Love & Sex

OnlyFans has been a home for safe sex work. Will celebrities ruin it?

Iggy Azalea dangles a cherry over her tongue. She rolls across a bed in a motel room bathed in sex-dungeon lighting. A vintage camcorder captures her every move. “Surprise!” the Australian rapper declares, as she announces a collaboration with adults-only subscription site, OnlyFans. “I’m dropping a mixed media project called Hotter Than Hell!” Azalea, best known for hits including “Fancy” and “Change Your Life”, promises photographs, videos, merch and “hot as hell things”. She leans further into the optics of joining OnlyFans, a platform best known for its use by sex workers, by teasing “scandalous s***” in the works: “My art slut era has arrived.”

OnlyFans is a self-described “subscription social network” where users pay a direct fee to performers, influencers and “creators” to get access to videos and photos. Launched by British entrepreneur Tim Stokely in 2016 with the intention of promoting content made by all types of people – fitness instructors, artists or musicians – it quickly became synonymous with sex work. This was, after all, a rare digital platform in which adult entertainers could sell, share and produce explicit content on their own terms, and pocket the majority of the profits; OnlyFans itself takes just 20 per cent. By 2019, The New York Times had dubbed the platform the “paywall of porn” and, thanks to its loose content policy, the name OnlyFans rapidly became shorthand for homemade adult material.

Despite the site’s seemingly unbreakable bond with the sex work community, OnlyFans pledged in October 2021 to ban sexually explicit content – effectively halting the livelihoods of many creators. The move was swiftly reversed, following a barrage of criticism. At the time, Stokely gave an interview blaming the short-lived decision on banks refusing to work with the platform (claiming they worried about “reputational risk”). He assured users, though, that his site had struck a deal that would allow normal service to resume.

But with the relationship between OnlyFans management and its sex worker users already shaky, the increasing presence of celebrities on the site is worrying those reliant on making an income from it. Azalea isn’t the first celebrity to launch a presence on OnlyFans. Stars, in fact, have a track record for joining the site as part of promotional campaigns for other projects – Cardi B, model Amber Rose and socialite Jordyn Woods have all had their own, mostly PG-rated OnlyFans pages. What tends to happen is that a celebrity lures fans into exchanging money for what could be risqué content. Fans hypothesise about what could be waiting behind the paywall. Twerking videos? Nudes? A sex tape? In reality, celebrities such as Azalea tease X-rated content that doesn’t actually exist, all in order to promote a bigger project closer to their heart – such as Azalea’s forthcoming album. At the time of writing, Twitter users are somewhat disgruntled after spending $25 on an Azalea OnlyFans that turned out to be a rather tame multimedia campaign.

Susbcription costs have long been a point of contention on the site. Most OnlyFans creators typically charge between $5 and $10 for base-level access. But when former Disney star Bella Thorne joined the site in 2020, she charged $20 (£16) per month for paywalled content that turned out to be non-nude selfies. Many subscribers complained they had been scammed. Meanwhile, sex workers criticised Thorne for “gentrifying” the platform.

At the time of Thorne’s arrival on the site, Azalea tweeted that she agreed with OnlyFans creators who claimed that Thorne’s presence on the site would lead smaller creators – who don’t already have fanbases of thousands of people – to lose out. “I think OnlyFans can be really empowering for people, But I WILL NEVER, EVVVER join,” Azalea wrote in a since-deleted tweet. “I don’t want to make that type of content & it only f***s up the bag for ppl on there who really bout that life.” [sic]

She was, for the most part, correct. When Thorne joined OnlyFans, Insider reported that she made $1m in one day. Shortly after, OnlyFans set a $50 limit on creator tips (down from $200) and extended the pending payout period from seven days to three weeks – meaning creators would potentially have to wait significantly longer to receive their money. While the company has said that the changes were unrelated to Thorne’s presence on the site – or the controversy it generated – sex workers and explicit content creators felt otherwise.

The day after joining the site, Thorne issued an apology, writing that she “wanted to bring attention to the site” and to “remove the stigma behind sex, sex work, and the negativity that surrounds the word SEX itself by bringing a mainstream face to it.” Thorne said that, in joining OnlyFans, she only ever intended to “help bring more faces to the site to create more revenue for content creators on the site”.

The Independent contacted Azalea’s representatives for comment, but the star herself did seem to allude to her earlier thoughts on the platform, and Thorne’s involvement, in a separate statement. “Admittedly, I never knew OnlyFans was a place where I could be creative,” she said. “So I didn’t expect to be collaborating with them on my biggest project to date!” She has also denied reports that she earned $307,000 (£248,000) from subscribers in her first day on the site, claiming the figures were “pulled outta thin air”.

Azalea’s fans can access illustrations, poetry, photography, video and unreleased music for $25 a month (£20.50), as part of her year-long “Hotter Than Hell” OnlyFans rollout. But while her fans may see the move as a new era of her artistry, sex workers see it differently.

Thirty-year-old Alice is an adult model who makes a portion of her income from OnlyFans. She laughs out loud when I say Azalea charges subscribers $25 per month, as she charges only $5. “For Iggy, it’s a publicity stunt,” she tells me. “She doesn’t really need to use OnlyFans, while some people make their living from it.” Alice, who has been sharing content on OnlyFans for two years, worries that celebrities are giving the platform the wrong reputation – one that pushes the idea that vaguely deceptive advertising, such as sexualised teasers for non-sexual content, is built into the site’s content creation. This, she says, will severely dent the earnings of smaller creators, whose livelihoods are wrapped up in the site far more than the likes of Azalea.

Creators not delivering X-rated content on the site are quickly accused of being misleading. “When Bella Thorne joined, people paid for what they thought was going to be nude photographs and when it wasn’t, they asked for their money back,” Alice explains. “People called her a scammer [at the time]. If celebrities keep doing this, people are going to think, wow, these [other] girls are just scamming people [too].”

What’s worrying Alice and creators like her is that there are few platforms where sex workers can have full control over their own content and be fairly paid for it. If celebrities keep flocking to OnlyFans, it’s unclear what effect that will have on those who’ve already made it home. Particularly when, as proven by recent history, the site could easily change course and block them and the industry they represent in the blink of an eye.

“Many people make their incomes on here,” Alice sighs. “I’m not sure where else they’d go.”

Bella Thorne’s presence on the site sparked controversy

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