The service harnesses the language of sexual liberation to exploit its users
OnlyFans, an online subscription website in which (predominantly) women create and sell “adult” content, claims to be a meritocratic, risk-free, get-rich-quick scheme, but the reality is anything but. Despite the endless viral posts, like this week’s story of the “healthcare worker” who now makes one and a half times his annual salary in a month” or the “ex-teacher who earned £1million,” the truth is that the average earnings from OnlyFans are $180 a month, and most successful accounts are run by porn stars, influencers and celebrities.
For the vast majority of people, the risks are simply not worth the rewards. Because the marketplace is so crowded, most users promote their OnlyFans through their social media accounts, so it is hard to remain completely anonymous. There are numerous examples of women being outed as sex workers, fired, or even having their children kicked out of school. Women also report being stalked, harassed, hacked, and asked to engage in behaviours that make them feel uncomfortable like choking – and yet OnlyFans is still glamorised as a safe, sanitised form of sex work.
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In fact, OnlyFans is so popular — with over 50 million registered users and 8000 new content creators a day — that it’s become something of a meme for young women to say they plan on starting an account once they turn 18. So many teenagers are gravitating towards the platform that there are calls to raise the eligibility age to 21, especially after rapper Bhad Bhabie made over $1million in six hours after ‘turning legal’.
Each success story is, in its own way, a type of grooming. These posts lure and mislead young people into believing that they can sell their sexuality online as a side hustle without the stigma, and that it is always empowering and never exploitative. They claim to give content creators control, but the only way to keep subscribers, and therefore make money, is to keep pushing boundaries.
I spoke to an 18-year-old girl who said she created an OnlyFans account after watching YouTubers her age “feed her a fantasy that it was a safe way to do sex work and be spoiled and taken care of.” She deleted the account after only two days; she said, “I realised that to make money I’d need to promote myself and even though I didn’t show my face, I was terrified people would discover my identity.” When I asked her if she had felt groomed, she said absolutely, but by women rather than men: “all the influencers on YouTube and Tumblr who are way too comfortable” with promoting young girls selling themselves.
Influencers like Lena the Plug may present OnlyFans as an economically viable alternative in a financially unstable time, but most people stand to lose far more than they gain.
Most accounts take home less than $145 a month, but in the process users are leaving sexual online footprints that could actually make their future employment prospects even more precarious.
OnlyFans is not financially, sexually or socially liberating. It’s mass grooming — effectively a sex work pyramid scheme. Many creators make money out of gaining sign-ups through referral codes and promising promotions — and a whole generation of young girls and boys are going to pay a heavy price; the internet is forever.