You Can See Me Naked (After the Paywall): How OnlyFans Transforms the Online Sex Industry

On: September 28, 2020
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Whereas most social media platforms ban nudity – Instagram’s User Guidelines forbid posting pictures of women’s nipples, for example – the emergent platform OnlyFans runs on nakedness. By paying a monthly subscription fee, people can now see their favourite models and influencers naked and sex workers have found new ways to do their jobs (after the paywall, that is). Welcome to the world of on-demand sex imagery, “tipping” and paywall porn. How is OnlyFans transforming the online sex industry?

What is OnlyFans?

 If you scroll through influencers’ and models’ Instagram feeds, some of them post pictures of themselves in their swimsuits; on Instagram that is as nude as it gets. Any form of more explicit nudity is against the platform’s User Guidelines. That planted an idea in Tim Stokely’s mind: in 2016, the owner of several soft-core cam websites launched OnlyFans, where influencers and models could post unfiltered explicit content and earn money with their nudes and porn videos (Bernstein). With their already existing fanbase on platforms such as Instagram, entertainers could easily build up their subscriber numbers – hence OnlyFans’ tagline “Sign up to make money and interact with your fans!” (figure 1).

Figure 1: Screenshot of OnlyFans’ signup page.

In contrast to other online sex content providers such as PornHub, OnlyFans is not free. Fans pay a monthly subscription fee of $5 to $25 – 80 per cent of which is paid to the entertainers directly (Parham, “When Influencers Switch Platforms”). On top of that, subscribers can “tip” the entertainers to receive photos and videos at request, “according to their sexual tastes” (Bernstein). With that feature OnlyFans affords its subscribers the opportunity to “direct” their own pornographic films. In that sense, OnlyFans blurs the boundaries of who is producing media and who is consuming it (Deuze 24): anyone with a wild fantasy and the willingness to pay for it can direct as well as consume their on-demand personalised sex film. Whereas on Instagram influencers are dependent on sponsorships of companies, on OnlyFans the entertainers are thus sponsored by their fans – or in some cases, their “movie directors”.

How OnlyFans sets itself apart from other online sexual content providers

Earning money through online sex work is not a new phenomenon. Webcam models are already present since the early days of the internet and some people even go as far as selling their used panties online. Yet the ways in which OnlyFans sets itself apart from other online sex content is new: whereas on websites such as PornHub people can watch videos that are produced for anyone who is interested, OnlyFans gives access to exclusive content that is made for you alone. That content can only be accessed after a paywall – behind the paywall, fans do not have to scroll through hours of porn to find imagery that appeals to their sexual needs, and producers do not have to create content that pleases the masses (Parham, “Everything Is Becoming Paywalled Content”).

Because of OnlyFans’ exclusivity, influencers and models have become obtainable at a new level: not only can people fantasise about seeing them naked, their sexual fantasies can now actually turn into reality too (Parham, “When Influencers Switch Platforms”). Therefore, OnlyFans allows for a more intimate and personalised experience compared to other pornographic websites.

OnlyFans as platform labour and backlash

According to Wired, OnlyFans has 70,000 content producers that make content for about 7.5 million users and counting. OnlyFans had around 2000,000 new subscribers every day as of March, when countries started going into lockdown (Insider).

The growth of subscribers on the platform illustrates how “platform businesses are becoming more central to public and private life, transforming all sorts of sectors”, a practice that Poell et al. call “platformisation” (2). At the same time, selling sexual content on OnlyFans has become an inherent part of the “on-demand” or “gig” economy, in which supply and demand for labour are matched by an online platform (Aloisi 653). In the gig economy there are no worker benefits, no boss who tells you what to do and no regular income. Instead, anyone with a stable internet connection and a smartphone can participate in today’s on-demand economy – that includes the online sex industry, too.

Distributing at-request sexual content on a platform can be called “platform labour”: people sign up to a platform and get paid through the platform, which then acts as an intermediary (Van Doorn 901). In order to attract subscribers to one’s OnlyFans page, labourers of this platform need to understand the practices of self-branding (Duffy 451). That way, they can “market themselves to (current and potential) audiences […], while forging a consistent brand identity across social media platforms” (Duffy 451). On OnlyFans the entertainers mold themselves into an identity that is represented at someone else’s request; their self-branding is not induced by a true expression of the self, but by the potential of earning money. This makes people who work on OnlyFans vulnerable: if they only generate their income through the platform, they might have to go great lengths to supply a payer’s sexual needs. Without the reassurance of social benefits in the gig economy, an entertainer has to play by the rules of OnlyFans and its subscribers in order to make a living.

Furthermore, in recent debates it became clear that OnlyFans distinguishes people who already had a big fan base from people who still have to generate more followers; the celebrities on OnlyFans simply get more traction. That way, famous influencers stand in the way of sex workers who are dependent on their follower base and who do not earn money on the side. With the platformisation of sex work, those who have the biggest follower base are the ones that are most successful on OnlyFans. It makes working for a platform that sounds accessible to anyone with the desire to distribute adult content, very inaccessible.

The oldest industry in the world is transforming itself according to the rules of the on-demand economy with OnlyFans as its hottest X-rated content provider. OnlyFans makes it possible to provide consumers with personalised adult content and at the same time shows that the production of this content still puts sex workers in a vulnerable position.

With the current online sex industry and in light of the global pandemic, the future of the online sex industry will likely not include a bodily experience between two people – and maybe future sex does not even have to include another person at all.

Figure 3: Are AI sex robots the future of the sex industry?

Works cited

‘A Thorne in the Site: The Bella Thorne and OnlyFans Controversy Explained’. The Guardian, 31 Aug. 2020,

Aloisi, Antonio. ‘Commoditized Workers: Case Study Research on Labor Law Issues Arising from a Set of on-Demand/Gig Economy Platforms’. Comparative Labor Law & Policy Journal, vol. 37, no. 3, 2016 2015, pp. 653–90.

Bernstein, Jacob. ‘How OnlyFans Changed Sex Work Forever’. The New York Times, 9 Feb. 2019.,

Deuze, Mark. “The Media Logic of Media Work”. The Media Logic of Media Work, vol. 1, no. 1 & 2, 2009, pp. 22-40

Duffy, Brooke Erin. ‘The Romance of Work: Gender and Aspirational Labour in the Digital Culture Industries’. International Journal of Cultural Studies, vol. 19, no. 4, July 2016, pp. 441–57. (Crossref), doi:10.1177/1367877915572186.

It’s Surprisingly Difficult to Sell Your Panties Online. Accessed 28 Sept. 2020.

Instagram Community Guidelines FAQs. Accessed 28 Sept. 2020.

López, Canela. ‘A Wave of People Turned to OnlyFans to Earn Money When They Lost Their Jobs Due to the Pandemic’. Insider, Accessed 27 Sept. 2020.

OnlyFans. Accessed 27 Sept. 2020.

Paunescu, Delia. ‘Inside Instagram’s Nudity Ban’. Vox, 27 Oct. 2019,

Parham, Jason. ‘When Influencers Switch Platforms—and Bare It All’. Wired, Accessed 27 Sept. 2020.

Parham, Jason. ‘Everything Is Becoming Paywalled Content—Even You’. Wired, Accessed 27 Sept. 2020.

Poell, Thomas, et al. ‘Platformisation’. Internet Policy Review, vol. 8, no. 4, Nov. 2019. (Crossref), doi:10.14763/2019.4.1425.

Scores of People Who Lost Jobs Turned to OnlyFans in the Pandemic – Insider. Accessed 28 Sept. 2020.

Van Doorn, Niels. ‘Platform Labor: On the Gendered and Racialized Exploitation of Low-Income Service Work in the “on-Demand” Economy’. Information, Communication & Society, vol. 20, no. 6, June 2017, pp. 898–914. (Crossref), doi:10.1080/1369118X.2017.1294194.

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