What OnlyFans Can Teach Us about the Evolving Role of Pleasure in Work
If I were a betting person then I would guess that the most popular ice breaker question in any room of adults is, “So, what do you do?” This question has become a shorthand for “Who are you?” that people use to determine whether or not the other person is interesting enough to hold a conversation with. I’m not saying that this is right, I’m just saying that this is true. So much of our identity as an adult has become wrapped up in how we make a living. We are, in some sense, where we work and who we work for. At least this was true in the “B.C.” times, the “before Coronavirus” times. These days it is, or it should be, rare to find a physical room full of strangers of any age holding a conversation about anything, let alone work. After all, where we work, who we work for, and whether or not we’re working at all has changed so much this year.
It is an understatement to say that the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has changed the nature of work. A Pew Research Center survey released in September found that a quarter of U.S. adults said that either they or someone in their household was laid off or lost their job because of the Coronavirus outbreak. The survey also found that many workers who didn’t lose their jobs still had to reduce their hours or take a pay cut due to the economic fallout from the pandemic. COVID-19 has forced people to either consider who they are outside of their work or to find work that better reflects who they are. The social distancing measures brought on by the pandemic have inspired more workers of all backgrounds to supplement their income by becoming content creators who make a living by being themselves. The rising popularity of OnlyFans in 2020  is one of the most prominent examples of how the nature of work has evolved in tandem with social media. As a scholar who examines the influencer marketing industry in the United States, it has been amazing to witness the exponential growth of OnlyFans this year primarily because it is a platform where the line between “influencer” and “sex worker” is blurred. This doesn’t surprise me because as sociologist Angela Jones explains in her book Camming: Money, Power, and Pleasure in the Sex Work Industry (released in February 2020), sex workers are motivated to perform labor for a myriad of reasons, many of which are not just about money. I have learned that this goes for influencers too. In pairing these materials — OnlyFans and Camming — I hope to highlight the overlooked role of pleasure in work, especially during these times of increased precarity.
For the uninitiated, OnlyFans is a subscription-based content-sharing website where “Creators” (Users who upload content to be viewed by other Users) charge “Fans” (Users who follow Creators and view the Creator’s User-generated content) to see their photo and video content through paid subscriptions of generally $5 to $50 a month. Imagine, if you will, that Patreon and Instagram, had an offspring that was only accessible on a desktop then you would have a partial understanding of OnlyFans. I know that this reads like a description of a pretty “vanilla” content subscription service. That’s because OnlyFans is a pretty vanilla content subscription service. This is by design. I mean this quite literally. OnlyFans has a social media-oriented interface that mirrors the clean lines and minimalism of social media platforms like Instagram and YouTube. Marketing-wise, the OnlyFans company blog, and social media pages promote mainstream celebrities and social media influencers who have accounts on the website, focusing primarily on lifestyle influencers in the fashion, fitness, beauty, and cooking realms while posting promotional videos similar in aesthetic feel to those put out by more “family-friendly” social media platforms like YouTube and TikTok. Its differentiator, and perhaps its unpromoted value proposition, is its loose terms of service guidelines which makes it easy for people to turn it into a sex work platform. Other social media sites like Instagram and TikTok are open to teens 13-years of age or older and specifically restrict pornographic material on their platforms. The primary restriction that OnlyFans has is that you have to be at least 18-years of age or older to make an account. The site’s design along with its terms of service may arguably help it to both humanize and normalize sex work by creating an environment where “influencers,” “celebrities,” “sex workers,” and anyone else who exists in between can be seen in the same space as just “Creator.”
Sex work becomes destigmatized when the work is happening on a platform like OnlyFans that doesn’t market itself as a sex site. However, just because OnlyFans doesn’t promote itself as a platform for sex workers doesn’t mean that it isn’t benefitting from the selling of, or even the teasing of, sex. Take, for example, the case of Michael B. Jordan, People Magazine’s newly crowned “Sexiest Man Alive.” Jordan recently capitalized on OnlyFans’ association with sex when he announced on Jimmy Kimmel Live! that he plans to launch an OnlyFans account to raise money for a barber school. “Got an OnlyFans coming soon — eating fruit, all types of crazy stuff. It’s going to get wild,” he said to Jimmy Kimmel. Although People Magazine’s “Sexiest Man Alive’’ may never publicly promote a Pornhub account, it is socially acceptable for him to promote an OnlyFans account. Jordan used the site’s association with sex to his advantage even though it is likely that the content he will share on the platform will be PG-13 at best. His team understands that while sex sells, selling too much sex may tarnish Jordan’s generally “All-American Guy” image. He is the kind of Creator that OnlyFans relishes in promoting publicly. He’s sexy, sure, but in a “safe-for-work” (SFW) way.
In her book Camming, Angela Jones focuses on the erotic webcam industry also known as “camming.” Camming is a genre of indirect sex work that first emerged in 1996 in which cam models sell interactive computer-mediated sex online. This description of “camming” doesn’t veer too far from the sex work that is performed on OnlyFans, but unlike the platforms such as Chaturbate and Streamate that Jones examined in her study of the erotic webcam industry, OnlyFans, again, does not market itself as a sex site. Jones doesn’t mention OnlyFans in her book, but the similarities between the cam models she follows and the content creators that I follow in my own research are notable. OnlyFans represents the reincarnation of sex work in the gig economy age. Cam models and content creators are both independent contractors who get paid to be themselves, or at least play a version of themselves, online. Like all gig workers, their wages can be inconsistent and precarious due to the business structure of the platforms they work on. Gig work is not necessarily new. As Jones notes in Camming, strippers are also independent contractors who have to pay “house fees” to work. Creators on OnlyFans pay “house fees” too. Users can create accounts for free, but OnlyFans keeps 20 percent of their earnings as a fee when they start to make money on the platform. There are many reasons that people turn to gig work. In addition to the promise of better wages are the promises of more flexibility and greater autonomy. Jones explains that these are also among the reasons that motivate people to perform Internet-based sex work. She also adds the following to the list: safer working conditions, a decline in risk exposure, and a greater potential to experience various pleasures. Jones describes camming as a form of legitimate labor that “monetizes human desires for sex, intimacy, and pleasure.” It is the aspect of “pleasure” that serves as her intervention to the scholarship of sex work and the broader discourse on labor. She argues that the literature on sex work does not highlight the ways that an online environment may foster a space where the workers themselves have a greater potential to experience pleasure. “Scholars have focused too much on the regulation of sex and have missed the point that the underlying motivation for sexual regulation is a fundamental desire on the part of societies to control pleasure,” Jones writes. According to her analysis of the camming industry, “clients” are not only paying for their own pleasure, but they are also paying to watch the cam model experience pleasure. To be clear, “pleasure” in this context is not always sexual in nature. To clients, webcam models are simply real people broadcasting themselves on the Internet. Jones concludes that pleasure is not only an initial motivation for camming it is also often the reason people stay in the industry. While OnlyFans is not a traditional camming platform, it does share elements with the kinds of platforms Jones studied. In fact, I argue that pleasure also motivates and mediates the social interactions between “Creators” and “Fans” on OnlyFans even in the more general instances where the “Creator” is not a producer of NSFW material. By selling intimacy, not just sex (if they choose to sell sex at all), Creators deliver or perform what Jones refers to as an “embodied authenticity” for their supporters. In other words, they make their fans feel like they are having an authentic encounter even if the encounter is the product of economic exchange. In the kinds of computer-mediated interactions that take place on camming sites and on OnlyFans, all parties are made to feel safe and more willing to be themselves because of the physical and psychological barriers of their screens. Jones’ study of the camming industry shows how pleasure can be experienced as a fundamental part of labor. In more traditional workplaces within a capitalist economy, the pleasure of the worker is sacrificed to drive profits for the employer. However, in the online world of personality-driven work pleasure becomes a social experience that benefits all. And, because this is still capitalism we’re talking about, more pleasure leads to more profits for the independent contractor and the platforms they work on.
Given the flexible working conditions of online sex work, erotic labor may now appeal to people across social classes who previously were unwilling or unable to perform sex work that occurs offline because of reasons related to their identity or embodiment. Additionally, OnlyFans’ social media-inspired interface and marketing efforts are contributing to the normalization of sex work. While the potential for pleasure prevails the gig economy is no utopia. As revealed by Jones’ study of the camming industry the digital platforms sex workers perform on can reinforce existing systems of oppression by conditioning the precarious wages that they as independent contractors can earn. In one chapter of Camming, Jones uses the case of a platform called MyFreeCams to call out the intricate ways that race, class, and gender-based inequalities are perpetuated in the camming industry. Her statistical analysis of MyFreeCams found that Black women, Latina women, and women from outside of the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom were significantly less likely to be successful on the site. Jones concludes in this chapter that White supremacy is embedded within the camming field and that race should never be separated from analyses of sexuality. Additionally, the survey from the Pew Research Center that I previously mentioned revealed that Black and Hispanic Americans were the most likely to have faced deep financial hardship as a result of the coronavirus outbreak. This indicates that race should never be separated from general analyses of work as well. Since the erotic webcam industry is arguably a predecessor (and, a still competitive alternative) to the OnlyFans business model it makes sense to insert Jones’ timely book Camming into the current conversation about OnlyFans as a space for a newer form of precarious online work, “influencing.” If anything, this pairing shows that many of the obstacles workers experience offline such as discrimination may also be replicated in online work environments. Although online platforms like OnlyFans may help to create new opportunities for workers to become entrepreneurs and to craft for themselves a more appealing labor environment that foregrounds pleasure as a social experience it does not resolve all of the problems that they may have encountered in the physical world as it relates to finding and keeping a job.
 Since at-home orders have glued people to their screens since March, OnlyFans has experienced a 75% increase in new signups month-to-month. Thomas Stokely, the chief operating officer of OnlyFans, told BuzzFeed News in May that the site was seeing about 200,000 new users every 24 hours with 7,000 to 8,000 new Creators joining every day.