During the COVID-19 pandemic, the subscription-based social network platform OnlyFans grew massively in popularity. At one point, the site was seeing over 200,000 daily new user signups. While some still compare the sale of adult or intimate photographs to prostitution, the women that make their living doing don’t agree, and the people paying for this content often have quite reasonable arguments for their actions. Zaborona journalist Polina Vernihor explains how the platforms work, who’s earning money off of it, and why it skyrocketed to such popularity.
Everything starts with an Instagram photo
Lyuba Deryuhina is 24 year old. She’s always had some issues with her figure: her large breasts have often drawn unwanted attention. Lyuba felt as if her personality was in the wrong body, so she usually wore closed or baggy clothes.
A year ago, she woke up and decided that this can’t go on: she was simply running away from herself, which is why something needed to give. Lyuba then deleted everything from her Instagram account – it had just normal photographs, the same that could be found on any other young woman’s account. After some time, she began uploading pictures of herself in lingerie – selfies taken from her phone. She received a sea of likes and comments: all in admiration.
With each new photo, Lyuba felt herself opening up, and it was as if it was getting easier to breathe. She finally understood that she was beautiful, interesting, and she had a lot more to show off than simply her breasts. Women began to write to her, as well as men: the women said that Lyuba inspired them and asked for advice on how to be as confident as Lyuba seemed to be in her photos.
“I’m not an ideal model from a Playboy cover: I have non-standard sizes, I have cellulite on my butt, stretch marks, a stomach. But it seems to me that self-confidence is not about beauty or intelligence, but primarily about energy – about what’s inside,” says Lyuba.
At the same time, people began to offer to buy naked photos from Lyuba. A few asked if she was on OnlyFans – an app with photo– and video content (often intimate or adult in nature), but one that charges for subscription to a profile. At first, Lyuba thought it was uncivilized – she didn’t even know what OnlyFans was. But after looking it up, Lyuba understood that she needed to have an OnlyFans account.
First step into OnlyFans
OnlyFans is a relatively young social network. It was created in 2016 by former banker and English teacher Tim Stokely, and was not his first project – he’d earlier created the site Customs4U.com, where users could pay pornstars for exclusive content. But this platform didn’t take off: there weren’t enough users and the content offered by the pornstars couldn’t compete with the masses of free clips available on the internet.
OnlyFans works similarly to Instagram and TikTok: a user creates content and other can view it, but the important difference is that views are always paid. It’s likely that’s why OnlyFans was initially thought to be a social network for selling intimate photos, though the founders deny it to this day.
OnlyFans is available in many regions, including the U.K., the U.S., Australia, Canada, India, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, and Venezuela. It is banned in some others, however, such as South Africa. In Ukraine, selling intimate photographs is banned on principle, but OnlyFans is not and works openly in the country.
Lyuba admits that at first, it was a bit scary. She had a million questions in her head: “What would my acquaintances say?”, “Would men still want to date me?”, “What would my parents say?”, “How will I build my future?”, “How will this affect my reputation?” But she figured that she’s not actually risking anything if people who judge her stop talking to her, and decided to try it.
Around eight months after her first lingerie-clad selfie in Instagram, she decided to register on OnlyFans. The first photo she posted there was also of her in lingerie. However, this was a rather more professional photograph: at that time, Lyuba was taking part in a lingerie commercial and went to photoshoots on a ‘time for photo’ deal – in other words, she didn’t pay for the photoshoots, but the photographers didn’t pay her to pose, either.
Later, the photo sessions grew more explicit, and Lyuba was left with erotic photos that she then decided to publish on OnlyFans.
“We all know the law of the internet: anything that’s posted remains there forever. I was confident that everyone would see my photos. But when I published them, I just thought – that’s it, it’s happened, there’s no way back. It was one of those moments that, after which, your worldview changes radically, and immediately things got somehow lighter. I thought: well, okay, everyone saw my nudes. Now what? The world has billions of women – and as twice as many tits. What about it?” says Lyuba.
How does it work?
From the very beginning, users are offered the option of registering via Google, Twitter, or e-mail. All new accounts are set up to subscribe to content. But in order to start, a user has to sign-up with a bank card and add funds to their wallet on the site.
In order to earn money for content, users have to go through a rather strenuous verification process: they need to provide the platform with identity documents to confirm their person and age: a selfie with their passport and a scan of the passport itself. The site may take up to 24 hours to review the application. Sometimes the platforms reject documents the first time, but doing so again it’s probable that the application will go through. Content creators are also required to provide other financial details: their account will need to be linked not to a card number, but to banking details, and the bank account has to be denominated in USD.
Users who are aiming to sell their content set their own prices: it can range from $4.99 to $50. This can be the price for a single photo or video, or a monthly subscription to all posted content. Content creators can additionally accept tips and set up prices for personal messages – also starting from $4.99. The platform takes a 20% cut.
Content creators on OnlyFans have two balances: a pending balance, where any earned funds are processed, and a current balance, from which creators can make withdrawals. All payments from ‘fans’ are first processed on the pending balance of the creator, and are only made available for withdrawal (that is, transferred from the pending balance to the current) after eight days have passed.
The minimum withdrawal limit for most countries is set at $20. You can cash out manually, or set up automatic, regular transfers – monthly, weekly, or daily. However, money can’t be transferred directly from the site to a bank account – creators need to go through a middleman. These are chosen from one of the offered banking services that can receive money and send it to a bank account: Paxum, Cosmo Payment, Skrill, or ePayService.
Lyuba’s monthly scrubscribers pay $6.99. Aside from subscriptions to open content (that is, content that is open for all subscribers), subscribers can also “order” specific photos through personal messages. It works like this: if a person, let’s say, wants to see Lyuba in the bath surrounded by rose petals writes to her and offers a price. If Lyuba rejects this price, she can offer her own (if, of course, she agrees to realize this fantasy in the first place.) Once an agreement has been reached, Lyuba takes the photo and personally sends it to the person who had ordered it, who pays her the agreed-upon price.
It’s pretty difficult to promote content on the platform itself. In fact, the site recommends sharing OnlyFans links on other social media. Another piece of advice offered is to hold sales. That’s when creators offer users the option to subscribe for several months at once, but at a discount compared to a monthly payment. Or, creators can just lower their prices temporarily. Lyuba explains that creators can also collaborate with each other and “trade” audiences.
Lyuba has a full-time job as well, which is why she only spends a little amount of time on OnlyFans. Her subscriber numbers are constantly shifting: when she releases a big video and lots of photographs, her subscriber numbers grow in turn. On average at the moment, she has about 30 subscribers. Considering donations, ordered photos, and the platform’s cut, Lyuba earns on average $100 per month.
“Everything hinges on your popularity on other social networks. But, whether it’s OnlyFans or my Instagram – that’s not the point of my existence and not something I spend a lot of time on. Probably, people don’t know about me simply because I don’t really do that much there. Meanwhile, recognition influences people’s decision to subscribe to me, and accordingly, to my earnings,” explains Lyuba.
From the very start, Lyuba believes, the only women that can earn big sums on OnlyFans are the ones who are already well-known – through blogging, porn shoots, Playboy-level photoshoots, all of which can lead to Instagram followers. But Lyuba likes what she does, even with the low earnings. It not only affects her feelings of self-worth, but shows other women that they can, at any size, be attractive and hot.
In 2018, Leonid Radvinsky, a Ukrainian-American, bought 75% of OnlyFans. He’d previously been suspected of running scams – it seems that his company either sold passwords to paid porn sites (some of which were targeted at zoophiles or pedofiles), or sent spam out from Amazon’s name. However, when Radvinsky bought OnlyFans, the site began to develop significantly. It’s renaissance coincided with the quarantine brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
When lockdowns began around the world, many sex workers found themselves unable to make a living. At the same time, their (now former) clients lost the ability to obtain the offered services, but they found themselves with a surfeit of free time. Over the first months of the lockdown, until April 2020, the number of active users on OnlyFans increased by 75%. By May, this statistic had risen to 200,000 new user sign-ups per day, while content creator accounts grew by 7,000. By January 2021, the platform recorded 85 million users, with over a million being content creators.In 2020, OnlyFans users paid the platform over $2 billion, netting the site an annual net revenue of $400 million. The platform pays out $200 million to creators each month.
The most popular, and accordingly, profitable accounts in 2021 on the site were said to be American model and socialite Blac Chyna, actress and singer Bella Thorne, and rapper Cardi B. The first earned $20 million for her OnlyFans photos, the second – $11 million, and the third – $9.34 million.
OnlyFans has a lot of other content besides nudes, erotica, and porn. The main idea is that people who are already popular can make money on their art. What creativity can be viewed, is say, cooking videos, online workouts, beauty courses, vlogs, and so on. But the grand majority of content on the platform is erotica. The lack of censorship in particular, otherwise found on Instagram and TikTok, helps the site maintain regular revenue.
This year, at the start of August, OnlyFans announced that it will likely ban any content on its platform that “contains explicit sexual activity”. Those terms had been given to the site by the banking service providers that help transfer money from the platform to creators.“We pay over one million creators over $300 million every month, and making sure that these funds get to creators involves using the banking sector. This decision was made to safeguard their funds and subscriptions from increasingly unfair actions by banks and media companies—we obviously do not want to lose our most loyal creators,” explains OnlyFans founder Tim Stokely. He added that a few U.S.-based banks had begun to ban accounts connected to OnlyFans.
However, after a whirlwind of criticism was directed at the company on social networks due to the statement, it decided to not change its terms of service after all. “We have secured assurances necessary to support our diverse creator community and have suspended the planned October 1 policy change. OnlyFans stands for inclusion and we will continue to provide a home for all creators,” the platform wrote in a tweet.
The platform still lacks safeguards against plagiarism and copied content. People who pay for content can download it, copy it, or take screenshots. The only anti-copy tool the site uses is a watermark that appears on the content. But that can be easily removed in any graphics editing tool or program.
Dangers and scams
There are still many stereotypes in modern society about sex work – even simply nude photography. Strippers and exotic dancers are often mischaracterized as prostitutes, even though the only thing they do is dance, albeit a bit provocatively. Working at a strip club, on OnlyFans, or via webcam creates a certain illusion of a woman’s availability in real life. It is also a job where women are relatively more exposed and vulnerable to risks. One of the worst things that can happen to people working in those professions (aside from legal criminal charges, covered a little later) is a ‘leak.’
Often, women who sell their own erotic photos are blackmailed by them. Obviously, not everyone working in these fields would want their work to be known to their relatives, friends, acquaintances, and colleagues. This creates space for bad actors to take advantage of the workers, threatening to send their pictures out to everyone – or, in exchange for silence, demand sexual favors, money, or even more intimate photographs. However, in most cases, this is a trap. Paying just once signals the blackmailer that this person is ready to pay, which can likely provoke more threats of blackmail – until the victim finally refuses. Then, the blackmailer will probably spread the photographs.
Lyuba decided almost immediately to tell her mother about her work. She says that she spent some time preparing her mother for the news, to soften the blow. First, Lyuba’s mother needed time to get used to her daughter’s photos on Instagram, and sometimes asked Lyuba to delete them.
“But I immediately told her that no, this is my account, my body, and my business. I’m a grown woman, and I maintain responsibility for my own actions. It’s not my problem if you consider the opinion of your neighbors, colleagues, or relatives important to you, because it doesn’t bother me personally at all. Eventually, my mom understood and accepted it. And when I started making money from this, she was happy for me,” Lyuba explains.
Lyuba’s friend also took the news adequately, though a few were surprised that Lyuba hadn’t started this work earlier. Others said that they always say this “sexy spark” in her. A few unfollowed her on Instagram – usually old acquaintances that she hadn’t spoken to in a long time. But no one told her that she was a prostitute or a deviant, even if they thought that way, says Lyuba.
Her relationships with men also changed. Lyuba regularly receives messages from random guys inviting her over. She feels, she explains, that men’s views of her are changing due to her OnlyFans, something like ‘if she’s ready to post photos, she’s ready for anything.’ But in reality, dating Lyuba isn’t that simple. She describes herself as rather picky, and OnlyFans works as a filter: Lyuba immediately understands how a given suitor would see her, understand her, and what he would associate her with. It’s immediately obvious when men talk to her with only the thought, “I wanna fuck”, she says.
Who’s on OnlyFans?
There’s no given, statistically average portrait of an OnlyFans user. Different types of people can be found on the site, all with different goals, tastes, jobs, and earning levels. Lyuba says there are also users who want to receive everything “complimentary.”
“They know that I’m doing something and they want to see it. It’s likely that in real life, they would never look at me, but they want to see my body. Then they subscribe, screenshot the photos, and unsubscribe,” Lyuba says.
The woman explains that her subscribers include Ukrainians, but most of her audience are foreigners. It’s not clear exactly who these people are, since most of them register with auto-generated usernames paired with numbers – for example, “username2911”. Sometimes they write to Lyuba, and reveal something about their lives during conversation. Lyuba notes that some of her subscribers have families or wives. In those cases, they just want some sort of titillation, and of course, they don’t see that as a betrayal. Lyuba doesn’t judge them, either.
Lyuba also receives no small amount of dick pics – what she calls a logical reaction to her content. However, she doesn’t push away from this – on the contrary, she always attempts to react positively, so that they’ll subscribe in the future and feel comfortable with her profile. One thing she doesn’t do is try to squeeze these people for money – she doesn’t respond that she would like to sleep with them or lead them on for tips.
“I could do that, but I understand that that isn’t me, I wouldn’t want to. He sends me a dick pic, and I’m like: oh, great, you look good – something in that vein. If I’m asked to send back my own genital pic back, I say: listen, sorry, this isn’t my thing. If you like looking at tits, keep looking,” says Lyuba.
As a whole, Lyuba considers her audience to be entirely normal. They love her, and she’s grateful for their loyalty. For example, Lyuba listens to their advice when posting photos: if someone comments that they would love to see a photo of her in red lingerie, she’ll do so.The internet has a lot of free porn – so why do so many people pay for naked pictures? Six months ago, someone asked this question on Reddit. That thread has reached twelve thousand comments. Some write that they joined the platform for a girl they liked, but seemed out of reach. Some like that there’s an element of feedback to the whole thing: users can talk to people who excite them, and this clearly separates this sort of content from alternatives. There are also people who use the platform just to find their own acquaintances.
Is it legal?
There’s no legal barrier to these types of services in most countries where OnlyFans is popular. However, people sometimes do face other sorts of consequences for the content they create on OnlyFans. As an example, one woman in California this February saw her children expelled from the Catholic school they had been attending, because of her OnlyFans work. Her photos were uncovered by one of the teachers there, who shared the photos with his wife. The teacher’s wife then passed this information to the other mothers at the school, who then demanded the woman’s children be expelled.
In Canada this April, a Montreal university sued one of their own graduates, claiming reputational injury after a woman posted an intimate photo on OnlyFans with her diploma visible in the background. The photo proved quite popular, and the university seemed to decide that the graduate was attempting to use the university’s name to get famous. The lawsuit wanted damages of up to $125,000. However, a court took the woman’s side: the woman stated that her body was her business, and the censure attempted by the university infringed on her fundamental rights.
Not all court cases involving OnlyFans end well. Recently, Thailand detained a 19-year-old girl and her boyfriend, and charged them with running afoul of that country’s computer crimes law – they made photos and videos together on OnlyFans. If found guilty, the couple will face three years in prison. A Thai cybercrimes unit told journalists that they’re also investigating a number of other incidents involving the platform.
There haven’t been any situations of criminal charges for intimate OnlyFans photos in Russia or Belarus, though the laws of both countries carry penalties for creating and distributing pornography. In Belarus, this crime can carry a sentence of four years, in Russia – six.
Ukraine also has laws which could theoretically be used to charge someone for this sort of content. As lawyer Denys Ovcharov explains, this content is divided into three types – erotic, sexual, and pornographic. Erotic photos are mostly harmless – they’re defined as focused on fulfilling some aesthetic needs. Sexual photos are defined as fulfilling sexual needs – yet these are also legally harmless as long as they follow some given restrictions.
If these restrictions are not followed, the content is classified as ‘pornographic’. This type of content usually displays elements of sexual activity, and according to the law, “corrupts and perverts public morality.” All three types of content defined by Ukrainian law can be posted freely on OnlyFans, but only the latter category carries any sort of criminal risk.
There are no clear-cut parameters for sorting content into one of these three categories. The Ministry of Culture characterizes pornographic content by the following criteria:
Ovcharov explains that because of these unclear standards, it’s completely possible to be found guilty even for content of a sexual, not pornographic, nature. Additionally, criminal charges for the creation and distribution of pornography can be applied not only against the actors and content producers, but against the owners of online platforms.
“There’s a curious aspect here in that the judicial practice of prosecution under the article on the production and distribution of porn is not homogeneous enough. Very often, judges forget about their responsibility to find evidence and apply baseless and illegal sentences. Additionally, those suspected of violating the law often sign deals with the prosecution and just pay a fine. But at the same time, there are cases of application of the law to the maximum punishment – restriction of freedom,” the lawyer tells Zaborona.
Seeing as most content on OnlyFans is illegal from the standpoint of legislation, taxation is out of the question. If the creators of this content paid taxes, this would indicate a certain ‘legalization’ of this sort of work. However, if the content isn’t illegal, then it’s taxed.
As for the people who pay for this content, they aren’t seen to carry any responsibility at all. Simply put, you can watch porn – but posting home videos with your partners onto the internet is illegal.
“You need to be careful even with uploading this sort of content for personal use on your own devices. There’s a risk that you’ll have to prove first to investigators, then to the judge, that you saved this content without intent to distribute,” says Denys Ovcharov.
Not sex, but sexuality
Even though the sale of intimate photographs can be an aspect of the objectification of women, Lyuba doesn’t see it as something that diminishes her, and considers herself to be a feminist. Her work gives her the ability to fight against her issues, to feel beautiful and feminine, and also serves as an example for other women who also would like to feel liberated.
“My feminism is about myself, as a woman, choosing what I want. No one influences this choice, and no one forces me to do this. I gain satisfaction from this process, and that’s the most important thing. I’m not looking to please anyone – I’m not a living product. When I turn on the music, put on a pretty set of lingerie, and look at myself in the mirror, I understand just how beautiful I am. I’m not about sex – I’m about sexuality,” says Lyuba.
This material was created with the support of Mediaset.