Only Fans: the myth of empowerment

Male fantasies, male fantasies, is everything run by male fantasies? Up on a pedestal or down on your knees, it's all a male fantasy: that you're strong enough to take what they dish out, or else too weak to do anything about it. Even pretending you aren't catering to male fantasies is a male fantasy: pretending you're unseen, pretending you have a life of your own, that you can wash your feet and comb your hair unconscious of the ever-present watcher peering through the keyhole, peering through the keyhole in your own head, if nowhere else. You are a woman with a man inside watching a woman.


"You are your own voyeur.”

― Margaret Atwood, The Robber Bride

OnlyFans is a UK-based content subscription service that allows creators to upload their content behind a paywall, which can be accessed by their buyers, the ‘fans’, for a monthly fee and one-off tips. Though conceived as a social media platform, it is known for and primarily used by sex workers who produce porn and ‘monetize their influence’ by sharing photos, videos and interacting with buyers.


OnlyFans became a household name when demand for pornography shot through the roof during the pandemic. People started to live their lives online, domestic violence exploded, women lost their means of economic survival way worse than men, and inequalities increased.


In such times, OnlyFans presented pornography as mediated, soft prostitution and took advantage of these dynamics. The platform grew nearly 10-fold since 2019, and now has more than 170 million users .


The site advertises itself as a creator-friendly medium with strict policies and regulations against prohibited content, but there is no way to know whether pimps and traffickers are recruiting the vulnerable and coercing them offscreen; as typical in the sex industry. Several studies and investigations including a recent report by BBC News , found that OnlyFans was letting through videos featuring nonconsensual acts and minors, despite being illegal.


Concerns of people who have been forced, pimped, deceived, or had their intimate pictures stolen are also missing from the conversation, and the coerced, violated, exploited have no effective rights against being bought and sold against their consent.


This poses a question: do female content creators on OnlyFans truly have ownership, power and control over their work and safety? In my criticism, it merely offers the illusion of security and deniability for the creator, as we always do when it comes to protecting women’s rights.


If women portraying themselves as sexual commodities is the way to obtain power,

why isn’t the same treatment extended to men?


Why are the ones that critic sex trade the ones considered prudish and backwards?


Why is it that this so-called ‘empowerment’ is only found within practices of sexual objectification, and not in women’s resistance to them?


On October 2021, OnlyFans proposed a ban on its NSFW content due to pressure from “banking partners and payout providers”, which was reversed two days later because of backlash, making it clear that only explicit consumption of feminized bodies; female, gay or trans sells well in pornography’s world.

It can be argued that OnlyFans is better than traditional forms of sex work —power lies in the hands of the content creator. Profits of work go to the women publishing content instead of pimps and businessmen as in the case of the porn industry and sex trade.


This digital form is undeniably safer since physical contact with sex buyers is absent, reducing the risk of sexual violence, theft and murder while also shielding both buyer and seller alike from STDs.


It is why even reputed news outlets like the Telegraph and New York Times have praised OnlyFans for being empowering in many of their articles, arguing that it provides women the tools to make money at the expense of men, and enables the transfer of power from men to women.

Except, does it?


Beneficial to only the top 1% of its content creators, OnlyFans has harmful implications for all women: the monetization of selling personalized porn relies on the commodification of the female body —a product, a service to be sold.


The practice of ‘sex work’ is historically, exclusively centered around male satisfaction and deep-rooted in all societies; it is the “oldest profession” after all. Contrary to the belief that selling sex is empowering, prostitution has actually been the oldest form of trade. It violently positioned women with no agency as commodities to be owned, sold, used, discarded from the archaic times of land ownership, class society, militarization and slavery/debt bondages.


In the 21st century, ‘sex work’ is an awful byproduct of capitalism with websites such as OnlyFans that uses words like “creator” and “tips” to delude woman into believing they have control over what they do.


According to Thomas Hollands, “The top accounts make something like $100,000 a month. The median account makes $180 a month.” An example is Bella Thorne, with over 24mil followers on Instagram earned $1mil on her very first day on OnlyFans.

This is proof that high earnings are possible only for those already famous BEFORE joining the website and that majority of women don’t stand a chance in competition.


Here, I would also like to mention how OnlyFans success stories only propagate bourgeoise feminism. Its role in normalizing the existence of ‘sex workers’ completely blindsides the desperate help required by women sex trafficked in the global south, where prostitution continues to flourish in unprecedented ways. I strongly believe that this will continue to grow as long as our media representation of prostitution and sex trafficking views women within the sex trade as having the choice/freedom to be a prostitute.


One of the measures of OnlyFans’ success is how social media now increasingly insists on using the word ‘sex workers’ to refer to people used in prostitution and porn. To me this phenomenon is devastating. I understand that it may be used by individuals themselves as a way of gaining respect, but under a moral lens what is done to these people is neither sex in the sense of intimacy and mutuality, nor work in terms of productivity and dignity.


Countries like Thailand continue to pimp their woman as a way to boost their national wealth under the guise of sex tourism as if it were a natural phenomenon. It is heartbreaking to see how we have cultivated complete disengagement from empathy needed for these impoverished women.


‘Sex work’ misleadingly implies that prostituted people have a say in what they have virtually no choice in doing. That sexism, capitalism, imperialism, poverty, homelessness, racism; marginalization has no role to play when choosing these

‘professions’.


Importantly, children will not be protected from sexual exploitation as long as pornography is celebrated and prostitution of adults is tolerated, because anyone past the onset of puberty can present as a consenting adult; not to forget that eroticizing children and monetizing their sexualization is not unheard of in porn culture.


At present, OnlyFans can be named responsible for bringing sex work into everyday life. Porn subliminally and explicitly reinforces the notion of women as “subordinate to men/sexual servants for men.” Men objectify and dehumanize women on social media by commenting on their social media posts, suggesting they could do porn or ask for their OnlyFans.


It shows us to what extent the normalization of pornography leads to men feeling entitled to have access to any woman they come across, that they are available to satisfy their sexual needs at the click of a button and $4 a month.

Persisting phenomena like damaging gender norms, wage gap, unequal division of labor in the family, etc., are the result of this perceived inferiority and they continue to propagate because media platforms like these subtly prevent any socially significant empowerment of women from taking place.


Why do some liberal feminists support OnlyFans? I believe their justification comes due to the concept of ‘choice’ —that women consenting to work as pornstars and sex workers out of their own free will can’t be exploited by the industry and thus their choices must be respected.


The freedom of choice is fundamental to feminism and that’s why so many people including feminists continue to defend ‘sex work’.


Numerous survivors of OnlyFans have come out and talked about the constant pressure to post more explicit content, requests to perform degrading sex acts, the threat of revenge porn and doxing and how detrimental it was for their mental and physical wellbeing.


“After just a few days with my OnlyFans, I didn’t feel empowered, I felt vulnerable,” an anonymous contributor told Grazia Daily, UK about her experience during lockdown.


I believe that the ‘modern and liberated’ society conditions women to enjoy the attention they receive when objectified by men online. By endorsing OnlyFans, sex positive/liberal/choice feminism carelessly contributes to the problem of gender inequality because the exploitation of female body is inherent to everything produced by the porn industry and pop culture.


What does it mean to be empowered?

I am scared that this method of fighting sexism, of trying to reclaim power by ‘taking it away from men’, only births new forms of inequality and exploitation. Is empowerment nothing more than a feeling, state of mind, a defense of misogynistic practice? Should it not involve solving real-world problems, improving the status of women as a whole –having rights, education, a voice globally, actual power?


Being reduced to a commodity, an object for someone’s sexual use, does not give women power. Practices that operate on and perpetuate women’s inequality, and diminish women’s humanity, they don’t give women power – they reduce women’s power.


Sexual objectification harms ALL women, even if few choose and benefit from it. The positive portrayal of OnlyFans on mainstream media reels vulnerable women in with the illusion of making a fortune and exposes them to the risk of harassment. Its popularity strengthens the idea that serving the sexual fantasies of men does good for women when it actually reinforces the society’s perception of women as subservient and submissive.


We live in the world pornography has made, especially in the digital age.

For decades, researchers like Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon have documented and proved how porn desensitizes consumers to violence against women and spreads rape myths and other lies about female’s sexuality.

In doing so, it normalizes itself and becomes pervasive, intrusive and dangerous, surrounding us intimately, grooming our popular culture making it hard to even recognize its harms.



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