“When I want you in my arms—The Everly Brothers, “All I Have to Do is Dream“
When I want you and all your charms
Whenever I want you, all I have to do is dream…
Dream, dream, dream”
With the advent of OnlyFans in 2016, and its rapid rise in proving to be a legitimate competitor with traditional digital pornographic outlets (e.g., video sharing sites like Pornhub), it has become necessary to examine the burgeoning ‘subscription-based’ model of pornography. I will give thorough exploration of the emerging representational techniques and novel erotic interactions partaken in among OnlyFans participants (‘creators’ and ‘fans’ alike), and the ways in which these relationships and techniques differ from those offered by traditional, internet-based pornography. Additionally, I will attempt to situate the ‘subscription-based’ model in the context of contemporary neoliberalism and offer a critique of the tendency for “relationships” fostered by OnlyFans to commodify the interior lives of both its producers and consumers, accelerating the ongoing, historical corrosion of authentic romantic and sexual bonds by neoliberal capitalism in the process. While a feminist critique and analysis of the sex work offered by OnlyFans is certainly worthwhile, I am instead interested in a more general philosophical examination of contemporary pornography’s role in both public and private life, and how sites like OnlyFans fit into that equation.
The Taxonomization of the Pornographic Subject
In One Dimensional Woman, Nina Power writes that during the “rapid rise of consumerism in the 1950s and 60s…there [was] a switch from the viewer [of pornography] as voyeur on a private scene to the viewer as explicitly addressed by the participants in the film.”1Nina Power, One Dimensional Woman, 46 While this is still the case with much digitally-disseminated pornographic content, the advent of platforms like OnlyFans has enabled the viewer of a creator’s content to be addressed personally. Oftentimes, creators will establish individual “relationships” with their ‘fans.’ These relationships, ones of imagined intimacy and virtualized affability move beyond even the dimensions of voyeurism or the parasocial—they are mediated solely by the economic dynamics of ‘creator’ as producer and ‘Fan’ as consumer. What makes this interaction particularly chilling is the imagined sense of friendship involved, where, as long as the money flows, the spirits are high, but once the economic transaction comes to an end (for whatever reason), there is no incentive for the creator to continue their ‘relationship’, as they would be laboring without compensation. As Dannii Harwood, one of the top OnlyFans creators, states, “Guys don’t want to pay for [free porn]. 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.” Of course, commodified intimacy and emotional labor are not phenomena unique to OnlyFans—they have been a feature of sex work since its advent in ancient civilization, but only recently has it become possible to mediate these relationships solely over the internet. Gone are the days where seeking visual representations of one’s most specific and outlandish erotic fantasies on the internet are a task fulfilled only by scrolling through video-sharing sites, fetish forums, or image posting boards. With sites like OnlyFans, any content creator of one’s choosing is available for contact, and with an affordable, one-time tip (i.e., “pay-per-view messaging”), one can have them record themselves partaking in any act, according to whatever preferred specifications. As such, there is a ‘symbiosis’ established, where the only thing required to satisfy one’s hyperspecific, imagistic pornographic desires is an OnlyFans account and some money. Power writes that contemporary porn’s “taxonomical drive […] is merely one element of its quest to bore us all to death and remind us that everything is merely a form of work, including […] pleasure.”2Nina Power, One Dimensional Woman, 55 This “taxonomical drive” is taken to its logical extreme with OnlyFans, where a creator’s physical characteristics (age, height, hair color, musculature, skin color, etc.), professional skills/hobbies (pole dancer, gymnast, weightlifter, fashion model, fitness model, etc.), or willingness to dress up in certain ways or participate in certain acts (BDSM, masturbation, asphyxiation, gymnastics, physique displays, etc.) is information readily available to the fan. As such, creators’ erotic qualities are cataloged and displayed according to their preferred outward presentation.
This taxonomizing process is echoed in Byung-Chul Han’s assessment of neoliberal digital life—he astutely observes that the digital medium is an affective one, where “consumer capitalism operates through the selling and consumption of meanings and emotions. It is not the use value but the emotive or cultic value that plays a constitutive role in the economy of consumption.”3Byung-Chul Han, Psychopolitics, 44 Ultimately, OnlyFans’ respective appeals to Fan and creator are distinct but intertwined: the site offers fans an individually curated selection of creators whose images they typically first encounter on Instagram or Twitter, and it offers creators an opportunity to appeal to fans emotionally through an artificial affability. The fan, based on their perception of the creator’s attractiveness, acts affectively and chooses to patronize a creator based on the degree to which the creator’s content satisfies their individual sexual desires and emotional preferences. Conversely, the creator acts affectively in expressing what Han calls “emotionality” or the “free unfolding of personality,” where neoliberalism “hails emotion as the expression of unbridled subjectivity.”4Byung-Chul Han, Psychopolitics, 46 The OnlyFans blog literally tells its creators to make a personal appeal to potential fans by expressing a subjectivity of sorts, advising them to be as transparent as possible about their personal lives and better appeal to potential fans via their “About” section: “You could put your hobbies, achievements you are most proud of, your favourite books and films, or your location. You can use this section to personalize your account and make it yours.” All of these fragments of the creator’s identity, while trivial in relation to the content they produce, are indicative of the facets of life neoliberal capitalism has expanded into—beyond mere use value, the “emotional design” of digital life has “open(ed) up a field of consumption that is new and knows no limit.”5Byung-Chul Han, Psychopolitics, 46 By virtue of its expansion into the psychological interior of neoliberal subjects, the new technologies of power have displayed an aversion to opaqueness, privacy, and authentic human connection. As such, it is worthwhile to explore not only how our interior emotional lives have been commodified, but the ways in which the Erotic itself (including our capacity for erotic fantasy) has been degraded since the advent of sites like OnlyFans.
The Pornographication of Reality
(The Differing Representational Techniques of Traditional Digital Pornography and OnlyFans)
In The Culture of Narcissism, Christopher Lasch provides the very useful insight that contemporary society has increasingly produced art (especially theater, fiction, and cinema) focused on calling attention to its artificiality—this new creative mode has “abandon(ed) the attempt to weave illusions around the audience and to present a heightened version of reality, (and instead) tries to close the gap between audience and actors.” He posits that this “overexposure to manufactured illusions” has “destroyed their representational power” and has dissolved the “illusion of reality [into] a remarkable indifference to reality,” leading us to internalize this imagery of the absurd and lead a “theatrical approach to existence, a kind of absurdist theater of the self.” Not only are his observations about the tendency for artists in the 1970s to “deconstruct” the artificiality of traditional media and challenge notions of an “objective” reality in everyday life very prescient in predicting the subsequent trends in art, they also provide a very useful framework through which we can understand pornography and the burgeoning popularity of sites like OnlyFans in the present day. The traditional internet pornography of the digital age (accessible on video-sharing sites, image boards, etc.) retains some degree of erotic distance—there is usually no personal connection between the performer/model and the voyeur—there remains a space for sexual fantasy and imagination. The voyeur doesn’t have access to the interior lives of the subjects of the films/photos, and as such, is forced to construct an imagined relation between themselves and the subjects. Voyeurs can project themselves onto certain performers, inhabiting them vicariously and creating entirely unique scenarios, characters, relationships, and inner worlds. Crucially, the subjects of traditional pornographic videos often play characters and act out scripted scenes—many of these videos preserve a fictional artifice expressed through narrative storytelling, playful acting, and cinematic techniques—additionally, they are often accompanied by creative sets, costumes, and props (of course, the actual aesthetic quality of these elements varies widely). Pornstars often adopt unique and elaborate pseudonyms to protect their anonymity, the same way that the online consumers of this content cloak themselves behind usernames and false, anonymous descriptive signifiers. There remains a barrier reliant on distance—emotional, sexual, and interpersonal—that fosters the capability of generative sexual fantasy and a fundamental premise that the voyeur’s experience is ultimately fictitious. As such, parasociality is the primary mechanism through which the voyeur and subject interact—the experience is firmly illusory. There remains a “representational power” and an “illusion of reality” (as Lasch states) that fails to supplant what one experiences in an authentic, symbiotic sexual relationship. As such, the “pornographic” and the “real” remain distinct categories. With sites like OnlyFans, however, this distinction is destroyed. With the advent of instantaneous erotic communication channeled through an extremely user-friendly interface, reality itself becomes pornography, and vice-versa. OnlyFans creators must necessarily partake in certain actions that were once relegated solely to those in actual relationships—one creator offers the “Girlfriend Experience,” where she “texts and interacts with a fan for the day,” simulating the everyday actions of someone in a relationship. Additionally, she offers “prompts like “Pay For My Phone Bill” or “Treat Me To Dinner.”
This account of the representational difference between traditional pornographic videography and the new ‘interactive’ OnlyFans model is by no means a defense of some false “sanctity” of the former—the parasociality and escapist sexual fantasies of traditional digital porn have a myriad of corrosive effects on romantic and sexual life, which have been well-documented by cultural critics. It is necessary, however, to extrapolate the effect that sites like OnlyFans may have on both ‘creators’ and ‘fans’ as the site continues to flourish, especially in a global environment like the one created by an international pandemic, where staying at home, away from strangers (and potential sexual partners) is a behavior encouraged the world over. It is worth examining the aforementioned growing pornographication and unparalleled atomization of our reality brought about by the inferno of neoliberal “flexible” capitalism, and a potential way out (if such a thing is even possible at all).
The Death of Erotic Communication
Traditional porn clung to the sphere of sexual fantasy, the last vestige of what made the Erotic such an opaque and mysterious drive—now, nothing remains. In The Agony of Eros, Byung-Chul Han writes “…the erotic is never free of secrecy (and) exhibition destroys any and all possibilities for erotic communication… Capitalism is aggravating the pornographication of society by making everything a commodity and putting it on display. Knowing no other use for sexuality, it profanes Eros—into porn” This scathing insight can be extrapolated to explain the disturbing corrosion of social bonds which has been steadily taking place since the advent of neoliberalism, and additionally, why the rise of OnlyFans is not coincidental, or even particularly surprising. Sites like OnlyFans truly complete Han’s provocation by turning Eros, the most sacred and ritualized form of communication, into something naked and bare—exhibitionism at its purest. Desire is now satisfied via market transaction—instantaneous, dehumanizing, totally devoid of interiority, wholly individualized, and replete with empty subjectivity. Han writes that “unchecked freedom of choice is threatening to bring about the end of desire. Desire is always desire for the Other. The negativity of privation and absence nourishes it. As the object of desire, the Other escapes the positivity of choice.”6Byung-Chul Han, The Agony of Eros, 37 With online porn, and to a greater extent, the advent of OnlyFans, there is no absence or privation possible—the site, by virtue of its enslavement to the profit-motive, sees no boundaries or liminality—it necessitates complete and utter transparency from its creators if they wish to remain competitive with one another (a process Han calls “perpetual self-optimization – the exemplary neoliberal technology of the self”7Byung-Chul Han, Psychopolitics, 28)—a truly universal Otherness remains totally buried in the flood of pornographic subjectivity and perverse desire. As a result, there is a constant drive on the part of creators to produce and exploit themselves—one creator says “I post every day on my page and I spend the rest of my time creating new content, replying to subscribers, promoting on Twitter/Instagram… It isn’t as easy as people think and it is important to keep your expectations low… It takes a lot of promotion and work to make people want to subscribe to you when there are so many accounts out there.” This creator’s experience is indicative of a condition Mark Fisher observed, where one of the effects of interconnected digital life is that “there is no outside where one can recuperate. Cyberspace makes the concept of a “workplace” archaic. Now that one can be expected to respond to an email at practically any time of the day, work cannot be confined to a particular place, or to delineated hours.”8Mark Fisher, The Privatisation of Stress, from K-Punk – Collected and Unpublished Writings, 466 For creators, the home becomes the workplace—leading to increased social atomization, a “precariatization” of traditional work, and the corrosion of familial structures—the impact of which can only be understood by analyzing the declining economic conditions of workers under contemporary neoliberal capitalism.
Our Atomized Condition and “Flexible” Neoliberalism
According to a survey of 20,000 US adults in 2018, “only around half of Americans (53 percent) have meaningful in-person social interactions, such as having an extended conversation with a friend or spending quality time with family, on a daily basis.” Obviously, those who claim that our increased atomization, alienation, and inability to form romantic bonds are due solely to rapidly accelerating technologies are kidding themselves, as there are very tangible, material explanations for our collective misery. The advent of post-Fordist, neoliberal capitalism has led the way from the “rigidity” of industrial capitalism to a mutated “flexible” form—Mark Fisher described this as leading to a condition of “precarity”, where workers must “develop a capacity to respond to unforeseen events [and] learn to live in conditions of total instability [where] periods of work alternate with periods of unemployment.” As a result, workers find themselves “employed in a series of short-term jobs, unable to plan for the future.”9Mark Fisher, Capitalism and Bipolar Disorder, from K-Punk – Collected and Unpublished Writings, 434-435 Because of factors brought about by “flexible” neoliberalism, like wage stagnation (where “hourly compensation of a typical worker rose just 9 percent while productivity increased 74 percent” from 1973-2013) to record low unionization rates among American workers (between 1980 and 2018, union membership rates halved—going from more than 20% in 1980 to 10.5% in 2018), Americans are finding difficulty maintaining the material stability required to partake in long-term relationships and preserve their marriages. Today, approximately 40% of marriages end in divorce (compared to 20% in 1950) and only 50% of American children can expect to live with both biological parents (down from 84% in 1970). It’s quite clear that neoliberal capitalism has completely failed in addressing the fundamental needs of Americans, especially in the domains of marriage and childrearing—and the corrosion of the American family is an unfortunate but predictable result of the instability of the free market.
The rise of pornographic consumption in the digital age (and subsequently, rapidly growing platforms like OnlyFans) is inevitably woven into the legacy of the American working class’s declining living standards, and should not be considered as a detached, independent phenomenon. It’s no coincidence that rates of sexual inactivity among both men and women increased between 2002 and 2018 (with the most prominent statistic being an increase in inactivity from 18.9% to 30.9% among men aged 18-24—especially among men with lower incomes or part-time employment). Atomization and a retreat into pursuing sexual gratification in the digital sphere are consequences of a profoundly unstable, hypercompetitive, and punishing society—Christopher Lasch’s 1990 afterword to The Culture of Narcissism remains eerily prescient: “We find it more and more difficult to achieve a sense of continuity permanence, or connection with the world around us. Relationships with others are notably fragile; goods are made to be used up and discarded; reality is experienced as an unstable environment of flickering images. Everything conspires to encourage escapist solutions to the psychological problems of dependence, separation, and individuation, and to discourage the moral realism that makes it possible for human beings to come to terms with existential constraints on their power and freedom.”10Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism, 295
Toward a Rediscovery of Eros, and a Reclamation of Our Interiority
From one angle, the question of overcoming the seemingly immutable network of contemporary neoliberal capitalism is a fundamentally political one—it necessitates a well-organized, ideologically coherent, and functional mass political movement based around the emancipation of the working class and the implementation of broad, redistributive political programs. We certainly do not have that kind of infrastructure, and in America, the collapse of the Bernie Sanders campaign in the 2020 presidential primary was the final nail in the coffin of such a movement in our present. What remains is a fractured web of “grassroots” organizations fixated on narrow, histrionic, identitarian concerns and the economic advancement of an increasingly precarious ‘professional-managerial class’ (composed of activists, artists, and media figures). The “emancipatory” politics of the present have completely shed any promise of representing the material interests of the ordinary working class—they have not been co-opted by neoliberalism because they’ve been a functioning legitimation machine for neoliberalism from their outset. In fact, many progressive commentators even praise OnlyFans for its so-called “emancipatory” qualities—an article from progressive, LGBT-marketed online newspaper PinkNews even concluded a glowing article about OnlyFans with a particularly crass provocation: “In a world where we share what we eat, read, breathe, do, wear, why not go one step further and share our private parts?”
While a totalizing political solution might not be achievable in the present, we must regain our interiority and rediscover our capacity for fantasy and imagination. The aforementioned drive towards taxonomization has also manifested as a drive towards individuals’ assertions of new subjectivities, inevitably brought forth by neoliberal identitarianism. As Franco “Bifo” Berardi posits in Breathing, our reaction to an increasingly precarious life manifests in “the identitarian frenzy which is now devastating the political order of human civilization. Having lost any faith in the universality of reason, having no access to the sphere of decision making, people cling to imaginary identities based on the mythologies of nation, race, and religion.”11Franco “Bifo” Berardi, Breathing, 63 This frenzy has manifested as an increased tendency towards interpersonal antagonism over artificial differences and away from social solidarity around common goals—crucially, it has also manifested as a drive towards increased androgenization and a fractalization of gender identity, in accordance with the contemporary decrease in more orthodox, conventional expressions of sexuality. As Camilla Paglia succinctly states, “Once there was the world of men and the world of women. Now the sexes, freely mingling, know each other too well, and both have lost their allure… We must learn to accept limitation, duality, paradox.”12Camille Paglia, The Joy of Presbyterian Sex, from Sex, Art, and American Culture, 37 This comment (from 1991) is certainly not advocating for segregation on the basis of sex, but is instead predicting contemporary progressive efforts to ‘abolish gender’—an effort which implies the abolition of the allure of sexual difference, which is predicated on the existence of femininity and masculinity as irreconcilable and distinct spheres (providing the elemental opaqueness that makes sex alluring in the first place).
In some ways, we simply need to rediscover our capacity to dream erotically by reasserting our ability to embrace Otherness—through resisting the urge to voluntarily commodify our sexual lives and our emotional interiority, in addition to ceasing to think of ourselves as productive, economic subjects (or “perpetual self-optimizers,” as Byung-Chul Han would put it). We must stem the incessant flow of temptation, in all of its contemporary neoliberal manifestations (ceaseless positivity, digital information, and spiritually-contaminated noise) and relearn the language of fantasy and authentic desire (perfectly exemplified by the healthy, simple erotic fantasy depicted in the Everly Brothers’ song All I Have to Do is Dream). The so-called “freedom of choice,” afforded to both ‘fans’ and ‘creators’ on OnlyFans is certainly one of these temptations we should reject wholesale, before it totally commodifies our sexual relations, entirely subsuming our capacity for authentic erotic connectivity.
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|↑1||Nina Power, One Dimensional Woman, 46|
|↑2||Nina Power, One Dimensional Woman, 55|
|↑3||Byung-Chul Han, Psychopolitics, 44|
|↑4, ↑5||Byung-Chul Han, Psychopolitics, 46|
|↑6||Byung-Chul Han, The Agony of Eros, 37|
|↑7||Byung-Chul Han, Psychopolitics, 28|
|↑8||Mark Fisher, The Privatisation of Stress, from K-Punk – Collected and Unpublished Writings, 466|
|↑9||Mark Fisher, Capitalism and Bipolar Disorder, from K-Punk – Collected and Unpublished Writings, 434-435|
|↑10||Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism, 295|
|↑11||Franco “Bifo” Berardi, Breathing, 63|
|↑12||Camille Paglia, The Joy of Presbyterian Sex, from Sex, Art, and American Culture, 37|