Gwen Swinarton posted her first ASMR video on YouTube when she was in college as a gift to her then-partner. Five years later, Swinarton goes by Gwen or Gwen Gwiz online, and has over 400,000 subscribers on her primary ASMR channel, another 200,000 on a second channel, and almost 100,000 followers on Instagram. Through these platforms, Gwen has built a small social media empire, pulling in anywhere from $3,000 (£2,222) to $10,000 (£7,410) USD a month. While that income was enough for the basics — rent, food, etc. —, she also accrued a lot of debt: a combined $40,000 (£29,639) USD of credit card and student loan debt. Knowing she wanted to make significant financial advancements in her career, but also refusing to give up her professional autonomy, Gwen turned to the people who had supported her from the beginning: her fans.
If you scroll through Gwen’s comment section on YouTube you’ll find two camps. First, there are the “cheerleaders”; mostly women, these commenters tell her how Gwen has helped them in various ways and encourage her as she moves through life. The second camp is the viewers who watch her videos because, well, Gwen is hot. With her long blonde hair, perfectly symmetrical face, and big boobs, Gwen is very conventionally attractive, and her “she’s hot” audience can’t get enough. They’ll post time-stamps each time Gwen leans over or smirks in a sexy way, and they have left comments not so subtly hinting that they use her videos as porn. They’re also the people that messaged Gwen to tell her they liked her nudes, which had been leaked by an unknown source 2019; they told her they would pay for more sexually explicit content. This piqued Gwen’s interest; after years of ignoring the overtly sexual comments, she finally started to reply and figure out what it was that they really wanted. The overwhelming consensus among her followers was that Gwen should create an OnlyFans and post whatever made her comfortable. After doing a few weeks of research and pulling from her brief experience as an escort, Gwen did just that. She now makes over $70,000 (£51,868) USD a month.
When OnlyFans founder and CEO, Tim Stokely, created the platform in 2016, he did so, he says, in order to push influencer culture to the next level by putting consumers’ money directly into the hands of the influencers. “I saw how much brands were making off influencers,” Stokely explains. “And I thought, What if we could make an even simpler way for these creators to get paid?”
The biggest difference between OnlyFans and other platforms of its kind is that it allows sexually explicit content, and its pay model is similar to camming sites in that it allows for tipping and pay-per-view content on top of the subscription fee. The model’s brilliance is in its simplicity, and it’s revolutionary in how it prioritises the agency of creators, offering them the ability to have autonomy over their bodies, their content, and their prices. In effect, OnlyFans is one of the rare spaces where sex workers have the power. Not only can they safely make money doing anything from posting photos in lingerie to getting paid to look at somebody’s dick pic, but they can also interact more intimately with their fans, allowing paying customers to feel like they’re really getting their money’s worth. The company also offers free legal services to all of the creators, working quickly and swiftly to remove any leaked content (and yes, a lot of the sexually explicit content is leaked to PornHub). Of course, this isn’t a charitable enterprise: OnlyFans takes a 20 percent cut of its creators’ profits, and with 75 million active users, the company has been turning a profit of its own since its inception. But it’s clearly a system that also works for an abundance of its creators: A spokesperson for OnlyFans reported that over 100 creators have made at least $1 million (£740,975) USD on the platform.
Stokely didn’t necessarily intend for OnlyFans to be primarily a hub for sexually explicit content, but he’s not planning on ever censoring the site. “Since the beginning OnlyFans has always been a place for all creators, and that’s something I’m really proud of,” he says. “Initially the fastest area of growth was the adult industry, simply because the adult industry tends to be ahead of the curve when it comes to tech.” The site does have creators across genres, from athlete to musicians — including Stokely’s personal favorite subscription, Cardi B.
When Gwen started her OnlyFans account in July 2020, she was hoping to make a bit of extra money. And, that she did — although it was actually a lot of extra money. Several months later, Gwen has thousands of OnlyFans subscribers and takes in between seven to 10 times what she made from YouTube and Instagram. In her first month, Gwen paid off her credit card debt and bought a car. Now, she’s saving aggressively so she can eventually retire. What Gwen posts varies, but she promises two videos per week and releases photos daily for her subscribers. Her content ranges from masturbation to naked yoga to sex with men and the fans cannot get enough. And, honestly, neither can Gwen, “It’s pretty ridiculous how much money you can make,” she tells me via email. “I’m still trying to come to grips with it.” When Gwen agreed to speak with me for this story, her one caveat was that she felt too awkward to speak on the phone, so we corresponded via email. She’s mentioned her social anxiety on YouTube quite a few times and so she feels lucky that a platform like OnlyFans exists. She writes: “I love the ability to work from home, be my own boss, get creative with storylines/costumes/cinematography/tech, and have lots of sex! I can’t really think of a better job for this stage in my life, I feel so blessed.”
Of course, Gwen is a rarity on OnlyFans. Many creators make a decent amount of money, but there are over a million active content creators on the platform and they aren’t all suddenly able to pay off $40,000 (£29,639) in debt.
Take Dr. P, for example, a 29-year-old social psychologist with a PhD who started an OnlyFans at the beginning of the pandemic after she was laid off from her job as an adjunct professor. Her research focuses on sexual health policy and includes working with sex workers, so when her partner encouraged her to create an OnlyFans to cover the loss of income, it seemed like a logical next step. Now, she makes between $1,000 (£740) to $1,700 (£1259) USD a month selling photos, videos, and fetish content. Dr. P doesn’t do a lot of advertising and is selective about her fans, setting her subscription price at $15 (£11)/month and requiring an additional fee for any full nudity, sex videos, or special requests. She says she would rather have a small number of dedicated fans who will come back month after month than a stream of fans who come in and out. Similarly, Dr. Nichole, who goes by The Polecologist on social media, has an invite-only OnlyFans with a small dedicated fan base and higher-cost pay-per-view content. She was one of the many creators who was affected by the Bella Thorne controversy earlier this year that led to tip and pay-per-view caps, “My pay-per-view content would be priced much higher if there weren’t caps and my content would be even broader.”
Some other creators, such as 305 Bruja, a non-binary femme cosplayer, model, and activist, are still growing their following, so haven’t yet hit even four-figures of income a month. “I think a lot of times if you're not making much money people question why you do something,” they say “No, I'm not one of those people making $17,000 (£12,596) USD a month, but I'm working towards that. So many of my friends also in this business are working towards that. I think it's important to support the smaller creators as well. If I'm lucky, I make anywhere from $100-$300 (£74-£222) a month, mostly from pay-per-view content.” For 305 Bruja it’s about more than just making money. “It's made me [reevaluate] what I want in a job,” they say. “I can't tell you how much I gave striving for more in vanilla jobs and constantly being overlooked, underpaid, and undervalued. I’m in love with what I do, and I’m glad I made the switch.”
Then there are those people who use the platform in more ways than one. Creator Makayla Samountry has strategically used OnlyFans as a jumping off point to build multiple income streams, including through other social media platforms, and now earns over $30,000 (£22,229) a month. She does this by making content on YouTube that helps people get started on OnlyFans, and has become well-known for her financial transparency. Her OnlyFans content on YouTube is what originally brought people to her channel, and now she uses her channel to both advertise her page and generate additional revenue. She makes a third of her income from OnlyFans subscription fees and pay-per-view (between $10,000 (£74,095) and $14,000 (£10,373) a month), and the other two-thirds from helping other women start their OnlyFans accounts — bringing in around $22,000 (£16,303) USD a month from shout-out fees and referrals. (OnlyFans has a referral program that allows creators to bring on new creators and then collect 5 percent of their monthly income for one year, taken from the OnlyFans fee rather than the creator’s pocket.)
What’s clear from seeing the diversity of ways that people like Samountry are capitalising on OnlyFans is that while, at its core, the platform could be viewed as either an extension of social media or as a type of sex work where the emphasis is on “sex” rather than “work,” for its creators, it's “work” that is the priority. Ultimately, OnlyFans is a business first — and while it might have an accessible entry point for creators, making big money is a lot harder. Jade*, a queer woman of colour in New York, posts BDSM content on OnlyFans as a side hustle making between $500 (£370) and $1,000 (£749) a month. A graphic designer by day, Jade has been participating in sex work for five years (both as an escort and a cam model) and reiterates that making money on OnlyFans isn’t easy. “This is work,” she tells me. “It’s not a hobby. I take this very seriously. It’s not easy money, especially as someone who doesn’t have a previously large social following.”
When Stokely created OnlyFans, he wanted to give influencers and creators a space to charge for their content. In that respect, OnlyFans is a huge success, especially as it has become a platform for people to not only start, but also build and broaden their careers. From behind-the-scenes content from Cardi B’s latest music videos to Australian wildfire fundraisers to professional pole dancers flexing their skills, OnlyFans has exploded in 2020, creating a whole new landscape for online earning potential — especially important in a year when so many people have had to figure out new streams of revenue after becoming un- or underemployed. But OnlyFans has also done something that other companies have tried to do for years: It normalised and regulated the consumption of paid ethical porn. It has revolutionised the porn industry by finally putting the power (and the money) in the hands of the creators and the performers. Though it wasn’t necessarily their intention, OnlyFans has made sex work that is easily consumable into something that is both better ethically regulated, and also safer for the sex workers themselves. And, it’s made some sex workers very, very rich.
While Gwen knows she is an outlier, she can’t help but bask in her newfound success. “It seems OnlyFans is the answer I was looking for to make all my dreams come true,” she says. “Thanks to this new income, I’m able to focus on the work I’m really passionate about. No more worrying and stressing about money. No more doing a brand deal I’m not in love with just to pay the bills." After going from having five-figures of debt to having six-figures in savings in a few months, OnlyFans has opened doors Gwen didn’t know was possible: “I just assumed I’d never succeed like this, but [now I’m on track to] get to a financial place where I’m good no matter what.” Gwen plans to stay on OnlyFans for as long as she feels comfortable exerting the amount of emotional energy necessary to keep up her business. When she’s done with OnlyFans, she plans “to spend [her] life focusing on projects and goals that make the world a better place.” If all goes to plan, she’ll be ready for her world-bettering retirement at the ripe old age of 28 — just three years from now.
*Some names have been changed