What Will Become of OnlyFans When Celebrities Take Over?

With Cardi B and Bella Thorne as competition, sex workers fear their days on the platform could be numbered

August 25, 2020 6:52 am
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Bella Thorne, Cardi B. and Blac Chyna: All proud owners of an OnlyFans account
Gotham/Claudio Lavenia/Paras Griffin

By this point, you’ve probably heard of OnlyFans. The subscription platform has been around since 2016, but didn’t really enter mainstream cultural consciousness in a significant way until earlier this year when, thanks to a combination of pandemic-influenced boredom and financial desperation, the site saw a massive increase in new creators looking to profit off of the X-rated content with which OnlyFans has historically been associated.

Since then, the platform has skyrocketed in popularity, attracting high-profile media attention from the likes of Beyoncé — who catapulted the site to new heights of cultural awareness like only Beyoncé can after name-dropping it in a guest verse on Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage” remix back in May — as well as several celebrities who have recently made headlines for joining the site themselves.

Recent weeks have seen the OnlyFans debut of major stars like Cardi B and Bella Thorne, who join earlier celeb adopters like Blac Chyna, The-Dream, Safaree Samuels, multiple Real Housewives and influencer/internet antagonist Caroline Calloway, who sparked controversy on Twitter after boasting about her six-figure OnlyFans earnings back in May.

All the celebrity attention has been great news for the platform’s founders, who launched OnlyFans in 2016 as a paid subscription platform for creators to directly monetize their content and connect with fans on a more personal level than on traditional social-media platforms. While the site has become best known as a hub for erotic content, its creators maintain that OnlyFans is a place for creators of all kinds to monetize their online presence.

“Beyoncé, and any artist, are welcome to join OnlyFans at any time to foster a deeper connection with their fans,” the platform announced following the star’s game-changing shoutout, while co-founder and COO Tom Stokely told the Daily Beast, “The growing momentum among these celebrities is the beginning of a new movement in social media that prioritizes personalization over mass appeal.”

But while the growing celebrity presence on OnlyFans might be good news for the platform’s founders, it seems to be anything but for the content creators who are largely responsible for even bringing the site to the level of celebrity awareness in the first place: sex workers.

Since its inception, OnlyFans has maintained a relatively “anything goes” approach to nudity and sexual content that’s becoming increasingly difficult to find elsewhere on the internet these days, thanks in part to legislation like FOSTA/SESTA, a controversial bill signed into law by President Trump in 2018. But as celebrities continue to take over the platform, the adult content creators who were flourishing on OnlyFans years before it became a household name fear their days on the site might be numbered.

In May, shortly after Beyoncé dropped the OnlyFans shoutout heard round the internet, multiple sex workers selling their content on the site told Rolling Stone’s EJ Dickson they feared they were already getting pushed off the platform they helped build, and it wouldn’t be the first time something like that happened.

“It’s a common reality that sex workers popularize platforms only to then be forced out when the platforms reach a level of mass popularity,” professional dominatrix and sex educator Mistress Eva Oh told InsideHook at the time.

The threat mainstream celebrity presence on the site poses for sex workers is twofold. One fear is that as more high-profile celebs flock to the site to monetize non-erotic content, OnlyFans will eventually cease to be a safe space for the sexually explicit photos and videos for which the site has historically been best known. Indeed, while some of the platform’s recent celebrity creators have suggested they plan to share erotic material, others have made it clear they have no such intention. And as the site continues to grow in popularity among celebrities who have no interest in sharing sexual material, sex workers on the platform fear OnlyFans may start to crack down on explicit content.

“My only concern with more and more large mainstream creators coming onto the site is what it may do for smaller adult performers,” Amberly Rothfield, adult business and marketing consultant, tells InsideHook. “Too often we have seen platforms like Twitch and YouTube allow risqué behavior to grow their channels, only to kick us off when major advertisers come down.”

While Rothfield remains optimistic that the platform will stick to its adult-industry roots, she adds that she “can’t help but be concerned and skeptical for what may transpire as huge advertisers step in and require adult content be gone.”

Meanwhile, even if some celebrities do embrace the platform as a place to share erotic content — like Bella Thorne, who has dabbled in both the porn industry and in public online nudity in the past, seemed to suggest when she called OnlyFans “the first platform where I can fully control my image; without censorship, without judgement, and without being bullied online for being me” — that kind of celebrity overshadowing could still spell bad news for the sex workers who make a living on the platform.

“I don’t see how celebrity presence on the platform does anything to support sex work except for bringing in more (but potentially irrelevant) traffic until sex workers get kicked off,” Mistress Eva told InsideHook in May. “The concept of celebrity is essentially about overshadowing others, isn’t it?”

It’s all part of a broader argument within the sex industry about what it really means to be a sex worker today. As platforms like OnlyFans lower the bar to entry for online sex work and civilians and celebrities alike flock to cash in on the growing trend, many OnlyFans newcomers stand accused of saturating the site and appropriating a marginalized identity for clout.

A more optimistic outlook might posit that the mainstreaming of the site will be beneficial in the long run, helping to destigmatize and normalize sex work. It’s hard to conclude, though, that any long-term gains are worth the direct hit sex workers are likely to take in the meantime. While the sex industry largely prides itself on inclusivity, an influx of celebrity content will pose an existential threat to the creators who have been on OnlyFans for years. Many of them, after all, depend on the platform as a source of income, whereas Cardi B and Bella Thorne … don’t.

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