Identity

Sex Workers Describe the Instability—and Necessity—of OnlyFans

Creators of sexually explicit content talk about what it's like to rely on a platform that can just... change its policies, then change them back.
August 25, 2021, 7:21pm
Sex Workers Describe the Instability of Needing to Rely on OnlyFans
Photo by TT
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A series in which people across the U.S. offer firsthand perspectives about how social issues impact their real lives.

OnlyFans, an online subscription-based site, has become synonymous with adult content. With more than 130 million users, it has become by far the most prevalent site of its kind and the most lucrative platform for many sex workers.

OnlyFans is reportedly on track to make around $12.5 billion in gross value next year, mostly thanks to the sex workers posting pornographic content for their fans on the site. Despite this resounding financial success brought about by sex workers, on August 19, OnlyFans announced it would ban “sexually explicit content” on October 1. Six days later, after a massive backlash from users and sex workers, OnlyFans suspended plans to adopt the terms of service (TOS) that would have enacted that ban—but sex workers were still sharply reminded of the vulnerability that comes with relying on platforms that can change their policies abruptly and leave content creators scrambling to adapt.

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The now-scrapped acceptable use policy (AUP) would have prohibited content creators from showing “actual or simulated sexual intercourse, including genital-genital, oral-genital, anal-genital, or oral-anal, between persons of any sex; actual or simulated masturbation; any exhibition of the anus or genitals of any person which is extreme or offensive; [or] actual or simulated material depicting bodily fluids commonly secreted during sexual conduct,” reportedly because of pressure from credit card companies, payment processors, and potential investors

After many sex workers had already begun deleting and migrating content to other sites, OnlyFans announced on social media Wednesday morning that it would no longer be banning porn. In an email to users, the company said this decision was based on “assurances” from banking partners. No other details were provided, nor were these assurances made public. Though some sex workers are welcoming the news that OnlyFans will keep its current TOS for the time being, this past week has still caused needless harm to an already marginalized community. 

Sex workers are familiar with deplatforming—and with the instability and violence deplatforming causes them. In 2018, the shutdown of Backpage—a website primarily used by full-service sex workers as a means of advertising—in the lead-up to the passage of SESTA/FOSTA was a watershed example of the effects of censorship on sex workers. Backpage gave sex workers the opportunity to screen clients and move away from street-based work, which is far more dangerous. Though censorship of sex workers did not begin with SESTA/FOSTA and the end of Backpage, it created a huge push for online platforms to censor sex-working users. 

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The consequences of censorship can be deadly for sex workers. According to Hacking//Hustling, a collective of sex workers and accomplices organizing around tech and state surveillance, SESTA/FOSTA stripped sex workers of many of the tools they previously used to keep themselves safe. The organization’s research shows that the “dismantling of an online-based sex work environment has played a role in the increased economic instability for 72.45 percent of the online participants of this survey, with 33.8 percent reporting an increase of violence from clients.” 

Although OnlyFans changed course on its ban, all of this news still bodes poorly for everyone who uses the internet. It means censorship of the most marginalized is always close at hand. On Tumblr, Instagram, and TikTok, sex workers have always been the first to sound the alarm about social media censorship and its implications. Eventually, these kinds of TOS updates and AUP changes may also come for civilians (or non-sex workers, as some sex workers call them). 

VICE spoke to 11 sex workers who create content for OnlyFans about the precarity of having to rely on a platform that can ban them one day and walk that back the next. 

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Interviews have been lightly edited for length and clarity. Some names have been changed for the sake of privacy.


Cam Damage (they/them, he/him), 32, Seattle, Washington

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Sex work and porn will continue to be my career, regardless of whether OnlyFans had banned porn. I've been doing sex work since 2009, and I've been on OnlyFans since November 2019. I started using OF because it was the first site of its kind to be so successful, and it quickly became the industry standard. I make a wide range of content on OF—solo, partnered, triads, group. My content is consistently very queer, and its subject matter can range from more vanilla to heavier on the kink side. I post content to ManyVids, and make money doing studio shoots, but it all pales in comparison to what I make on OnlyFans.  

Before I joined OnlyFans, I've always lived month-to-month and was lucky to have even a few thousand in my bank account before paying rent. The "OF era" was the first time I ever felt financial security as an adult. I've been able to pursue things in life I never thought I would previously. Financial security has afforded me the ability to focus on other things besides a constant hustle—like my mental health, and supporting other sex workers and community programs. I'm getting top surgery next month and put down a sizable amount of money on that, and when OnlyFans announced its initial TOS change, I couldn’t help but feel that that was a stupid move financially.

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I've been through TOS changes before when I was on Patreon and Tumblr. I never thought OnlyFans would last forever, but that didn’t make it hurt any less last week. If OnlyFans banned porn, it would have had a substantial negative effect on my income. I’m fairly certain I could never make the type of money I made on OF again elsewhere. 

I’m extremely privileged in the sex work community as a thin, conventionally attractive, white person. Although I'm trans, I’m conventionally androgynous and don't often face public scrutiny or danger. I am incredibly worried about what this all means for marginalized groups. OF enabled a much wider array of POC and trans people to find success in the SW industry. Especially during the pandemic, it allowed people to support themselves on their own terms, without having to endanger themselves. For these groups, the prospect of losing OF was extremely dangerous.

Emotionally, the past several days were awful. I was very lucky to be staying with two other sex workers, and we all got to process the first news about the TOS together over hours and hours of discussion. If I had been home alone, I think things would have been a lot darker for me. Please be kind and keep supporting sex workers, wherever they end up. Please listen to them. Please use your voices and advocate for us. Know that people weren’t just sad because a site went away. People's lives could have quite literally been destroyed by this. I'm not just talking about having to tighten purse strings.

TT (she/her), 29, Denver, Colorado

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Photo by TT

I started doing sex work as a stripper at a topless gentlemen's club in Denver. When the pandemic hit and the clubs closed, I migrated to online work, including OnlyFans. My OF content is pretty niche—it combines my love for plants and gardening with softcore porn, which includes nude pictures and videos, as well as custom content for paying subscribers. 

OnlyFans gives me the freedom to set my own schedule. As a single mother, that is of primary importance to me. I like to be available to and present with my child. On top of that, there’s more safety and security—I have been in situations at the strip club I worked at where a man came into the club with a machete targeting strippers and staff. Despite normal precautions, a security guard was stabbed and died. Others were permanently injured. OF eliminates the fear of violence that many in-person workers like myself have. I also like that OF is accommodating to neurodivergent people like myself. I have borderline personality disorder, and so clubs tend to drain and/or trigger me if the environment is high-stress. 

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My subscribers can expect to see what we call artful or tasteful nudes in the sex work world. I only shoot solo content at the moment, and while I may include a sex toy here and there, there isn't penetration or overtly sexual acts. Since I don’t have much content that would have been prohibited under the TOS OnlyFans said they’d implement, my livelihood wouldn’t necessarily be directly impacted because of a lack of content or inability to post content. However, it’s possible I’ll still feel the secondhand effects of users leaving OF en masse.

I started a Black stripper–led community organization called Black Sex Workers of Colorado (BSWC) last year around the start of the pandemic. Several concerned sex workers had already reached out to us in anticipation of not being able to afford their housing, car, and other necessities because they will be losing their main source of income. Organizations like BSWC are working around the clock to make sure that we are able to provide access to the resources that our community needs, but it’s an uphill battle that will only get harder. We also saw many sex workers affected emotionally because we're continually shown that society thinks so little of us.

Leila Lewis (she/her), 24, Los Angeles, California

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I’ve been a sex worker since 2017 and started posting on OnlyFans in 2018, back when it was just one of those sites every performer was on so we could post behind-the-scenes content from our personal lives. When the pandemic hit and all of the buyers jumped on OnlyFans, I ended up putting most of my time and energy into it. 

OnlyFans allowed me to become financially free, meaning I haven't had to work nearly as hard or as often in order to pay my bills. The first month of the pandemic, when everyone was stuck inside, I made more money on OnlyFans than I had in my entire career leading up to the pandemic. I worked extremely hard to maintain that over the last year and a half and I have for the most part. It wasn’t all good: Consumers now expect sex workers to offer massive amounts of content for extremely low prices. Keeping up with posting consistently has been extremely draining at times. 

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I currently post a wide range of partnered hardcore pornography, solo masturbation, BDSM/kink scenes, and fetish photos and videos. Under the TOS OnlyFans had announced, pretty much everything I consistently post—apart from softcore nudity—would have been prohibited. Thinking about how much income I would have lost if the TOS had gone into effect in October was terrifying. I perform for professional porn companies occasionally, but since I’m a fat woman, it’s not realistic for me to expect that work to make up a large percentage of my income, unless mainstream porn sites suddenly become inclusive. If I hadn’t been able to make up the income lost from OnlyFans on other sites, I would have most likely turned to full-service sex work, as I’m not able to maintain a civilian job due to my mental health conditions. 

I was stressed not just for myself—a neurodivergent, queer, fat woman—but also for my friends and fellow sex workers who may have been forced into unsafe work conditions in order to make ends meet, especially those that are BIPOC, disabled, and transgender.

Sex workers are resilient. I know we’ll bounce back from this, as we always do. Now, I’ll continue to use OnlyFans for as long as I’m able to, but I still plan to utilize other clip sites and look into other subscription-based sites. After seeing how they’ve handled the last week, I’ll eventually want to move, but it’s still the majority of my income.

Evie Scarlette (she/they), 30, Birmingham, Alabama

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I started doing sex work around 10 years ago after reading an article about selling used panties online. Now, I primarily post nude photos, full-length explicit clips, and some femdom content. Even though I’ve posted the occasional foot picture, my income comes from explicit adult media. I’m usually fully naked and often engaging in simulated or actual sex. 

I’m always looking to diversify my sex work income, so I began using OnlyFans in June 2019. As a platform, OnlyFans has a lot of issues. My friends and I often joke that OnlyFans had one single server that functioned with duct tape and a prayer. It barely works—but it was accessible to everyone. I'm kind of small potatoes in the porn industry, but even I’ve been doing well enough.

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I am hesitant to say the scrapped TOS made me anxious, because there is a large population of people who watch gleefully when sex workers suffer, and I don't want to further give them any satisfaction, but... I was anxious. OnlyFans is about 65 percent of my income. Last week took me back to feeling like I am in poverty again, before I started sex work and wasn't sure where food was coming from. I'm angry at OnlyFans for blatantly, repeatedly telling sex workers that everything was fine, then changing its message. I'm angry at everyone who said sex workers needed to go work at fast food restaurants—as if working there makes someone lesser-than. I'm angry that a change like the one OnlyFans announced last week would have affected so many disabled people who finally had a means to provide for themselves in a world that is not set up for them.

I'm really scared about the future legislation around sex work. Pornhub stopped paying Modelhub members out, and OnlyFans tried to give us the boot. Are we really making a future where amateur, self-driven sex workers are going to need to put themselves in danger to make a sustainable income? It's scary. If you enjoy watching porn at all—even free porn—pay attention to what's going on. This is only the beginning.

 BlakSyn (they/he), 33, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

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I was a professional dominant long before I started using OnlyFans as a result of the pandemic. My OF mostly consists of BDSM pornography, including scenes containing penetrative intercourse. OF is 25–35 percent of my income, and I get by between that, professional domination, teaching BDSM fundamentals and theory, and consulting.

I have a high following, meaning I’m coming from a place of privilege, and it would have been easier for me than it might be for others to have my audience migrate with me. Still, if I had needed to move to another platform, each of these platforms would have required scrutiny for me to continue this work online with integrity, and to ensure moving wouldn’t have been a waste of time, resources, or money. For each, I’d need to examine: Who’s running the platform? What kind of DCMA policy do they have? [Note: the Digital Millennium Copyright Act allows websites like OnlyFans to host user-generated content and creates a legal basis for having content stolen from the platform removed.] What is the minimum for a payout? How are they verifying users and creators? Have they been hacked? Have they been accused of misconduct? What percentage will they take from creators? Do they support marginalized communities? Is it a safe space for Black people? Trans folks? What kind of people are highlighted on their landing page? Their social media? 

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I deal with anxiety and depression regularly, and the OnlyFans announcement drove everything up to 10. My body is in crisis mode. I present as male, and I’m a larger individual, so I felt safe physically, but I feel devalued and endangered by the nerve-wracking aspects of living in a capitalist society. OnlyFans trying to ban sex-focused content is just one example of the perpetual opposition sex workers have always faced. Our society is puritanical due to religious indoctrination. Couple that with patriarchal, cisheteronormative values and an overabundance of misogyny while rich old white men make decisions about what people can do with their bodies, and it's not hard to see how we got here. 

Frankie Bouvier* (they/them), 36, Baltimore, Maryland

I started using OnlyFans after losing my civ job at the beginning of the pandemic. I was doing sex work before I worked at that job—selling videos on ManyVids, premium Snapchat, and trying to skate around the TOS on Patreon. OnlyFans made the most sense to replace the income I was losing from the job I had outside of sex work. 

I make explicit content for OnlyFans—queer, body-diverse, mostly kink-focused porn. The platform has been great because the user interface is pretty straightforward, customers were already there so fans were quick to subscribe, the payout was decent, and I could schedule posts and DMs, meaning I could spend one day a week scheduling and doing admin things, and the rest of the week shooting and editing. (Some downsides were definitely the upload speed and website crashes, and the platform’s livestreaming capabilities are nowhere near as good as they are on the other sites I cam on.

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OnlyFans is about 50-70 percent of my income, depending on the month. It would have been extremely hard to gain the same momentum I had there on other sites. I have a large following on my social accounts, but my main social account was deleted twice last month because my content violated the platform’s TOS, so I don't have the same reach I used to on my new account, and that's what made me the most nervous when I thought I’d have to use a different platform. I have an anxiety disorder, and things have been difficult to manage since hearing the news. 

Luckily, I’ve been doing this for a while, and sort of understand that this is just how things go until we make a change (like overturning SESTA/FOSTA). I'm also not holding my breath for that to happen. Your average person doesn't understand that sex workers are the canary in the coal mine for the rest of the internet. They don't see how important this is in the long run, how they should be worried about their own existence on the internet, and how this actually has nothing to do with sex trafficking whatsoever. 

Sex workers aren't going anywhere. The sex industry is the oldest industry for a reason. We'll just continue to adapt. When internet censorship develops enough that Katie K. and her sorority sisters can't post a pic at the beach in their bathing suits, maybe people will care enough to listen to us.

Sexi Cacti (she/her), 25, Los Angeles, California

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OnlyFans has truly changed my life. After I started doing OnlyFans right when the pandemic hit the fan in 2020, I was able to quit my 9 to 5 job and work for myself doing something that I genuinely enjoy that provides me autonomy and freedom. OF allows me to continue to grow my brand for other business ventures. Financially, I have never felt more secure. I am debt-free, and I know that saving and investing my money so young will benefit my future. Talking to my incredibly supportive fan base during the pandemic was a lifesaver because I lived and worked alone and they were my main source of day-to-day social interaction. 

My content is spicy, but it is not sexually explicit by OnlyFans standards, so, technically, I wouldn’t have been impacted by the TOS change. However, I do believe that the market would have shifted, and I’d have needed to extend myself to whatever new platform the sex worker community moved to.

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Last week’s news didn’t surprise me because OnlyFans has continually promoted celebrities and large influencers who join the site while ignoring its large sex worker population. So many people rely on this income and put their blood, sweat, and tears into content creation and growing on this platform. To have the freedom to post what you want taken away abruptly, and to hear people rooting against our community, was saddening. People made so many hurtful comments about going to go get a "real job," and it’s clear that there is still ample misogyny surrounding sex work, even though nearly everyone consumes some type of porn. The notion that credit card processors have the ability to take away their services on sites that sell adult content makes me believe that the next step is switching to crypto payments.

Mommy Lilith (they/them), 23, Virginia Beach, Virginia

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I was an in-person sex worker before OnlyFans came about, but I quit after FOSTA/SESTA was signed and my job became overwhelmingly riskier and more dangerous as a result. I worked awful minimum wage jobs and began to dabble in online work. I never made much on other sites because I'm fat, Black, and make niche fetish content, and I’m an outspoken leftist. I joined OF when it started to rise in popularity, and, because of the massive influx of buyers that trusted the platform, I almost immediately saw a shift in business. OnlyFans became the entire reason I was able to go full-time into online sex work as an extremely marginalized person.

The news of OnlyFans trying to kick off sex workers wasn't surprising at all. I was around when SESTA/FOSTA changed things for us and I haven't seen one thing lend itself to this deplatforming process slowing down anytime soon. Anti–sex work advocates have been coming after sex workers for a long time, and with the amount of mainstream attention OnlyFans has gathered, it felt like only a matter of time.

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OnlyFans makes up about 80 percent of my income—not for lack of being present on other sites, but because of the lack of buyers using other websites. My income and livelihood will be affected by these changes simply because it's already so tough to get buyers who are rightfully skeptical of giving their credit card info to these websites. 

This year was the first year I was making consistent money off my OnlyFans and was able to start trying to make concrete plans to improve my material conditions, and that would have been taken away from me if a TOS change had happened in October. I went from trying to save to buy a car and get into an apartment of my own to being afraid I won’t be able to keep up with the $500 I pay to rent a room.

Ten Against (he/him), 35, Baltimore, Maryland

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For a couple years before I joined OF, I dabbled in sex work and content-making. I started off by being a part of my partners’ content. I worked my way up to making a ManyVids store, which eventually led to creating my OF a little over a year ago. I make a mix of partnered and solo pornographic content—both of which will be against the new TOS. The partnered content I make tends to be kink/BDSM/ fetish-focused. 

I’ve been deleted on Instagram, which definitely sucked, but I don’t think it’s quite the same as not being able to use OF would have been. Losing my IG hurt because that was where my largest following was, and was the main place I could successfully (albeit quietly) promote my OF. It also hurt because of all the lost memories, content, archives, and messages. But IG wasn’t directly paying any bills. I started using OF during a time last year when finances were becoming exceedingly tight, and it was an incredible help in offsetting the monetary losses caused by the pandemic. 

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OF has made up nearly half of my income in the last year. I’ve always felt and acknowledged the privilege that this isn’t my only source of income. That’s not to say that I wouldn’t have felt the loss—I most certainly would have, and that was terrifying. But I know that there are a lot of others that primarily rely on OF financially. I think about how dramatic the last week was for me, and how much worse it must feel to all the people who are facing the loss of nearly all of their income. I’m just hopeful that things will level out back to some semblance of how things are now. 

Gia Fagnelli, (he/him, they/them), 31, multiple cities

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I've been a stripper for nearly seven years. Before the pandemic, I started an OF to hustle extra side money when I had a customer at the club or the drag gig who wanted more access to me. For a while at the beginning of the pandemic, OnlyFans was my main source of income, and I've had to diversify my platforms and hustles since then. The hit I would have taken if OnlyFans changed its rules left me just hoping to find long-term, secure ways to sell my work online. 

For OF, I create niche queer erotic art, mixing futuristic video art with drag and cosplay. Most of my customers are queers looking for art, people who want to see pole-dancing by a real queer stripper, buyers who want to watch trans porn, and folks interested in NSFW drag. Instagram won't let me get away with any of that, and many other websites are specifically porn-focused in a way that's often overwhelming for my queer customers. I do all right on other sites, but OF is a place where I’m able to offer a very particular access to many different styles of my art.Most of it would have been flagged and removed if OnlyFans hadn’t suspended the TOS that it announced would be implemented in October. 

The club changed as soon as Backpage shut down, and just existing as a queer sex working artist on the internet has been so challenging the last few years. I have some hope based on the small boom at the beginning of the shutdown, when there was a sudden rush of direct support from people who contributed to artists whose work they love and value.

Kira Lune (she/her), 30, U.S.

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I started using OnlyFans this past May, and it was my introduction into sex work. I started taking pictures of myself at the beginning of 2021 in an effort to regain some sort of connection with my body after years of trauma and abuse. I loved taking pictures because it felt like I was breaking through negative personal mindsets, so I decided to start an OnlyFans. 

I have been nothing but happy and fulfilled being an online sex worker. It has been so incredibly empowering, healing, and restorative. I am in awe of the support sex workers have given me. In the few short months I have been part of it, I feel included as an equal part of the community. I see myself being a part of this industry for many years to come. 

I'm a caregiver most of the time, and my OnlyFans income is about 25 percent of the total. When I thought OnlyFans was changing its TOS, I planned to adapt and expand my type of content on a few new platforms, primarily on Fansly. I know how much work I put in to get where I am right now on OnlyFans, and rebuilding all over again would have meant a lot of work. 

Platforms historically have a track record of kicking us off and forcing us to adapt. I fully expect this will happen again in another year or two. Until the general population stops treating sex workers like dirty, shameful people, this is going to keep happening. 

Follow Reina Sultan on Twitter.