OnlyFans has built a reputation, particularly during the pandemic, as a place for sex workers and other creators to monetize adult content. So last week’s news that the site was banning porn—which, after a huge outcry, the company reversed on Wednesday—naturally caused a firestorm and invited a host of questions. One big one was: Isn’t … everything on OnlyFans porn?
It turns out OnlyFans has, in recent months, been working overtime to change that perception. According to the public face the company presents via the pages it chooses to promote on its YouTube channel, Twitter account, and internal blog, the platform isn’t a haven for sex workers, heavens no, but a diverse community full of photographers, fitness coaches, makeup gurus, and other creatives. These non-porn accounts are real and there are even a fair number of them—but what are they doing on OnlyFans? And how do they view their place on the platform, especially after the past week?
“It’s difficult how we categorize ourselves. We’re basically the non-porn people,” said Viii Martinelli, who posts on OnlyFans about food and wellness. (Martinelli, like others in this article, spoke to me before Wednesday’s reversal.) There are all sorts of people like her: Martinelli pointed to the page of someone who’s an expert in mushrooms (OnlyFungi), and also tarot readers and mystics who are on the site.
The reason some of the “non-porn people” have presences on OnlyFans in the first place is pretty simple: The company recruited them. “Back in March, OnlyFans reached out to me and asked me if I would start an OnlyFans,” Anthony O’Connell, a Columbus, Ohio, content creator also focused on food, told me. “They found me via my Instagram because I have a pretty decent following on there.”
O’Connell was as surprised as anyone that OnlyFans was interested in him. In retrospect, it looks like the site was already setting the stage for last week’s announcement.
“I literally just chuckled, because I thought of it exclusively as a porn site. I didn’t even realize that people made non-explicit content on there,” he said. “They told me they were trying to rebrand.” He said the company was eager to help him succeed, offering guidance on growing his account and making promotional videos for it. He liked that the company courted him and figured he didn’t have anything to lose, so he signed up. He now maintains an OnlyFans page where he posts food reviews, ASMR eating content, cooking videos, and more.
O’Connell’s following on OnlyFans is modest—he has fewer than 400 fans—so he doesn’t make enough there to earn a living, as some of the site’s top (mostly explicit) creators reportedly do. “Right now, it can basically pay my cellphone bill or something, which is nice, but it’s not life-changing money.”
Martinelli, meanwhile, was one of the scores of people who came to OnlyFans during the pandemic because she was having trouble finding work elsewhere. A 28-year-old based outside London, she didn’t have many followers across social media at the time, so she knew she would be starting essentially from scratch. “In the very beginning, I thought, OK, yes, Patreon is an option,” she said. “However, as somebody who has zero followers, it just doesn’t make sense to put a paywall on something where nobody knows who you are. People want to know what they’re paying for.”
“I thought, in no way am I going to do porn or any sexual content, that’s a no, but I can still take the system and make it work for me,” she said. And that’s how she wound up on OnlyFans, where she does things like share recipes and livestream yoga sessions. One of her trademarks has become posting photo sets where she coordinates her outfits with her food. As with O’Connell, the company seemed all too happy to help get her set up and promote her page. She now has more than 30,000 fans, though the group of people who actually send her money in the form of tips is much smaller, she said. She said she’s making enough money each month to pay for her time.
Holiday Sidewinder, an Australian indie pop musician who has spent the last few months living in Estonia, also joined OnlyFans because she was struggling to support herself during the pandemic, especially as the live performance industry ground to a halt. “I’m lucky enough to have a very loyal fan base,” Sidewinder said. “I looked at Patreon, but I don’t know why, it just felt charitable? I didn’t want to feel like a charity. OnlyFans seemed to capture what I actually wanted, which was a place for my fans, subscription-based, where I could get paid to provide the content that I provide anyway.” On OnlyFans, she shares unreleased demos, merch discounts, glimpses into her process, and more.
It wasn’t long before she heard from the company, too. “They got in touch with me a few months back, and they were wanting to feature me in a couple things, and that’s when I got the notion that they were wanting to be just a content platform in general,” Sidewinder said.
She has about 100 fans there, whom she describes as her most hardcore supporters, and said she’s been earning enough to make a difference when she would otherwise be making nothing.
The creators have mixed views on OnlyFans’ reputation and how it affects them. “To be totally honest with you, I kind of liked it,” O’Connell said. “I kind of thought of it as a clickbait-y way to get people to see my content. Anytime I told someone, ‘Hey, I have an OnlyFans,’ they get so excited, they have a wide range of emotions. Then I’m like, ‘No, it’s wholesome food content. I’m not naked or anything.’ I thought it was a great way to get attention to push my podcast and stuff.”
For Sidewinder, choosing OnlyFans was a bit more political. On other platforms, she’s had videos banned, unfairly in her view, and she felt OnlyFans wouldn’t censor her art. (She doesn’t share anything she considers explicit on her OnlyFans, but acknowledged that her work can be sexually charged.) “I am all about demolishing contradictions and sexism in general, and also just women taking control of their own sexuality. Our sexuality will be commodified, and we should be in control of that.”
“I asked my fans before I did it what they thought, and I did have a female fan saying, ‘I don’t think you should go on there because you’re taking away money from sex workers,’ ” Sidewinder said. “I spoke to a few people about that and delved into that a bit, and I was like, ‘Well, it’s a platform. It’s for everyone.’ ”
Still, she acknowledged, “A huge amount of male fans probably were expecting nudes and stuff, and probably unsubscribed when they realized I wasn’t doing that.”
Martinelli, in contrast, said she has had trouble dealing with the stigma of being on OnlyFans. “When I joined OnlyFans, I knew what I was stepping into,” she said. “I didn’t think I was stepping into a Facebook page.” But she said she’s tired of being asked if she does porn and fielding vulgar messages from OnlyFans users who assume all of the platform’s creators are there to share explicit content.
As creators of content that isn’t explicit, Martinelli, Sidewinder, and O’Connell wouldn’t have been directly affected by a ban like the one OnlyFans initially announced. But when a platform known primarily for porn threatens to ban porn, there’s going to be ripple effects.
“It just seems really unfair to build a website or a service on sex workers, or whatever you want to classify them as,” O’Connell said. “It seems like a bait and switch. It seems like if Pepsi tried to rebrand as LaCroix.” Had the ban been implemented as described, he said he would have considered exiting the platform. Sure, he’s a foodie, not an adult performer, but it makes a lot of sense that a foodie who chooses to be on OnlyFans would stand in solidarity with sex workers.
Prior to the reversal, all the creators I spoke to expressed uncertainty about what going through with a ban would have actually looked like. They’d heard rumors of similar bans in the past, and they hoped the company would clean up the mess with more clarity. Even before Wednesday’s flip-flop, O’Connell said he’d been in touch with some explicit content creators who viewed the announcement as lip service, meant to give investors the impression that the platform is cleaning up without really cracking down. “They think they’re still going to be able to post their content however they want,” he said.
Martinelli had been a bit more optimistic about the ban when she first heard about it. She said she would love if, eventually, OnlyFans could have a neutral connotation, no different from saying you have an Instagram page or a Patreon. (Patreon may seem neutral now, but it’s also had its own reckoning with sex workers.) But she, too, suspected that sex workers would still have a future on the platform, and she turned out to be right.
When she was thinking through the potential ban, Sidewinder said, “I support sex workers, and I also acknowledge that it’s a free world and businesses are going to do what they need to do.”
“I think that’s a general problem with platforms,” she went on. “If you’re setting up businesses on Instagram or TikTok, it can be taken away at any point in time. That’s what’s dangerous about having a whole business rely on an app that you can’t control.” Though she and her fellow SFW creators have more options than their NSFW counterparts, they’re all ultimately at the mercy of larger forces.
Sidewinder had planned to wait and see how to ban played out. “I guess I’ll keep an eye on it, and if it’s not working for me, leave. I don’t need to be loyal to some company some dude made in London,” she said. “At the end of the day, I’m independent and I’ll do whatever I need to do.”
For more on what the OnlyFans reversal means for sex workers on that platform, listen to this episode of What Next.