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OnlyFans: The rise of online sex work

By March 8, 2020May 22nd, 2020No Comments

With ever-rising rent levels and a high cost of living, many Irish women are turning to sites like OnlyFans as a way to make extra money. Our contributor investigates.

Alice* got her mother’s blessing before she started her OnlyFans account. One of her friends had started to make money by charging subscribers on the app for outtakes from underwear modelling shoots that she did. Alice and her friend were chatting about OnlyFans, which is kind of like a racy Instagram that’s behind a paywall, in front of Alice’s mam.


“I made a joke about setting one up for a few quid, to sort of test the waters, and my mam said ‘do whatever you want, once I don’t have to see it,’” Alice said. “My dad’s response was if he had boobs he’d be making a fortune off them himself, and they’ve joked about my mam setting one up after seeing the amount I made.

“A lot of lads have actually said to me ‘you’re dead right, I would if there was any interest in me in my jocks’ and the like.” Alice keeps things pretty tame on her feed and keeps the more risqué content for those who pay extra in her direct messages. She showed rogue evidence of her earnings on OnlyFans over the course of two months. It was a $3,026 net profit, or over €2,600.

“It’s crazy,” Alice said. “Double what I’m making. Language degrees and qualifications coming out of my arse and I’m making money doing basically nothing.” OnlyFans didn’t respond to questions from rogue on how many Irish users the app has, but anyone with even a cursory presence on social media over the last year can clearly see that it’s increasing in popularity. Users make money on OnlyFans by charging a monthly subscription fee for “fans” who are willing to pay to access photographs of them.

Subscribers can also pay tips, sometimes in exchange for photographs and videos created just for them. Initially, this was popular with sex workers who could charge fans directly. Last year, the New York Times said OnlyFans had revolutionised sex work by creating the “paywall of porn.” As the app has risen in popularity, young women who would not have previously considered selling sexual or intimate imagery have also been drawn to OnlyFans. The high cost of living and rent in Ireland, particularly for younger people and students, makes the appeal of OnlyFans easy to understand.

The Sex Workers Alliance of Ireland said that OnlyFans is more money for less work, and it’s an “ideal” source of income for students. Not a lot of users are paying tax on their earnings, which can be thousands of euro a month. A spokeswoman for Revenue told rogue that “content generators” like those on OnlyFans are required to pay tax. Revenue uses third party information – like information which would be freely available on social media – to compare with its own data to identify those who might not be paying tax.

While Revenue has been cracking down on influencers who make money on social media, the nature of OnlyFans means that a lot of users don’t associate their account with their real names. This could make tracking their undeclared earnings difficult. The appeal of a quick, or even steady source of extra income is not difficult to understand. And it is, of course, the right of any woman to do what she wishes with her body. As Alice explains, like a lot of women who’ve been online for a few years she’s always been dealing with “reply guys” who are really invested in her.

“I suppose the only difference now is I’m making a bit of cash out of men looking at me,” she said. But the rise of OnlyFans in Ireland also raises some interesting questions about women who are making the most literal profit imaginable from the male gaze. Are these women engaging in a kind of sex work? And if so, what – if anything – do they owe to the traditional sex workers who have gone before them? Alice doesn’t think it is sex work, but only because she feels she puts very little time and effort into her OnlyFans compared to someone who is a sex worker.

Other users feel differently. Sarah* created her account last October. She says using OnlyFans has made her more likely to try “IRL” sex work. Sarah is a student and had lost her job before setting up her OnlyFans account, so she needed money. She had considered stripping before, and the response to her OnlyFans content has made her confident enough to try it. “I think a lot of people see sex work as stripping or prostitution, or anything that involves ‘real life’ sex work. However, we live in a heavily technological era and I feel a lot of people, including myself, are changing the way they think about sex work,” Sarah said.

“The way I see it I’m ‘selling’ the sexual aspects of my body on OnlyFans and promoting through social media. OnlyFans does take time, effort and dedication, therefore I think it is only fair to label it as sex work.” Those who do online sex work and “real life” sex work are very different in the eyes of the law. Since 2017, the purchase of sex has been illegal in Ireland under a controversial law – the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017 – which is trying to end demand for prostitution.

The law is divisive among feminist and human rights groups. Those who are in favour of it are quick to point out that a huge number of women in the sex trade have been victims of trafficking or exploitation, so demand for sex work must be destroyed. Some also believe that the purchase of sex from a woman by a man is always fundamentally misogynistic. Those against the law would argue that some women do choose sex work as a job of their own free will, and that they can’t be erased or infantilised.

They also argue that making the purchase of sex illegal drives the industry underground and makes it more dangerous for those women. Either way, the Department of Justice confirmed to rogue that criminalising the purchase of sex effectively only applies IRL, doesn’t apply to any online sex work. Sinead*, who set up her account in January, said she believes that people like her who are making money from OnlyFans have benefitted from the work of sex workers who had gone before them.

Like all of the women rogue spoke to, she said it made her feel good about herself. Sinead discovered OnlyFans through an online amateur porn network after she took up pole dancing. She also agrees that OnlyFans is an “incredibly mild” version of sex work. “I feel that selling nudes for any cost will definitely fall into a category of sex work – which I’d definitely get heat for saying – and just because it’s your side hustle or something small you make half an hour for, you’re still technically jumping off the backs of sex workers who have carved out spaces in society for women to partake in this,” Sinead said.

“And then those women will get less heat, because the older sex workers paved the way and took all the shame and stigma from society.” The Sex Workers Alliance of Ireland (SWAI) said the lines between online sex work and “IRL” sex work can be quite thin. SWAI said that while online sex work like OnlyFans is legal, it does still carry some stigma. “The reality is is that there are a lot of people who move between full-service sex work and cam work, depending on their needs and abilities on any given day.

Some OnlyFans workers will meet certain fans in person. The barrier between the two types of work is more porous than people think,” a spokeswoman for SWAI said. SWAI said it believes that “everyone” benefits from the activism of sex workers. “Ending slut shaming, including more marginalised voices and identities and recognising the feminisation of poverty will help everyone. Ending slut shaming, including more marginalised voices and identities and recognising the feminisation of poverty will help everyone,” the spokeswoman said.

Photo by Huha Inc. on Unsplash

*Names changed to protect identities


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