OnlyFans.com (OF) is the latest kid on the block to be billed as a safe, consequence-free way of selling sex and home-grown porn that empowers women. The social media site is similar to Instagram, but users pay to subscribe to creators’ feeds.
The top earners on OF are women whose subscribers are male. These men pay between £5 to £20 a month to view images considered too pornographic for Instagram. Subscribers can also direct message women and pay tips to get personalised videos or photos, ‘depending on his individual sexual tastes.’
OF is a huge money machine and is doing extremely well during the Covid-19 lockdown. It now has around 17.5 million users worldwide and over 70,000 content creators, who have received over $150 million (£119 million) since its launch. Content providers keep 80 per cent of their income, while the company takes the remaining 20 per cent. Years after sites like Pornhub began streaming free videos, OF is putting the money back into porn.
OnlyFans’ subscription-based model has led some to claim that it is somehow empowering women. Outlets like the New York Times say it ‘has put X-rated entertainment in the hands of its entertainers’ and means content creators perform fewer sex acts. Others think that because OF has reduced physical sexual exploitation, it does not put women in danger. But based on the experiences of women who use OF, it’s clear that the service is far from safe.
Many of the women are paid to re-enact the sexual fantasies of male subscribers and are told by private message exactly what they are expecting from each post. ‘I have been asked to dress as a schoolgirl and pretend to masturbate myself’ says Eloise, who is a content creator on OnlyFans. ‘Once I was told to tie a rope around my neck and pretend to choke. There are some real weirdos out there.’
Claudia signed up for OF six months ago, because she had been told how much money she could make from 'tips' from men who wanted to look at 'dirty pictures'. ‘It was very clear to me that it was a porn site,’ Claudia told me when I spoke to her on WhatsApp. ‘The advantage for me was that it wasn't going to be on something like Pornhub. I know girls that have ended up on there, and it's gross. I thought I might get a better class of perv if I signed up to OnlyFans, and that I would be pretty anonymous.’
Claudia then discovered that one of her main 'clients' had made a pornographic meme out of one of her topless photographs and posted it on a porn site. ‘He actually sent it to me, all proud. I tried to complain to OF but I never heard from them. I emailed them five times. In the end I gave up and deleted my account.’
‘Each subscriber paid me $10 a week and after the cut from OF I was left with £8. I needed to get as many subscribers as possible so I could pay my rent, which means posting new images all day every day,’ says Claudia, ‘and agreeing to more and more explicit stuff. In the end I felt exhausted and degraded and cancelled my membership.’
The site is not just a vaguely sanitised version of sex work, there is also evidence that the women who use the site can be vulnerable to scams. I have heard first-hand from two women who have had money withheld by the site administrators, and although they complained repeatedly, never received their remuneration.
It can also put its content creators in danger. Recently a 4 terabyte dump of videos and images was leaked online, primarily of women who use the site to share pornographic images. Rather than a hack, the leak seemed to be from OF customers accessing photos and videos individually, then sharing them with others and compiling them into a large file for free.
But despite the bad publicity from the data dump, increasing numbers of young, hard-up young woman are drawn to the site as a way to make lots of money. One content producer from Lancashire has revealed how she earned a fortune from selling naked pictures and sexually explicit videos of herself online. Having dropped out of her degree course, she claims to have made around £30,000 every month, putting her in the top 1 per cent of OF earners in the world.
I have researched and campaigned against the global sex trade, and travelled around the world to write a book on commercial sexual exploitation. I know prostitution when I see it, and no type of sanitised language to describe it changes what it is. OF has a function called Strip for Tip, and during a live video the more money subscribers send the provider, the more clothes she is required to take off.
Then there is the girlfriend experience. OF offers men the opportunity to pay providers for a day, or however long, to behave as if they are a real date, and via messages and voice notes send instructions as to what he requires of his ‘girlfriend’.
It’s not surprising that this leads to reports of subscribers becoming obsessed with and going on to stalk the women they follow on OF. Last month it was reported that a 21-year-old woman in Australia who posted explicit content on OF was followed and harassed by a man who went on to leak her personal information online.
I heard from another woman about being sexually harassed by a subscriber after she rejected his pleas to meet up in real life. ‘He ended up tracking down my real name and mobile number,’ she told me, ‘and put up a fake advert… on a porn site.’ The young woman was soon deluged with dozens of calls and messages from men before she was forced to change her number.
Whilst the money pours in to OF, and young, broke and often vulnerable women are drawn to this sanitised version of prostitution, men that subscribe have found yet another platform to treat women as little more than their own personalised sex toy. The Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in a number of brothel closures in countries that have legalised prostitution because of the high risk of infection. It is tempting to see OnlyFans as opposed to this kind of sexual exploitation, but it is far from safe for many of the women involved.