OnlyFans & The Rise of the Digital Girlfriend

How intimacy and connection are being commodified. And why it's going mainstream.

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You probably saw the news about Bella Thorne joining OnlyFans, or read this super insightful day-in-the-life of OnlyFans content creator Aella. By now, most of you have accidentally clicked on an inconspicuous OnlyFans link in the bio of your favorite influencer. But for those of you hiding from the boobs from under your rock, OnlyFans is a platform that's recently risen to popularity among Instagram models, sex workers, and a whole slew of everyday influencers offering exclusive glimpses into their lives. The product allows content creators to easily monetize their loyal fans and followers, most of which come from their primary social accounts on Instagram, TikTok, and Twitter. I've become deeply fascinated by the phenomenon, and the effect it's having on the adult entertainment industry, the creator economy, and the wellbeing of those involved. In this post, we'll look at the social conditions that laid the garden bed for OnlyFans’ blooming. We'll look into the commodification of intimacy, the implications of this commodification on our psychology, the destigmatization of sex, and the creator economy. We'll see what all of this means for the future of our relationships, and how technology and brand will play important roles.

The Path to Today
Sex work is the oldest form of work in human civilizations. The work speaks to our fundamental need to feel desired, to feel connected to others, to receive attention and care. It's a line of work that will always hold an important place in all societies. The different mediums and channels through which sex work is performed have changed over the years. For a long time, sex work mostly consisted of escorting. With video, TV, and the internet, many sex workers began dabbling in pornography. And when piracy made it impossible to make decent money in pornography, many sex workers became cam girls and phone sex operators. More recently, Instagram models have arisen to blur the line between sex worker and influencer. These content creators build their own large audiences with barely PG-13 content, building relationships with their followers overtime with daily posts, Stories that reveal intimate details of their lives, lengthy captions, and DM access. OnlyFans takes these parasocial relationships one step further, and adds a paywall on even more exclusive, often sexual, content.

These various forms of paid connections are becoming an increasingly important salve for the loneliness epidemic. It's estimated that half of all Americans always or sometimes feel lonely. Having worked in online dating and community building, I believed that technology could be built to allow everyone equal opportunity to live a social and connected life. But finding connections and building relationships on dating apps and other online forums isn't possible for everyone. Men have a notoriously hard time, with a decent percentage receiving little to no inbound interest online. Societies reliance on dating apps was already rising, but the pandemic has accelerated this trend, creating a situation where if connection can't be easily sought on dating apps, people are paying for it on OnlyFans.

The pandemic has also meant more people are turning to OnlyFans as an extra source of income. Claire Downs in Elle mentions "Twenty-two million Americans have lost their original revenue streams due to the virus, and any work-from-home situation is attractive due to its perceived stability and low-risk. This includes sex workers, strippers, gogo dancers, sugar babies, and escorts who have had to move IRL operations digital—and who are ineligible for stimulus checks. On the flip side, those still with jobs have money to burn and nowhere to spend it."

There are generational changes to consider too. Gen Z are playing out many of their relationships purely online, some of them never move IRL. E-boys and e-girls are meeting on Discord and spending lengthy "dates" in audio rooms. Gen Z are more sex positive than any previous generation, an attitude that will surely increase liberality around sex work.

This is the petri dish from which OnlyFans has grown.

The Use Cases
OnlyFans appears to have three primary use cases:

  1. Benevolent people supporting content creators and artists.

  2. People seeking explicit content for adult entertainment.

  3. People seeking 1:1 connection, intimacy, and companionship.

OnlyFans provides a new and novel solution for the third use-case, and has opened up a new category of commodified connection. Human connection isn't offered on Pornhub, and nudity isn't offered by your therapist — OnlyFans sits in this sweet spot between deep personal connection and sexual connection.

The Commodification of Intimacy
It makes some people sad, and it makes some people squirm, but the mainstream commodification of intimacy is here. It's a tale as old as time — people are willing to pay for things they need, and they need intimacy and connection now more than ever. It seems capitalism slowly works its way up Maslow's hierarchy of needs, and we've hit the Love & Belonging rung of the ladder with dating apps, paid communities, and fan subscription services.

Speaking in the NYTimes, pornstar Dannii Harwood explained “You can get porn for free. Guys don’t want to pay for that. They want the opportunity to get to know somebody they’ve seen in a magazine or on social media. I’m like their online girlfriend". The concept of digital girlfriends isn't new either. Online games centered around relationships with virtual women, colloquially known as waifus, have been popular in Japan for years. And many players have become hooked on the companionship these girlfriends provide.

LovePlus is one such game, played by many to better prepare themselves for real-life dating, or as consolation for the pains of romance gone awry. I found this very interesting:

"Even as LovePlus players acknowledge that their lovers are virtual, many say the support and affection they receive feels real — the latest sign that virtual reality has so insinuated itself into everyday life that it is leaving the imprint of the genuine article. People have turned to the LovePlus ladies as a form of practice in picking up girls, as a reprieve from the awkwardness of face-to-face encounters, and as a refuge in the unwavering support of a woman who can never, ever leave them. (Calling it quits is simply not in the digital DNA of the LovePlus women.) The women can be programmed, with their moods and personalities adjusted to suit the desires of the player."

LovePlus' three girlfriends — Rinko, Nene and Manaka.

Similarly, some men have an easier time finding connection on OnlyFans than they do on dating apps. If digital companionship is truly enough to meet your intimacy needs, it's no wonder people are opting to take the easier path. On OnlyFans, the 'girlfriend experience' is a common offering as Julie Bindel explains in The Spectator, "Men have the opportunity to pay providers for a day, or however long, to behave as if they are a real date, and via messages and voice notes send instructions as to what he requires of his ‘girlfriend’."

Beyond intimacy, the act of financially supporting others on OnlyFans may also be helping men to feel like providers. Bread winning and providing are core tenets of the masculine identity. For men without families or partners, I suspect letting their cash flow towards their online attachments could enhance their sense of purpose and valuableness.

A screen grab from my OnlyFans inbox (these messages are presumedly sent to all subscribers?)

Transactions & Brain Games
This shouldn't come as a shock. We've been outsourcing human connection for years — transacting things that traditionally had to be done by someone who cared about us. Ubers instead of rides from your parents, Seamless instead of cooking with your roommates, Hinge instead of setups from your friends. A lot of human connection comes at a cost — is OnlyFans instead of a girlfriend simply the next step? In many ways, these transactions make our lives easier. They're shortcuts to life essentials. It's when the transactions become gamified that things get icky. On the Charlie & Ben Podcast, they liken OnlyFans transactions to the limbic hacking that occurs in Vegas casinos. Variable reward schedules are used, where content is obscured behind a succession of paywalls. The unlocking of unknown content triggers a dopamine hit that's highly addictive — a habit that could be as expensive as gambling for some. This always raises an interesting ethical question for me; is it the designers' or the users' responsibility to keep that addiction in check?

OnlyFans display pictures for Bella Thorne, Cardi B, and Caroline Carroway.

What's pretty apparent, is the destigmatization of sex work that OnlyFans has (accidentally?) set in motion. The presence of big name "Vanilla" influences, as they're known, help to normalize the practice of selling secret or explicit content for money. And why shouldn’t it be normalized? We charge for other forms of creative content we produce — music, movies, TV, photography. And we charge for other personal services that improve our wellbeing — therapy, massage, coaching. Why not pornography and sex?

Mainstream fan favorites like Bella Thorne, Cardi B, and Caroline Calloway have realized they can make bucketloads of money when they add an OnlyFans to their Instagram. The interesting thing about OnlyFans piggybacking off Instagram, is that Instagram's innocent, clean-cut image bleeds into OnlyFans, setting it apart from the multitude of fan sites and cam sites born directly from the adult entertainment industry.

China’s iQiyi developed a digital girlfriend to boost virtual reality headset sales.

If we can't fight the taboos around sex by throwing Bella Thorne and Cardi B onto OnlyFans, perhaps we could use technology. A Launch House roommate of mine, Brett Goldstein, believes that deepfakes will democratize sex work in the future. If fears around attaching your identity to more racy content is what stops most people from becoming OnlyFans creators, why not use a fake identity? We're not far off being able to use AI to convincingly replace facial features to obscure identity (on still images at least). Video poses more of a challenge, but it's only a matter of time. However, in this glossy tech-enabled world, we're craving authenticity more than ever, which is why amateur porn and the phenomenon of the homemade pornstar has taken off. In a world where porn is filled with deepfakes, are we going to then develop technology that helps us identify authenticity? 🤯

Brand & Design
Compared with identity obscuring hacks, changing cultural attitudes towards sex will be more of an uphill battle. But it's the approach that has staying power, and it's the approach that will have most benefit on the health and wellbeing of society. To achieve achieve this cultural shift, brand and quality product design are essentials. As you can see from the graphic below, most adult entertainment brands feel very outdated. OnlyFans even leans into the secrecy and shame around sex by including a padlock in their logo.

There's a cohort of awesome women building modern sex tech brands, like Dipsea, Unbound Babes, and Dame. And there's so much more room for product and brand innovation in this category. It makes me so excited!

Tech has a way of making anything sexy. But ironically, sex work has remained largely untouched by the VC's, brand wizards, and Silicon Valley product tinkerers. In the last few years, sex tech ventures have been focused on hardware, education, and media. Social sex tech — camming sites, fan sites, etc — are yet to receive the algorithmic finesse, UX attention, and UI love that pushed our dating apps and social apps to wide adoption. For a space that attracts daily web traffic in the hundreds of millions, this astonishes me.

The Future
As more people participate in the creator economy and work independently from home, the "self-made pornstar" is a trend we'll see more of. The destigmatization of sex is a slow journey, but we're making progress. Just 10 years ago the idea of using a dating app to find someone to hook up with was appalling to most of us. The likes of Tinder, Bumble, and Hinge have drastically changed our attitudes towards finding sex on the internet in the space of a decade. The next logical step is a loosening of attitudes towards paying for sex on the internet.

Further down the road I think we'll see prostitution decriminalized — following a long line of other "vices" that have recently been decriminalized, like marijuana and psilocybin. I think we'll see a blurring between dating apps, social media, and pornography. I think we'll see sex and pornography remixed with a range of other "vanilla" domains — wellness, art, fitness, finance, fashion, education, etc. Home-made porn creators will sit half-way between pornstar and personal coach/friend/therapist.

More women will start consuming porn as we're drawn to the authenticity of the storytelling by everyday porn producers. I think we'll see digital companionship normalized, and AI implemented to streamline the management of this companionship. It might sound like the script for the next season of Black Mirror, but remember; 10 years ago the idea of swiping on a face and making out with that same face hours later was pretty shocking. We'll be alright.

As always, I'm curious to know what you think?

Yours in digital romance,
Lucy 🌼

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