OnlyFans referral program can make creators thousands, but at what cost?

Referrals incentivize pushing a dishonest narrative of sex work

Sex work should never be peddled as easy.
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OnlyFans is one of many online companies that saw immense growth in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the past year, OnlyFans has gone from a niche subscription-based service used by a few influencers and sex workers to a household name. In November 2019, the platform had only 7.5 million users; by December 2020, that number had jumped to 85 million.

Although OnlyFans can be used for any subscription-based content, sex work quickly took over the app. Internet-based sex workers had been searching for safe and profitable online platforms for years, particularly after previous sex-work hub Tumblr banned porn in 2018. In the last year, OnlyFans has become the best place for independent sex work to take place online. OnlyFans has been an important step toward a porn industry where sex workers have control over their own content.

A controversial feature of the site, the OnlyFans referral program allows established creators to refer new creators to the platform in exchange for an equivalent of five per cent of the referee’s profits, money which comes directly from OnlyFans, not from the profits of the new user. Originally, creators received this five per cent for as long as the referee continued to post.

Since May 2020, this five per cent is only received for the first year of the referee’s account life or until the referrer has made $50,000 off of them, whichever comes first. With such a gargantuan surge in users, OnlyFans has cut the program’s incentive down to just a year to save money.

Despite the hype, most people who sign up for OnlyFans don’t get rich off of it—the average creator on the platform makes $180 a month.

With so many creators on the platform, it isn’t easy to succeed in such an oversaturated market. On OnlyFans, the top one per cent of creators make 33 per cent of the profit, and the top 10 per cent account for 73 per cent of profit. In short, if you don’t have the time or energy to treat content creation like a full-time job, it’s difficult to rise in the ranks.

On the surface, the referral program may not seem like a big deal. However, OnlyFans creators with significant influence can use the program to make a sizeable profit—there are no limits on how many users you can refer or your total earnings.

If an influencer convinces 200 people to sign up with their link, they could be making an extra $1,800 dollars a month, even if those referees were only making the average $180.

This opportunity for easy extra income is certainly tempting, and it raises questions about the ethics of the program. Is it okay for creators to ‘refer’ others to start sex work online?

The narrative around OnlyFans is overwhelmingly positive, with creators often urging others to give it a try—and use their referral code when they sign up. Established OnlyFans creators are given the opportunity to and rewarded for pushing a narrative about sex work that paints it as a lucrative and easy endeavour for young people. What this narrative ignores, however, are the less desirable parts of sex work which folks should consider before posting any pornographic content.

Sex work shouldn’t be peddled as an easy way to make money—in order to make good money from OnlyFans, you have to be both consistent and innovative, with ample time on your hands. If you’re looking to make a living, it might require the commitment of a full-time job.

There are also countless things that need to be considered before engaging in sex work. The permanence of online sex work is almost never mentioned when creators boast that they have made hundreds of thousands of dollars posting on OnlyFans. Creators have to grapple with stigma in every part of their life, long after they stop posting. It’s unfortunate and wrong, but it could impact your ability to keep a job, run for office, and even win custody of your children in court.

When 18-year-olds are being promised thousands of dollars by those who have had success with OnlyFans, they’re not always going to think through the decision, especially if those promoting it gloss over these unfortunate realities.

Creators and sex workers should rightly be able to take advantage of OnlyFan’s referral program, but the predatory narratives need to end. Sex workers using these programs need to be honest with their audience about what sex work really entails. Many current and former sex workers are dedicated to making content that demystifies sex work and openly talk about how being an OnlyFans creator impacts their lives—an important step in opening up a larger social conversation around sex work.

By having these conversations, we can not only eliminate the stigma surrounding sex work but ensure young people being encouraged to make OnlyFans accounts by large creators don’t feel exploited or cheated out of future opportunities.

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