.
Both celebrities pledged to keep their OnlyFans accounts relatively clean – no celebrity nudes are in the pipeline, just “real-life content” and “exclusives” – but that hasn’t dented their immediate popularity. It may, however, come at a cost to those who made OnlyFans what it is in the first place. Some users have complained that the influx of celebrity channels to the site is its own form of “gentrification”.
And the site has long been skittish about acknowledging its sexual history. Take a recent promotional advert for the site, which boasted of the monetisation opportunities it provides to “bloggers, YouTubers, fitness trainers, celebrities, models or musicians”. Sex work wasn’t mentioned.
A New York Times feature in September 2019 also claimed that Oakley is “eager to take OnlyFans out of the pornography niche and make it a platform for all sorts of influencers and audiences”.
The site is the brainchild of Timothy Stokely, a notoriously secretive 37-year-old British entrepreneur. Formerly involved with sex sites with names like GlamGirls, Stokely intuited that consumers in the 2010s wanted greater intimacy with their adult content.
Pornography, of both the hardcore or softcore variety, needed to be an experience, with performers interacting with their fans, subscribers able to customise their orders, and prices in tiers, set by the performers themselves.
It was quietly radical. In the years before OnlyFans arrived on the scene, the sex industry was in a potentially ruinous transition period. Porn studios were struggling, with expensive monthly subscriptions increasingly unappealing in an age of millions of free pornographic clips on sites like Pornhub.
In tandem, performers were earning less. OnlyFans filled an important and ultimately lucrative gap. With content creators pocketing 80 per cent of their earnings, and the rest going to OnlyFans itself, sex workers were able to monetise their content independently, often from their own homes, and without middlemen cutting into their profits.
That was the hope, anyway. In May, sex workers operating on the site began to complain that their accounts were being deleted without any clear explanation. (In a statement, OnlyFans said accounts are only deactivated with “due cause”, adding: “In most cases, creators who violate our terms have their account restricted or suspended, pending investigation and remedial action.”)
In February, hundreds of videos kept behind user paywalls leaked online, sparking concerns about the site’s security protocols. A referral system, which provided content creators with financial bonuses if they encouraged others to sign up as performers, was also axed.
Coincidentally or not, the celebrities began arriving soon after. Cardi B and Thorne are undoubtedly the biggest names to join the platform, but they are not the first to recognise its money-making potential. Aaron Carter, the 1990s pop pipsqueak once caught in a love triangle between Disney rivals Lindsay Lohan and Hilary Duff, now charges $19 a month for full-frontal nudes and pictures of his feet.
Kerry Katona, Danielle Lloyd, Towie star Lauren Goodger and Love Island’s Megan Barton-Hanson are all present and accounted for on the site – posting photographs in varying degrees of toplessness for fans paying between £20 and £50 per month.
“I do photo shoots like this all the time for the papers and mags but now I’m in control and I’m loving it!” Katona wrote on Instagram in May. Her OnlyFans bio reads: “Everyone insisted I got an account so here I am!” Many seem to talk of signing up to the site as an inevitability. Goodger’s is similar: “Hey people! You win! Welcome to my highly anticipated content for OnlyFans eyes only.” The tabloids may express shock at the celebrities’ participation, but for those actively working on the glamour-modelling circuit, it seems to be where the business is going.
It’s also no coincidence that many of the above, who otherwise span the breadth of recognisability, were exhibitionists long before OnlyFans was born. Cardi B is unapologetically X-rated in her lyrics; her pre-fame history as a stripper in The Bronx is central to her personal mythology. Thorne’s Instagram account is already wall-to-wall bikini pictures and come-hither looks; her Disney image long since gave way to roles as nymphomaniacs and murderers, as well as a line of marijuana products. For both women, OnlyFans is no more than an additional asset to their brands. They have the merchandise, fashion endorsements and movie careers; why not hitch a ride on yet another new platform, too? And, helpfully, one that comes with its own edgy cachet.
Controlling your own narrative is increasingly appealing for this generation of stars. OnlyFans serves to boost a star’s social media pedigree, while also providing a platform in which they can sell themselves directly to their fans. If sex workers on OnlyFans have been able to eliminate superfluous roles (the agent or the manager, the director or photographer), famous faces are able to circumvent individuals they no longer feel they need, either, be it the magazine interviewer or the army of publicists on their payroll. In its place is an opportunity to curate and upload your own star persona, monetise it at your will, and watch the money roll in.
In a literal sense, OnlyFans doesn’t operate differently to the celebrity fanclubs of yesteryear, with bona fide stars earning pocket money from fans eager for merchandise, competitions and exclusive access to their faves. Using it as an outlet for naughty pictures and suggestive poses, as Katona and Lloyd have done, is a natural next step for stars already making the bulk of their income from Instagram. It’s a surprise that it hasn’t been pounced upon by the Kardashians just yet, but give it time.
But then there are those suddenly pushed to the fringes. There’s nothing to say that Thorne’s subscription numbers won’t plummet when her fans realise they’re paying for the same level of provocation they can get on her Instagram for free (so far, the content on her OnlyFans and Instagram channels are exactly the same). But there’s also a risk that Thorne could become the new normal, inspiring more and more stars to join the site with increasingly PG-rated content and leaving actual sex workers out in the cold. Steal the illusion of bad behaviour of which your grandparents wouldn’t approve of, wear it as an aesthetic, and plunder a successful marketplace while diluting it in the process. It’s a tale as old as time.
As much as the media thrives on hysterical reports about the inescapable abundance of sex on the internet, actual sex is increasingly difficult to monetise online. With the 2018 closure of the Personals section of Craigslist, a veritable hub for US sex work for almost two decades, and then the purging of pornographic content on Tumblr and sex work on Patreon, OnlyFans was a much-needed lifeline for those who make a living from the sex industry. It did this while being autonomous, safe and devoid of many of the dangers of basic listings sites.
But if OnlyFans becomes overrun by celebrities with no intention of using it for sex work, all while hoovering up money from actual sex workers who need it to survive, it would be a sad end for something that once had a practical use. Instead, OnlyFans runs the risk of becoming a pay-per-view Instagram – and we barely needed the free one as it is.