Over the last couple of months, celebrities and influencers have rushed to OnlyFans, utilizing the platform as a marketing tool. What does this mean for the Black sex workers who built up the platform?
Rapper Rubi Rose was at her mom’s house in Gwinnett County, Atlanta on a mid-summer afternoon when she announced on Twitter that she was starting an OnlyFans account. “Let’s see what the hypes [sic] about… link in bio,” she tweeted after posting a screenshot of her newly assembled page on July 18.
Within 24 hours, Rose’s OnlyFans account was one of the most popular on the platform. Her account was in the top 1%, despite the fact she was charging fans $49.49 a month for her exclusive content.
The move was a marketing play for Rose, who recently signed a deal with L.A. Reid’s Hitco label. It was also convenient for the social media-savvy Rose. “I already post very promiscuous photos and videos [on Instagram],” Rubi said during a Zoom interview. “People have always been like, ‘you might as well just make an OnlyFans.'”
Rose’s style, rap persona, curvacious angled photos, and output is heavily indebted to the sex worker community. What the average sex worker can’t do, however, is open up an OnlyFans account and bring in $24,000 using material already accessible on their Instagram profile, as Rose did. Within two days, Rose had made over $100,000 and a wide range of news outlets — from Bossip to Newsweek — starting covering the story, writing headlines like, “Rubi Rose Made $100,000 on OnlyFans in Just 2 Days Using Instagram Photos.”
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For sex workers who’ve been working on the platform for years, this was all too familiar of a scenario. Over the last couple of months, celebrities and influencers have rushed to OnlyFans, utilizing the platform as a marketing tool where they engage with their fanbase — taking direct cash from consumers — while not participating in sex work. This propagates a question that only the community of sex workers who built up the platform can answer: Are celebrities who join OnlyFans but who don’t embrace the ethos of the platform good for the community of sex workers already on the platform?
The rise of OnlyFans
OnlyFans is a content sharing social media platform that allows creators to make income off of subscriptions, one-off tips, and pay-per-view messages. The platform — launched in 2016 by Tim Stokely, a 37-year-old son of a banker — welcomed content of any sort. The initial site saw itself as a place where fitness professionals, beauty bloggers, and creatives could monetize their influence. Nevertheless, it is sex work that has held the site’s highest regard. Sex workers dominated the space, to the point where it was looked at as a platform primarily for adult entertainment — despite its initial generalist aspirations.
And then COVID-19 came. Like many industries, sex workers were forced to shift their work online due to social distancing stipulations and health fears caused by the rise of the pandemic. Strip clubs and brothels closed and incomes vanished overnight. Adult industry employees, with nowhere to turn, started flocking to the site in higher numbers. By all available metrics, interest in OnlyFans completely blew up during the pandemic. OnlyFans gained more followers on all social media accounts and the company’s Google Trends numbers have consistently risen. Growth was happening inside the company, as well. While unemployment rose to almost unprecedented rates in the United States, OnlyFans was on a hiring spree; according to Thinknum, they have hired more than 100 new employees — a headcount increase of 200% — to handle the spike in interest.
And, crucially, more notable people started signing up. You saw the signs early on. In April, The-Dream began integrating the platform into his marketing rollout as a digital listening experience, asking ladies to send in sensual video choreography dancing to his latest album, Sextape 4. Later that month, you saw OnlyFans enter the lexicon when Beyoncé name-dropped the platform on the “Savage” remix, rapping, “On that demon time she might start a OnlyFans.” (In a statement provided to Rolling Stone back in May, OnlyFans responded to the “Savage” remix, writing “Beyoncé, and any artist, are welcome to join OnlyFans at any time to foster a deeper connection with their fans.”)
Rapper Cardi B, who has a history as a sex worker, joined in August, after the release of her no. 1 smash hit “WAP.” When she joined, Cardi was adamant about going in a PG-13 direction, rejecting to showcase nudity, only to present exclusive behind the scenes content. In the midst, other celebrities like rappers Swae Lee, Casanova, and Safaree Samuels and reality TV stars like Erica Mena, Dorinda Medley, and Blac Chyna flocked to the stage and began odd marketing antics — some erotogenic, some not — to allure their respective fan bases.
“I do feel that celebrities should stay off the platform,” Nikia Renee, a popular Instagram model and cam girl who’s been using the platform since 2017, said. “Celebrities already have exposure. They have the cheat code. They’re already famous. We are solely getting these people interested in us, and interested in paying money for us, with us, whereas these people are already famously rich. It’s not fair.”
Celebrities using clever, dishonest tactics
In late August, OnlyFans had their biggest controversy when Bella Thorne joined the platform. The actress made over $1 million in a day — an OnlyFans record — charging fans $20 per month for a subscription. (Throne later said she joined OnlyFans for “research” purposes and that she would donate proceedings.) Thorne was advertising to her followers that she would show a nude for $200, utilizing the pay-per-view option. The photo ended up not being a nude, causing users to complain and request refunds. The platform would soon unveil new restrictions. Those limitations included the new sudden cap amount on tips at $100 and a new maximum PPV price at $50. Sex workers immediately started blaming Thorne while OnlyFans claims there’s no connection.
“It’s terrible because some of our extra amenities go up to $500” Renee said when deciphering the website’s new terms. “I have a Skype show where you can connect to a toy. I can’t sell that product anymore because it costs $250 to $500. No man is going to sit and wait and do a payment plan to do explicit Facetimes. [Bella Thorne] fucked me.”
When Rubi Rose started her OnlyFans account, sex workers and other fans noticed that she posted photos that were already on her Instagram, defeating the exclusivity element of OnlyFans. This behavior left platform devotees tart: not only were celebrities who have the finances and the following trespassing into their territory, but they were using clever yet dishonest tactics… and, well bragging about it.
Rose said that she only posted images from her Instagram in the beginning and that she has not posted any more non-exclusive content. She feels like celebrities are helping with exposure of the site. “I don’t think by me making an OnlyFans is hurting [sex workers] cause at the end of the day we’re all our own person and everybody can do what they want to do,” Rose said. “I feel like [celebrity presence] has helped especially since Cardi B made an OnlyFans. Everybody fucks with OnlyFans now. A lot of artists reached out to me wanting to do tracks, referring to OnlyFans and how I made money.”
A new era for OnlyFans
“I would personally love to see celebrities who are formers sex workers just embrace it, not be ashamed and help bring other people up,” explains actress, singer, and sex worker Erika Heidewald. In August, Heidewald made headlines when tweets went viral on why and how the Bella Thorne fiasco — and celebrity behavior in general — is affecting sex workers on OnlyFans. “[Celebrities] are trying to skate a line of what is an acceptable amount of sexuality, where you are popular and beloved, but not reviled and kicked out of the industry,” Heidewald said. “It’s a difficult line to walk and I appreciate that. For example, Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion did a giveaway with Cashapp to celebrate “WAP” and you had to write a personal story on why you needed money. I saw some sex workers criticizing and being like, just give that money to sex workers. Don’t make them prove why they need it. And I think there’s something to that.”
Support like this comes at a crucial time when it seems like OnlyFans is promoting every other field but the one that made them famous. Taking a look at their Instagram there is the promotion for rappers — like Trina and Tyga — comedians, songwriters, and fashion influencers. Yet, where are the sex workers who made the platform a hub?
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“[OnlyFans] is definitely trying to market themselves as, “Hey, we don’t just have naked pictures” and everyone they promote through their own [social] page is celebrities,” Heidewald said. “I think a concern that a lot of people have, myself included, is going to be that they will basically try and push sex workers off the platform.”
Atari Jones, a musician from Ohio, who also works as a marketer for sex workers through his Instagram page Chronicleify believes that part of the reason celebrities are making a B-Line to the platform is that OnlyFans recruiters are actively seeking them and making promises to help cover their tracks. “I don’t think [celebrity presence] will ever take away the eyeballs from sex workers” Jones said. “What I think it’s doing is making [OnlyFans] seem more legit. They’re adding these people on there to cover their ass. They gave me some promises like they would showcase and help me with campaigns just because I’m somebody they reached out to.”
Some of the backtrackings might have to do with channel creators accusing the platform of stealing or putting holds to withdrawals on their accounts. (This may have to do with the platform’s need to pay back owed taxes, a claim the site has denied.) “Ladies that I work with tell me that they’d been robbed by OnlyFans,” Jones said. “ But I feel like if you’re somebody like a Cardi B or The-Dream, they won’t do that.”
And then there are new legislations like FOSTA/SESTA in place. Passed and signed by President Donald Trump in 2018, FOSTA-SESTA is the government’s attempting to halt the underground online community that facilitates sex trafficking by making websites criminally liable for user content that could promote or facilitate the prostitution of another person. In turn, these laws prompted many online adult industry sites to fold, making it harder for sex workers to be their own boss, forcing them back onto the streets and subject to escorting, and violence from pimps and clients.
With all of this going on, it makes you question if OnlyFans may just be anticipating the worst-case scenario for their anything-goes sexual content. Perhaps they are just blatantly showing that they are moving in a direction without sex work?
Black cisgender and transgender women presumed sex workers who are impoverished and live in segregated communities are the primary targets of over-policing, strengthening the prison industrial system off of their backs. Along with stigmas around sex work not being considered actual “work,” the capacities in which Black sex workers are harassed, mistreated, shunned, fetishized, and de-valued extend to almost every part of the society. This includes clients, workplaces, family, government assistance, care, and even social media — where it’s proper for sex to sell for almost everyone in entertainment and beyond but it’s apparently not okay for Black sex workers.
“Instagram specifically impedes on [Black sex workers] promoting our OnlyFans but I’ve seen a lot of women of fair skin get away with a lot more on their Instagram,” Renee said. “They can directly divert their traffic to OnlyFans. [Black sex workers] have had to go to other means of promoting like going on different apps, dating apps, and things like that.”
Heidewald agrees that it’s unfortunate that social media has chosen to uplift the very same kind of people who are always uplifted by traditional media. “Instagram favors white people and light-skinned people,” Heidewald said. “It can be fucking baked into the algorithms. Also, there’s just a discriminatory stereotype of how much different sex workers can charge based on their looks. If you’re Black it can be harder to fight for the higher prices that you deserve.”
While it may be pleasant to be declared as a more “wholesome” subscription-based website, OnlyFans is just joining the list of content sharing platforms that made a name for themselves off of their smaller channel creators just to eventually ditch them for big advertisers and celebrity bucks.
“Before everything happened with Bella Thorne, the platform gave you the freedom that you needed to make great money,” Jazzberriie, a cosplayer sex worker and college student, said. Over the last year, Jazzberriie embraced OnlyFans and used income from the platform for survival after a surgery on her face from a domestic dispute left her out of work for six months. Jazzberriie sees the direction OnlyFans is going and questions what this means for women like her. “The creator of this platform is pretty smart with the plan that he came up with,” Jazzberriie said. But sometimes people get too greedy or too excited when celebrities join and they care more about that person’s celebrity status than the actual people who work the platform for them. At the end of the day, we sex workers made the creator of OnlyFans rich.”
Noel Cymone Walker is a music, beauty and lifestyle journalist in the NYC area. She has written for the likes of Marie Claire Magazine, Billboard, The Fader, Essence, Allure, Glamour and more. You can catch her on Instagram @thefurstnoel.