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‘Just us who got hurt’: OnlyFans sex workers still haunted by porn-ban debacle

October 9, 2021, 11:00 AM UTC

When the coronavirus pandemic hit, Juliet moved her trade online, much like the rest of the world. Specifically, she moved onto OnlyFans, social media’s multi-billion-dollar blend of influencer culture and amateur porn, where fans pay to watch explicit performances exclusive to the platform.

The move gave Juliet more safety and control, she said. Over time, she attracted a following of about 100 fans willing to pay $9.99 a month for membership to her channel. It wasn’t a huge sum, but enough to pay the bills, put some money away, and, just as importantly, allow her a few days each week away from sex work.

“That’s a grand a month even before my tips and customs, and pay-per-view messages,” Juliet, hailing from North Yorkshire in England, said, her smiling face surrounded by a wreath of flaxen hair, the tight curls coiled around her like protective snakes.

And then last month that lifeline seemed to vanish. Citing pressure from the banks that process payments on the site, London-based OnlyFans, a community of over 100 million registered users, pronounced it would ban all sexually explicit content from the platform. After a huge outcry from those who ply their trade on the site—people like Juliet—the five-year-old company reversed course. But the damage was already done.

I spoke to several OnlyFans’ sex workers, four of whom shared their story—on one condition. They requested to be identified under a pseudonym so as to protect their identities. I met them all through OnlyFans. Like them, I am a sex worker.

Here are their stories:

Juliet: a safe space

“I was considering going back to in-person meets,” Juliet said quietly over the phone.

“In-person meets” is a veiled metaphor for full-service, or penetrative, sex work, and the specter of returning to it clearly unsettles her. Like many survival sex workers—as the term implies, “survival sex work” is a form of prostitution practiced by those in extreme need—Juliet grew up in an inescapable cycle of poverty. She says she was introduced to sex work by a friend when she was struggling with heroin addiction, from which she is now in recovery. Online sex work gave her the stability and freedom to begin attending narcotics anonymous. 

“I was working on the street when the pandemic hit, and that just made it even more dangerous. I was risking arrest, COVID…” she trails off. Complicating matters, Juliet has polycystic ovary syndrome, which puts her in a high at-risk group for getting seriously ill should she contract COVID-19.

“When I saw OnlyFans banned porn, I panicked. I had to find another way to keep a roof over my head within two months. It’s the insecurity… praying that your subscribers follow—and many don’t. I had subscribers completely deactivate after the news broke, thinking that OnlyFans was worthless if it didn’t host porn. They thought they were sticking it to them, but it was just us who got hurt,” she said. “For the big creators on OnlyFans, it’s an inconvenience. I know it’s a huge blow to their income, but they can make it.”

For Juliet, and many others in her shoes, performing sex work online helped them survive in uncertain times. Even before COVID, they invested long days and nights to build a community, one that still seems precarious to them despite reassurances from the company. OnlyFans declined to comment for this article, directing Fortune to its official statement: “The proposed October 1, 2021 changes are no longer required due to banking partners’ assurances that OnlyFans can support all genres of creators.”

Juliet and other sex workers are still bitter—and frightened—about the matter.

“Other sex workers [were] saying you’re stupid and you get what you deserve if you go back to OnlyFans, but so many of us don’t have a choice,” she added. “We’ve put years of effort into this site, I can’t risk going elsewhere and it not paying off.”

Big money

It’s unclear just how much sex workers generate each year for the booming online porn industry, a marketplace dominated by private companies that do not disclose earnings.

In the case of OnlyFans, the picture is a bit clearer. According to a pitch deck obtained by Axios in April, OnlyFans was on a run-rate to do $1.2 billion in revenues this year, and is forecasted to more than double that top-line next year, pulling in $2.5 billion. The site takes a 20% cut on all income generated by its big earners—its “creator community.” The company blog features fitness coaches, cooks, gamers and skaters, but sex workers are the biggest contingent.

And it’s clear sex workers drive the business—a business that’s booming. Since the start of the COVID pandemic, OnlyFans has grown from 10 million registered users in July, 2019 to more than 150 million today.

The pitch deck paints a picture of a cash-rich company. The company reports it’s on pace to pay its 1.5 million “content creators” more than $5 billion this year. For the average OnlyFan sex worker, it’s a hustle to earn a few grand, or far less, each month.

OnlyFans, from its inception in 2016, offered a somewhat reliable safe haven for sex workers. When OnlyFans made its bombshell announcement it would ban porn from the site on Oct. 1, sex workers felt betrayed, bewildered and lost.

I speak about this economic precariousness and exploitation from first-hand experience. I’ve used OnlyFans to eke out a living as an online Dominatrix since 2016. For over five years, I have been baby-powdering my entire body to crush my love handles into latex catsuits so I can belittle men online for money.

Like the others who spoke up for this article, I too am using an alias—in this case, the name I use as an online dominatrix—because I am concerned about being subjected to professional retribution, online harassment and putting my personal safety in jeopardy.

Imogen: marketer, performer, entrepreneur

It’s no wonder sex workers prefer to move their work online. Some 77% of violent incidents towards sex workers are experienced by those selling on the street, according to a 2014 U.K. study.

“People want to say that we’re lazy, we can’t get a real job, we’re sluts, we’re whores, we’re worthless, we’re evil, we’ll never be able to return to normal life again. They gloss over the extent of our self-employment as models, photographers, videographers. We handle marketing, sales, advertising, customer support, accountancy,” says Imogen, a sex worker on OnlyFans. The 32-year-old lives in Manchester with her boyfriend and their dog. Two nights a week she volunteers her time, fielding calls for a domestic-abuse hotline.

Her critique expands well beyond OnlyFans, to society at large.

“The public’s opinion has to change. The criminalization, the lack of workers’ rights—that makes it dangerous for us. The more we’re pushed to the fringes and forgotten about, the more violence there is.” 

Imogen’s work week is packed with many of the behind-the-scenes task you’d hear from anybody logging long hours in the influencer economy.

“I work primarily on social media, interacting with other sex workers, replying to emails, DMs and promoting my pages,” she says. “I plan my queue for the week and make sure there’s a good mix of content. Then, I’ll do private sessions.”

There’s plenty more on her weekly calendar.

“If I’m shooting content, it’ll take me a few hours to get ready, and then I’ll film in bulk for six or seven. I love it, but shooting five different scenarios in a day is hectic. I want to get them right so I preselect the lighting, the background, the costume—it would take twenty people anywhere else,” Imogen says. “You get out what you put in, like building any brand.”

Imogen says she has been banned from PayPal, Cashapp, Airbnb; been fired from civilian jobs, denied grants and loans; harassed, stalked, berated. All for being a sex worker.

Puck and Regan

For an online sex worker, to be unceremoniously booted from their workplace is an all too familiar occurrence. 

“You’ve got veteran sex workers who’ve already lost Tumblr, they’re losing Twitter and Instagram. Our bodies and voices are being censored again and again. We can have our social media taken from us, our income, even our banks,” said Puck, 25 and non-binary, with eyes heavy-lidded and ringed with black. 

“We live in this really threatening, unwelcoming society where sex workers are hated by the internet, religious groups, the political system, banks and platforms that host us,” added Puck, a Belfast native living in London. “Creating a very precarious situation in which to try and exist, to try and survive.”

Sex workers told me this broad crackdown has knocked them off most online platforms, leaving them short on options to find work. That makes the OnlyFans ban and swift reversal so troubling, says Regan, a sex worker with a large client base.

“OnlyFans has the industry in a chokehold. It’s the largest platform for independent adult content creators, and they can’t say the words ‘sex worker,’” she said, referring to a common complaint among those who toil on OnlyFans: they want to be referred to as sex workers, not “creators.”

“They dangle the carrot of being a safe place for sex workers, snatch it away to line their own pockets and then try to force feed it back to their ‘diverse creator community’ the second they realise it’s curtains for them if they’re not peddling smut!”

Regan, 24, is a left-handed Capricorn who knows her way around a spreadsheet. To me, she bleeds organization. She tells me she has fielded scores of phone calls from sex workers scared about their economic future. 

“So many of these hard-working people are forced to go straight back to OnlyFans, because they’ve built their lives around this platform. Sex sells,” she continued. “And people with cash to splash know that. It’s not new to use to it to exploit an already vulnerable class of people without any efforts to protect or understand them.”

What’s next?

Sex workers tell me they’ll be moving off the platform, or that they plan to. For those who make the jump, there’s years worth of content stored on OnlyFans which must be painstakingly recovered if it’s to be exported to another site. And then there’s the not insignificant matter of finding a new home that has their best interest at heart and won’t go bust any time soon.

I know they are tired. They wish their job afforded the same kind of rights and protections that a therapist, masseuse, photographer, model or actor would get. 

But through this ordeal, there’s been a silver lining: the outpouring of support in recent weeks prove that, slowly, public opinion of sex work is changing. That means so much, particularly as there are still many who view our jobs through a puritanical lens, a kind of demonization capable of pushing us further underground. Without the support, understanding and voices of the general public, we risk becoming even more invisible. 

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