Making money with nudes online is all in a day’s work for Aja Jane. “I will have a day where I put make-up on, take a whole bunch of selfies and then I will have content ready for the rest of the week,” she says, explaining the routine maintenance of her OnlyFans account.
The Canadian moved to Berlin five years ago after working as a professional ballet dancer in Copenhagen. With a slender physique telling of her former career, fiery red hair and an artist’s visa in hand, Jane tried her hand at modelling. She was soon receiving requests for nude shoots. “I just couldn’t think of a reason not to do it. I was comfortable with my body … and it’s a good way to make money, so why not?” Jane says over Zoom.
With building frustration towards misogynistic male hobby photographers and being unable to make a living from in-person photo shoots, Jane moved online: first to Patreon, making some supplementary income from online supporters subscribing to see her modelling photos and her own photography; then, mid-pandemic, she joined OnlyFans. “A lot of nude models on Instagram said they were starting OnlyFans and I was hesitant at first. I had known about OnlyFans for a while but it’s primarily a porn site and I don’t do porn so I wasn’t sure if it was the right platform.”
Jane joined in August 2020 and by November she was making enough money to support herself while studying photography.
With the arrival of the pandemic, the world shut down and OnlyFans blew up. Its number of ‘content creators’ – most of whom are women – increased by 40 percent over the course of March 2020. The pandemic left many looking for alternative or supplementary income. But despite what media coverage of OnlyFans leads some to believe, it isn’t the take-your- clothes-off-and-get-rich-quick platform it’s made out to be. Of OnlyFans’ 1.1 million content creators, the average creator makes $180 (€150) per month and the platform takes a 20-percent commission of those earnings.
As a model, Jane had been building her 25.9-thousand-strong Instagram following for five years and was using it to get gigs. But since Instagram shadow bans accounts with OnlyFans links in their bios – essentially restricting content visibility – moving her fanbase to the new platform wasn’t easy. After months of trying to attract more OnlyFans subscribers, Jane set out to maximise the amount of money she was making from her content. “In November I went into this crazy focus, working out ‘how do I do this?’” she says. “I started doing a lot of research into the business side of it.”
Jane discovered a network of Telegram group chats, some with thousands of members, sharing advice about how to maximise subscriber numbers and other issues. “There was also a lot of complaining about subscribers and men in general. Or people asking for advice, saying, ‘I feel stuck with a certain amount of followers,’ or, ‘This guy has sent me this really weird message and I don’t know how to respond or what to say,’ or, ‘I took these pictures, which ones do you guys think are the best?’” Some girls would share tips by saying: “I’ve had a lot of success with doing this specific thing to increase my sales.”
Accounts are time-consuming to maintain, so much so that many OnlyFans Telegram groups are dedicated to creators looking for full-time assistants to manage free accounts designed to attract subscribers to their paid-for content.
One of the most effective ways for new creators to boost their subscription-based income is through ‘drops’ where creators organise to cross- promote their content on each other’s OnlyFans accounts. “There are girls doing hundreds of drops a day, they are trying to do as many as possible, trying to go as fast as possible,” Jane explains. “I’m not so active on Telegram these days because it is a lot of work to keep up with it, but there are girls who spend all day on Telegram.”
If drops don’t do the trick, you can try ‘dripping’. “Dripping is basically sexting guys and every time you respond to them you include a locked post and they have to pay per photo that you send them,” Jane says. A more specific use of this technique “is when you do dripping en masse. You set up your responses ahead of time, you have a document that has all your responses and images and you just copy and paste, to get as many guys as possible to unlock. They think it’s live sexting but you’re just copying and pasting.” By applying these techniques, Jane was able to find what traditional nude modelling hadn’t offered her, all without leaving her bedroom.
Unlike being directed on a porn shoot, or meeting an escort client, OnlyFans means more autonomy and safety for creators. But how much ownership does OnlyFans grant its creators? “[OnlyFans] are earning 20 percent from just having a hosting platform,” Luna Silver points out. Last September, the 25-year-old moved to Berlin from Amsterdam, where she had been working in sex clubs, stripping and making porn. “I started doing [sex work] after I finished my Master’s in 2019. I had read a few books about sex work during my Bachelor’s so I guess I was already curious.”
But from her pre-pandemic days making mainstream porn, Silver knows that in sex work, 20 percent is a good cut; most porn platforms take between 60 and 80 percent in com- mission from performers.
In escorting, the commission rate is also higher, according to Lola, who uses an alias. In 2017, after dropping out of their classical music studies in Berlin, an environment they found too conservative and stifling, Lola started working for an escort agency. “For two hours a client paid €500,” Lola recalls. “You gave 50 percent to the agency. Yeah, that’s a lot at the beginning.” Escorts had the opportunity to return less commission to the agency, but only once their popularity with clients was proven in good reviews.
Two years later, Lola opened an OnlyFans account, where they still find the commission too high, “especially because on your account you can always see how much money you could have made!” they exclaim over Zoom from a sunny balcony in Basel. “It’s so stupid! It kind of makes us angry, because you see you would have made about €3200 but you’re only getting €2500.”
But sex workers have little choice in the matter. “There is no other platform that offers as much income potential as OnlyFans,” Jane emphasises, “so any shift to a different platform would just directly lower one’s income. This is widely recognised and accepted, which is why even people who have frustrations with the site don’t leave.”
And the frustrations don’t end with watching your hard-earned cash dwindle. The platform’s decision to leave content copyright with creators, while welcomed by many, also means that that users – not OnlyFans as a company – have to protect themselves against content theft. Instagram also gives content ownership to users, but unlike dog and brunch photos, stolen pornographic content has far-reaching consequences for its original creators. So what happens when your OnlyFans content is stolen and redistributed elsewhere?
This happened to Silver last October. “That was a little disheartening,” she begins. Some of Silver’s OnlyFans content has been leaked to PornHub and the perpetrators are determined to make sure everyone has access to it for free. “There are these ‘megalinks’. This is what they call them, I don’t actually know what they mean. I advertise myself on Reddit quite often and guys will say, ‘If you want to see all her stuff I have the megalink posted on my profile,’” she says. “They have a whole directory of different girls’ content.”
OnlyFans has a copyright support team which offers to send notices to other sites requesting stolen content is removed, but Silver decided not to waste her time asking the site for help. “When I have tried to contact them for other stuff they never get back to you. There is really no way to do anything about it unless you have a lot of money.” As Silver points out, while copyright remains with OnlyFans creators, allowing an allusion of ownership and shirking the platform of responsibility to provide adequate support, most people don’t have the time or money to enforce their copyright. “I haven’t done anything because I have sort of made my peace with the fact that they are up there.”
Lola had a similar outlook when set- ting up an account and accepted that it came with a risk of having material leaked. “In my bio, I wrote, ‘All content-spreading will be prosecuted.’ I hoped it would kind of make people fear enough not to do it. I think there are people with screen recordings and videos of me but that’s kind of something I knew would happen.”
Pimp my profile
The site doesn’t just offer income opportunities in front of the camera; it has also birthed OnlyFans-centric marketing agencies which sell consultation and support to aspiring creators. One such agency is SkyLife, based in Hamburg and LA and boasting clients in Berlin. Its founders are Hamburg natives Bano and Sidney Diop. “There were a lot of things changing,” Bano explains, telling the story of adapting their company at the beginning of 2020.
“We have always been into social media marketing and we saw a couple of guys and girls blowing up on OnlyFans and we thought, ‘Okay, that’s interesting.’ Then we got a few connections to content creators and listened to their problems basically and tried to help them out.”
The pair offer free 15-minute consultations and a free e-book on how to become the next biggest OnlyFans star, but to really reap the benefits of their ‘expert advice’ they offer packages. “At the beginning when we started out we had a fee per hour or we had some packages: for example, $1000 if we help you to put on your account and optimise everything.” Once an account becomes more lucrative, they move to a revenue share model, taking commission.
Sidney Diop is adamant that OnlyFans offers power to its creators like no other platform: “My mantra is, ‘Content is all about ownership, ownership is king.’” Considering the personal risks people take when posting explicit content of themselves, Silver agrees, but her interpretation of ownership differs from Diop’s. After a friend of hers sought advice from a similar agency, she doesn’t think highly of this kind of business plan.
“[The agency] said that they would be taking 30 percent of whatever she earned,” Silver says. “I don’t agree with that. I just think it’s a little bit disingenuous. After having worked in porn and mainstream porn, I think that ownership over your content and getting paid for the work that you do, because it’s your body and your face, is very important.”
Jane created her successful OnlyFans following independently. “I think the agencies like that are so predatory, taking from girls who are making money. The creators themselves are the ones taking the risk putting their own nude bodies online.” As for the agencies’ advice? “You can get all that information for free online.”
You scratch my back…
When it comes to sex work, OnlyFans allows the exchange of erotic capital for economic capital.
People can explore their sexuality while thousands pay to watch. The platform would be worthless without these users; OnlyFans’ creators and subscribers provide the user data, content and revenue that allow the platform to thrive – and allow tech entrepeneur Tim Stokely, founder and CEO of the platform, to live a millionaire lifestyle.
“OnlyFans sells content creators access to their customers,” says Philipp Staab, a professor in sociology of the future of work at Berlin’s Humboldt-Universität. “[Data] tends to be described as a very mysterious, half-magic thing. Data is valuable, but it’s actually about controlling the market and saying I know what people want when. If you had your own webpage as a content creator, nobody would ever visit it.”
OnlyFans’ business model of earning from merely hosting a platform reflects a trend in platform capitalism called rent extraction. “If you’re a landlord, you make a living out of renting a place, you don’t have to put in any work and you can still make the rent, right?” Staab says. “It’s the same thing with platforms: they have the infrastructure, the infrastructure costs money to be alive and keep in a good shape but generally speaking this money is very little compared to the profits.”
But it’s not all about the money, at least not for Lola. Signing up to OnlyFans felt like a no-brainer for them, despite the many issues with the platform. “The whole world is in lockdown, everybody is fucking horny like always, especially men, and why not take advantage of that?”
Describing their experience with OnlyFans, they say: “It was an experiment, it was an exploration of my own sexuality. I find it much more pleasant to masturbate for a purpose than only for myself. Knowing that people are watching is also a kink of mine.”
Sure, OnlyFans has its drawbacks, but used right, it can be a tool for empowerment. “Maybe it’s a bit radical but I think it’s absolutely fine to make patriarchy pay you back,” says Lola. “Because you give something for it, it’s actually just a power exchange.”