Sirens in the Digital Ocean

OF ONLYFANS AND INTIMACY AT SCALE

Ten years ago legal sex work in America was gritty and dangerous. 

Deep underneath Chelsea around 8th Avenue there are dungeons; themed rooms where leather- and vinyl-clad women act out their clients’ unspeakable desires. It’s mostly bondage and sadomasochism; generally the dynamic is a high-strung male executive (or highly repressed Orthodox landlord) wanting to let go in a safe and enticing place. Some fantasies are elaborate and bizarre, and my ex wife was a pro at prying out those secrets. Most involved men exploring penetration and homosexuality in a safe, private place. The craziest ones hit the girls. That was double the usual rate. 

My ex-wife and I had an arrangement: one of us would work full time to support the other while he or she was in graduate school. She got into Yale’s painting program, and we left New York City together for New Haven. 

After graduation she landed a slot in a prestigious gallery. We moved into an old boiler factory in Queens, which was the only place we could afford with enough space that she could paint. Then Lehman Brothers collapsed, and the New York art market evaporated. Her big debut fell through, the gallery dissolved and we’d run up our credit cards buying supplies with nothing to show for it but a bunch of paintings that were too big to sell.

She’d always had terrible migraines but now when she climbed a ladder or changed positions stars would swirl and her knees would buckle. She was constantly exhausted. The pain changed her. 

Then came my turn for graduate school. My ex’s old job as a barista was out of the question and she was too sick to accept the only art-related job she could find: managing her mentor’s studio. So I still had to work. There were other complications. She’d cheated on me in New Haven. We officially broke up, but couldn’t afford to move out and the relationship sputtered on. 

As things deteriorated she retreated into the basement and fired up her computer. She couldn’t paint anymore, just cruised Craigslist looking for something that would give her enough money to escape. She posted a profile on “SeekingArrangements,” a site where older, busy gentlemen look for convenient ‘arrangements’ with younger, poorer women. 

Sometimes her voice would drift up from the basement and I’d hear her talking to a businessman in Kentucky or an art aficionado in Jersey. She never met any of them.  

She has a very distinct look. She wore her hair Manic Panic Red and was exceptionally pale. A harsher Tilda Swinton or an Annie Lennox. Eventually she noticed the ads for foot fetish photoshoots and found part-time work as a cashier in a brothel. “Those lazy sluts never shower between visits,” she once told me. The image clung. Eventually she found out about the 8th Avenue dungeons and began working as a dominatrix. 

I hated it. I was constantly worried, constantly embarrassed, and constantly roiled with jealousy and disgust. 

The money was good but unsteady and wasn’t that good. An hour was $175 and the house kept a chunk. On a good day she might have three or four clients. Most days she got nothing at all. My ex would anxiously blow the money on a single fancy meal or outfit or addition to her perfume collection. She showered for so long the heat would turn her skin bright red.

To earn good money as a dominatrix you have to stretch the boundaries of what is legal and entertain constant client contact. Texting, traveling offsite, yacking on the phone: my ex wasn’t willing to do any of it. Besides, she was getting sicker and I was paying most of our bills.

She got too sick for sex work and we married for the insurance. When I lost my job a few weeks later we moved to rural Oklahoma. We divorced soon after. I drove to California. The divorce was amicable. We had nothing to split. 

*

Ten years ago legal sex work in America was gritty and dangerous; today its presence seems almost ubiquitous for young women. 

My 21-year-old fiancee told me she signed up for a SeekingArrangements account when she was 18. (We met on Tinder.) 

The idea was to get enough money to elope with her then-girlfriend. She made an account,  chatted with weird old guys for a few days and never did anything with it, but a few of her friends did.  One was a sugar baby to a series of men who’d buy him Balenciaga  and ounces of cocaine. A couple of others cam for beer money. 

How could sex work be taken so casually? The thought of any sex work disturbed me; imagining that upper-middle class teenagers were willingly dipping their toes into a dark and dangerous place seemed unfathomable. Surely they weren’t making it out unscathed.

My fiancee was born in 1999 and grew up online. She’s always had her own cell phone (I didn’t get one until I was 25) and maintained several identities in public and private. She grew up fending off predatory male attention. I’ve seen it happen: a G-rated holiday snap will yield a dozen disgusting offers from strangers. 

She’s a Bernie supporter but tells me she isn’t completely comfortable with third wave feminism—she doesn’t like the idea that feminine sexuality has been completely commodified, that now as a young woman it’s okay to be approached and solicited for nudes by complete strangers. Heaving sexuality is ubiquitous right now. Not so much through porn-- although porn is available to anyone, anywhere instantaneously-- so much as the sheer volume of beautiful faces and bodies. By any standard my fiancee is a beautiful woman but she constantly worries that her jawline could be sharper and her tummy tighter and which surgeries might be able to correct them. And of course the social media goliaths’ ad servers make sure to deliver a constant flow of “solutions”.

I wanted to see how things had changed, so I asked my fiancee to connect me with people who were using OnlyFans, an “ethical porn provider.”

*

I read an online guide to camming created by Aella_Girl, a frequent Twitter presence among San Francisco’s edgier digital communities. She’s a top ranked OnlyFans performer, a former cam girl who claims to have earned $50,000 in a single month camming, and likely earns near it as an OnlyFans performer.

Her guide (Maximizing Your Slut Impact: An Overly Analytic Guide to Camgirling) reads like an onboarding document from a friendly San Francisco startup. She lays out how to “do sex work” and somehow there isn’t a fragment of pathos attached. That doesn’t mean she’s cruel. She treats her customers gently and gives other girls humane advice for dealing with them (and whipping them up into donation frenzies). 

It’s as if the thirty years or so of cultural warfare between the Christian right and free speech left in the United States never happened. Elsewhere (and written a few years later) Aella talks about her religious upbringing. I suspect the stance she took writing the guide was deliberate, but still, seeing sex work discussed so openly was surreal. 

I think Aella has perfected her “voice:” throughout all of her [SFW] content, her personality seems to blaze through. I was not at all surprised to discover she created what was once the most popular post ever in an online Reddit community devoted to amateur pornography: “Getting Gnaked Gonline” She comes off as a sweet and sincere girl-next-door who’s at the computer, slowly revealing herself to the world. The perfect Redditor girlfriend, interested in the same subreddits as her viewers (including the naughty ones). Her sense of theatre is sublime. 

Aella’s guidebook recommends against using too much lighting. The last thing you want to do is mimic the disturbing cubicle-like battery porn farms set up in garages and warehouses in seedy places like Romania or Los Angeles. She suggests a single larger soft light source. (Which is flattering but far less ‘professional’ or revealing as a three-light setup) A bit of dust in the corners; the low production values create an authentic experience, until it’s almost like having a real long distance relationship. 

The suggestion of her happiness seems key. Most people want to share their intimacy. The great illusion in BDSM was that the dominatrix was in control and enjoying the experience (when of course she was the one getting paid by the client). I’m sure it’s no different with camming.

She doesn’t cam anymore. Aella “lives on OnlyFans now, like the rest of the world.” 

I tried reaching out on Twitter, and found myself talking with one of her real friends, another OnlyFans creator, a French woman living in Berlin named Alice Callipyge ( @acallipyge). I asked her what it was like.

“I think of it as feeding my pets,” @adorable_alice tells me, referring to the multiple platforms she inhabits.

Alice spends much of her digital existence tending communities of admirers on Reddit and Twitter, seeding them with videos and clips, hoping to lure them to her OnlyFans page, and then spark enough of a connection to snag a subscriber or two.

“My persona on each is a little different,” she says. “Reddit likes girls who aren’t self-aware, who aren’t taking their clothes off for a profit. So on there, Alice is more naive, I say things I never would in real life, like ‘I’m not the youngest one here…  can a 28-year-old still be sexy?’”

Her friends mostly accepted her new job, with the exception of her best friend in France who can’t seem to understand why her witty, philosophical best friend would act so shallow on Twitter. 

It’s a strategy that’s worked well for her. She joined the platform in March, a few days after the City of Berlin locked down during the COVID-19 pandemic. By the end of her first month she was netting nearly a thousand Euros and ranked in the top ten percent of OnlyFans’ 450,000+ subscribers.

Six months later she’s even closer to the summit: at last look she was in the top 0.43 percent of performers, earning a comfortable living after OnlyFans’ 20 percent take and Germany’s aggressive personal income taxes. She estimates she’s grossing around 7,000-8,000 Euros a month. 

Percentile is determined by her previous 30 days earnings. It’s the first thing Alice says she checks in the morning, and at times feels like a videogame.

“The closer you are to the top,’ Alice says, “the more decimals they add and the further away it slides.”

Performers at the pinnacle of OnlyFans—generally celebrities like Cardi B or established porn actresses—earn millions. Just below them, performers like Paige Bauer, ranked 0.06%, claim earnings exceeding $100,000 a month.

*

My assumption going into this assignment was that OnlyFans would be an inhumane experience for everyone involved. 

My ex hated being at the beck and call of her clients. Financial domination meant enduring middle-aged whimpering for hours a day. People were shameless. In the brothel they’d often try to use fake currency, knowing the girls could never complain. Sugar babies I’ve spoken to tell me credit card charge backs are frequent and rarely disputed. Every single sex worker I’ve ever known has a had a close call with violent client (or angry partner).  

I imagined OnlyFans as a potential FAANG sibling, a sinister algorithmic pimp; an artificial intelligence trained on a dataset of digital desire, nudging subscribers and performers toward ever more lewd and expensive acts of depravity. 

I asked Alice whether she’d noticed a shadowy artificial intelligence scheming behind the scenes.

“There is no artificial intelligence nor gamification that I can see beyond the percentage,” Alice told me. “Honestly I wish there were more tech, it’s often broken. For a while people were able to open pay per view messages without paying and the livestream is often out. It’s just us, helping one another.”

The percentile is nefarious, I suppose. It’s basically a dark pattern (a manipulative bit of web programming) that pits the girls against one another and punishes them when they take a break from the platform. When they slip in the rankings it becomes harder to make money. It encourages them to engage and to be online, constantly.

OnlyFans is a paywalled MySpace. It’s an uncensored, digital third place where a performer like Alice can share pictures and video clips and live video feeds and charge fans for pieces of ‘custom’ correspondence. 

It fits this strange cultural moment of eternal house arrest; it’s a medium for the lonely, tailor-made for our quarantined, screen-fed culture.

There’s no moderation. It’s easy to sign up and intuitive to use. It’s a bit like Shopify or Etsy; only instead of nourishing cottage industries and craftwork, OnlyFans is the destination for  home-brew pornography, and doubly so since the pandemic struck, and people are stuck behind screens, starved for novelty and contact. 

The images and video and livestreams, I’m told, are more personal than the professionally produced material available on Pornhub (much of which has been scraped—bulk copied by algorithm—from defunct sites). OnlyFans content feels personal and intimate by comparison; it’s porn without the glare of a San Fernando Valley studio lighting and millions of digital smudges, the closest you’ll ever get to a fresh nude sent during the first flush of digital courtship.

My fiancee introduced me to one of her friends who had just joined the platform.

*

myramona began her OnlyFans experience a month ago. She announced her decision to a close circle of trusted friends on her “finsta” (a fake instagram, i.e. her anonymous instagram account). She comes across as a typical college student on Zoom. Like Alice, she’s a skilled and generous conversationalist.

Isn’t it weird having your friends subscribe to your account, my fiancee asked her.

“Actually only one of my friends signed up as a subscriber,” says Ramona, “but in a way he doesn’t count because we hooked up once and we used to talk about how I wanted to become a sex worker some day.”

She said her significant other didn’t mind her joining OnlyFans. They do discuss how he might feel if other friends subscribed. 

So far she’s been successful. During her first week she found herself ranked in the 70s after a couple of successful Twitter posts and building a Reddit presence. By the end of her first month she was in the 14th percentile. At last count with 74 subscribers she was in the 11th percentile, with about a thousand dollars earned in the previous thirty days. The money is potentially life-changing. Offline she’s a university student working two other jobs. OnlyFans is already earning her as much as the other two combined. 

Ramona remembered another subscriber she knows personally. 

“Actually the reason I joined was that I was approached on Instagram. He asked if he could pay for my nudes. We negotiated and he paid me for ten. I thought... why not?”

Sex work without a pimp seems like a victimless crime. Crossing the threshold between civilian and sex worker has never been so effortless. 

*

Not everyone finds her pets the same way. There are some strikingly unconventional strategies to lure subscribers.

Sofie Halili (@literallysofie on Twitter) and Aella (@Aella_Girl) have amassed large followings by taunting and challenging their audiences (the former with anti-chauvinist visual memes and the latter with a combination of intriguing polling information and , enthusiasm for psychedelic drugs). The information is paired with intriguing pictures and easy-to-find links to more. Like Ramona and Alice, they provide intimacy at scale. 

As a subscriber you can engage at the level you want; it’s like investing in a relationship, only instead of spending your time and attention as a partner, you’re paying a monthly fee. The lines do blur. Real friendships between subscribers and performers can form. It’s more than sex appeal they’re selling on OnlyFans, it’s authenticity—the same thing that independent coffeeshops have been taking advantage of for years. By letting employees hang artwork and choose the music they attach themselves to youth culture for free. At least OnlyFans lets them take a cut.

*

To exist as a young woman online without the privacy settings on ‘max’ means enduring a firehose of attention. Given that attention is one of the fundamental currencies of the internet, the ability to snare it is clearly valuable.

“I think of it like tattoos,” Ramona says. “Society is changing really fast. A generation ago—your generation—women couldn’t have visible tattoos or if they did they’d have to hide them at work. But now they’re ubiquitous. I feel like with the way culture is heading it won’t be a big deal to have sold your nudes online. And the quarantine is just making everything go faster.” 

To many young women, the relentless hunger for attention is exhausting. Ramona says it felt gratifying. “I’ve had body issues my entire life,” she said. “Now people are willing to pay to see me.”

Ramona says the experience has changed how she deals with people. 

“I value my time more than I did,” Ramona says. “Working customer service teaches you how to deal with people but oh my God this is another level. People are generally pretty respectful but if they aren’t l block them outright. Same goes for my personal life.”

I ask if she’s playing a character on OnlyFans.

“I tried! It’s too exhausting to play a character,” Ramona says. “It’s so much easier for it to be you. I tried—in the beginning I was trying to figure out what people would like about me, I’m a college girl, I’m half-Asian, and I kept trying those niches but what stuck was completely random.”

She experimented with photography techniques and lighting but found that the most effective posts were those that simply looked like what she might have sent a potential suitor. “What works is me,” she says. 

After all, ‘me’ is a character she’s been perfecting for years on various social media platforms. OnlyFans can be gross but it beats the hell out of serving pizza.

Alice says she doesn’t play a character either. “I have a niche,” she says. “I think of myself as a natural girl -- I don’t wear so much makeup, I’m athletic and I enjoy nature but it isn’t so much a character.” In her online biography she says she has a vulnerability kink. She shares remarkably personal information with her followers, and although she’s usually positive and upbeat in her social media posts, she doesn’t care to hide when she’s exhausted or upset. It’s her life only amplified and exaggerated. Social media is unique in that it provides the illusion of an equal exchange between an account with 10,000s of followers and an account with only a few.

Alice makes sure she doesn’t let her entire life become digitized. She takes a few days off here and there and focuses entirely on her partner. But most of her day is at least partially consumed with the experience of maintaining hundreds of micro-relationships and feeding her pets.

One of those pets is an important backchannel: a Telegram group of fellow “natural” girls she communicates and cooperates with.

“I earned about a thousand Euros at the end of my first month,” Alice says. “I barely managed to break into the top tenth; after I started getting some attention I made about 3,000 my second month and then during the summer I got a bit stuck. It wasn’t until I joined a couple of Telegraph groups that I broke through, that gave me a huge boost.”

It took her about four months of effort to earn more than she could have been making teaching foreign languages with her Masters degree. “The first few months were really hard because I didn’t understand how to get subscribers.” Gradually she learned how to salt pictures and videos of herself in larger communities like Reddit and Twitter, and to leave URLs for her fans to find. 

She worries a bit about the illusion of easy money on the site. “If the top ten percent is only earning a thousand Euros a month and I was putting in hours and hours every day, it makes you realize how little most people are making on the site.”

One recent estimate suggests a 50th percentile OnlyFans performer takes home a mere $43 a month. Many of the bottom half are casual users, but it seems like few of them are spending a lot of time to earn very little. (ReadySetCam surveyed camgirls and found a more generous hourly wage.)

Ramona carefully weighed whether to join OnlyFans. She did as much research as possible (mostly on Youtube, where there’s a lively discussion of strategies, risks and benefits). She too discovered a supportive group of fellow performers. Many others find each other using referral codes, which allow performers to earn a bonus much like the cryptocurrency sites Coinbase or Binance do. Their groups are also reminiscent of the pump-and-dump groups that would conspire to game the unregulated cryptocurrency markets. 

The group provided Ramona with a support system as well as referrals.

“We’ll show each other screenshots of what guys are trying to do,” she said. “People do chargebacks on their credit cards or try to bully you into giving them stuff for free. The prevailing advice was to be assertive, you need to be able to tell someone no or to get lost.”

A few correspondents became friends with Ramona and they text back and forth between their interactions with subscribers. Often their cross-marketing mutates into the very thing it mimics: affection.

*

Ten years from now the boundaries between sex work and our social lives will have melted even further, possibly until the distinction is meaningless. The psychic fear is that OnlyFans further commodifies relationships between men and women. If women can cash in on their crushes what happens to society? 

My relationship with a sex worker was confusing and difficult for me, but most of that had nothing to do with the work. That doesn’t seem to be the case for Alice or Ramona. (Sofie also reports a happy long-term relationship). They both are open about having a partner and don’t mind sharing the details. Ramona talked about there being a bright line between what she did on camera for an audience and what she did for her partner. “With someone who isn’t your partner it’s a totally different experience, it’s often boring or silly or gross. Like there was one guy who paid me to make a reaction video about his ‘appendage’ and it took me like seven takes to sound like I was excited by it.”

It remains to be seen how society treats former sex workers. Instagram has yet to “free the nipple”. Former porn star Mia Khalifa (who famously earned only a few thousand dollars for her tens of millions of views) has spoken of the difficulty she had becoming a civilian. Teachers have been fired for having accounts. And as searches and data mining improve, anyone's online past will only become easier to find. 

While tainting one’s digital reputation remains a concern (although I’m inclined to agree with Ramona that society will likely be much more forgiving in the future), the difficulty of building an audience undermines one of the common worries about OnlyFans. 

Universities talk about pipelines of students. OnlyFans is said to have a pipeline of its own. Performers flaunt expensive purchases on social media and lure vulnerable teenagers to the platform. The site is an attractive nuisance: Should an 18-year-old be able to generate thousands of dollars without her parents knowing? Or be able to move out and live on her own? My fiancee would have left home for good if she had the money and probably wouldn’t have finished college. She’s glad she didn’t. But for an 18-year-old trapped in an abusive household, being able to escape might mean the difference between life and death. OnlyFans is a much safer option than escorting or camming.

It takes work to land subscribers and it seems like it would be hard for an 18-year-old to earn enough money on the platform. Still, both Alice and Ramona say they would have had trouble handling the attention and money if they got started any earlier.

OnlyFans wasn’t the isolating, disembodied phenomenon I’d imagined. Communities have mushroomed up around performers. There are followers (like Alice’s pets) and there are the communities of performers promoting one another and attempting to evade the digital predations of blackmailers, bad boyfriends, unscrupulous customers and the anti-porn algorithms belonging to the big platforms that can silently strangle their reach, lock social media and bank accounts or make them disappear with no warning at all.

Which is not to say OnlyFans can’t be crass and toxic. I don’t like the idea of a horde of slavering, manipulative creeps being able to pay vulnerable 18-year-olds so easily for their nudes and other intimacies. But the women I spoke to (aged 22 and 28) found performing to be financially liberating, if all-consuming and they found something profound: a community which may well be on its way to radically changing the way we seek out intimacy and authenticity. I still don’t like it. I recognize it has to exist. I don’t like digital dungeons any more than the real ones.

Digitization knocks the walls down between everything. It’s like water, in that it erodes the dangerous bits and commercializes them. The environment it creates is ruthlessly competitive. Winners win big, losers starve. It disturbs me, but I’m grateful that even when this is applied to something so intimate and personal it doesn’t completely estrange the humans furiously paddling beneath the surface to stay afloat.

*

Thank you so much for reading this! If you’re interested in checking out any of the aforementioned creators, [NSFW links] Ramona Ivy is available at onlyfans.com/myramona and Alice Callipyge is available at onlyfans.com/adorable_alice. Stay tuned for more essays about Our Cyberpunk Now. Among ideas I’m considering: Charter Cities, the future of wine, the next generation of astrology and the existential terror of artificial intelligence.

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