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How the rich and famous stole OnlyFans from sex workers

Sex workers brought tens of millions of people to the subscriber-only social network. Now they say it’s dumping them in favour of celebrities.

 

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On an April afternoon in Houston, Megan Thee Stallion knew she was about to become the only thing worth talking about. Her single, “Savage”, was already a mega-hit – thanks partly to its use in a viral TikTok dance routine – but she was preparing to drop a remix: in collaboration with Beyoncé, who would rap alongside her on the track.

Moments after the new single went live it was met with both criticism and fan praise. Within a matter of weeks it peaked at the top slot on the Billboard Hot 100. One line of Beyoncé’s was particularly central to the attention: “Hips TikTok when I dance / On Demon Time, she might start an OnlyFans.” Demon Time referred to the now-infamous virtual strip club on Instagram; OnlyFans referred to the membership site that made its name as a lucrative platform to sell nude videos and pictures. 

As the song went viral, OnlyFans experienced a 15 per cent jump in visitors, bringing millions of new potential customers to a site that already had more than seven million registered users. For the site’s owners, there could have been no better PR than a namecheck from one of the world’s most famous women. But for the sex workers, it was yet another red flag in a growing list of warning signs that the platform they had built and relied on would soon belong to someone else.

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When OnlyFans was founded in 2016, it didn’t set out to be synonymous with sex work. It was designed as a subscription service for anyone looking to sell premium content – workout videos, music, recipes – directly to their fans. Very quickly, however, it became evident that the platform satisfied a need for both sex workers and consumers of sexual content. It rapidly became news: people were selling nudes, and making tens of thousands a month doing it.

With only an initial 20 per cent fee on earnings, with 80 per cent going straight to creators, OnlyFans offered sex workers much better rates than most other sites, and it paid them in seven days. It also followed a different, more personal business model. The most lucrative content wasn’t the most explicit, as Jacob Bernstein reported in the New York Times, but the most creative.

OnlyFans provided a space for creators to meet the more niche requests of their fans, and they received big tips. A relatively unknown creator could receive hundreds of dollars for a single post.

Like many other sites, the growth of OnlyFans was sent into overdrive by lockdown. As its popularity surged – traffic to the site more than doubled between March and August – it received prominent media coverage from BuzzFeed to the BBC. By May, OnlyFans had racked up more than 24 million registered users. It was at this point that celebrities such as Cardi B, Blac Chyna, and Tana Mongeau began setting up accounts, and it began drawing attention for content that had nothing to do with sex. Increasingly, people who were already well known signed up to deliver exclusive content from music to shout-outs to behind-the-scenes photographs. 

The sex workers who had helped establish OnlyFans noticed the new direction. Abby, a 21-year-old Scottish sex worker and student who has been on OnlyFans for just shy of two years, told me that each time a celebrity joined the platform, there were immediate, noticeable cost.

“Celebrities already have such a big platform outside of OnlyFans,” she says, “so when they do come to OnlyFans, they move to the top”. People who are already famous are pushed to the top of people’s recommendations and site rankings. “They take those spots away from hard-working sex workers who earned that spot and probably worked up from nothing,” Abby says.

The site’s reaction did not give influencers confidence and Abby says the treatment of sex workers has changed too. The site’s administrators now “take weeks to reply to emails”, she claims. “I once had 5,000 likes disappear from my page for no reason.” Other sex workers on OnlyFans told me about similar problems. Sometimes their pages lose engagement for no discernible reason, which they worry could be costing them real money.

The influx of celebrities for whom sex work is a hobby is seen not only as financially troubling for those who rely on OnlyFans for a living, but also demeaning. When the notorious Instagrammer Caroline Calloway bragged on Twitter that she expected to make an annual salary of a quarter of a million dollars from her OnlyFans subscribers, sex workers flooded into her mentions to explain that “drop-ins” by celebrities degrade sex workers who want their labour seen as valid. But with each new celebrity arrival, despite attempts to make their voices heard, sex workers voices are being quickly drowned out. Calloway’s was just a taste of the serious disruption that was on the horizon.

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At the end of last month, the 22-year-old former Disney Channel star Bella Thorne announced that she’d be selling nudes on OnlyFans for $200 a pop. More than 50,000 people subscribed to her page, reportedly making Thorne more than $2m in a week. Sex workers were already annoyed that a celebrity, worth an estimated $5-12m, was cashing in on the site they used to pay their rent. But the real problems began when those tens of thousands of subscribers weren’t sent the promised nudes, but clothed pictures of Thorne in skimpy lingerie.

The failure to deliver on what Thorne had promised led to thousands of refund requests. Shortly afterwards, OnlyFans announced some changes. These new rules included a cap on the amount of tips users could give creators during their first four months on the platform (from $200 down to $50) and an increase in the time it took for money to be paid to creators, from seven days to 21 days. The company has said that the changes and the Thorne controversy were unrelated, but sex workers saw it differently.

Fairy Odelia, a sex worker based in Surrey who began her career on OnlyFans, tells me that the new rules have made life difficult. “Selling a custom video for $300-plus feels amazing, because it’s one of the only times our prices feel fair to us,” she says. “And we can’t have that any more. We should have been warned by OnlyFans. We should have been given time to prepare.”

Zelda, a 20-year-old, London-based sex worker, tells me that as she sees it, OnlyFans “profit from celebs using their high profile to bring customers to the platform” and that famous people are put “ahead of the bulk of regular people” for whom the platform is an important source of income. The repercussions for misconduct are different, too. “Because Thorne is already famous, she was not scolded or told off… and now, because of her actions, us sex workers who have done absolutely nothing wrong are going to find it more difficult to get by.”

Several of the OnlyFans sex workers I speak to mention a similar site, AdmireMe, which is also a subscriptions-based service but is entirely dedicated to sex workers. They say they while they had better support and communication from AdmireMe, lower user numbers and higher fees led them to spend more time on OnlyFans.  Many now regret the decision to put some much of themselves into one network.

“Part of me has loved using OnlyFans,” Odelia tells me. “But a bigger part of me wishes I’d built my business and brand on another site.” The lack of income security, she says, “is scary, as it’s my main source of income.”

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Reading OnlyFans’ company blog, the company wants to talk about the musicians, podcasters, drag acts and comedians using the site. However, it only takes a click on any of these posts to see the comments are mostly filled by sex workers promoting their OnlyFans pages. And when you join the site, the suggested accounts are also predominantly sex workers.

“OnlyFans has always been a uniquely diverse platform,” an OnlyFans spokesperson tells me. “Musicians, models, fitness influencers, make up artists, celebrities, comedians, athletes, adult entertainment stars, and more are all active on OnlyFans as both a primary and secondary source of income. OnlyFans is clearly becoming the platform of choice for creators from a wider range of industries and locations, and we’re proud of the diversity which exists on our platform.”

In regards to the recent changes made in the midst of the Bella Thorne controversy, the spokesperson continues: “The recent changes to an individual tip a fan can send a creator, and the maximum price that can be set by a creator for a paid post was a data and risk driven adjustment that has been in the pipeline for a while. This was not implemented in response to any one creator or fan. It's accurate to say that the vast majority of payments made on OnlyFans are unaffected by these recent changes. All policy changes are implemented with the safety and support of all our users at the centre. As with any growing platform, we welcome any feedback from both our creators and fans that will better accomplish these goals.”

When asked to comment on the feeling among sex workers that they are being left behind by the platform they helped make famous, the OnlyFans spokesperson said: "Our progressive policies towards content creation have always allowed space for any creator on the site. We are proud of the diversity which makes up the community on the platform, and this isn’t going to change."

With 63 million users and 850,000 creators globally, sex workers are strongly incentivised to stay on a website that is still exploding in popularity. But the pivot away from their own work to a subscription model for celebrity suggests to many sex workers that their role in making OnlyFans a success is being diminished.

“Because our job is viewed as easy, people assume we aren’t entitled to an opinion,” Odelia says. “It’s upsetting to know that someone like Bella Thorne can make millions almost instantly, without the dangers we face, and without really putting in the work, or understanding what we go through.”

Sarah Manavis is the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. Sign up to her free weekly newsletter the Dress Down for the latest film, TV, art, theatre and book reviews.