Welcome to the adults-only gig economy

Woman wearing pink lingerie posing in front of camera and lights.
Jenna Love says the popularity of OnlyFans has turned it into the “Tupperware of online porn”.(ABC News: Brendan Esposito)

It’s pegged as a platform where girls-next-door can earn fortunes from risqué material. But OnlyFans comes with plenty of risk, and few reap the rewards.

Jenna Love slides open her wardrobe, revealing a rainbow of lace.

She has lingerie to suit every mood, occasion or predilection, but this bounty is strictly for ‘work purposes’.

Today, she grabs a silky number — a nod to the mid-century Playboy bunnies — and heads to another bedroom in her Blue Mountains home.

It’s her self-styled studio: equipped with a camera, bedazzled backdrop, and a lighting set-up that would make any influencer jealous.

She’s shooting content for her OnlyFans, a subscriber-based platform with a reputation for raunchy material.

Woman choosing pink lingerie from mirrored wardrobe.
Jenna began making online content five years ago as a “side hustle”. (ABC News: Brendan Esposito)
Blue and green lingerie hanging in wardrobe.
Jenna’s lingerie collection is carefully colour coordinated.(ABC News: Brendan Esposito)
Woman wearing pink lingerie posing in front of camera and lights.
Jenna says her background in the arts helped her feel confident in front of a camera.(ABC News: Brendan Esposito)

The site became wildly popular during the pandemic, with thousands of Australians creating accounts. The hope? To convert homemade “content” into piles of cash.

But OnlyFans isn’t the golden goose of the gig economy.

Behind the internet success stories lie hidden risks and often harsh realities.

“This idea that you can get on OnlyFans and suddenly be raking in money is so farfetched,” says Jenna.

Woman wearing pink lingerie posing in front of camera and lights, with blue hallway in background.
When the pandemic hit, Jenna pivoted to online sex work.(ABC News: Brendan Esposito)

“For every person that’s earning a million dollars and flying around doing fancy shoots, there’s a hundred people who are barely paying rent.”

Porn behind a PG-friendly façade

Founded in 2016, OnlyFans was officially designed to “revolutionis[e] creator and fan connections”.

The website hosts paywalled “exclusive content”, a private chat function, and a tipping mechanism.

Scrolling through its free-to-view homepage, you’ll find fitness workouts, bagel-making lessons, even videos on discovering your vocal range.

But that’s the tip of the iceberg.

According to Aryana Safaee, a political science lecturer at San Diego State University, this PG-friendly façade is entirely misleading.

“From the way the platform markets [itself], a person would assume it was a website for celebrities to make an extra buck off their fans,” she writes in her thesis on OnlyFans and online sex work.

“But when the average person is asked what OnlyFans is for, they give a very clear and concise answer: porn.”

‘More marketing genius than sex worker’

In an age when free porn is ubiquitous on the internet, OnlyFans has proven that punters are willing to pay.

Last year, its creators brought home nearly $US4 billion. The company, which takes a 20 per cent cut, pocketed $US433 million (pre-tax) — a giant leap from $US62 million in 2020.

Professor Safaee says one key to the site’s success is the sense of “personal connection” it fosters.

“The difference with this and other forms of porn is that [creators] are hearing directly from the people watching their content, and [users] can request certain videos, certain fetishes.”

In her research, she found that subscribers often follow creators on multiple social media sites — such as Instagram and TikTok — places where the less sexy, more mundane aspects of life are shared.

Consumers don’t just want porn for porn’s sake; they want to know, or feel like they know, the figure of their fantasies.

Woman wearing sequin dress, on balcony at dusk.
Billie Beever has worked overseas in the porn industry, but prefers to describe herself as an OnlyFans creator.(ABC News: Jack Fisher)

Gold Coast-based mum Billie Beever is one of the platform’s rising stars.

At 30, she’s worked in the adult industry for more than a decade: from bikini car-washing and nude waitressing, to escorting and making porn.

Billie was an early adopter of OnlyFans and now she says she’s in the top one per cent of creators globally. But it’s been a grind.

“I wake up to about 100 or 200 messages a day, and I reply to every single person,” she says.

“If you don’t spend money [i.e. tip], and it’s been like a month, I put you on a list. I know not to waste my time replying to you because at the end of the day it’s my job.”

And when it comes to Billie’s job, there are many NSFW aspects: “dick ratings, videos, sexting, panties, Snap[chat] calls”.

There’s also the “girlfriend experience”, a paid package on top of the monthly subscription fee. It includes extra photos and videos, plus personalised messages in written, audio and video form.

“I say ‘daddy’ a lot,” she notes of her communication style.

The majority of Billie’s workload is admin and social media marketing.

Tasks like editing photos, scheduling posts, organising cross-promotion with other creators, chatting to fans on TikTok live-streams, and jumping on social media trends, including dances, at breakneck speed.

Woman in pink onesie points takes selfie on bed.
Billie’s work day is a blur of messaging, scheduling, live-streaming and making content.(ABC News: Jack Fisher)

“You have to give subs a reason why they should subscribe to you,” she says. “You need to be in their face.

“I consider myself more of a marketing genius than a sex worker right now.”

Sexuality and slut-shaming

Success can be a double-edged sword.

“It’s hard to find a man that wants to be with you for you,” says Billie.

“At the beginning, it’s very like, ‘Oh my God, I’m f***ing a porn star or an OnlyFans creator or whatever’.

“But once that façade goes, and they realise I’m a real person with needs and wants … I don’t think they know how to handle it.”

Professor Safaee suggests that intimate, paid-for connections on sites like OnlyFans may be affecting how we understand love and sexuality.

“It is turning these very human emotions into a commodity,” she says.

“People are selling themselves as someone that is desirable, a fantasy even. For the creators, you’re sitting there, wondering, ‘Is that really me? Am I the same person when I’m not in this mode?’

“And for people who are consuming this kind of content, they are getting this ideal version of a woman and they’re not really understanding the nuances.”

Woman wearing sequin dress, on balcony at dusk.
Billie says she’ll work in this industry until she retires.(ABC News: Jack Fisher)

Billie says she’s not an overly sexual or affectionate person outside of work. Her walls are “very high” — self-protection after being “slut-shamed and hurt so many times over the years”.

She’s been trolled, had men become obsessed with her, and been told that no-one will ever love her.

Although Billie’s physical safety hasn’t yet been compromised, she’s glad to live in a block of units with security.

“If I did live in a house, I would be getting cameras and everything … it’s definitely a concern.”

‘I was tempted by the money’

For every Billie — who says her earning goal is $US7,000–$10,000 a week — there are thousands of creators making very little.

Sarah* joined the site in late August, hoping to earn extra cash while studying at TAFE.

“I didn’t want to rely on my parents,” says the 24-year-old, who lives with a physical disability.

“Disabled people are often under employed or unemployed … I was doing this for financial reasons.”

But making money on OnlyFans wasn’t as easy as Sarah thought.

Like any business, it came with start-up costs — props, sex toys, and filming equipment. Sarah bought a few items, then did the best with what she had.

Space to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrows to seek, up and down arrows for volume.
Sarah video(Compass: Nude Next Door)

“I made content wearing a few lingerie outfits, and posted nude photos of myself… It was like softcore porn,” she says.

To gain subscribers, Sarah promoted her OnlyFans on her private Instagram account. Some people derided her for joining the platform; others thought she was brave.

She also created an advertisement on a classifieds website. It was there that a user got in touch, offering Sarah $300 to film a “hardcore porn” film with a male co-star.

The request went beyond Sarah’s boundaries, but because OnlyFans hadn’t proved as lucrative as she hoped, she reluctantly agreed. She asked a male friend to film with her and booked a motel.

But when Sarah sent a preview of the video to the requester, he berated her for its quality and content, flatly refusing to pay.

“I was crying because I was tempted by the money,” she says. “I regret being lured into his request.”

While many creators, if not most, would insist on payment upfront, Sarah’s inexperience with the industry left her in a precarious position.  

She later sold the video to someone else for $50, but the whole ordeal was a strain on her mental health. After just a month on OnlyFans, Sarah deactivated her account.

She’d made $431, but the actual profit — minus the cost of outfits and props — was far less.

The adults-only gig economy

While OnlyFans hasn’t released official data on the average earnings of its creators, there are crumbs on the internet.

In 2020, digital strategist and independent researcher Thomas Hollands used scraped data from the website to estimate how much money creators make.

His analysis suggests the site’s top one per cent of content creators are earning 33 per cent of revenue, while the top 10 per cent are amassing 73 per cent.

Meanwhile, the average creator was estimated to take home less than $US145 per month, after OnlyFans subtracted its share.

Professor Safaee points out that’s “well below” the average amount made by other gig economy workers, who are estimated to earn $US500 a month.

While OnlyFans runs on a different model to Uber or Deliveroo, it’s still ultimately a gig economy platform. Workers are independent contractors, selling their labour to consumers.

But when you become an OnlyFans creator, you don’t get immediate access to a pool of clients wanting your wares. You need to find and build your own subscriber base.

Having a pre-existing and large social media following is — if not crucial — very conducive to success.

This is why many personalities, such as ex-Disney star Bella Thorne, Danielle “Cash Me Outside” Bregoli, and a number of Married At First Sight contestants, are reportedly making fortunes from the website. They’ve converted fans into subscribers.

After a stint on reality TV program Love Island, Phoebe Thompson was presented with that same opportunity.

“I would literally have people messaging me all the time, telling me that I should have a website, or be on OnlyFans,” she recalls.

Initially, Phoebe was hesitant. A fellow Love Islander had garnered great success on the website — but she’d also courted controversy.

Woman wearing green puffer jacket standing on rocks next to ocean.
Phoebe isn’t afraid of an early-morning shoot, even in the middle of winter.(ABC News: Brendan Esposito)
Woman wearing white jacket takes photo of woman in green jacket, with rocks behind her.
Phoebe’s friend and fellow Love Islander Jessie Wynter helps with test shots.(ABC News: Brendan Esposito)
Woman wearing white jacket shows phone to woman in green jacket.
Phoebe and Jessie both swear by the wonders of natural lighting.(ABC News: Brendan Esposito)

“There was … fear of judgment and fear of being attached to OnlyFans as a platform,” Phoebe says.

“There are brands that openly will not work with content creators that are on [it].”

Eventually, Phoebe took the leap, creating an independent, subscription-based website, which has similar features to OnlyFans. The company that hosts her site takes a cut.

“[When] I started, I was like, ‘I’m not doing any nudity,’ and I think that changed within the first 24 hours,” she says and laughs.

“[I thought], ‘Look, I sunbake topless on the beach, I have absolutely no issues with certain types of nudity, so why am I getting funny about it now?'”

Woman in orange bikini taking top off.
Phoebe has clear boundaries on the type of content she produces for her website.(ABC News: Brendan Esposito)

But her decision didn’t come without consequence. Phoebe says after starting her site, she was cut from a leading commercial modelling agency.

To her, the apparent anxiety around states of undress is hypocritical.

“I grew up watching supermodels like Kate Moss, who’s been on the runway multiple times where her breasts are exposed, but it’s ‘art’ and it’s ‘fashion’, because she’s owned by someone … she has an agency taking money from her.

“But if she decided to do that on her own, that’s not OK?

“All this stigma and shame is not about nudity; all this anger is not about nudity. It’s about money, and control.”

Since starting her site, Phoebe feels like she’s wrestled back the reins of control — both in a professional and personal sense.

“I developed really early, so I had my womanly body and big boobs … and I got a lot of male attention [which had] nothing to do with the way that I act, but was purely from my body type,” she says.

For years, men have been sliding into Phoebe’s DMs, sending unwanted advances and unsolicited pics.

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Phoebe says she was sexualised long before she started her exclusive website.(ABC News: Brendan Esposito)

“I got to the point where I was so sick of trying to escape being sexualised.

“[I thought], ‘If people are going to put this on me, then I am at least going to make money from it.'”

Get rich or get leaked trying

Phoebe can afford to set boundaries on the type of material she makes.

“You’ve got to make sure that if that photo got leaked, would you feel shame? And if you would feel shame, don’t post it.”

When her content is stolen or leaked — a practice many creators say is inevitable — Phoebe has a management team, including a copyright lawyer, who snap into action and “get everything shut down”.

Over the shoulder of two women, looking at woman in bikini on phone.
Phoebe says, like most content creators, she’s had her material leaked. (ABC News: Brendan Esposito)

But most content creators don’t have that security net.

Professor Safaee points to data breaches where users download all of the adult material from an individual’s website, then re-sell the content elsewhere.

“In a way it’s worse [than pirating a movie or music] because you’re not dealing with a big company that can handle that loss,” she points out.

“You’re dealing with individual people, some of whom again aren’t even making that much money.”

It can be time-consuming, even costly, to get material removed from dark corners of the web. And when your material is online for free, it’s harder to convince people to pay you for it.

We contacted OnlyFans to ask what responsibility they take to prevent the leaking and stealing of images. They directed us to the site’s Safety and Transparency Centre, which details the steps the company is taking to protect its community.

The website states: “We do our best to get any stolen content taken down quickly, but not all websites respect copyright laws or comply with our takedown requests.”

A ban and a backflip

In August last year, OnlyFans announced it would be banning sexually explicit content in a bid to protect the company’s “long-term sustainability”.

Reports on the ban suggest the company was pressured by its banking partners and payment providers.

Indeed, this wouldn’t be the first instance of a financial institution pulling rank. In 2020, Mastercard and Visa prohibited the use of their cards on video website PornHub, over concerns that child sexual abuse material and non-consensual content was being hosted on the platform.

For Jenna Love — who, aside from making online content, is an in-person sex worker and secretary for Scarlet Alliance, the Australian Sex Workers Association — the ban didn’t come as a surprise.

“I don’t think that OnlyFans has ever championed sex work, despite being built on the backs of sex workers,” she says.

Back of woman as she looks at computer screens on desk.
Jenna says the gentrification of online spaces can lead to sex workers being pushed off the internet.(ABC News: Brendan Esposito)
Woman removing orange sheets from bed.
Jenna uses online content creation to supplement her in-person work.(ABC News: Brendan Esposito)

“I was pissed off because the sex industry just keeps getting slammed.

“There are all these laws that try to get us off the streets … to stop us doing in-person sex work. So, then people go online, and there are all these laws and rules that stop us from doing it there.”

A week after its announcement, OnlyFans backflipped on the policy change, stating “we have secured assurances necessary to support our diverse creator community”.

But it left many creators wary of the platform.

For Jenna, there’s a clear hierarchy — or, in her words, “whore-archy” — when it comes to online sex work.

“I think the OnlyFans boom has really celebrated the girl-next-door who takes her clothes off and takes a few nudes — the conventionally attractive girl-next-door who’s white, skinny and cisgendered,” she says.

“I personally don’t believe it has helped to destigmatise sex work in general. If anything, it’s really broadened that divide between online sex work and in-person sex work.”

Despite the platform’s flaws, Jenna says she’ll continue posting — albeit, half-heartedly.

“I think my bio says something like ‘You’ll get better stuff elsewhere!'” she laughs.

Close up of a woman's face with red hair.
Jenna Love says she’ll stay on OnlyFans, reluctantly.(ABC News: Brendan Esposito)

“I’ve been quite vocal about my issues with it … that I don’t have that much faith in the company.”

For better or worse, Jenna says the site is now synonymous with sex on the internet. It’s become the reliable brand in a sea of racy rivals.

“People kept demanding that I get on OnlyFans … it’s like the Tupperware of online porn.”

The Compass special, Nude Next Door, airs 9:30pm, Tuesday 15 November on ABC TV and on ABC iview.

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