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Sex Workers Say They’re Unhappy With Growing ‘Gentrification’ of Onlyfans

Like most people, Kat didn’t have ‘viral pandemic’ on her forecast for 2020. 

Nine months ago, prior to the first documented cases of COVID-19 in Canada, Kat was employed at a popular restaurant in the West End of Toronto. Then, in March, the virus hit in earnest, forcing the country into lockdown and prompting the immediate closure of all non-essential businesses, including all bars, restaurants and nightclubs nation-wide.

Suddenly unemployed, along with hundreds of thousands of other Canadians, Kat learned she was eligible for the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), but the benefit wasn’t enough to cover her monthly overhead, even with substantial spending cuts factored into her budget.

Confined to her home and suddenly strapped for cash, Kat weighed her options. Hospitality work was out, as was the wardrobe work she occasionally did on film sets prior to the virus’ outbreak. That’s when the thought struck her: why not give OnlyFans a shot?

“I was interested in doing a form of [online sex work] for some time. I didn’t necessarily want to be having sex for money, but exhibitionism was already a large part of who I was. And then COVID happened, and I had a lot of free time,” Kat said.

She had briefly experimented with the platform a few months before, at one point signing up for an account and uploading a few photos, but this time, given how drastically her circumstances had changed overnight, she decided to make a real go of it.

“In my mind, I decided it was best to generate many avenues of passive income that I would have control over. That was the only way I was going to feel safe monetarily moving forward, so [OnlyFans] was one of the forms of passive income that I put my time into.”

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The Big Picture: Kat wasn’t the only one who signed up for the platform this spring.

  • According to an Insider report back in June, OnlyFans reported a 75% uptick in “model sign-ups” in early April, when unemployment was skyrocketing around the world due to the spread of COVID-19.
  • By May, the company said it was welcoming between 7000 and 10,000 new creators and around 200,000 new users to the platform every 24 hours.

The recent influx of OnlyFans users, sex-workers and non sex-workers alike, reflects both the normalization of sex-work in 2020, as well as the potential displacement of those whose livelihoods rely on the platform.

What exactly is OnlyFans?

  • Launched in 2016 by British tech entrepreneur Tim Stokely, OnlyFans is an online subscription-based platform that allows content creators to share content, often of an erotic or pornographic nature, in exchange for payment.
  • Once registered on the platform, creators can upload photos and videos, place them behind a paywall and charge for access, as well as interact with fans.
  • Subscribers who pay to access a creator’s content — subscription fees usually range from $5 to $20 a month — also have the option to purchase custom content on demand via “tips.”
  • Due to the site’s lack of content restrictions,  it’s often hailed as a key resource of adult performers and sex workers. 

Hopping on the Bandwagon

Stefania, 27, is a Toronto-based escort and signed up for OnlyFans around the time that Toronto first went into lockdown. She wasn’t keen on the idea at first but came around to it when the cancellations started piling up and clients stopped calling and emailing to book new appointments.

Many others in her community signed up for the platform around the same time, and a few of them are even making more money now on OnlyFans than they were through in-person appointments.

  • Stefania is coy about her own earnings, but says the most successful ones are now making in excess of $20,000 a month. 

“I had about 10,000 followers [on Twitter] when I joined…so it wasn’t a small following, but it wasn’t the largest either. But that obviously helped me out a lot… I know some Instagram girls that maybe had 2 million followers [on Instagram]. And they went on OnlyFans, and those girls are raking it in,” she said.

Celebrities have been hopping on the bandwagon too. 

  • Aaron Carter, younger brother to former Backstreet Boys singer Nick Carter, joined in late February, followed by model Blac Chyna in April, internet sensation Caroline Calloway that same month, Love & Hip Hop stars Safaree Samuels and Erica Mena in May, and rapper Cardi B in early August.

However, none have made quite the splash as Bella Thorne. 

  • A former child Disney star, Thorne signed up for the platform on August 19 and began hauling in huge profits immediately. In a single week, the 22-year-old made $2 million by selling flirty photos of herself, which she falsely advertised as nudes, for $200 a pop.

Her extraordinary success generated huge amounts of press and immediately sparked outrage among many sex workers and sex work advocates. It also drew fierce criticism from many observers and users of the site who felt her brazen false advertising constituted a form of fraud.

Days after her immense profits off the platform were made public, OnlyFans imposed new, stricter limits on how much users could tip, only fueling the animosity and rage already swelling against her. 

“Bella Thorne is just the latest culture vulture mining the wealth of creativity that sex workers provide. Thank you for gentrifying,” one user wrote on Instagram shortly after news of the policy changes were announced. 

“This is what we talk about when people who don’t respect SWrs want to co-opt the aesthetic, culture and now the work – without actually looking into the consequences of this on a larger scale or advocating for us,” said another user on the platform. 

On August 29, in response to all the backlash, Thorne issued an apology on Twitter. In her apology, Thorne claimed she was trying to “bring attention to the site” and to help “remove the stigma behind sex work” as she has been fighting to do for many years.

The surging popularity of OnlyFans reflects different societal realities

Due to COVID, many sex workers and non-sex workers alike were unable to make an income from their regular job, or qualify for government support. Selling x-rated content online was a simple and viable way of making up for lost income that didn’t require much in the way of up-front investment or prior experience.

  • All you need on paper to start making money on OnlyFans is an internet connection, a camera, and a device to upload your content, which makes it a tempting proposition for some who are now stuck at home and unable to earn as before.
  • If you’re already accustomed to uploading photos of yourself online, it’s also not a huge or difficult leap from regular social media to a platform of this nature. The core features and basic mechanics are quite similar across the board; the only difference is the nature of the content and the intended audience of OnlyFans compared to other SFW forms of social media.

Another factor contributing to OnlyFans’ success in recent years has been other platforms moving to censor NSFW content.

  • In 2018, many adult creators were pushed off crowdfunding site Patreon after it confirmed it was introducing new content guidelines and “ramping up” its efforts to proactively police and regulate content.
  • The same year, Tumblr imposed a ban on the posting of “adult content,” including nudity, pornography, and media showing “real-life human genitals or female-presenting nipples,” which has had a similar displacing effect and also resulted in a drastic decline in traffic to the site.
  • Instagram and Facebook have never tolerated nudity on their platforms, but in recent years, both have ramped up their censorship efforts, making them even less welcoming to adult performers and sex workers than before. 

OnlyFans is More than just a Trend

Fae Daniels, 27, has been a sex worker in Toronto for 5 years. Like many others, she has concerns about the surging popularity of OnlyFans.

  • On the one hand, it suggests a growing acceptance and tolerance of sex work, something that she and most other sex workers welcome.
  • On the other hand, as a result of sex work gradually becoming more normalized, more people are now signing up on platforms like OnlyFans, which threatens to displace those who have been active in the sex work industry for years and whose livelihoods most depend on them. 

“There are people who were using the platform before all the influencers got at it just to buy groceries. There are people who are severely disabled who are living off of disability payments who are in chronic, insurmountable pain and [online sex work] is their only option to survive beyond disability payments… when you compare that to Bella Thorne, who is already a millionaire, who was bragging on her Instagram about making millions… when people like that are scamming our industry, invalidating our industry… it’s absolutely disgusting and a huge disappointment to our community.” 

Fae says influencers like Bella Thorne are scamming and manipulating the platform in a way that threatens to displace and further marginalize certain less privileged groups who are active on it and also questions their motivations. 

“It’s so cool for internet icons like Jack the Stripper to be like, ‘fuck the patriarchy, I’m going to sell my pussy, blah, blah, blah. But none of these [new creators on the platform] actually want to be sex workers. They just want to put on the 8-inch heels, take a couple of photos with a stack of money and then go back to their regular lives.” 

In her view, these people simply covet the status and clout that being an online sex worker implies. 

“They’re doing it to gain activist points. They never wanted to be a sex worker, but they’re putting it on so they can say, ‘oh, I’m part of a marginalized group now, I can talk about all this stuff.’ No, you can’t. I’ve been doing this for 5 years. The perspective that someone who has been doing it for 2 months is absolutely not comparable.” 

The Appropriation of Sex-Work

Lyra McKee, a sex worker and co-executive director of PACE society, a sex worker advocacy and support group in Vancouver, draws a parallel between non-sex workers casually signing up on OnlyFans and cultural appropriation. 

“With cultural appropriation, you’re taking something whose history you’re not really connected to, whose culture you’re not a part of, and then you’re using it to benefit you in some way… these celebrities already have a large following that was achieved or gained outside of sex work and all the taboos and criminalization that come with it. And I think that’s significant because they’re now toying with what is a serious occupation and livelihood for many people, a lot of times because they have no other options,” she said.

McKee, 27, says online sex platforms have long been a source of income for sex workers, but their increasing popularity is making many of them less accessible, which fits a well-established pattern. 

“If you look at it historically, many online platforms such as PayPal and Patreon were designed with sex workers in mind and were originally populated largely if not primarily by sex workers. And then, as they got more mainstream and less taboo, these online platforms seemed to disregard those who supported them originally and became inaccessible to sex workers.” 

The OnlyFans Response

Despite the objections and criticism, the platform doesn’t appear to be budging. As of this writing, the company still hasn’t eliminated the new, much stricter cap on tips that it introduced last month after Thorne’s foray onto its platform made international headlines. 

“Transaction limits are set to help prevent overspending and to allow our users to continue to use the site safely,” a spokesperson for OnlyFans said in a statement following the backlash. 

The company says the changes are part of an “evolving process,” and it will continue to review and assess the new limits as they receive more feedback. 

At the same time, the company also appears to be continuing its push — at least superficially — to clean up its reputation and image. In fact, if you go its website today, you won’t find any obvious reference to sex work at all. Instead, you’ll see prominent references to why everyone but sex workers – from athletes to artists to fashion influencers – should be signing up.

In the meantime, Fae and other more established users of the platform are hoping that eventually, one day, the hype might die down and things might go back to the way they were. 

“I think it will get worse before it gets better, but you know what? I think it’s not going to take over our industry because I’m noticing that all of these fake OnlyFans people, all these people who are just here for a good time not a long time, they are dropping like flies… they all are realizing that it’s actually work,” Fae said. 

If they don’t, they may have to move onto a different platform, where, if the past is any indication, the pattern is liable to simply repeat itself once again.