Article Thumbnail

OnlyFans Never Wanted to Be a Sex Worker’s Paradise

Despite its reputation as sex-worker-friendly, OnlyFans has been blocking escorts and full-service sex workers. Could a peek into its murky origins reveal why?

The last few months have seen the world’s interest in sexy subscription site OnlyFans soar to dizzying new heights. The New York Times had already declared last year that the site “changed sex work forever,” but coronavirus, a Beyoncé namedrop (which reportedly sparked an influx of new sign-ups) and a slew of high-profile sign-ups, including Cardi B and Bella Thorne (more on her later) have since turned OnlyFans into a household name.

Statistics about the company’s astronomical growth are hard to pin down, but The Daily Beast claims that the site is home to 400,000 content creators who service a growing global audience of 30 million. In March, a company email quoted by Rolling Stone indicated that the pandemic inspired a 75 percent increase in new sign-ups, with more than 170,000 users registering daily. These headlines have since grown less complimentary — from allegations of unpaid tax bills to sex workers’ backlash against the site’s continued push of shiny, SFW influencers, the site is being questioned more than ever.

Now, the site’s opacity is becoming notorious. The New York Times had to settle for “maddeningly vague” quotes from CEO Tim Stokely, whereas The Daily Beast cited him as “Tom Stokely” — either a deliberate name change on his part, or a huge editorial oversight. Dig deeper, and you’ll find countless stories of sex workers being burned by the site. Whether they’re being kicked off the platform for no reason or ignored when they complain about missing funds, plenty of sex workers are investing their energy and resources into a site that doesn’t exactly seem keen to return the favor.

OnlyFans model and sex worker Shae Ashbury discovered these issues the hard way last year, summarizing her experiences in a scathing blog post entitled “How OnlyFans Steals From Sex Workers and Fans.” When I call to ask more questions, she’s friendly and curious about the experiences of other sex workers on the site. There’s also some reservation about speaking on record. “I’ve become the OnlyFans girl,” she jokes, alluding to harassment she’s received since publishing her story.

The trouble began when she first tried to create an account. Almost immediately, she was rejected — apparently, her profile didn’t do enough to conceal the fact that she worked as an escort. “I sensed that [they] despised escorts,” she wrote, explaining that this was the reason she was initially turned down. Her hunch was correct — escorts are banned in the Terms and Conditions, largely due to the 2018 FOSTA-SESTA bill, which pushed sex workers offline. Ashbury emailed for clarification, and was told that she’d be in the clear as long as she didn’t “advertised or promote” her escort services. In response, she scrubbed her socials of all reference to full-service sex work and successfully signed up. Within weeks, she had a small army of dedicated fans — enough to rack up a four-figure payout.

To celebrate her birthday and the incoming cash flow, she decided to take a short vacation with a long-term client. But as she got into the car, he told her the news: Her account had been deleted. “I checked and it was totally nuked,” she recalls, the disbelief still lingering in her voice. 

In her inbox, she found an email from OnlyFans, which she quotes in her blog post, stating that she violated a condition: “You may not create, upload, post, display, publish or distribute User Content that promotes or advertises escort services.” No other specific information was given, and the email was rounded off with a curt confirmation that the decision was final.  Ashbury never saw a dime of her payout — the lack of notice meant that she was unable to withdraw her funds before she was axed. “There was zero warning, and then I had to press them for answers over the course of at least five or six emails,” she explains. “After that, they just stopped responding to me. I think my subscribers were refunded, but OnlyFans pocketed my tips and custom video fees.”

It only takes a scroll through Twitter to see that these stories of lost income on OnlyFans are becoming more and more frequent

In May, Rolling Stone reported that escorts were being booted due to the aforementioned terms and conditions linked to the notorious SESTA-FOSTA bill, which decimated online sex work in 2018. VICE also investigated sudden changes to the company’s referral scheme, which initially paid creators five percent of the lifetime income of anyone who signed up through their referral code. Earlier this year, “lifetime” was changed to “12 months only,” and a $50,000 payout cap was introduced. The reason? According to an email sent to creators and screencapped by VICE: “To invest even more resources in our infrastructure, our technology and our support teams.” In other words, OnlyFans has become so successful that even the company can’t keep up.

Now, celebrities are muscling in, too — and again, it’s sex workers being punished. When Bella Thorne signed up, she promised to send fans naked photos in PPV messages worth $200. Thorne lied, sending lingerie photos instead. The site had a record number of chargeback requests, so the rules were altered with basically no warning. Now, tips and PPV fees (which had been encouraged in an official blog post on how to make bank on OnlyFans) would be capped at $100. A rep maintained that Thorne’s scam wasn’t the catalyst, but the timing was arguably too convenient to be anything other than a knee-jerk response.

These sudden changes are a common complaint amongst OnlyFans models. Danny was a full-time adult creator on the site for two years, but in May, he received an email requesting consent forms for everyone he had ever filmed with. His account was locked while he gathered evidence and performed the requested “self-audit.” Meanwhile, his subscribers, unable to rebill, were dropping like flies. “This had never been mentioned before,” he says, outlining that there’s not even a place on the site to upload model consent forms. As a result, he had to go through customer service, an experience that he describes as “horrendous.” “You send an email and you’ll be waiting a week for a reply,” he says. “They’ve got a brilliant concept, but the execution is trash.”

Even after sending all requested documentation, his account was closed and his digital wallet — which contained $700 at the time — was emptied. Like Ashbury, he never received his payout. This happens so often that the California-based APAG (Adult Performers and Actors’ Guild) has become a de facto customer service department. “We’ve basically become the center for getting performers their accounts back,” confirms APAG President Alana Evans.

Instability is a given in the sex industry, but these sex workers are investing hundreds of unpaid hours into fighting OnlyFans for payments earned fair and square, while the company sits back and watches profits swell. Now more than ever, these sex workers simply don’t have the time to investigate the issue themselves — the pandemic has seen entire swathes of the sex industry shuttered or swarmed with competition (driven in no small part by OnlyFans), limiting their options. Not only are they working twice as hard to earn a decent wage, but some are breaking their backs in their downtime to advocate for sex workers who are being exploited and then ignored.

“Money is more essential now than ever,” Danny says, explaining that he’s struggled to stay afloat since losing his income with barely any notice. “I question the ethics of why they’re deciding not to pay us now, and not telling us what terms and conditions we’ve breached.” 

Psychologically, the impact of being pushed out can be extreme, too. Lianne works as a counsellor for the APAG, and works regularly with OnlyFans’ creators dealing with the stress of their accounts being shuttered without warning. “There’s the devastation at not being able to access money, but then they feel like they’ve been judged for being a sex worker,” she explains. “Whether it’s a sex platform or not, what’s common is that feeling of disapproval. That can lead to some real serious mental-health issues.”

A handful of sex workers I talk to argue that the company distances itself from sex workers too, with blog posts predominantly promoting SFW creators like comedians and musicians. Danny laughs as he recalls a tweet thanking OnlyFans’ magicians, which sparked a backlash and an adult creator in-joke in the process: “When was the last time you subscribed to someone’s OnlyFans to watch them do a fucking magic show?” 

To wit, OnlyFans has done little to acknowledge or address the devastating impact of SESTA-FOSTA, which saw NSFW content creators pushed out of platforms like Tumblr and Patreon and onto its site. U.K.-based activist Rebecca Crow was one of the many adult content creators booted from Patreon, so in 2018, she joined OnlyFans after a friend recommended it to her. “When I joined, it was aimed at personal fitness influencers on Instagram,” she recalls. “It was still sexualized though — it was people signing up to see you do squats in tight leggings.” In the beginning, that’s how OnlyFans stood out: By social media integration that blurred the lines between casual content and provocation. Users could sync posts on Twitter, and the website still has a tool that calculates an income estimate based on your Instagram following. “It was really flashed in my face that if I had a big following, I could make a lot of money,” she says, and she did — within months, she had gone full-time.

This emphasis on Instagram as a failsafe way to make cash also puts sex workers at a disadvantage; they’re shadow-banned so often there that they’ve even launched a hashtag, #everyBODYvisible, to call for fair treatment. Crow is one of many sex workers at the forefront of this movement, and is campaigning to take the company to court.

Like Instagram, Crow believes that OnlyFans also offers preferential treatment to its top-tier influencers. “Once they figured out that sex workers were getting involved, they reached out to a lot of the high-earners. A lot still have direct contact with them now, so they’re very aware that [sex workers] are the demographic,” she tells me. As her numbers have grown, so has the rate of response from customer care — and now, whenever models are kicked off with no warning, Crow’s inboxes are flooded with stories of lost income, hurt feelings and frustration at the loss of yet another platform believed to be sex-worker-friendly.

Ashbury believes this is all a tactical front on the company’s part. “They know exactly what they’re doing when they hide behind non-sex workers to raise OnlyFans’ profile as an ‘influencer’ platform,” she says. Danny concurs, going a step further: “Honestly, I think they hate sex workers and porn. They hate that OnlyFans is used for porn. It wasn’t part of their vision.”

In reality, though, the opposite seems more likely to be the case. Stokely has a long history of profiting from sex workers. From GlamWorship to Customs4U, there’s a trail of adult businesses in his name that date back to 2011. As for Fenix International, OnlyFans’ elusive parent company, Stokely’s name is nowhere to be found on official company records; instead, the listed company directors are his father, Guy Stokely, and U.S.-based venture capitalist Leo Radvinsky, whose history of fraud allegations and patent infringements is handily summarized in this 67-page document

I’ve seen evidence that sex workers have lost huge sums of money from these businesses. An anonymous sex worker confirms that she invested $15,000 into a company conceived by the Stokely family back in 2014, and that she never saw a penny in return. She co-invested with another sex worker, who later went on to co-found another business with Stokely. (Neither the sex workers nor the business can be named for legal reasons.) The idea was basically OnlyFans in beta: Social media users could monetize their content, but due to her industry connections, it was flooded with porn stars and sex workers in the same way that OnlyFans is now. Again, I’ve seen documents confirming this joint ownership, as well as allegations that Stokely breached a non-compete clause to turn the sex worker’s “framework and idea” into a secret launch of OnlyFans while he was still co-owner of the aforementioned site.

In other words, these recent stories of escorts losing income and sex workers being booted for vague, ever-changing rulebreaks don’t exist in a vacuum; they’re part of a much longer story, and for the sex workers I spoke with, they’re exemplary of yet another company willing to rinse sex workers for profit and discard them when they no longer need them.

There is good news, though: Amidst all this chaos, a handful of sex workers are taking matters into their own hands.

On an early Saturday afternoon in Florida, gay porn performer and entrepreneur Dominic Ford has just finished dismantling a home gym and rushing it up and down the stairs of his apartment. He laughs as he apologizes for being sweaty and shirtless; he’s been tidying in preparation for virtually presenting a Grabby Award, and soon after we finish our call, he’ll start training the first ever customer service advisor for his own business, JustForFans.

An OnlyFans competitor, the company takes a 30 percent commission as opposed to OnlyFans’ 20 percent, but offers for more features in return — from spotlights to competitions to speedy replies (he takes approximately 10 minutes to get back to me), it’s not hard to see why user MaxenceAngelXXX built a tool for sex workers to mass-migrate their content over.

“Every day — and I mean every day — we get models who were either shut off of OnlyFans, or OnlyFans has somehow not paid them or there’s been some issue and they want to move over to us,” Ford tells me. “The general sense I get is that people just don’t feel safe and secure because they don’t hear anything back from these people. [They feel that] any day, the rug could be pulled from under them and they don’t know why.”

Payment processors are generally a thorn in the side of these startups, but Ford’s porn experience means that he knows exactly which companies and banks are sex-worker-friendly. “Unlike our competitors, we don’t get shut down every month or two by our banks,” he says, alluding to Canadian sex workers having payments delayed by OnlyFans’ bank change last year. (The company finally explained the situation on Twitter, promising to “do better” with communication in the future.) “We’re not afraid to say we’re a porn site, and all of our vendors know 100 percent who we are,” he says. “That’s part of why we take 30 percent. That extra 10 percent isn’t giving me four Lamborghinis, it’s making the site work and not having issues where people don’t get paid for three months and nobody says anything.”

He reiterates that sex workers are used to being “given the short end of the stick,” and explains his frustration that sites like OnlyFans are more popular than alternatives that unashamedly support sex workers, campaigning for decriminalization and supporting sex workers’ own initiatives. “People don’t really like OnlyFans, but they’re making a lot of money. Wanting to be part of a site that supports them doesn’t seem as important as their need to make easy money on OnlyFans,” Ford says, describing this as his “pet peeve.”

This could still change, though. As more users share stories of lost income, labor and stolen content, the idea that OnlyFans is far from a sex workers’ paradise continues to gain traction. Creators are increasingly seeing through the company’s attempts to distance itself from sex workers, as well as its tendency to slap a shiny, SEO-friendly filter atop its public branding.

The problem is, the competition comes with its own baggage. Earlier this year, for example, trust in Ford was rocked by a handful of sexual assault allegations shared on social media by performers Tannor Reed, Justin Stone and Mickey Taylor. (He was also accused of trying to stifle the allegations.) Ford hasn’t issued an in-depth comment, but recent press reports contain a lawyer’s statement that reads: “Dominic Ford categorically denies all allegations of sexual assault. My office is currently exploring a legal response to the false assertions. Accordingly, I have advised Mr. Ford not to make any further statement at this time.”

Which, for the most part, leaves sex workers to either spread their content across different platforms for their own protection or battle OnlyFan’s ever-changing rules and ever-disappearing customer service. “It’s the same with Instagram — it’s so frustrating to see a company build up status through sex workers and then decide we’re tarring their brand, as if we’re the criminal here,” says Crow, her voice heavy with frustration. “To be honest, I think the only thing that’s criminal is the way we’re being treated.”