‘I Feel Used’: OnlyFans Made Millions Off Sex Workers’ Labor, Then Hung Them Out To Dry
At the height of the pandemic, Jessica, a 33-year-old single mother living in the suburbs of Chicago, felt like she was drowning. Her ex was paying reduced child support as a result of the crisis, which left her struggling to cover her rent for the two-bedroom apartment she shared with her three kids.
Her income as a loan processor wasn’t enough, and she knew that her situation wasn’t sustainable. So she decided to try selling nude videos of herself on OnlyFans, a subscription platform that had soared to fame in recent years as an online marketplace for homemade NSFW content. It was a scary step to take, but with hard work, it paid off.
“It literally doubled my income,” said Jessica, who is identified only by her first name to protect her family’s privacy. “Now I’m able to provide for my children without begging for help.”
Even with OnlyFans claiming 20% of her earnings, as it does for all creators, Jessica was able to start paying off her debts and saving up for a better life. She set a goal to buy a house within two years — something that had previously felt entirely out of reach. But on Thursday afternoon, the future she’d started building for her family was suddenly thrown into jeopardy.
News broke that OnlyFans would be banning “sexually explicit conduct” in a matter of weeks. The announcement caused mass panic and uncertainty among sex workers who’d come to rely on the platform for a living — the very community whose labor helped it explode into a billion-dollar business. OnlyFans expects to net $1.2 billion this year and $2.5 billion in 2022, which would partially cash out majority owner Leo Radivinsky, Axios reports.
Many workers, like Jessica, had found a lifeline in OnlyFans at a time of desperation, only to have it abruptly ripped away as the company reportedly attempts to court sex-weary investors. (OnlyFans says the changes are required to “to comply with the requests of [its] banking partners and payout providers,” and declined to provide more detail.)
“I’m freaking out,” said Jessica, who now worries that she’ll have to pull her children out of day care and will no longer be able to save up for a house. “I’m terrified. I don’t know what I’m going to do moving forward, especially with such short notice.”
She and other sex workers feel betrayed and discarded by OnlyFans, which for years has been almost exclusively associated with explicit content. It was founded in 2016 by CEO Tim Stokely, a British entrepreneur known as the 38-year-old “king of homemade porn” who previously ran two other adult performance sites. Two years later, Radvinsky, owner of the camgirl site MyFreeCams, acquired 75% ownership of OnlyFans’ parent company, Fenix International Limited.
Sex workers built this website. They’ve made a ton of money off us just to kick us off.
Tori, a 28-year-old OnlyFans creator from Nashville
OnlyFans told HuffPost that it will allow creators to continue sharing “content containing nudity as long as it is consistent with our Acceptable Use Policy,” but declined to answer questions about what kinds of nude content would not be considered “sexually explicit” and therefore prohibited. The company also claimed that it would “actively support and guide our creators through this change in content guidelines,” but declined to answer how, exactly, it would do that.
The Adult Performance Artists Guild, a union representing OnlyFans creators and other sex workers, issued a statement Thursday slamming OnlyFans’ forthcoming policy change and “the financial despair and destruction this will cause our community.”
“Most content creators on OnlyFans are comprised of adult performers who make their entire living off of the platform,” the Guild continued. “Workers in our industry have families to care for, and this change will push many into potential homelessness.”
Tori, a newly single mother of two living in Nashville, Tennessee, started selling adult content on OnlyFans last October to supplement her income as a financial analyst and get her through the holidays. She’d been living paycheck to paycheck, and the money helped her afford childcare when her kids’ school shut down due to COVID-19. In February, when she was diagnosed with cervical cancer, she came to rely on OnlyFans to offset the cost of chemotherapy.
“I probably would have put myself in some severe debt refinancing and using credit cards” without OnlyFans, said Tori, 28, who is also identified by only her first name. “It has made a huge, huge difference.”
Tori awoke to multiple texts and Twitter DMs on Thursday alerting her to the news that “sexually explicit conduct” would no longer be allowed on OnlyFans as of Oct. 1. She was both stunned and angry.
“Sex workers built this website. They’ve made a ton of money off us just to kick us off,” she said. “I feel used. And I feel for the people who, unlike me, don’t have a full-time job — who solely rely on OnlyFans. This is a slap in the face.”
As she scrambles to plan her next move, Tori wonders what other sex work-friendly platforms she could turn to. There are few out there, like MyFans, but building up a subscriber base on OnlyFans took a lot of time and effort, and she worries that not all of her subscribers will migrate to a new website with her. Reaching new people requires promotion on mainstream social media platforms such as Twitter, which, Tori said, can be a deeply disheartening experience due to online critics who try to shame and humiliate sex workers.
“The sex work community is very, very resilient,” said Jane Lucier, a 23-year-old Canadian who earns six figures per month on OnlyFans. Her extraordinary success on the platform has enabled her to give back to her community by donating money to sex work advocacy groups, but she knows many others who use OnlyFans are far less fortunate.
“It was already a very tough year for sex workers,” said Lucier, who is identified by her screen name. “Now they’re more vulnerable because OnlyFans was a safe place for them.”
Sex workers, a highly marginalized community with no U.S. labor protections, are used to being deplatformed and starting over from scratch. Companies such as Tumblr and Patreon have also cracked down on NSFW content, and most mainstream social networks have strict rules against nudity. To many sex workers, OnlyFans was a haven that made it possible to do their jobs safely and securely from the comfort of their homes.
I’m terrified. I don’t know what I’m going to do moving forward.
Jessica, a 33-year-old OnlyFans creator from Chicago
For Jordan Bundy, a 29-year-old OnlyFans creator in San Jose, the platform is her only source of income. She lost her job as a sales representative at a skincare brand over the pandemic. OnlyFans kept her afloat and even helped her develop a financial safety net.
“I was finally ahead of rent and not behind it,” she said. “I felt like I could breathe for once in my life.”
But her experience using OnlyFans has been frustrating, too. People have stolen nude content from her page and reposted it to Reddit and even a separate OnlyFans account that was impersonating her, Bundy said. To her dismay, she added, OnlyFans did little to help when she reported the abuse. She’s not surprised that the company is now turning its back on its primary user base.
“Everybody associates OnlyFans with sex work,” she said. “They used the sex work community to grow to where they are now.”
Meanwhile, as OnlyFans attempts to rebrand into a puritanical version of itself to attract outside funding, Jessica from Chicago is stressing about how she’s going to pay her bills once her savings run out.
“We all know what OnlyFans is for,” she said. “They should be proud of the fact that they’re basically a fucking porn site and that they allow all of these people to take control of their lives and financial futures, and try to find a way to make this work for us.”
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