Editor’s note: Adult-content creators interviewed in this piece have asked that we identify them by their performer names for their privacy and safety.
Last March, Allie Awesome, an adult-content creator, woke up one Sunday morning to check her DMs on OnlyFans, only to realize she couldn’t log into her account. Launched in 2016, OnlyFans is a social network that allows creators to monetize their content by selling directly to their fans for the cost of a monthly subscription. Awesome, who joined the platform last year, says it constitutes about a quarter of her revenue. When she couldn’t log in, “I knew something was up,” she says.
Awesome emailed customer support, only to be told her account had been deactivated due to evidence of a chargeback, a term used to describe a customer calling their credit card company to report a fraudulent charge after a purchase. “I was like ‘something is weird here,’ so I kept emailing them,” she says. “They were telling me it was permanently deactivated, there was nothing they could do, and my customers were being refunded,” which would’ve taken funds directly out of her balance (though her customers said they were ultimately not refunded).
Unable to figure out what to do, Awesome emailed Alana Evans, the president of the Adult Performers Actors’ Guild, and tweeted about the incident. A few days later, she received a message saying her account had been reinstated, and that the issue had been a “glitch” in the system. But by then, she had received dozens of messages from other adult performers saying similar things had happened to their OnlyFans accounts.
OnlyFans bills itself as a content-subscription service for influencers and creators to directly monetize their content. But historically, it’s primarily been known as a platform for adult-content creators, or anyone wishing to post content too racy for Instagram. (Little is known about its parent company, the London-based Fenix International Limited, though according to a New York Times profile, one of its directors, Leo Radvinsky, is the founder of adult-cam site MyFreeCams.) Creators take about 80 percent of their earnings, with OnlyFans taking a cut of approximately 20 percent.
“It has appealed to sex workers as it’s a better mousetrap than that of building your own website, finding a biller, doing all the admin work, and producing content. It also lowered the bar for sex workers to be able to profitably get into the game,” says Amberly Rothfield, an adult-marketing educator and consultant. “I am hard-pressed to find [an adult model] who isn’t using it anymore.”
In the wake of the coronavirus epidemic, the content-sharing platform has exploded in popularity, seeing a 75 percent increase in sign-ups in recent weeks and garnering 170,000 new users per day. It was the subject of a shoutout from none other than Beyoncé in her remix of Megan thee Stallion’s “Savage,” and celebrities such as Ansel Elgort and influencers like Caroline Calloway have flocked to the platform as a way to monetize their content by selling directly to their fan base.
The influx of so-called civilians (industry terminology for people outside the sex industry) has prompted concern among many sex workers, who’ve long relied on the platform as a source of income and are worried about oversaturation of the market. “The top content creators on there are no longer sex workers but celebrities/YouTubers,” says Mrs. Hell, a model and dominatrix. “That’s very problematic.… More people into the vanilla lifestyle think it’s easy to make money on there, so it could have an impact [on our ability to make a living].”
To make matters worse, some feel that they’re being pushed out of the platform, reporting that their accounts have been deleted even when they have not violated OnlyFans’ terms of service. Such complaints “are hitting fever pitches,” says Rothfield, who says that she has spoken to more than 20 models who have complained about losing accounts without being able to recover their funds. Emails shared with Rolling Stone show the boilerplate language OnlyFans has sent to such creators, saying accounts are “typically being deleted due to suspicious/fraudulent activity” without specifying the activity in question. “Unfortunately, we are not able to override this automatic process,” the email concludes after informing the user their account has been erased from the system.
There are instances where OnlyFans content creators have been booted from the platform for actually violating terms of service. For example, the platform strictly prohibits models using it for escorting, and Evans says that some of the creators who’ve lost their accounts were in fact discovered to have breached this guideline.
“The reality of the situation is SESTA/FOSTA makes it a very serious crime for the owners of OnlyFans to be involved if any performers are using their accounts to accept funds for their escorting work,” Evans says. But this constitutes only a small percentage of the more than 100 performers she estimates have approached her within the past year or so after losing their accounts: “The problem is that when other performers complain [about losing their accounts], they aren’t taken seriously,” she says.
All told, Rolling Stone spoke with half a dozen sex workers who said their accounts had been deactivated or deleted for violating OnlyFans user guidelines. One of them, Railey Boo, says she noticed something was wrong when she discovered that money had disappeared from her account. After being unable to log in, she received a message saying her account had been deleted for suspected fraudulent activity. “I never did anything wrong … never talked about my Snapchat, doing meetups, or other restricted stuff,” she tells Rolling Stone. When she pressed OnlyFans for the reason why her account had been deleted, she says the platform did not respond. All told, she says, she lost $1,200 in the balance on her account, which she’s been unable to recover.
Another sex worker, Noelle Flayer, says she was recently locked out of her account while waiting for $200 to process. “I was given no prior warning that I would no longer be able to access my account, nor any indication that I had broken any rules to warrant deletion,” she says. She contacted tech support and received an automated message saying they would investigate the matter further. She has not yet heard back. “I am a stripper who has had to turn to OnlyFans for income during this time,” she says. “So it’s especially frustrating to have my income taken away by a website that has built its notoriety on sex workers’ platforms.”
Katharina Amara, a dominatrix, says she received a message in March that her account had been suspended for violating its guidelines prohibiting extreme content, such as depictions of “bruises, blood, scat, fisting, etc.” The clip in question showed her using an electric stimulator on a naked submissive and did not feature any of the above described content. Though her account was reopened in May, she lost all of her subscribers. “I had to start from zero again,” she says.
In recent weeks, the issue of sex workers complaining about being removed from OnlyFans has received increased attention on social media, thanks in part to a viral tweet from Mistress Mia, a financial dominatrix who says she first heard about the account deactivations from a sex worker on Facebook. “It was deeply concerning to me that people were getting their money taken from them, especially in the midst of a pandemic,” she says. “This is the worst time that people could be put at risk with their incomes being taken from them.” To hear her tell it, the loss of funds is not as concerning as the general impact the loss of an OnlyFans account could have on a performer’s brand. “All your content that you’ve worked hard to create over the years would be completely erased, and a lot of people don’t have their content backed up,” she says.
For its part, OnlyFans said in a statement that it “would never deactivate accounts without due cause. In most cases, creators who violate our terms have their account restricted or suspended pending investigation and remedial action. In serious cases of fraud, for example, we deactivate accounts,” the platform said. It also reasserted its commitment to allowing NSFW content: “Without question, OnlyFans is one of the most inclusive social platforms, and our progressive policies towards content creation enables the success of adult content creators without discrimination. That is not going to change.” Yet some sex workers believe that OnlyFans has long tried to market itself as a more mainstream option for influencers, despite adult-content creators comprising much of the site’s user base. “In their advertising, they focus on chefs, for example, or yoga instructors,” says Awesome. “They never have, say, a porn star.”
Much of the concern stems from sex workers’ general anxiety over being purged from social media platforms. And this anxiety is warranted: There is a historical precedent for platforms welcoming, then abruptly rejecting, NSFW creators. Tumblr, for instance, was a bastion of sex-positive and NSFW content until the platform started explicitly prohibiting it in its terms of service; crowdfunding platforms like Patreon have also cracked down on adult-content creators due to pressure from payment processors.
Now, sex workers are concerned that OnlyFans will follow a similar pattern. Due to legislation like SESTA/FOSTA — which places stringent requirements on online adult-content platforms — “it would be a lot easier for OnlyFans to be a platform for non-sex workers in the eyes of the law,” Mistress Mia explains. And while there are alternative options for sex workers looking to sell content directly to their fans, few have the reach and brand recognition that OnlyFans currently does.
Even those who have not been deactivated or kicked off the platform say their experience in recent months has left them disillusioned. A leak of OnlyFans content last winter, for instance, prompted some sex workers to become concerned about security issues on the platform; others expressed outrage when, in response to the recent influx of sign-ups, OnlyFans cut its referral bonuses, a major source of revenue for longtime users. “The referral system is the only reason OnlyFans became a household name, and without it, there wouldn’t be an OnlyFans,” adult-content creator Arron Lowe told Motherboard.
For her part, Awesome says her experience with OnlyFans has not soured her on the platform. In fact, she says she’s a big fan of the site. “When I thought I didn’t have my account, I was devastated not just because of the lack of income I get from it but because of the earning potential that’s there. There’s a lot of money to be made from OnlyFans,” she says, citing friends who’ve made six figures as an example. “In my opinion, there is no better platform.”
Evans believes that models are being pulled from the site due to customer service not being able to keep up with the site’s growth, not necessarily due to nefarious intent on the company’s part. “They need to be able to step up their ability to handle [the influx of new creators],” she says. But there is a concern among people in the industry that as it grows, OnlyFans may at one point turn its back on the content creators who’ve helped to build the brand.
“With more mainstream celebrities coming onto the platform, more scrutiny coming onto the site, and the history of platforms doing it, I wouldn’t be surprised” if OnlyFans eventually barred adult content altogether, says Rothfield. She’s already helping some adult performers move their content onto another platform. “I think that OnlyFans grew too big too fast,” she says.