Artillery Row

A pimp-led pyramid scheme

OnlyFans’s decision to remove porn creates a Catch-22 for those who are reliant on it

On 19 August, OnlyFans announced to the world that from October 2021 they would no longer host “any content containing sexually-explicit conduct”. For the uninitiated, OnlyFans is a “content-subscription” service that allows individuals to upload any content they wish — from instructive cooking videos to fitness workouts — all hidden behind a protective paywall. But make no mistake: it is an open secret that the majority of the euphemistically-phrased “content” is porn.

The announcement by OnlyFans should be viewed with extreme scepticism in its own right

OnlyFans has been lauded as a “haven” for “porn stars, wannabe adult performers, and exhibitionists looking to cash in on their kink”, so the site’s announcement has sent shockwaves across the internet. But there are two issues here: first, it should come as no surprise that OnlyFans has followed the same trajectory as its industry counterparts in chewing up performers and then discarding them once all possible profit and value has been extracted. Secondly, the announcement by OnlyFans should be viewed with extreme scepticism in its own right. 

On the first point, the “wealth creation” myth of OnlyFans is one that is often reproduced by the media, with an uncritical misrepresentation of an industry that offers young women a get-rich-quick platform through the sale of sexual content. However, this ignores the intense exploitation — both sexual and economic — that occurs at every level of the transaction.

For example, approximately 73 per cent of the entire income generated by the site is concentrated into the hands of a mere 10 per cent of its creators. This leaves 90 per cent of the creators left to split a meagre 27 per cent of the remaining profit, with an average income of $180 for performers. Economic exploitation has always been one of the bedrocks of the commercial sex industry, and OnlyFans is no different in that regard.

But, in a dystopian twist, OnlyFans has managed to double down by utilising the crushing oppression of gig-economy tactics to create a saturated, free-for-all marketplace where the lowest fees combined with quantity of content is king.

As a result, the consumer-driven nature of the porn industry dictates that performers are consistently pressurised into engaging in increasingly degrading and abusive acts, which are in turn normalised (and thus less stimulating and enticing for viewers), and only material that is even more violent and debasing will satisfy users. Make no mistake, if performers do not acquiesce to these requests for increasingly degrading content, consumers will go elsewhere, leaving the (predominantly) women who relied on their subscription fees facing poverty, as well as emotional and psychological distress.

It is therefore a fallacy to label OnlyFans as a site that has “put the power back into the hands of performers”, when in reality all that has happened is an even greater number of women and young girls — compared to the industry of 20 years ago — are being exploited due to entryways into the industry becoming increasingly accessible.

Additionally, OnlyFans’ economic model dictates that they take a 20 per cent cut of all performers’ income, but parallel to this, they also offer performers the chance to earn “referral fees” for individuals they sign up to the site, who then go on to make a profit of their own. This is nothing more than a pimp-led pyramid scheme, where those profiting from sexual exploitation earn a lot for doing nothing. Just as is the case with the pimp who has enslaved a woman in prostitution: profit is the goal, and the welfare of those who create that profit is a concern only in as far as it affects that profit.

Women and girls deserve better than to be reliant upon the sexualisation of their bodies

The inherent and fundamentally exploitative nature of OnlyFans aside, there is a bigger concern for those of us who work in the human rights sector. In my role as Head of Legal Advocacy at CEASE UK, much of 2020 was spent working on the #TraffickingHub campaign, which highlighted the deluge of violent and exploitative videos on the mainstream porn site PornHub. As a result of a global campaign gathering the signatures of over 2 million people from 192 countries, PornHub finally gave in and removed over 10 million videos featuring footage of rape and abuse from their website.

While this was a positive first step in what has become a decades-long war of attrition, it was just that: a first step. PornHub is still brimming with content depicting male violence against women and girls; racism; misogyny; and any other exploitative horror you can think up. The announcement by OnlyFans should therefore, sadly, be viewed with much scepticism.

The actual parameters as to what content will or won’t be allowed on the site has yet to be revealed. The site is (allegedly) banning “sexually explicit images and videos” but will still allow “nude content”. Exactly what the defining line between these two vague categories is remains to be seen. For a company that has built up an enormous part of its $1 billion valuation through “sexually explicit images and videos”, you can be sure it won’t be cutting off the pipeline that swells its coffers in any meaningful way. 

The porn industry — of which OnlyFans is a major player — has never had the interests or wellbeing of those who operate within it at heart. It is a hyper-capitalist, unregulated, and increasingly corporate global behemoth that profits from the objectification, sexualisation, and misery of vulnerable women and girls. If the site is bowing to external pressure, it will only be to protect its profits.

This creates a Catch-22 for those who have become reliant upon its insidious activities. Either these women and girls will be discarded to protect the interests of the company, thus leaving them even more vulnerable to economic and sexual exploitation; or OnlyFans will find a way to continue exploiting them, with the creation of policy loopholes and vague promises to commit to “the highest levels of safety”.

Women and girls deserve better than to be reliant upon the objectification and sexualisation of their bodies, and they deserve more than a locker room of CEOs telling dirty jokes reaping the rewards from this exploitation. Time’s up for the porn industry.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover