If you’ve not heard of OnlyFans, you could be forgiven: it bills itself (in perhaps the vaguest possible language) as a “very useful tool for YouTubers, fitness trainers, models and other public figures or influencers.”
In reality, OnlyFans is a softcore-porn-cum-social-media takeoff of Twitter, blended with a Patreon-inspired pay-for-play subscription model for the more salacious material. Though Timothy Stokley takes credit for the idea, it was legally founded in September 2016 by his father Guy, a British investment banker, and Petra Ouwehand, a Dutch citizen. The rise of the platform was meteoric: beginning with a meager investment of £100GBP ($120 USD), by the following year, OnlyFans had made over half a million dollars (£419,240 / $509,750). In November of last year it easily quadrupled that, declaring profits of nearly $2.5 million (£1,913,850 / $2,327,052). Along the way, it was snapped up by Leonid “Leo” Radvinsky, the owner of the explicitly pornographic MyFreeCams. Radvinsky – seemingly media-shy or shadowy – was sued in 2004 by Microsoft and Amazon for sending ‘millions of illegal and deceptive e-mail messages’ – seems content to hole up in his $2.5 million condo on the 80th floor of Aqua in Chicago and allow OnlyFans to be operated by a ‘behind the scenes business- to-business service’ called The London Office after its prestigious address on Great Portland Street in London.
While these mind-bogglingly profitable margins and secret business machinations might give some pause, it has not stopped laudatory reviews of OnlyFans across the board. Out and Dazed magazines respectively describe the site as ‘democratizing’, making porn ‘more intimate than ever’. GQ lauded it as ‘the hot, but controversial, new way to get your porn fix’, while Vice UK took a look at the private life of OnlyFans model Frankie Quinn, illustrating how the platform gives performers more control. Undoubtedly, the crowning climax in this media blitz was the breathless 2600-word New York Times article titled “How OnlyFans Changed Sex Work Forever”, which proposes that OnlyFans and its competitors represent the future of sex work, blaming the rise of the internet and MindGeek’s Pornhub for the death of traditional studios such as Vivid or Wicked. This is not to mention the dozens of other characterizations of OnlyFans as the ‘death’ of pornography ‘as we know it’.
The rumors of the traditional porn industry’s demise, however, are greatly exaggerated. This isn’t a death – it’s just the next step. Indeed, modern pornography exists in the form that it does today because of the United States’ long and troubled relationship with sex work. Whether it takes the form of invasive bodily inspections, refusal of basic rights, police abuse, or the flat-out denial of sex work as work, federal and state governments have sought to insert themselves into the relationship between client and sex worker for over a century.
As depicted (rather accurately) by HBO’s The Deuce, when pornography was granted legal acceptance by the Supreme Court, it took on the form of a gig-based startup industry made up of former street and brothel-based sex workers seeking independent income sources – perhaps a precursor to Silicon Valley. As it blossomed into a multi-million dollar industry, sex workers and companies sought ways to get closer to clients. In the 1980s and ‘90s, that took the form of massive advertising campaigns around ‘signed’ porn stars like Jenna Jameson or Traci Lords that attempted to develop a studio-branded character that ‘everyone’ knew.
This pattern of sex workers embracing new technologies also carries through the early years of the internet. One example of this is the untold history of the role that the ‘first’ camgirls played in the popularization of online video and webcams: women like Jenny Ringley (of JenniCam), Ana Voog (of AnaCam), and ‘Amanda’ (of AmandaCam) captured everything about their lives – including the erotic for an extra charge.
Alongside OnlyFans and its competitors like JustFor.Fans, there has been a renaissance in independent filmmakers and studios producing soft and hardcore porn. Today, clients can purchase porn rooted in, featuring, or focusing on feminist (Erika Lust’s XConfessions/Lust Cinema; PinkLabel.tv; LadyCheeky), queer (CrashPadSeries; QueerPorn.tv; SpitExposed), BDSM (Kink. com; Wasteland; Femdom Empire), or custom-made fetish (ExtraLunchMoney; Anatomik Media; Chase Customs) material. So no, pornography is not dying. It’s thriving. OnlyFans and its ilk represent just another step forward in technology, intimacy, and sex work.
Brian Watson is an author and porn historian. His book, ‘Annals of Pornographie: How Porn Became Bad’ is available on amazon.com
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