Amid a yearlong pandemic, record unemployment rates and a vitriolic election, OnlyFans exploded into pop culture and into the private lives of millions of people this year, providing a place to let loose and indulge in creating, engaging in and consuming adult content.
Although the platform hosts everyone from fitness bloggers to musicians, it continues to be a major hub for sex workers. Some of them have found it to be extremely lucrative, providing financial stability for them and their families without dealing with intermediary players.
Silvia Saige stumbled onto the adult scene when she moved to Los Angeles and needed to supplement her income as a stand-up comedian. Over the past six years, she estimates she’s been in more than 600-plus porn scenes.
“A big thing about studio work that you do is sometimes you just say, ‘I gotta grin and bear it.’ And you do a lotta things you don't wanna do,” she told ABC News. “OnlyFans allows me to be my own director, producer, booker, everything.”
Now, she says she has the ability to say “no.”
“I know I can make just as much money sitting at home doing my own stuff than I would spending eight hours on a set, working for a director who I probably don't like,” she said, laughing.
Saige’s story, along with the day-to-day hustle of others creating content as the platform grew, is now explored in the Hulu exclusive “OnlyFans: Selling Sexy,” produced by ABC News Originals.
OnlyFans launched in summer 2016 and experts say it was initially used mainly by sex workers. It’s a subscription-based platform where viewers pay a monthly fee to access creators’ main feeds. Fans can make themselves known by messaging creators, sending tips or requesting custom private content.
Creators keep 80% of the money and OnlyFans pockets 20%. Compared to services like Instagram, the site provides a way for creators to profit directly by using the platform.
While businesses around the country struggled, OnlyFans saw a massive surge in creators and users, aided in part by attention from mainstream celebrities that experts say helped legitimize the platform. In April, Beyoncé’s remix of Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage” name-dropped “OnlyFans.” Months later, Cardi B joined the site, offering behind-the-scenes moments from music videos like “WAP.” Former Disney star Bella Thorne also threw her hat in the ring.
Making thousands a month on OnlyFans
Wynter Mosely had just quit her job to double down on her growing OnlyFans account when the pandemic hit. She was concerned at first, but she says March ended up being her highest-paid month.
She’s not alone. OnlyFans saw a 75% month-to-month increase in new creator registrations between March and April 2020. There are now over a million content creators and over 100 million users, with 500,000 new users joining daily, according to the company.
“I dropped one little video of my butt. I had made $1,300 that day. And then it just kinda went from there,” Mosely said of how she started on the platform in 2019. The Houston native says she’s now in the top 0.8% of creators on the platform, bringing in over $10,000 a month in earnings.
Mosely’s former job involved booking corporate travel, first in Singapore and then back in the U.S.
“It wasn't until I made my OnlyFans that I realized that I was kind of wasting my time,” she said. “I was making more money on my twerk videos on OnlyFans than I was at my job.”
“I'm like, ‘OK, if I make $10,000 a month, I am quitting my job.’ So, by February, I quit,” she said. “Like, that was that. I'm like, all right, maybe this really isn't a fluke. Maybe this is something that I can actually do.”
Mosely discussed how the platform offers something unique and personal to users.
“On OnlyFans, you can see me naked. You can sext with me. You can talk to me. I'll answer you,” she said. “It's a more personal interaction versus, ‘Oh, I'm just gonna on this porn website and just watch some porn.’ It’s different.”
The personal touch OnlyFans allows is something Saige also capitalizes on.
“I offer a variety of things. I offer custom pictures, custom videos,” she explained. “I sell merchandise on my site.”
Saige rakes in about $15,000 a month on OnlyFans alone. She explained that she sets guidelines for the fans on her site and they’re welcome to message her. But, if they send a picture of their penis, she asks that they also send a $20 tip.
Another way Saige personalizes her account for her subscribers is by holding what she calls “Boyfriend of the Week,” where she’ll give a fan “a little extra special attention,” she said.
“Just anything to make you feel like you're spending more time with me than anybody else gets,” she said, “because my time is incredibly valuable. Yeah, it's nice for me to be able to put a price tag on that time.”
Griffin Barrows of Chicago says that interacting with fans is so important that he takes time to go through every message his subscribers send on OnlyFans. He was in the traditional pornography industry for six years.
“OnlyFans really took off as my primary source of income fairly quickly,” Barrows said. “There were several months, I think it was maybe about half a year, where I was doing both studio and fan sites. Rates were still falling with [the] studio. So it wasn't actually that hard or difficult for fan-site work to outperform the other income stream.”
Tyson Dayley had a similar experience in modeling. Just last year, he was working in New York City. When COVID-19 hit, his jobs began to get canceled. He flew home to Salt Lake City for what was only supposed to be a couple of weeks, but those weeks turned to months and he’s been there ever since.
On OnlyFans, he sticks to making “mainly erotic art,” he said. “I do implied nudes, artistic nudes.”
“There is a constant pressure to continue ramping up your content,” he said. “But there are definitely lines I see for myself in terms of ‘this is too much.’”
Kirsten Vaughn of Fort Wayne, Indiana, has waded into explicit videos on OnlyFans.
“My first nude was just a short video. I just walked up and flashed the camera,” she said. “Slowly, [I] kinda dipped my toes into more and more risque content.”
Now, she’s made over $75,000 on OnlyFans. Vaughn, a mechanic, hopes to own her own customs shop and race her own cars one day.
“As a female, you definitely get questioned more because you're not seen as much. There's always that guy that feels like you don't belong,” she said. “I started seeing in the field how much some people were making on average. And it wasn't exactly what I thought.”
Vaughn remembered asking herself how she was going to afford a racecar before she was 60 or 70 years old on this salary. She describes her city as “very conservative” and she hesitated before starting this side gig.
“Part of me was like, ‘Could I get fired for this,’” she said.
“At first, I was not OK with making sex tapes just because, that's so intimate and personal,” she said. “The first time I posted on OnlyFans, I was so nervous. But I was like, ‘We’re just going to put it out and see what happens.’ I just started seeing how much more money people would be willing to pay for more content.”
The real lives of sex workers
Dayley says he purposefully postures his OnlyFans profile as sexually ambiguous, but in reality, he is heterosexual. He said he’s learned that not everyone he dates is OK with how he makes his money.
“Doing the modeling that I did even before OnlyFans, I encountered situations with dating women that kind of had an issue with it -- a guy that would be willing to pose nude,” he said. “Anyone that really can't roll with that can't really roll with me.”
Vaughn considers herself a sex worker and acknowledges the “stigma that comes with being in that field,” she said.
“At first, I tried to kind of control the narrative. … I know how they can be with gossip and rumors,” she said, remembering that she was once approached by someone she worked with after he came across her OnlyFans page.
“I said, ‘You know, if you don't like what you see, maybe don't tell people and keep it to yourself,’” she said. “You don't really want that kind of attention from your coworkers. But I was also [telling myself] ‘You're trying to get your money. You're trying to earn your money. Don't let what other people think affect you.’”
On the week of Valentine’s Day, she said she was working on a car when she was told to see her boss.
“‘You're a distraction… The guys have seen your page,’” Vaughn said he told her. “I was just immediately frustrated and pissed off, especially when they told me that they thought I was a distraction in the shop. I'm like, ‘I post this stuff on my own time.’”
Vaughn was fired from her job in what she called a “giant double standard.”
“I was this big, bewitching female, and these poor guys couldn't help themselves,” Vaughn said. “I put the food out; the dog ate it. You know, that's the way they acted.”
Her former employer has denied that she was fired for having an OnlyFans page, saying, “Kirsten Vaughn was terminated for ‘Violation of Policy/Procedure.’”
It’s clear sharing your body online brings in a lot more than compliments and cash. Mosely says she also receives a lot of disparagement online for her work.
“People on social media seem to think that [my mom] do[es]n’t love me, that my parents didn’t raise me right,” she said. “That I have no morals and self-respect and all of these things.”
“I'm so tired of ... the morals conversation because that is all subjective,” Mosely said. “We do have morals and self-respect. And because we're showing our bodies on the internet, they feel like we can't possibly have self-love, or we grew up in a broken household or whatever. And like, that's just not true. We are comfortable with ourselves. We're confident in our bodies. So, we are putting it out there and we're making money doing it.”
“For every few compliments, there’s at least one where someone is like, ‘You suck, your face looks dumb’ or ‘That hair style looks dumb,’’ Dayley said. “I’ve had people send me direct messages saying how much they hate me and it’s like, you don’t even know me.”
“‘You're just a stupid whore,’” Vaughn said of the comments she receives. “‘I bet your parents are proud.’ ‘You're so gross.’”
For Mosely, most of the criticism is directed at her body.
“‘Why can’t that Wynter chick just go be fat somewhere else.’ ‘She’s built like a damn appliance,’” Mosely said. “Whenever someone talks about me, all they ever say about me is that I’m fat... I don’t care. I’m fat but like I said, I make money so people love it.”
She added, “It just sucks. But at this point, it's normal.”
Has OnlyFans empowered and protected its sex workers?
OnlyFans was started in 2016 by Tim Stokely, a young tech entrepreneur based in London. He spent years working at the intersection of sex work and social media before his company exploded.
To date, his site has paid out over $2 billion in creator earnings. But some say they’d rather highlight the creators who don’t post adult content.
Comedian Donnell Rawlings says OnlyFans reached out to him about making a page.
“The pitch for me was that they were honest,” he said. “They were, like, they're tryin' to increase the eyeballs to the page and introduce other entertainers away from just the sex thing.”
Mosely says she hasn’t seen any public statement from the company acknowledging strippers, porn stars or cam girls exist on the site.
“OnlyFans is not fully transparent about its ties to the adult industry because it wants to profit off of its sex worker user base while simultaneously making room for itself to grow further by attracting mainstream influencers,” said E.J. Dickson, a culture reporter for Rolling Stone.
In an email response, a representative stated, “OnlyFans has never tried to dismiss our community in the adult industry. OnlyFans has and always will welcome all content creators.”
“OnlyFans has always been a safe place for all content creators and the only social platform inclusive of adult and glamour model creators,” they added.
For now, Dayley is happy to have OnlyFans but doesn’t see himself pushing his content any further.
“It’s making me money to help me through this,” he said. “But as soon as it’s possible, I want to get my fitness app dropped and get doing that, do personal training and preferably build a client base in New York.”
“There’s only so many times you can shoot in small underwear or implied nude and I don’t have any interest in pushing that line further,” Dayley said.
He said he doesn’t want to make more explicit content because “I want to have a life after modeling.”
“There are certain doors that would be hard shut with that,” Dayley said. “The guys who go all in on that and make their money, make their bread, use that to invest in other things, do it, great. But it’s one of those things where I’m like, you need to go all in or don’t even touch it.”
Mosely went all in recently on something she’d never tried before -- engaging in a threesome while also shooting it for her OnlyFans page. She said she had a great experience and is looking forward to doing more.
“I charged $75, because that was my first threesome video and everybody kept asking me to do one. I was selling the full video. Then I was also selling the clips individually,” she said. “I wanna say I made probably $8,000 off of that.”
Her goal this year is to consistently make $20,000 a month.
“Things go in fads,” Saige said. “So that's why I say, ‘Get in now. Make your money.’ Because we don't know how much longer it's going to be there, and especially for sex workers.”
Vaughn was recently offered a position to apprentice at a new custom shop, and she and her boyfriend have set up a race team that they hope to build together.
“Going into OnlyFans has given me so much more opportunity than I would have had otherwise,” she said. “I don't think I'll ever look back on it and be upset or hate myself for it. I don't think it'll ever be a negative. If anything I'll be, like, ‘Hey, I lived a little. Look at that.’”
“A lot of people look at sex work as something to do in the meantime, in between time, and not as something that they can do as an actual career,” Mosely said. “I feel like I've gotten this popular, why not make a career out of it? As of right now, I'm just gonna ride this wave.”