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OnlyFans and the Reality of Online Prostitution

During the Covid-19 pandemic, when the online marketplace for influencers boomed, OnlyFans emerged as a leading platform for creators to monetize their content. OnlyFans is an online social media platform that invites users to pay for content — photos, videos, livestreams, and more — via a monthly membership. Anyone can create content on the platform, such as public figures, physical fitness trainers, and musicians. With millions of users and payouts in the billions, OnlyFans is marketed as a revolutionary way for creators and fans to “connect authentically.”

The site is most well-known for its adult content. According to Culture Reframed’s Research Associate, Eric Silverman, “OnlyFans does not advertise itself as a pornographic marketplace. But porn is the reason it exists.” Up to 98% of content creators post videos and photos of themselves in sexually suggestive poses, and some even sell custom-made videos and live webcam performances. Silverman argues that OnlyFans is prostitution — the selling of sex and emotional services mainly by women, mainly for men.

At Culture Reframed’s recent virtual event, “Pornography & Prostitution: Connecting the Dots,” Silverman presented an in-depth look at the online pornographic ecosystem in which sexual services are bartered and sold. Silverman claims that this ecosystem arises from and depends on online porn: mainstream porn websites, OnlyFans and other content subscription services, and sexual webcamming platforms. In his presentation, he unpacked the reality of this ecosystem and its connections to prostitution. He says these sites and services do not, as OnlyFans claims, allow the development of “authentic relationships” but, instead, peddle inauthentic sexual exploitation, resulting in online prostitution.

In a recent white paper published by Culture Reframed, Silverman further explores the topic and argues against the well-intentioned but misguided belief that webcamming platforms are empowering for women. According to Silverman, “webcamming and OnlyFans are simply online versions of an old and tired patriarchy that commodifies women’s bodies as disposable sex objects.”

Webcamming is a thriving industry. One platform, Chaturbate, received 470 million visits in October 2022 and ranked in the top 50 visited websites worldwide. The interaction between performers and users mainly consists of tipping for sexual acts. Users purchase virtual tokens, which allow platforms to evade bank restrictions on payments for sex.

According to Silverman, “Mainstream porn sites, OnlyFans, and sexual webcamming platforms are pillars of an online pornographic ecosystem, marketed to women as new, fun, rewarding, empowering. In reality, it’s the same old sale of women for men’s pleasure.” OnlyFans, Silverman argues, is marketed as a way for women to celebrate their sexuality, assert bodily autonomy, and shun low-wage jobs, but the reality is far from that. In actuality, it perpetuates the sale of women for men’s pleasure, and it lures vulnerable women into a dangerous and exploitative industry.

Read Silverman’s white paper, OnlyFans Is Only Porn: The Online Ecosystem of Webcamming and OnlyFans, here and watch his full presentation, “OnlyFans: The New Digital Bridge Between Porn and Prostitution,” below.

Kharkov, Ukraine - August 23, 2021: Woman using Onlyfans application. Onlyfans app logo on mobile phone screen