The history of OnlyFans: how the controversial platform found success and changed online sex work

OnlyFans Photo Illustrations
OnlyFans spiked in popularity throughout the pandemic. NurPhoto / Contributor
  • OnlyFans, a membership-based platform, was founded in 2016 by British entrepreneur Timothy Stokely.
  • It currently has 1.5 million content creators, which include sex workers and celebrities.
  • The platform has faced several controversies recently, including their quickly-reversed porn ban.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Although it’s only been around for the past five years, London-based online platform OnlyFans has quickly become a hugely lucrative website for sex workers, influencers, and celebrities looking for new ways to connect with fans.

It was founded in November 2016 by British entrepreneur Timothy Stokely. Stokely, who remains the CEO of the organization, was described by The Times as the “king of homemade porn,” previously owning adult performance websites GlamGirls and Customs4U.

Due to high-profile names joining the platform, OnlyFans has made headlines and become a staple in popular culture in recent years, even receiving a shoutout from Beyoncé in her 2020 remix of Megan Thee Stallion’s hit track “Savage.”

But it has also faced a spate of controversies, including content leaks, allegations of underage creators, and most recently backlash to the platform’s decision to ban explicit content, which was quickly reversed.

Here’s everything you need to know about the controversial rise of the hugely popular platform.

OnlyFans is a membership-based platform where users can unlock content behind a paywall

OnlyFans allows creators to post a range of exclusive content that their “fans” pay to unlock via a monthly subscription, which the creator can set between $US5 ($AU7) and $US50 ($AU68) per month. Along with videos and photos, creators can offer services like phone calls, direct message conversations, and group chat access.

A screen showing the OnlyFans website
OnlyFans creators still take home 80% of the profit. Tali Arbel/AP

Customers also have the option to “tip” creators if they especially like their content or want something tailored to them. Subscribers who have been on the site for less than four months are able to tip up to $US100 ($AU136) per day, while those who have been on the site longer can tip up to $US200 ($AU271) per day.

OnlyFans also has a “top creator” system. This means that if creators are considered as being in between the top 10% and top 0.1% of all creators, they will be notified privately by the platform of their individual percentage. According to OnlyFans’ FAQ, the top creator tool is “an informational tool that compares account performance to other OnlyFans creators over the last 30 days.”

It’s commonplace for creators to use their individual percentage and position in this top percentile as a marketing tool for new subscribers.

According to OnlyFans’ data, which comes from their own internal team, it has 174 million monthly visits and 5.5 million daily unique visitors. It also boasts 150 million registered users and 1.5 million content creators.

OnlyFans takes 20% of creators’ revenue, and the platform says pays out a total of $US5 ($AU7) billion to creators every year.

OnlyFans has always been popular with sex workers, but it exploded during the pandemic

Between March and April 2020, the beginning of the coronaviru pandemic, OnlyFans saw a 75% month-to-month increase in signups. This amounted to an average of 200,000 users signing up every day.

According to its financial report, OnlyFans ended the fiscal year of 2020 with more than 1.6 million creators on its platform, up from 384,000 the year before.

The report also said 82.3 million users had signed up compared to 13.5 million a year before. The Financial Times reported that OnlyFans’ transactions were up by 553% in 2020, increasing seven-fold to $US2.4 ($AU3) billion.

Several celebrities use the platform, which has sparked controversy

Countless celebrities and influencers have also jumped on the OnlyFans trend, with Cardi B, Blac Chyna, Tyler Posey, and Tana Mongeau among those sharing exclusive, and sometimes explicit content with fans.

According to Variety, the creator who holds the record for making $US1 ($AU1) million on the platform in the shortest amount of time is rapper Bhad Bhabie who earned $US1 ($AU1) million in just six hours. OnlyFans later confirmed the figure to The Daily Dot. Bhad Bhabie, whose real name is Danielle Bregoli, has been in the public eye since she was 13 years old after going viral following her appearance on “Dr Phil.”

Bhad bhabie rehab drugs
Bhad Bhabie, 17, has reportedly entered a rehab facility. Paul Archuleta/FilmMagic

Bregoli made an account shortly after turning 18. Rolling Stone reported how some social media users were “distressed” that so many fans were “counting down for Bhad Bhabie to come of legal age.”

The record was previously held by former Disney star Bella Thorne who, upon joining OnlyFans, made $US1 ($AU1) million in 24 hours.

Veteran sex workers on the platform quickly accused Thorne of “gentrifying” OnlyFans, with many calling on her to redistribute the wealth she quickly accrued on the platform. “A millionaire making more millions during a pandemic while others starve, isn’t the feel good story anyone is looking for,” Castle B Productions, a sex worker and adult industry photographer, told Insider in an email at the time.

Shortly after the controversy, the platform imposed limits on how much users can tip and how much creators can charge, leading many creators, including sex workers, to express concern that their income would be affected. OnlyFans told Insider at the time that the decision was unrelated to Thorne’s success.

Concerns have also been raised about the platform’s ability to keep children off the platform

In May, BBC News reported that a number of underage users sold and appeared in explicit videos on the platform, with one 14-year-old bypassing the site’s age verification measures by using her grandmother’s passport to create an account which she then used to share explicit images, according to Hertfordshire Police. The BBC also obtained extracts from Childline counselor notes which reportedly included one girl who said she accessed the site when she was 13.

A further investigation by the BBC last month found that, according to leaked documents and interviews with OnlyFans moderators, some accounts are not automatically shut down if they are found to share illegal content, with moderators allowed to give multiple warnings to accounts before shutting them down.

While the BBC did not clarify what was meant by “illegal content,” guidance from the Crown Prosecution Service explains that it is illegal in the UK to distribute, make or possess child pornography, “revenge porn” (pornography involving a partner who does not consent to the footage being filmed or distributed,) and “extreme porn,” which includes acts involving extreme violence, animals, sexual assault, or dead bodies.

There is also an ongoing concern about OnlyFans subscribers leaking content from creators online

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Up to 4 terabytes of OnlyFans content was leaked in March 2020. Getty

In March 2020, between 1.4 and 4 terabytes of OnlyFans content was taken from behind the site’s paywall and shared on Mega, a cloud storage site. A spokesperson for OnlyFans at the time told BuzzFeed News that the content was compiled by several individual users who had access to paywalled content as opposed to any external hack or security breach on the site.

According to cloud storage service Dropbox, 1 terabyte can store approximately 500 hours of HD video content, suggesting the leaked OnlyFans content could have included between 700 and 2,000 hours of video content. Speaking to Insider at the time, OnlyFans creator OsaLovely said the leak was a concern not only because it impacted sex workers’ ability to make money, but also because it compromised their safety.

OnlyFans has some measures in place to stop this from happening – if you try and screenshot exclusive content on an iPhone on Android device, for example, it will only show a black screen rather than letting you try and save the picture. But subscribers are continuing to find ways around this, with Insider finding several Twitter accounts and Reddit threads dedicated to sharing and distributing OnlyFans content.

OnlyFans made headlines when it banned ‘explicit content’

On August 19, OnlyFans announced a highly controversial ban on explicit content on the platform. At the time, the platform said the ban was in order to “comply with the requests of our banking partners and payout providers.” While sexually explicit content would have no longer be allowed, users would still have been permitted to post nude videos and photos provided they didn’t violate OnlyFans’ acceptable use policy.

Stokely said in an interview with The Financial Times that they made the decision in order to “safeguard [users’] funds and subscriptions from increasingly unfair actions by banks and media companies,”

This decision received extreme backlash on social media, with sex workers, celebrities, and advocacy groups criticizing the move.

Speaking to Insider, OnlyFans creator Chelsea Lynn said, “Sex work built OnlyFans, and now it feels like they’re turning their back on us.”

Meanwhile, in a statement to The Guardian at the time, Mary Moody, an online sex worker and co-chair of the Adult Industry Laborers and Artists Association said that the change would “force workers currently working remotely online into riskier street-based sex work.”

The policy was reversed six days later, with OnlyFans thanking users for “making [their] voices heard” and saying in a statement that they will continue to provide a home for all creators.”

For more stories like this, check out coverage from Insider’s Digital Culture team here.