Is OnlyFans empowering or dangerous?

The online platform OnlyFans hit one million content creators in December 2020. Why have thousands moved onto the platform, and what can be done to protect them from exploitation?

OnlyFans hit one million users in December last year (Credit Charles Deluvio).

It’s Saturday morning, Abby* has been studying all week. Today used to be a day spent with friends. The Chinese takeaway and movie was her favourite part of the week. Instead, she gulps down her coffee, sweetened with two sugars, and prepares to create content for her OnlyFans. Abby* is a university student, and like many others, her student finance barely covers her rent. Her waitressing job was her ‘safety blanket’, and the pandemic ripped it from right under her feet.

“One day it hit me that if I couldn’t earn money, I would have to drop out of university,” said Abby*. “I had run out of options, and I was desperate.”

She reaches into her drawer dedicated to the lingerie, masks, and ‘props’ she uses whilst filming. Her separation of ‘normal’ and OnlyFans clothes a comical analogy, she explains, of keeping those parts of her life apart. A poll determined what colour lingerie she would wear today; ‘white for our perfect virgin’ one of her subscribers commented. Last week, the same subscriber requested that she pose with blood on her sheets as if he had taken her virginity.

OnlyFans, founded in 2016 in the UK, has exploded in popularity during the pandemic. Setting itself apart from traditional webcamming sites in its ability to attract ‘vanilla’ users who have never been involved in sex work before. Those such as Emma*, who found being self-employed in the first lockdown forced her hand. Emma* has children to support, so the site’s growth coincided with her need for extra income. The number of creators increased from 120,000 to one million between 2019 and 2020, doubling in March 2020 alone.

“I sell feet pics and I’ve always hated the way my feet looked but apparently these people love them for some reason,” said Imogen. “Now my feet are my money makers.” (Credit Pixabay)

So why are people joining OnlyFans? Well, the answer is clear, money. All nine of the creators interviewed stated money as their reason for joining OnlyFans. Four interviewees revealed how self-employed people have been affected disproportionately more during the pandemic. Kirsty* explained that she started during the first lockdown where she found herself with no income as she was self-employed. Within the most at-risk sectors, self-employed women were the most affected by lockdown measures.

Research from Southampton University in collaboration with Cardiff Business School showed that more than one million of the country’s self-employed workers (22%) were at risk of being affected by the lockdown. With one-third of self-employed women being at risk. This rate was concerningly high among women aged between 16-29 and 30-44. Women who have mortgages and families to support like Kirsty*.

From The English Collective of Prostitutes, Niki Adams revealed in an article that due to the pandemic, there has been a ‘surge’ in women inquiring about sex work for the first time. Niki said: “This is a government saying they are interested in finding routes out of prostitution, but their cruel austerity measures are pushing us into prostitution and trapping us in it.” With the self-employed over-represented in the jobs hardest hit by lockdown measures.

Save the Student found that 22% of students interviewed had tried OnlyFans whilst at university. With two-thirds of students needing to earn extra money to survive. Three interviewees explained how essential OnlyFans is to their education. “I started selling feet pics on Instagram back in March to make some money after losing my job,” said Imogen*. She could “make a little cash on the side” to pay for expensive college textbooks. Men have always demanded access to women’s bodies. “So, what’s wrong with being empowered to use that to pay for my education,” said Abby*

Although it is not representative of every creator’ experience, some find the platform empowering. Creators believe that OnlyFans will destigmatise those who create pornographic content. “I feel like people have such a stigma around the nude body, sexual expression and pornography in general, but it’s really just another form of art,” said Paul*. OnlyFans to him, is more empowering than social media. “There’s a sense of value placed on the work that you do to get good shots or make yourself look good for the camera, and it’s nice to be rewarded with actual money instead of likes which can equal nothing,” said Paul*.

After centuries of male entitlement to women’s bodies, writer Julie Bindle questions how damaging OnlyFans is to creators. Julie wonders why men are so glad to hear women say that OnlyFans is empowering. “If you said to a bloke bend over wave your anus in the air, cup your nipples and roll your fingers around your nipples while sticking your tongue out licking your lips, waggle your willy … and say come on big boy do it to me hard and fast and all the stuff that men ask women to do an OnlyFans,” said Julie. “I don’t think they find it empowering.”

Julie questions why ‘empowerment’ is only ever attached to women. “You would never hear big businessmen say: ‘I find it really empowering to earn this money and come to this meeting,” said Julie. Empowerment is only ever used to describe something horrible faced by women. This raises why women attach the word ‘empowerment’ to a job that sees them face almost constant harassment.

One of the biggest dangers to creator’s physical and mental health is harassment. Julie explained that she has interviewed women who have felt very secure that there is a computer between her and the customer. Only for him to very quickly find her and stalk her. “Her pornography is his blackmail,” said Julie.

This is a concern of 19-year-old Abby*, who fears one day she’ll ‘slip up’, and someone will blackmail her. “Something like this would ruin me,” said Abby. “I want to be a nursery teacher, but if this got out, my career would be down the drain.” Abby’s* honest conversation of her fears as a creator undermine the stereotype that people go into OnlyFans believing that it is “easy money” without risk. Like all sex work, the potential develops for exploitation, as it is always economically powerful men who demand access to women’s bodies.

The content uploaded on the cloud storage site Mega included both Instagram and TikTok stars who were outraged at the site’s blatant security holes.(Credit: Junior Teixeira)

In February 2020 4 terabytes of data and content from OnlyFans began to surface online, leaked from behind the platform’s paywall. This stolen content shows a larger issue at hand. There are incredible amounts of free porn on the internet, so it is clear that those who leak content ‘get off’ at the lack of consent. Kirsty* said that these leaks have implications for content creators. “My OnlyFans is only £5 a month, do men have such an entitlement to the bodies of women that they can somehow justify taking content from creators without their permission,” said Kirsty*. “It undermines my work.” These leaks show how OnlyFans is missing an opportunity to support creators.

OnlyFans take 20% of creator’s earnings but do very little with that money to protect them. Emily van der Nagel, lecturer at Monash University, explains the mismatch between how OnlyFans advertises itself and the platform’s broader perception within society. The official OnlyFans site explains the site is for ‘tutorials, tips, behind the scenes footage or just endless selfies’, with no mention of pornographic content. Yet the dominant expectation is that the platform is for performers to post explicit content. While the platform does not censor adult content, certain fetishes and words are banned in an attempt to distance OnlyFans from in-person sex work.

“Openly declaring porn performers and sex workers to be core to the business model, listening to the needs of porn performers …, and featuring these content creators as skilled professionals would contribute to the destigmatising of sex work,” said Emily. Julie questions whether this would be in creators’ best interest as if prostitution and OnlyFans is work. To her then by its own logic, are rape or content leaks are merely theft?

* All OnlyFans creators names have been changed for anonymity.

This was written as part of my MA International Journalism.