From the outside, it would seem like adult modeling site OnlyFans has become a meme, a household name, and a serious source of income for droves of people overnight. As hundreds of thousands of people face unemployment during the coronavirus pandemic, the platform reported more than a 75 percent increase in new sign-ups in the last month, and told Forbes that it's gaining around 150,000 new users every 24 hours.
But as with most online platforms, adult and otherwise, the reality of OnlyFans' success has always been a result of sex workers' efforts. Up until recently, its referral program rewarded users for bringing in new creators throughout the lifetime of the referees' account. OnlyFans paid referrers a commission equal to five percent of the new creator's revenue (the five percent comes out of OnlyFans' end, meaning the commission didn't cut into the new creator's profits). It's an exponentially beneficial system for models, but especially for the platform, which takes a 20 percent cut from creators' earnings.
In an email sent to creators last week, OnlyFans announced that starting May 1, referral payouts would be limited to one year after the referee joins, instead of throughout the lifetime of the account. This, many creators say, is a serious blow to their income.
"The referral system is the only reason OnlyFans became a household name and, without it, there wouldn't be an OnlyFans," adult creator Arron Lowe told me. "I only referred people because of the lifetime five percent." Lowe started a petition to try to persuade OnlyFans to reverse this change, which has 361 signatures in just a few days.
Under the new system, according to OnlyFans, referring a creator earns you five percent of that creator's earnings for the first year only.
Referrals started prior to May 1, 2020 will have one more year to receive earnings from referrals. After that point, those too will stop.
In the email, shared on Twitter by multiple OnlyFans creators, the company directly attributed this change to the huge growth it's seen during the pandemic.
"We have made the important decision to invest even more resources in our infrastructure, our technology, and our support teams, so we can continue to grow as the top platform for Creators to earn money," OnlyFans said in that email.
Motherboard contacted OnlyFans for comment on the referral changes, and will update when we hear back.
When OnlyFans launched in 2016, Lowe's agent—who also referred many other models—told him that he could earn extra income as a referrer, too. "It was definitely an incentive," Lowe said. He's made $50,000 from one referral alone, but under the new terms, he said his income will drop a few thousand dollars per month.
Many agents and creators use the referral bonuses as a way to fund their own small businesses, Lowe said: courting new creators and investing in them to get their careers going, by organizing professional photo shoots, hiring people to manage their content, paying for flights and hotels and boosting their OnlyFans profiles. Without the lifetime incentive, that goes away.
"Sex workers get taken advantage of far too often and it has to stop."
OnlyFans creator Ally Hardesty's YouTube channel features advice and guidance for people trying to get into adult modeling, and dedicated one of her videos, "How to Make Money on OnlyFans Fast," to the referral program. That video has had more than 42,000 views since March 1.
"It's disturbing that OnlyFans chose to make this change in the middle of a pandemic and is punishing the same people who have been the foundation of their growth and success," Hardesty told me. "I believe this will demotivate models who have built their business around helping others to succeed and overall defer them from referring new people."
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It's clear from OnlyFans' marketing copy on its own website that the referral program is being used exactly as the company intended, as a way for almost anyone to earn cash, fast—on a "how it works" page on the site, it encourages webmasters, social media influencers, and entrepreneurs to take advantage of the program. "Join for free, post your referral link to your followers, then sit back, relax and watch your earnings grow!" the site says.
Hardesty said she hopes Lowe's petition convinces OnlyFans to rethink its decision to cut referrals and honor their original agreement with creators.
"Sex workers get taken advantage of far too often and it has to stop," Lowe said. "They deserve to be treated fairly, as do all people in life. Many creators are looking to join new fan sites already and, if we don't get confirmation from OnlyFans of the lifetime referral program being honoured, then thousands of creators will likely leave OnlyFans and their fans will follow."
This article originally appeared on VICE US.