Image Credit: Molly Matalon for The New York Times

One of the first things my interviewee Molly insists upon is that ‘OnlyFans is for absolutely everyone’. The online site that allows content creators to monetise their influence in the form of paid subscriptions from its 8 million registered users has an entirely different economic model to, say, Pornhub, which streams content for free. But how far do the 70,000 content creators on the site escape from the other issues associated with mainstream porn?

In 2020 1 million people signed a petition to get rid of Pornhub (the worlds most popular porn site by far – with 42bn visits to Pornhub and 6m videos uploaded in one year  – that’s 115milion visits per day – the equivalent of the populations of Canada, Australia, Poland and the Netherlands). The petition sought to put an end to the site on the basis that it enabled and profited from the sex trafficking and rape of women and children. The abusers benefit from the unregulated format of online pornography – not a single independent or government-linked body monitors the content produced by commercialised private porn companies. The abuse ranges from secret, thus non consensual recordings of consensual sex, iCloud hacks and revenge porn.

Pornhub sneakily incites freedom of expression and non kink shaming rhetoric to suggest that the popular ‘young teen’ and ‘drunk stolen snapchat’ categories are legitimate fantasies enacted by consenting adults. It jeers at the ‘feminist sex-hating extremists’ that lobby to shut it down, ignoring the fact that many of the anti-Pornhub campaigners are specifically that- anti-Pornhub, not anti-porn, and that they celebrate ethical porn companies that satisfy kink safely.

Pornhub’s eventual exodus of unverified uploads resulted in roughly two-thirds of the videos on its site (over 10 million of them) being removed. But was this an empty victory? Many of the videos had already been downloaded onto personal computers and have since cropped up on similar ‘underground’ sites. Nor do legal changes solve the problem entirely. So-called revenge pornography has been a criminal offence in England and Wales since 2015, punishable by up to two years’ imprisonment, and yet only a handful of reports actually end up in a conviction.

Many of the anti-Pornhub campaigners are specifically that- anti-Pornhub, not anti-porn

It is in this fascinating context of the ‘post-porn’ era that OnlyFans emerged, harnessed the high levels of engagement already enjoyed by creators on Instagram and Twitter, and found a way to directly profit from it. The founder seemed to know something about the psyche of the average porn consumer that the mainstream porn industry had neglected for decades – the desire for at least some trace of authenticity: “You can get porn for free…guys don’t want to pay for that. They want the opportunity to get to know somebody they’ve seen in a magazine or on social media. I’m like their online girlfriend”, explained Danni Harwood (the ‘Queen of OnlyFans’) to the New Yorker. The enormous popularity of this site in which the largely female, content creators are in complete control over their relationship to their largely male, audience is refreshing on one level, and comforting on another; I feel instinctively reassured by the fact that the porn industry is thriving without sacrificing female victims – and more importantly – that the crux of male desire isn’t best demonstrated by videos like ‘drunk teen abused’.

In theory, OnlyFans is the ideal platform: anyone with a smartphone can tailor their own content at their own pace. Indeed, some achieve enormous success without being explicit at all, like Matthew Camp who left weeks in between posts, and didn’t upload a full penetrative sex clip for the first nine months, all the while earning more than $10,000 a month: “Tumblr was filled with the most extreme sexual experiences you could see,” he said. “And I think a lot of people were turned off by that. They want more intimate experiences. They want to fantasise about someone that they want to have sex with and not feel disgusted by it”

The capacity for diversity that comes with the decentralisation of the porn industry means that in theory, there is no longer a need to fulfil a heteronormative stereotype to succeed. Initially, this kind of porn was interpreted through a political lens  –  and feminist and queer companies were shoehorned into mere subsections of the industry. But more recently, it seems that they have reentered the mainstream right alongside traditional performers (think Stormy Daniels): ‘There is a growing sense that there is no bright line between feminist material and mainstream material’, claims Constance Penley, a film scholar at the University of California. Moreover, there is an increased ability to view sex work as work within its larger class framework. These much smaller scale productions that allow women to seize more control over their own material requires them to work more for less, just as niche queer and feminist productions tend to serve smaller audiences and thus pay less, too.

‘There is a growing sense that there is no bright line between feminist material and mainstream material’

So, how does Molly’s experience measure up to these somewhat abstract discussions? When I asked her if she felt empowered by her presence on OnlyFans, her answer was a resounding and convincing ‘yes’. She acknowledges that the popular conception of OnlyFans as an adult entertainment site might mean that ‘a lot of people might think that you need to be super confident with yourself and your body image before you go into it’ but she insists that anyone can profit from OnlyFans, almost regardless of their looks: ‘you don’t have to look a certain way to make money on it’. This, she argues puts it ‘in a different sphere to mainstream pornography’. She explains with great passion how for her, it been ‘such a good way of improving self confidence’ precisely because it allows for much more diversity of representation than mainstream pornography and its well worn niches, which she lists off with the casualness of a shopping list: ’small waist, big boobs, big bum, tanned, hairless’. The brilliance of OnlyFans, she insists, is that there’s ‘genuinely something for everyone and someone will find you attractive’. She admits that a fixation upon physical quirks may head into the realm of fetishisation but she prefers to think of it as building up a personal relationship with her subscribers, who appreciate intimate details about her rather than objectifying isolated physical attributes – Molly calls this ‘the fetishisation of you’. Ultimately she ‘definitely feels really empowered by it’, and is adamant that this self empowerment is still authentic despite her identity on the site being surface level fake (using a fake name etc).

When I ask her whether her overall experience has been positive, I’m met with anther resounding ‘yes, definitely’. But she wonders out loud how far this is a result of her overall positive, liberal outlook – implying that someone with a less thick skin could have a more negative experience. Or perhaps, someone who had done less research than her and had less realistic expectations ‘obviously some creepy stuff comes with the territory but (I) haven’t received anything objectively nasty or anything that made me uncomfortable’ – she actually finds them quite funny: ‘a guy asked me for a video of myself covered head to toe in spit and I thought: ew, no. How would I produce that much spit, that’s inhumane’. She largely credits this to a number of safety features built into the OnlyFans software: though she gets sent  ‘random dick pics all the time, literally all the time’, OnlyFans automatically pixelates every image sent to its creators to the extent that you can only see colours, no outlines or shapes, and this it is always the creators choice to view the actual image. Nor can users search for specific individuals by name (though she uses an entirely fake persona anyway, and doesn’t include her face in photos, and has no distinctive moles or tattoos – she says the only possibility of someone recognising her is her boyfriend).

Moreover, users can only ever reach a creator’s page through a link generated uniquely for them which is made available solely through the creators own promotion. Molly has made 794$ net profit in the last 10 days (OnlyFans takes 20%, which may sound like a lot but she insists that across her research it was one of the fairest rates in comparison to other adult entertainment sites). Molly doesn’t want to suggest that it is easy to make this much money. She was self employed before coronavirus struck but hadn’t been working long enough to qualify for furlough, so she has made a concerted effort to be interactive with her subscribers and has ‘put a lot of time, work and effort’ into cultivating her account, primarily by finding promotional hashtags on Twitter and Reddit, and posting her link with a quick saucy line about what people can expect if they follow her page. She explains to me that there are promotional companies who offer to promote beginners accounts for a small fee but she preferred to do the groundwork herself. This, she says has been invaluable in terms of enhancing her marketing and management skills – the harsh competition means that ‘you have to be on it if you want to make money’. What I found most interesting is how Molly drew a connection between self promotion under hashtags that nominally conform to patriarchal labels (#brunette #blonde #skinny #curvy) and her own empowerment – ‘every time you promote yourself you are emphasising your best features’. And whilst there is a lazy point to be made about the dangers of developing an unhealthy dependency on the approval of strangers over the internet, to me it seems that Molly has succeeded in striking the right balance.

The brilliance of OnlyFans, she insists, is that there’s ‘genuinely something for everyone and someone will find you attractive’.

When I ask her what she would say to people that claim OnlyFans is simply another manifestation of mainstream pornography, or call it demeaning, she says ‘100%, genuinely no’. Molly reminds me that that people use nly fans for reasons entirely unrelated to sex work, from musicians to fitness coaches, in a way much more comparable to instagram influencers. She emphasises her autonomy in the process: ‘your OnlyFans is completely what you make it’. The logic of choice feminism echoes throughout her answers:  ‘you’re making a personal choice to expose your body to whatever extent you want. Its completely consensual, how could it be demeaning?’.

Julie Bindel, writing for the Spectator, is far more critical: ’(people) think that because OF has reduced physical sexual exploitation, it does not put women in danger. But based on the experiences of women who use OF, it’s clear that the service is far from safe’ – from men who become obsessed with the women to whom they pay for the ‘girlfriend experience’ to a more insidious continuation of the sexual objectification of women in general: ‘Whilst the money pours in to OF, and young, broke and often vulnerable women are drawn to this sanitised version of prostitution, men that subscribe have found yet another platform to treat women as little more than their own personalised sex toy. The Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in a number of brothel closures in countries that have legalised prostitution because of the high risk of infection. It is tempting to see OnlyFans as opposed to this kind of sexual exploitation, but it is far from safe for many of the women involved’.

OnlyFans has brought a new era of individualised sexuality, but the moral and political questions incumbent upon any form of online pornography will continue to provoke diverse opinions. The New York Times articulated this vague interspace inhabited by OnlyFans well: ‘He may pay her to help him achieve an orgasm, though she is not a prostitute. He may purchase erotic videos from her, though she is not a porn star’.