Beyoncé’s “she might start an OnlyFans” on the remix of the massively popular song by Megan Thee Stallion, Savage led to a 15% traffic spike on OnlyFans within 24 hours. Though perhaps not intentional, it contributed to the growing normalisation of sex work – one of the critical changes in the sex work industry in the past few years. The other changes can be attributed to the rise of new social media, micro-celebrity & self-branding, fetishisation & racialisation of muscular bodies in erotic labor (in male sex work), and the gig economy. Around the same time, 29.4 million people were laid off in the U.S. due to the pandemic as of mid-March 2020, and some of them flocked to OnlyFans as a source of income – leading to a 75% increase in model sign-ups in April.
Origin of OnlyFans
OnlyFans has its origins in camming – a form of digital era ‘peep-show’ with more liberal power dynamics. For the model, it is about payment, safety (absence of agencies), the relationship of power and desire, and pleasure-seeking. For the viewer, it’s about privacy, power & control, the feeling of intimacy, and pleasure-seeking. Such platforms on the internet have reconstituted our way of being sexual while also providing unfettered sexual freedom.
Decentralisation of Sex Work
Feminists have argued that the pornographic industry is inherently exploitative towards women. However, the transition of sex work onto the internet through decentralisation has helped make this profession slightly safer for women. Women have also capitalised on technological change to make space in the male consumer-dominated industry. OnlyFans ensures that the personal details of the sex workers are protected with no physical contact with clients, increasing the sense of security. Such platforms have democratised the adult film industry by removing intermediaries (agents, producers, etc.)
The creators set their terms with flexible work schedules, physical safety, and limited contact with law enforcement. The internet has long been a conduit for meaningful intimate connections among queer people. Harsh (name changed for protection of privacy), a performer in his early 20s from India who identifies as gay described the experience:
“OnlyFans is actually very helpful. I also made genuine friends and although the community seems volatile, there’s a lot of emotional backbone support as well. OnlyFans provides a space to engage in the pleasure of one’s own body and it’s very respectful in terms of people engaging with it, especially in foreign countries.”
OnlyFans only takes 20% of the income generated and has revolutionised digital sex work by changing ease of access. It works in tandem with the Amazon Wish list, making it a type of content delivery platform, where creators put up a list of material they need for the show or themselves, and their audience can buy it for them. This allows for both transparency and some form of sustainability as it allows for the purchase of film equipment to shoot a scene, within the confines of one’s home, that the audience obviously has some stake in.
The accessibility of smartphones, film cameras, alternative hosting sites, and webcam tools have made space for diverse sexual and gender representation, allowing for the entry of queer and transgender people. It also provides visibility to sex workers who have not been accepted in the sex industry based on their size, looks, or age.
For many performers of colour, OnlyFans’ gay porn is not necessarily bound by the normative expectations of studio porn, and leans into the territory of sex positivity – a welcome change that lets creators engage with their audience about safe sex practices, pleasuring oneself, and lessons on anatomy. Many also end up boosting their clients’ or viewers’ confidence. Constance Penley, the co-author of The Feminist Porn Book, also mentions a growing sense of there being no bright line between feminist material and mainstream material.
Today, agency is understood through the lens of social media, where changes in technology have some impact on levels of agency experienced and exercised. As progressive as it might seem, OnlyFans does also embody and reinforce notions of traditional beauty. We should not romanticise agency and resistance it seemingly offers,as porn performers constantly have to navigate rigid financial and class-based constraints. Also, diversity does not entail inclusivity as such platforms also lead to increased self-commodification, competition, alienation, and where online harassment is rampant even though digital platforms are heralded as enablers of independence and entrepreneurship.
The Cost of Authenticity
OnlyFans is marketed with better authenticity as content creators take people inside their homes – their bathrooms, bedrooms, etc. This is a redistribution of power within the sex industry with an aspect of micro-celebrity culture and a strategic cultivation of audience preferences for such authenticity as offered by the content-creator. Performers have to be self-reliant, adaptable to change, proactive, and creative. In this way, OnlyFans has been integral to blurring the line between sex workers and influencers. But the celebrity culture of ‘Net Porn’ also doesn’t allow space for unionising or addressing the subtleties of sex work, specifically of those related to choice, exploitation, and trafficking. There are also instances of violations of agency when young people, especially women, as soon as they turn 18, are lured into the work through the incentive of “modeling” – similar to what happens in the traditional porn industry. Mia Khalifa has also stated how it was difficult for her as a young person to be aware of the subtleties of the industry. She famously said in an interview with BBC, “What 21 year old has a lawyer on retainer?”
Harsh also notes, “Consent is important and people violate it when they share and use pictures without my consent, making the definition of consent itself in a grey area or like a spectrum. When pictures are shared without consent, it’s difficult to earn through them as other websites replicate the same. Many times, people do not pay which points towards how a lot of thinking goes into it. An adult who just turned 18 might find it difficult to engage through such a platform and make informed choices without any support.”
This enigmatic discourse of sexual self-representation as a form of empowerment, entrepreneurialism, and an aesthetic mode of influence may function as an apex of neoliberal and late capitalist ideology. Models gain personal validation and social recognition through social media likes, comments, and subscriptions, though the constant engagement with words can be exceedingly hurtful. After being cyber-bullied on Twitter, August Ames died by suicide; focusing on performers’ mental health is a need that must be addressed.
Harsh says, “However, in India, a lot of bullying exists when personal details are leaked. I have been through incidents where I was bullied. In a society like ours, there is a lot of stigma attached to engagement in such a profession and leaking can lead to ostracization. At times, there are also crimes and fights also take place on such sites.”
Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat are heavily deployed to work in tandem with an OnlyFans account and turn followers into paid subscribers. On Twitter, there is a ban on advertising escort services. Similarly, Instagram’s guidelines have become restrictive in recent times. Moreover, the indiscriminate practice of shadow banning on these platforms has been a constant source of anger, anxiety, and sadness among performers. When Tumblr announced it would remove all the pornographic content in a move that targeted sex workers, it also drew all “milder” forms of erotica and sexually suggestive content that wouldn’t otherwise be understood as porn.
OnlyFans and other forms of ‘net porn’ are banned in India as sharing any sexual content on the internet is a crime. Ultimately, there is autonomy, diversity, and agency in OnlyFans, especially for gender minorities, but it comes at the cost of toxicity of neoliberal subjectivity and increasing commodification of the ideal forms of beauty. And while there is a sense of emancipation of exploring one’s sexuality, there is also a highlighted need for safety and dignity in terms of legal discourse when consent is violated.
- Ryan, Paul. “Netporn and the Amateur Turn on OnlyFans.” Male Sex Work in the Digital Age (2019): 119-136.
- VanWinkle, Madison. “Selling Sex in the Social Media Era.” Poetinis: Drink in the Truth (2019)