When coronavirus cases started spiking in Texas late last month, Isabela, a 19-year-old student and waitress, felt a creeping sense of dread. She was already living paycheck to paycheck while financially supporting her parents.
A week later, she got the call: Business at the small Chinese restaurant where she worked had all but evaporated, and it could no longer afford to keep the lights on. She wouldn’t be getting any more shifts for the foreseeable future. Isabela panicked.
Her manager urged her to hold off on filing for unemployment benefits because it was unclear when the restaurant might reopen — a dilemma facing many service industry workers. And although her community college extended the deadline for tuition payments, providing some immediate relief, her bills were still due, and her family needed groceries.
As she processed her situation, Isabela remembered that she had an account on OnlyFans, a platform where content creators share posts that are accessible only to their paying subscribers. She had set up a profile with her friends a few months earlier, joking at the time that she could sell nude photos on the site to get by if things ever got tough. Suddenly, unable to work and confined to her house under a new government order, it seemed like her only viable option.
“Out of nowhere, it was just like, ‘Hey — you don’t have a job anymore,’” said Isabela, who asked to be identified by her first name only due to stigma surrounding her new source of income. “This is something I could do from home.”
As the coronavirus pandemic sends American unemployment levels soaring to record highs, thousands of people have turned to OnlyFans and similar independent-creator platforms, such as Patreon, in hopes of making up for lost wages. In recent weeks, OnlyFans has seen a 75% increase in sign-ups, with more than 170,000 new users each day, according to a company email. Patreon reported 50,000 new creators in March — its fastest ever rate of growth.
Some users sell artwork; others sell workout routines, writing services or cooking tutorials. Many sell naked pictures.
Rae, a new mother living in Southern California, was abruptly furloughed last month after the gym she managed shut down due to the risks of coronavirus. Her fiancé, a construction worker, still had a job, but work was slow, and they started to worry about their mortgage payments and other bills.
“At first we [at the gym] were told that we would still be paid, but that didn’t last,” said Rae, 25, who also asked not to use her full name for privacy reasons. “I have a little one, so it was really stressful. I need to make sure he’s taken care of.”
She’d heard about people “making really good money” on OnlyFans, so a week ago, she set up an account to sell topless photos and started sharing her new profile with people on Twitter. Before long, she had more than 40 paying fans.
“It has already made quite a difference for us,” Rae said. “Being stuck at home, I have time to network and put work into promoting my page.”
To her surprise, Rae added, she has already made about $1,000 through subscriptions and tips on OnlyFans. Isabela has earned somewhere in the range of $250 to $300 in a matter of days — enough to keep food on the table for at least the next week, she said.
Yet even as OnlyFans and Patreon emerge as potential revenue streams for many struggling through this time of economic crisis, the platforms’ surge of new members is also disrupting business for some established creators. Longtime nude models, speaking to Vice, described feeling as if their work is being undermined and warned that digital content production — including sex work in particular — isn’t as easy as people think.
But not all new content producers are selling nude images, of course, and not everyone is making fast cash. Many “fans” and “patrons” — the users who pay to access creators’ content on OnlyFans and Patreon, respectively — have less disposable income now, too, and are buying fewer subscriptions.
Aubrey Joseph was cautiously optimistic when she set up her Patreon account last week. She had suddenly found herself out of work due to COVID-19; one of her part-time employers laid her off, the other put her on a “zero hour” schedule until further notice. Like Isabela, the 24-year-old didn’t apply for unemployment benefits, since she was technically still on a payroll — just not getting paid. Her savings would barely get her through April.
Fearing eviction and late fees on the car insurance payments she could no longer afford to make, Joseph decided to try her luck at selling digital artwork on Patreon. She studied character design and animation in college, and had always enjoyed doing profile sketches in her free time.
She had a lot more of it now.
“These days, I have all the time in the world to produce art,” said Joseph, who lives with a friend in Florida. “I just don’t know when I’ll be able to work again.”
She’s selling character illustrations and digital wallpaper, and accepting commissions. So far, though, she has earned only $2 on Patreon.
“It’s a drop in the bucket. Hopefully, I can get more patrons to help me pay my bills,” Joseph said, “but I know times are hard for everyone right now.”