Sexpectations online

Local sex workers are still on OnlyFans despite the platform’s recent content ban and backflip.

Between lockdowns and uncertainties in pay checks, 2020 saw OnlyFans become one of the most popular platforms to earn money on. With more than 1.5 million creators worldwide and more than 150 million registered users, OnlyFans paid out more than $6 billion in 2020, according to its website.

OnlyFans launched in 2016 as an internet content subscription service allowing users to charge their audiences micro payments to view content or to subscribe to receive ongoing access. Its popularity grew in 2020 as many celebrities used it to post sexually explicit content, leading others to do the same.

OnlyFans loading homescreen
Photo: Stephanie Jacob.

In April 2021, OnlyFans announced a policy change to ban all sexually explicit content on the platform, but it reversed the ban a week later. Despite the reversal, the policy fluctuation has left many sex workers feeling nervous about investing effort into the platform.

The initial OnlyFans policy change was sparked, in part, by an opinion piece published in December last year in The New York Times by Nick Kristof called The Children of Pornhub. The article accused Pornhub and its parent company, MindGeek, of profiting from revenge porn, child porn and sex trafficking.

One of the primary sources in Kristof’s article was activist group Traffickinghub’s founder Laila Mickelwait who works for Exodus Cry, a Christian organisation that is anti-sex and anti-homosexuality. Exodus Cry works to take down content on PornHub as a strategy to destroy the sex industry.

Newsweek reported that the article and lobbying by activists prompted Mastercard and Visa to cut Pornhub and MindGeek off from receiving payments, unless they applied better content-screening protocols. In August 2021, OnlyFans was threatened with similar action. In a statement OnlyFans responded saying: “In order to ensure the long-term sustainability of our platform, and continue to host an inclusive community of creators and fans, we must evolve our content guidelines.”

This led to the ban.

“I think OnlyFans has made people open up their eyes and realise that sex workers are people too in a way.”

Olivia, sex worker

Perth-based OnlyFans creator and previous offline sex worker Bunny said working on OnlyFans was somewhat better than working offline, but it was more complicated than people thought.

“It mimics a lot of the problematic parts of the sex industry. Thin, white, straight women are put to the top and it’s hard to get subscribers when you don’t fit into that ideal,” she said.

While OnlyFans reversed the ban shortly after it was imposed, Scarlet Alliance national programs manager Gala Vanting said many sex workers expect this won’t be the last time they face whorephobia (negative stereotyping and stigmatisation) on the platform.

Ms Vanting said OnlyFans interacted with several financial institutions that discriminated against sex workers so some may find it harder to get paid or may not get earnings they were meant to receive.

“There is also the problem with proliferation of porn-tube sites that steal content from legitimate producers who are working and doing that as their job. The tube sites post the content on their platform and allow people to access it for free.”

Another Perth-based OnlyFans creator Olivia said, despite these problems, OnlyFans made her feel more empowered, and was changing the way people viewed sex workers.

“I think OnlyFans has made people open up their eyes and realise that sex workers are people too in a way,” she said.

Clinical psychologist and specialist in sexuality Vivienne Cass said there was a sense of granularity in this form of sex work, with it being more complicated and potentially problematic than people thought.

“There are all sorts of subgroups in society that exist, and I think it’s very important that we don’t get lost in them,” Dr Cass said. And that people who are involved in OnlyFans don’t get lost in thinking that this is the world, and this is how the world is – it’s not. It’s a tiny grain of sand on a beach.”

For sex workers in Australia who are currently working amid a pandemic or need help, resources are available online at the Scarlet Alliance website.