Florencia Guanuco spends her nights on the streets of her small Argentine town as a sex worker to pay for her university studies, a risky job made even more precarious by the country’s pandemic shutdowns.
She knows that there is an alternative for sex workers, one that growing numbers of them have adopted to stay safe against the coronavirus. “Yes I know OnlyFans,” Guanuco said. “The truth is that here most of us do not work with pages like OnlyFans.”
The reason, she said, is that “few in this region have the resources and knowledge to handle it.”
OnlyFans, the profitable virtual platform that allows sex workers to post explicit content for paying subscribers, has taken off in wealthy countries as people forced out of their jobs turn to online sex work to pay the bills.
But the platform’s requirements place it far out of reach for most sex workers in Latin America, too poor to afford an internet connection and too marginalized to open a bank account.
“It's unfair because they don't think about people's limitations when they make those platforms,” said Angela Castillo, a sex worker in Guatemala, referring to OnlyFans. “Not really supporting low-income, high-need sex workers.”
Lucy Esquivel, who has been a sex worker in Paraguay for 17 years, was skeptical when she learned of the site for the first time. “I think that each country is different,” she wrote in a text message, “because in my country it would not work.”
Even Elena Reynaga, a founding member of the Women’s Sex Workers Network, known by its Spanish contraction as RedTraSex, an organization fighting for the rights of women across the region, had never heard of the site. “I come from another time, my love,” she said, when VICE World News described the site to her.
Shut out of the virtual alternatives, the street-level reality that sex workers face has only gotten worse in Latin America, where the pandemic still rages in one of the world’s worst COVID outbreaks, accounting for almost a third of the world’s deaths.
The coronavirus adds new complications to the existing hazards of abusive customers and harassment from the police. Now sex workers must also comply with COVID-19 guidelines, shield themselves and their families from contagion, and rely to a customer base with less money to spend.
“The pandemic exposed, showed the whole world, the inequities, discrimination, the harm done by the secrecy [of sex work],” said Reynaga.
For over a year, articles in the English-language media have highlighted OnlyFans as an alternative to in-person sex work and other forms of online camming. The site helped make virtual sex work seem normal, even trendy––a sharp contrast to the continuing stigma of in-person work.
As the pandemic began, OnlyFans reported an increase in both creators and viewers, with a 75 percent jump in sign-ups within the first two weeks of March 2020. Almost overnight everyone was talking about the service, which was founded back in 2016.
Its popularity can be partially attributed to how similar it is to other social media services. OnlyFans operates a lot like Twitter, with a home feed, a profile photo, followers, and the option for dark mode.
In New York, OnlyFans has provided a way for Leandra Royer to stay afloat during the pandemic. She earned over $27,000 on the site in the year after she signed up in May 2020. Royer, 21, has also leveraged her popularity on OnlyFans to make money on Snapchat, or through YouTube appearances, photo shoots, and other virtual gigs.
And although she might make more money if she met her clients in person, OnlyFans gives her the option to remain virtual. “My biggest thing is just I’m so scared” at the thought of meeting some of her creepier customers in person, she said.
OnlyFans gives creators 80 percent of subscription fees and takes the remaining 20 percent. Under its Terms of Service, other requirements that seem mundane in wealthy countries end up disqualifying sex workers around the world.
Creators must have an email address or a Twitter account, provide details of their bank account, and upload a valid form of identification. And of course, have access to the Internet.
But in Latin America, the hours of personal Internet access that sex workers need to create online content is simply too expensive for the majority of sex workers.
“The problem they have is that they don't have this,” said Reynaga, the activist, motioning to her cell phone, “They don't have access to the Internet. It sounds incredible, but it is so.”
Dealing with banks presents another hurdle.
“There is a lot of discrimination in the banks,” said Reynaga. “Since I have to disclose that the money I receive comes from sex work, the bank wouldn’t open up an account for me.”
Because OnlyFans doesn’t allow for third-party money transferring sites like PayPal to be used for payment, the site shows up as the source of deposits, identifying an account-holder as a sex worker. That could lead to the bank shutting their account.
Pushed out of the banking system, sex workers have no alternative way of setting up a digital payment system on OnlyFans.
The difficulties pile up. Legal identification is impossible for sex workers who are refugees or undocumented immigrants. Living in cramped spaces with other family members, most sex workers also lack the privacy for online sex work.
Still, not everyone is frozen out of the market in Latin America. For example, some sex workers in the region have been able to access other online camming sites during the pandemic, and male prisoners in Mexico even made a viral OnlyFans account after posting dozens of explicit videos showing blowjobs and gangbangs. Yet these groups have devices to film with and internet capabilities, or access to them through others, such as prison guards, madams, or pimps.
A Bloomberg profile of OnlyFans Chief Executive Tim Stokely said that the company was setting up new offices in Asia and Latin America. The story did not discuss how OnlyFans would adjust its services to respond to the limitations faced by most sex workers in those regions.
OnlyFans’ spokeswoman Jessica Alper said that Stokely did not have the “bandwidth” to answer questions, although he had previously responded to an Instagram direct message from VICE World News and said that the company would provide comments.
The limitations of OnlyFans were clear to one scholar. Angela Jones, a professor of gender, race, and sexuality at Farmingdale State College, recently fired back at the unquestioning, positive coverage of online sex work during the pandemic.
For “many people around the world,” Jones wrote in an article, “the costs associated with becoming a cam model are prohibitive, and access to the technologies and private space to cam are not available.
“The pandemic only exacerbates this reality.”
The reality is only becoming more difficult as the latest wave of the pandemic tears across Latin America. Sex workers must now spend even more time on the streets to earn enough to meet their families’ basic needs.
“We are heads of the household,” said Esquivel. “We pay rent, and staying at home has put us in a very serious economic situation. Many of us no longer have a roof over our heads.”