Courtesy of Sam Morris

Love in the time of OnlyFans

In an age where the old boundaries between social media and sex work are blurring, what is the impact on queer love lives?

In his Dazed Voices column Chocolate-Cream Soldier, Otamere Goubadia reflects on life and love at the intersection of blackness and queerness.

Sexual revolutions (like the one we are undoubtedly living through right now) bring with them myriad pleasures. There are the literal pleasures, but there’s also the pleasure of change, of re-evaluation, of the knots of old kinks falling away to make way for exciting and emergent possibilities. As the contraceptive pill gave women around the world unprecedented control over their bodies and the sex that they had, the discovery and dissemination of PrEP is an important partial antidote to the psychospiritual trauma and shame that still lingers in queer sex today. And, perhaps just as vital, if not more so, to our journey into a brave new world, is the advent of new kinds of sexual enterprise, in particular: the ‘fansite’.

In a world in which the celebrity sex tape no longer scandalises profile but enriches it, where amateur porn is flourishing, and piracy is the mode of the hour, studio porn is seeing the end of its monopoly – not only as a money-making tool, but also as a cultural phenomenon. Sites like OnlyFans and its counterpart Just For Fans have undoubtedly, as many have already written, ‘democratised’ porn. The rise of these ‘fansites’ (where customers pay a monthly subscription fee for access to regular content from their chosen performers) has eliminated some of the barriers to entry that enshrined blockbuster studio porn in its historical shroud of exclusivity.

“The fact that it's (free to sign up) is terrific,” says Leander, something of a veteran porn performer, who does a mixture of studio porn, fansite work, and escorting. “And so lots of people, who for whatever reason might not be given a chance in the studio (machine), have the opportunity to show what they can do.”

Gay porn need not be just the remit of the golden-skinned Adonis. Fansites create a framework for the niche, unconventional, and traditionally neglected to find their share of adoring subscribers. Viewers necessarily come with their prejudices — but the door is not closed off by the industry's persistent institutional biases; there are no laborious auditions with racist, seedy studio execs. Anyone, and truly everyone, is welcome to toss their ring in the ring. Film it, and they will come.

But what, beyond this new sense of inclusivity, has the popularisation of these subscription sites done to our love — to our philosophies, our entitlement, and our impulses? What are the prevailing politics of love, lust and romance in the time of OnlyFans? What blooms in a zeitgeist overwhelmed with sexual potentialities, in which, to paraphrase something Leander tells me over tea: “everyone can have their 15 minutes of dick-famy?”

Fansites are the latest manifestation of the thirst-trap culture that we live in, and both are shifting our ideals about love and sex in a multiplicity of ways. Almost half of over 1000 gay men surveyed by FS Magazine have previously experienced, or are currently in, an open relationship. In conversations with friends, flings, and acquaintances, I am personally noticing an increasing consciousness and prevalence of these non-monogamous arrangements; a growing tide. Anecdotally, it feels like a new norm is arising, and one that is at odds with long-rooted heteronormative Disney fantasies.  OnlyFans and Instagram are the gay meat market at its most visible and viable, and as Beau*, one friend and thirst-trapper du jour, puts it: “There are so many readily available men to pick from on our feeds, so why stick to one?”

Fansites occupy, or rather create, a strange liminal zone — the limbo between the softcore Insta-thot and the full-blown hardcore porn performer. Their existence emphasises that hazy line we all walk between the micro-transactional nature of the sex we have (and the sexiness we exhibit) in our personal lives, and the macro-transactional hypersexuality of the boy who fucks on camera. Many social media darlings are increasingly choosing to cash in on their hotness and followings in a way that was previously only monetisable through cheap underwear ads or flat tummy tea promotions. These sites allow for a status quo where people don't consider themselves porn stars or sex workers but are, on the face of it, making porn or engaging in what we might consider sex work.

That Rubicon is one that many of us don't cross. Sam Morris is a Berlin-based artist who creates sexy, sentimental, and offbeat erotica on his own personal subscription-based website. What started off for him as run-of-the-mill  thirst-trapping gradually morphed into a softcore solo “artsy-fartsy”, “self-surveillance” project of increasingly racy degree, which has now ultimately come to sometimes feature filmed sexual intercourse with other men.  

The romance of his work is undeniable. Scenes are unscripted, some set to classical music, with arthouse cuts and editing, and none of the traditional obsession with the ‘money shot’. He talks to his co-star subjects, and writes about his time with them. Nudity is guaranteed, but sex is not. The lens through which he conjures this erotica is reflective of not only his own romantic fears and aspirations, but of his own jealousies and dissonances.

In our conversation, it’s evident that he craves monogamous exclusivity in his personal relationships, while simultaneously creating art that often demands the opposite:  a sharing of himself. His work, with its soft natural lighting, general lack of ‘group scenes’, and a kind of gentle pastel sensuality, mimics the conditions of romanticised, monogamous sex. In a meta way, it’s as though his art reconciles the tensions that arise from creating this kind of art in the first place.

Dating successfully while creating his erotica has been difficult. “I think maybe I’ve been burnt too many times by falling for boys essentially, (who didn’t) actually want me, they wanted (the persona) I’d created,” he says. “Once you’re inside this world, only you can understand the dissociation you have with your own body… the person online is definitely a character.” His words brings home a familiar point: that the iterations of self and sexuality that we perform in cyberspace are so often phantom projections, but with concrete implications for the love we seek IRL. “I’m starting to become a bit disillusioned,” he continues. “I’m in a place now where I’m worried (that) you make a choice (between) the success or the love.”

Speaking to fansite subscribers, you get the sense that they pay not just to see sex, as is tradition, but for access — an intimate illusion of being embedded in a performer’s life. It acts as a substitute for real world affections that they’ve perhaps been denied. In days gone by, porn stars – like veteran supermodels or old Hollywood darlings – thrived on worship, not any real familiarity. But that partition no longer exists, thinned by the Kardashian effect and the age of social media. Subscribers want more than ever to believe that the man on screen could be theirs. Adam*, who's subscribed to a few accounts, tells me, “there’s one guy I was super into on (Instagram), so I subscribed and he posted just fairly candid nudes and stuff at home, in bed, which almost felt like the kind of pic a guy might send you on Grindr or something. The kind of guy I don’t think would ever give me that attention in real life. So you know, pay a price and get it that way instead.”

His resignation reveals how these sites are changing how some people might pursue love and dating – or rather, not pursue it. If the illusion being provided is sufficiently intimate and proximal to the real thing – it’s just like IRL affections, but with no risk of rejection — why pursue these real world affections, with the threat of heartbreak?

“For some people, (OnlyFans is) reinforcing their ideas about monogamy and closed relationships… Anything that makes people think about (sex) and reflect, no matter the conclusions they draw, is a good thing” – Leander

Adam elaborates on the fansites’ appeal: “I subscribe because maybe they feel more ‘personal’ than generic porn. I suppose you feel like you know (the performers) better when you follow them on OnlyFans,” Adam explains. “I do weirdly feel more connected to them.”

“(It appealed) that it was just like this guy in his house, this idea that it’s like it’s just a person, who you can (follow) on Instagram,” says Ed*, an ex-subscriber to one gay-for-pay creator. “It’s like (flirting or getting nudes) without putting in any effort… and there’s something appealing about that, especially (if they're straight) and it's part of this weird fantasy it plays into.”

Leander has been in the same open relationship for the duration of his sex work career. “He knows about everything, and he’s great!” he says cheerily. “I can’t say that he’s never felt a bit jealous or a bit left out, but who's ever been in a relationship where they didn't at some point feel jealous or left out? It’s a normal thing.” He explains that it’s about sensitivity, openness, and constructively managing those jealousies when they do arise: “We talk about it, and we try and be considerate, and we try and be kind to one another… I don’t just disappear in the middle of dinner to go and film something, because that’s not very kind!”

The work of OnlyFans creators very often coexists with public-facing, more formal employment – ie, office jobs; a welcome relaxation of the long-enforced distinction between sex work and ‘respectable’ work. There is nothing intrinsically shameful about sexiness or sex work, and our choosing to dabble in it should not close off other avenues of livelihood and opportunity. Leander balances his sex work with a career as a neuroscientist. The real question is whether there’s any need for these dichotomies at all: between transactional and non-transactional,  between erotic art and pornography, between Insta thot and porn star.

“OnlyFans is helping to normalise sex in everyday discourse,” Leander reflects. “For some people, it’s reinforcing their ideas about monogamy and closed relationships… Anything that makes people think about (sex) and reflect, no matter the conclusions they draw, is a good thing. For such a long time there’s been this very sort of rigid notion of what it’s for, who should do it, and with whom… and if sex becomes more normalised through these sites, more people (will be) thinking about what they want, what they believe, and that's great.”

Perhaps in this age of thirst traps, PrEP, fansites, open relationships, and the myriad other things that now orbit and influence our queer sensibilities, our understanding of what it is to love, to be loved, and the modes in which we do so are necessarily diversifying. Our need to own partners exclusively – or even the notion that ‘ownership’ or ‘exclusivity’ are central to successful romantic affairs – is being dismantled.

“Love is not like cake,” Leander laughs. “(It’s not like) there’s only so much that can go around, and I need to guard my pieces of cake! I can be loved up and also do sex work, and the two compliment each other.”

​*Names in this article have been changed to protect the speakers’ anonymity

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