This article discusses sexual assault. It may be triggering for some readers. If you require support, resources will be listed at the bottom of the article. Some individuals have been referred to by their first names in order to preserve anonymity.
How popular does something have to be for Beyoncé to mention it in a song? The answer: incredibly.
In her recent remix of Megan Thee Stallion’s song, “Savage,” Beyoncé mentions OnlyFans, a website where content creators can post an array of explicit material for their fans to see—for a fee. Users have to subscribe to individual creators to access their posts. They can create personal relationships with the creator, pay to send direct messages, and request they act out fantasies.
Statistically, this generation is having less sex than previous ones, adding to the appeal of personalized interactions online.
Kori, 22, a recent university graduate who lives in Kingston, Ont., started her OnlyFans account in March—just as the COVID-19 pandemic began. She said her account started as a joke on Instagram.
“I [told my followers], ‘I really, really want this fun pair of pants that keeps coming up on my feed. If anyone wants to buy me these pants, I’ll send you naked pics,’” she told The Pigeon in an interview. “Then someone bought me the pants and shipped them to my house.”
Shortly after, Kori decided to look into selling her nudes more seriously. Instagram doesn’t allow nudity, only permitting it when it’s considered art, and in 2018, Tumblr purged its website of all “adult content.” As a result, the website’s traffic dropped by 21 per cent, driving sex workers and erotic artists off the platform.
OnlyFans, which allows full nudity, saw a spike of 3.5 million users in March, with 60,000 of them being creators—a 75 per cent increase from the previous month.
That’s when Kori turned to OnlyFans, which was quickly becoming a “household term” among her peers.
Based in the United Kingdom, OnlyFans was founded in 2016. As of May 2020, the site has 24 million registered users and 450,000 content creators, or “performers,” as the site calls them. So far, the company has paid out $750,000 in revenue.
OnlyFans isn’t limited to female-identifying creators either, with many men and non-binary individuals posting on the platform. The variety of creators, and the ability to tailor content to one’s personal taste, means subscribers can find whatever they’re interested in on the platform.
“The concept of personalized porn is really attractive to a lot of people from a lot of different walks of life,” Kori said.
OnlyFans allows creators to “lock” their messages, so subscribers must pay a fee to see their response. Charging for “custom content” adds profit, but also makes creators less accessible to subscribers who aren’t willing to pay additional fees.
Four months after starting on the platform, Kori is making a steady income, and it’s entirely on her own terms.
“I don’t have anybody pressuring me to adhere to a schedule that’s not mine [and] I don’t have anybody pressuring me to create content that I’m not comfortable [making],” Kori said. “I’ve blatantly shut people down, not messaged them, [and removed] people from my page.”
These features keep the creator in control, emphasizing consent. Subscribers can only access content that is within the creator’s comfort zone.
In 2014, the Conservative federal government, under the leadership of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, criminalized prostitution, or the transaction of sexual services for money, through Bill C-36. This means that under Canadian law, it is technically legal to sell one’s sexual services, but illegal to purchase them. Ultimately, the Canadian Justice department declared that “the human body is not a commodity to be bought and sold.”
The law is intended to protect individuals who sell their own services but criminalizes advertising them on someone else’s behalf, targeting pimps and establishments selling sexual services. Toeing the line of legality are establishments such as escort services, strip clubs, and erotic massage parlours.
Montreal, Que., has over 200 strip clubs and erotic massage parlours. Outside of these establishments, there are around 6,000 escorts working in Montreal, on the city’s streets, through agencies, or as independent workers.
In Toronto, Ont., dancers have to pay a fee to work each shift and require a license, increasing the difficulties for sex workers to earn a fair wage. Other cities, like Montreal, don’t require a license.
The sex work industry is estimated to produce $350 million a year in Montreal alone.
In Canada, the number of strip clubs has been declining, even before the pandemic brought services to a halt. In 2018, The Globe and Mail reported on several clubs closing in Ontario.
As a result, even stripping has gone digital, especially since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Demon time,” the late-night practice on Instagram of live-streaming dancers stripping on camera, was also mentioned in Beyoncé’s verse. One American dancer told the New York Times that she’s made $12,000 through these digital performances.
Despite increasing city regulation and available digital performances, in downtown Montreal, windows still brazenly boast “XXX Massage” and other suggestive messages in neon.
Canada’s sex work laws jumped back into the national spotlight after the Jan. 22 death of Marylène Levesque. Levesque, 22, a sex worker, was murdered in a hotel near Quebec City.
Her killer, Eustachio Gallese, charged with first-degree murder, had previously been imprisoned for murdering his ex-wife in 2004. The parole board concluded that he posed a “high risk” of committing violence to future partners, but revised this to “moderate” in 2016. He was allegedly granted day parole—after serving 15 years of his life sentence—to fulfill his “sexual needs.”
Levesque worked as a masseuse at the erotic massage parlour that Gallese had previously been banned from.
Anne Kelly, the Correctional Service of Canada Commissioner, told the committee investigating Levesque’s death that she’d never heard of a similar condition being granted.
While the National Parole Board of Canada has since come under fire, with critics citing a shortage of experienced members, the criticism ignores the larger issue of the government’s systemic failure to protect sex workers in Canada. Homicides of sex workers are 14% less likely to be solved than those of victims who aren’t sex workers.
Melodie, 30, has worked in Montreal’s sex industry for nearly ten years. She now works independently, and, while she feels she has been lucky, she has heard awful stories of violence towards her peers.
She started in the industry doing bookings for an escort agency, scheduling appointments for clients before starting to work as an escort after a few years. By the time Melodie began seeing clients, she was already familiar with the process, which she said relieved a lot of stress. The remaining stress, she said, added to the fun.
“Especially when I started, I think that nervousness and the thrill of not knowing who’s going to come see you […] was part of the fun for me.”
In Melodie’s personal life, she’s part of the BDSM—bondage, domination, sadism, and masochism—community. She now specializes in kink and BDSM professionally, too, things that her agency didn’t allow. The sex work industry was attractive to her because of the human contact, so when the COVID-19 pandemic began she was a newcomer to digital interactions with clients.
Part of the problem for sex workers who experience violence is the criminalization of prostitution, making it difficult for them to find help when they encounter violence at work. While the law is meant to target agencies and clients, some workers rely solely on sex work to support themselves financially, and can’t afford to jeopardize their income by speaking out against abusive clients or managers.
Others fear stigma may negatively impact their lives outside of sex work, especially if they have other jobs, due to what Melodie calls the “underground” nature of sex work.
“[Asking for help] could also cost them their jobs,” she said. “They don’t want to take that risk.”
Melodie believes that decriminalization could make room for the introduction of regulations that protect sex workers, and unions to improve the working conditions for everyone in the industry.
Recently, Amnesty International Canada joined human rights groups in lobbying for a moratorium on these laws, as sex workers were unsupported in the face of the COVID-19 crisis. Because many sex workers don’t declare their incomes, they aren’t eligible for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB). Advocacy groups for sex workers, such as Chez Stella in Montréal, are pushing for the decriminalization of prostitution.
The 2014 law is under mandatory review this year.
Long before joining OnlyFans, Ciera, 24, signed up for SeekingArrangements, a website that pairs younger users with older partners—called “sugar daddies” or “sugar mommies”—who pay to date them.
She initially registered in 2017 to pay for school, but after she was contacted by an agency through SeekingArrangements, she started working as a masseuse at an erotic massage parlour in Ottawa, Ont., where she still lives.
After three years at the parlour, Ciera decided she wanted to start out as an independent escort, launching her website just last month.
“I don’t think I was ever able to develop the kind of relationship [with massage clients] that I’m able to now with my suitors,” she said. “I feel like it’s more of a full girlfriend experience when I meet people.”
In February, Ciera made an OnlyFans account after seeing it repeatedly on Instagram. Because OnlyFans doesn’t have an “explore page,” like most other social media platforms, it’s up to content creators to grow a fanbase through Instagram or Twitter, which can help expand the range of their subscribers.
When she started out, Ciera had planned for OnlyFans to be just another source of income—but it’s now something she enjoys.
“For me, it’s art,” she said. “I share it with people that are interested and would appreciate [it] without judgement, so even [when] going back to [in-person work], I feel like I’d still keep my account.”
While OnlyFans takes 20 per cent of your earnings from the platform, Ciera’s agency took 40-50 per cent of her income as a masseuse. For her, it’s a great alternative.
Learning how to navigate the online platform has been “a blessing in disguise” for Ciera, who has grown her following of interested clients wanting to see her in-person after the pandemic. She thinks that business will be better after the pandemic restrictions ease, and that OnlyFans has helped her connect with new clients, especially ones in other countries.
“[Clients] sign up for your OnlyFans and get to know you on a more personal level than [through Twitter],” she said. “That also creates business for you outside of wherever you’re based […] It prepares [clients] for when they meet you.”
In her work, Ciera has full control over who she sees and what her sessions are like, which is a luxury she didn’t have with her last agency.
“[Being an escort] actually feels like I’m dating this person,” she said. “You almost feel like they’re your boyfriend for an hour or two, or however long you’re together.”
When asked how many relationships she currently has with clients, Ciera laughed. “I don’t count because I feel like there’s no point in counting, but it’s a lot, and I love it,” she said. “Personally, I’m very open sexually and I’m very adventurous.”
“I enjoy every bit of my job.”
Perhaps the most dominant force in the global sex work industry is the Montreal-founded company MindGeek, a technology conglomerate that owns some of the largest pornographic website domains on the planet, including Pornhub. Their sites see over 115 million visitors a day.
Like OnlyFans, the site became even more popular during the COVID-19 pandemic, seeing an increase of up to 23 per cent in daily users. The average visit to Pornhub in 2019 was a whopping ten minutes and twenty-eight seconds long.
When The Pigeon reached out to MindGeek for a comment for this article, they responded that they’re a technology company, not a pornography company—and that, legally, they’re based in Luxembourg. Still, Montreal is home to their largest office, with over 1000 employees.
Montreal is the third largest producer of porn on the planet, after Los Angeles and Amsterdam.
In fact, pornography sites track more user data than almost any other website to tailor their recommendations to consumers. Instagram’s explore page is nowhere near as specific.
Despite its popularity, Pornhub is a very dangerous place.
OnlyFans requires proof of legal age and a tax form to post content and receive payment, making income from OnlyFans taxable. Pornhub, on the other hand, only specifies that you need to add government-issued ID to qualify for payment. Only the person who uploads the video can take it down. They also have a feature that allows you to upload to two other domains simultaneously, spreading videos even faster. This feature can pose an issue if a video violates the website’s terms, as it becomes much harder to take down.
Pornhub claims on their website that illegal content is strictly prohibited, and that, “every video and photo uploaded to Pornhub is reviewed manually,” but in 2019 alone, the website saw 6.8 million new uploads—almost 19,000 videos a day.
Pornhub also states that it uses automated detection technologies to scan for missing children, reporting flagged users and uploads to the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children.
However, there are many examples of videos showing illegal sexual acts on the site that show how ineffective Pornhub’s screening process is.
Last October, a missing 15-year-old girl was found after being identified in videos on Pornhub’s website of her being sexually assaulted. Her abuser was found with 58 pornographic videos of her in his possession.
As well, Pornhub’s partner channel, Girls Do Porn, was taken down after the owners were charged with sex trafficking—but not until 22 women sued the site for forcing them to act in videos. The FBI found that the owners of Girls Do Porn then pretended to be journalists to harass the victims. Allegedly, some of these videos can still be found on Pornhub’s site.
Apart from the violations of privacy made by Pornhub, the US National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE) published a research summary on Pornography and Public Health, last updated in 2019, detailing a litany of disturbing effects that pornography has on society, which they refer to as a “public health crisis.” (Please be aware that some of the content within this summary may be especially triggering to readers.)
Analyses cited in the summary show that 88 per cent of the most popular pornographic videos online, not just on Pornhub, contain physical violence, usually towards women, and that the women acting in these videos are portrayed as receiving it with pleasure.
The research summary also found that the consumption of pornographic videos has a negative impact on both male and female body image and self-worth, leads to greater acceptance of rape myths in all genders, and increases sexual dysfunction in men.
In an email exchange between The Pigeon and NCOSE, Haley McNamara, the VP of Advocacy and Outreach and director of the International Centre on Sexual Exploitation, said that the organization has seen a move towards online commercial sexual exploitation since the COVID-19 pandemic.
She highlighted that many OnlyFans videos end up on sites like Pornhub or other third parties, and claims that internet pornography is not an “empowering industry” but “rebranded age-old oppression.”
“We’ve heard from some direct service providers and those who have previously posted on OnlyFans that because there has been an influx of people creating online pornographic content, the ability to monetize has decreased,” McNamara wrote. “Most men are used to free pornographic content, and so if they are going to pay for it then many are requiring increased risky or abusive actions.”
For some, OnlyFans is just a temporary solution—or not an option at all. The privacy of in-person sex work is more rewarding and even safer for many industry workers in Montreal.
A crucial part of sex work is control, which independent sex workers can have when charging for their companionship. One Montreal collective, unnamed for safety reasons, offers safe places for sex workers to meet their clients. Far from an agency, the collective merely unites independent workers in the city. Any female-identifying individual is able to join.
Aliss, 27, is part of the managing committee for the collective.
“We can’t help [the women] do stuff because [that is considered] pimping,” she said. “But we are giving them all of the tools that they need to [succeed].”
Aliss joined the industry through a friend to regain her independence.
“When I was young, I [was] abused, so I was trying to find a way to take back my sexuality, to feel like the woman I am, and to feel the respect I need,” she said.
Having never worked with an agency, Aliss’ initial focus was creating her own website and brand. Now, knowing what she is comfortable with, she helps her clients find comfort, too.
“By seeing [a service] on the website, they feel more secure, because it’s like, ‘Yes, I can ask if I want to try it,’” she said. “I’m really more with people that are [hiding their desires], that need more specific attention.”
Many of Aliss’ appointments are social dates without sexual contact. Some of her clients have autism and are looking for companionship. Several of her recurring clients also have physical disabilities.
Aliss, too, created an OnlyFans account in March, but she said she won’t be continuing with the platform once the pandemic ends. This is partially because, to her, OnlyFans takes twice the work for one quarter of her usual income.
Her decision to leave is also because creators don’t have direct interactions with people. “What I like most about sex work is the human contact, the in-person service,” she said. “But, with the pandemic happening, it was the push that I needed to try.”
Aliss also said that anyone could be on the other side of the screen, which could make OnlyFans more dangerous. “When we meet people, we know who we have in front of us,” she said.
OnlyFans also requires you to take your own photos and videos, which Aliss pointed out some people are unable to do. The lack of accessibility when making OnlyFans content contrasts the demands of in-person and online sex work, since some workers don’t have access to the lighting or cameras needed to succeed on the platform.
Another one of the above-mentioned collective’s members is Anastasia, 21, who moved to Montreal from Eastern Europe three years ago and entered the sex work industry to pay for her international student tuition fees. Because her parents were not able to help her with tuition, Anastasia needed to find a reliable source of income.
Anastasia entered the industry almost by accident. After a breakup, she joined several dating websites, and found herself more interested in older men.
“I was like, ‘Okay, maybe I’m going to feel like a princess,’” she said.
After one date where Anastasia liked the man she was seeing and they had sex, the man left her a donation, and became her first client.
Anastasia spent a brief period of time with an agency when she later moved to Montreal, which took 30 per cent of her profits.
“Of course, working through an agency instead of independently [changes] the people that you see,” Anastasia explained. “Working at an agency, [managers] care less, so the [clients] are not that high end. They’re not professionals.”
Often, escorts require new clients to provide references, like a resumé, from other sex workers they’ve seen to make sure they are respectful. But many of Anastasia’s clients are recurring. “It’s the same as every company [that] wants to have returning clients,” she said.
“It gets kind of hard [to manage] because you have a lot of relationships with everyone, but they know that there’s a barrier,” she said. “You can be their mistress, but you’re not going to be calling them at 2:00 a.m.”
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, Anastasia, too, had to switch some of her services to digital platforms. She mostly offered explicit texting packages.
OnlyFans wasn’t an option for Anastasia, who chooses not to show her face in photos to protect her identity for future professional opportunities. She said she would make more money if she showed her face, but doesn’t see herself in the industry long-term.
When it’s safe, she’ll return to her in-person meetings.
“I know a lot of girls [who] switched to online work,” she said. “It’s through a computer, so they’re more comfortable doing that, and they get less money, but they don’t have any physical connection.”
“This job is all about what you’re more comfortable with.”
OnlyFans may have become a trendy topic during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the rapidly-growing site emphasizes how the sex work industry is evolving.
Digital sex work can empower sex workers across many platforms, and, though it still runs the risk of exploitation, it introduces individuals to a safer segment of the industry.
While some services can’t be substituted with an online experience, avenues like OnlyFans allow workers to exercise greater control over their bodies and their sexualities from the comfort of their own homes.
If you require resources or assistance surrounding sexual assault, please visit https://crcvc.ca/links/ for province-specific support. Additional crisis lines and 24/7 options can be found at https://thelifelinecanada.ca/help/crisis-centres/canadian-crisis-centres/.