Until a few years ago, Lauren Kennedy had never sent so much as a nude photograph of herself to anyone.
When guys asked her to “send pics”, she’d scoff at their entitlement and bluntly tell them where to go.
Then, in January 2019, the British-born personal trainer broke up with her long-term boyfriend, met someone new and decided to move to Australia to be with him.
To cover the costs of the move, Kennedy turned to Only Fans – a social media platform where “content creators” sell content to subscribers – and started posting scantily clad photos of herself.
“After the first week, I’d made $8000,” she says, matter-of-factly.
Today, an income of $8000 a week is on the lower end of the scale for the 28 year old, who lives on the Gold Coast with her husband and two rescue dogs. For just a few hours’ work each day – mostly spent exercising, and creating nude photos and videos – she earns around $40,000 a month.
Kennedy, who is blonde, blue-eyed and looks more like a teenager than an adult entertainer, is pragmatic about her career change. “Men have forever sexualised us, it’s just now I’m getting paid for it.”
It’s a perspective that millions apparently share.
Since the pandemic forced the world into lockdown, OnlyFans has become a cultural phenomenon, with 80 million subscribers and more than one million users. At one point during the pandemic, the platform was gaining 200,000 new subscribers every day, according to founder Timothy Stokely.
Although the platform was never meant to be a sex site (Stokely launched it as a way to connect paying fans with creators like musicians or artists), it’s now dominated by adult entertainment. A kind of Patreon meets Pornhub; an Instagram where nipples have not only been freed, they’ve been monetised.
What makes OnlyFans different to traditional porn and webcam sites is its subscriber model, where creators collect 80 per cent of the monthly fee (prompting the New York Times to herald OnlyFans as putting porn “back in the hands of entertainers”.)
The platform, which looks a lot like Instagram with its scrolling feed of photos and ability to ‘like’ posts, has also been unique in its ability to attract so-called “vanilla” performers like Kennedy, who don’t have a background in sex work or porn. Celebrities, like Cardi B, Bella Thorne and Heidi Montag, have also flocked to the platform (with Thorne reportedly earning $US1 million on her first day on the site).
Australians have enthusiastically embraced OnlyFans; last year the platform’s top creator, worldwide, was 29-year-old Perth influencer Jem Wolfe. (In a measure of her success, Wolfe declined to be interviewed for this story, because she reached the point where she “doesn’t need media for exposure”.)
Like Wolfe, many of OnlyFans’ top performers are models or social media influencers. Kennedy, too, had already built up a substantial social media following as a personal trainer before signing up with OnlyFans. “My account took off pretty fast because I already had 80,000 followers on Instagram.”
But she credits her long-term success to the relationships that she’s since built with her subscribers. “I don’t do dirty talk or sexting, but I’m really there for my fans. They ask me about my weekend plans, and I listen to their fantasies without them expecting anything in return. I think they appreciate someone giving them time, because they might not have that connection or relationship with anyone else.”
It’s this sense of virtual intimacy that subscribers and creators often cite as the most rewarding feature of OnlyFans. (Many OnlyFans creators market themselves as offering ‘The Girlfriend Experience’.) And in many ways, it makes sense. In an era when loneliness has reached epidemic proportions, and everything from dating to shopping has gone online, why not human intimacy, too?
But it’s this same emotional labour that drove sex worker Tara* off OnlyFans after four months. “I joined OnlyFans last year when my brothel closed because of the COVID-19 restrictions, and I was lucky I already had a strong social media following, so I gained 600 followers really quickly and made $4000 in my first month,” says the 27 year old. “Four months later, my following had dropped to 200 and I was making significantly less than I did from a few shifts a week at the brothel, which had reopened by then.”
Stories like Tara’s are not uncommon. For every superstar like Kennedy or Wolfe, there are countless creators posting explicit content for very little in return – and as more celebrities join the platform, the competition only increases.
Today, the average OnlyFans creator earns US$180 a month, and according to research by XRUS, the top one per cent of creators account for one-third of all the money made on the platform.
Even at the top, Kennedy admits OnlyFans is hard work: “I’ve only taken one week off since I started [in 2019], and even then, I was still posting, I just wasn’t responding to messages. It takes a lot of time and energy.”
I’ve only taken one week off since I joined OnlyFans… it takes a lot of time and energy.
For Tara, the energy she put in wasn’t worth the pay packet. “I was constantly on my phone; because people have paid for access to you, I felt like I had to constantly reply and engage. There was no separation between my private life and my work life. It felt like my followers were literally in my bedroom. I started to hate masturbating and taking selfies, which used to be fun,” she says. “I’m grateful OnlyFans got me through lockdown, but I would never touch it again.”
Other OnlyFans creators have spoken of the pressure to deliver increasingly explicit content.
Mary*, a 27-year-old fitness instructor, signed up to the platform in 2018, planning to share training clips and workout guides. But slowly her content became more X-rated.
“Over time, I bowed to pressure from my subscribers and changed my content to be more provocative and sexual,” reflects Mary, who closed her page a year ago. “I didn’t tell my friends and family about my content because I felt ashamed.”
There are other risks, particularly around personal safety. In February 2020, hundreds of creators’ videos and images were leaked online, and the same month a Gold Coast woman had her personal information shared online by a stalker, who posted fake prostitution ads online using the 21-year-old woman’s real name, age and phone number.
“I’m hardly sleeping, eating, I’m crying and having severe panic attacks and I’m just absolutely destroyed mentally, physically and emotionally,” she told the Gold Coast Bulletin following the virtual attack.
Australia’s eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman says that since the pandemic began, her department has begun receiving more and more reports of ‘sextortion scams’. She warns that while Australia does have laws to protect against image-based abuse, in practice, it can be difficult to keep control of images or videos once they’re shared.
“[Photos] may end up being posted far more widely than you agreed. This can happen on a small scale with subscribers sharing photos, videos or screenshots with friends who have not paid the creator for them,” says Inman.
Photos may end up being posted far more widely than you agreed.
“If you are considering becoming an intimate content creator you need to be aware there are downstream risks, particularly for your longer-term privacy and mental wellbeing.”
But while digital experts warn of safety concerns, others see sites like OnlyFans as an inevitable evolution for Gen Z, who are more progressive about sex and gender fluidity than any generation before. For today’s 20-somethings, who came of age Snapchatting nude photos of themselves and who are now embarking on taboo-breaking conversations about consent, sex work might not carry the stigma it did for Millennials or Gen X.
Certainly, there’s a growing trend towards helping content creators of all kinds – from writers to influencers – monetise their work – whether that’s Twitter launching a new feature to let “super users” charge for their Tweets or the forthcoming launch of Sunroom. Co-founded by Ellie Day and Australians Lucy Mort and Michelle Battersby, who have worked at Atlassian, Hinge and Bumble, Sunroom is on a mission to “create joyful, safe, and shame-free sources of income for all womxn”.
Not everyone’s convinced that sex work or at least explicit content creation can exist without stigma. “Given that we’ve had sex work pretty much for ever and stigma still exists, I don’t imagine OnlyFans is going to be the magic bullet to change attitudes completely,” says Dr Lauren Rosewarne, an associate professor at the University of Melbourne.
In any case, asking whether OnlyFans is empowering or exploitative misses the point, she says. “Nobody ever asks about whether I’m empowered in my job. It seems something people are obsessed with asking in the context of sex workers. I would say, if people can make money from being on OnlyFans then that is a positive thing. But like every industry under capitalism there are shortcomings to the “empowerment” individual workers can ever experience.”
For Kennedy, the platform has been entirely liberating and life changing. “I have so much more freedom now. That’s the biggest difference in my life,” she says, adding that she recently bought a boat, is working on a sustainable swimwear line and one day hopes to open an animal rescue sanctuary.
Until then, you can find her at @laurenk. “I really love doing OnlyFans and I’ll keep doing it for as long as the customers are there,” she says. “I think the less taboo sex becomes and the more un-edited women’s bodies we see, the more it will benefit people.”