Run by a Ukrainian-American businessman who has been called a “porn baron,” OnlyFans peddles lascivious content made by amateur “content creators.” It has been hailed as a form of “female empowerment,” giving women a chance to “own” the adult content that they create and share via subscriptions.

But at the root of this scheme is a vast income inequality frequently decried by the left when it’s the byproduct of other forms of commerce. The majority owner of OnlyFans made more than $1 million a day in 2022; the platform takes a 20% cut of what its creators make.

The platform trumpets the six- and seven-figure earnings of its superstar “models.” But Gail Dines, the founder and president of the anti-pornography organization Culture Reframed, says the typical OnlyFans content creator makes between $150 and $160 a month. Only Dines doesn’t say “content creators.” She rightly says “exploited women.”

Her organization recently released a report on OnlyFans which pushes back against the platform’s insistence that it exists to empower “creators to own their full potential.”

“OnlyFans does not advertise itself as a pornographic marketplace. But porn is the reason it exists,” the Culture Reframed report said. But you don’t have to take Dines’ word for it. Recent news accounts show lives are being ruined in real time on the platform.

Part porn, part prostitution?

Last year, a teacher in Arizona lost her job after filming for an OnlyFans account on school grounds; her husband, a substitute teacher, lost his, too. More recently, a former OnlyFans creator who was making $20,000 a month spoke to Business Insider about quitting the platform, saying “It got to the point where the money wasn’t worth it.”

In a “as-told-to” interview published by Business Insider, the woman said she’d started an account on the platform at age 18 and used it for three years. Since she’d already been posting photos of herself in a bikini on Instagram, she saw OnlyFans as a natural extension of that, except that she’d be paid.

She didn’t take into account the difficulties human beings often have reaching satiety — whether in food, the acquisition of money, or other desires.

No matter how much money she made, she said, she wasn’t satisfied. And no matter how racy the content she provided, subscribers wanted her to go further. She said she occasionally took money for nude photos “even though I didn’t want to, because I felt so pressured” by the cash incentives.

Similarly, model and actress Blac Chyna (whose real name is Angela White), quit OnlyFans after becoming a Christian, calling the OnlyFans experience “degrading.”

“It is one of those things where I did what I needed to do at that moment because of the circumstances I was in,” Chyna said in an interview earlier this year.

These comments peel back one of the many problematic layers of OnlyFans: in this case, the platform’s appeal to people who are struggling financially.

“The women (on OnlyFans) are poor and desperate, often to put food on the table; a lot of them are from eastern Europe or the global South; and their bodies are being commodified and monetized by OnlyFans,” said Dines, professor emerita of sociology and women’s studies at Wheelock College in Boston.

The exploitation of the desperate, of course, is an old sin in the field of “sex work,” which used to be known as prostitution. In Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables,” Fantine sold her body and her self-respect because of circumstances she was in, circumstances that “adult” industries of all kinds are happy to exploit.

The new thing is how easy OnlyFans makes it.

A mom can create and upload sexually explicit content while children are asleep in the next room, dreaming of wealth she and her family will likely never see. She can chat with a subscriber, hoping for a tip, while having her morning coffee. “Chat,” like “sex work,” is a euphemism; most OnlyFans subscribers call it “sexting.”

“I would call it where porn and prostitution meet,” Dines told me.

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While OnlyFans has controls that are available to its creators — the fired teacher said she had blocked everyone in Arizona from seeing her account — Dines said that it’s impossible to contain the “porn ecosystem” in which different outlets support each other. As we spoke, she called up the PornHub website and found 72,650 videos that originated from OnlyFans. And while content is supposed to be for subscribers, there is nothing to stop subscribers from making recordings and screenshots and publishing them elsewhere. And the emerging reality of artificial intelligence means images and videos could be distorted and manipulated to display things that were never intended or never happened.

I found one article published by an alternative-weekly newspaper in the Northeast that rated the platform’s “Girlfriend Experience” and displayed screenshots of OnlyFans creators in which their faces were clearly visible — as well as other body parts that are usually concealed.

“For just $3 a month, you can access her more than 1,100 pics and videos,” one accompanying review said.

‘Winks and nods’

Any discussion of the morality of such work is often scorned as “moral panic.” But given the compulsive nature of pornography for many users and its harmful effects on child development (now children are being exposed at ever younger ages), the sly mainstreaming of sexually explicit content is not as benign as the platform wants us to believe.

According to Variety, OnlyFans had more than 3 million creators as of November 2022, and more than 238 million subscribers.

To be fair, not every creator is selling pornographic content; on X, the platform promotes the accounts of comedians and motocross drivers, for example. And OnlyFans once sought to rebrand itself, announcing in 2021 that it would no longer host explicit material on the website. The website then later reversed its decision.

It’s worth noting that it’s not just people critical of OnlyFans who describe its content as primarily sexually explicit, but publications like Variety and The New York Times, where one writer said in 2021, “every assertion that the site isn’t powered by porn is accompanied by an onslaught of winks and nods to the contrary.”

Less discussed in the public conversation about OnlyFans is actually what the “content creators” are creating, and at whose expense. But we get a glimpse in the recent news stories.

Per CBS News, reporting on the fired Arizona teachers, “Samantha Peer said she and her husband resorted to filming and selling adult content because their pay was too low and they were struggling to make ends meet.”

The former OnlyFans creator who spoke to Business Insider said the platform seems like “a path to self-sufficiency” and spoke of having grown up poor, saying, “I didn’t grow up with much money. As a kid, I was made fun of for having a rundown car and a small house. I think that instilled a desire in me to make money as an adult and prove myself. It felt like money would be the answer to all my problems, but it wasn’t.”

Meanwhile, there are young women still using the platform who have yet to discover that although men cannot physically touch them on OnlyFans, they know how to take a screen grab. And these images will live forever on the internet — long after they, too, have realized the money was not worth the degradation.