Work once taken out of desperation has become an increasingly popular side hustle. Credit: <a href="">Charles Deluvio</a> on <a href="">Unsplash</a>

Some people found new hobbies during the pandemic, like making bread or crafting. Some took the time to work on themselves, and are now sporting new clothes, piercings, tattoos, or identities. Some did some spring, winter, fall, and summer cleaning. And some made the leap into the exploding world of online sex work.

More than just a Beyoncé lyric, OnlyFans is a massively popular fan site that gained prominence hosting adult content. It’s now reportedly worth more than $1 billion. And with the popularity of the platform and other sites like it have come a proliferation of everyday folks making creator accounts. It’s a phenomenon that turns some assumptions about sex work on their head: work once taken out of desperation has become an increasingly popular side hustle.

Local creator Jamie Wolf (a performing name, as are the names of the other content creators mentioned in this story) tells the Reader that he created his OnlyFans in May 2020, soon after COVID-19 lockdowns went into effect across the country, but after he was “well into” making adult entertainment as an amateur performer. Wolf uses the platform and others like it to supplement his income and says he likes the flexibility and anonymity that can come with having agency as an amateur adult performer. He says his other employer doesn’t know about his account, but is confident he wouldn’t face any consequences if they found out.

“I don’t think I would have signed with a studio or gone the traditional professional route,” says Wolf. “I enjoy my privacy as an amateur performer. And not out of fear of exposure. I literally enjoy exercising my right to privacy.”

The COVID-19 pandemic and its disastrous economic impacts for many also created a perfect storm of sorts for fan sites, giving people a way to make some money amid record-high rates of unemployment. But even absent a pandemic, the platforms can be an important outlet for performers who want more control over their work.

Chicago-based adult performer Griffin Barrows says unlike studio work, which often entails signing contracts with studios that have enormous control over the adult film productions, platforms like OnlyFans give the performers themselves a previously almost unheard-of level of agency over their own content.

Barrows, who boasts more than 675,000 Twitter followers, has more than 500 videos on his OnlyFans page and is arguably one of its most recognizable gay male creators.

“Many performers brag on social media about doing nearly nothing except some flashes of erogenous body zones, and thereby propagate the idea that producing content is hardly work at all,” Barrows says. “In reality, lots of time and effort is spent in this sexy career.”

In addition to allowing for more creative control by their users, the platforms have been a particular boon to people who don’t fit the mold that most studios seek to promote.

Trip Richards, a trans man, says OnlyFans and platforms like it have allowed adult entertainers from historically excluded backgrounds in particular to thrive in the industry without being forced to endure fetishization or outright exclusion from popular studios.

“[The platforms are] putting the power back with us as individual performers, and what that ends up meaning is that the performers are more diverse and more equitable than ever,” Richards says. “This also addresses many of the concerns about coercion that have been leveled against the adult industry.”

Misconceptions abound about doing sex work via OnlyFans and other platforms. But many creators, from amateurs like Wolf to industry mainstays like Barrows, say the biggest misconceptions about these platforms go hand-in-hand: the earning potential and the level of work it takes to make those earnings.

“While OnlyFans does allow me a slight bit more financial mobility, it does not at all fulfill my monetary needs in totality, especially with how the earnings are released, which isn’t very accommodating if you’re not already financially secure and are relying on this kind of sex work to survive,” Wolf says.

Barrows also points to another common misconception: that there are droves of creators raking in exorbitant profits every month.

“A handful of people did make fortunes in months, but it really was a mere handful,” Barrows says. “It often takes months to make a livable income, and years to make a solid one.”

Chicagoan Griffin Barrows has more than 500 videos on his OnlyFans page and is arguably one of the site’s most recognizable gay male creators.Credit: Courtesy of Griffin Barrows

And the platform itself isn’t without its problems. The interface can be clunky and hard to navigate as a user. The site also takes a 20 percent cut of creators’ earnings and has a list of sex acts it won’t allow creators to perform on the platform—like “sadomasochistic abuse or hardcore bondage” and “urine,” common kinks themselves. Those prohibitions are included in legal standards that prevent users from publishing outright violence like torture and rape on the platform.

The site has also been called exploitative by many in the adult industry, particularly after actress Bella Thorne reportedly pocketed millions from the site in a week after she made an account.

Many agree that OnlyFans and sites like it have certainly democratized sex work, giving more people access to an industry know previously for “casting couch” auditions and restrictive contracts.

But popularity of the platforms aside, Barrows and Wolf also agree that even “legal” sex work is still not a truly accepted and destigmatized form of work or even hobby—yet.

“There are plenty of stories of people facing undue consequences after being outed as OnlyFans creators,” Wolf says. “I think it is important to recognize that the only thing that will help protect and value sex workers is sex-worker-positive legislation.”

And Richards is quick to point out that those consequences disproportionately affect the marginalized groups that have been able to engage in safer forms of sex work on fan sites.

“Any legislation or criminalization or loss of platforms or anything that affects sex workers does not affect everyone, it really specifically is affecting disproportionately marginalized groups, like people of color, people with disabilities,” he says.

Alongside those concerns is the news that London-based OnlyFans, which is owned by technology company Fenix International Limited, is also rumored to be distancing itself from adult content.

But the platform’s biggest competitor, JustForFans, is owned and operated by adult entertainers and there are no plans to change that, says its founder Dominic Ford. Ford has a 13-year-long career in the gay adult entertainment industry and founded JustForFans roughly a year and a half after OnlyFans was founded in 2016. Unlike OnlyFans, Ford readily and proudly describes JustForFans as a “porn site.”

In that vein, Ford says the site is staffed entirely by people either doing on-camera or behind-the-scenes work in the adult industry. He says that makes his site much friendlier and more holistic than OnlyFans, because he and his staff all have personal experience with the needs of not only performers, but also commonly forgotten but still crucial industry professionals like producers, directors, and agents.

As a creator, Richards lauded the site for having fewer content restrictions than OnlyFans, and the payment processors to which they are beholden.

“[The platforms are] putting the power back with us as individual performers, and what that ends up meaning is that the performers are more diverse and more equitable than ever,” says Trip Richards, a content creator who uses OnlyFans.Credit: Courtesy of Trip Richards

Also unlike OnlyFans, and in what Ford says is a first for the adult industry, JustForFans allows creators on the site to donate a percentage of their earnings to charity. According to the JustForFans website, creators have donated more than $75,000 to causes and organizations including Black Lives Matter, Trans Lifeline, The HIV League, Sex Workers Outreach Project-USA, and the Free Speech Coalition. Ford says that’s just another part of the community-focused ethos of the platform.

But even as Ford tries to set JustForFans apart, he seems almost surprisingly eager to hear the news that OnlyFans is abandoning its roots in favor of more mainstream success. It’s a phenomenon he says the adult industry is more than used to, but one he says will just help JustForFans and other loyal platforms thrive.

“We, as adult industry performers and business people, are sick and tired of (but used to) technology companies starting up, cutting their teeth on adult [content], making money, ironing out their bugs, and then leaving us once they don’t need us anymore,” Ford says. “OnlyFans is not the first, it will not be the last.”  v

Adam M. Rhodes

Adam M. Rhodes is a queer, nonbinary, first-generation Cuban American journalist. Rhodes is currently a social justice reporter at the Chicago Reader, where their work centers primarily on queer people and people of color. Their recent work has examined HIV treatment access in Puerto Rico, racism in Chicago’s principal queer neighborhood, and, most recently, HIV criminalization in Illinois. Alongside the Reader, Rhodes has been published in outlets including BuzzFeed News and The Washington Post. You can follow them on Twitter at @byadamrhodes.