“I have a full-time job as an accountant,” Savannah, 23, lipsyncs, looking very un-accountant-like in black lipstick and a curve-skimming maxi dress. “Nobody asks you questions when you say you’re an accountant.” The caption of the video: “When you’ve made $150,000 off of [OnlyFans] in less than 4 months but you don’t want your family to know.” In a follow-up TikTok, she shows the “receipts”: her earning statistics on OnlyFans, a platform that connects content creators directly to fans by allowing them to sell exclusive content to them.
Savannah is one of many OnlyFans content creators who have made similar videos on TikTok showing off their earnings, both as a not-so-subtle flex and a way to shut down trolls and detractors. “TikTok is a good platform to spread information about OnlyFans and find advice from other girls,” says Lizzy, 24, a statistician who says she’s made $31,000 in three months on the website. Her OnlyFans earnings video on the app reached three million people, and is the most engaged video on her page.
OnlyFans has long been used by sex workers as a way to directly market their own content — everything from nudes to feet pics to videos — to consumers. But with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, many newly unemployed Americans have gravitated to the platform to make money, prompting an explosion in new user signups. Many creators also benefited from OnlyFans’ referral bonus program, which gave creators 5% of a new user’s earnings after they sign up (previously, this 5% applied to a user’s lifetime earnings; following the explosion of new signups last spring, the platform quietly rolled it back to 5% of the first year of earnings, to the chagrin of longtime OnlyFans creators).
OnlyFans has since become something of a meme, with many mulling over the prospect of opening an account, Beyonce namedropping it on a Megan thee Stallion remix, and mainstream celebrities like Bella Thorne and Cardi B recently gravitating to the platform (though the latter did clarify, “NO I WONT BE SHOWING PUSSY, TITTIES AND ASS” on the platform).
Despite the newfound popularity of OnlyFans, there’s still stigma associated with the platform, in part due to the inaccurate assumption that it is devoted solely to NSFW content, and the equally inaccurate assumption that selling nudes is “easy” money. Savannah sees her TikTok page, where she has more than 475,000 followers, as an opportunity to combat that taboo by making clear that her work as a content creator is a “legitimate job.”
“I do feel like i’m breaking stigma,” she says. While many people slut-shame her when she reveals her OnlyFans account, “the second you bring money into it, everyone rethinks their morals. They’re like ‘I wouldn’t have thought about doing it before, but maybe if she can do it I can do it too.’ I’ve had thousands of comments like that.” (OnlyFans takes a 20% cut of all earnings; while Savannah says her gross amount was a little over $150,000, she actually made around $120,000.)
Joby Lexx, 28, a stay-at-home mom from Arizona, also faced widespread stigma when she launched her OnlyFans account last spring, finding herself subject to intense judgment from members of her church group. “So many people had their own opinions as far as what I was doing,” she says. “I feel like [posting my earnings] was a good way to shut them up.”
Ava, 19, joined OnlyFans earlier this year, right as quarantine kicked into full swing, and estimates she’s made about $35,000 so far. She was inspired to make her own TikTok boasting of her OnlyFans earnings (set to the theme song of Disney Junior’s Sofia the First) after seeing a male user duet a similar post from a female OnlyFans creator. “He made a joke about wanting to quit his job, and girls having it on easy mode. He was totally shaming her,” she says. “I was kind of upset by it, so it inspired me to just make my own.” She also had another, arguably less altruistic motive than the destigmatization of sex work: “It was something I saw I could also use to make money off of.”
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The referral bonus program has created a cottage industry of OnlyFans agents, managers, and “mentors” who bring newcomers into the industry with promises of easy money, only to skim off some of their earnings. “[Some of] these people faking those TikToks — as I am positive many of them are — are signing up models making them think it is easy to make money,” says Amberly Rothfield, an adult marketing educator and consultant. Rothfield says that some creators will cultivate a stable of models underneath them, and make thousands of dollars a month reaping the benefits. “To me it is a pyramid scheme. Sex work Avon and super unsustainable,” she says.
But the truth is that, if the goal of some of these creators is to reap the benefits of OnlyFans’ new user referral program, it’s largely not that successful. Many of the creators posting TikToks boasting about their OnlyFans earnings aren’t actually making that much money off new sign-ups: Ava, for instance, says she’s only made about $300 off people using her referral link, in part because the new members she’s referred haven’t started making money yet. Savannah says she rarely gives out her referral link, as she doesn’t feel doing so would be “ethical,” but she has on occasion given it to models she’s consulted with, and has made about $500. When asked if her TikToks give them the mistaken impression that making money off the platform is easy, she says she tries to be clear with them about how difficult the process of growing a following on the platform is, saying she sometimes spends up to 17 hours a day on self-marketing. She also says she tells them she had a substantial Instagram following prior to opening her account, building a brand as a Marine Corps veteran and giving her a significant boost. “I have videos saying you shouldn’t expect to make as much as I have because I’m an outlier,” she says.
Still, it’s clear that videos like hers are playing a significant role in drawing newcomers to the site, even if she says her goal is not so much to recruit, but to “educate” people how to make money on the platform, without making it seem like her experience is universal. And if showing off how much bank a sex worker can make can help break stigma, so much the better. “I’ve had people say, ‘I am a paramedic, I save lives. How is it fair that someone can make more money just by selling nudes?’,” says Savannah. “And I’m like, ‘Well… you can be a paramedic and sell nudes.'”