The extraordinary and controversial rise of OnlyFans

Posted by Chloe James in Culture

3 years ago

When Beyonce sang “she might start an OnlyFans” in this summer’s remix of Megan Thee Stallion’s Savage, she spoke on behalf of 2020’s sex work revolution. Founded in 2016, the OnlyFans app surged in popularity over lockdown, with the number of accounts doubling since March. Like Instagram, it provides a feed of images and videos – except it’s all behind a paywall, and there are no limitations on explicit content. Compared to other camming websites, it takes a relatively low cut of 20%, pays out regularly, and prevents others from stealing or resharing your work. With unemployment rates soaring, OnlyFans has become a haven for sex workers moving their work online, as well as a new source of income for those struggling to make ends meet.

Influencers move to OnlyFans

Yet for some content creators joining the platform, reactions have been decidedly negative. Among the first (and most notorious) to join was American influencer Caroline Calloway. A couple of weeks after the USA went into lockdown, Caroline started sharing X-rated cosplays as characters from classic literature such as Pride and Prejudice. Describing her work as “emotionally poignant, softcore cerebral porn” driven by “quariness” – quarantine horniness – she earned $200K in one month. Already blighted by accusations of scamming her followers (she owns up to being “the other scam, the one you love” in her Instagram bio), her content was met with disdain by established OnlyFans creators, who labelled her a sex work “tourist”.

Other American influencers such as Tana Mongeau and Daisy Keech met similar responses. On a larger scale, actress Bella Thorne made $1million in 24 hours after selling pay-per-view nude photos. Not only was she accused of gentrifying the platform, but of misleading purchasers. With so many demanding refunds, the app responded by capping the prices for creators, enraging those relying on OnlyFans for income.

Those with existing ties to the sex work community have received much a warmer welcome. Here in the UK, former Love Islander Megan Barton Hanson launched her page in March. An ambassador for Ann Summers and sex toy brand Lelo, she credited the platform with empowering her sexually after missing her past career as a stripper. And, while sexual wellness expert Dami Olonisakin doesn’t create content, she is an OnlyFans user and praised the platform as a sex-positive space to Cosmopolitan, explaining it allows women to have “agency over their own bodies”. However, she also noted meme culture has turned OnlyFans into a misogynistic punchline for successful young women in the industry which, in her opinion, stems from “deep-rooted jealousy”.

But not everything on the app is NSFW. Model London Goheen made headlines after launching a page to document her first pregnancy with Australian influencer Reece Hawkins. Charging $15 per month for updates, London made the choice due to trolling and harassment on Instagram (largely over Reece’s previous relationship with YouTuber Tammy Hembrow). She emphasised that subscribing was optional and that she chose the platform as it gives her more control over her content.

OnlyFans itself highlights the strengths of its privacy settings and built-in monetisation features when encouraging lifestyle bloggers to use the app to increase their income by offering fans a private space to view and support their work. Some of its top users include fitness gurus and musicians such as Pia Mia, who sells subscriptions for bonus tracks and one-on-one chats. DJ Lily Mercer similarly teamed up with OnlyFans for exclusive DJ sets, interviews and music consultancy sessions. Meanwhile, presenter and car fanatic Emma Walsh launched her page to “chat with fans on a more personal level”.

An influencer’s OnlyFans following is typically made of the most passionate, engaged demographic of their audience, who are willing to go a step further to connect with their content. With the app gaining over 200K new users every 24 hours, OnlyFans has untapped commercial potential for brands – both PG and X-rated.