Published on 13 September 2021
The recent furore caused by the proposed banning of ‘explicit’ content and then the reversal of that decision by OnlyFans has shed a light on a particular area of the internet where gender and finance meet.
Here, University of Sunderland academic and Professor of Language and Culture, Angela Smith looks at how the forum has offered control to women in an industry notorious for exploiting them.
The OnlyFans subscription social network was set up in 2016 to provide a place where users could generate income from subscribers who paid to view their content.
Initially the site was marketed as a way for would-be celebrities to manage their social media profiles, including those who offered services such as cooking videos and exercise routines.
However, almost immediately, it was seen as a place where explicit sexual content could be produced and ‘sold’ through the subscription service.
The pandemic escalated a process which had begun a few years earlier, where sex workers could earn money in the relative safety of the online environment rather than the streets.
Professor Smith said: “To counter concerns about underage content, OnlyFans boasted of safeguarding measures that went beyond industry recommended standards.
“However, various studies found that underage porn could be found on several subscription sites, including OnlyFans, and this was coupled with an increasing intolerance of explicit content on social media more generally, hence the recent 2021 decision by OnlyFans to declare it was banning sexually explicit content.”
So what’s the problem? The desire to protect underage users, and the longstanding desire to protect women in particular from sexual exploitation seemed to have been victorious.
However, Professor Smith looks at things from a slightly different perspective.
She said: “Many of the people who were using OnlyFans to generate personal income were actually people who are self-employed and engage in producing sexually explicit content as a relatively safe and enjoyable way to generate income.
“The idea of women being sexual subjects gained wide acceptance during the 1990s with the arrival of post feminism, where the freedom to choose included the notion of the freed sexual being. This extended into popular culture, with pole dancing classes being marketed for the middle class woman.
“Female sexuality became visible and, more importantly, normalised. The arrival of social networking sites also liberated the porn industry from the rather seedy confines of the studio, and made it possible for individuals to make their own videos and easily upload them to site, such as OnlyFans.
“The exploitation of sex workers that was found in the sex industry, both in the studio and on the streets, could be avoided if these workers took control of their own content. These are the people whose income would be affected if OnlyFans removed their content.
“So it would seem that the announcement from OnlyFans that they would be reversing their decision - but, notably, it was ‘suspended’, rather than abandoned - was one that should be celebrated.”
However, Professor Smith believes we need to look at the wider, more underlying issues.
She said: “The issue is that of female sexual exploitation. The women who are sex workers and are found on OnlyFans are part of a wider porn industry which is unique in that it is the only industry where women earn more than men.
“Why is this? Well, we need to look at who is paying for content, and that is mostly male viewers. There is a market for the female consumption of porn, but this is much smaller than that for male-orientated porn.
“The idea of the ‘male gaze’ is central to this, and has been extensively explored from its origins in the Ancient world. Owing to various shifts in morality, the object of the male gaze – usually the female body – has shifted in and out of view throughout history. What we are seeing in the OnlyFans case is how this shift is now being managed by the women themselves.”