Sex Work Re-loaded: How Digital Platforms are re-defining Sex Work
“Maybe I should start an OnlyFans” has become a well-known phrase across different platforms. This blog post explores how the dynamics of sex work have changed on online spaces by looking into the relationship between OnlyFans and Instagram, specifically by looking at how content creators use hashtags on their Instagram’s post to entice their audience and reach a broader audience.
Camila Bonadies, Elodie Pereira, Martin Trans & Nafisa Tschannen, MA Media studies, UvA
With the rise of popular platforms such as Instagram or Facebook, users have never felt more liberated to adjust their lifestyle to the internet. Similarly, multiple sex workers have also adopted their job to offering their services online, particularly during the 2020 pandemic. Through a myriad of provocative hashtags, sex workers attract their clientele. This research takes an explorative approach on how sex workers reach their audience through Instagram as academic research on this relationship is quite scarce.
The purpose of this study is twofold – to explore how content creators advertise their OnlyFans on Instagram through the hashtag #onlyfans, and to reflect on the ethical considerations we were met with while researching online sex work. First, this paper explores theory on sex work and platforms. Next, this paper outlines methodology and ethical considerations in this project. Finally, the results are explored in the discussion. This paper aims to be an exploratory starting point for research into the relationship between platforms and online sex work promotion, as well as help readers understand sex work in a digitalized era.
Sex Work and Platforms
The intersection of sex work with online platforms is well documented, but the relationship between OnlyFans creators and Instagram has until this point been left unexplored. Platforms such as Instagram and OnlyFans have demonstrated to be quite popular among young adults and appear in academic research as enabling online sex work in various aspects.
OnlyFans and its academic relevance
OnlyFans has become popular in the past two years, so much so that we see OnlyFans references distributed across different platforms. This can also be because the affordance of searchability (Boyd 2010) is something that the OnlyFans platform lacks, as there is no method of searching up content creators. Due to the lack of searchability, OnlyFans creators advertise their content through other platforms, such as Twitter, Tumblr, Twitch, and Instagram. However, these platforms can be unfriendly towards sex workers, an example of which is shadowbanning their profiles on Instagram (Are 2021).
OnlyFans is a content-based subscription platform (van der Nagel 2021). OnlyFans creators have the option to make their OnlyFans free or for subscribers to pay a fee every month to access photos, videos, private chats, and livestreams from content creators. Creators keep 80% of their earnings while the rest is kept by OnlyFans (van der Nagel 2021). Although OnlyFans is widely associated in popular culture with Not Safe For Work (NSFW) content, one could use an OnlyFans for any type of content.
On August 19th, OnlyFans revealed plans to ban most explicit content from its platform (McLean and Disis 2021), despite explicit content being the primary reason for the site’s popularity. However, only six days later OnlyFans changed its mind, announcing that they were no longer banning sexually explicit content (Barry 2021). Understandably, this frustrated many sex workers who also expressed a sense of betrayal from the platform (@jasminericegirl 2021) and are looking at other platforms including JustForFans, LoyalFans, Pocketstars, AVN Stars, and Fansly (Contreras 2021). The popularity of OnlyFans appears as a result of sex workers, so the idea of banning NSFW content highlights the strange relationship between platforms and sex worker’s explicit content.
Online Sex Work
Sex work has existed for a long time, in and on many different forms, including the internet. Sex workers are described as “‘perform[ing] erotic labor in a highly competitive capitalist marketplace,’ which is ‘similar to many other forms of [feminized] service work because it involves providing good customer service’” (van Doorn and Velthuis 2018, 178). This erotic and emotional labor has in recent years increasingly taken place in online environments, such as Instagram and OnlyFans.
Sex workers use the platform Instagram to promote their work as it benefits them in numerous ways. Sex workers who have been surveyed through Beyond the Gaze, a research project investigating the impact of the internet on sex workers in the UK (Cunningham et al. 2018, 48), have explained that having a profile on Instagram seems to build a greater sense of trust among them and their clients (Sanders et al. 2018, 39). Through their study, researchers have shown that ’digitally mediated sex work’ (van Doorn and Velthuis 2018, 178) has enabled sex workers a safer place by many means: the ability to work independently and not being reliant on a third-party agency, evading enquiries from the police and earning more money due to the large audience the internet offers (Bernstein 2007, 93).
Online sex work has empowered sex workers as they feel more liberated to manage and even professionalize their work online (Cunningham et al. 2018, 47). However, many scholars (Sanders et al. 2018; Jones 2021; van Doorn and Velthuis 2018) as well as sex workers have pointed out the seemingly innocuous framework of social media platforms. Angela Jones, a professor of sociology at Farmingdale State College, New York, openly challenges the heteronormative, patriarchal, and Eurocentric sex industry. Jones discusses the increasingly pressing concern over “the platform-orchestrated markets [sex workers] compete in, develop an understanding of their operational logics, and exchange strategies to master them in the face of structural information scarcity” (Jones 2016, 233). For instance, social media platforms such as Instagram and OnlyFans have repeatedly removed pictures of content creators because they were deemed ‘inappropriate’. Platforms are pivotal in structuring users’ dashboard as their precisely designed “policies, and norms […] encourage certain kinds of cultures and behaviors to coalesce on platforms while implicitly discouraging others” (Massanari 2017, 336).
Nudity and Women’s Sexuality on Instagram – Shadowbanning and Censorship
Shadowbanning is a user-generated term for both Instagram and Facebook’s policy for “vaguely inappropriate content”, where posts’ visibility is dramatically reduced by hiding them from the ‘Explore’ section without warning creators. This approach has always represented an issue for creators on the platform working as artists, activists, freelancers, and sex workers, particularly when it comes to nudity and the sexualization of women given that Instagram has previously banned or censor pictures with female nipples on them but not male ones (Gillespie 2018).
Since nudity and sexualization of women are common in advertising and media in general (Sparks and Lang 2015), many creators turned to social media to express their sexuality under their own terms and highlight diverse bodies. However, the deviation from the publicly acceptable mainstreamed representation quickly resulted in platforms limiting nudity and sexual expression to appeal to advertisers (Tiidenberg and van der Nagel 2020). In fact, Instagram’s governance of bodies (Are 2021, 2) has been found to rely on non-inclusive depictions of bodies based on Victoria Secret’s guidelines according to leaked reports (Salty 2019). Furthermore, Instagram’s community guidelines’ lack of clarity regarding “sexual content” adds yet another layer of obscurity to the platform’s way of working, and further limits creators to express themselves (Are 2021).
Carolina Are (2021) integrates the framework of world risk society into her own case study to investigate Instagram’s moderation and shadowbanning techniques. According to this framework, society exists with a trade-off between individual liberty and security where risks are undesired and threatening events which manifest themselves through social media. According to Beck, society has been preoccupied with “risks that it itself has produced” due to the uncertainty of the modern world. Therefore, social media platforms, are more determined to minimize risks but do so by limiting civil liberties (Are 2021, 3).
To understand the complex relationship between Instagram and OnlyFans, the hashtag #onlyfans on Instagram was scraped. Utilizing the open-source tools Insta-loader (aandergr  2021), Openrefine ( 2021), Voyant-Tools (Sinclair  2021) and Gephi ( 2021) we scraped 840 image-posts, and 11,588 total and 3,985 unique hashtags, on Instagram appearing on the explore-page for the hashtag ‘#onlyfans’ and cleaned the data. The dataset was subsequently analysed three days later. Conducting explorative and interpretative visual network analysis, as proposed by Venturini & Jacomy (2015) on co-occurrence network of the hashtags (Figure 1 & 2) informs our preliminary analytical results.
We engaged qualitatively with 100 posts, including 10 top, middle and bottom amount of interactions as well as 70 randomly chosen, individually checking whether the post was directing user attention towards an OnlyFans profile, by either promoting a link or a profile name. However, the number of interactions on a post is not indicative of popularity as posts were public for various amount of hours before being scraped. 54 posts did direct the user to an OnlyFans profile, 27 posts did not direct the user to an OnlyFans profile, and 19 posts were taken down between scrape and analysis, a timespan of three days.
Our methodological approach places great emphasis on the concept of hashtags as a point of departure. Approaching the Instagram hashtag as a variation of the twitter hashtag, we follow Bruns & Burgess’ description of hashtags as “a means of coordinating a distributed discussion between more or less large groups of users, who do not need to be connected through existing ‘follower’ networks” (Bruns and Burgess 2011, 1), an allegation reinforced by our description of the hashtag as a way for OnlyFans creators to promote themselves towards new audiences not already enmeshed in existing ‘follower networks’.
This research mainly focuses on users’ posts associated with the hashtag #onlyfans. However, they did not express their consent on their data being used in our study. Following the advice of Markham & Buchanan (A. Markham and Buchanan 2017), our research process adopts a flexible framework when contextualizing our ethics, in terms of vulnerability, harm and privacy.
Although it can be argued that individuals agree to any usage of their content and data by posting it publicly on the internet, we choose to view it from the angle of Boyd & Crawford’s concept of ‘being public’ vs ‘being in public’, where “data may be public (or semi-public) but this does not simplistically equate with full permission being given for all uses. Big Data researchers rarely acknowledge the considerable difference between being in public (i.e. sitting in a park) and being public (i.e. actively courting attention)” (2012, 673). This forces researchers to retain a focus on the lack of agency on behalf of the users and to take upon themselves that responsibility.
Although the data collected from Instagram is publicly accessible, we have used the data in a different form than first anticipated. Users may not be aware of their rights to privacy, as Nissenbaum argues; ”what people care most about is not simply restricting the flow of information but ensuring that it flows appropriately” (Nissenbaum 2010, 2). As a platform, Instagram embraces the dominant ‘face culture’ of the internet (Davis and Chouinard 2016, 243; de Zeeuw and Tuters 2020), prioritizing values of exposure over privacy. Although there is considerable pushback towards this culture among, especially younger users (Duffy and Chan 2019), this means that researchers must go out of their way to protect the poster’s identity when researching. This is, in our research, counteracted by standardized pseudonymization in our dataset. Yet, we do acknowledge that pseudonymization is not by default a catch-all solution (A. N. Markham 2018, 5).
Moreover, scraping data is highly sensitive as it enters a heavily disputed grey area (Marres and Weltevrede 2013). The act of scraping is considered against most social network sites’ terms of services. This is the case with Instagram, where Facebook Inc., the legal owner and operator of Instagram, instead, requires interested parties to sign up for Facebook’s general API’s (Facebook n.d.). This was not an option for us at this stage and comes with its own set of deep ethical and empirical considerations.
Discussion of preliminary results
This discussion scratches into the surface of how the hashtag #onlyfans on Instagram is used to promote OnlyFans and online sex work. With the explorational methods used, several practices of online sex work promotion become visible such as the use of multiple hashtags as well as links in user biographies.
Hasthags as patterns of promotion
When researching the role of the hashtag ‘#onlyfans’ on Instagram it has proven useful to consider the hashtag as an artifact in relation with Instagram’s embedded affordances and politics as a platform. This can in turn frame the implicit relations between the OnlyFans content creators, Instagram itself, end users as perceived possible audiences, OnlyFans-marketers providing reach for content creators in turn for monetary benefits and rouge users wanting to instantiate the hashtag for their own gain other than OnlyFans-promotion, among many others.
One important practice is the use of multiple hashtags to reach as wide an audience as possible. The visualisations find a clear correlation between the hashtags ‘#onlyfans’, ‘#sexy”, being the largest represented co-present hashtag in our dataset with 156 individual appearances, and ‘#model’, with 137 appearances. The visual relation between these and the rest of the dataset provides us with an understanding of a tightly interconnected network, seeing as they are not acting as bridges between discernible clusters (Venturini, Jacomy, and Pereira 2015). This indicates that the network can be conceived as organic and consisting of heterogeneous content as opposed to gatekept and homogenous in its use of hashtags.
From an early stage of the visual network analysis, the use of multilingual variations of network-building hashtags, such as ‘#likeforlike’, ‘#follow4follow’ and ‘#curtidasporcurtidas’ are rendered visible. Tracing this discernible pattern within the dataset returns posts captioned with the exact same sequence of hashtags, a few times prefixed with a single emoticon, such as a butterfly or a bee. Furthermore, a large portion of these posts, about 3 out of every 4, however, were taken down after scraping occurred. Although the reasons behind the posts’ elimination are unknown, these could potentially part of Instagram’s shadowbanning tactics due to the unclarity regarding the platform’s Community Guidelines. These guidelines, and the sporadic enforcement of them, have a significant impact on underrepresented communities relying on this platform for a living by limiting their visibility.
Shadowbanning and removed content
A large representative portion of the content had, between scraping and analysis, been removed from Instagram for unknown reasons. This phenomenon could be an effect of shadowbanning, although it is impossible to know for certain. The concept of shadowbanning introduces further epistemological disarray into our dataset, as we might only be scraping the top of a metaphorical iceberg considering that shadowbanning have possibly taken place before data could be scraped to begin with. The hashtags collected in our data excludes hashtags placed in comments by the poster, as opposed to the caption of a post, which we consider a regular practice on Instagram, due to limitations of the scraper utilized.
Assuming that OnlyFans’ creators financially depend on Instagram’s mainstreaming accessibility as opposed to OnlyFans’ reputation along with the relationship between these two platforms, OnlyFans creators are unable to reach a broader audience and grow their page. Therefore, these creators use Instagram as a hub for promoting their content. In fact, according to Rouse and Salter argue that the mechanisms of OnlyFans are consistent with other platforms that have “historically profited from the labour of women” (Rouse and Salter 2021, 7).
These results suggest a link between Instagram and OnlyFans that is highlighted through the utilization of hashtags on Instagram as a technique to create a bridge between these two platforms. Furthermore, the results illustrate Instagram as a space for artists, freelancers, and in this case, sex workers, to advertise their content through hashtags and diversify their income-generating portfolio by directing the users to link-tree websites where they, for example, share Amazon Wishlists. This tactic helps OnlyFans creators accumulate a broader audience through the platform’s popularity despite their controversial approach to nudity and censorship. This reflects Stanfill’s idea of affordances which “set limits on what it is possible to do with, around, or via the artefact” (Stanfill 2015, 1062–63).
This exploratory research into the world of online sex work promotion provides valuable insight into the relationship between Instagram and OnlyFans through hashtags, particularly by highlighting sex workers’ relationship with social media. Although this paper offers an exploratory starting point into this phenomenon, further research is needed in order to reach a greater understanding of the interconnectedness of platforms and online sex work. This is particularly relevant when it comes to Instagram and its popularity and shadowbanning techniques when put into the context of vulnerable sex workers within the digital space.
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