Inside a $10 million OnlyFans farm

In Florida, I saw firsthand how the new business of sex is changing the web.

Inside a $10 million OnlyFans farm
Bryce Adams on the farm. (Photo by Sydney Walsh for The Washington Post)

Full story: Inside an OnlyFans empire: Sex, influence and the new American Dream

OnlyFans, the subscription platform famous for its amateur-porn creators, is for many people a tabloid punchline: a place where young women post photos or videos of themselves because they don’t make enough money working as teachers, nurses and cops.

But it deserves to be taken seriously as a business. More than 3 million people now work as OnlyFans creators, and their sales exploded from $238 million in 2019 to more than $5.5 billion last year. If they all worked together, they’d be one of America’s biggest private companies, larger than Neiman Marcus Group or Hallmark Cards.

I wanted to understand how this industry worked and why so many women and men were baring it all. So I interviewed adult-content creators and traveled to the Florida compound of Bryce Adams, one of the platform’s best-paid stars. What I found totally surprised me. Their content-making operation runs like a machine, with two dozen employees and a workflow rivaling more traditional media outfits.

Their success in “spicy” content raises some tough questions on how we think about sex, intimacy and social media, especially for young people who see online influencing as a lifelong career path. One 20-year-old said she made $150,000 in two months from OnlyFans and had lost all interest in what she’d once wanted to become, an obstetrician.

“This is normal for my generation, you know?” she told me. “I can go on TikTok right now and see ten girls wearing the bare minimum of clothing just to get people to join their page. Why not go the extra step to make money off it?”

Deleted scenes

  • When a team of researchers in the U.S. and Germany interviewed nearly two dozen OnlyFans creators last year for a study — “‘Nudes? Shouldn’t I Charge for These?’” — many said they started using it as a financial lifeline during the pandemic and grew to enjoy the autonomy and flexible hours.
    • One said she started her account after losing her job while caring for ill mother.
    • One former Uber driver said she felt safer not having to pick up strangers in her car.
    • One former waitress said she used the same people-pleasing skills she’d learned at the restaurant: “No one’s always friendly 100 percent of the time.”
  • There is a strange parasocial dynamic to the work, and it cuts both ways. Avery said, in moments when she feels insecure, she’ll “go on OnlyFans and someone will be like, 'You're the most beautiful girl in the world.'" When she told her fans she'd be offline for two weeks due to a surgery, "the amount of 'hope you feel better,' 'sending prayers to you' was just insane," she told me. "I could post a TikTok right now and I don't think half of my friends would say that."
  • Some OnlyFans creators work with contract agencies in the Philippines that offer chatters as a service and promote their “certified upsell” strategies. Bryce's chatters work in-house, earning between $15 to $19 an hour with the expectation they’ll send at least 250 messages a day. Most supplement their income through personal OnlyFans accounts. (Ezra Marcus last year went into detail on the industry’s "ghostwriters.”)

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How I wrote it

For Nieman Storyboard, I was asked to talk about how I reported on the internet's most popular sex-subscription platform – and to annotate my story, line by line:

“I’m a huge proponent of applying all the classic old-school techniques of journalism — immersive, investigative, data-driven reporting and narrative storytelling — to this new age of social media and the internet. Just because these stories are playing out online doesn’t make them any less important or illuminating.”

Harwell’s story probes OnlyFans not as a salacious sex site, but as a business. While Harwell doesn’t skirt around the online account’s sexual content, he’s more interested in the site’s calculated nature, grueling pace and ambitious staff of owners and employees.

“Don’t be afraid of stories involving sex, porn or other topics of legitimate inquiry we often pretend, out of journalistic comfort or convenience, don’t exist,” Harwell said. “These are real people and they deserve to be understood, just like anyone.”

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