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OnlyFans Created a New Economy for Sex Workers in Minnesota. Then It Threatened to Take Everything Away.

The sex-forward social media platform was a lifeline for many during the pandemic, but now users say it can’t be trusted.

Left: Ka Lia Universe, photographed by Dee Hang; Right: Jordan Maxx, courtesy of Jordan Maxx

Like many of us, Molly Hale has had a chaotic 18 months.

Not only was she separating from her husband of eight years, but she was also leaving her church. She went skiing and tore her ACL. When the pandemic torpedoed her work as a digital strategist, the self-employed mother of two created an OnlyFans account. It was an impulsive move that would ultimately redeem her year.

“It felt like a really beautiful way to reclaim my space as a single person,” Hale says. “It really felt like an extension of who I already am, inwardly.”

Launched in 2016 as a platform for connecting creators such as photographers, chefs, physical trainers, and musicians with their fanbases, OnlyFans quickly became a way for people to make money selling explicit pictures, videos, and messages. This was exacerbated by the pandemic. In the first two months of COVID-19 lockdown, OnlyFans saw a 75% increase in creator signups, the staggering majority of them people selling sex. 

By the end of 2020, 1 million people were selling sexual content on OnlyFans to a market of 85 million subscribers. The London-based company claims to have paid out over $2 billion last year, a vital revenue source for folks like Hale.

“I made $2,000 in the first month I was on there,” she says, adding that most folks followed her over from Twitter. “I don't think I’ve made less than $1,000 each month.”

Hale and her former husband had done some adult filming prior to her joining OnlyFans, but the ubiquity of the platform allowed her to bring that side of her personality out in a way that was safe and, most importantly, in her control. 

Photographer, writer, and activist Trista McGovern found herself in a similar position. McGovern is a disabled woman whose photography and writing examines the intersection of sexuality, queerness, and disability. She started her OnlyFans in September of 2020 to account for the money she was losing through other revenue streams. OnlyFans not only helped her branch out into the pandemic-proof world of erotica but also offered a safe way to interact with buyers.

“OnlyFans is really helpful, especially with disability and sexuality stuff,” McGovern says. “Sometimes, that's the only option for people, because you can't work a normal job. Even just being a dancer, or anything with contact. Like 90% of disabled women are assaulted, so it's just so much safer to keep it online.”

Not everyone has recognized the social benefits of OnlyFans. Feminist legal scholar and longtime anti-porn activist Catharine MacKinnon called the site “a pimp” in the New York Times, claiming that the subscription service took advantage of economic conditions to seduce users into selling themselves. Far-right groups like Exodus Cry and the National Center on Sexual Exploitation launched targeted outrage campaigns against OnlyFans, a strategy similar to the one that got Mastercard and Visa to drop affiliations with PornHub late last year. This dovetailed with rumors that OnlyFans would be seeking an IPO in 2021, with a potential valuation over $1 billion.

OnlyFans caved under the scrutiny, and in August, they announced they’d be banning “sexually explicit content” from the platform, effective October 1. They claimed they were updating their terms of service to be more big-business-friendly, but they were doing so by booting the people who popularized their app. It was a betrayal to the users, effectively re-stigmatizing sex work after a pandemic’s-worth of progress.

“It normalized so quickly that I don't even remember what it was like before having OnlyFans,” McGovern says. “To take that away seems really regressive.”

Turning Its Back

When strip clubs started closing due to COVID-19 protocols, Minneapolis stripper BeeBee Gunn started using platforms like Twitch, Cameo, and YouTube to raise her profile. Since then, she’s amassed 1.3 million followers on TikTok, but OnlyFans was the only mainstream digital space where she could openly promote her sex work without getting her posts taken down.

The sudden change to the terms of service put the risk in full view. And so she and her fellow sex workers revolted.

“Oh my God, I was so proud of my community that day,” Gunn says. “The sex workers of Twitter, sex workers of TikTok, and sex workers of Instagram were not having it.”

The backlash from OnlyFans users was swift and indignant. Sex workers, who currently make up the bulk of OnlyFans user base, accused the app of “totally [turning] their back” on them. Within six days, the company reneged on its plans, saying it had “secured assurances necessary to support [their] diverse creator community.” 

But for creators like Gunn, the damage was done. 

“Sex workers built OnlyFans up from the ground, and once they saw that people can make money off of it, the less they needed the sex workers who originally built their platform,” she says. “When celebrities are posting basically their Instagram photos to OnlyFans and making $3 million per week, why wouldn't they kick us off?”

Like many in her community, Gunn has begun a voluntary migration from OnlyFans to PocketStars, a subscription platform founded by porn star Elle Brooks. Others have joined Fansly, JustForFans, LoyalFans, or any of the myriad knockoffs promising greener pastures.

After a decade of stripping, Jordan Maxx already knew that any plans had to have contingencies. She signed up for OnlyFans when travel restrictions made it so she couldn’t fly out to Las Vegas to strip for convention goers, but she did so with the knowledge that it could disappear at any time. She joined at the advice of fellow dancers, but she also started shooting studio porn, doing cam shows on CamSoda, and messaging on Sext Panther.

“I still am a little hesitant to continue using the OnlyFans platform because they may flip-flop again,” Maxx says. “Having been a stripper for 15 years and making friends with sex workers from all different avenues of sex work, you learn nothing is permanent in this industry. We constantly have to change and evolve for our survival.”

Song and Dance

When Bella Thorne joined OnlyFans in August 2020 and amassed a record $1 million in 24 hours, sex workers were outraged at the actress, who was reportedly researching a film role and misled subscribers into thinking her content was explicit. OnlyFans responded by implementing caps on tips and pay-per-view charges.

The mainstreaming of OnlyFans is a touchy topic for sex workers. While it was likely a contributing factor in OnlyFans’s attempt to go R-rated, following in Patreon’s shoes, sex workers have been generally accommodating to creators using the platform to sell non-nude content. (“To each their own,” Maxx says, “as long they're not trying to con people.”) Cardi B, Rico Nasty, and Tyga all have experimented with the platform, and now that OnlyFans is everyday headline news, fans have come to expect racier, more intimate access from the entertainers they follow.

For months, commenters pestered St. Paul Hmong singer Ka Lia Universe about starting an OnlyFans. Her Instagram was getting more and more sultry, and she couldn’t post a selfie without pleas for more skin. She was initially resistant, but after her sister attempted suicide, she had an awakening. There was no more holding back—she was ready to do most anything to make a living off her music.

“I was like, ‘Ka Lia, you don't know when your music’s gonna take off, and you're obviously struggling with money,’” she says. “That's when I realized that, you know, OnlyFans is just a tool. It's more of your perspective on what you want to do, because it's your business.”

Universe charges $29.99 per month for her OnlyFans, but she makes it clear: no nudes. What separates Universe from folks like Cardi B is that she can’t coast off her music. She has to tantalize, while entwining her music with the content. She posts videos of her dancing, but it’s to snippets of unreleased songs. If someone asks her to twerk in pantyhose, she’s doing it while she’s singing. 

But ultimately, Universe’s reason for joining OnlyFans is the same as anyone’s. Though her angle might be different than McGovern’s or Gunn’s, she’s just trying to supplement her lifestyle while enjoying her sexuality. When OnlyFans tampers with its terms, this is what it’s threatening. 

“It changed my life drastically, to the point where being a single mother has been so much easier,” Universe says. “And I like to feel beautiful, so why not get paid for it?”

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