“I’m going to go in the other room, and I’m going to cover myself in oil, I’m going to do that for about 10 minutes, and I’m going to make about £8000”. This is the opening line of Channel 4’s new podcast entitled “A global camdemic. Meet the young people stripping for cash on OnlyFans”, which takes a look at the increase in young women engaging in what the podcast terms “online sex work” during the Covid-19 pandemic. There is no more appropriate a day than today – International Women’s Day – to examine just how damaging this portrayal of the commercial sex trade is for women and girls across the world.
To say that the opening line is misleading would be an understatement. The “wealth creation” myth of OnlyFans is one that is often propagated 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 being the go-to description of the site.
However, this ignores the intense exploitation – both sexual and economic – that occurs at every level of the transaction. For example, approximately 73% of the entire income generated by the site is concentrated into the hands of a mere 10% of its creators. This leaves 90% of the creators left to split a meagre 27% of the remaining profit.
As the author of Pornland, Dr Gail Dines, tells anti-sexual violence campaigner Julie Bindel: “OnlyFans is really just an extension of sex webcamming. It combines the sexual exploitation of mainstream porn with the economic exploitation of the gig economy.”
Of course, this is to say nothing of the sexual exploitation that goes hand in hand with the economic exploitation: after all, just because something provides a form of income, it does not preclude it being exploitative or abusive in other ways.
As one young woman stated in media coverage of the website: “At first it was brilliant. There was a little bit of semi-nudity and I was earning a fair bit, but then I came under pressure to film myself in pornographic poses and even having sex with a girlfriend. That’s when I got really upset and disabled my account.”
As Dr Dines points out above, the gig economy set up of OnlyFans is directly linked to the level of subsequent sexual exploitation that occurs within the videos themselves. OnlyFans is a saturated free market of the worst kind; where performers very rapidly earn decreasing amounts of money for content they produced when “starting out” on the site, so have to vary the sex acts they’re willing to engage in in order to maintain what often works out as earning less than minimum wage.
As Julie Bindel reported in The Spectator in an interview with young woman who signed up to be a performer on OnlyFans: ‘Each subscriber paid me $10 a week and after the cut from OF I was left with £8. I needed to get as many subscribers as possible so I could pay my rent, which means posting new images all day every day,’ says Claudia, ‘and agreeing to more and more explicit stuff. In the end I felt exhausted and degraded and cancelled my membership.’
This trajectory that plays out within the context of OnlyFans is simply a microcosm of how the wider porn industry works. Research demonstrates that the demand-driven nature of porn as a whole means performers are consistently under pressure to engage in increasingly degrading and abusive acts, which are then in turn normalised (and thus less stimulating and enticing for viewers), and only material that is even more abusive and degrading will satisfy users. This vicious cycle plays out at every level of the industry, and in recent years has even led to an increase in child sexual abuse material (“child porn”), with anti-CSA experts warning that the links between porn use and subsequent viewing of CSAM are “unambiguous”.
This mainstream coverage of Only Fans, the new frontier of sexual exploitation in 21st century, is vital, but by using only terms such as “sex work” Channel 4 sanitises the exploitative nature of the industry. At the very least the media must offer a counterbalancing perspective or terminology choice such as “sex trade”. While the nature of these industries is of course contested by those on either side of the “debate”, it is highly misleading to portray the industry as substantially non-exploitative but with a few “bad apples”. The economic model of the industry entails that increasing levels of exploitation are par for the course, and it is high time that this becomes the dominant narrative.