Gone are the days of teenage boys hiding Playboy magazines under their beds in American feature films and girls being judged for bringing up things they shouldn’t ask questions about. The conversation of the adult movie industry around the dinner table has shifted in recent years with sites such as OnlyFans coming into play through social media. It has transformed perceptions around nudity and the sex working industry throughout society, as A-list celebrities start contributing to the game.
What is OnlyFans?
OnlyFans is a social media platform, much like Instagram and Twitter where users are encouraged to share personal content to their audiences, accept in this case the content is protected by a paywall. It enables creators to monetize their influence and choose their audience, controlling who views and interacts with their content through a subscription-based feed. OnlyFans offers a platform to creators from all genres to participate by posting videos, photo’s or personal chats with fans for a certain price (Tillman, 2020). OnlyFans has quickly evolved into an amateur sex worker’s dream platform, as pornographic materials are accepted, but many fitness experts and musicians etc. still utilise the website to generate revenue. It has especially become popular among “cam girls, adult models and porn creators” (Morgan, 2020) as a virtual way of generating income during the pandemic, influencing the sex working scene positively in the eyes of society.
Historical beginnings: An Idea to an entity
37-year-old, Timothy Stokely launched OnlyFans in 2016 in the United Kingdom, as a means to act similar to an Instagram feed that allowed nudity and interaction with content creators (Garin, 2020). He has been titled “The King of Homemade Porn”, as he has dabbled into the adult media industry, launching a fetish website in 2011, Glamworship.com and Customs4U in 2013, similar to OnlyFans. Originally Stokely pitched the concept to be an intimate service for guys to enter a fantasy world and become their own directors, requesting personal videos from models (Bernstein, 2019). Garin (2020) mentions that Stokely then realised adult entertainers promote themselves on big social platforms like Instagram, while in hindsight it being a cover up for under-the-table services. OnlyFans was the perfect solution for the fact that Instagram rejected all pornographic material.
Stokely clearly wanted to blur the line of content moderation between the “acceptable and the prohibited” (Gillepsie, 2018, p.5) in the digital space, critiquing Gillepsie’s view on moderating content to an extent that an open platform would simply be a fantasy. Stokely wanted to excel on the idea of the “freedom the web promised, to host and extend all that participation, expression, and social connection.” (Gillepsie, 2018, p.5)
Ownership has changed since the start-up launched. OnlyFans was owned by the Stokely family and then 75% acquired by American Investor and owner of MyFreeCams, Leonid Radvinsky. (Garin, 2020)
Covid-19 sky rocketing OnlyFans success
Covid-19 has improved the success of OnlyFans immensely, with unemployment rates rising globally. OnlyFans’ subscriptions have increased with 75%, with 150,000 new sign ups daily (Downs, 2020). According to Morgan (2020) OnlyFans has seen 1.85 million new sign ups overall since end of February when the pandemic hit, due to people being either bored at home or wanting an online source of income. A high point for OnlyFans was when Beyonce mentioned the brand in Megan Thee Stallion’s song ‘Savage’, singing “Hips TikTok when I dance / On Demon Time, she might start an OnlyFans” (Manavis, 2020) increasing the site traffic by 15%. This upset sex workers immensely, as OnlyFans became more commercialised within the societal market.
A beneficial business model:
A business model is defined by Gobble (2014) as a model based on three aspects: content, structure and governance. Furthermore, it extends to the company’s identity, competitive environment and strategy in order to capture value and expand.
“A business model articulates the logic and provides data and other evidence that demonstrates how a business creates and delivers value to customers.” (Teece, 2010, p.173)
OnlyFans’ business model is quite different from the average social media platform where Martin (2019) highlights “social media companies offer individuals ‘free’ networking … services … in exchange for the rights to collect, aggregate and analyse their data,” and that platforms exploit users for their unpaid work. OnlyFans is actually doing the complete opposite by bringing the power back to their content creators, instead of profiting from them.
OnlyFans Promotional Video from OnlyFans. Souce: Youtube – https://youtu.be/IqdT2RLvoKQ
The website allows influencers to monetize their content with a paywall, where users pay a subscription fee between $5 to $20 a month (Bernstein, 2019) to see exclusive content and ask for personal requests. Furthermore, creators can also receive tips or money from the pay-per-view feature (Tillman, 2020). OnlyFans takes 20% of the profit and creators get the remaining 80% (Levesley, 2019). This has been the most rewarding platform for sex workers, as big pornography sites have exploited many performers and taken advantage of underaged girls.
Levesley (2019) mentions that OnlyFans’ business model is only successful, as they focus on the authenticity factor of the sex working industry. There are many online sites where materials are freely available for anyone to download, therefore they target users with its mysterious and secretive paywalled feed. It all plays into receiving genuine content from someone who knows who you are.
“If a guy is a regular customer, she likely knows his birthday, the names of his children and his pets — even when to call after a surgical procedure.” (Bernstein, 2019)
Danii Harwood’s quote shows how intimate the connection could be between her and a fan, making OnlyFans completely different from any other adult entertainment platform. Garin (2020) also mentions that the pandemic helped OnlyFans’ business model, as it has affected mental health, encouraging people to pay larger amounts for an emotional connection during this time.
How does it work?
General Video by Premium Chat. Source: Youtube – https://youtu.be/cHGGsGNWiRs
The OnlyFans webpage has 5 main pages when logged in: (Tillman, 2020)
- Home: A personal newsfeed of creators and close friends’ content you follow.
- Notifications: All interactions made on the website, including tips, subscriptions and likes.
- Create: Where you can share content.
- Chats: Interactions between you and creators or friends.
- Menu: Your profile etc.
The use of social media platforms, such as Instagram, TikTok and Twitter to promote other ventures has been a key concept for adult entertainers by showcasing small snippets of their OnlyFans account that is user-friendly elsewhere. These platforms have developed a digital relationship with OnlyFans, skyrocketing traffic to the website, with its “algorithmically generated For You page and propensity for rocketing regular people off to stardom” (Carman, 2020). Miles (2019) supports this claim where he mentions the power of using Instagram as a marketing tool to advertise oneself and attract traffic to other business ventures, in this case OnlyFans.
The industry placement and social ecology
OnlyFans has shaped the sex working industry by changing the industries position in the market through creating a space for sex workers to be appreciated, rather than exploited by large big pornography companies. Social ecology in the internet’s sphere is defined by Looi (2001) as an organized system in a rich diversity of platforms interacting with one another to create and support a shared economy. OnlyFans has situated itself as a unique enterprise in the industry and acts as a major competitor within the pornographic and social media industries. OnlyFans has partnered solely with Demon Time, creating a monetized virtual night club inviting influencers to join. Partnerships via Payments on OnlyFans can only be done by debit and credit cards.
The privacy and safety of all content posted by creators is regulated through OnlyFans. They have strict policies in place (OnlyFans, 2020). Governments from different countries also regulate the use of OnlyFans. OnlyFans’ success in 2020 has set goals for direct competitors to enter the market, such as Patreon, JustFor.Fans and a LGBTQI+ friendly platform, OnlyPunks (Levesley, 2019). Big porn companies, such as Pornhub are seen as a potential threat, but specialize in a different type of service. Content creators are seen as suppliers and users, as they’re supplying content to make OnlyFans profitable, whilst using the website with other consumers acting as subscribers.
Transformative effects on the digital societal norms
Downs (2020) describes OnlyFans as “the farmer’s market of porn,” where creators are directly selling to the user. The arrival of online pornography aka. “netporn” (Paasonen quoted by Ryan, 2019, p.120) such as OnlyFans has contributed to changing the adult film industry by introducing the elimination of agents and producers granting amateur creators a platform to monetize their content. (Ryan, 2019, p.120)
An interview with ex-adult entertainer Mia Khalifa reveals that supporting sex workers through subscription platforms ex. OnlyFans is the best way to not fund larger corporations such as Pornhub, that contribute to problematic practices. OnlyFans assure consumers that content is legal, consensual and controlled by creators (Kibbe, 2020). OnlyFans has introduced this new business model attracting all kinds of creators.
The political outcome of OnlyFans is different in each country and must abide by pornography laws within its rightful borders, but for example in the United Kingdom, Morgan (2020) explains that an individual must be of legal age (18+) to participate in the selling and distributing of these materials and that OnlyFans has no responsibility in regulating this behaviour online.
OnlyFans has had the biggest transformation on the social side of the internet, slowly influencing and targeting the mindsets of society. John (2016) mentions how technology is a key driver of the sharing economy and that “the idea that is put forward is that having become so accustomed to and adept at online sharing, young adults are more open to sharing their stuff” (John, 2016, p.69). Moreover, this statement emphasizes on the fact that the more open and normalised the sex working industry becomes in society, the more society will accept it and destigmatize this career path.
OnlyFans allows sex workers to create personal content and have control over it. This development in the industry has developed through years of sexualised photos and videos being traded (Hakim quoted by Ryan, 2019, p.120) and has finally started to redefine social misconceptions of the sex industry, capitalising on the desire for content to be authentic and intimate (Ryan, 2019, p.120).
New Direction of OnlyFans and the social implications
Celebrities such as Cardi B, Tana Mongeau and Bella Thorne have uploaded pornographic material to lessen the stigma around nudity and pornography and Swae Lee has used OnlyFans as a way to promote his music (Tenbarge & López, 2020). This has all been done positively to raise awareness and promote sexuality, but sex workers have realised that their platform is slowly being taken over by clout chasing celebrities.
The Bella Thorne scandal drew attention when she promoted her OnlyFans on Instagram. Many viewers subscribed, earning her a total of $2 million in days, before the website crashed, capped all spending totals for users and had to refund users as Thorne didn’t come through with legitimate content. (Hoffman, 2020)
Current sex workers are complaining that A-list celebs are changing the platform, stealing clients and costing them money. They explain how celebrities see sex work as a hobby, instead of a way of making a living. It has sex workers’ labour feeling degrading and invalid. (Manavis, 2020)
“Advances in technology have advanced pornography, turning the once limited world of adult films into a vast empire capable of reaching into nearly every home in the civilized world.” (Monroe, 2010, pg. 201)
OnlyFans has been part of the internet transformation of normalising nudity and sex workers in the public eye, as well-known celebrities are contributing to the platform. This had changed societies’ perspective immensely the past months as OnlyFans have become a household name globally. Celebrities have embraced the culture to destigmatize pornography and support the sex working industry, but in return monetized on their own fame taking away from the hard-working adult entertainers making a living on OnlyFans.
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