OnlyFans: The Digital World is Changing Intimacy
We are all somewhat familiar with online intimacy; couples who met on Tinder, friends who get freaky on Facetime, loved ones who connect on Zoom from across the globe. However, in the age of COVID-19 where social distancing measures call for a lack of human interaction, online sex work is evolving into an integral tool for intimacy.
Intimacy in a Digital World
Creators on OnlyFans are able to charge users to view content through a paywall (Lord 2019). In this way creators are enabled to monetize their content. Unlike other subscription based content sites, OnlyFans is not descriptive about what it contains or what kind of content it expects users to post. Instead autonomy is left to the creator in defining what genre of content they produce – and many choose to produce NSFW content. As is explored by Angela Jones in her article Sex Work in a Digital Era, many believe that internet and sex work are harminous entities as together they maximize profits and reduce risk exposure for sex workers (Jones 2015).
OnlyFans’ lack of restrictions, the only significant one being that users and creators are both 18 years of age, have emerged the site as a new approach to digital sex work and revenue for those facing economic hardship and uncertainty with traditional work. In the age of COVID-19 intimacy has been forced to move to non-physical forms, creating a new space for gig-economy careers surrounding digital sex work. Since March of 2020, OnlyFans has reported a 75% increase in signups coupled with amassing over 170,000 new users – daily (Cook 2020).
Connecting Creators to Users – and Their Wallets
The goal of OnlyFans is to create a mutually beneficial relationship between creators and the platform. Content creators can upload whatever content they see fit within the loose content regulations set out by OnlyFans (OnlyFans 2020). Eighty percent of the money earned goes to creators and the site takes the rest as an administrative fee (OnlyFans 2020). Content is accessed through monthly subscription fees or one time off purchases enabling creators to choose how they advertise and make accessible their content.
Can a Platform Inform Behaviour?
“online sex work is not a reflection of a unilateral move of sex workers from offline to online environments. Instead, given the improved working conditions of online sex work, erotic labor may now appeal to people who previously were unwilling or unable to perform sex work…” (Angela Jones 2020).
Technically speaking, OnlyFans is not categorized as an NSFW website and many creators choose to produce G-rated content including workout routines, recipes, or commissioned artwork. However, the intentional lack of content restrictions on OnlyFans allows creators to share content that is barred from other platforms. Could it be that the influx of sexualized online content is a reflection of the affordances offered by OnlyFans? This question is best evaluated by looking at the effects of affordances and platformisation on cultural practices.
The characteristics and properties of OnlyFans provide affordances for actions, specifically posting NSFW content. If we consider affordance theory, we can understand that some objects are meant for some actions more than others (Norman 1999). These affordances will then influence users when using the object. According to Taina Bucher and Anne Helmond the affordances of a platform “…constitute the platform environment as a whole and enable relations between all users inside the platform, as well as relations with users outside of the platform’s boundaries” (2018). Affordances address how individuals are shaped by environments, but also how individuals “can orient to the relevant environmental attributes,” (Bucher & Helmond 2018). If OnlyFans’ affordances emphasize the lack of content restrictions while also incentivizing creators to produce content that has value in the eyes of users (namely nude content they can’t get on other sites) then it is feasible that the affordances have nudged creators to literally take it all off.
Platforms like OnlyFans could also have an outward effect on attitudes surrounding sexuality and the acceptance of sex work as a legitimate practice as “…the observed institutional changes and shifts in cultural practices associated with platforms are in practice closely interrelated,” (Poell et al. 2019). It’s possible that an online acceptance of sex work and digital intimacy could later translate to the overall acceptance of sexuality and nudity online – maybe even influencing other platforms to ease on their content restrictions.
Issues with Gig Economies
If we simply focus on the affordances of digital sex work, and its enablement for more intimacy online we neglect to understand the drawbacks that emerge with the digitization of sex.
OnlyFans is representative of sex work in the gig economy age. Fans can directly interact with creators through a messenger feature where they can indicate preferences and pay for special content created specifically for them (Bernstein 2019). Labour online is often made to seem casual and invalid. Freelance workers are still not considered employees but rather contract workers who provide services (Kuhn 159). This deprives them of the perks and protections that come along with a traditional employment role such as healthcare or job stability.
As is discussed by Joonheui Bae and Dong-Mo Koo in their academic work, in these relationships often platforms are at an advantage and creators are the ones who suffer a negative consequence that comes from the digitization of their work (2018). In the case of OnlyFans, widespread competitiveness has emerged due to the centralization of content and the ability to find better, cheaper, or more specific content on another profile with the click of a button. This is great for the platform, more eyes equals more subscription fees, but further places stress on sex workers to sell themselves through other platforms.
If the popularity of platforms like OnlyFans continues to rise, questions will have to be asked as to if freelance pornography is viable and what this developing relationship between platform and producer needs to look like.
Reshaping Sex Work
Platforms like OnlyFans are becoming a solution to the issue posed by social distancing regarding intimacy. However, the work of Dr. Alice Marwick questions the active role that technology companies have in painting platforms as universal solutions (Marwick 2018). It is important to remember that this scope is created so that technology companies can profit. OnlyFans not only tolerates NSFW content but actively encourages and accepts it as part of the platform. Yet the inclusivity of the internet is unlikely to extend itself to sex workers unless monetization continues to be a driving factor. OnlyFans going mainstream may yet have serious impacts on how sex work is viewed, our conceptions of sexualized labour, and how other platforms choose to restrict nudity going forward. For now, sex workers are left in a sort of limbo; the affordances of platforms allow and even encourage NSFW content, but the social impact from these affordances hasn’t expanded enough for their work to be seen as acceptable or legitimate.
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