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OnlyFans: “Easy money”, but at what cost?

In this week’s episode of Tech Shock, Lottie Gimlette from international youth-led organisation VoiceBox discusses their new report into OnlyFans, a subscription-based platform that has grown exponentially since its launch in 2016. 

OnlyFans subscribers pay the platform’s 1 million plus creators a monthly fee to view their pictures and videos. Creators can offer additional services such as private messaging or personalised content. The platform ostensibly offers “easy money”, deeper and more rewarding connections with fans, and greater authenticity than other platforms. Yet in a few short years has become intrinsically associated with sex work. 

Parent Zone commissioned VoiceBox to explore the platform’s reputation from both sides, asking young people to tell us, in their own words, whether it amounted to empowerment or exploitation.

“Why wouldn’t you?”

OnlyFans’ premise is compelling: share and connect with genuine fans and receive 80% of the profits. Stories abound of creators making as much as £5,000 in a single week. To a generation burdened with student debt, for whom home ownership becomes less feasible with each passing year, it’s an attractive prospect. 

This is also a generation who identifies as “sex positive”, celebrating rather than condeming sexual exploration, and whose traditional avenues of employment in retail and hospitality have been decimated by the Covid-19 pandemic. It’s easy to see why so many young people see the platform – at least initially – as an opportunity to make a little extra cash. As Gimlette puts it, “why wouldn’t you?”

And the platform isn’t – on the surface at least – solely sexual content. The founders state that 50% of the content on the platform is non-sexual. Make-up artists, musicians and graphic designers are other professionals who have found success on OnlyFans. But its reputation speaks for itself. While, Gimlette says, it “doesn’t advertise itself as a platform that hosts sexual content… talk to anyone about OnlyFans and the first thing they mention is it is a platform for sexual content.” 

But for a sex positive, digitally-aware generation craving financial independence, is this a bad thing?

Positivity or pressure?

The site’s explosion in popularity has ignited decades-old arguments around sex work and pornography. Some argue OnlyFans’ premise and generous payment model is hugely empowering, giving them creative control and the opportunity to explore sexuality on their own terms. Gimlette says that for many young women especially, a “big selling point for the platform is… taking control of the male gaze.”

Subscribers agree, suggesting OnlyFans is revolutionising pornography for the better, breaking down taboos and putting “ordinary”, relatable people – in most cases, women – in the spotlight. 

Worryingly, however, things can and do quickly escalate. “[Once] the initial hype of making money wore off, they felt drained by having to create new and exciting content for subscribers,” she explains. “As well as the pressure of building relationships with their subscribers in order to maintain their following.” 

The report describes a slippery slope, even touching on addiction. “Behaviours can become more and more extreme for both users and subscribers. People want more and more content to feed their addiction, [and] end up looking for more extreme content. The in-stream payment model means subscribers have higher expectations and expect more for their money.”

Part of the package 

VoiceBox found it was “incredibly common” to hear of directly negative experiences of OnlyFans, ranging from creators having their identity revealed, to screenshotting and redistribution of content, to unwanted interactions from others. “Creepy messages” from subscribers were simply “part of the package”. 

But the phenomenon they found “particularly alarming” is OnlyFans’ offer of 5% commission on all referrals, making it a hotbed for online pimps, recruiting young people to the platform from other social media apps. 

“We are yet to appreciate the long term consequences”

With both creators and subscribers reporting distorted views around their self-worth, confidence and especially sex and relationships as a result of using the platform, this “easy money” comes at a significant cost. It is “very difficult” to actually make significant money on the platform, and “long-term harms can outweigh and outlast any [financial] gains.”

While, for some, it may offer a quick and seemingly easy financial boost, the true extent of OnlyFans’ potential physical and emotional repercussions may only become clear in time. As Gimlette concludes, “On a surface level it can seem great, and you can see why both creators and subscribers are drawn to it. [But] the reality is that… we are yet to really appreciate the long term consequences for young people using it.” 

Read the full report here

To hear the full discussion, listen to episode 27 of Tech Shock: 
“How students are putting themselves through
college by making adult content online”

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