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NSFW: The tricky business of OnlyFans

When creator and influencer Abby Zeus started her OnlyFans account, all she had was her Samsung Galaxy S7 to take the NSFW (not safe for work) photographs her followers pay to see. 

Now she makes about R32 000 a week through the site.

OnlyFans, the social media platform that helps creators connect with their subscribers, has seemingly exploded over the last year.

As the Covid-19 pandemic forced people to find new ways of making money, creators turned to OnlyFans. According to Google trends, since March there has been a steady increase in the number of people looking up OnlyFans. These searches peaked in August. In early April, OnlyFans reported a 75% increase in month-to-month sign-ups. 

The coverage of the platform’s burgeoning popularity has been accompanied by stories of how creators, like Zeus, have managed to rake in large sums of money by capitalising on their influence. 

But, behind the scenes, these OnlyFans creators are navigating the rapidly changing space of online work. 

The Covid effect

For Zeus, Covid-19 — and the growth of OnlyFans that accompanied global lockdowns —  has left her feeling as if she has to compete with a larger pool of creators. When Zeus began her OnlyFans, there were only a handful of well-known creators, she says.

“Now there are professional sex workers on OnlyFans … So all the professionals brought a new type of better content to the platform, which has made it harder. So now you have to step up your game. So I definitely felt that wave,” Zeus says.

She later adds: “It gets tiring because now you have to tap into this version of yourself, almost every day. Sometimes you want to be basic old you, but you have to keep up.”

Earlier this year, Disney star Bella Thorne garnered widespread controversy after breaking the OnlyFans record for the most money made on the platform in a single day, raking in $1-million. Sex workers expressed dismay at the news, saying the move could signal the end for smaller creators.

Zeus considers herself an adult influencer, rather than a sex worker, but OnlyFans has become known for creating a space to monetise NSFW content. And sex workers from all over the world have taken to OnlyFans to take control of their incomes.

Mistress Violet, who started doing online sex work two years ago, says Covid-19 took a toll on her income because some of her clients were no longer able to pay for her content. “In South Africa, if a lot of your clients are from here, so many people have become unemployed or have had their salaries cut or aren’t being paid,” Mistress Violet says.

“So it’s really affected them, which means it has really affected us. And trying to find new clients is difficult, especially during a pandemic.”

But for others, like Mistress Cyanide, the pandemic has had the opposite effect. “Quarantine helped me grow my clientele,” she told the Mail & Guardian


“People often just want companionship or someone to care for them. I fulfil that need, and do so gladly.”

Another big creator, Tivona Rain, says her OnlyFans started picking up because of the lockdown. Her income doing real-time sessions of foot worship and light femdom was cut off, so she could commit more time to her online work.

Growing influence

As is the case for social media influencers, OnlyFans can demand a relatively steady stream of content to generate a following. But OnlyFans creators rely on mainstream social media platforms, like Instagram and Twitter, for marketing — a dynamic that can be difficult to navigate.

“Getting the word out about a new business is always a difficult task,” Mistress Cyanide says. “Especially because not all social media sites are sex-positive or body positive.”

Kat* explains: “The most immediate, and ongoing, challenge with any kind of business is getting customers. Marketing is everything! With sex work, you’re limited by where and what you can post and marketing is entirely social media-based.”

NSFW content creators miss out on ad revenue and some platforms, like Instagram, censor creators with OnlyFans accounts. 

“On Instagram, we have to be careful and creative with our hashtags and captions. Don’t go searching for Onlyfans on Insta if you want to find online porn or tease content. The company has the squeaky clean front of existing for influencers, but is very, very much kept going by its NSFW creators.”

Kat says the perception that online sex work is easy money is a flawed one. “I post and engage daily across a range of platforms, I engage with my subscribers, I make the best content I’m capable of making … Yet I’m far from making a living wage,” she says.

“Online sex work is about getting established as a content creator. You face the same challenges as any other streamer or Youtuber. And it takes time. You won’t be making money quickly unless you go viral.”

Safe space?

But going viral can also have its drawbacks, as OnlyFans creators are still vulnerable to the trolling that plagues most influencers. Zeus, for example, has had her nudes sent to her parents and members of her church.

“People will threaten to leak my stuff on other platforms … to people who have never seen me in that light. So before I could even tell them, they had already heard all these stories, like: ‘Oh my gosh she’s selling ass.’”

For many of the adult content creators who spoke to the Mail & Guardian, OnlyFans has given them the space to do their work safely. Sex work is criminalised in South Africa and street and brothel-based sex workers regularly face violence from their clients and the police.

“I work online because it’s a safe space and because I’m an exhibitionist,” Mistress Cyanide said. 

“Being online fulfils two needs for me: it ensures my safety because no one can touch, beat or rape me, and I enjoy being watched.”

Rain echoed this sentiment: “I actually prefer online work now as there is a barrier between you and the other person, more in the sense of safety. And you can almost disconnect if there is disrespect or overly vulgar behaviour.”

But, Rain added, she does occasionally get trolled because of what she does. “Because apparently sex work isn’t real work. I wish they knew the hard work that goes into being an online sex worker.”

*Not her real name

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Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She covers topics relating to labour, corruption and the law.

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