OnlyFans: Liberation or Domination?

Content warning: discussion of sexual abuse and child pornography.

Feminism is back and feminism is in crisis. Whilst many young people are keen to identify as feminists, the ideology in its liberal incarnation is in its death throes. ‘Gen Z’, labelled ‘Puriteens’, are purportedly spearheading this rejection of categorically ‘sex-positive’ choice feminism, embracing critical positions towards ‘hook-up culture’, kink, and pornography (Seresen 2022). In ‘The Right to Sex’, Amia Srinivasan writes about her surprise at the anti-porn attitudes widely held by her students (2021, p. 40). Yet one only has to go so far as TikTok, which originated the ‘Cancel Porn’ movement (Haggar 2021), to see that the youth are increasingly turning against unconditional sex-positivism. The feminist ‘sex wars’ of the 1970s and 80s, relegated to history for decades, are back. This great debate saw fierce disputes between sex-positive feminists, such as Ellen Willis and Deidre English, on one side and anti-pornography feminists, such as Andrea Dworkin and Catharine Mackinnon, on the other (Gerhard 2001). However, this time everything is different; the rise of OnlyFans has revolutionised the porn industry in a way which second-wave feminists could never have imagined.

Recently, I watched Louis Theroux’s new documentary ‘Porn’s MeToo’ which explores the movement by sex workers against sexual assault in the porn industry. OnlyFans here is posited as the antidote to sexual exploitation because, unlike under traditional porn, sex workers are given agency over their livelihoods and their bodies. As Theroux states, ‘platforms based on a paid subscription have given performers autonomy’ by cutting out the middlemen who would otherwise control their work (in Garvey 2022). Furthermore, there is no need for actual sexual intercourse so many sex workers on OnlyFans perform solo. Indeed, the anti-porn argument that porn inevitably results in the abuse of sex workers is inapplicable to much OnlyFans content on these bases. No one can seriously argue that a sex worker masturbating alone of her own accord in front of a camera is experiencing sexual violence. Similarly, the absence of men in much OnlyFans content arguably undermines anti-porn feminists’ claim that porn is necessarily an expression of male power; that it is inherently about deriving sadistic pleasure from men’s domination of women (Dworkin 1981).

Additionally, OnlyFans allows some sex workers to make exponentially more money than would be possible under traditional porn. For instance, one ‘29-year-old porn performer’ interviewed by Theroux ‘describes making between $150,000 and $250,000 a month’ (Garvey 2022). Evidently, this woman is not trapped in porn against her will by financial desperation but chooses to continue in the industry because it is highly lucrative. Many celebrities, such as Cardi B, Bella Thorne and Blac Chyna, also use OnlyFans to supplement their income for this reason. Sex workers on OnlyFans can thus not be characterised in general as the impoverished ‘dispossessed women who have only themselves to sell’ that radical firebrand Andrea Dworkin describes (1981, p. 209). In this sense, again, OnlyFans gives many sex workers greater agency than they would traditionally hold in porn.

Ellen Willis, the radical feminist who originated the term ‘pro-sex feminism’ with her essay ‘Lust Horizons: Is the Women’s Movement Pro-Sex?’ (1981), once argued that ‘a woman who enjoys [watching] pornography … is in a sense a rebel, insisting on an aspect of her sexuality that has been defined as a male preserve’ (1993, p. 354). For Willis, hardcore porn serves as the bad cop of the patriarchy, warning women ‘that the alternative to being a wife is being a whore’ who is used violently for men’s pleasure (Ibid., p. 351). Perhaps, then, the woman who directs and produces her own porn is even more of a rebel than the woman who simply watches it; she has taken her sexuality into her own hands and refuses to assume the role of either wife or whore.

However, to claim that OnlyFans is completely invulnerable to feminist anti-porn arguments is an overexaggeration. Firstly, content on the site is not confined by any means to solo performances. Catharine Mackinnon, who fought alongside Dworkin in the 1980s for the criminalisation of porn, writes that OnlyFans’ ‘insulation [of sex workers] from skin-on-skin exploitation’ is a lie because ‘only explicit sex … sells well in pornography’s world’ (2021). Whilst there is often no director or producer who can dictate to OnlyFans creators what is expected of them, they must meet the demands of consumers if they are to be successful. Dannii Harwood, the first ever OnlyFans sex worker, articulated this clearly when she explained ‘Once subscribers have seen everything, they move onto the next creator’ (in Ibid.). Therefore, sex workers on OnlyFans may be pushed to engage in sexual intercourse and make progressively more extreme content which escapes their comfort zone.

Furthermore, as sex workers must cater to these male fantasies, OnlyFans cannot escape the simple fact of female objectification. Whilst sex workers may theoretically have complete control over their scenes, they are still constrained by the male gaze. Dworkin writes that in fulfilling male desire, female porn actors must be reduced to objects; ‘The more she is a thing, the more she provokes erection’ (1981, p. 128). In practice, this usually means being unconditionally submissive, preferably young, and roleplaying coercion. Moreover, solo performances on OnlyFans do not escape the charge of objectification as Dworkin emphasises that even in his physical absence, ‘women [in porn] still sexually service the male, for whom they are called into existence’ (Ibid., p. 47).

The mass of OnlyFans content certainly could not be classified as feminist porn. To take one easily accessible example, the tenth most popular OnlyFans creator’s name tag reads ‘Prettiest Pussy Online’ and her bio proclaims ‘Your favourite little slut just turned 18’ (Wise 2022; @milamondell on OnlyFans). The problem with porn which portrays women as ‘[things] to be used’ by men lies in its pedagogic function (Dworkin 1981, p. 128). This seems to be evidenced by the fact that men who watch more porn, even when it is ‘non-violent’, are more likely to hold ‘attitudes supporting violence against women’ (Hald et al. in Srinivasan 2021, p. 43) and ‘less likely … to empathise with rape victims’ (Srinivasan 2021, p. 43). Still more concerning is ‘that men who watch porn frequently … are also more likely to report an intent to rape, and more likely to commit sexual assault’ (Ibid.). Effectively, misogynistic porn appears to reproduce the sexual violence which it symbolically invokes. Nevertheless, I should note that the causal relationship could be inverse in that misogynistic and sexually violent men could be more predisposed to watch porn, or perhaps it is most likely that the causal relationship goes both ways.

Another feminist anti-porn argument which still holds against OnlyFans is that the agency of many women is constrained by economic necessity and consequently their choice to enter sex work is not one that is freely made. Srinivasan throws this into stark relief when she highlights that ‘OnlyFans reported that 60,000 new models had signed up in the first two weeks of March [2020] alone’ as a result of ‘mass unemployment’ due to the COVID-19 pandemic (2021, p. 61). For context, in April 2019 OnlyFans had just 60,000 creators in total (Hollands 2020). Dworkin’s remark that porn exploits ‘dispossessed women who have only themselves to sell’ still rings partially true then (1981, p. 209). Furthermore, although it is true that OnlyFans enables a select few to gain immense wealth, this is by no means the case for the majority of creators. The ‘top 10% of accounts make 73% of all the money’ and the average monthly income is a meagre $151 (Hollands 2020; Wise 2022).

Mackinnon argues that the agency of women on OnlyFans may be undermined by outright coercion, let alone economic desperation. According to her, it is not possible to determine ‘whether pimps or traffickers are recruiting the unwary or vulnerable or desperate or coercing them offscreen and confiscating or skimming the proceeds’ (2021). This may be an understatement: BBC investigations have found that one account on OnlyFans ‘brags of ‘hunting’ homeless people and is open about ‘taking advantage’ of them’; several others demonstrate ‘obvious signs’ of sex trafficking (Titheradge 2021), and ‘missing children are appearing in OnlyFans videos’ (Croxford and Titheradge 2021).

Yet even when there is ostensibly no pimp involved, Mackinnon declares that in taking a 20% cut of sex workers’ income, OnlyFans is itself ‘a pimp’ (2021). Similarly, in the ‘London Review Bookshop Podcast’, Srinivasan raises the crucial question ‘who owns the cam sites?’ which she goes on to answer: ‘not sex workers themselves … they basically have to sell their labour’ (in Spotify 2021, 48:17-48:31). On account of this, OnlyFans creators are at least as exploited as any other worker under capitalism. Moreover, given the sensitive nature of sex work, economic alienation in the porn industry can have much more serious consequences. As a company under private ownership, OnlyFans is reluctant to police profitable content. The enforcement of site regulations is so lax that, as aforementioned, videos of patent sexual abuse and child pornography stay up. As well as this, Mackinnon stresses that OnlyFans fails to prevent stolen content from being uploaded to the site (2021). Problematically, ‘there must be at least five examples of ‘illegal’ content on an account for it to be escalated immediately to management’ (Titheradge 2021). The influence of the profit motive here is plain to see as OnlyFans has different procedures depending on account popularity: unpopular accounts are restricted ‘when necessary’, those in the ‘middle range’ are afforded three warnings before restriction, and the most popular are ‘dealt with by a different team’ which grants even greater leniency (Ibid).

Finally, OnlyFans is open to the accusation of child grooming. Whilst child sexual exploitation has always been an issue in porn, cam sites have facilitated the proliferation of child pornography. One BBC investigation found many cases of OnlyFans accounts being run by children as young as thirteen, the majority of them girls (Croxford and Titheradge 2021). OnlyFans makes it extremely easy for children to upload sexually explicit content of themselves, using fake or usurped ID (Ibid.). Moreover, even when creators are not underage, grooming arguably plays a role in their decision to start an OnlyFans account. The site is glamourised by adult women on social media, and impressionable teens can be seen to ‘count down’ to their eighteenth birthday as this confers them the right to produce porn on OnlyFans. One such high profile case is that of Bhad Bhabie, who received over 6 million comments, beginning when she was underage, demanding that she start an OnlyFans (Marks 2021). As a result, she set up an account merely five days after her eighteenth and made $1 million in just six hours (Ibid.).

To conclude, it seems obvious that OnlyFans is less oppressive than traditional porn and yet it cannot be said to offer emancipation. Although the limitation of agency by economic desperation or coercion remains an issue, OnlyFans irrefutably grants the majority of sex workers greater agency, and therefore safety, than traditional porn does. Furthermore, in enabling sex workers to take their sexuality into their own hands, OnlyFans can be characterised as a form of rebellion against patriarchal control. However, as Srinivasan cautions, ‘it is important … not to confuse … forms of resistance and accommodation that we can find under oppressive conditions with the conditions of freedom themselves’ (in Spotify 2021, 52:43-53:03). Indeed, under patriarchy most porn, including that available on OnlyFans, unavoidably remains misogynistic. Another issue with OnlyFans is that it is fundamentally a capitalist firm. The site profits off of sex workers by taking 20% of their income and turns a blind eye to content depicting sexual abuse when it is profitable to do so. Finally, OnlyFans enables the proliferation of child pornography due to inadequate ID checking practices.

Ultimately, the most transformative change which could empower cam site sex workers in a meaningful sense and combat sexual exploitation in all its manifestations within the industry would be their collectivisation to form workers’ cooperatives. Srinivasan hits the nail on the head when she states that ‘these sites ultimately just need to be in the hands of sex workers themselves’ (in Ibid., 49:10-49:15). Although at the present moment this may seem a utopian pipe dream, it is possible. If food courier workers can form the rider-owned cooperative ‘Wings’ to take on Deliveroo (King 2021), sex workers can do the same to combat the power of their own big tech titans. As for the misogynistic pedagogy of porn, we’ll have to overthrow the patriarchy.

P.S. This Juncture Review was inspired by conversations with Emily Talbot :)


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