It is hard to overstate the degree to which OnlyFans reversed the general downward trajectory of being an adult entertainment performer.
Before the subscription service arrived in 2016, so-called tube sites — video platforms that aggregated stolen pornographic content, disseminated it for free, and sucked up revenue from banner and video ads — drove many of the biggest studios out of business.
The ones that remained went from paying top performers thousands of dollars per scene to, generally, a few hundred. For many, on-camera work became a promotional device for escorting, according to Brian Gross, an industry publicist whose clients have included the AVN Adult Entertainment Expo (think: CES for pornography) and Sasha Grey, an actress who bucked the trend with a starring role in a somewhat more mainstream movie directed by Steven Soderbergh.
OnlyFans’ clean, streamlined interface enabled individuals over the age of 18 to sell and buy monthly subscriptions to a feed of images and video too racy for Instagram. There, the power was in the hands of the people making their own work: A creator with a few thousand monthly subscribers could make upward of $25,000 a month posting content, all while retaining full ownership of those photos and films.
That was why an announcement from OnlyFans last Thursday that it will ban sexual activity completely starting in October led to some panic in the pornographic industry, said Mr. Gross. He added that among his clients, there was also palpable sadness that at a moment when there was increased respect and empathy for sex workers, a business they’d helped build was gearing up to cast them out in the cold.
“You have really successful hard working content creators who put in a lot of time effort and work and have a consumer at the other end who wants to purchase it,” Mr. Gross said. “You see article after article about how successful it is, and for some reason the outside world doesn’t want it recognized.”
That opinion seemed to gain traction on Friday when OnlyFans updated its terms of service to say that although nudity would still be allowed, even simulated masturbation was being banned.
But there remained a lot of confusion about whether that would be enforced.
Matthew Camp, a performer who posts gay pornographic content multiple times a week, said in an interview that he thought OnlyFans might just be making the announcement to pay lip service to credit card companies that have grown increasingly uncomfortable with processing pornography-related transactions. Performers may also be able to skirt the rules by sending racier material out via direct message in exchange for tips, which is already one of the site’s most profitable features.
Mr. Gross also questioned whether the genie could even be put back in the bottle since there are already a number of other sites that allow content creators to upload pornographic material.
Although OnlyFans has said it now has more than two million content creators, some of whom do not take their clothes off for a living, the speed at which it became the new center of the porn universe led others to believe that the attempt to bring it fully mainstream will simply facilitate its own demise.
‘Less Is More?’
Dannii Harwood became OnlyFans’ first content creator in 2016. She has since parlayed her on-camera work into running a management company with more than 200 OnlyFans creators as clients.
According to Ms. Harwood, Tim Stokely — the site’s founder — and his partners “didn’t have much choice” but to change the rules. Those credit card companies simply are too powerful, and although their growing hesitancy to process payments for pornography arguably plays into the hands of religious conservatives, there are other legitimate concerns: Consumers of porn are among the most likely to dispute transactions. Credit card companies also do not want to unwittingly process payments for material around which issues of consent later arise.
A representative for Mr. Stokely did not respond to a request for comment, but in an interview on Tuesday with The Financial Times, Mr. Stokely blamed the change entirely on the banks, saying that if the situation with them changed, the new prohibitions around sexual content would be lifted.
But, Ms. Harwood noted, many of OnlyFans’ most successful performers are not the ones who post sexually explicit content but the ones who master the art of “teasing and titillation.”
She herself never posted sex on her feed.
Instead, she began making upward of $50,000 a month from subscriptions and special requests, which cost extra. Men paid her to take on dares, like answering the door naked and driving around in her underwear.
Through direct messaging, she chatted with fans daily, learning their habits, their sexual predilections and their insecurities, becoming what she likes to call an “online girlfriend.”
“Once subscribers have seen everything they move on to the next creator. It’s been proven time and again with my girls,” she said Friday. “I am constantly telling them: ‘Less is more.’”
But Ms. Harwood did not deny that a number of regular pornographic actors would likely migrate to other sites.
The biggest of those sites is Justfor.fans, which, according to its founder, Dominic Ford, now has more than 14,000 verified creators, 2,000 of whom completed the sign-up process within hours of OnlyFans changing its terms of service.
In an interview, Mr. Ford, a 46-year-old former gay porn producer and actor, said the site was ready to bring in about $20 million in revenue this year. He would love to take the business OnlyFans now plans to reject.
But he faces his own hurdles. He is currently working through plans to require documentation for all performers, proving that they are of age and agreed not only to be filmed but to have it distributed.
“It’s a good thing,” he said, of making things more professional. “We had releases on every film I ever did.”
Still, he will have to hire people to process a lot of paperwork. It will be expensive.
Even running things like outdoor content creates headaches, because public sex is outlawed in many places and because bystanders may unwittingly wind up in the shots.
A number of industry players, including Mr. Gross, believe that cryptocurrency will provide a major workaround for skittish credit card companies. But the bulk of revenue for most online sites comes from automated, recurring subscriptions. And there is no way to execute those through most crypto payment systems. “There’s no pull mechanism in place,” Mr. Ford said.
For all these reasons, Ms. Harwood believes the move away from OnlyFans will be temporary, that it is already mainstreaming and will succeed at it.
In 2019, Beyoncé rapped about starting an OnlyFans page. “Saturday Night Live” spoofed it with a skit in which Kenan Thompson plays a mail man who gets laid off and starts his own feed. OnlyFans has already signed up people such as the boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr. and the rapper Cardi B.
But Beyoncé has yet to make good on her lyrics’ suggestion. Cardi B’s feed has not been updated since October 2020. People who have started OnlyFans accounts to supplement their work in more conventional fields still fight to remain employed in those jobs when they are outed for running a paid subscription business for adult content. And Mr. Gross doubts that the site can grow by further marginalizing the very people who gave it success.
“Remember what happened to Tumblr?” he said, referring to its decision in 2018 to ban pornography. “It’s completely irrelevant.”
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