Have you heard of OnlyFans? It’s a social media platform – like YouTube or Instagram.
Access isn’t open to everyone, however. Only subscribers (“fans”) can see the photos and videos posted by OnlyFans content creators. Most subscriptions cost around US$10 (A$13.50) a month, with tips as optional extras.
Visiting the OnlyFans homepage, you’re invited to “sign up to support your favourite creators”. The platform describes itself as a place where “creators can monetise their content and interact with their fanbase”.
So, if you’re new to OnlyFans, it may surprise you to learn it is overwhelmingly understood as a site for adult content. The phrase “to start an OnlyFans” is commonly understood to mean someone is selling access to erotic, or sexually explicit, photos and videos of themselves.
Why is there this disconnect? And why is this a problem?
In a new article for journal Porn Studies I analysed 100 news articles (from February to December 2020), 100 OnlyFans memes (gathered January 2021), as well as 100 posts to the official OnlyFans blog (from mid-2018 to early 2021).
These sources represent different perspectives. News articles reflect mainstream understandings. Internet memes – remixed snippets of popular culture – reveal our shared norms and values. Meanwhile, official blog posts can tell us about the image Only Fans is attempting to cultivate.
My study drew on the work of social media scholars Karin van Es and Thomas Poell, who argue, what people think a platform is for matters – they call this the “platform imaginary”. It impacts how people use it: their expectations and experiences. Importantly, it also impacts who thinks the platform is for them.
A ‘celebrity porn app’?
My analysis discovered very different ideas about what OnlyFans is for, or a contested “platform imaginary”.
In a similar vein, memes about OnlyFans implied the platform was for adult content, with jokes about how easy it is for women to make money by showing off their bodies.
Other memes include a man taking a photo of his behind, with the tagline, “when you find out how much money they make on OnlyFans”. Another is a picture of a serious-looking young man on the phone, captioned, “Me calling customer support when her OnlyFans is just pictures of her in a bikini”.
The memes were especially telling – they didn’t just joke about OnlyFans being a platform for adult content, they also slut-shamed the creators by inferring that selling adult content was degrading.
Or a place for makeup and workout tips?
By contrast, 87% of posts to the OnlyFans blog don’t mention adult content at all.
Instead, the blog showcases fitness instructors, beauty experts, photographers, artists, and musicians. One (rare) post to do this claims the platform will support, and never censor, pole dancers.
This ties in with its official (vague) line that OnlyFans contains “content creators from all genres”. This emphasis is misleading, given OnlyFans CEO Tim Stokely created the platform in 2016 to capitalise on the rising demand for customised porn.
OnlyFans has thrived during COVID lockdowns. From November 2019 to November 2020, it posted revenues of US$400 million (A$541 million), up 540% over the previous year. Although there is an argument the company needs to “rebrand” to stay profitable. As Axios recently reported, while sexual content makes the site popular, “it also scares off venture capitalists”.
Profiting from, then banning, explicit content
In August, OnlyFans announced it was going to ban sexually explicit content, explaining it must “evolve our content guidelines”,
In order to ensure the long-term sustainability of the platform, and to continue to host an inclusive community of creators and fans.
There was an immediate backlash. Not only was it ridiculed as nonsensical (a site for adult content that doesn’t allow adult content?), sex workers, porn performers, and adult content creators were outraged about being banned from a site they had helped make famous and profitable.
The company reversed the decision just a week later, after resolving a undisclosed issue with its payment providers. But anger and distrust remains, as now the door is open to OnlyFans banning explicit content in the future.
There is also a bigger issue here about maintaining spaces where sex workers are safe and able to do their jobs.
Often debates around “deplatforming” (removing someone’s access to a web site) centre around free speech and whether people like Donald Trump should be allowed a Twitter. But deplatforming is also a serious threat to sex workers and porn producers as part of a “gentrification” of the internet.
There are multiple harms flowing from this.
Banning sex from a particular platform means sexually marginalised people lose somewhere safe to interact. As queer studies scholar Stephen Molldrem wrote when microblogging site Tumblr banned porn in 2018:
many queers, kinksters, people who engage in various kinds of sexual commerce, and transfolk who use the platform […] are going to get shafted by the decision (and not in a good way).
Further adding to the uncertainty is the issue of chargebacks – payment providers see sex and porn as high-risk industries because of the high rate people denying they paid and getting a refund.
What OnlyFans should do now
My research shows the split identity of OnlyFans. This is something it will need to resolve going forward (both for itself and its creators). But there’s an opportunity here for OnlyFans to declare its support for sex workers and porn performers.
Openly stating adult content creators are welcome, including them prominently on the OnlyFans blog, and proactively working with payment companies to ensure they can profit from their work would set an example. As an aside, Fortune notes, going G-rated might help OnlyFans secure investors in the short term, but could cost the business over the long term.
Meanwhile, for those in a stigmatised, precarious industry, a place that cultivates a sense of belonging for adult content creators is a platform worth imagining.