It’s not an understatement to say that OnlyFans is one of the ‘winners of Covid’. The site has grown from 7.5 million users last November to 85 million now and has 1 million creators worldwide, receiving over $2bn in commission and subscription fees.
So what exactly is it? And what should university and college staff know in order to support students who are using or considering the platform?
Warning: avoid Googling on a work computer!
What is OnlyFans?
In a nutshell, OnlyFans is an open platform which, while open to anyone from personal trainers and models to porn stars and chefs, it’s best known for one thing: adult and explicit content.
OnlyFans is part of the new ‘creator economy’; providing a ready-market for creators to charge for their goods or services. ‘Creators’ generate income from tips and livestreams by charging subscription fees and uploading pay-per-view posts.
Many creators, most of them women, herald it as a tool of empowerment and the final step in destigmatising sex work. But on the flip side, many struggle to make any real money and live in fear of being ‘found out’.
Why are we worried about it?
More and more young people are shifting their content creation from Instagram or Twitter to OnlyFans out of financial desperation. They see OnlyFans as a way of generating extra cash since the usual social media avenues of income generation have taken a hit, or dried up completely, during Covid.
During recent research about the impact of Covid on students’ finances and how this is linked to mental health, we found that 4% of the 1,000 students surveyed have started an OnlyFans account due to their financial situation being affected by the pandemic, with many more considering it. One student told us:
There aren’t really any side hustles available at the moment, and the ones that are available would mean there is an increased chance of bringing covid back home with me. As I am in a support bubble with my last grandparent, I really don’t want to risk it. The only thing I could do is create an Only Fans account but I don’t think I’m brave enough or pretty enough for that. Still, as the potential for income is there, I do find myself considering making an Only Fans account more and more often.
Long-term risks in our digital age
At first glance, OnlyFans can seem less dangerous than other options. In fact, another student commented: “I don’t think it’s appropriate for you to include OnlyFans and sex work in the same category as ‘dangerous financial activity’ and gambling.”
Digital sex work – which is what this is – can give the illusion of safety. Physically, it is certainly more secure than in-person sex work, but there are nonetheless consequences and long-term risks in our digital age.
While we don’t judge the choices people make, nor their motivation for making them, we are concerned about the young people – mostly, but not exclusively, young women – who are posting photos, and videos of an explicit nature, which may hinder their ability to get a job in the future.
There is little to no anonymity on the site and creators can be the target of “doxxing” (a form of online harassment in which users publish private or sensitive information about someone without their permission).
There are also countless cases of users publishing screenshots, photos and videos more broadly beyond the confines of the site. In more extreme examples, some OnlyFans creators have also been stalked and received death and rape threats on social media according to a NYTimes exposé in January.
How can university and college staff support students?
While creating an environment where students feel comfortable to discuss these types of topics is likely to be a challenge, it is of course highly important so that students feel safe to seek support from university and college staff.
There are a number of themes that can be explored in conversations:
- OnlyFans is not a get rich quick scheme – it is true Bella Thorne made £1.5m in her first week…. but that’s because the top 1% of accounts make 33% of all the money earned on the platform. Thorne, for context, has 24m Instagram, and 7m Twitter followers (so a huge ready-made audience). The average earnings are in fact £120 per month and most accounts take home less than £102 per month.
- There are long-term consequences, especially if the creator is hoping to go into a professional job. These photos and videos will be on the internet forever.
- The creator is an independent contractor – there are no unions and no ombudsman – when things go wrong you are on your own. We’re hoping this may change as the Government puts forward ambitious plans for a new system of accountability and oversight for tech companies through the Online Harms White Paper.
- There’s a lot of work that has to be done for users to build an audience and this work doesn’t always translate into adequate financial compensation.
We explore the opportunity for universities and colleges to take a preventative approach to high-risk activities, while supporting those who do choose to use these options, more in a new whitepaper. Get your copy now.
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