When Rebecca, a 28-year-old who lives in Arizona, started following Billy on OnlyFans, she didn’t think much of it. She was a fan of the 31-year-old dark-haired, boyish comedian and podcast host from Brooklyn, and his OnlyFans account was free to join. Then one day Billy asked his followers to tag their crush. Rebecca tagged Billy and soon he slid into her DMs. They flirted for a while, he flattered her, and she wrote, “I’d do anything to see you get off.” Billy replied with a blurry nude picture of himself, unlockable for $3. “I’m kind of like, Am I getting scammed right now?” thought Rebecca, who wants her identity kept private. “And then I was like, No, you need to stop overthinking this process… What type of like feminist would you be if you can’t, like, also enjoy and go through this?” Rebecca unlocked the picture and saw an image of Billy, squatting on a bed naked, legs spread, dick clasped in his hand.
Billy doesn’t look like a man you’d expect to be selling videos and photos of himself on OnlyFans: He’s not a spray-tanned, six-packed Jason Momoa clone. “Right now I’m probably the heaviest I’ve ever been in my life,” said Billy, who has struggled with eating disorders in the past. “To have all these people throwing money out my body has been so affirming. I can’t rationally think of myself as not sexy anymore because this body just paid September rent.” Billy joined OnlyFans last month and has already made over $1,000, over a third of it from private messages with fans. He’s risen up to the top 7.5% of creators on the site.
Until Billy came along, Rebecca, who is a sex worker herself, had never paid a man for his nudes (and said she got her boyfriend’s permission before buying them). “I was one of those people that was staunchly like, I’m never gonna pay for sex stuff. That’s my job — a man’s never gonna fucking scam me out of it,” she said. So when she paid for Billy’s picture, it made her reevaluate her attitude. “I’ve been trying to figure out what makes his dick so magical that I’m willing to pay for it when I’ve got just DMs on DMs of dicks that I just like, Block, delete, block, delete. Like, he’s funny and cute, but come on, you know what I mean?”
When people think OnlyFans, they think of women sellers and male buyers. But I spoke to the men posting shots of themselves and the women who buy what they’re selling in order to explore this niche of the site. They come from all over the world: Australia, America, Canada, Germany. They include guys like Jason Luv, a top Black adult actor, and Plant Daddy, a self-described “Naked black man with a green thumb,” as well as sex workers and reality TV stars. The sex workers most comfortable talking about their experiences on OnlyFans are those from Australia: where sex work is legal.
OnlyFans works a bit like other social media, in that you follow individuals and receive a stream of their videos and images, except on OnlyFans you usually have to pay a monthly fee to follow someone and the content is often X-rated. Performers on OnlyFans make money through monthly fees, exclusive videos and pictures, texting, and audio messages (fans are also encouraged to tip on free posts). Rebecca doesn’t just pay Billy for dick pics; she also pays him for sexy audio messages, which she responds to in kind. They also sometimes hop online and video-chat with each other, while watching each other get off, and she sends him a tip after.
OnlyFans won’t release data on the gender breakdown of its customers or content creators, so it’s impossible to know just how many of its 63 million users and 850,000 creators are women. And performers are unable to know the gender of their followers unless the fans tell them. But the male OnlyFans performers I spoke to for this article estimated that between 20% and 50% of their customers are women. And each man I spoke to said he had men and women as fans and that women tip just as much as men, are less likely to haggle over price, and never ask for free nudes.
Sgt. Miles, a bearded, tatted Army vet with a sculpted chest — who is in the top 5.8% of OnlyFans performers and makes between $800 and $20,000 a month on the site — said more women might sign up for OnlyFans if they knew what actually went on between male performers and their fans. “They don’t really realize that they can sit down and have a conversation with someone,” he said. “They think it’s all like, ‘Here’s my penis. Give me money.’”
On a Zoom call earlier this month, Lily, 40, a single Australian woman with light brown hair and boundless enthusiasm for male sex workers, told me about her experience buying video chats (or “virtual dates”) since the pandemic hit in March. She lounged on her black leather couch in a grey sweatshirt and hoop earrings, a picture of three pink wine glasses in the background, as she cheerfully recounted a recent virtual date she had when her ex-husband was taking care of their 5-year-old for the weekend.
“I booked half an hour [with a male sex worker] and then I asked to extend it, and I ended up two and a half hours with him,” she said. (The whole experience cost $250 AUD). “I think [the sex worker] leaned forward at some point [during the chat],” she said as she pitched her head forward to show me. “And he was like, ‘Oh, yeah, what you got on under there?’” Lily said, deepening her voice. “That led to the masturbation and getting each other off.” Not all virtual dates end in sex, and she doesn’t mind. “I don’t care if [our video date] becomes more than a chat. It’s just time with someone for the connection.”
Lily, who is an essential healthcare worker, was used to hiring male sex workers for in-person dates (sex work is legal in most Australian states). But now, because of the pandemic, virtual dates have taken their place. Some of the dates are with sex workers she’s previously hired in person, while others are with guys she’s just met on Twitter and Instagram. “This is your opportunity to use this time, where you can’t necessarily see someone in person, to meet with them, have a chat, see if that chemistry is there,” she said. “It’s much cheaper than a full date with them, and you can kind of establish that relationship, so when you do get to the point where you can meet them, you’re cutting to the chase a bit faster, so you’re making more effective use of your time when you get there.”
Lily isn’t the only woman client of male sex workers turning to online chats during the pandemic. Several male sex workers who I talked to said their clients were shifting to video chats and sexting for more frequent communication, and not just on OnlyFans. But they usually make less money from online services. According to Australian sex worker Cameron Hart, OnlyFans has not made up for the money he’s lost from in-person work. “OnlyFans functions more as an accessory to my career as a sex worker,” he told me. Although now that he’s able to do in-person work, it’s serving as advertising as well. “I’ve had clients who made a decision to book me after seeing my OnlyFans,” Cameron said. While Cameron charges about $100 AUD an hour for video chats (though he adjusts based on their income), another Australian sex worker, Jas Strong, said a client recently contacted him to video-chat about “the domestic trouble she was having with her partner,” and he only charged $20 an hour because he “felt bad” and “she didn’t ask to look at my dick.” Regular, friendly texting is usually free for a limited time for sex workers, but as Sgt. Miles told me, “If you’re doing something that I think you’re masturbating to, you’ve got to pay for it.” They also send locked dick pics on OnlyFans, but those are sometimes hard to charge a lot for, according to Australian sex worker Woody Alyx. “The fact that guys have sent so many dick pics in their lives makes it harder for me to sell them,” he said.
“My husband’s out of town for a week. I really wish I could go down to the local kink club and get tied up.”
Tipping varies. “Many fans, on top of the [$11] monthly fee, will send me a $5 or $7 tip every time they see a really nice photo,” Cameron said. “I’ve had a few female fans who will send me a $50 tip, and just say, ‘Hey, I really like your content.” Cameron texts over WhatsApp because it’s more secure, and he charges $50 AUD for a texting boyfriend experience, meaning they can text him for a week. But he added that he’s not texting 24/7. “I can’t be responding to messages all the time,” he said. “But if they pay me $50 for a week, like somewhere in that week, if they want to say, ‘Hey, can we text for half an hour?’ I’ll say yes.”
But OnlyFans isn’t the sole place women are migrating to buy sexual experiences online. Sites like Chaturbate allow you to watch cam shows and interact with performers for a fee. Tyler Dårlig Ulv, a male sex worker in Toronto who has been doing online cam shows for the last couple of years, said how it usually works is people spend “tokens” and make a request. “Like, Here’s 50 tokens. Spank yourself,” Ulv said. “Women tend to be less inclined toward that… In my experience, women tend to [tip] out of, like, a gratuity, a thank-you, rather than a pay for play kind of engagement.”
Although more seem to be paying for virtual sex because of COVID-19, women have been doing so long before the pandemic. Last year, a fiftysomething married woman who is a fan of 37-year-old Sgt. Miles’ BDSM porn (which he produces, directs, and acts in) shot him a DM on OnlyFans. “Hey, I really like your porn, what would you do to me?” she wrote. They began sexting back and forth regularly, which he charged for. One day she messaged him, “Yeah, my husband’s out of town for a week. And, you know, I really wish I could go down to the local kink club and get tied up.” Sgt. Miles replied, “Well, why don’t you tell him that’s what you want to do?” The conversation shifted. “It very quickly transitioned from me being her release for that sort of stuff, into counseling her to get her husband on board with wanting to do the things that she wanted to do.”
The counseling and sexting continued for months. “After about six months or so, her husband followed me on OnlyFans, and he would message me, and he’d be like, ‘So I watched this scene and it really turns [my wife] on where you had a girl tied up upside down and you were fucking her face. How can I do that thing?’” said Sgt. Miles, who began charging the husband as well. “For quite a while, I was mentoring him online and sending nude pictures to his wife and getting them both much more comfortable with their kinky sort of lifestyle and it helped to bring like a new spice back to their life.”
Although gender stereotypes would make it seem as if women would be less crass than men when approaching sex workers online, some performers say that’s not the case. “The way [men and women] approach you is actually quite similar, which is quite funny because a lot of women providers complain about [male customers] saying, ‘Hey, baby, you available, do you want to do this?’” said Woody Alyx, 27, a bearded Australian sex worker and OnlyFans performer who looks like a sexy lumberjack. “But at the same time, women are just as capable of letting their hormones or their desires take precedence.”
Cameron Hart, a 29-year-old Australian sex worker who looks a bit like a bulked-up Justin Bieber, and who had stuffed animals perched on the dresser behind him as we chatted over Zoom, said most of his women customers are usually more respectful than male customers. “That little internal switch that tells you not to be a bit of a creep just doesn’t click over for men,” he said. “That’s not to say that women aren’t capable of it because they absolutely are, but it’s mainly the men who send you the really lewd messages.” The male sex workers said they like most of their clients, but they also let their clients know if they’re being rude. Billy from Brooklyn said he “makes it known that you shouldn’t randomly drop unsolicited nudes on me” and “expect a reaction” without “being compensated” because engaging takes “time and mental and creative energy.” While Cameron added that weekly video-chatting with one of his former in-person clients is like “catching up with a friend” and is “less emotional labor for me because I get along with them really well.”
“My guy fans are just happy to watch me stroke it. The women want to know that they caused that particular boner.”
What does separate most women clients from most male ones is what they’re seeking to get out of the experience. Most women “want to feel like they’re dating me and the guys want me to come,” Sgt. Miles said. “Seventy-five percent of the interactions [with women] are like, ‘So I was looking at the picture of you and your dog and it looks like you guys are having a really good time at the beach the other day.’” Yet he, like Woody and Cameron, has found some women to be just as direct as men. “I’ve had girls that have messaged me, like, ‘I just went out on this terrible date, but can I see your dick?’”
Billy said male and female fans like similar content, but they want different backstories. “My guy fans are just happy to watch me stroke it. The women want to know that they caused that particular boner.”
Men are also more likely to comment publicly on a dick pic, Sgt. Miles said. “I’ll post a picture of me with my dick out like, ‘Hey, I’m hard and ready to go this morning who wants to jump on?’ and 10 dudes will pop on, and one chick will be like, ‘Oh, that’s nice,’” he said. “But if you look at the tips that come in for that picture, it’s almost equal for men and women.”
What’s surprising is that women are paying for dick pics at all, when nearly half of all women receive free dick pics (and 91% of those surveyed who’d received dick pics had also gotten an unsolicited one), according to a recent study from the Kinsey Institute.
But there’s a difference between seeing a penis pop up unbidden in your iMessages and seeking one out for your own pleasure. Like half of the women in the Kinsey study, Rebecca dislikes receiving unsolicited dick pics. “It’s awful. It feels like assault,” she said. But paying to see a dick pic feels different. “I am enthusiastically consenting if I’m willing to pay money for it, and it’s nice to be able to be so in control of it.”
Being in control isn’t the only reason women are paying for sex services when they could sext for free. “There are plenty of women who subscribe to my OnlyFans just because they don’t want to meet someone at a bar or go on Tinder or Bumble,” Cameron said. “They want something where they almost have a guarantee of experience with someone with a decent reputation and who is a professional.”
That’s one of the reasons Lily hires sex workers online. “I’m more comfortable from a security perspective with a sex worker,” she said. “They are also more likely to make an effort with the conversation and probably better at it because they will be practiced in talking explicitly about sex.”
This feeling of security is key for Cameron’s clients in their twenties who haven’t had sex and “want to step away from that stigma,” he said. Sexting allows them “start engaging with their sexuality…but in a way where there’s still that kind of safe distance and safety where they’re in their own home and they’re somewhere where they’re comfortable, in their bed or couch, where they feel relaxed.”
Cameron also receives referrals from psychologists who urge their patients to hire sex workers as a form of therapy. These clients are “trying to reconnect with their sexuality and physical intimacy [because] they have come from abusive relationships or have PTSD from past assaults,” he said. In fact, a 2018 study of 21 women clients of Australian sex workers by Hilary Caldwell, who has a doctorate in sociology, found that “about half of the women who bought sex said their primary reason was for therapy” — some of them seeking to heal sexual trauma. “It wasn’t the sex itself that helped women to heal from sexual trauma but the way the women made decisions for themselves and learned to negotiate what they wanted sexually” that helped them heal, Caldwell said.
When I spoke to Sgt. Miles, he suggested that one of the reasons a woman would want to go on a virtual date with a male sex worker is as simple as they “don’t have the confidence to go out and talk to that super-hot guy at the bar, so they talk to me and feel like they’re getting a sort of relationship without having to take the risk of rejection.”
Others might be embarrassed to share their fetishes with a random hookup. “The women that message me often tend to be the ones that are a bit more kinky. They want me to talk about how I might spit on their face or [have sex with] them until they can’t feel their legs anymore,” Woody said. “That’s something that they probably wouldn’t be able to easily get from just texting a guy on Tinder.”
Rebecca agreed that it’s the defined boundaries of the paid online relationship that she likes. “There’s no trying to force this emotional connection, and there’s no games to it. It’s very specific,” Rebecca said. “You get exactly what you want, and you move on, it’s a very honest transaction.”
If women are having such positive experiences hiring men for virtual dates, paying for their dick pics, and video-chatting with them, then why do they still seem to make up so few sex work customers? Most likely it’s the stigma, which is “almost universal in women buying sex,” Caldwell suggested in her dissertation on women buyers of in-person sex.
“We’ve been socialized that men are the ones that are supposed to go out and chase you and spend money on you and win you over and you’re just supposed to sit back and relax and be wined and dined,” Rebecca said. “That’s the fairy-tale dating thing that a lot of women are brought up on.” If you’re a woman client, “regardless of how hot you are as a woman, how many men want to sleep with you, there’s always going to be that [thought] that you could get this for free if you just lowered your standards,” Rebecca added.
To that very point, when Rebecca told her friends that she was paying Billy, they were in shock. “They’re just like, ‘Why are you doing this? Are you mentally unstable? Are you and your boyfriend breaking up?’” Even when she told them, “everything is fine. I just wanted to get off,” her friends, who are also sex workers, weren’t convinced. “What are you doing? You have a million dicks that you could get for free,” she recounted them saying. “It kind of shook me a little bit at first because I’m like, Why are we being so judgmental when another human being is just trying to do the same shit that we are?” she said. “If they are constantly pushing that people need to pay for porn and people need to pay for sex work. Why are they so opposed to paying for their porn?”
Rebecca thinks more women could benefit by joining OnlyFans as customers. But until the stigma subsides, women clients will represent a much smaller percentage of online customers than men. “If people could just get past that first stigma of sending that first tip to get that first video, it’ll just open your whole mind to these possibilities of different forms of getting off that you’ve never considered.” ●