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We Ask OnlyFans' CEO if the Company Has Become Shorthand for the Mass Pornification of Mainstream Culture
February 10, 2023 Decca Aitkenhead

The CEO of OnlyFans, Amrapali “Ami” Gan, is worried that you will have heard of her company but won’t understand what it does or how it works. “There’s been a lot of misconceptions about OnlyFans. Honestly, most people don’t even know what the business is.” And that is why, she confirms, she’s now doing interviews. “To clear up the confusion.” She wants to be transparent. What she wants, however, and what happens turn out to be two quite different things.

Let’s start from the beginning though. OnlyFans is a massively successful company. Founded in 2016 by Tim Stokely, a young English entrepreneur, it offers content creators a platform where they can charge their fans a subscription fee ranging from 4.99 to 49.99 USD per month to view their content and contact them. Many accounts effectively operate as a shop window for more explicit or personalised content; subscribers can request tailored messages, photos and videos via direct messaging, for which they pay extra. They can send “tips” to thank creators for posts they particularly like; creators can also request “tips” to unlock more explicit content. Everyone involved must be over 18; the creators take 80 per cent of the revenue, OnlyFans keeps 20 per cent.

ABOVE: Born in Mumbai then raised in the US, Amrapali Gan is currently one of the few women of colour to be leading a billion-dollar, big-tech household name. That this company is also, debatably, an adult content creation platform makes her a fascinating person to meet.

To find out what a popular OnlyFans account might look like, I typed the words “Best OnlyFans” into a search engine called OnlyFinder (one of many that have popped up online to scour the site). Top of the list was “@sofiegonewild”, whose bio reads: “Sofie Gostosa 19 Years Old. Hot Latina/Filipina Teen Girl. I share my dirtiest videos & fantasies with you.”

Largely unknown until 2020, the business exploded during the Covid-19 pandemic when adult performers and sex workers unable to earn elsewhere flooded the site, joined by celebrity names – Cardi B, Bella Thorne, Amber Rose – who quickly made it world famous. With more than 120 million subscribers to date, the site paid out 5 billion USD last year to its content creators annually, and 517 million USD in dividends to Leonid Radvinsky, the American porn magnate who bought it in 2018. Depending on your point of view, OnlyFans is either a blueprint for the future of social media – “Instagram with a paywall”, as some suggest – or shorthand for the mass pornification of mainstream culture.

The platform has solved many of social media’s biggest problems. Influencers and celebrities finally can control and monetise their own image; they choose what to post and are guaranteed to get paid for it. The subscription model also defeats virtually all trolling; as Gan says, “As soon as they join, a lot of creators are, like, ‘Wow, everyone is so nice and so welcoming.’ And they’re almost surprised by that. I’m like, well, someone who’s going to say something mean is not going to go and pay to subscribe to you.”

She grins. “And if they do, then kind of the joke’s on them because you just made money out of them.” Misbehaviour is much easier to police on a platform that knows every user’s real identity, and unlike the ocean of free porn on the internet, its content can – in theory, at least – be accessed only by adults.

Gan joined OnlyFans as the company’s chief marketing and communications officer in 2020. The 37-year-old grew up in Washington State, the only child of Indian-American parents (her father an engineer, her mother a teacher and homemaker) and studied marketing in California before working for a protein bar brand, then Red Bull, and most recently the first cannabis café in Los Angeles, “which really helped prepare me for jumping into this business that everyone’s talking about in the zeitgeist. And to me it’s so exciting. We’re disruptive. We’re disruptors.”

When the founder stood down as CEO at the end of 2021, Gan stepped up to become one of very few women of colour in the world to lead a billion-dollar, big-tech household name. In person she is tiny, practically birdlike, and immaculately groomed, with a big smile and a faint Californian inflection. And, after posing for our photographer, she sits down across the table from me wearing a “Go on, ask me anything” expression. So, I fire off the first round: If the world has been paying all this attention to OnlyFans, and Gan is brilliant at marketing, then why are there so many misconceptions about the company? She nods.

“OnlyFans is referenced regularly in the media, on talk shows. It’s used by a range of creators – glamour models, adult content creators, also athletes, musicians, chefs, etcetera. But there’s something about OnlyFans where it’s used as clickbait in the press. It’s become this very culturally relevant platform, and that’s created a lot of conversations about ‘What is it? Who’s on it? Who’s behind it? What does it mean to have a profile?’ Yes, we do allow adult content on the platform but that shouldn’t be all we are known for.”

It’s not a porn site then? “We are an inclusive content platform,” she replies. “You can subscribe to creators that may be sharing adult content, or something on the spicier side. You can also subscribe to creators that might be doing yoga or racing cars. We have over three million content creators on the platform.”

I’m curious to know what percentage of those three million are actually posting strictly non-adult content. “We don’t categorise. When you’re signing up, there’s no box to tick saying ‘I’m going to do this type of content’. It’s up to each creator to decide what they feel comfortable sharing with their community.”

Interestingly, when her predecessor announced in 2020 that the site would no longer host adult content, all hell broke loose in the world of OnlyFans. The decision was hastily reversed and he resigned a few months later. Still, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest Gan is keen to diversify beyond porn, not that the NSFW (not-safe-for-work) creators care. As one glamour model put it: “You built this platform on our backs, and you never miss an opportunity to take a jab at us. We make you millions and how do you repay us? You lift up any creator who isn’t a sex worker. You never acknowledge or post us unless it’s a desperate attempt at separating yourself from us.”

Gan references non-porn creators throughout the interview. At one point, for example, in answer to a question about the gender balance of the OnlyFans board, she talks, instead, about investing in “OFTV” – the brand’s new non-subscription video site, which broadcasts exclusively clean content and is producing its own reality shows. In reply to a question about her pay, she segues into telling me about “our OnlyFans’ Creative Fund: Comedy Edition”, another SFW reality show launching on OFTV.

Knowing all of this, I ask Gan if her big vision for the company’s future lies beyond porn. “My vision is that we will always be a content-inclusive platform and that means we will have adult content creators, glamour models, and we will also have comedians, chefs, fashion stylists. We’re not categorising anyone. So, in theory you can post yourself cooking or making a juice one day, fitness the next day and maybe some spicier content on the third day. I’m proud to be an inclusive platform. What’s important to me is that creators are safe.”

That sounds all well and good, but it doesn’t take long on the site to see that most of what passes as SFW shares all the aesthetic tropes of porn, just without the genitals. On OFTV the only presenters I can find on the homepage who don’t dress, talk and act like Playboy models are men, who are in a tiny minority on the site. On OF itself, the extremely non-SFW “@sofiegonewild” account does for example post fitness content – in the form of a photo of her standing next to an exercise bicycle, her top pulled up to expose bare breasts, captioned: “Who is ready to take a cycling class with me?” But this post received not one cent in tips. The post above it is a video clip of Sofie having sex with a man and a pink vibrator, captioned: “Full video is 10 minutes and 50 seconds long. Tip 20 USD on this post to get it in your inbox today!” This post had, at the time of writing, received 4,300 USD in tips. It would seem the financial incentives to post content that Gan would call “spicy” speak for themselves.

Safety is a buzzword for Gan – yet she doesn’t immediately know how many moderators she employs to monitor the site for anything illegal or in breach of its terms of service. Her PR team later emails to say the figure is more than a thousand, but that figure doesn’t stack up against Gan’s strikingly bold claim that, “While we do use some automated technologies to help us prioritise content, ultimately everything on the site is reviewed by a human.” How so? Because if each creator were to upload just ten minutes of videos, images, and text chats each month then that would equate to 500,000 hours of new content to review. Divide that by 1,000 and each moderator would need to work for 500 hours a month. Even full-time employees working a 35-hour week clock up no more than 150 hours. Clearly, they shouldn’t be saying “everything” is reviewed by a human.

After much prevarication she admits, “What’s important is that we are making the effort and not relying just on automated technologies to review everything happening on the platform. There’s definitely more that we’re doing that other social media sites could potentially learn from.” That’s probably true but what about reports of underage creators posting pornographic content? Has OnlyFans taken action? “Absolutely.” She doesn’t elaborate, other than to say she appointed a new chief strategy and operations officer “with a background in data privacy and internet security”.

The PR team later emails me a list of steps taken, including additional age and identity verification measures, information-sharing systems with governmental regulators, monitoring of social media, and a third-party safety compliance auditor. However, a subsequent BBC Newsnight report alleged that terms strictly prohibited by OnlyFans’ terms of service, such as DDLG – which stands for daddy dom/little girl – had been found on the site. A US online paedophile ring investigator told the BBC it took less than an hour to find ten child abuse images online, created within the past six months, that had originated on OnlyFans.

“We do not want minors on the platform, we do not want anyone underage,” Gan says. “We do not want bad actors. We don’t want anyone to make the mistake of thinking they can come on the platform and upload any sort of illegal or harmful content.”

Wanting something doesn’t make it happen, though. What counts is what they are willing to spend. OnlyFans is not exactly short of money, so what percentage of turnover is she spending specifically on moderating content and removing these “bad actors”? “That’s something that I am personally very passionate about. I’m not going to reveal any figures.” Given her commitment to transparency, why not? She won’t say; she just repeats: “It’s a priority for us. What’s important is that there’s a conversation around online safety.”

Yet we’ve been having the conversation for years. What achieves real change, I suggest, is not conversation but law. What would Gan consider a fair penalty for a big-tech boss who breaks online safety laws? “I’m not going to comment on it further.”

Something the law can’t address is the insidious influence of OnlyFans. Sure, free, easily accessible sites such as Pornhub spread far worse content, but hardcore online porn brands aren’t trying to infiltrate the mainstream cultural landscape, or blur the lines between X- and U-rated categories. The “safe-for-work” creators on OFTV that I saw were pneumatic young women wearing porn star make-up and push-up bras, pouting, simpering and smouldering for the camera while supposedly teaching yoga or dispensing financial advice. This fantasy universe doesn’t feel to me like proof that OnlyFans is more than just a porn site, but that the site can turn anything into porn.

I had hoped we could explore how the normalisation of porn is shaping the sex and social lives of her generation. Single and child-free, Gan divides her time between Miami and London, and must know about modern dating culture and city nightlife. I’d been hoping to leave reassured that the people shaping it had given this serious thought but every time I allude to any concerns about porn’s impact on young men and women, either she misunderstands me or has been media-trained to pretend to.

I ask if she regards sex work as exactly the same as any other kind of paid employment. “So, what’s important to note about the platform is that every creator is sharing content they want to share. And it’s all happening digitally.” But the question is whether sex work is different. “What we have done is developed a safe, content-inclusive platform that allows people to share and monetise content exclusively with their community.”

I can’t work out whether simply repeating words such as inclusive and community is supposed to put my mind at rest, or hers. Just how much media training, I ask as we part, has she had? “That’s not something I’m commenting on.” OnlyFans? Surely, we can do better.