The parameters of intimacy are mutating, and with it, so is sex work. That’s why many people are flocking to online platforms for sell-it-yourself adult content. OnlyFans has finally put the business of sex work in the hands of its creators. But is it the final frontier?
The short answer: no.
The platform, launched in 2016, holds liberal content restrictions, making it ideal for adult entertainers and sex workers looking to monetize content through bolstered security and anti-piracy measures. And as millions of people filed for unemployment over the past year, OnlyFans reported a 75 percent increase in signups between April and June, with 200,000 new users creating accounts daily.
No one knows this better than college students, many of whom have turned to the platform to assuage debt, pay their tuition and cover other fees brought on by the pandemic.
But this move towards porn democratization is a reprise of history with a dark underbelly — and it doesn’t fully protect sex workers.
How the internet destabilized pornography
Sex work is still deeply stigmatized and pushed to the fringes of culture, but it has now become mainstream and more accessible than ever before. Even Beyoncé name-dropped it in the remix to Megan Thee Stallion’s "Savage." Influencers and glitterati like Bella Thorne overtook the platform, too. Thorne made $1 million on her first day and faced backlash for gentrifying the platform, as many creators depend on OnlyFans for their income.
But much like the structural and safety problems that plagued Pornhub and its peers — sites that now seem archaic compared to OnlyFans — the platform has issues all its own.
I spoke to Laura (her name has been changed for privacy reasons), a UNC student who turned to the platform during the pandemic. She began posting regularly in March, after being laid off from her job, and now makes more money on OnlyFans than she did in a cubicle. She tells me she feels more financially secure, but also much more socially anxious.
"I finally don’t have to worry about juggling classes and work, since I set my own schedule, or paying bills," Laura says. "But I’m so afraid that someone might doxx me or send threats. Or if [OnlyFans] is hacked or shuts down or something.”
This raises questions about how sustainable the platform really is. The security concerns and encroaching dominance of influencers are threatening marginalized workers, providing rich territory for how we think about sex work and labor. I also spoke to James (his name has been changed for privacy reasons), a UNC student who began posting content on the platform in 2018 — pre-pandemic.
"There are a lot of people posting to the platform because of the pandemic, because they’re bored, like Bella Thorne, which gets me pressed," James says. "When more and more people start paying for their subscription content and not [the content of] those of us who need it, like survival sex workers, especially those of us who are Black and brown, our livelihoods are threatened.”
Though digital sex work is "safer," lessening chances of physical violence or sexually-transmitted diseases, the virtual dangers are still just as tactile: harassment, stalking and doxxing.
As job losses rise, platform newbies are navigating an increasingly predatory and problematic terrain. VICE reported that IsMyGirl, an OnlyFans competitor with a similar business model, has been targeting ads to laid-off McDonald’s employees and hotel workers. Meanwhile, a talented 24-year-old Indiana mechanic was fired after her co-workers found her account and watched her content at work.
In 2017, the Department of Homeland Security seized the adult listings site Eros, and dozens of sex workers with profiles on the site were detained and deported at the U.S. border. Currently, OnlyFans requires performers to upload a driver's license for identity verification, instantly linking their content to that information.
Into the future
As the pandemic rolls onward, bills begin to pile up and more people lose their jobs, digital sex work will only grow into a more mainstream source of revenue. But it needs to be led by those who are committed, not just influencers — and they will need to join the sex work community in earnest to survive.
“I think it’s time, you know, for sex workers across all states, especially in North Carolina, to unionize,” Laura said. “I don’t see OnlyFans as being forever. I think as platforms start popping up across the Internet and more and more [sex workers] get harassed, it’d be nice to have a 'forever place' for solidarity."
The pandemic gouged out the fault line between the elite and the working class — between those who can afford to stay indoors and those who must risk their lives to stay alive. The emergence of OnlyFans should not be seen as a way for influencers and exhibitionists to append their income safely. It’s the logical continuation of survival sex work, a necessary outlet, even if it is beset by problems.
But, much like the pandemic, there was a time before OnlyFans, and there will be a time after.
“We don’t have a Chapel Hill coalition, but I do hope people get involved with the Asheville Sex Worker Outreach Project," James said. "It’s a community alliance that provides structure and support to sex workers and does harm reduction work. I hope we’ll see other groups like them pop up in the Triangle, too.
"Even though OnlyFans is a good platform for the time being, solidarity will outlast everything.”