A wave of people turned to OnlyFans to earn money when they lost their jobs due to the pandemic

Crystal Cox/Business Insider
  • OnlyFans, IsMyGirl, and other pay-per-view adult subscription sites are remodeling adult entertainment, with some creators earning over $100,000 in one year.
  • OnlyFans reported a 75% uptick in "model sign-ups" in early April, as unemployment skyrocketed around the world due to coronavirus shutdowns.
  • A number of creators told Insider they joined the site as a way to earn income after losing their jobs due to COVID-19 layoffs.
  • Porn viewers are willing to pay: traffic on OnlyFans has been climbing, and shot up 15% in less than 24 hours after Beyoncé mentioned the site on the "Savage" remix, released in April.
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Before the pandemic, Harper, 26, enjoyed her jobs in the Midwest. Working as a barista by day and a stripper at night, she planned on saving up her tips dancing to start her own coffee business.

But within two weeks of the coronavirus pandemic being declared on March 11, the strip club where she danced closed, her coffee shop day job furloughed her, and she was low on options. That's when she decided to go all-in on creating a profile on OnlyFans, a subscription site where some people sell on the platform exclusive erotic content.

"A bunch of clubs started closing along with just all the bars and other nightclubs," Harper, who asked to omit her last name to protect her identity, told Insider. "All the dancers got laid off. I got started expecting really to never have to take my online hustle to the next level."
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Initially, Harper struggled to get her numbers up for the first few weeks but once she cornered the virtual strip club market on Tik Tok and grow her social media fanbase, she was able to get consistent clients who paid well.

Once the coffee shop asked Harper to come back in late April she decided to hand in her notice. By that point, she was making more money on OnlyFans and the site seems to be a more efficient way of saving money to achieve her business goal.

Harper is hardly alone.
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Crystal Cox/Business Insider

As unemployment rates skyrocketed, more people moved into virtual sex work

Since the pandemic was announced in mid-March, 29.4 million people in the US have lost their jobs. In that time, over 450,000 creators have made new accounts on OnlyFans, IsMyGirl, and other subscription sites where they can sell erotic content.
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James and Ethan, a couple based in the UK, told Insider they joined subscription site SoSpoilt to make erotic content after the pandemic rendered them unable to find work freelance writing and modeling.

"We both were affected by the lockdown measures and were panicking about income," James and Ethan wrote in an email to Insider.

So far, they are earning far more than they expected.
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"Collaborating with other content makers is key," James and Ethan wrote."Shouting each other out and using social media (Twitter is great) to give previews and links to our page."

These subscription sites are like the "Uber" of adult entertainment.

Creators can upload videos and photos for their subscribers, and they charge per view. That's nothing like working for mainstream porn producers, which generally pay performers a one-time fee for a scene or photo, which is reused and available online.
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Erotic subscription sites take smaller varying percentages of creator's earnings than mainstream porn companies because models can charge per subscription rather than earning a flat fee for a scene. OnlyFans takes about 20%, whereas IsMyGirl recently announced 100% of model's earnings would go directly in their pockets.

They have a growing audience who is willing to pay

Despite the torrent of free erotic content online, there is a clear appetite for this exclusive content.

OnlyFans has seen a 75% month on month increase in signups since March and April, with an average of 200,000 users signing up every day. IsMyGirl has seen a similar increase since February 2020, with roughly a 40%-50% increase in model signups starting early April.
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"Many people prefer the 'authenticity' of non-professionals that they can find online whether that's on Pornhub or via social networking sites," Clarissa Smith, a professor at the University of Sunderland and co-editor of the Journal of Porn Studies, told Insider. "OnlyFans offers the opportunity to see the 'other side' of the professional performer and that's really been opened up during this pandemic."

Successful creators have earned up to $100,000 in a year

Crystal Cox/Business Insider
Some users can make a killing off of these subscription sites.
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Safarii went from working as a stripper and living in her car to raking in over $100,000 a year on IsMyGirl.

For some performers who have a thousand or more people following them on social media prior to starting their pages, subscription sites can be a good source of revenue. Arabelle Raphael has 1,900 fans and 22,100 likes on OnlyFans alone.

While there is no magic number to a successful OnlyFans account, having consistent customers who tip and subscribe month to month, as Raphael does, can make it a reliable source of income.
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Before the pandemic put the Bay Area on lockdown in mid-March, Raphael was a full-service sex worker who saw clients in person. Like many sex workers put out of work by coronavirus lockdowns, Raphael had to find a new way to make income fast.

"A lot of people also think that sex work is easy money, quick money. And maybe in some cases that can happen, but especially not online work," Raphael told Insider. "It's almost like being an Instagram influencer – you have to build that following before you can make that money. If no one is paying attention or knows what you're doing, how are you going to sell that service?"

But building a following is not for the faint of heart

Harper said while she found success marketing her OnlyFans on Tik Tok, initially trying to build an audience was difficult. Prior to figuring out the app algorithm, she was private messaging 20 people a day to subscribe to her OnlyFans.
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She found success in modeling her OnlyFans as a typical strip club, offering lap dances and stage performances. Creating a niche can be a helpful way to build up a fan base, but it can still be difficult if you don't have a large following prior to joining.

"If you don't have an established following as an influencer or even like a porn star it's going to be harder to get people to buy your OnlyFans," Harper said.

OnlyFans has gotten so popular, a new subreddit /r/OnlyFansAdvice was created to help guide people new to camming less than a month ago and already has 1,000 members. Many of the concerns are related to logistics but others highlight just how difficult it is for some creators to build a following.
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"I just try so f------ hard, I spend so much money on toys and lingerie, I try to make my content as professional as possible using a camera and a tripod," one Reddit user wrote. "I always feel like I'm doing such a bad job how tf do I make people appreciate my s---?"

"I only joined yesterday and I've already had two people unsubscribe after paying," another posted. "Why would they do this after they've paid even if they don't like the content? I'd given one of them who unsubbed a d--- rating and had chatted to them too. Feeling very confused and kind of hurt."

The pandemic has changed the structure of the porn industry — and experts say those changes could be permanent

Crystal Cox/Business Insider
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John Mercer, a professor of Gender and Sexuality at Birmingham City University, with a focus on porn studies, believes that one positive to come from the last few months is the restructuring of the porn industry: redistributing money to those who labor for it the most within porn.

"A significant positive might be that consumers begin to appreciate the need to pay for content," Smith wrote in an email to Insider. "One of the most depressing tendencies of the past two decades has been the increasing unwillingness to pay for the fruits of performers' and producers' labor."

But the rising rates of sign-ups suggest porn viewers are willing to part with money to get their content.
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And it's even entered the mainstream. After Beyoncé mentioned OnlyFans in the remix of Megan Thee Stallion's hit song "Savage," the popular streaming service saw a 15% spike in traffic less than 24 hours.

"I think it's definitely revolutionized sex work as a platform," Harper said.

"OnlyFans has just given the everyday crew content creator, the ability to distribute content to an audience and build an audience and make money, which is something that I think has just been necessary for a long time."
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