Money, Power, Glory: The myth of OnlyFans empowerment

A recent media storm has developed around former Hollyoaks actress Sarah Jane Dunn, focusing on her involvement with porn site OnlyFans, and her subsequent firing from the TV soap after the show’s bosses found out.

Dunn has reportedly recently made over £100,000 on OnlyFans in under 48 hours, with her subscribers number increasing in light of her being dismissed from the TV show. In a statement, Hollyoaks bosses said:

“Hollyoaks is a youth-facing drama with many young viewers, who follow our cast very closely, both in the soap and outside of it. We take our responsibility to our young audience very seriously and therefore the show does not allow any Hollyoaks cast members to be active on certain 18+ websites. We had hoped we could reach a resolution with Sarah that would allow her to remain in her role as Mandy, but we respect her choice to continue to produce content on OnlyFans.

Dunn has spoken out against her treatment and has argued that she is simply taking control of an image that has, up until now, already been sexualised by viewers and the show alike. This is understandable, given that Hollyoaks had previously been involved in the production of an annual “Babes Calendar”, where its stars would engage in risqué, sexualised photoshoots to promote the show’s brand.

But we must exercise caution around this issue. Dunn is entirely within her rights to feel aggrieved that she has been fired from a show for, in effect, doing what she had already been doing under the umbrella of the show’s brand. Her OnlyFans account only contains lingerie photoshoots and falls far short of the deluge of abusive and degrading explicit pornography that is otherwise rife on the site. But to focus on examples where any given individual may feel empowered by the uploading of “content” onto the site is to ignore the systemic exploitation and objectification that the site propagates and facilitates.

Reducing women into objects to be “purchased” on any site – OnlyFans or otherwise – normalises the sexualisation and objectification of women and girls in wider society. And it leads to real world harm. Recent awareness-raising efforts around sexual harassment and abuse in schools (see Everyone’s Invited) are proof positive of this ‘funnel effect’.

The fact is, at the click of a button people of all ages have access to a vast quantity of online porn and for many young people this functions as informal sex education. Porn is saturated with physical and sexual violence which is proven to directly impacts users’ behaviour and views towards their partners. So it is a logical conclusion that this behaviour extends into wider society, including schools and peer groups. The objectification and sexualisation of women and girls in our social circles is the natural consequence of such normalisation.

The myth of the “economically empowered sex worker” is also far removed from reality for most people involved in the commercial sex industry. Whilst much of the media reporting around Dunn – and other “content creators” – focused on the large earnings resulting from their involvement with OnlyFans, this is by no means representative.

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 OnlyFans has managed to reinforce the exploitation endured by content creators, and utilise 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 wider commercial sex industry results in performers being persistently pressurised to engage in increasingly degrading and abusive acts. These acts are then in turn normalised (and thus less stimulating and enticing for viewers), and only material that is even more violent and debasing will satisfy them. The effect of this is two-fold: firstly, the performers must acquiesce because, if they don’t, their income streams will dry up leaving them facing poverty as well as emotional and psychological distress; secondly, this fuels the attitudes outlined at the beginning of this article, which trickle down into “real world” interactions between users and their partners and peer groups.

Despite protestations to the contrary, OnlyFans has done nothing to “put the power back into the hands of performers”. In reality, all that has happened is an ever-increasing number of women and young girls are being exploited due to entryways into the industry becoming more accessible than ever.

Ultimately, this is the natural course of the commercial sex industry. Performers are chewed up and spat out, but the propaganda machine of this multi-billion dollar global industry harnesses the stories of individual “success stories” to present a false portrayal of what actually happens. And when our culture buys into this myth of empowerment, that machine is fed, and grows, and continues to exploit the most vulnerable in society. We must no longer allow the porn industry to present itself as a harmless venture that anybody can, and should, get involved in. Nothing could be further from the truth.