How OnlyFans became the porn industry’s great lockdown winner – and at what cost

The Covid-19 crisis has accelerated the commercialisation of sexual intimacy, providing temporary relief not only from sexual frustration but also loneliness. 

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The sex industry is booming, by which I don’t just mean the straightforward buying and selling of real-life sex. The online porn industry has grown ever larger as it has come to offer more and more extreme content, the sexualisation of entertainment and advertising continually pushes new limits, and businesses such as the high street retailer Ann Summers have successfully monetised the mainstreaming of BDSM. We are seeing this rapid growth and diversification of the sex industry partly as a consequence of the digital revolution, and partly as a consequence of business innovation.

For instance, one of the pleasurable things about BDSM, from a business perspective, is that it so often demands kit. Ann Summers – whose partnership with the Fifty Shades of Grey franchise proved highly lucrative – offers a six-piece “bondage set” for £60, which includes a flogger, blindfold, ball gag, ankle cuffs, handcuffs and rope. To this could be added dozens of other items from the Ann Summers BDSM range, from multi-chain nipple clamps (£15) to hog ties (£10).

At the top end of the market, Agent Provocateur has also dipped its toes into the sexual sadism market, with a £450 set of rose gold handcuffs and, for the real connoisseur, the Xenses Lilith Diamonds & Gold whip can be purchased for £4,382.22 (engraved initials optional). Who knew sexual liberation could be so profitable?

The Covid-19 crisis has accelerated this commercialisation of sexual intimacy, with one of the great winners of the past six months being the British-owned tech company OnlyFans, a platform that allows “creators” (overwhelmingly women) to earn money by giving “users” (overwhelmingly men) subscription access to online content, most of which is pornographic.

OnlyFans offers what should best be understood as the “girlfriend experience” of porn. Successful creators sell not just explicit content, but also the impression of authentic personality. Creators are expected to message users privately, and perhaps remember their birthdays, or their children’s names, thus offering the illusion of intimacy. OnlyFans provides temporary relief, not only from sexual frustration, but also loneliness, which is a key reason for its lockdown success.

[see also: How the rich and famous stole OnlyFans from sex workers]

Every now and again, a tweet by a previously unknown OnlyFans creator will go viral, as she (always she) shares photos of the house she has been able to buy “thanks to OnlyFans”. But as the blogger Thomas Hollands has found in his detailed analysis of the OnlyFans model, such rags-to-riches cases are unusual. According to Hollands’s interpretation of the data, most of the women on the platform probably make a loss, given the amount of time they spend creating content and engaging with users. The median creator attracts only 30 subscribers, but she carries just as much risk of public exposure and harassment as her more successful counterparts. The same amount of effort goes in, but a very different level of reward comes out.

The distribution of income on OnlyFans is highly unequal, with the top 1 per cent of creators making 33 per cent of the money. Using the Gini index – a standard measure of economic inequality – Hollands finds OnlyFans to be more unequal than South Africa, the most unequal country in the world. The tiny minority of creators who do well on the platform are mostly celebrities already, meaning the women who post “thanks to OnlyFans” success stories on social media are not representative of ordinary creators, but are rather more like those rare punters who walk out of a casino as millionaires, having put it all on red.

We shouldn’t be surprised by this. OnlyFans depends upon the commodification of sexual intimacy. It does not profit from promoting the well-being of its users or creators, but rather from encouraging growth: more content, more subscriptions, more time spent on the site. The historian David Courtwright has coined the term “limbic capitalism” to describe

a technologically advanced but socially regressive business system in which global industries, often with the help of complicit governments and criminal organisations, encourage excessive consumption and addiction. They do so by targeting the limbic system, the part of the brain responsible for feeling…

Limbic capitalism is the reason the most successful apps are brightly coloured like fresh fruit and glint like water. Our primitive brains helplessly seek out the stimuli we have evolved to be attracted to, and the beneficiaries of limbic capitalism have become wise to these instincts, learning over time how best to capture them. Junk food, gambling, video games, smoking, opioids, all of these tap into our longing for nourishment, excitement and pleasure, but do so while draining the consumer of health, happiness and – most importantly – money.

The sex industry is the ultimate form of limbic capitalism, feeding not only on our desire for sex, but sometimes also on our desires for novelty or companionship or self-harm or the degradation of other people. Few consumers will be truly unaware of the abuses that go on within the sex industry, but how many are aware of the ways in which the industry manipulates not only its workers, but also its consumers?

It is not by chance, for instance, that one particular iteration of the rise of limbic capitalism in the form of BDSM porn has coincided with a rise in women reporting unwanted acts of sexual aggression such as choking. Algorithms that push consumers towards ever more novel, ever more addictive content are designed to produce profit, not happiness. Which is why we should always ask, when faced with any new sexual fashion or product: why do I really desire this? And, in the end, cui bono?

Louise Perry is a freelance writer and campaigner against sexual violence.

This article appears in the 06 November 2020 issue of the New Statesman, American chaos

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