'Sex work positive feminists have pointed out that OnlyFans as a platform needs to do more to protect its creators from exploitation.'PHOTO CREDITS: PXHERE

Sex has always sold, whether that be under red lights, in the pages of Playboy, filed in PornHub categories or now through the booming industry of ‘homegrown’ online pornography that depends on the marketing structures of Twitter and Instagram. In the past year, the website OnlyFans, founded in 2016 by Essex entrepreneur Tim Stokley, has come to define this industry. OnlyFans is, in some respects, not unlike Instagram; a platform for sharing photos and videos with followers, the main difference being the deliberate lack of restrictive policies, thus fostering a home for generally explicit and crucially monetised content. 

Subscribers to individual profiles pay between $5 to $20 a month to access pictures and videos too ‘risque’ for Instagram with the option for private chats where money can be exchanged for personalised content, a business model that is proving effective with 30 million users and 450,000 creators. These creators keep 80% of their income, whilst the company takes the remaining 20%, and the potential profits are huge, over $725 million has been paid out to creators so far. The sex industry has thus verified its resilience to technological change. However, an important question is always how does this new phase of pornography’s digital revolution impact the safety and agency of the site’s main ‘content creators:’ young, female sex workers?

OnlyFans has the potential to increasingly liberate sex work and pornography, out of the grips of misogynistic businessmen and exploitative contracts, as the creators themselves gain control over the photography of their bodies. The horror stories of non-consensual, abusive and manipulative behaviour continue to haunt the sex industry; however OnlyFans takes the step to strip away the middle man figure of a director, agent or ‘pimp’ as women create their own footage from their bedrooms.

"...sex workers have very limited labour rights and protection, which thus alienate sex workers from multiple countries’ COVID-19 employment schemes."

There is more space for women to  willingly sexualise themselves, on their own terms and within their own boundaries. This autonomy reaches beyond the content itself, with most creators choosing to advertise their work through their social media accounts and thus curate a distinct, personalised brand. Surely this is a welcomed change to the sex industry, as women recover the beauty of their bodies out of the control of intermediaries and autonomously reap the rewards of their physical appearance? Creators now hold the power within their client relationships and most importantly, are the ones who make financial gain rather than coins slipping into the pockets of exploiters. 20-year old Kaylen Ward went viral at the beginning of 2020 when she teamed up with OnlyFans to use her subscriptions to donate to Australian Bushfire charities, when the reigns of pornography are placed in the hands of women, they have proven to be imaginative and socially responsible with their heightened incomes.

Not only do creators have power over their content, but the platform is intrinsically safer and more flexible than traditional forms of sex work. Women looking to capitalise on their sexuality (whether out of necessity or desire) do not need to walk the streets or physically engage with men to do so thus lessening chances of physical violence, rape, and STDs and escaping the eyes of a justice system that wrongly criminalises rather than protects sex work. Furthermore, when dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic, sex workers had a pre-existing work from home option, reflected in the 75% increase in the number of people signing up to the website between March and April. Symptomatic of a society which continues to stigmatise female sexuality, sex workers have very limited labour rights and protection, which thus alienate sex workers from multiple countries’ COVID-19 employment schemes. However, OnlyFans provided an opportunity to maintain and potentially even bolster the incomes of sex work. For adult performers OnlyFans has created a means of attaining professional agency in a way that would have been unimaginable even a decade ago. Whereas sets, a crew, editing and production costs required the backing of moneyed studios, today, anyone with a decent smartphone can be their own pornographer, in control of their content and its distribution, thus empowering women within the sex industry.

"OnlyFans must realise its responsibility for the content that the site circulates..."


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However, sex work positive feminists have pointed out that OnlyFans as a platform needs to do more to protect its creators from exploitation and to ensure that female empowerment is enshrined within its practices. The age verification process is blighted with loopholes, requiring creators to supply a photo of someone holding their ID, which hundreds of underage users have evaded through simply asking an older friend to step in for them, or the use of fake identification. A simple search of #onlyfans on twitter returns thousands of results that advertise their content as ‘#teen or #younggirl. As it stands, UK law states that you must be over the age of 18 to sell or distribute explicit content. However, there is no legal requirement or regulation to compel OnlyFans to scan content on its site for such material. All legal and potential criminal liability lies with the under-age individual, who uploads said content. OnlyFans must realise its responsibility for the content that the site circulates, and intervene directly to prevent the exploitation of underage bodies for the benefit of paedophiles. Furthermore, despite OnlyFans’ bolstered security and anti-piracy measures in comparison to free sites such as PornHub, OnlyFans is not immune to security breaches. In March, up to 4 terabytes of videos and images were non-consensually leaked online, and there are multiple instances of videos taken from behind the OnlyFans paywall and uploaded onto Youtube. The implementation of a watermark, no-save policy or a feature that notified users if their content has been screenshotted or exported (as on Snapchat) are simple, but crucial features that the site must consider introducing to ensure that OnlyFans does not become another manifestation of sexual desire that subjugates and disenfranchises women in the sex industry.

OnlyFans truly has potential to allow women to reclaim and own their place within the sex industry, as active, willing contributors, but the site must earnestly adapt for this empowering experience to be maximised, and not to be corrupted by the malignant forces that have previously plagued the sex industry.