It’s safe to say that OnlyFans has gone mainstream. Beyonce name-checked the adult content subscription platform in the “Savage Remix,” rapping, “On that Demon Time, she might start an OnlyFans.” Makeup artist James Charles joked that launching an account might cure his quarantine boredom. Last month, a tweet by a 22-year-old who bragged that she moved into her “dream house” thanks to OnlyFans earnings became an instant meme.
As millions of people filed for unemployment last month, OnlyFans reported a 75 percent increase in signups, with 150,000 new users creating accounts daily. But some sex workers, many of whom were forced to move their business online, say that the platform is being flooded with casual “tourists” — individuals who are baring it all online in the name of clout chasing. Perhaps most notoriously has been Instagram influencer/”scammer” Caroline Calloway’s recent pivot to cam-girling on OnlyFans during lockdown and claiming a projected $223,800 income from the site. Her comments set off a discussion about bandwagons, privilege, and sex work as serious labor.
OnlyFans was launched in 2016 just as adult entertainers and sex workers were being shut out of platforms like Instagram, Patreon and Tumblr, thanks largely to the passage of the FOSTA—SESTA bills. OnlyFans’ loose content restrictions allow creators to put racy queued images and videos behind paywalls and engage with monthly subscribers through custom videos, DMs, and exclusive pay-per-view shows. Frequent payouts, and OnlyFans’ comparably low 20 percent cut (most cam sites take 40 percent or higher), make the site incredibly popular.
Circumventing the use of old fashioned narrative pornography studios has also been a boon to creators who are grateful for the site’s bolstered security and anti-piracy measures. “OnlyFans is the wave of the future because it is so much harder to steal the content,” wrote Rain DeGrey, a former IRL sex worker and writer who has earned in the top 11 percent on OnlyFans for the last two years.
DeGrey told me via DM that thanks to rampant piracy and the proliferation of tube sites uploading stolen pay porn, getting people to pay became impossible. “With the industry a shell of itself and now the pandemic on top of it, studios are just not creating like they used to.” But OnlyFans, she says, is “the farmer’s market of porn. The creator is selling directly to the consumer.”
OnlyFans is just another logical extension of how creators are monetizing and personalizing their labor. In recent years, free podcasters turned to Patreon over using ads; freelance journalists began creating paid Substack newsletters over taking sparse assignments; YouTube gamers moved their business to Twitch. But, just like any platform, the creators are at the whims of the VCs who invested in them, and if the fees don’t add up, will have to find another place to be hosted. Viners had to become TikTokkers, and if OnlyFans tanks, adult entertainers face lost fan bases and disappearing archives. But, that’s unlikely for the foreseeable future. OnlyFans’ once mysterious parent company, Fenix International Limited, was recently revealed to be owned in part by Guy Stokely, a former Barclays investment banker and his son, Tim.
OnlyFans’s quarantine blowup seemed inevitable. We’re clawing at the walls, looking for new ways to earn money—and new ways to masturbate. Twenty-two million Americans have lost their original revenue streams due to the virus, and any work-from-home situation is attractive due to its perceived stability and low-risk. This includes sex workers, strippers, gogo dancers, sugar babies, and escorts who have had to move IRL operations digital—and who are ineligible for stimulus checks. On the flip side, those still with jobs have money to burn and nowhere to spend it. To top it off, there’s a reason terms like “quarniness,” “horny on main,” and “skin hunger,” are trending topics — our carnal desires just aren’t being fulfilled.
Contributing to the rise of OnlyFans is one harsh new reality: the “influencing era” is ending. Travel influencers can’t travel, lifestyle influencers can’t live lavishly, and fashion influencers aren’t being sent clothes without any place to wear them. The economic downturn has caused companies to dial back marketing budgets usually spent on sponsored content and, during a global disaster, followers are craving authenticity over “picture-perfect” life.
Where else can influencers, former reality contestants, and D-listers turn to but OnlyFans? ModelBlac Chyna joined the platform in April, christening her account with a picture of her feet stomping grapes and an offer for a $950 private video call. Fans of Love & Hip Hop can peruse thirst traps by married couple Safaree Samuels and Erica Mena and stans of RuPaul’s Drag Race can follow Ariel Versace under her non-showbiz name, Bryan Phillip. In the unpaid arena, Ansel Elgort made headlines when he posted his pubic hair and referenced the platform for charity, and Grammy producer The Dream hosted a free album release party on the site. The celebs, it seemed, were here to stay: at least until the stay-at-home orders lifted.
And then there is Caroline Calloway. Early last month, the cringey Instagrammer famous for allegedly scamming her followers posted a viral nude on Twitter as a “humble apology” for the word count of a paywalled essay she posted. This attention naturally led her to announce a $50/month OnlyFans account (the average subscription is $9.99/month). Over the next few weeks, she teased on her Twitter and Instagram accounts upcoming sexy content featuring vague cosplay, like Belle from Beauty and the Beast, Ophelia from the painting “Ophelia” by John Everett Millais, and Orlando from Orlando by Virginia Woolf. When she hinted at someday playing Lolita from the infamous book and films, she asked, “Is the sexualization of children in fiction immoral?” to which everyone in her mentions responded with a resounding YES. Shortly thereafter, she liked and shared an anti-semitic post suggesting she should cosplay as Anne Frank.
Calloway’s spiral didn’t stop there. When she claimed her $50/month subscription would net a $223,800 a year income on Twitter, the online sex worker community weighed in. The brag wasn’t just tone deaf in a time of economic strife, it marked Calloway as a naive interloper dipping her toes into a world she knows nothing about. “Dear other girls reading this: odds are you are not internet famous. you will not make six figures in your first year doing sex work. you will not retain your first subscribers throughout the year. research sex work for months before you do it. it is not easy money!!!” responded user @frankiebunnie.
Online sex workers asked Calloway to shout out full-time sex workers who are struggling to make ends meet. They hoped she would acknowledge that her privilege and fame allowed her to experiment with OnlyFans in ways most workers don’t. Instead, Calloway sent an ignorant clapback, daring the internet to show her competitors. “Ok. Who else has a brand like mine and is charging $49.99? You can’t just claim I’m competing with no evidence. Show me my competition? For someone offering emotionally poignant, softcore cerebral porn I’m basically unchallenged.” The sex worker community was enraged at Caroline’s outright condescension and ratio’d the living hell out of the tweet.
In a viral article posted on sex worker journalism site Tits and Sass titled, “Can You Make Six Figures A Year Off Reply Guys? Caroline Calloway Thinks So,” writer Kat summed up the situation perfectly: “We’ve all watched how well it ends for the girl who does amateur night once, lucks out with a $300 set, and makes calculations on just how rich she’s about to become based on that number….Having a group of grown men screaming that they need to see your butthole at 6 p.m. on a Tuesday is not exactly what these types envision when studying Cardi B videos.”
What Calloway and other celebrity drop-ins to OnlyFans fail to realize is that sex work is actual, serious labor, not a bandwagon to hop on. On OnlyFans, this often means seven days a week of work, constant posting on multiple platforms, and buying the latest lighting equipment, costumes and sex toys. There are constantly shifting referral bonuses to consider, metrics to calculate, customized content for private DMs and cross-platform promotions to roll out.
“It takes time and energy to accommodate certain requests, prep for pictures and videos, actually record videos and edit them, etc. and to make sure your clientele are getting what they requested. It means pushing your body to perform sexually as well,” says Sasha, a pre-med student who transitioned from go-go dancing to OnlyFans to pay her tuition. Rain DeGrey echoed this fact, “It took me a solid year and a half before I was putting out content that was really worth anything and had built up my base to where it is now.”
Though digital sex work is “safer” in some senses—lessening chances of physical violence, rape, and STDs—there are other dangers. Online harassment can lead to offline stalking, and blocking abusers on the platform is difficult. “It’s really hard to stop someone from contacting you if you don’t want them to,” said Rain DeGrey. Then there’s the IRL stigma. Employers with morality clauses can use facial recognition software and screenshots to attach sex workers to their government names. Currently, OnlyFans requires performers to upload a driver’s license for identity verification, instantly linking their content to that information.
Calloway isn’t alone in her ignorance about the industry’s struggles. As job losses rise, newbies to the platform are flooding it with mixed results. Many cover their faces. Billie Beever, a well known TikTokker, expressed her frustration with just how hard this work is as she transitioned to OF: “I’m losing subscribers on OnlyFans and it’s my main source of income.” A talented 24-year-old Honda mechanic in Indiana was fired last month after her coworkers found her account and watched her content at work. VICE reported that IsMyGirl, an OnlyFans competitor with the same business model, has been targeting ads to laid off McDonald’s employees and hotel workers.
As lockdowns continue and bills pile up, digital sex work will only grow into a more mainstream source of revenue. Those who are committed, not just looky loos and exhibitionists, will need to join the sex work community in earnest to survive. According to Kat, that’s a “Population of workers who are, not coincidentally, incredibly resilient, intelligent, and hilarious. We organize. We look out for each other because no one else will. We have mutual aid and relief funds because we’re not going to leave our most vulnerable members behind.”
When I asked Sasha if she felt threatened by the Caroline Calloways of OnlyFans who show up with a built-in follower base, she said, “I think that there’s room for everyone who wants to do sex work and I want people to feel empowered in a safe way if they choose to do so.” Other sex workers I spoke to were similarly nonplussed, noting the panopoly of tastes that OnlyFans customers have. A few measly uncommitted influencers can’t take away what they provide—a tailor made service to their most loyal subscribers.