How Feminist is OnlyFans?
Updated: Mar 19
OnlyFans is a content subscription platform that gives content creators the space to upload sexy (although not necessarily explicit) photos and videos for their paying subscribers’ viewing pleasure. It has stood out as the cool, trendy go-to place for pornographic content. Its popularity has been on the rise since its conception in 2016: by 2020, the platform has boasted over 12 million users and claims to have paid out more than 2 billion dollars to its content creators.
The growing social prominence of OnlyFans has been met with conflicting reactions from the public. Mainstream media has lauded it as "empowering", on account of its potential for financial benefit for the models (content creators). Success stories like that of the “Mum who lost job in lockdown set to become OnlyFans millionaire in just one year” are part of an overall positive narrative, constructed by media outlets such as the Mirror. Others have made strong claims to the contrary: OnlyFans is a tool for men to treat women like personalised sex toys. So how feminist is OnlyFans really?
Feminist literature has been slow to analyse the impact OnlyFans can have on gender oppression. A notable exception is Catharine MacKinnon, one of the most prominent figures to argue that pornography is an instrument of patriarchal oppression. She has recently condemned OnlyFans as a "pimp" and as “niche pornography as mediated soft prostitution”. However, in her analysis of OnlyFans as pornography and prostitution, she misses a crucial aspect of the platform that is perhaps less intuitive to someone from her generation. Namely, OnlyFans enables what I consider to be a novel form of sex work – social media sex work. It proliferates pornographic content as a sexual services within the dynamics of social media because, in the way that it functions, OnlyFans is a social media platform.
OnlyFans straightforwardly satisfies the textbook definition of a social media platform: it is an application on the Internet that facilitates the production and exchange of user-generated content. It looks and feels like other social media platforms: for example, its interface, with the way the feed is organised and its light blue accents, closely resembles Twitter. Moreover, unlike other webcamming platforms, it operates according to what José van Dijck and Thomas Poell have called "social media logic", on account of the direct and sustained relationship between models and their clients.
The technological nature of social media sex work means that normative evaluation of the platform can reasonably be situated within technofeminism. Technofeminsim concerns the relationship between technologies and their serving as an instrument for those in power. Whether a technology is feminist depends on whether it tackles gender oppression. Linda Layne offers three rough categories of feminist technologies: minimal, moderate and radical. A minimal feminist technology improves things for women "somewhat", a moderate one offers "substantial" improvement, and a radical one holistically restructures the dynamics of power in favour of women. Within this framework, it seems as though OnlyFans should be considered feminist somewhere between minimally and moderately.
There is good reason to argue that OnlyFans offers a substantial improvement for women, and is hence moderately feminist. OnlyFans stands out as a safe and financially empowering way to do sex work. Because of this, it constitutes an improvement from other, more "traditional" forms of sex work, where this is not the case. Firstly, the lack of direct, physical contact with the client precludes the two types of risks associated with the profession. The digital nature of social media sex work protects models from sexually transmitted diseases and infections. Moreover, it prevents clients from exerting physical violence over models. This makes social media sex work much safer than other kinds of sex work, including pornography, where clients, pimps, co-actors and other staff often assault sex workers.
Secondly, OnlyFans allows models to claim sole ownership of the profit they have earned. This is not the case for “traditional” sex work, where a big part of the sex worker’s profit goes to various middlemen. In prostitution, sexual massages and dancing, such middlemen are for example pimps and estate managers. Similarly, in pornography, producers earn more than actresses, who also owe a share of their profit to an agent. Granted, OnlyFans does claim 20% of models' income. However, this is closer to what other content sharing platforms like Patreon charge their users (between 5% and 12%), and less than other digital forms of sex work such as webcamming. On average, webcamming platforms (e.g. Chaterbate, FlirtCam) charge content creators around 50% of their income. After all, OnlyFans was initially intended to be just like other content sharing platforms, so it makes sense it does not operate on a "pimp" model.
Aside from being a more practically beneficial form of sex work, OnlyFans also has the potential to change the way we treat sex workers for the better. The appropriation of sex workers' income by pimps and the lack of safety is, as Martha Nussbaum has argued, what separates sex work from other professions where money is exchanged for bodily services. The reason behind that is the age-old stigma towards prostitution, which in turn rests on incorrect and harmful beliefs about female sexuality. Overcoming those two obstacles may bring our society closer to treating sex work how any other line of work would be treated. The positive portrayal of OnlyFans by the media can thus be seen as a positive step in the direction of normalising and destigmatising sex work, which would entail treating sex workers with more dignity and respect than we have previously.
In light of these considerations, it seems that OnlyFans is ‘moderately’ feminist. Social media sex work is a substantively better – more dignified, economically viable and safer – way to do sex work. For this reason, we can say that it offers an improvement for women who do or would do sex work. However, does making sex work a better option improve things for women in general? Perhaps it does, only insofar as women have better economic options, and performing sex work is truly an autonomous choice, rather than the better of few bad economic options. This does not seem to be the case, given the global poverty of women and persisting gender inequality.
On the contrary, it seems that the impact of the platform on gender oppression that pertains to women in general is mostly negative. For one, it reinforces a representation of women as inferior. As OnlyFans looks and acts like social media, we are likely to perceive its content as disposable, as we do with other social media. When we treat social media sex work content as disposable, we subconsciously come to think that there is an unlimited supply of sexualised female bodies, available just a click away. This is evident in what some subscribers say: “Eventually you want … [stuff] when you want it,” so one can easily go on OnlyFans and receive it, thanks to the “convenience of having easy access.” Hence, society is under the impression that “Everyone and their mum is on it”, posting scarcely clothed pictures of themselves. This sustains the notion that the seemingly endless supply of women on the platform are all only valuable to the extent that they are useful for their customers.
Moreover, OnlyFans’ popularity has the negative consequence of incentivising minors to join. Formally, of course, the platform requires every model to verify their identity to prove they are over 18 when creating a profile. Except this mechanism has proven easy to overcome, judging by the example of the 14 year old girl who created a profile using her grandmother’s passport. OnlyFans has also been unable to prevent minors “collaborating”, i.e. being featured on adults’ profiles with them. Thus, OnlyFans is directly responsible for the creation of child pornography and the exploitation of girls. Among other ways OnlyFans has caused harm to women is through its inability to prevent virtual harassment and the leaking of creators’ content without their consent. So it seems that the platform ultimately perpetuates instances of gender oppression.
When weighing the positive against the negative impact the platform has for gender oppression, it does matter that OnlyFans improves the options specifically of sex workers. They are often the most vulnerable members of society, and intersectional feminism compels us to centre discussions around their needs. However, OnlyFans does sex workers a disservice, as the opportunity for financial gains is not equal. Rather, it favours those who are already in a position of privilege. Thomas Hollands notes that a third of the money earned on the site is made only by the top 1%. Those who do succeed and make the most money are usually people who already enjoy significant popularity, like celebrities and social media influencers. The average content creator, however, does not have the same opportunity and would struggle to earn more than they would in their regular job. Hollands estimates that the average revenue from OnlyFans for creators is $180 per month.
In conclusion, what substantial improvement OnlyFans offers women and importantly, vulnerable women, is offset by its inevitable role in perpetuating gender oppression. Hence, we can say that it is feminist somewhere between minimally and moderately. Can we do something about it? The status of OnlyFans as a social media platform may yet help us do something about the "porn question", as it has been argued that Twitter, for example, is responsible for propagating misogyny and therefore liable to regulation. Ultimately, what to do about OnlyFans is a question I have shown needs to be studied not only through feminist political theory, but also through the ethics and politics of social media.
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