Mia Khalifa (sure, pretend you don’t know who she is) made twelve thousand dollars from her entire career (about a dozen videos) as a porn star. Not twelve thousand a month. Not twelve thousand a video. Twelve thousand in total. For reference, the average Starbucks employee makes twenty-four thousand dollars a year. 

Mia Khalifa remains one of the most searched for names on Pornhub and other similar pornography websites since she gained notoriety in 2015, after being featured in a viral video that included Khalifa performing sex acts while wearing a hijab. And yet, Khalifa has never and will never receive royalties from the sites that initially employed her or from the sites that continue to circulate the videos in which she starred.

Contrastingly, Dannii Hardwood, one of the leading earners on OnlyFans, made $52,769.48 in November 2020 alone. OnlyFans is an online forum that allows creators to post content behind a paywall, which users can access through a monthly subscription fee. OnlyFans content generally depicts less outright sex and nudity and more intimacy and conversation, and yet the top earners make more money than porn stars, and the site’s popularity is skyrocketing. 

The overt discrepancy between these salaries really makes you wonder about the factors that created modern-day porn, as well as why OnlyFans is the hot new thing. 

The porn industry has long been viewed as a place where violence and sexual assault are occupational hazards. Both women and men (though more often women) have highlighted the horrifying consequences that can arise from saying no to performing sexual acts while on set, and how easy it is to be coerced into acting past the point of comfort. Additionally, many have noted how porn’s glorifying depiction of sexual violence has negative repercussions on society writ large. Lately, though, another important issue in the porn industry has been highlighted: the unfair pay breakdown between porn stars and their employers.  

It hasn’t always been this like though. Believe it or not, Pornhub has not existed forever. Up until the 2010s, when everyone and their mother had laptops and smartphones, porn was sold in the form of DVDs or VHS tapes at adult film video stores. Back then, the process looked something like this: pornography production companies employed actors and produced films. The men and women who starred in the videos didn’t make millions. And their workplace was still certainly riddled with many of the same dangerous possibilities that exist today. And men and women (again, typically young women) were still exploited and often coerced into acting for paltry sums of money. However, the payment process was typically transparent. Porn stars knew how much money they were going to make upon filming, and also knew roughly where the recorded material would end up. 

Then, in 2004, everything got royally effed up. With the invention of tube sites, porn became free. The model was simple: tube sites took pirated content and made it available to users, and then profited off viewership by running ads, much like YouTube. (Think Pornhub and the like.) This generated massive revenue and effectively put all of the old-school porn production companies out of business. 

In March 2010, Fabian Thylmann, the so-called “King of Porn,” established the company MindGeek (formerly Manwin) and proceeded to buy all the major tube sites. Thylmann also purchased all of the old-school adult film production companies that were slowly descending into bankruptcy. So, long story short, Thylmann effectively wrangled himself a monopoly over the porn industry. And, since users no longer had to pay for porn, porn star salaries went way down, which explains why Mia Khalifa made less than what a Starbucks employee makes per year during her whole time starring in videos. 

Enter: OnlyFans. A 2016 website created by Timothy Stokely that promised influencers a way to “Make [Their] Influence Pay.” The OnlyFans model steered away from the tube site model, and it charged viewers for a monthly subscription. The site’s lack of restrictions quickly made it home to creators who capitalized on NSFW content, but OnlyFans really took off when lockdown started in early 2020. The site grew from 60,000 content creators in late 2019 to more than 1 million content creators by December 2020, and the OnlyFans subscriber count exceeds 30 million people.

OnlyFans’ success proves surprising because it circles back to the model of charging users; only now, Pornhub and other tube sites exist for free. For the monthly fee to prove worthwhile, OnlyFans subscribers must be getting something other than just porn. Most creators and users say the new factor is a level of intimacy. OnlyFans creators have astutely crafted relationships with viewers who yearn for something more than just physical, but do not feel as though they can achieve that on their own. Creators with their subscribers curate content specific to their subscribers’ wishes and fantasies. In an article published by the New York Times, Dannii Hardwood remarked that “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 perceived relationship between user and subscriber allows the subscriber to feel more fulfilled and the user to charge more money than their general content. A win-win situation!

The inherent aspect of secrecy provides another reason for subscribers of OnlyFans. Viewers enjoy the feeling of watching exclusive content that cannot be accessed by anyone with Wi-Fi. Much like the personalized content, the elusive and hidden nature of OnlyFans content also serves to foster intimacy between viewer and subscriber that cannot exist on tube sites.

OnlyFans is a popular platform for creators in part because it addresses the issue that Fabian Thylmann and his contemporaries had coaxed into existence. Now, creators can circumvent the often toxic intermediaries in the process of publishing content (i.e. creepy directors or coworkers that can exploit the actors financially or sexually). They no longer need to deal with toxic tube sites or violent co-stars in order to generate a profit by filming sex scenes or other forms of media. 

While it does address certain ingrained issues, OnlyFans is certainly not a panacea for the problem-riddled Adult Film industry that grants all sex workers a completely safe, guaranteed way to make money. First of all, revenue is concentrated with the top creators: the top 1% of creators make 33% of all the company’s earnings, and the top 10% make 73% percent of all earnings.  Also, to put it frankly, there are some really big weirdos out there, and creators on OnlyFans still need to deal with their subscribers requesting scenes or depictions that they may find uncomfortable, violent, or downright gross. However, the difference is that creators can decide on a case-by-case basis whether they want to entertain an offer. They do not need to worry about a producer or a director firing them on the spot because they refuse to perform a specific sex act on camera. 

It is by no means revelatory to note that watching porn online has been far more normalized for men than for women, especially when it comes to teenagers. Teenage boys are allowed and even expected to indulge in some NSFW content and have their fun, but teenage girls who engage in the same content are often relegated to a dishonorable status. The factors that contribute to these notions are numerous, but one that I consider especially important is that porn on mainstream tube sites rarely portrays women positively. Women are consistently depicted as in awe of any guy, down for any sexual act, and enthusiastic about weird fetishes. While I am sure that some women relate to their on-screen counterparts, I’m even more certain that many women do not identify with or aspire towards the women they see in porn videos. So why would women enjoy porn?

OnlyFans has shifted these norms. While most of the top creators are still women primarily appealing to men, there is a large community of men on OnlyFans that appeal to all genders (I don’t have the exact number breakdown, but check out this Buzzfeed article for more information). Additionally, with the added component of subscribers and private messaging, women can now contact male stars directly and curate exactly the content they want to see. 

I have no doubt that Dannii Hardwood’s inbox contains at least some questionable messages requesting degrading or viscerally crude images and videos; unfortunately, creators on websites like Pornhub and OnlyFans will probably always run these risks. Hopefully, though, the shift of power from directors and producers to performers will help minimize the amount of sexual violence and sexual harassment creators endure, maximize profit towards the deserving parties in the sex worker industry, and cultivate environments where healthy forms of sexual content can reach the audiences that seek such content.