Header photo of Ariel Anderssen, copyright Hywel Phillips, provided courtesy of the author.
There are two ways to go about writing an article about a poorly understood, stigmatised minority. One is to find some individuals from that group, and listen to what they tell you before drawing conclusions. The other is to guess—and that is what Nick Comilla appears to have done in his recent article for this magazine. “The majority of participants are desperate, terminally underemployed gig economy workers,” he writes of OnlyFans creators: “Sex work is not the kind of work most people would prefer to do … most OnlyFans performers are probably economically disenfranchised twenty-somethings.” Probably? Why not find out before broadcasting your assumptions?
I should declare a personal interest here—I’m the solitary sex worker Comilla quotes in his article, and I am the opposite of an economically disenfranchised twenty-something. I am a 44-year-old professional model with almost two decades experience of the business, a turnover approaching £200K per year and a property corporation entirely funded by my modelling income. This information is at Comilla’s fingertips—he cites my own article about OnlyFans in his piece. And while no one person’s experience of using OnlyFans will ever be representative, I drew on the experiences of my large circle of professional acquaintances when I wrote that piece. Comilla appears to have spoken to none of us. “Good for her,” he writes of me dismissively in his first paragraph, before spending the rest of his piece making unsubstantiated claims about how unpleasant our lives are, with no citations to back them up. Activists, he claims, are “curiously inept at acknowledging the difference between merely being paid to do something and a job”—inferring that my OnlyFans work is not, in fact, a job. I wish he’d tell Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs—my income tax bill last year was enough to pay the entire salary of an NHS nurse.
My problem is not with Comilla’s piece alone. The problem is the widespread social attitude that makes him and many others feel qualified to write about the experiences of sex workers without speaking to any of us. Everyone seems to have an opinion on sex work—which makes sense, given that, at a conservative estimate, 50% of adults have viewed our products and/or interacted with us. But consuming our product isn’t the same as understanding what our job actually involves. People in professions whose products people consume as entertainment (footballers, Hollywood actors, porn stars, basketball players, pop stars) are often considered to not really be working for their money. It’s easy to underestimate the effort that goes into a product that you consume for pleasure.
In his article, Comilla makes a series of assumptions, all of which are common in sex work discourse and perpetuate a stigma that causes real harm—not so much to those of us who are successful enough to have pension provisions and personal assistants to handle the abuse we receive, but to our survival sex work peers, for whom the stigma can kill.
“Masturbating online for money is no more radical or dignified than waiting tables,” Comilla writes. No wonder he doesn’t think it’s a job if that’s all he thinks we have to do. The product you see if you join a creator’s OnlyFans may indeed look like masturbating online (although many of us do no such thing). But reducing an online sex worker’s job to this is as ignorant as saying that footballers just kick a ball around for 90 minutes a week, models just sit there and look pretty or politicians just shout at each other all day. An OnlyFans creator’s job also involves lighting, shooting, editing, styling, marketing, networking, set design and scheduling, at a bare minimum. In addition, most of the people who succeed on OnlyFans have already spent years building up their fanbase and product before migrating their fans over to the platform. The product may be sexual, but if all you were to do was masturbate online you’d quickly find yourself at the bottom of the OnlyFans earning hierarchy. To make a full-time income takes commitment, skill, time and diligence. The vast majority of people who start an OnlyFans account do not manage to keep to the regular update schedule that success on the platform requires. Consequently, most creators don’t make significant money. Just as with other forms of self-employment, success requires a level of self-discipline most people cannot summon.
“OF and amateur sex work should be seen as the digital neoliberal grift it actually represents,” claims Comilla. The word grift implies disingenuousness or cheating. Of course, there are people who try to swindle customers via OnlyFans, just as with all other online enterprises. But those who are making a reliable income from the platform are offering a product that a considerable number of people are prepared to pay for, over an extended period. If we weren’t offering a decent quality product with a regular delivery schedule, people would just leave. Those of us who succeed do so by attracting long-term customers who stay with us for months or years. To dismiss the labour that winning this level of customer loyalty entails as grift is both insulting and nonsensical. And to describe online content production as part of the gig economy betrays an extraordinary ignorance of that very economy. Freelancing as a wedding pianist makes you part of the gig economy. If no weddings are booked, your work stops. If you take a vacation, your earnings cease. You live from job to job—unless you can find a way to sell recorded content to generate passive income. This is exactly what online sex workers do to avoid that precarious gig economy status. We may shoot and upload content at the start of the year and schedule it to begin earning us money the following December. If a platform stops working well for us, we can migrate our content, or sell on multiple platforms. We can schedule updates to earn money for us while we’re on vacation. A film we made five years ago can make us residual sales today. If that’s the gig economy, you’ll need to redefine the word gig.
Comilla opines that the phrase sex work is real work disguises the fact that it’s “not the sort of work most people want to do.” Many people would like to discount online sex work as not real because they think it can’t be a long-term career (it can), it’s not skilled (it is) and we don’t pay taxes (we do). And, of course, Comilla’s idea that it’s not real work because most people don’t want to do it is untrue. In fact, the most recent media panic about OnlyFans appears to be based on the fact that teenagers like Bhad Bhabie are counting down to their eighteenth birthdays, when they can sign up. Most of us can probably think of jobs we’d rather not do—my list includes refuse collector, biologist and divorce lawyer. But a job’s realness does not depend on how aspirational it is. A glamorous, lucrative job is no more or less real than a physically difficult, antisocial job. Whether high-end or low-end, sex work remains work. Being paid to do something makes it a job, irrespective of how little respect some might be prepared to pay us for doing it.
I could continue to unpack Comilla’s criticisms of online sex work for some time, such as his erroneous comparison with heroin addiction, his assertion that sex work can’t be liberating and his idea that if you are using OnlyFans to raise income because you are behind on your rent that doesn’t count as survival sex work (in fact, you don’t have to be actually homeless to be a survival sex worker—to be at risk of homelessness is enough). But the more interesting question is: why do people write about sex work in this peculiar, censorious manner?
Journalists from conservative publications often fall over themselves to highlight supposedly unworthy sex workers who’ve struck gold quickly and seem to have things too easy. Left-wing journalists insist that we’re poverty stricken, exploited and vulnerable. Actual sex workers often find ourselves observing this moral panic with incomprehension. If you want to know what sex work is like, why don’t you ask us? It seems that many people find our mere existence uncomfortable. They project their own discomfort at the idea of getting naked online onto us, and believe that we must be as unhappy as they would be in the same position. Some perhaps envy what they see as our lack of inhibition and our confidence in our bodies. But they know that expressing such ideas might make them sound insecure, prudish or illiberal. So they build arguments like Comilla’s, which do not stand up to scrutiny.
Allow me to briefly describe those parts of my life as an OnlyFans creator that I know are common to a wide variety of my peers.
My OnlyFans update schedule consists of 14 videos and 2 stills sets each week. I shoot from Monday to Friday, and fit my OnlyFans content in around my main job, which is shooting full-length privately commissioned fetish movies at the rate of 10–12 each week. Hair and makeup takes an hour. Then I will film a video diary, explaining what I’ll be shooting that day, while changing into my first outfit (prepared the night before). I shoot a second short video doing a dance routine in the outfit, and then I’ll make my feature-length movie. I offload all my memory cards, and colour-correct the footage. I typically edit my first movie before changing into my second outfit. Then I’ll shoot another 5-minute Q&A update before changing location, lighting the set and shooting my second feature (which will normally be about 30 minutes long). I’ll offload my cards again, edit the footage and export both feature movies while I eat lunch. Then I’ll begin uploading them to my online stores while I shoot my final OnlyFans update. After that is done, I usually work out for an hour, before writing the descriptions that accompany my online feature films. I add keywords to all the content and schedule the planned future releases. Next, I schedule all my OF updates shot that day—I shoot everything around a month in advance, so that if I get sick or injured my members won’t be left without a product. Next, I’ll do my emails and marketing tweets: I have a part-time assistant, but not everything can be outsourced. By now, I’ll have been working for 8 hours. My last job of the day is to read my scripts for the next day, assemble my costumes, write prompts on my whiteboard and answer DMs and comments on my OnlyFans page. I repeat this process five days a week.
I earn more than I ever expected to as a drama school graduate. I love my job because improvisation was my best subject at drama school and that’s how I spend my time on camera. I enjoy being by myself, and I like video editing. I have never felt secretive about my body and I’m delighted when people get pleasure from looking at my work. I also love sexual self-expression. I grew up in a religious cult and felt guilty about being kinky. I take satisfaction in knowing that my work may help other people feel less guilty than I did. My job isn’t easy, but it brings me satisfaction, happiness and a sense of meaning and has provided me with financial stability for the past 20 years. Of course, things aren’t perfect. Sometimes fans can be difficult. It’s challenging to remain visible in a crowded market. Platforms change their content guidelines regularly. Tackling piracy is a constant battle. Fulfilling contractual obligations to customers is an ever-present responsibility.
But my job is a job. It’s not a fad—OnlyFans is simply the most recent platform to facilitate the age-old activity of publishing erotic content. It’s a job that many people expect to be easy, but at which few succeed. It’s a field that a lot of people enter voluntarily, due to the lack of formal qualifications required, the low capital investment needed to start trading and the freedom it provides to only shoot the content with which you’re comfortable (in traditional hardcore porn, by contrast, certain activities are obligatory). My job is not a grift. OnlyFans creators contribute to society by paying our taxes, just like other self-employed people. Comilla writes that “relying on other people to give you money is never empowering.” I can report that producing a product that I’m proud of, and that a significant number of people value highly enough to pay for, is always empowering.
If you want to know how it feels to be a sex worker, the very least you can do is listen when we tell you. Plenty of us have written online blogs, recorded podcasts, made YouTube videos and published articles. Put your prejudices aside and listen to us. We are just people, like you. And our jobs are, perhaps, less different from yours than you might imagine.