As we get further into 2022, the odds of finding someone who hasn’t heard of OnlyFans, an online subscription-based platform, only seem to be getting smaller. The website has gained a reputation for hosting sexually explicit content, especially due to high-profile scandals in recent years. These incidents have shined a light on the challenges sex workers face online and have given their demands for changes in the adult industry greater attention.
OnlyFans started to become a popular medium for sex work due to the significant financial and personal benefits it offered to performers, according to Canela López. Writing for Insider, López describes how creators working on the subscription-based platform are able to charge subscribers on a pay-per-view basis, allowing them to keep earning money for each video or photo they promote. This is different from the traditional porn industry, where sex workers typically only receive one single payment per appearance and do not earn any additional profit from their image being reused online. On OnlyFans, creators are also able to keep 80 percent of their earnings.
While many sex workers had already joined the platform prior to 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic caused a wave of new performers to join the site, according to López. Sex workers specializing in all sorts of content were able to meet the heightened demand that arose from lockdowns and stay-at-home orders.
The influx of creators led to incredible profits for both individuals and OnlyFans itself. Despite the success that the website has given to performers, it has also had a troubled history respecting and protecting them.
The most recent incident of this is the attempted “porn ban” of Aug. 19, 2021, when the company changed the terms of service for the platform, including the prohibition of sexual activity and explicit content, according to Emily Coombes, writing for The Nation.
This change caused massive shock waves on social media, with sex work advocates pointing out the hypocrisy of the company removing sex workers, who were largely responsible for its financial growth and prosperity, from its platform. Although the company quickly suspended the change in terms, it left low-income sex workers anxious about their ability to make a living.
Coombes sees the attempted porn ban as a sign of the larger issue of censorship and criminalization facing sex workers in the digital world.
“The initial decision by OnlyFans to forbid porn on the site illustrates how ostensibly legal online sex work is, in reality, criminalized,” Coombes wrote. “This is a problem that sex workers have repeatedly pointed out and been organizing against for years — but too much of society won’t listen.”
The erasure of sex workers from platforms like OnlyFans, which have been pioneers in changing the power dynamics of adult entertainment in favor of creators, is not a new phenomenon. The presence of celebrities on the service, most infamously Bella Thorne, has also led to new restrictions on sex workers, according to Kate Zen writing for NBC News.
Bella Thorne caused controversy in August 2020, when she made millions in her first week on the platform and upset subscribers by promising a nude photo she did not send, Ken wrote. The large number of refunds requested for the $200 purchase by users was swiftly followed by a reduction in the tip payments and subscription cost allowed on the website. Increased wait times for payment also began in certain countries. Zen notes that this sudden change in regulations significantly affected sex workers’ financial well-being.
Complaints about arbitrary account deletion, celebrity double standards and digital gentrification on OnlyFans have also been heard. These actions often disproportionately negatively affect the marginalized, low-income sex workers who turned to online work for a better livelihood in the first place, according to Zen.
The attempted porn ban and the Bella Thorne controversy highlight the censorship, disrespect and stigma that sex workers face when they work online. When it comes to the future of OnlyFans, many performers feel vulnerable to abrupt restrictions and crackdowns on their line of work. Despite the uncertainty of the platform, Zen emphasizes the importance of sex workers advocating to keep these digital spaces open.
“Instead of criticizing OnlyFans, we really need to be working with it to make it better and safer for all creators,” Zen wrote.
Activists like Zen and Coombes recommend direct engagement with sex workers and listening to their complaints as the best way to address the problems facing OnlyFans and online sex work as a whole.
To learn more about sex worker advocacy and issues related to sex work, check out the Adult Performance Artists Guild (APAG), Philadelphia Red Umbrella Alliance (PRUA), Red Canary Song, BIPOC Adult Industry Collective and the Black Sex Worker Collective.