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Can OnlyFans survive without sex?

August 19, 2021, 10:30 PM UTC

OnlyFans became a multibillion-dollar business thanks to sex workers. It’s a haven for porn stars, wannabe adult performers, and exhibitionists looking to cash in on their kink.

On Thursday, though, the company announced it would ban sexually explicit content starting in October. That could help it in its quest to court investors in the short term, but it could well cost the business over the long term.   

OnlyFans was founded in 2016 by British businessman Timothy Stokely. Two years later, Leo Radvinsky, one of the most powerful people in the porn industry, bought a majority stake.

Radvinsky is the founder of cam site MyFreeCams, a wildly successful service used by models to make money by stripping and performing sex acts in front of a webcam while hundreds—and often thousands—of people watch live online, paying anywhere from token amounts to major cash. He also at one time ran a boutique venture capital firm that invested in technology companies.

In recent months, as OnlyFans’ popularity exploded, Radvinsky has been quietly looking to cash out. OnlyFans hired merchant bank the Raine Group to contact venture capitalists and other investors, all of whom quickly passed, likely due to the site’s sex-friendly content.

OnlyFans certainly has the financials on its side. Last year, the company had net revenues of $375 million and expects $1.2 billion this year, according to a pitch deck obtained by Axios. It has over 7 million paying “fans” monthly and has shelled out $3.2 billion to its creators to date. (The company makes 20% off every financial transaction.)

The site has made many people wealthy too. Maitland Ward, the former Boy Meets World cast member who is now an adult superstar, made over $1 million in just six hours and claims to earn six figures a month from OnlyFans. And over 300 creators make over $1 million annually, OnlyFans said in its pitch to investors.

As OnlyFans has grown, though, it has also attracted mainstream celebrities, such as rapper Cardi B and former Disney star Bella Thorne, along with musicians and fitness instructors. That’s what it’s trying to lean into with the changes announced Thursday.

Sex sells, but it also scares, especially when it comes to the financial industry.

OnlyFans grew to its current size specifically because of sex workers—and most of its users came because of those performers. And there’s a very good chance they’ll leave with them as well.

One hint of things to come is the number of likes left by users on the content of mainstream performers (and famous C-listers) compared with the numbers for adult performers.

For example, reality star Blac Chyna has amassed 15,800 likes over 153 posts (she charges $20 monthly for access—subscriber numbers aren’t displayed). Meanwhile, Internet sensation Tana Mongeau, who doesn’t charge for her content, has over 425,000 likes. And Cardi B picked up 10,300 likes while posting just six times, for $5 per month.

Adult stars dwarf those numbers, however. Jessica Drake, who charges subscribers $10 monthly, has over 88,000 likes. Angela White has 637,000 likes and charges $10 per month. And Ward, who charges $8 monthly, has over 786,000 likes.

Yes, Bella Thorne has 1 million likes with no subscription fee. But adult performer Riley Reid has over 1.5 million, with a $25 monthly fee.

And those fans, as well as others, are protesting the ban on sexually explicit content loudly on social media.

OnlyFans’ competitors say they’re not surprised by its move to go more mainstream, accusing the company of using the adult industry as nothing more than a stepping stone.

“The adult industry is sadly used to companies cutting their teeth on the adult market and then abandoning them once they reach critical mass,” said Dominic Ford, founder of JustFor.fans. “[We were] founded and built by and for sex workers and its staff is 100% comprised of sex workers and people who have been in the porn industry for many, many years…That will never change and we have no interest in ‘mainstreaming.’”

OnlyFans says it’s being pressured by banking partners and payment providers to make the change and is doing so “in order to ensure the long-term sustainability of our platform.”

Some of that rings true. Banks have a long history of anti–sex worker policies, going as far as to close the bank accounts of performers. But the timing of that as the company seeks a buyer or investor falls flat.

Performers will move on to another platform—and the fans will likely follow. The bigger question is, Will the efforts by OnlyFans to attract more traditional celebrities keep users interested? Or will those users follow the sex workers?

History points to the later. Tumblr, which was a popular destination for people looking for adult content, banned sexually explicit images in 2018. A year later, the site (which Yahoo once bought for $1.1 billion) was off-loaded for just $3 million.

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