The site is best known for charging fees for nude content but making money off it is hard work.
This time last year Jah Bella* was doing it tough. She had fled an abusive relationship, was looking after her newborn daughter and was struggling to find work in far north Queensland.
“Every single regular job that I had, I was getting sexually harassed in some way,” she says. “I would either get fired or I’d have to leave once I reported it.”
When the pandemic hit all remaining gigs dried up.
So Bella did what thousands of other people around the world did in lockdown – she opened an account on the website OnlyFans.
The site, which has boomed in popularity in the past year, is technically open to anyone – from personal trainers to artists and cooks – but it’s best known for one thing: nudes. Creators charge subscription fees for exclusive content, put up pay-per-view posts, and generate income from tips and livestreams.
A spokeswoman for OnlyFans told Guardian Australia there are more than 1 million creators worldwide, 85 million registered users, and it paid out more than US$2bn ($2.7bn) globally this year.
Bella uses her account to post herself posing naked or semi-nude and occasionally sells solo sex content to subscribers.
“I probably work four days a week and I wouldn’t be making nearly as much as I make on OnlyFans if I had a part-time or full-time job,” she says.
Hundreds of videos have circulated online of women speaking about joining the content subscription site and making thousands of dollars in the first week. Some have heralded it as the magic pill for modern financial woes – a tool of empowerment and the final step in destigmatising sex work.
But is OnlyFans all it’s cracked up to be?
‘It definitely takes hard work’
The unusual thing about Bella isn’t that she decided to post on OnlyFans, but that she has actually been able to make a living doing so.
Dr Zahra Stardust, a socio-legal researcher from the University of New South Wales and OnlyFans content creator, says the site recently reduced the minimum amount of earnings it will pay from $500 to $200 because many users struggled to reach the threshold.
“Conversations from within the industry, including my own experience using OnlyFans, tells me that the minimum payout … can take time to meet given the low subscription fees andthe OnlyFans 20% commission,” she says.
OnlyFans disagreed with this characterisation saying lowering the payout threshold was “actually to provide creators with increased flexibility with regard to their payouts”.
Stardust says users who fail to establish a wide fanbase may work for many months, or even years, without receiving significant payment.
“In reality, it is often small amounts that trickle in over time, many of which become diluted through commissions and international transfer fees,” she says.
According to content creator Brooklyn Rose it took months of working almost for free before she began making real money.
“It was about a year before I really started seeing any type of income and even then it’s not like a steady income or anything,” she says. “I can have some days where [I] only make maybe $10, and then [I] can have weeks where [I’ve] actually cashed in about $500.
“It’s not just you made an account, you post some pics and then all of a sudden you’re raking in the big bucks. It definitely takes hard work.”
‘Everyone and their mother is on it’
Use of OnlyFans exploded during the pandemic, going from 7.5 million users last November to 85 million now.
This growth was spurred by celebrities. It got a 15% bump in traffic after Beyoncé referred to it in her remix of Savage in June – and while extra attention brought in consumers, it also attracted thousands of content creators.
“Once the pandemic came around and strip clubs started shutting, [OnlyFans] became so oversaturated because it was just every single sex worker, or just anyone in general, realising there was money to be made,” Rose says.
“It was hard to get people to pay attention to you because everyone and their mother was on this app.”
That isn’t to say no one is getting rich off posting racy content on OnlyFans.
OnlyFans confirmed 100 users have so far made more than $1m on the site, but declined to comment on users’ average earnings.
“Creator earnings are confidential … Creators use OnlyFans in a variety of ways, however, and not all of them are making content with the intention of it becoming their primary or even secondary source of income, and many use the site simply because it’s their preferred platform,” it said.
‘We’re still a society with puritanical views’
For those who are unsuccessful on OnlyFans, publicly engaging in sex work can still have serious consequences. It has been known to affect job prospects in non-sex work industries, can affect court decisions in child custody cases, and in extreme cases has resulted in housing discrimination.
OnlyFans differs from traditional webcamming sites in its ability to attract “vanilla” users – those who have never engaged in sex work before.
Rose worked as a full-service sex worker before the pandemic but has seen many use the site to dip their toe into sex work.
“I’ve even witnessed my close friends join it, who in the past were never inclined towards the adult industry at all,” she says.
While the public conversation around the site has centred on the idea that it will normalise and destigmatise those who create porn and “cam-girl” content, Dr Lauren Rosewarne, from the University of Melbourne, isn’t so sure OnlyFans will cause society to drastically change its views on sex work.
“We’re still a society that has some puritanical views,” she says. “There has never been a time in human history where we haven’t had sex work. So we have had an awful lot of time to get used to it, but we still haven’t.”
Stardust agreed the site isn’t “revolutionising the industry”.
“They are just the latest in a long line of direct-to-consumer pornography … [They] operate similarly to other webcam sites where tech platforms are profiting from the creativity, labour and bodies of sex workers,” she says.
‘It’s not sex worker-friendly’
There is also debate about whether the platform is actually friendly to sex workers.
Dr Emily van der Nagel from the Monash University says there appears to be some tensions between what the site was built for, and what it has become.
“OnlyFans started as a platform not specifically for sex work,” she says. “Now it’s become a platform people associate only with sex work, but it’s missing an opportunity to support sex workers in this endeavour.”
In 2018 Leonid Radvinsky, the owner of the camming website MyFreeCams, bought majority shares in the company and assumed the role of director. His involvement introduced a link at management level to the site’s amateur pornography creators, but users say that doesn’t necessarily make it sex worker-friendly.
While the site does not censor mainstream adult content, a wide range of fetish content is banned and Rose says she has had words censored on OnlyFans in what appears to be an attempt to distance the platform from in-person work.
“In terms of words that you can’t post, they don’t like anything to do with a client coming to meet you … One of my fans that says they would love to meet me and I was like, ‘I’d love to meet you too,’ and immediately trying to post that I got a red flag saying that I can’t use the word ‘meet’,” she says.
“I’ve known people to wake up one day and their account just be deleted … because they have maybe used a word that they shouldn’t … So yeah, it’s not sex worker-friendly.”
A spokeswoman for the site would not comment directly on words being “banned” but says the company has “multiple systems in place to monitor for illegal activity on the site and takes appropriate action immediately”.
“We enforce our rules on ‘acceptable use’ … and immediately close the accounts of users who breach this policy. We encourage all of our creators to use their best judgment and to comply with the law in their local jurisdiction when interacting with fans,” she says.
‘It changed my life’
Rosewarne says people have tried to label OnlyFans as “empowering” or “exploitative”, but she warns against defining the site either way.
“Offering the capacity for women to empower themselves and earn money and to give them another vehicle to achieve autonomy … you could say that for some women this platform has been successful in that endeavour. That doesn’t mean the platform is perfect.”
While workers have issues with the site many, like Avalon Fae, still say they have found empowerment through it.
“You wake up and your job is to say ‘Good morning’ and chat with people. I can say: ‘Hey, let’s go to the rainforest’, and ask people to tip so I can get a huge Airbnb and take photos in the spa … It’s amazing.”
And for Jah Bella it’s been life-changing.
“I have a history of anxiety and depression and I have a lot more freedom to live life,” she says.
“I control my work hours. I don’t need to feel guilty for staying home to take care of my sick child or spending time with her or family … If a man abuses me or harasses me I can just block them instead of having to deal with them every day.
*The performance names of content creators have been used to protect their privacy