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The NSFW future of OnlyFans, where celebs, influencers, and sex workers post side by side

Explosive growth has brought an influx of celebs and influencers. But will OnlyFans continue to cater to the adult content creators who put the platform on the map?

The NSFW future of OnlyFans, where celebs, influencers, and sex workers post side by side
[Source photos: hannatverdokhlib/iStock; inarik/iStock; patronestaff/iStock; Steve Gale/Unsplash; Marc Kleen/Unsplash; Thomas William/Unsplash; Sincerely Media/Unsplash]
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Vex Ashley began working as a cam girl to pay her way through art school. Whatever reservations she had about being a “little weird goth kid” doing porn melted away as she met other performers online who also had a more alternative approach to mainstream adult content.

“I thought that to do porn, you had to fit a very rigid stereotype,” Ashley says. “I never was interested in fitting into that mold.”

Ashley wanted to infuse porn with a higher level of aesthetics and concepts, using it as a medium to explore ideas rather than purely for viewing pleasure. And if ever there was a tenet of the creator economy, it’s that niche interests can always find an audience.

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Ashley uploaded experimental videos to Tumblr and quickly gained a following that she took to Patreon in 2014 to better monetize her art and support her production company, Four Chambers. At the height of her success on Patreon, Ashley had more than 3,000 subscribers and was pulling in around $25,000 per month. But after the platform changed its policies in 2018, she effectively lost it all.

Vex Ashley [Photo: courtesy of Four Chambers]
Like many other adult content creators whose Patreon revenue was decimated, Ashley migrated to OnlyFans in 2018. And like many of her peers, she’s now wary of meeting the same fate on the platform.

OnlyFans, which allows creators to charge users a monthly or pay-per-view fee to access content, launched in 2016 with the intention of being for all types of creators but has become a nexus for adult entertainment. Amateur and professionals alike have flocked to OnlyFans as a safe haven to monetize NSFW (not safe for work) content, becoming the key drivers of the platform’s early growth. The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated that momentum as more creators looked to OnlyFans as a source of income during record rates of unemployment. Between March and April of last year, OnlyFans experienced a 75% spike in new user and creator registrations. To date, OnlyFans has more than 120 million users and 1 million creators who have earned more than $3 billion collectively (the company takes a 20% cut).

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And where there’s a buzzy platform, celebrities and influencers are sure to follow.

[Photo: courtesy of OnlyFans]
OnlyFans saw a 15% increase in traffic when Beyoncé name-dropped it in the remix to Megan Thee Stallion’s song “Savage.” Adding to the hype, artists, actors, and reality-TV stars have hopped on the platform, from Cardi B to Rebecca Minkoff to Tyler Posey. Even media companies, including Vice Media’s food brand Munchies and Barstool Sports, are riding the wave.

Prior to OnlyFans, it was nowhere near common for stars at Cardi B’s level to join a paid subscription service. Most celebrities and influencers lean on branded content pumped through their free social media accounts. While that’s still a larger revenue stream for most, OnlyFans creators have made it a forerunner in the growing market of platforms, including Cameo and Twitter’s coming feature Super Follows, that grant the most zealous fans more access to their idols—for a fee. On top of that, OnlyFans is becoming an ideal destination to house content that may not be pornographic in nature, but still flies in the face of increasing censorship on traditional social media platforms.

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“I think more creators in different industries started to see the potential,” says Tim Stokely, the 37-year-old founder and CEO of OnlyFans. “Whether it’s music or now sports and comedy, we’re starting to see more and more creators join the platform.”

In a bid to better spotlight the platform’s breadth of content across cooking, fitness, music, and so forth, OnlyFans has been slowly rolling out its free app OFTV and streaming site OF.TV that features a mix of original programming and curated videos from the platform—all SFW, mind you. OFTV may prove to be a valuable hybrid, a free streaming site that could later drive subscriptions to creators, making OnlyFans more of an asset to the creator economy.

However, as OnlyFans’ star continues to rise in the mainstream, will the adult performers who put the platform on the map be allowed to stay along for the ride?

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Tim Stokely [Photo: courtesy of OnlyFans]
It’s a familiar story by now: Adult content creators find refuge on a platform—and in some cases become essential to its traffic and growth—just to be squeezed out. It’s only been just over two years since Tumblr and Patreon purged their platforms of porn. Part of the reason was the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, collectively known as FOSTA-SESTA, the controversial pair of laws that purportedly set out to prevent illegal sex trafficking but instead put sex workers and adult content creators in the crosshairs.

“OnlyFans continues to be a platform that welcomes content creators of all genres, including adult,” Stokely says. “And we will continue to support creators in producing whatever content they choose.”

But both Tumblr Founder David Karp and Patreon CEO Jack Conte had similar sentiments before guidelines on their platforms heavily restricted adult content.

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“It’s not that these sites want to get rid of us, they just want to make money,” Ashley says. “And it’s potentially damaging to their ability to make money if they’re being sued for bogus, weird trafficking law violations.”

Indeed, it would be less of a headache from a business perspective for OnlyFans to focus on growing its SFW categories. But Stokely remains bullish on OnlyFans continuing to be for all creators, including those who are simultaneously his biggest asset and liability.

An unfriendly internet

Before OnlyFans, Stokely had a string of web businesses in the porn space. In 2011, he founded the fetish website GlamWorship. Two years later, he started Customs4U, a site where users paid adult performers to create customized content.

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“I gained a better understanding of how that creator–fan relationship worked,” Stokely says. He then grafted that experience onto what he was seeing with influencers on social media.

“You could see the explosion of influencer marketing and how much brands were making off of bigger creators from ad campaigns and product endorsement,” he says. “That sparked the idea of, ‘What if we can build a platform that works in a similar way to existing social media but with the key difference of a payment button?'”

He launched OnlyFans in 2016. Because it offered subscription options and managed content hosting and payment processing, OnlyFans quickly became a go-to platform for independent adult content creators.

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Adult performers and studios have long had trouble making money online, competing against pirated videos on free porn (aka “tube”) sites and dealing with the risk of major payment services de-platforming them.

Even the largest sites face de-platforming problems. For Patreon, appeasing those payment processors contributed to a policy change that defined pornography in a more restrictive way—which decimated Ashley’s business. The site now allows nudity, but not “real people engaging in sexual acts such as masturbation or sexual intercourse on camera,” according to its community guidelines.

“We were confronted with some pretty serious decisions on the payment processing side that made us have to move in a direction of limiting that type of content,” says Laurent Crenshaw, Patreon’s head of policy. “It could have potentially been a broader set of creators on our platform that would have been impacted if we hadn’t taken the steps that we did then.”

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[Photo: courtesy of OnlyFans]
Beyond payment processing challenges, sex workers and adult content creators also have to contend with the ripple effects of FOSTA-SESTA.

The 2018 law was aimed at curbing illegal sex trafficking, but also made websites and platforms criminally and civilly liable for unlawful user-generated content. Knowing it would be virtually impossible to decipher legal and illegal sex work at scale, sites including Craigslist and Reddit cracked down on any aspect of their platforms that could be seen as facilitating such work.

The pervasive issue for major sites hosting adult content has been how to effectively police illicit uploads. Tumblr’s app was suspended from the App Store in 2018 when child porn was discovered on the platform. As OnlyFans continues to grow, it stands to reason that it will become increasingly difficult to track everything properly. “We have a very large and fast-growing trust and safety [team] that [uses] AI software to monitor the content,” Stokely says. “That’s something we take seriously.”

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But Tumblr’s issues stemmed from a lapse in its own AI that scanned every image uploaded to its platform against a database of child sexual abuse material. “Content safeguards are a challenging aspect of operating scaled platforms,” the company said in a statement at the time.

A safe haven

For adult performers, these dynamics create a tenuous situation. “You’re essentially just waiting for the sword of Damocles to fall on your head,” Ashley says. 

But so far, OnlyFans has been a digital refuge for those like Sinnamon Love, a veteran of the sex industry—especially during the pandemic.

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Love, who is the founder of the BIPOC Adult Industry Collective, which provides education and support for adult performers of color, posted mainly artful nudes and other soft-core content when she joined the platform in 2018. At the time, Love preferred in-person sex work to OnlyFans because the money was better. But when the pandemic hit, she immediately stopped seeing clients for her own safety and that of her daughter and grandson, who has two genetic diseases.

“I was forced to really dedicate myself to shooting content again,” says Love, who ran her own web cam company in the late ’90s.

She certainly wasn’t alone. OnlyFans doesn’t break down its content by categories, so it’s hard to specify an exact figure, but as the pandemic worsened last spring, there were multiple stories of people dipping into adult content creation on OnlyFans.

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“OnlyFans and sites like it allow performers to take control of their financial destiny and their careers with an extremely low barrier to entry,” Love says. Between OnlyFans, phone sex, and sexting services, Love has managed to secure a livable income.

Sinnamon Love [Photo: courtesy of Sinnamon Love]
But Love doesn’t have much faith that OnlyFans will be able to continue supporting adult content. There are competitors like JustForFans and IsMyGirl that focus exclusively on adult content. Love says she’s exploring her options, but no other subscription service has the amount of traffic OnlyFans can currently offer.

“I’ve been talking about setting up a safe-for-work OnlyFans [focused on] cooking,” says Love, who’s also an amateur chef. “I have to be able to pivot in a way that will allow me to stay on [OnlyFans] when they get ready to deplatform people.”

That was a reality last spring for some OnlyFans creators who claimed they were kicked off of the platform for little to no reason. The company stated at the time that accounts in question were suspended or deleted “due to suspicious/fraudulent activity,” such as instances of chargebacks. Creators who seemed to be facilitating in-person sex work through the site—a violation of the site’s guidelines and FOSTA-SESTA—were also flagged. Stokely describes the content moderation as “comprehensive” and “robust” in order to “ensure that we know who our creators are, and that the content uploaded is within our acceptable use policy.”

He says the site isn’t cracking down on adult content that stays within the guidelines. “Because all of our users on OnlyFans have to be over the age of 18 and because the content is securely behind a subscription button, that allows OnlyFans to have liberal content policies,” he says. “So we continue to be a platform that welcomes creators of all genres, including adult.”

That said, many adult content creators are proceeding with caution.

“I feel like it’s an any-day-now situation where I could wake up one day and my money could be frozen—and it’s not an unrealistic fear,” Love says. “These things happen. It’s really fucked up, because we’re talking about legal work. There are a lot of people depending on this. And the celebrities who are coming on to the platform, they don’t need sites like OnlyFans the way marginalized sex workers do.”

The influencer appeal

In addition to being at the whims of payment processors and federal laws, many adult creators on OnlyFans are also concerned with the influx of celebrities and influencers migrating to the platform.

Because of OnlyFans’ reputation, when a celebrity or influencer joins the platform, there’s typically a rush of titillation and media coverage over what they may or may not show. Some celebrities, like rapper Tyga, do, in fact, bare all. But more times than not, it’s content that could easily live on a traditional social-media platform or even Patreon, where under current guidelines some nudity is allowed.

When Bella Thorne joined OnlyFans last year, she reportedly earned $1 million in a day with her subscription rate at $20 per month. However, she drew fierce backlash for advertising an alleged nude that she put behind a pay-per-view paywall of $200. When some users purchased the post only to find out it wasn’t actually a nude shot, they requested refunds en masse. Shortly after, OnlyFans set a limit on the price of pay-per-view posts, which Stokely claimed was a plan already in the works and had nothing to do with Thorne. Thorne later said that she joined OnlyFans as research for a film role and that she would divvy her earnings from the site between funding her production company and charitable donations. The whole affair eroded trust among users and creators as well, who would suffer the most.

But as success stories of OnlyFans creators earning as much as six- and seven-figure incomes made headlines, the platform’s popularity surged. The boom wasn’t just in adult entertainment content. Along with celebrities posting racy photos, influencers such as Ryan and Jen Hamilton, who were looking to bypass increasingly stringent social media rules around certain content, also began turning to OnlyFans.

The Hamiltons, known online as Hammy TV, have amassed more than 19 million followers across Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, and YouTube with their couple-themed prank and comedic videos. A regular post from them typically stops short at PG-13 innuendo and gags (a condom in a sandwich, a striptease gone wrong). On their OnlyFans, the Hamiltons don’t engage in sexual content, but their pranks do get more R-rated.

Ryan and Jen Hamilton, aka Hammy TV [Photo: courtesy of Hammy TV]
“Our videos are more edgy. I feel like on Facebook and Instagram, the censorship is just getting worse and worse,” Ryan says. “So OnlyFans gives you a way to monetize, but also more expressive freedom, which is a huge thing when creating.”

OnlyFans is contributing to what Josh Constine, principal investor and head of content at VC firm SignalFire, sees as the third phase of the creator economy. Phase one marked creators building large enough followings to receive traditional ad revenue on a platform, e.g. YouTube. Phase two saw the rise of influencer marketing, where brands paid creators to create content with their products. Now, in phase three, many creators are putting some of their content behind paywalls, in effect splitting their base into casual fans who stick with what’s free and the super fans who are willing to pay for more.

“[In phase two] creators had to be both advertiser-safe and platform-safe, which meant that they generally had to cater to the lowest-common-denominator audience—they had to get the biggest scale possible,” Constine says. “Now they’re moving some of their fan base from platforms like Instagram or TikTok to platforms like OnlyFans and Patreon. They can [now] make content that’s for a specific niche audience.”

So in the case of the Hamiltons, who aren’t posting X-rated material, why not join other subscription-based platforms for their mildly racy stunts?

“Nothing has grown to this size, this fast,” Ryan answers. “I don’t know anyone who uses Patreon. I got a team behind me who runs analytics on everything, and I had them [research] the biggest [platforms] to . . . post this type of content and OnlyFans, by far, was towering over everybody.”

Media brands are hopping on board for the same reason. Last year, Vice became the first media company to join OnlyFans with its food-centric brand Munchies. Known for their brash approach to food TV, with hosts such as rapper/chef Action Bronson and cannabis-infused recipes, Munchies has gained a notable following with more than 4.2 million subscribers on YouTube and 2.5 million followers across Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. So when OnlyFans put out a call for more food-related creators and content to join the platform, Clifford Endo Gulibert, executive producer of digital video and innovation at Vice Media Group, thought it could be a valuable asset in their content and marketing strategy.

“This is an emerging platform that we need to take very seriously, because the numbers they are putting up [are] astronomical,” Gulibert says.

Gulibert says they’re still “in the sandbox” experimenting with what their OnlyFans content could be, but he mentioned ideas such as stripping a recipe down to its core essentials for a more “visceral experience” or posting bonus content from videos that go up on their more traditional platforms.

A family-friendly OnlyFans?

Comedy and food content will have an even broader platform on the OnlyFans app and streaming platform OFTV.

OFTV, which is still in its soft launch phase, boasts original programming such as Unlocked (a show that “dives deep into the personal lives of talent to uncover what’s real”) and a mix of videos from the main site.

OnlyFans creators are encouraged to submit their videos to the OFTV team for consideration. Although there’s no paywall in the app, there are links to the creators’ main pages to drive traffic—and theoretically more subscriptions. That’s what Stokely is hoping will be OFTV’s differentiating factor from YouTube or TikTok. “OFTV interacts with OnlyFans in a really complementary way for the creator,” he says.

But with OFTV being in the App Store, pornographic content is expressly forbidden, thereby shutting out adult content creators.

OnlyFans has opened up new revenue streams and relationships for creators. Conceivably, there’s room for all types of creators to thrive, as Stokely intends. But it’s evident that for independent adult creators who have far fewer resources to monetize their content fairly and efficiently, OnlyFans plays a more vital role in their livelihood. OnlyFans still has to prove that it will be different from platforms like Patreon, which eventually caved to the challenges of supporting porn online.

When pressed on what he would say to adult creators worried about being kicked off OnlyFans, Stokely reiterated that the platform was, and always will be, for every creator. “We pride ourselves, and have from day one, on having some of the most liberal content [policies] as to not censor or filter the voices and the content of our creators,” he says. “We really welcome the diversity on the platform. That’s not something that’s going to change.”

It’s a nice sentiment, but until substantial changes are made at the government level to create equity for adult creators and sex workers in the economy, the liabilities facing third-party platforms for facilitating payments of explicit content could, once again, prove too much to bear.

“Patreon didn’t want to kick me off,” Ashley tells me. “OnlyFans doesn’t want to kick porn people off—OnlyFans just doesn’t want to get sued. I never know whether or not this level of media attention [OnlyFans is getting] is a good thing—if it secures you in the cultural consciousness or if it means there are too many eyes on you and people are ready to try and take you down.”

“The problem is adult content is always under the microscope,” Ashley continues. “And [for OnlyFans] that unfortunately means the higher you rise, the further you have to fall.”

About the author

KC covers entertainment and pop culture for Fast Company. Previously, KC was part of the Emmy Award-winning team at "Good Morning America," where he was the social media producer.

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