Feeling abandoned by the government, struggling mothers have flocked to online sex work to survive the coronavirus pandemic.
It was late July, and Rachel, a 30-year-old single mother living in Minnesota, didn’t know what to do. She’d just been laid off from her job at a casino after being furloughed for months due to the pandemic. Her weekly COVID-19 relief benefit from the federal government had expired, and her state unemployment aid barely amounted to a third of what she’d been earning before the crisis, but she still needed to pay her rent and bills.
Both Rachel and her toddler are asthmatic, putting them at high risk of complications from the coronavirus; she didn’t feel safe looking for new jobs outside her apartment. Her limited savings were rapidly running out, though, and she was terrified that they would be evicted.
So in August, in an anxious bid to make up for lost wages, Rachel began selling nude photos and videos of herself on OnlyFans, a platform where independent creators charge fees to users who want to access their private content. It wasn’t something she’d ever imagined herself doing, but it worked: Through her nudes and other services, such as livestreams in which she reads political literature in lingerie, she built up an audience. It wasn’t long before her OnlyFans earnings had pulled her back from the brink of poverty. She has even had time to re-enroll in college classes online for her degree in computer science.
Although Rachel is grateful that online sex work is keeping her family afloat for now, she worries about the harm it could cause to her future career opportunities.
“What I struggled with most when deciding to do this — and I still beat myself up about it — is that even if I finish school and graduate, and have everything I need for a better career, I may go out into the workforce and be discriminated against for having done this,” said Rachel, who is Asian and Indigenous. She is being identified by a pseudonym to protect her privacy.
Stories like hers have become increasingly common, though not all have been as successful. HuffPost spoke with mothers from all over the country who started selling explicit images of themselves on OnlyFans during the pandemic to make ends meet. Some said they now enjoy doing it and find it to be an empowering path back to financial security and independence. Others said they turned to online sex work in a state of desperation, as a last-resort means of survival. All described OnlyFans as a lifeline amid a global catastrophe in which they feel like their government has abandoned them.
There is an undeniable stigma around online sex work, which exploded into public view this week when the conservative New York Post outed a young paramedic for also running an OnlyFans account. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) castigated the newspaper on Twitter and later added that, in the absence of monetary aid, shame should be focused on the federal government, “not on marginalizing people surviving a pandemic without help.”
Most of the OnlyFans workers who talked to HuffPost said they’ve hidden this part of their lives from their friends and families for fear of judgment. Each has experienced harassment and other online abuse while promoting their OnlyFans accounts on social media.
As the pandemic drags deeper into its 10th month, Congress remains gridlocked over its next financial relief package — leaving millions of Americans floundering with no certainty on when or if help will arrive. Negotiations have been ongoing for months, and the government could shut down if congressional leaders fail to reach a deal by Friday at midnight.
Meanwhile, the crisis is disproportionately affecting members of already-marginalized communities; Black, Latino, Indigenous and immigrant households have been particularly hard-hit. More than 20 million workers have lost their jobs, as many as 40 million renters are at risk of eviction and at least 8 million people have slipped into poverty.
OnlyFans has emerged as a safety net that makes it possible for some people to earn money from the safety of their homes — if they’re willing to get naked on the internet.
“It was better to have something to fall back on than nothing,” said Rachel. “A lot of people who do this feel like they have no other options, so we go and make ourselves vulnerable.”
As national unemployment figures skyrocketed this year, so did OnlyFans’ user base. Since March, when nonessential businesses started shutting down en masse, OnlyFans has seen its creator and overall user numbers triple to more than 1 million and 90 million, respectively, with about 500,000 people now signing up per day, the 4-year-old British-based firm told HuffPost. The vast majority of creators are in the U.S. And although OnlyFans is not exclusively used for sex work, it’s widely known as a website for homemade pornography.
For Sara, a 29-year-old single mother in Colorado, doing sex work on the platform has taken a devastating mental and emotional toll on her. She was bartending at Olive Garden when the pandemic hit and had no alternative source of income when it closed. Her 6-year-old son has severe asthma, so, like Rachel, she was afraid of exposing him to the coronavirus and declined to take any shifts when the restaurant later reopened at a reduced capacity.
Sara had modeled before and had long enjoyed photography; OnlyFans didn’t seem so different. So she made an account in mid-March, not really knowing what to expect.
“I was just doing this out of desperation,” said Sara, who is identified by her first name only. “I needed to pay my bills. What was I supposed to do?”
OnlyFans creators post streams of images to their profiles for all of their subscribers to view; for negotiated fees, individual subscribers can also request custom content directly.
New to sex work and unsure of what to charge, Sara sent her first customer full nudes for $7 — minus the 20% fee that OnlyFans claims from every sale. The man grew increasingly demanding and disrespectful, so she eventually blocked him, but he continued to harass her through her other social media profiles. At one point, she feared that he’d find her address and show up at her apartment. Her other customers weren’t much different, she said.
“I didn’t really know my worth … I remember just crying. I was in a black hole,” Sara said. “I didn’t like feeling like I was just an object to jerk off to.”
A few of the men Sara used to work with at Olive Garden subscribed to her OnlyFans page, and she later heard from other former co-workers that they were disparaging her content as not being “worth it” and had called her lazy for choosing online sex work over bartending.
Feeling crushed and alone, Sara quit OnlyFans soon after. She applied for unemployment benefits and waited nervously, unsure if she’d be approved after turning down bar shifts to protect her son. She hoped the government would provide additional relief in the meantime.
In April, Congress gave $1,200 stimulus checks to every qualifying American through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, plus $500 per child. It also granted an additional $600 weekly to people receiving unemployment aid, which was later reduced to $300 and then terminated altogether. Without that extra support, many laid-off workers have been left scrambling to get by.
Sara was eventually approved for unemployment benefits after leaving OnlyFans, but she gave them up in July when she managed to find full-time work in marketing. That job has since disappeared due to COVID-19, too. She hasn’t been able to get back on unemployment, and her son’s father, who’s also out of work, can no longer afford to pay child support. The federal government’s one-time stimulus payout was far from enough to cover her ongoing expenses, and she has given up hope that any more checks will be coming.
With no other options, Sara has returned to OnlyFans. It’s been better this time around, she said, and she has raised her prices, but she’s still struggling every day.
“I definitely don’t trust the government to take care of us,” said Sara, who’s also learning how to make and sell candles and jewelry. “I have never failed my son. I’ll do whatever I have to.”
In sharp contrast to most other businesses, for OnlyFans, the coronavirus outbreak — and the desperation prolonged by the government’s aid stalemate — has been an economic boon. Amid the pandemic, the company has quietly transformed into a “billion-dollar media giant” that’s on track for $400 million in annual net sales, as Bloomberg reported this month. OnlyFans confirmed to HuffPost that it has paid out more than $2 billion to creators to date.
A wave of celebrity signups in recent months has also boosted OnlyFans’ popularity. Actress Bella Thorne joined in August and made $2 million in less than a week, causing delays in payouts to other creators, for which she later apologized. Instagram influencer Caroline Calloway reportedly earned more than $100,000 on OnlyFans over the summer. Rapper Cardi B also joined in August to promote her newly released song “WAP.”
Thirty-year-old Maria’s reason for getting on OnlyFans was starkly different. The Colombian immigrant is raising her 12-year-old son alone while supporting her mother and brother. She signed up in April after she was laid off from her new job and was denied unemployment.
“It was a very scary time,” said Maria, who is identified by her first name only. “All my savings were just wiped away.”
Maria had studied fashion design while living in Virginia, but there were scant job opportunities there, so she worked as a stripper to save up enough money to relocate her family to New York, where she landed a job as a designer at a clothing company.
COVID-19 struck weeks later. With strip clubs closed and nothing else to fall back on, she turned to online sex work, which she had never done before. She’s been quite successful so far and earns as much as she did as a designer while working fewer hours. She was even able to raise several hundred dollars from her OnlyFans subscribers to support protesters who were arrested during Black Lives Matter demonstrations over the summer.
“I consider myself lucky,” Maria said. “OnlyFans has been a blessing through all this. I just don’t know what else I would have done.”
The work itself can be very challenging, she noted. She spends hours responding to messages and fulfilling various fetish requests.
One man may want “videos of me sniffing my feet” while another might ask for “a video of me telling him that he has a small dick and calling him ‘my little bitch,’” she said. But for her, the hardest part is dealing with the stigma that comes along with it.
“It takes a lot of mental strength, planning and time, and the biggest thing is keeping yourself together,” added Maria, who’s also writing a book about mental health and sex work.
Cruelty toward sex workers is disturbingly common.
Candice, a 25-year-old single mother in California, has been slut-shamed, harassed and ridiculed for trying to provide for herself and her child via OnlyFans this year.
“People have told me that I’m not going to go far in life and that I’m not a good role model for my daughter,” said Candice, who is identified by a pseudonym. “Fuck that. I work hard, I hustle. And you know what? I’m not hurting anyone.”
She works as a manager at a beauty retailer, but her pay was reduced to 75% in March as a result of COVID-19’s financial strain on the company. She had already been living paycheck to paycheck with no savings, and suddenly found herself unable to afford rent. So for the first month, she skipped almost all of her bills — electricity, gas, car payments and insurance.
“It got to the point where I was like, ‘Is Wi-Fi even essential? Do I really need it?’ I knew we just needed a roof and food,” Candice recalled.
After receiving her stimulus check, she assumed it would become a monthly benefit, but that never happened. She had been doing some form of sex work on and off since her daughter was born almost seven years ago, so when her friends from the industry suggested OnlyFans as a way to supplement her income through the pandemic, she decided to try it.
Doing so literally kept food on the table: “OnlyFans money became my food. It was my daughter’s dinner. I was in survival mode,” Candice said.
When trolls try to bring her down, she curtly reminds them that sex work is work.
“It’s a job,” Candice said. “I clock in when I log into OnlyFans, and I clock out when I’m done.”
Sex work can be exhausting and isn’t for everyone, she added, but these days, she’s seeing more and more people get into it because they simply don’t know what else to do.
“It’s awesome that [OnlyFans] has helped so many people,” she said. “But honestly, it’s crazy that so many of us have had to turn to this because the government isn’t doing enough.”