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Remote Work, Live Sex: What You Need to Know About OnlyFans

Lockdowns redefined the landscape of the sex industry, increasing the demand for sex work even as it went digital. Porn websites can attribute their spike in traffic to the implementation of social distancing measures. Yet, I wouldn’t be so quick to label this as a worrisome trend; porn use provides a risk-free means for sexual satisfaction in terms of the virus spreading, especially considering that physical intimacy and COVID-19 transmission can coincide. A review of 130 behavioral studies concluded that most porn use is pleasure-driven or in response to psychological distress. According to the Journal of Sexual Medicine, the vast majority of the time, porn is a harmless coping mechanism

The pandemic has provided the textbook conditions for the psychological distress that correlates with porn use. If porn can alleviate this public anguish to any extent, why is it worth talking about right now?

How OnlyFans works

COVID-19 has changed the sex industry by increasing demand, but also by increasing supply. The online sex market was already saturated before the pandemic, but now with the influx of unemployed sex workers and first-timers, building a stable consumer base (along with garnering a livable income) looks less and less possible. OnlyFans — what New York Times reporter Jacob Bernstein once referred to as “the paywall of porn” — is the most recent platform to fall victim to this trend. 

In 2016, Tim Stokely created OnlyFans. The platform boasts a subscription-based model where “fans” pay monthly subscriptions to view content. After its creation, it became a popular home to content creators that focused on sex work.  Sex workers on OnlyFans retain the majority of their income; the platform takes 20 percent of revenue. The website also enforces a robust copyright infringement policy. OnlyFans stands out among its other “camming” competitors because it facilitates a more personalized user experience. Sex workers can curate niche content for their base, and likewise, “fans” can request specific content as well. OnlyFans’ use exploded during quarantine because of the aforementioned demand for remote sex, but also because of the desire for intimacy — the unique selling point of the OnlyFans model.

Celebrities gentrify OnlyFans

With their large, established followings, celebrities pose a threat to the intimate nature of OnlyFans. Actress Bella Thorne earned $1 million within 24 hours of joining OnlyFans (for “research” purposes), to the dismay of sex workers already struggling to make ends meet in what’s become an oversaturated market. Thorne allegedly offered nudes to her subscribers for $200 each and then subsequently sent semi-clad photos, causing her fans to solicit refunds from the platform and their credit card companies. She has yet to comment on the scam, and it remains unclear whether or not she was hacked. However, Thorne’s promotions for her OnlyFans account did sex-bait to an extent with the suggestive sexual iconography (re: the “sex” necklace). It’s worth mentioning that OnlyFans isn’t limited to explicit sex work. Thorne publicly stated that she would not do sex work, but she used the premise of sex work to draw attention to her OnlyFans, gentrifying what sex workers once considered a safe space to engage with clients.

OnlyFans quickly and discreetly adjusted its pricing model to avoid similar conflicts in the future, implementing a $50 limit for private pay-per-view messages and a $100 limit for tips. This abrupt change poses a direct threat to sex workers on OnlyFans whose income primarily comes from individualized pay-per-view content and tips — especially since sex workers with smaller followings cannot afford to compensate with a higher subscription fee.

“You’re basically working as a commission-only salesperson. If you don’t do the work, you don’t get paid,” Lexi, a Manchester-based sex worker, told BBC News.

What’s at stake

The criminalization of sex work obstructs sex workers from receiving much needed unemployment relief from the government. Sex workers aren’t supported by their former employers either. In an industry that typically caters to consumers’ wants without safeguarding suppliers’ needs, OnlyFans devolves revenue and autonomy to sex workers. COVID-19, like it or not, is here to stay. Remote work is here to stay, and by associative property, online sex is here to stay, too. My big question: how many more sex workers will OnlyFans, among other less benevolent porn giants, allow to be displaced before changing their business model? And how many more sex workers will become casualties of poverty and violence before governments decriminalize and legalize sex work?

College women have high stakes in this matter. They’re sometimes consumers of sex work. I have a handful of old-fashioned relatives that will criticize me for saying this, but here’s the truth: college women are sexual sometimes, and college women watch porn sometimes, too. And college women are not only consumers of sex work. They’re sometimes the sex workers themselves. With steep tuition costs and low wages for entry level jobs, sex work provides a legitimate means for college women to finance themselves. I don’t want Bella Thorne’s OnlyFans stint to just become tabloid fodder. Just because I don’t do sex work or think I don’t know any sex workers doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Sex workers are my classmates, colleagues, friends, and family members, for all I know. Heck, I shouldn’t have to know sex workers personally to care about what happens to them. Don’t let sex workers’ plight just be another forgotten social ill. Their livelihood depends on it.

Siri studies Finance and Creative Writing at New York University. Passionate about the storytelling industry, Siri is always reading. She thinks that reading from authors around the world is important in a globalized society, her favorites being Gabriel García Márquez and Jhumpa Lahiri. When she is not reading, she is writing fiction. If you see a tube of lipstick, a book, and a pen anywhere on the streets in New York City, Siri has to be close by!