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The Assignment with Audie Cornish

Fiery Twitter threads and endless news notifications never capture the full story. Each week on The Assignment, host Audie Cornish pulls listeners out of their digital echo chambers to hear from the people who live the headlines. From the sex work economy to the battle over what’s taught in classrooms, no topic is off the table. Listen to The Assignment every Thursday. 

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My Bread and Butter: The OnlyFans Economy
The Assignment with Audie Cornish
Dec 1, 2022

In the early days of the pandemic, OnlyFans made headlines as both celebrities and regular people made large sums of money selling sexually explicit content on the site. In this episode, Audie hears from the people who have made OnlyFans their career. What do their days look like? How do they make their money? And do they see a future for themselves on OnlyFans?

Episode Transcript
Audie Cornish
00:00:00
Before we get started, I want to note that this episode contains depictions of sex that might not be suitable for all audiences, including children. This is not the kind of story I typically get to do. And so I think when I finally got a chance to do my own show, I was like, You know what? I'm going to do that OnlyFan story. I'm going to do that weird online sex story that everyone was making fun of last year.
Colbert archival tape
00:00:27
They know that fans of only fans are only fans of one thing, right?
Audie Cornish
00:00:33
Because this little website out of the U.K. that was built to let artists convert likes into paid subscriptions was now seen as a porn site, a site that claims that it went from 10 million users before the pandemic to 150 million today. From the outside, it seemed like the quarantines had unleashed some kind of culture shift.
Samantha Cole
00:00:54
I think that it has mainstreamed the idea of doing sex work in a really fast way. We have supercharged this idea that you can hop online and, you know, take your clothes off on video and that'll make you a bunch of money.
Audie Cornish
00:01:14
Like all gig economy work. The pitch goes something like this: are you burnt out, struggling to make ends meet?
Courtney Tillia TMZ commercial
00:01:23
Well, sweetie I was you until I burned it all to the ground and started an Onlyfans.
Audie Cornish
00:01:30
And lots of people did.
James Cowe
00:01:32
It's almost like you bite the bullet when you decide to do anything like this I think. You sort of go, I know what people are going to think about me. I know what they're going to say. And you sort of you weigh up the pros and the cons and you make the jump and just hope for the best.
Audie Cornish
00:01:46
So who are these people? How did they end up at the nexus of content creation and sex work? How is this latest development online change things for adult industry vets?
Vanniall
00:01:57
It's definitely what I used to wrangle my life back together because if there was not that constant money or was not that constant creative outlet, even, I don't know what I would have done for that year.
Audie Cornish
00:02:09
And what about the people who had never considered selling sex before?
James Cowe
00:02:13
I feel like I have to make this work to survive now, because to find another job from here or to do something else is going to be a lot harder than it was for me before I made this decision.
Audie Cornish
00:02:26
How is this blurring of lines between so-called mainstream social media content creation and sex work made a cultural taboo just like any other job? I'm Audie Cornish and this is The Assignment.
Audie Cornish
00:02:45
We're going to start with Samantha Cole, who is aptly a writer at Vice, specifically their tech vertical Motherboard. She's also written a book called How Sex Change the Internet and the Internet Change Sex: An Unexpected History.
Samantha Cole
00:02:59
I mean, a lot of what happened early online was focused on sex and porn, and those were the people who set up a lot of the systems that we use today.
Audie Cornish
00:03:08
She calls Onlyfans a kind of glorified payments processor. It's also the latest in a long line of e-commerce innovations mainstreamed by the adult entertainment industry.
Samantha Cole
00:03:19
They were the first to set up kind of these payment systems to sell porn things like browser cookies and shopping carts, viewer counts, online advertising. All of these things were pioneered by early Internet pornographers.
Audie Cornish
00:03:34
As someone who also grew up in the nineties. Right, or I don't know if you do, I don't know how old you are. But if you can trace your AOL name to now.
Samantha Cole
00:03:41
Oh my god.
Audie Cornish
00:03:42
I feel like you have a very specific.. What was yours?
Samantha Cole
00:03:45
I don't I don't think I even had a AOL. I was like...
Audie Cornish
00:03:48
Oh, you're too young. Yeah.
Samantha Cole
00:03:49
I mean, I grew up in the nineties, but I was not like I wasn't I was on like bulletin boards and stuff.
Audie Cornish
00:03:54
Right. Because. Exactly. Well, you're talking live to News Girl with a Z.
Samantha Cole
00:04:00
Oh, my god! that's so cute.
Audie Cornish
00:04:01
The r l. Yeah. But I feel it gives you a perspective on this, right? Like because you've grown up alongside the actual growth of the Internet.
Samantha Cole
00:04:12
Yeah.
Audie Cornish
00:04:13
And since the smartphone democratized content creation, being very online doesn't just help us do our jobs. For some of us, it is our job. And the rise of Onlyfans has made a certain kind of content creator very visible and very mainstream.
Samantha Cole
00:04:28
We have supercharged this idea that you can hop online and, you know, take your clothes off on video and that'll make you a bunch of money.
Audie Cornish
00:04:38
Right. Which is I try and process it like, okay, if you're going to be a rideshare driver, like, just that doesn't make you a cab driver. Right. Or does it?
Samantha Cole
00:04:48
Right. Yeah. It's you know, I think people have this idea that it's like quick cash and that it's easy. And I think people in the industry will tell you that it's not easy. It's very hard and it comes with all the stigma.
Audie Cornish
00:05:00
So it's actually not all that different from being an Uber driver, right? I mean, you're selling access to your time, although ridesharing doesn't put you at risk for public shaming. If tick tock when I dance on in the mean time, she my sort of only fans, all the Beyonce name drops in the world can't prevent the social or financial penalties that come with the stigma of selling sexual content.
Samantha Cole
00:05:24
You're going to be deplatformed from Venmo and Airbnb like all these other unrelated things, ones that kind of establish that you're a sex worker. You could put the rest of your life on the line as far as what you're used to being able to access because of the discrimination that goes along with banking and sex work.
Audie Cornish
00:05:43
Right. Even if you don't consider yourself a sex worker. And here's where we should make that, I think, distinction between people who might be doing sex work, interacting with clients physically. Is that a good way of putting it?
Samantha Cole
00:05:57
I think this is kind of something that's controversial among sex workers themselves. But the way that I understand it, people believe that there are not sex workers because they're not meeting people in person. And the reality is that under the eyes of society and the state and banks, you are and you should be in solidarity with the rest of that. And it doesn't help your cause that if you're you're going to be discriminated against, whether you consider yourself a sex worker or not, if you're doing that type of work. Unfortunately, that's that's really the reality.
Audie Cornish
00:06:37
And in times of crisis, like, you know, a worldwide pandemic that almost shuts down an economy that's not exactly front of mind for a person about to upload some nudes. And again, some of them didn't expect to be in sex work in the first place.
Vanniall
00:06:50
No one ever expects it. No one. But at the same time, I didn't expect to be there. But when I look back, I was taking nudes like like it was my job the second I turned 18. So it wasn't... I didn't expect it, but I was preparing for it.
James Cowe
00:07:04
Yeah--
Audie Cornish
00:07:05
Oh, go ahead.
James Cowe
00:07:05
Well, for sure. It's like it's I think taking needs for me was always natural. I don't know if you feel the same way. So it was like, you know, why am I going to send them to people for free when I can make money from something I do anyway?
Audie Cornish
00:07:18
This feels so generational. Like I'm a gen x. So like when people first started doing that, everyone was like, what? Like, I can't believe you! Right? Like it was it's real scandal. It's real scandal. But I do feel like, yeah, if you're in your twenties, you actually would have grown up with the idea of it, even like it's a part of your sexual vocabulary.
Vanniall
00:07:39
Yeah. Oh, yeah. But you have to not care. You have to, like, take it within yourself to. You like. The stigma that I feel against this also has to go.
Audie Cornish
00:07:50
The voices of Vanniall and James Cowie. Their only fans creators. We're going to hear their stories when we come back.
Audie Cornish
00:08:09
Welcome back to the assignment. James Cowe is 25 and lives in Bournemouth, England. Vinyl is 23 and is based in New York City. Both are content creators. Both joined Onlyfans, but for very different reasons. Vanniall is a career sex worker, actually won awards for her work as a trans performer. But she says some porn studios wouldn't work with her once she revealed she was HIV positive. So making a living after that involved cobbling together social media and apps to make a steady income.
Vanniall
00:08:42
I did that mainly over Tumblr and then manyvids came into the picture, which was more it long form video that's still like sex based but still not subscription. And then when Onlyfans got put into the mix, it was really just this. It felt very new. Subscription based things have been around for a very long time.
Audie Cornish
00:09:00
Exactly.
Vanniall
00:09:00
But it felt very like, oh, I get it. Like I just pay a monthly fee and I get whatever is on this page. And that's what happens with Netflix. It's what happens with Hulu and it seems so easy.
Audie Cornish
00:09:13
James, how did you get into it? Because this was not your original profession.
James Cowe
00:09:18
Yeah. So I was a healthcare assistant for six years. It was a family business that my nan owned at the time. I'm showing you care home and it was dementia home, so just elderly people I was caring for. I just got to a point where I thought, this isn't for me anymore. So I went off to college and studied nursing, but I ended up dropping out because I couldn't afford to stay in. Went back into similar lower level health care work. So same pay grade.
Audie Cornish
00:09:48
But to pause, you were on your way to being a nurse. Was that the goal?
James Cowe
00:09:53
That was always my goal and sort of the natural. It felt like the natural progression for me and something that my family sort of expected and what I wanted to do. But I just got so burnt out by the time the pandemic came around that that was just with the mask wearing on top for 12 hour shifts and all of that stuff. So Onlyfans sort of found me I guess and sort of I was looking online and on Instagram. How were other people making money? What is like a quick fix right now that I can do to move on. And I saw what other gay guys were doing. I saw how they were making money. And it was really sort of something I didn't want to do and something that scared me a little bit because I thought that's that's public and that's openly threatens explicit content publicly.
Audie Cornish
00:10:50
And there's real stigma to that, right Vanniall?
Vanniall
00:10:51
Yeah, yeah, absolutely. In any, any country or culture, the idea of taking off one's clothes for anything other than love is taboo and and shame, shame, shame. It's hard to get past that.
James Cowe
00:11:06
It's almost like you bite the bullet when you decide to do anything like this I think. You sort of go, I know what people are going to think about me. I know what they're going to say. And you sort of you weigh up the pros and the cons and you make the jump and just hope for the best.
Audie Cornish
00:11:21
Is it sex work? James?
James Cowe
00:11:25
I would say anyone who creates fully explicit content and I have created stuff with other people, but probably only a very small percentage of. Yes, it is. Yeah.
Audie Cornish
00:11:37
Vinyl for you. Do you believe that what you do is sex work and has anything about the last few years blurred the lines of that as more and more people embrace the idea of it?
Vanniall
00:11:47
I think people I think definitely people have thought of different ways of doing sex work that fit their comfort level. But I think what I do is total sex work, and I'm happy that it is.
Audie Cornish
00:12:01
What do you think people would say? What are you in a way, in terms of social penalty? What is it?
Vanniall
00:12:11
I can never be a teacher. If I somehow, you know, down the line feel like I want to teach, which so many people want to do. I don't think that could ever happen for me. I don't think I could ever walk into a school and give them my name and them not look it up and see me as someone that's dangerous to kids. And that that's that's probably the hardest one.
James Cowe
00:12:35
And that's a lot, actually. I felt exactly the same. I feel I'll never be a nurse.
Vanniall
00:12:40
Yeah.
James Cowe
00:12:40
For the exact same reasons and the stigma and you know one Google and you're considered this almost crazy person that you know, you can't be around vulnerable people because you're not a safe person.
Audie Cornish
00:12:56
And it's interesting, both of you came to this work in a way because of financial issues.
Vanniall
00:13:02
Mm hmm. Yeah. I was working full time at the time, just being a little retail person for four or five years and um one day, they just fired me. You know, one day that whole, like, family dynamic that I had grown to love over the last four years and that steady paycheck, which was not enough in any way, shape or form. But that steady paycheck was just gone. And you're left with what to do, where to go. How many jobs can I really apply for? I mean, I'm going to get told no before it's too much and then you just go into business for yourself, I feel. So that's what I did.
James Cowe
00:13:40
And even with that steady income like I had in health care, you know, it came in every month, but it wasn't giving me enough to have a nice life or have a life where I could sort of flourish and do what I wanted in. And looking at nurses as well who were above me, earning twice my salary, speaking to them and hearing how burnt out they were and the morale. Right. And just thinking like, why am I going to invest my life into this industry where even in the progression path, they're not happy either? It just seemed mad.
Vanniall
00:14:19
Can I ask you a question, James?
James Cowe
00:14:20
Of course, yeah.
Vanniall
00:14:21
Did they towards the pandemic or when the pandemic actually, like came to full head, was there like any raise of pay or any talk about raise of pay or how did they navigate that? Or you just say you guys are on your own.
James Cowe
00:14:36
So that was literally the last straw for me. Boris Johnson announced a 1% pay rise across the board and 1% was like, are you joking?
Vanniall
00:14:46
What?
Audie Cornish
00:14:46
And we should say this is for the National Health Service you're working for, because for US, audience are used to private kind of privatized health care. But there the Prime Minister could say there is going to be a pay raise.
James Cowe
00:14:58
So yeah, so the context I was earning £1,100 a month after tax, three days a week, 12 hour shifts a week. That's what I was earning at the end of every month. And when I was offered a 1% pay increase on that, I was just like, That's nothing.
Audie Cornish
00:15:16
You know, one of the reasons why I wanted to do this story is because you often see news headlines that imply that this is hitting some kind of lottery, getting into this kind of work, using this subscriber model, so to speak. So, like a typical one I found in the New York Post was "How these athletes are using only fans to cash in from feed pics to Olympic dreams," like, that's very common, right? Like this person made a milion dollars overnight. What's the reality?
Vanniall
00:15:46
The reality is you're working all day, every day. Because you're working for yourself. There's, like, no one there to push your product, which is you, to anybody besides you- like you have to be in people's faces, in people's atmosphere all the time in order for them to even think about spending $5 on your subscription. And that's a lot of work. That's a ton of work. And it does not equal a million bucks overnight. In any way.
Audie Cornish
00:16:14
And I love that you said the product is you. I mean, when it comes to the digital space, the product is always you. In a way. I mean, even if you're not in sex work, am I overstepping there or?
James Cowe
00:16:25
I agree. I think it's across all industries. I think if you're self-employed, you have that responsibility to show up and be everywhere all the time. I think what the difference might be there is that when you feel, you've taken this gamble and this risk to jump into something like Onlyfans your job is like, I have to make this work to survive now because to find another job from here or to do something else is going to be a lot harder than it was for me before I made this decision. Yeah. So I think to be in everyone's faces all the time, it's like that looming pressure of like, I will make this a success. I am going to make this work. Yeah.
Audie Cornish
00:17:05
Tell me how much you made the moment you realize, hey, I could make a living this way.
James Cowe
00:17:11
In the first two days I made, it was something like three or four thousand in the first two days.
Audie Cornish
00:17:18
Okay, Vanniall's eyes just popped open.
Vanniall
00:17:20
That's crazy.
Audie Cornish
00:17:21
James is saying a pretty big number. Vanniall, I don't know if you can recall maybe the year or month when you joined. I mean, what what was the number that made you go, oh, okay.
Vanniall
00:17:31
Okay. So when I started, I was still kind of a nobody and I sort of built my Onlyfans along with building a lot of my social media. So it started from pretty much kind of bare minimum. But when I really started noticing that it was real money, it was when it started to reach about 10k a month.
Audie Cornish
00:17:46
And what year was this.
Vanniall
00:17:47
Earlier this year.
Audie Cornish
00:17:49
Okay, okay.
Vanniall
00:17:49
Yeah.
Audie Cornish
00:17:50
Tell me about what you do in terms of your content to give people a sense of what your day is like.
James Cowe
00:17:57
Yeah, I mean, every day is different. I mean, one day, you know, I'm waking up, I'm going to be a Nan, and spending like 40 quid on candles to light up and dress up as the Sandman from Netflix, you know? But I'm doing a naked version of that. And then another day it could be something completely more normal and natural where it's just me being so low, just completely naked with nothing on.
Vanniall
00:18:21
Yeah.
Audie Cornish
00:18:21
Yeah, yeah. Whereas for you, Vanniall before this, I mean, you consider yourself a porn performer. I mean-
Vanniall
00:18:27
Mhhm
Audie Cornish
00:18:28
You've won awards for it, right? So. What what is the kind of model? Like figuring out, for instance, pricing ?
Vanniall
00:18:35
So I like mainlined a lot of my things and I've taken from the advertisers of yesteryear and how they get things done.
Audie Cornish
00:18:44
Ooh, tell me more.
Audie Cornish
00:18:45
First of all, I don't base anything- I don't price anything, any subscription over $10. I think people have an impulse threshold and anything over $10, they have to really think about. Anything they have to think about, they are probably just going to click away. And I've like mainlined my day to where I'll get up and I go on Chatterbate for about 3 hours.
Audie Cornish
00:19:05
Is that like- it's like a carousel site? No.
Vanniall
00:19:09
No, not really.
Audie Cornish
00:19:10
I'm mixing it up with something else.
Vanniall
00:19:12
Yeah, it's a campaign.
Audie Cornish
00:19:15
By the way, this is why it's so hard to report on this, because, like, as a journalist, there's this moment where you're like, "Am I supposed to admit or not admit that I might know what any given thing is?"
Vanniall
00:19:26
Exactly! I know exactly what you're talking about.
Audie Cornish
00:19:28
Yeah, but it gets at the idea of social stigma because it's how is it possible to talk about this? Right. Because when you talk about it, it's exactly what you said. You have a what about the children thing that kicks in?
Vanniall
00:19:42
Right!
Audie Cornish
00:19:43
Right now, Onlyfans is in the middle of fighting with the UK Government about new legislation precisely because of reports of images of kids on the site.
Vanniall
00:19:54
Yeah.
James Cowe
00:19:55
This is really interesting.
Audie Cornish
00:19:56
Yeah. Do you want to jump in, James? Because I mean, you're probably reading about this.
James Cowe
00:19:59
Yeah, this is really interesting because as a creator, I think, you know, you're always worried about who's going to see this stuff. I don't want to cause harm. I don't want anyone who's not supposed to see it to see it. And since I've been on the platform for 2 years, Onlyfans, they've always, always ID checked. They've always required passport or driving license to check ages. We know that, you know, some kids can steal their dad's driving license and get on, which was the issue I think we're facing in the UK. Which I agree with, you know. I feel like these kids needs to be protected. So do we as creators, you know, engaging with people we don't know, who they are. We need to know for our safety.
Audie Cornish
00:20:45
And it's real because the banking industry obviously has to deal with a lot of regulations around exploitation and trafficking and things like that. So there is a lot of policing of this industry and so companies are nervous. Can you talk about how this has affected your lives as creators?
Vanniall
00:21:07
Gosh, I'd be- I would be I'd be lying if I said I wasn't nervous. To be a sex worker means you have to have a bank. You have to have have a place to put the money. And there is no bank that thinks that sex work is okay. There has not been a bank- there is not going to be a bank, because sex work, to them just equals exploitation and it equals something harmful. It's something bad.
James Cowe
00:21:32
Yeah. And it is this is so frustrating that, you know, all these organizations that basically run the world are throwing us under the bus.
Vanniall
00:21:40
Yeah. I know a lot of people who have gotten their entire accounts just frozen and their money just gone.
James Cowe
00:21:46
Yeah, yeah. But I pay taxes and I'm doing a job that doesn't hurt anyone.
Vanniall
00:21:52
Right.
James Cowe
00:21:53
Why? Why should these banks have a say on something that they clearly don't know anything about?
Audie Cornish
00:22:00
James, for you, you got into this work- I mean, you left nursing essentially, or your aspirations of nursing, and you got into this work in part for financial reasons. So, I mean, again, what are your worries? Right, like that- it sounds like there's a vulnerability there.
James Cowe
00:22:18
Yeah. I didn't know much about this industry. I knew more about social media and sort of how I was getting this engagement and how am I going to monetize this engagement that I'm getting. So once I jumped to Onlyfans, you know, all of this was a huge learning curve about sex work, about the censorship and what we can and can't do. And and I was quite emotional because I was scared as well. And I think that all of this all of this that's happened afterwards, it's just been a lot for me to take in. The mental health strain, the worries about the financial and the long term stuff. It's probably stuff I should have thought about, but I didn't. And I'm still making sort of, hey, what's the sun shining, so I'm not going to complain. But, you know, for how long? I don't think any of us know.
Audie Cornish
00:23:07
And Vanniall, I feel like you see this as your professional work, right? Like you didn't take it lightly.
Vanniall
00:23:14
Yeah.
Audie Cornish
00:23:14
What is it like for you to hear that, knowing that there are many, many more Jameses is out there, right? Like people who have jumped into it, who had quote unquote, regular jobs.
Vanniall
00:23:22
I mean, I understand it. I completely see how you got from point A to point B. Do you- do you regret it at all?
James Cowe
00:23:31
No, no, no. I don't regret it because I feel like my personality fits in well with it. I'm getting paid the right amount of money for the time I'm putting in. When before I wasn't. I'm not a lazy person and I'm a hard worker, but I want to be rewarded for what I give, and I feel onlyfans does that.
Audie Cornish
00:23:53
I think that's what's interesting about this moment in time, because sex and the Internet have been kind of grown up together in a lot of ways, right, when it comes to the Internet, sex has always been there. But it's hard not to hear in both of you the interest in having control over your own lives. And people do often think of adult entertainment as fundamentally exploitive.
Vanniall
00:24:17
Mm hmm.
Audie Cornish
00:24:18
But you're both talking about it like you have a kind of control.
Vanniall
00:24:22
Yeah, its definitely what I use to wrangle my life back together. Because if there was not that constant money or was not that constant creative outlet, even, I don't know what I would have done for that year.
Audie Cornish
00:24:36
Yeah. And even for James, it's like a safe, so to speak, path. It doesn't sound like you would do this work if you didn't have a safe, financially stable way of on ramping on to it.
James Cowe
00:24:52
Yeah. It's just taking back that control of my life and what I earn and this journey, it's given me confidence, where I didn't have. It's given me a lot.
Audie Cornish
00:25:09
That was James Cowie and Vanniall. Two content creators on Onlyfans. And that's it for this episode of The Assignment. New episodes of our show drop every Thursday, so listen and follow wherever you get your podcasts. And if you like the show, leave us a rating and a review. And one more thing. If you have an assignment for me, a story that you want to hear more about or one that is affecting your community, give us a call. You can leave a voicemail at 202854 8802 or record a voice memo on your phone and email it to us at theassignmentcnn@gmail.com. The assignment is a production of CNN Audio. Our producers are Madeleine Thompson, Jennifer Lai, Isoke Samuel, Alison Park, Lori Galarreta and Sonia Tan. Our senior producer is Haley Thomas and our supervising producer is Steve Lickteig. Mixing and Sound Design by David Shulman. Our technical director is Dan Dzula. Abbie Swanson is our executive producer. Special thanks to Katie Hinman. I'm Audie Cornish, and thank you for listening.