What is OnlyFans?
It’s a song. It’s a meme. It’s an endless font of cultural critique. It’s a subscription porn site that is mechanically best likened to an online strip club. It’s an internet juggernaut at the vanguard of sex, work, and sex work. It’s worth understanding better than you do right now.
Ostensibly, OnlyFans is a platform for creative types to post content online and charge fans directly for access in the form of subscription fees, tips, and pay per view extras. In its marketing, OnlyFans never explicitly mentions NSFW content; its website is plastered with information from/for musicians and artists. But we know better.
It’s a porn site with novel mechanics. The focus on direct monetization from subscriptions and upsells is a major departure from the “tube sites” that came to dominate internet porn over the last decade. OnlyFans has collapsed the barrier between amateur and professional. By moving from ad-based revenue sharing models (which more realistically turn into production for exposure with monetization elsewhere) to subcription, OnlyFans has turned porn “stars” into influencers. Users aren’t buying or subscribing to content; they’re subscribing to a person who in turn is responsible for sourcing their own demand and managing their own production.
In some respects, this is kind of the platonic ideal for sex work. Sex workers can earn money safely from their homes away from violence and the police. While OnlyFans takes a 20% cut of gross earnings, it’s a far cry from a pimp.
But whatever you think of online sex work - and we can certainly talk about the negatives - the business is working. Piecing together some information put out in May and April of this year, OnlyFans is almost certainly a billion dollar company. At least. It’s bigger than Playboy. It’s bigger than Patreon.
But if big numbers aren’t enough to get you to care, don’t fret.
If Porn is ur-internet, influencers are a close second. At the intersection of those two, OnlyFans is the most internet of the most internet. It best embodies the liberating commercial spirit (serving the full spectrum of human desire without prejudice) but also its worst tendencies (the bulk of the earnings go to the small pool at the top).
Beyond the commercial disruption of traditional porn and sex work - a disruption COVID has only since accelerated - OnlyFans represents a shift or convergence between technology and sexuality. It’s sex work native to the contemporary internet.
In the 1950s, sociologists coined the term “parasocial” relationships to describe the feeling of intimacy between certain types of broadcasters and their audiences. The man on the TV is talking to thousands or even millions of people, but I feel like he’s talking to me. I feel close to him because of that. It’s a phenomenon that has become so ubiquitous as to be unnoticeable as our media and media consumption has become both more intimate (the media is richer and we consume it alone) and incessant (the average American consumes 12 hours of media a day).
We’re all familiar with it even if we don’t have a name for it. Think of the podcaster you listen to for banter or the YouTuber who opens with “hey guys, thanks for listening”.
From the New York Times:
Parasocial relationships are, by definition, one-sided, but like normal friendships, they can deepen over time, enriched by the frequent and dependable appearance of the charming persona on the television set. Podcasts, with their own unique set of formal quirks, are perhaps even better poised to foment this kind of bond. An ideal complement to multitasking, the podcast is ingrained in daily household chores, the morning commute, the bedtime routine. A two-way conversation can be taxing. Podcasts allow us to get to know someone else without all the stress of making ourselves known.
OnlyFans is parasocial by design. Unlike the tube sites which got their start hosting pirated versions of studio produced porn for 1:many broadcasting, OnlyFans productizes and prioritizes intimacy and feedback. There are whole online classes for OnlyFans creators to learn about managing that because that ultimately is the business. The convergence of sex work and confessional-style social media influencers shouldn’t surprise us. After all, modern influencer parasocial relationships are a form of emotional labor akin to sex work any way.
OnlyFans is at the forefront of a new online sexual revolution. It stands head and shoulder above the rest of the “creator economy.” It’s a testament to how puritanical ideas about sex and sexuality bias and limit our thinking about what matters. It’s a business to watch and understand because it’s at the bleeding edge of the consumer internet and human sexuality.