How OnlyFans Became the Battleground of an Internet Gender War

Of course women-empowering OnlyFans is a haven for misogyny and hate

Key Takeaways

  • Bella Thorne’s entrée into the sex worker space has caused an uproar from both creators on the platform and detractors.
  • OnlyFans’ place as the latest culture war battleground has caused a tear between young people debating the purpose of sex-positivity in modern American culture.
  • Female OnlyFans creators’ experience as internet-enabled sex workers has been marred by a unique, emerging brand of cultural misogyny.
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OnlyFans has emerged as a leading social media site for independent creators to seize the means of their production, but it’s also become the stage for the latest internet culture war, as detractors and supporters clash over its proliferation of sex worker culture.

Actress Bella Thorne made headlines last week after launching an OnlyFans account as part of her information gathering process for a new acting role. After two days, the 22-year-old influencer made off with a record-breaking $2 million, but her moves resulted in a sitewide policy change that has some sex workers rethinking their internet strategy. Even more damning, this international fiasco has reignited the gender battle, with those living off the platform receiving the brunt of the backlash.

"I know how some of my family feel from the comments they make about people on OnlyFans and I’m like damn."

As a digital platform catering to the sex workers of the world, OnlyFans exists at the cultural intersection between the sex-positive movement of the late 2000s and the anti-feminist aesthetics of male-dominated internet silos with a penchant for trolling. Bella Thorne’s plunge into the industry has refueled this internet war with new heroes and villains, as the sex workers whose livelihoods depend on the viability of the market find themselves facing down detractors cheering on the countervailing new policies.

“While men are respected for, or even expected to be, promiscuous, women cannot be smart as well as sexual or well-rounded and sensual,” said OnlyFans creator Lucy, who spoke under terms of anonymity. “People are grasping and lashing out because it’s new to them and they feel threatened… if women take over the adult entertainment industry in leadership and production roles, we have to acknowledge most women don’t actually need men. They need [a platform like ours].”

Breaking the Internet

Lucy thinks the idea at the center of this can be attributed to society’s failure to see women as multidimensional people (Freud’s Madonna/Whore complex) and not just objects. Instead, the two poles of womanhood are the chaste virgin worthy of adoration, and the debased prostitute who serves as the object of carnal desire. The success of Bella Thorne reinforces the popularity and ubiquity of sex work, while the reaction the average OnlyFans creator receives echoes the general vitriol these workers can inspire.

With over 450,000 content creators and 30 million registered users, OnlyFans has come a long way since its 2016 inception as a small, pay-to-play platform for those in the know. While it’s known as a space for sex workers, that’s not all it offers. Content sold on the platform runs the gamut from commissioned art pieces to fashion lookbooks, family recipes, and any other conceivable idea people are willing to pay for. Essentially, OnlyFans operates as a paywall for creative content, which interested consumers can access through pay-per-view tips or monthly subscription fees set by the creator. 

However, the platform’s new rules, confirmed to The Verge on Sept. 1, include a set of imposed payment caps. What used to be a $200 limit on private messages and pay-per-view (PPV) posts has been reduced to a $100 cap on private messages and a $50 cap on PPV posts.

OnlyFans’ negative reputation has been constructed in male-dominated internet silos like the YouTube skeptic and gaming communities, as well as anonymous forums like 4chan and 8chan. The subscription-based platform is synonymous with sex work and female content creators and—as is far too common—where women congregate, misogyny is bound to follow.

Attention and OnlyHarassment

Reaching an apex this year as the coronavirus ravaged the economic outlook for many Americans, OnlyFans exploded on the scene as superstars like Beyonce mentioned the platform in her number-one song “Savage”, while others like Cardi B have gone as far as creating accounts. More importantly, it became a way for disaffected women to make ends meet in the unsure times of regional lockdowns and business closures.

“During the height of quarantine and lockdown orders in our state, I was incredibly broke, bills were piling up and I was bored out of my mind. On a whim in early July, my curiosity got the best of me,” Lucy said of building her audience on the OnlyFans platform. “Since then I’ve taken to making separate Twitter, Reddit, and Instagram accounts to help reach a wider audience. It’s hard starting over and not tapping into my main audience, but within less than 2 months I reached top 27% on the platform.”

"The stigma it has and the way it’s being thrown around as a meme is so uncomfortable."

As the cache and market value of the social media platform continues to rise, so does the amount of harassment creators experience. Well-known take-down YouTuber Ian Carter, known by his username iDubbz, found himself on the receiving end of this mob, largely of his own creation.

Known for his “Content Cop” videos where he criticizes other YouTubers with his lightning-quick wit and anti-PC stance, Carter purposely culminated a fanbase of irreverent, massively-online young boys that turned against him after discovering his girlfriend operated an OnlyFans account selling adult content.

His video defense of the situation currently sits at almost 269,000 dislikes and has inspired thousands of response videos, negative comments, and harassment campaigns channeling a unique brand of misogyny often lobbied against men deemed insufficiently masculine enough to control the women in their lives.

This is a modicum of the vitriol female creators on the platform face when dealing with internet detractors.    

Only Scams?

Torrie Corzo is a 22-year-old queer OnlyFans creator who has found a refuge from wage labor through the subscription-based platform, but says its reputation has encouraged her to look for lesser-known alternatives. “It’s worth it because I was able to leave a really toxic job and I have a lot more free time to spend with the people I love and care about, but the stigma it has and the way it’s being thrown around as a meme is so uncomfortable.”

Corzo retells a story involving one of her Facebook friends. After getting into a brief social media spat with him over Black Lives Matter, things escalated and she was met with targetted harassment centered around her work as a sex worker. It got violent, she says, with threats of “breaking (her) face” thrown around before eventually unfriending him on the social media platform. Unfortunately, violent misogyny is a common experience for sex workers

One night, Corzo says she received over 900 friend requests on her personal Facebook page from men all around the world. “It was crazy. I was like ‘what the hell is going on’?” It turns out, one of her subscribers had leaked her content along with her name to Thothub, a site for hosting adult content stolen from subscription-based services like OnlyFans and Patreon.

Since then, adult content model Niece Waidhofer hit Thothub with a heavy lawsuit on Aug. 6 for copyright infringement. According to a report by Vice, the lawsuit caused the platform to shutter its own doors in a last-ditch effort to protect itself from further legal action. The suit didn’t stop it from infringing on the lives of women like Corzo, however, who not only felt violated by a subscriber who stole her content, but also from the incursion into her personal life—something she assumed she successfully kept hidden.

“That is a risk when you’re selling content, but I felt violated and it was intrusive and made me feel weird,” she said. “Whenever I get negative reactions, I remove myself from the conversation, but I couldn’t do that here.”

Sex Meets Sexism

For many creators, the narrative of unsolicited comments on their lives is a common occurrence. Irrational OnlyFans hatred has become a sort of canary in the coal mine for women; a secret cipher decoding the men worth taking seriously and those marred by the patriarchal framing of female sexuality and ownership.

Negative naysayers are also a common experience for all content creators online. The anonymity of the internet has allowed for the democratization of opinion, both negative and positive. Some OnlyFans personalities suggest it’s part of creating a platform online. However, when the vitriol comes from your own family it can be that much more difficult to parse.

African American couple arguing in the living room
skynesher / Getty Images

“I know how some of my family feel from the comments they make about people on OnlyFans and I’m like damn… that’s me—that’s how you feel about me,” Corzo said, after detailing how she used her social media savvy to hide her sex worker persona from unsuspecting family members.

The culture around sex work is marred by centuries of purity politics permeating cultures and societies through evangelism and, eventually, the globalization of commodified Americana. This historical framework lays the foundation for the general discourse on sex work even in the internet communities where a rejection of “normie” dispositions is seen as a badge of coolness.

"People are grasping and lashing out because it’s new to them and they feel threatened."

But even these internet aficionados find themselves at the receiving end of social conditioning. Like a fish unaware of water, the cultural environment is easily taken for granted and rendered indistinct by the people whirling around in its waters.

“I believe our society has ingrained into us an overwhelming amount of internalized misogyny. We see it all the time, men feel entitled to comment on the looks or decisions of women. Being able to hide behind a screen gives people a sense of power they wouldn’t have otherwise,” Lucy said.

Person typing at their laptop computer at night
Westend61 / Getty Images

Sex work has always been society’s whipping boy. The world’s oldest profession, yet an otherwise illicit, clandestine affair. Today, OnlyFans operates as a progressive tool of modernity bringing sex work further into the fold of contemporary society. As social mores continue to change at a rapid pace, the old guards of tradition, both young and old, have become increasingly animated to combat it.

The memeification of OnlyFans is a response to women counterbalancing the commodification of their bodies, which has historically been singularly helmed by men. As it turns out, seizing the means of your production is controversial.