Feminism

OnlyFans: female empowerment or the trivialisation of sex work?

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With the coronavirus pandemic requiring everyone to stay at home, more and more of us are having to adapt to working online. Whilst sites such as Zoom and LoopUp have seen a surge in usage over the past few months, there also appears to be another online phenomenon: OnlyFans.  A social media service that, according to outlets like the New York Times, has become the “paywall for porn”, OnlyFans allows creators to run a paid subscription service which deliberately lacks restrictive content policy, allowing them to share nude or sexually explicit photos and videos in exchange for a monthly membership fee.

OnlyFans emphasises the relationship between the creators and their subscribers, and the interactivity this platform provides. Subscribers can pay extra to tip creators, as well as send private messages in exchange for Pay Per View (PPV) messages, which are photo or video messages sent to subscribers that remain locked until they pay the price the creator has set for them.

This business tool to generate income has been used before in sites such as Patreon, which eventually tightened the rules on its adult content guidelines in 2017, stating that users could no longer “use Patreon to raise funds in order to produce pornographic material such as maintaining a website, funding the production on movies, or providing a private webcam session”.  This update essentially kicked adult creators off the platform, and with many creators investing a lot of time and money into building a fanbase and generating income, the stricter guidelines not only left a lot of adult creators feeling discriminated against, but also raised major concerns about possibly putting their livelihoods at risk. An open letter to Patreon entitled “Don’t abandon us” was signed by over 2,000 creators, patrons and supporters in response to the site’s anti-porn rules.

However, this is not the case for OnlyFans, which has proudly positioned itself within the pornography niche. The site has even been commended as a progressive alternative to the notoriously toxic pornography industry which has a history of exploitation, as it is the creators themselves that decide and modify their own subscription fees. This puts the power (and the profit) back in the hands of those who are on display.

The site, which was launched in 2016, has become widely popular over the past few years, and has seen a huge increase in users in 2020 since the Covid-19 lockdown measures have been put into place. It now boasts over 24 million registered users, and more than 500, 000 content creators. Whilst the coronavirus pandemic is causing widespread job losses and salary cuts – although not everyone is guaranteed to gain success – there is no denying that people can, and are, making money from the comforts of their own home on OnlyFans. And it does seem that there is serious money to be made. In March of this year, it was revealed through various outlets that a woman from Wales had become a self-made millionaire in a matter of months through her OnlyFans account.

However, what really makes OnlyFans so distinguishable from alternative sites for pay per view porn, is that many of its online creators sharing adult content are not sex workers. In a world where social media influencers are the new celebrity, the desire to not only gain, but also monetise influence, is not restricted to any particular person. Whilst professional sex workers use the platform to generate more income, anyone from rappers, to reality TV stars, to complete amateurs, can use the site to cash in on some risky selfies and videos. Some notable celebrities with OnlyFans accounts include Love Island contestant, Megan Barton Hanson, model and entrepreneur, Blac Chyna, and rapper, Casanova.

Whilst some people may think that a more mainstream acceptance of porn and sex workers is a step in the right direction for the empowerment of those in the industry, the fact that non-sex workers are making OnlyFans profiles has received some backlash. This is because OnlyFans has provided an important platform for sex industry workers to continue making money during the coronavirus pandemic, and some believe that celebrities or social media influencers joining the x-rated subscription site means that they are taking up online space that is needed for those who are potentially out of work.

That anyone can make an OnlyFans profile is not necessarily a benefit. The trivialisation of sex work as a quick fix to earn money undermines the repercussions of getting involved. On-camera sex work means that the creators become part of a larger community, and it is important that they fully understand the gravity of what they are partaking in. From stigma, to discrimination, to even violence, the sex industry is not inconsequential and adult creators should proceed with that in mind.

Nevertheless, OnlyFans is continuing to gain popularity and, with no signs of intending to tighten its adult content guidelines, this online phenomenon hopefully signifies a transition to a new, more empowering territory for pornography. When the Internet destabilised the pornography industry in the late 1990s by making porn widely accessible, and, most importantly, completely free, performers lost their incomes. But now, thanks to the Internet, the porn industry is doing a 180 once again.

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