The rise and rise of pay-per-view nudes

“On that Demon Time, she might start an OnlyFans”

The moment I realized that OnlyFans had officially become a widespread mainstream topic was when I first heard these lyrics sung by Beyoncé on Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage Remix” while mindlessly scrolling through TikTok. Before then, I knew it as a somewhat niche platform used mostly by the people I follow on Twitter. Like, “one of my friends’ friends has one!”, “this girl I follow on Instagram has been promoting her,” and so on.

“Should I start an OnlyFans?” has become our generation’s “screw this, I’ll just become a stripper.” With the same connotation of sex work being young women’s kind of shameful ace-in-the-hole, this slogan also mirthlessly shows how the sex industry has followed young people’s increasingly web-connected lives, as well as their heavily exploited desire for personalized experiences. In an online world where personalized ads, emojis, Google search suggestions, and YouTube recommendations have thrived, personalized sexual content was sure to follow.

Coupled with the gradual integration of feminism in the porn industry, we can see how despite seeing increases in traffic, oligopolist brands like PornHub and RedTube haven’t been able to compete with the practice of subscription-based services, which offer even more specific content options and, of course, the possibility of communicating directly with the actors themselves. These companies have also been under fire recently for profiting off videos of assault, abuse, and even child pornography, and for the discrepancy between actors’ pay and the sites’ revenues. The announcement that famous ex-adult film star Mia Khalifa’s total reported earnings were of $12,000 during the three months she worked with PornHub over five years ago became viral, as Internet users acknowledged the much larger amount that the site has made with her videos over the years. With Premium memberships unable to compete with some of OnlyFans’ prices—the lowest monthly fee being $4.99, versus $9.99 on PornHub and a whopping $29.99 on Brazzers — OnlyFans becomes a preferable and seemingly more democratic choice.

The coronavirus can be partially credited for gradually building up the trend of online nude content creation: when the pandemic hit and many lost their sources of income, they had to turn to the only accessible — and the most lucrative — option that every “How to Make Money from Home” article omits. It’s estimated that during quarantine, creator enrolment increased five-fold compared to last year, and the site’s audience grew by 80 per cent.

A few weeks ago, social media erupted at the consequences of popular singer and actress Bella Thorne’s joining the platform. She was accused of gentrifying it in cheating her fans of money they had paid for nude photos, taking clients away from content creators who need them to pay rent, and for causing the site to tighten its policies on how much creators could get paid and when.

Anything that enters the mainstream — whether it’s an artist, a new Netflix show, an app — will suffer in some way from all the attention and popularity, but there is usually a strong community trying to preserve its integrity. OnlyFans, on the other hand, is a platform whose creators were already facing many challenges, and who had little support from, well, anyone. Frequently leaked content was a problem well before the pandemic hit, and many creators were victims of extortion. Though we are experiencing a more liberated sexual culture than in previous generations, the stigma around sex work remains heavy in our society.

Even with a larger client base, only a minority of creators manage to make the exorbitant amounts shown off in viral social media posts. Because the internet doesn’t sleep, those who commit to making money online from sex-related content also take on longer work weeks: some have reported working anywhere from 50 to 80 hours a week, compared with the average person’s 35 to 40.

“What about your future career?” is the age-old burning question for anyone who joins the sex industry. Our parents all warned us that anything uploaded to the internet stays there forever. We can’t predict the opinions of future employers on OnlyFans accounts, and I may be naive in thinking this, but I can’t help but see mainstreaming the platform as a way to tame down the negative reactions to sex work. Stigma is broken by normalizing concepts, and by the time we have to apply for the positions that hold reputation to a high regard, I have hope that the taboo surrounding sex work will be much less felt in offices and social settings. The people around us right now, whose “friend of a friend” is entering the sex industry, are ultimately the ones who will decide whether sex work should continue to be a professional setback, or if it’s time we understand it like it is: a way of making a living just like any other.


Graphic by Lily Cowper

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