December 3, 2020

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What’s wrong with trading youth and beauty for resources? Today #MeToo has framed this dynamic mostly in terms of abuses by powerful men. But while I’m sliding comfortably into middle age these days, I can remember the thrill of being a perky young woman and getting older men in positions of power to do things for you.

I also remember, in the last City job I held, watching with grudging admiration as an office receptionist on her second job sidestepped the entire corporate hierarchy to be appointed company secretary on a six-figure salary, with her main qualification being (as far as anyone could tell) her close personal friendship with one of the senior brokers.

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If you’ve got it, why not make use of it? In the digital age, that means you’re an idiot if you’re satisfied with posting thirst traps on Instagram instead of monetising your simps on OnlyFans.

Founded in 2016 and used by (predominantly) women creating and selling “adult” content, OnlyFans doesn’t publish reports on its visitor numbers, but the company’s headcount appears to have trebled over the course of 2020. Its Twitter following has grown by 84% over the same period, and Insider reports that the website has seen a 75% month-on-month increase in signups since April this year.

We shouldn’t be surprised. The period between July and September saw 181,000 new UK redundancies, the most brutal spike in job losses since the Great Crash in 2008. On top of this Matt Hancock’s Q&A this week confirmed (albeit obliquely) that under Tier 3 restrictions there’s no shagging allowed unless you already live with your sexual partner. So as coronavirus has annihilated offline jobs, along with our scope for in-person socialising, a digital meeting point for attractive-but-skint young women and lonely men with money to spare was bound to grow in popularity.

And alongside articles discussing OnlyFans, alongside other “creator” sites, there’s also been a drive to normalise online “sex work”: even the London freesheet Metro has published a how-to guide for would-be OnlyFans entrepreneurs.

So what, you might ask. At least if they’re generating the content themselves, as Ariel Anderssen points out, OnlyFans gives would-be erotic models considerably more scope for control of their content than is often the case. By comparison with PornHub, for example, a website notorious for its laxity in taking down footage even of underage rape, this is surely an improvement?

But the meteoric rise of OnlyFans is less a story about the market for sexy images, than it is about two trends with apparently only an oblique relationship to sex: social atomisation and stagnating youth employment.

Both these phenomena long pre-date the Covid era. Loneliness has been much discussed in recent years, with the ONS reporting that the number of people in the UK living alone went up a fifth between between 1999 and 2019, from 6.8 million to 8.2 million people. This isn’t just the elderly: the majority of this increase is driven by the number of men aged between 45 and 65 living alone.

Nor is the shrinking of employment opportunities for the young a Covid-era phenomenon. In 2016 the BBC was reporting stagnating graduate wages, while a 2018 ONS report shows that non-graduate young people fare even worse. But Covid has brutally accelerated this trend: the BBC reports that young people are most likely to have been furloughed, as well as being hit disproportionately hard by redundancy, and make up a third of new Universal Credit applicants. The TUC reports that women aged 25 and under have been at the greatest risk of job losses during the pandemic.

But just as it’s accelerated other societal fractures, such as educational inequality, the pandemic has leaned into both these trends. But again, you might ask: so what? Isn’t OnlyFans just a formalisation of a sexual “marketplace” we’ve always had, in which young women trade dewy skin and luscious curves for resources?

Certainly this “marketplace” notion is a well-established idea today. In fact, it’s a view of men and women that crops up both in feminism and, curiously, also in anti-feminism. For example, in the bleak worldview of “incel” (involuntarily celibate) men, marriage is understood as ‘a system of legalised prostitution by which a man bribes a woman with food/drink, resource security, emotional security, amazing sex, and often a place to stay. This in exchange for letting him have regular sexual intimacy and to know who his children are’.

But in case you imagined that feminists are keen to challenge this perspsective, think again. Viewing committed relationships as indistinguishable from prostitution is a well-worn feminist argument. Radical feminists only? Wrong: Teen Vogue, the bible of intersectional pop-feminism, assures us that far from being exploitative, “Sex work is real work”. And many young women who use “sugar baby” websites to meet and earn “pocket money” from wealthy older men in exchange for sex frame what they’re doing as feminist empowerment.

This is all backed up by a popular understanding of the sexes borrowed from evolutionary psychology, in which men compete for the opportunity to spread their DNA, and women compete to attract the man with the best chance of supporting children, within an overall sexual “marketplace”.

Women, in this view, put out mainly as a way of securing resources. If we feel uncomfortable about “sex work” it’s really our unease at the way exchanging money is just saying the quiet part out loud. According to Cathy Reisenwitz, a “sex-positive” writer and campaigner: “Most female whorephobia comes from us (mostly unconsciously) viewing sex workers as scabs in the sexual marketplace. Women are afraid that if men are allowed to easily, safely buy sex they won’t commit to financially supporting any one woman for life.”

But does this actually give a good account of what men and women want? It’s not at all clear that we’ve always seen sex as a marketplace. A keyword search of Google’s database of millions of books, for example, shows “dating marketplace” practically unheard-of before the 1970s, at which point — along with “sexual marketplace” — it begins to grow rapidly in popularity. Ngram isn’t perfect, but the results suggest that thinking of sex in market terms is a trend that’s been gathering pace for decades. And yet in the grand sweep of human culture, a few decades isn’t a very long time: if we didn’t think of sex as a marketplace before the 1960s, why are we so keen to treat it like one today?

Because for all that it’s become a common cultural trope, it’s also not clear that a “dating marketplace” describes what men and women actually want. I’m too old and married to have first-hand experience of dating today, but a straw poll recently among twenty-something friends suggests the reality might be more complicated than the raw sexual Thatcherism implied by the “marketplace” trope. For example “Matt” (not his real name), a 26-year-old straight man dating in London, described a situation radically unlike the one set out by incels or sugar-baby feminists.

As Matt sees it, it’s not so much young women as young men today who yearn for a relationship: “men seem to ‘settle’ into okay-ish relationships more than women do,” he told me, “because the competition is so fierce and they basically cling to something that is acceptable, but not what they really desire. Women seem to have more choice, and can dictate terms more.”

But for Matt, this isn’t about sexual access. Rather, it’s another sign of ebbing possibilities for his generation: “An occasional point of conversation among my male schoolfriends is to moan about the fact that most of our dads were married/having children at our age,” he said. His is a bleak vision not just of sexual prospects for his generation, but of the prospects for everything. The failure to settle down is just “another reason for our generation to wonder why we are so useless”.

Pop-science invocations of evolutionary psychology in the context of dating advice tends to assume the “males seek sex, women seek commitment” model. But if Matt and his friends are anything to go by, this vision of men as rampant, lubricious, DNA-spraying horndogs just isn’t the whole picture.

And indeed, once you delve into actual evolutionary psychology it’s clear that the field is far more nuanced than “pop” representations would suggest. This paper, for example, makes the case that the “males compete, women choose” model of mate selection just isn’t the whole human story, because in reality men don’t just impregnate women and then disappear. Rather, humans of both sexes on the whole prefer to cooperate on raising families.

From this perspective, the dominance of a “marketplace” understanding of intimacy doesn’t reflect reality so much as colonise it. And this hyper-focus on a competitive, transactional dynamic that is really only part of the story comes at the expense of cooperative yearnings that are in fact equally valued – by both sexes. And by formalising the competitive picture of a “sexual marketplace”, OnlyFans contributes to this crowding-out of cooperative human intimacy by synthesising something a bit like it as a product for paying subscribers: an aspartame version of intimacy, sweet enough to hit the pleasure centre but of questionable long-term health benefit.

Thus OnlyFans virtualises, and monetises, the complex and shifting field of desire, longing and human connection in a form perfect for the lockdown-era social landscape of atomisation, loneliness and unemployment. It’s a perfect “dating marketplace”, reproducing the most asymmetrically competitive, transactional elements of male/female desire, without any need for mutuality, generosity or — crucially — for human touch. It’s a truly 21st-century vision of love.