Online miscon-sex-tions

“I just thought it was a quick nude here or there,” Mary nervously laughs. 

After months of job searching this year, the 21-year-old Curtin student joined OnlyFans, a website that allows her to charge subscribers to see self-made pornographic content. Platforms like Facebook and Instagram made her think the money would be easy and the stigma surrounding sex work had shifted. Now she is struggling to meet the website’s demand and is scared her family will find out.

Since its creation on 2016, Onlyfans has paid out more than $600 million to its creators. With unemployment high and in-person encounters low, it spread like wildfire across social media as a platform designed for creators to make a quick, easy, stigma-free buck. Amidst its rising popularity, OnlyFans content creators and sex industry experts are calling to expose these misconceptions surrounding online sex work projected by social media through sites such as OnlyFans.

Online sex work has become increasingly popular over the pandemic. Photo: Nicole Lyttle.

OnlyFans is a British website that gives individuals the platform to charge subscribers a set price to access the content they are producing. Despite not being made to host online sex workers, the site gained popularity within the sex industry as it has no restrictions on the explicit nature of shared content. This allows for creators to earn money from any type of photo, video or message they send.

Over the pandemic, celebrities and social media influencers publicly promoted their own accounts on places like Snapchat, dramatically increasing the public’s knowledge of OnlyFans. Creators like Jem Wolfie were eager to brag about the millions of dollars they made to news outlets.  

This year the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported a 32.2 percent increase in unemployment, with 937,400 people looking for jobs in September 2020. In June, Business Insider reported many people who had lost their jobs were turning to OnlyFans as a financial solution. With people seemingly making an easy killing online, the shortage of jobs in Perth made the world of online sex work more appealing.

Within three months OnlyFans reported a 75 percent increase in creator sign-up worldwide.

In Feburary, OnlyFans content creator Mary was finding it increasingly difficult to find casual work across multiple industries. “You really can’t get a job unless you know someone,” she says.

The finance student, who asked for her real name not to be used for privacy reasons, says she joined OnlyFans after seeing people post online about how much they were earning.

“It’s put on a very high pedestal,” she exclaims. “It’s being glamorised and kind of… pushed on almost every single platform everyone’s talking about.”

New OnlyFans content creator Amy Ambrosius, joined the site in September after she saw its promotion everywhere online, even by close friends and family. The 24-year-old Murdoch University student says she constantly saw other creators gloating about how much they had earnt.

“All these girls were making money… and I got really curious and I was like, I wonder how much I could make,” she says.

Ms Ambrosius says celebrities were advertising the site on their popular online profiles and were making it look effortless. “Some people, they’ve essentially made it an Instagram that you have to pay for,” she scoffs. “You don’t even have to post naked photos. You can just post bikini photos.”

Following suit, Ms Ambrosius started posting underwear pictures, post-gym selfies and occasional nudes to her account to gain a following. Social media had made financial success look easy.

Amy Ambrosius talks about the content she creates online for OnlyFans. Video: Nicole Lyttle.

Mary quickly learnt online sex work was not the simple financial solution she was hoping for. Whilst posting nude photos and solo play videos, she was unable to continuously make enough content to hold subscriber’s interest. 

“I didn’t realise the amount of work you actually had to put in in order to generate money,” she says. “I was super uneducated when I first went on the platform and didn’t know it at all.”

Scarlet Alliance national programs manager Gala Vanting says this is one of the main issues the online sex industry is facing. “It’s not exactly easy money and I think it’s often portrayed as such,” she says.

The Scarlet Alliance is an Australian Sex Workers Association that works in the interests of past and present sex workers, “promoting best practices including peer education, community development, community engagement and advocacy.”

Ms Vanting explains this social media misconception has drawn people into the industry who do not understand the commitment and work the job involves. She says many sex workers have become frustrated with the influx of people chasing the myths of easy money on sites like OnlyFans. 

“There are people who don’t necessarily identify as sex workers … taking up a lot of space on a platform where sex workers, for whom this is their only source of income, are trying to make a living,” she says. 

“There is a bit of a sense of an influx of tourists, … an influx of people who don’t identify with sex work and perhaps even are shaming of sex work who are using this platform in a way that really stinks of respectability politics.”

Gala Vanting talks about the impact OnlyFans’s popularity has had on online sex workers. Video: Nicole Lyttle.

Sex work is commonly described as the world’s oldest industry containing the world oldest profession. University of Nevada, Las Vegas sociology professor Barbara Brents noted its vast development overtime.

“The internet has transformed and changed everything,” she says. “It changed the sex industry tremendously.”

Dr Brents, an expert in online porn consumption, explained that as technology advanced, the webcamming industry became the dominant group amongst larger film company content.

“I think we’ve been moving in this direction for a long time where we’ve lived in a culture where we buy and sell … human relationships and interactions for a long period of time,” she says. “Social media has really accelerated this body reflexivity, like putting yourself out there and not for the things that you do, but for the ways that you look.”

Dr Brents says the increased representation of the sex industry on mainstream social media and the internet generally may create the idea that the stigma of sex and sexuality is shifting.

OnlyFans content creator Isaac Beel started creating explicit content online for fun. He has experimented with nude photos, filming intimate sessions with a partner and taking pictures in a wide range of outfits.

Isaac Beel says he would not want to work for a company that shames his previous work in the sex industry. Photo: Nicole Lyttle

He says he only briefly considered the stigmas surrounding sex work before entering the industry as he believes society is shifting into a more liberal minded world. 

“I think the perception has definitely changed,” he says. “I think the associations of adult content online and sex work has changed and developed into something that’s more socially acceptable.”

The 22-year-old UWA student feels his generation no longer stigmatises the industry, like the older generations have before. “They … just have certain ideas and stigmas about it that I just don’t think are so relevant anymore,” Mr Beel says.

However, Ms Vanting believes this stigma shift is a misconception social media has created due to the popularity of sites like OnlyFans online. The more visible they become, the more widely accepted they seem. She believes sex work remains unsafe as the stigmas are deep rooted in our culture.

As Juline Koken notes in Independent Female Escort’s strategies for Coping with Sex Work Related Stigmasex workers have historically symbolised sin. Sex workers are often placed at the bottom of the “sex hierarchy”, with many scientific studies reinforcing the stigma of them being victims or deviants.

Sex workers have always been looked down upon.

“That’s what makes it difficult,” Ms Vanting explains. “It’s not that any aspect of the work is inherently problematic, it’s the context that surrounds it that creates the problems that we face.”

Dr Brents agrees, explaining the work is inevitably dangerous due to the stigma surrounding it. “Sexuality has a conflicted place in our culture for right or for wrong,” she says.

Despite how common creating content seems to be on social media, Dr Brents says people need to be aware of the illusion that the stigma surrounding sex work has completely changed. She says in reality, entering the industry can still have serious impacts on the person in the future.

“Anybody who enters the sex industry can’t go into it naively in the same way that they would, you know, go into any other job,” she says. “Kids these days are having to navigate how much they put … up on the internet because it can last forever and that’s a learning curve. People need to be thoughtful about it, more thoughtful than they would just putting up any old selfie.”

Barbara Brents talks about the impact OnlyFans may have on the sex industry. Photo: Supplied.

However, Dr Brents says at the end of the day people have the right to be as sexual as they want to be, it is something society needs to accept.

“We’ve got to think about how we can protect the rights of people that are engaging in these kinds of things,” she says. “That needs to be part of the conversation.”

Social media has helped spread harmful misconceptions about the online sex industry being easy money and destigmatised, especially over the pandemic. But Ms Vanting believes the popularity surrounding sites like OnlyFans on social media could be used to help educate society. Sex work now being more visible in the public sphere may force misconceptions to be broken down faster.

“It can be a legitimiser of the work that we’re doing,” she says. “But only if the way that we’re talking about it is in terms of work.”

“We really need to be okay with sex work being work and to look at it in that way.”

Mary says she regrets believing the illusions of easy money and stigma shifts social media has created around the sex industry through sites such as OnlyFans. She is now urging others to do their own research before entering the industry and be aware of the misconceptions around online sex work.  

“I wish I did that,” she says. “Sex work is work.” 

Experts and content creators share their advice for joining the industry. Video: Nicole Lyttle.