OnlyFans and changing sex work stereotypes

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X-rated content creators use online subscription-based platform OnlyFans to earn money and reclaim the industry as a more empowering space.

In 2020, the internet lambasted international pop sensation Dua Lipa for tucking money into a dancer’s underwear at American singer and rapper Lizzo’s Grammy after-party at the Crazy Girls strip club in Los Angeles, labelling her (and the “act”) anti-feminist and saying it was “exploiting women”.

When asked about it in an interview for Rolling Stone in January, the singer said: “I just feel like, if you’re a feminist, you have to also support women in all fields of work. We have to support sex workers, we have to believe that [work] is their choice and their right. It seems quite hypocritical, I think, people picking and choosing as to how they want to support women and when it suits them. That’s another form of misogyny, which really derives from the male gaze.”

One platform that has arguably been instrumental in helping X-rated content creators reclaim and redefine sex work, and speaks to the issues Lipa raised, is OnlyFans.

OnlyFans started five years ago as an online subscription-based explicit content service for those 18 years and older, which augured well for most models, porn stars and celebrities with established followings on other social media platforms like Instagram and Twitter – popular avenues for advertising or “teasing” their OnlyFans content.

But a pandemic and, according to the New York Times, more than 90 million users and one million content creators later, OnlyFans has spread much further than selling explicit content for an extra buck.

After months of research, Port-Elizabeth-based Dahlia Darling* decided to open an OnlyFans account in November 2020.

“I originally started it to reclaim my bodily autonomy, which I lost when I was raped at the age of 15. I’ve always felt some kind of disconnect with my body and myself, especially when it comes to sex and pleasure.

“… It’s done wonders for me. I feel more at home in my body now, more confident in myself and more emotionally receptive to intimacy in my personal life,” says Darling.

When Giddy started her OnlyFans account she used an alias to separate her personal life from her OnlyFans life, for fear of pushback.

A South African expat in New Zealand (where sex work is legal), Jess Giddy, who started an OnlyFans account during lockdown in March 2020, expresses a similar notion.

“I started an account because I have always been a very body-confident person. I love to strip down to lingerie and bikinis. I love to be open with my body and that is when I feel my most beautiful.

“OnlyFans is a platform that welcomes people like me with open arms, no judgement and no censorship. It became a safe space for me to express myself through my body comfortably,” Giddy says.

The idea of “sex work being just like any other job” has long been resisted by many and continues to be, with sex work still criminalised in places like South Africa and rhetoric like English writer Julie Blinedel’s 2008 opinion piece Prostitution is not a job. The inside of a woman’s body is not a workplace floating about in cyberspaceBut organisations like SWEAT (Sex Workers Education & Advocacy Task force) have been fighting for more than 20 years for sex work to be recogonised as respected work, with a vision of “a South Africa where people who choose to sell sex are able to enjoy freedom, rights and human dignity”.

“A lot of people think the only reason someone creates an OnlyFans account is if they need money. There’s no shame in capitalising on your body… I mean, that’s how capitalism works… but for a lot of us, it’s not about the money. It’s about the control it gives you over your body and body image. The money is a nice bonus though,” says Darling. They think the reason people might want to use OnlyFans is because they enjoy having creative control without input from a manager, agent or agency, who take a large cut.

But it takes effort. A lot of it.

“The flipside to taking most of your earnings yourself is that you have to earn them yourself. You’re your own photographer, own marketing manager, own accountant, own editor. It’s basically like running a small business – the amount of work you put in will often reflect how much money you make during that period, and there is huge potential to make money – you don’t have to be high profile or an influencer,” says Darling.

When Giddy started her OnlyFans account she used an alias to separate her personal life from her OnlyFans life, for fear of pushback.

“I find that South Africa hasn’t fully progressed into an open-minded society and new things tend to scare the minds of conservative South Africans. But, I have recently opened it [OnlyFans account] up to South Africa again as I decided I wanted to be an example to those who want to be a part of this community but are too scared to do so,” says Giddy.

Content creators are free to post whatever they like, from soft porn to explicit content, as long as it is consensual and the “explicit” box is ticked when signing up. They can block fans through a username, IP addresses or “geo-blocking”.

 “What you post and create is entirely up to you, your boundaries and the nature of your profile,” says Darling, adding: “I’ve never experienced restriction or censorship and I do top nudity and lewd content.”

According to Giddy, despite subscription fees, most creators make their money through PPV (pay-per-view) messages – when a creator sends content through a private message and the fan has to pay to see it. Fans can also send tips.

Johannesburg couple, Silindokuhle Poni and Wandile Mbunyuza, create OnlyFans content using the alias Sleezy and Oyama. After complications with their first account they started a new one last month.

“Anyone can make money from OnlyFans – high profile or not – if you have great content and you market it very well. Twitter is our preferred marketing avenue. OnlyFans takes 20% of each subscription. Our subscription is $9.99 (R153,14) with an average of 50 fans a month, sometimes more,” says Mbunyuza.

OnlyFans is run by Fenix International Limited (FIL) and you need to be 18 or older to start an account. FIL uses third parties to verify your age eligibility.

Anyone can make money, although it is not guaranteed – especially without extensive marketing – and it might be minimal.

“Some people work on it as a moonlight gig and make R3,000 a month. Other people I know have switched to doing it full time and make up to R60,000 – but these are just the people I know of. The content is billed so that whatever you charge for your post, OnlyFans takes a percentage. So if my post costs $15 I will end up taking $12 where OnlyFans takes $3,” Darling says.

However, while digital sex work is touted as a safer route to the dangerous, sometimes fatal street sex work, it is not without harm. Because sex work is not formally recognised as work in many places around the world, regulation and represention is thin or non-existent, leaving holes for severe, often long-term repercussions.

OnlyFans is run by Fenix International Limited (FIL) and you need to be 18 or older to start an account. FIL uses third parties to verify your age eligibility.

While OnlyFans’ terms of service do state that you “understand and acknowledge that you are responsible for any user content you submit or contribute, and you have full responsibility for such content, including its legality, reliability, accuracy, and appropriateness”, its privacy policy says: “OnlyFans takes content piracy very seriously and has a designated DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) team that issues formal takedown notices against all reported copyright violations. Our DMCA team issues notice on all illicit target websites, hosting services and domain registrars, while also notifying all major search engines of these infringements.”

A 2020 article by Jessica Lindsay for MetroUK notes that “if you try to take a screenshot with an iOS or Android device it will show a black screen rather than allowing you to save the picture, and you can be banned from OnlyFans if you’re caught trying to take recordings or screenshots”.

While the robustness of OnlyFans’ safety and privacy features remains to be seen, for now it appears to be safer than Pornhub, the world’s biggest pronography site with more than 42 billion visits in 2019 according to the Guardian. It differs from OnlyFans in that it has no age restrictions and is free.

“For those who want to start an OnlyFans account because it may seem like easy money or because everyone is doing it, I want you to ask yourself: Is this really what I want to do?” Giddy says.

“If you hesitate, even for a second, I want you to sit and think about it more. Even though I may feel that sex work or creating explicit content to sell should not have any effect on future jobs, it unfortunately still does. A potential employer could see it and deny you a job because of it. I am not saying it will happen but you need to be aware of the possibility. You also need to understand that whatever content you put out there could be leaked. Make sure you’re prepared for that.”

A recent New York Times article noted: “Last April, a mechanic in Indiana lost her job at a Honda dealership after management learnt she had an OnlyFans account. Creators can be the target of ‘doxxing’ – a form of online harassment in which users publish private or sensitive information about someone without permission.”

Darling recently started an OnlyFans WhatsApp support group to address everything from how to price content to dealing with the dark side of OnlyFans, such as trolling and harassment.

“I’ve had someone I know send my profile to my family members. I’m not sure if they were trolling or just being malicious but it didn’t stop me for the most part. Especially on the platform itself your fans are super respectful, enthusiastic and keen to engage with you.”

Poni and Mbunyuza say trolling has been a major challenge. “At first we didn’t know how to deal with it. We discussed it as a couple and we realised people will always have something to say and not everyone will like our content. So now we just protect our peace,” says Mbunyuza.

“One needs to have thick skin because there’s so much hate out there that you may not be prepared for and people will definitely criticise your content. Just ‘do you’ at the end of the day; we cannot please everyone.”

Darling reminds us that “there’s a person behind the content you’re consuming”. Tips, respect and decency should be evident when engaging with somebody on any platform. And although basic values of civility are not always obvious – especially in sex work – and cannot be influenced by content creators, being in control of your image and content is empowering. “OnlyFans has allowed a lot of women to start redefining pornographic content, while perhaps removing a lot of the male or patriarchal lens from it. An example is queer sex work. Many of these categories (gay, lesbian, trans) are often hypersexualised and fetishised through the heteronormative perception.

“How great is it that a lesbian can pay for authentic lesbian porn on OnlyFans without experiencing the discomfort that comes with watching ‘regular’ lesbian porn that was clearly created by a straight man with other straight men in mind for the audience.” DM/ML

* Not their real name. OnlyFans alias.

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