A lot of people saw their jobs change dramatically during the pandemic. Among them, as you might imagine, are sex workers, who suddenly found their in-person jobs too dangerous. Many turned to digital platforms, specifically the app OnlyFans, which lets creators post and get tips, subscription revenue and even set up pay-per-view events.
In theory, anyone can use OnlyFans. But it’s home to a lot of adult content, and sex workers have found themselves learning how to be creators and battling for attention among all kinds of other would-be influencers. I spoke with Erika Beras, a reporter for Marketplace, who has been covering this. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Erika Beras: The big thing is, if you do sex work, most of it is in person, regardless of the type of work you’re doing. And if you do this, you probably also already had an online presence, it just isn’t something that you maybe spent a lot of time maintaining. And then, when the pandemic happened, everybody sort of had to figure out how to 100% pivot. So maybe you already had videos online, [and now] you have to figure out how to shoot yourself, how to film yourself, how to light yourself, because you’re home. You might be home with your family all day. You have to figure out what the algorithms are of all these sites, sort of update everything. And that’s in and of itself a pretty steep learning curve.
One of the women I spoke with was just sort of describing her workday, and it was like, it starts at 7 a.m., it doesn’t end until midnight. All these people that had worked in the industry are now on these online platforms. But then there are other people who were not in the industry who are on these platforms. And when I talked to OnlyFans, they’d said that their platform had a 75% spike in new user and creator registrations in March and April of last year. So the market is oversaturated.
Molly Wood: Right, because all kinds of people got on OnlyFans. Then you’re finding that people who have been doing some version of this work for a really long time are facing a lot more competition, which I assume is driving down wages?
Beras: Absolutely. So everybody is saying, “All right, well, we need gig work. This is at-home gig work. Maybe we can do this.” But everyone I talked to talked about how no one’s actually getting rich on these sites, or even pretty much making a living. There’s, like, just a few people that are very established, very organized, they’ve been doing this, so they’re making money. But one number I saw was that the average person on the site is making about $200 a month.
Wood: Is there a sense from the people you talked to that moving some parts of their profession online could work in the future? Or is it sort of proving to be like an experiment that is too hard to maintain?
Beras: I think for some people, it could work. I think, especially some of the people who have established brands, who already have people that are going to OnlyFans to specifically look for them. But for someone who is new to the industry, who is saying, “I’m just going to get on here and see if people will start paying me a subscription,” it’s just a lot harder. And I think people are probably, like all of us, looking forward to things kind of opening up again, so they can kind of go back to the type of work they were doing before.
Wood: So it seems like we have a couple of things going on. We have one: sex workers are moving online, for obvious reasons related to pandemic, and that FOSTA-SESTA is making that tricky. And then, we also have this kind of platform, OnlyFans, that itself has become a bit of a phenomenon in the pandemic, and it’s kind of mixing people who are looking for some additional income with sex workers who are looking for somewhere to go.
Beras: Right. And then the other thing, too, that’s kind of interesting is that OnlyFans sort of drew — I mentioned earlier that number of people that came in March and April, and sex work predominantly tends to be female, and that’s who’s been most hurt by the pandemic. So it’s especially drawing a female creator base. But it also kind of had this moment where Beyoncé dropped it in a song, she mentioned OnlyFans and a lot of celebrities are kind of going towards it. And so that also in and of itself has sort of given it some sort of cachet and stuff. So it is having a moment, but it’s also having a moment out of necessity. So yeah, there are these two things sort of happening at the same time.
Related links: More insight from Molly Wood
In addition to the crowded field, some sex workers on OnlyFans are finding that their accounts are being taken down because of U.S. laws designed to stop sex trafficking. There’s a good piece on CNET about this problem with the U.S. laws known as FOSTA-SESTA, which are basically the only time that the famous Section 230 law, which protects website operators from things their users post, doesn’t apply. It’s supposed to stop the sex trafficking of minors. And there have been concerns since it passed, and even before, about its unintended consequences. Sex workers said it drove their work even further underground and that they couldn’t reach customers through digital platforms because they’d be taken offline. And that meant exposing them to pimps, making them vulnerable to dangerous clients and making it harder for public health officials to find them for medical help when needed.
And as this CNET story points out, when you combine this law and London-based OnlyFans being hosted in the U.S., with other countries where sex work is legal, you get this weird situation where escorts working legally in Australia are having their profiles taken off OnlyFans. And Erika Beras told us that in the U.S., sex workers who are using OnlyFans have found that other platforms, like Twitter, Instagram or TikTok, will take down their bios if they link back to OnlyFans. And other people have said that happens even if they aren’t escorts, and sometimes even if they’re not posting nudity. Most of the same stuff is still totally fine on Instagram, TikTok or Twitter, though. Just saying.
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