They Fixed Pornography

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Every day, hundreds of men pay Dannii Harwood to enact their sexual fantasies and boost their self-esteem. Sometimes her clothes come off. Sometimes she dresses up as a nurse or a dominatrix.

If a guy is a regular customer, she likely knows his birthday, the names of his children and his pets — even when to call after a surgical procedure.

He may pay her to help him achieve an orgasm, though she is not a prostitute. He may purchase erotic videos from her, though she is not a porn star.

Ms. Harwood is one of the top earners on OnlyFans, where subscribers — mostly male; straight, gay and beyond — pay models and social media influencers a fee, generally $5 to $20 a month, to view a feed of imagery too racy for Instagram. With that access, subscribers can also direct message and “tip” to get pictures or videos created on demand, according to their sexual tastes.

Models who join the site often presume that their subscribers will increase in number if they post more often and make the content more explicit. The “more often” part is true. The “more explicit” part is not.

At a time when anyone with a smartphone or small studio can become his or her own pornographer, and content is often free, the hottest site in the adult entertainment industry is dominated by providers who show fewer sex acts and charge increasing fees depending on how creative the requests get.

That’s the first paradox at the center of the OnlyFans phenomenon.

The most popular OnlyFans personality is Jem Wolfie, of Perth, Australia.

She can’t help but laugh when people call her a “fitness model.” As she noted in an interview, “70 percent of my fans are men.” So the bulk of them aren’t looking for exercise tips, although she may provide them, for an added fee (along with healthy recipes — she used to be a chef).

According to OnlyFans, she has 10,000 subscribers who pay $10 a month for access to a feed in which she shows off her Kardashianesque proportions, squatting in really tight leggings and squeezing her breasts together, strategically covering her nipples. “I’m a thick girl,” she said matter-of-factly.

It doesn’t go much further than that.

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Matthew Camp at his home in Hudson, N.Y.CreditMatt Grubb for The New York Times

“Basically, OnlyFans is online go-go dancing,” said Matthew Camp, a 34-year-old model on the men’s side who broke into the business a decade ago writhing on platforms around downtown Manhattan for the party promoter Susanne Bartsch.

If the four main quadrants of the gay approval matrix were daddy, twink, bear and boy next door, he seemed to sit smack in the center, not falling neatly into any of those categories but appealing to the potential audiences for each.

With a G-string and a strobe light, he could make as much as $1,000 on a good night. Porn studios like Lucas Entertainment began calling.

Mr. Camp was intrigued. “Having sex for money is appealing,” he said. But $1,000 seemed low for something that would sit on the internet and brand him for life as a porn star.

So he turned them down and instead used a PG-13 feed on Instagram to build a following of more than half a million. About a year ago, as the club scene continued its slow death, he moved to Hudson, N.Y., and signed up for OnlyFans.

Weeks often went by without him posting a single picture or video. He didn’t show a full penetrative sex clip for the first nine months, yet he still regularly took home more than $10,000 a month.

“Tumblr was filled with the most extreme sexual experiences you could see,” he said. “And I think a lot of people were turned off by that. It’s not what they’re looking for. They want more intimate experiences. They want a boyfriend experience. They want to fantasize about someone that they want to have sex with and not feel disgusted by it.”

From the late 1990s to the early 2000s, dreamers in the porn industry, centered in the San Fernando Valley of California, openly described their multi-million-dollar futures in the business. There was actually a history of this happening, at least for a small number of models signed to lucrative long-term contracts with studios like Vivid and Wicked.

They could make north of $5,000 a scene and shoot a couple of those each week, according to Brian Gross, a well-known industry publicist. That income could be supplemented with five-figure sums doing nightclub appearances around the country on the weekends, he said.

Jenna Jameson — the Julia Roberts of straight porn — even parlayed her notoriety into a memoir released by HarperCollins, “How to Make Love Like a Porn Star: A Cautionary Tale,” which was a New York Times best seller. The title turned out to be eerily prescient. As its publisher, Judith Regan, pointed out: “Porn went the way of all media.” It turns out, everyone could do it.

Except that because porn was an industry of people already living on the margins of society, the effects for the performers were in many ways worse.

The primary culprits were so-called tube sites: YouTube-like platforms that aggregated stolen pornographic content, disseminated it for free and sucked up revenue from banner and video ads.

Jem WolfieCreditLauren Fleishman for The New York Times

Since porn studios did not have the capital or political connections to sue their most threatening adversaries out of business (as the record industry did), rates for scene work dropped. Fewer scenes were shot overall. Eventually, the studios began selling themselves to the tube sites at fire-sale prices.

It was as if the entire music business had been subsumed by Napster.

By 2015, a handful of companies were able to exert monopolistic control over the industry. MindGeek is the biggest player of all. The crown jewel of its empire is Pornhub (perhaps the most popular tube site in the world), which is supplied with content from numerous in-house production companies of the straight (Brazzers.com, Reality Kings) and gay varieties (SeanCody, Men.com).

MindGeek knows all about porn habits by doing comprehensive data analysis. It has shown less of an affinity for the product or the people who appear in it.

The MindGeek website makes no reference to the fact that the overwhelming majority of its customers are consumers of hard-core pornography.

The technocrats who built the company got rich. Many of the performers who helped enable their success became prostitutes, offering their services on websites like RentMen.com and The Erotic Review when scene work ceased to be a viable way to make a living.

It’s a fitting but unfortunate parable in an era of rampant economic inequality.

“If you have a known name, it’s much easier to market your services,” said Dirk Caber, a porn star who has filmed close to 40 scenes for MindGeek’s most popular gay site, Men.com, since 2013. Most of his income comes from his work as an escort, because this scene work pays so little.

“The whole industry did a 180,” Mr. Gross said. “When I started, there were actually websites that would out famous porn stars if they escorted, because it was shocking, for lack of a better word. Now, all talent is looked at as if they are escorts, and those who aren’t have to come out and say so.”

One alternative to escorting is webcamming. In England, there are even TV stations, like Playboy and Babestation, on which models talk live with thousands of customers and earn several hundred dollars a day.

That’s what Ms. Harwood did before OnlyFans came along.

She grew up in Wales, with a mother who stocked supermarket shelves and a father who was a factory worker.

It was a “typical working-class” household, she said recently, while on a vacation in New York that included a trip to the 9/11 memorial and the taking of many hotel room selfies.

As a little girl, Ms. Harwood was a relentless attention seeker, the sort who appeared in school plays, competed in beauty pageants and studied dance. She also had reservoirs of empathy that would serve her well later in life.

She could spot pain in others and find ways to make them feel better. She also was capable of identifying her limitations and finding ways to chart new paths for herself. “I was raised well,” she said.

She studied dance at Laine Theatre Arts, a prestigious drama and dance college near London. Then, “I went to audition after audition,” she said. “Eventually, I realized I wasn’t good enough. And it was quite hard to accept at first.”

Around 2005, Ms. Harwood posed topless on Page 3 of The Daily Sport, a second-tier British newspaper that she said “was popular with day laborers and construction workers.”

This apparently included the guys her father worked with.

One morning, he went into work and saw the picture of his daughter plastered to his locker.

On her face, his colleagues had drawn his mustache and glasses. That’s how he found out she was modeling nude. That’s why he warned her about being disowned.

Ms. Harwood felt terrible. Although she likes taking off her clothes for other people, she seems driven less by the desire to transgress than the desire to please. If she were reincarnated as a Disney character, she’d be Jessica Rabbit, not Miss Piggy.

But it wasn’t like her father had the money to support her. His warning was sort of an empty threat. So she kept going, with appearances in Playboy and British so-called laddie magazines.

Dannii HarwoodCreditMolly Matalon for The New York Times

In 2011, Ms. Harwood worked for a soft-core site called GlamGirls and became friendly with its owner, Tim Stokely, an earnest technocrat who looks like Mark Zuckerberg by way of Savile Row. Soon after, Mr. Stokely founded a site called Customs4U, which Ms. Harwood said, lightheartedly, may have been her idea and was like OnlyFans in beta.

The pitch was to offer horny guys the ability to become their own directors, ordering specially made videos from their favorite models.

It sputtered along while Instagram — which is free and doesn’t allow full nudity — took off. Then Mr. Stokely had his light bulb moment: Why not find a way for influencers to directly monetize their content. The platform — OnlyFans — would be similar to Instagram or Twitter except fans would have to pay a monthly subscription to view influencers’ content and interact with them.

It would therefore be a natural bolt-on to the influencer’s existing social media. A free feed on Instagram or Twitter could promote and drive traffic to the subscription-only feed on OnlyFans.

Eighty percent of the fees collected for each feed would go to the provider. Twenty percent would go to OnlyFans (although after merchant and processing fees, Mr. Stokely says its take is around 12 percent). This is roughly the same arrangement Uber has with its drivers, except that OnlyFans didn’t push performers toward poverty by dictating the prices they could charge.

When OnlyFans started, in 2016, Ms. Harwood was one of just 10 models who sought subscribers. She didn’t think much would come of it initially. Her earnings for the first month were $257.

Then, the site added features enabling models to create custom content. Ms. Harwood got inventive.

She introduced themed days like Mistress Mondays and Dare Dannii Tuesdays, when men bid to watch her drive around town in her underwear and order a pizza to her home, whereupon she would answer the door naked. She also chatted with fans daily, learning their habits, their sexual predilections and their insecurities.

“You can get porn for free,” she said. “Guys don’t want to pay for that. They want the opportunity to get to know somebody they’ve seen in a magazine or on social media. I’m like their online girlfriend.”

Ms. Harwood took out her phone and showed evidence of her theory.

She brought home $29,420.47 in August, $34,303.24 in September, $52,693.29 in October and $52,760.49 in November.

Although OnlyFans has brilliantly capitalized off the life’s work of exhibitionists, it is run by people whose most apparent trait is opacity.

That’s the second paradox at the center of its existence.

There is no website for Fenix International Limited, which is the parent company of OnlyFans. It does have a publicist, Daniel Blythe, who largely helps the men behind it avoid interviews.

When I first contacted Mr. Blythe, in November, informing him of my intention to write about OnlyFans, he was affable as could be for a man with no intention of disclosing the names of his clients, much less submitting them to an interview.

When I did discover Mr. Stokely’s name and portions of his back story, with a little help from someone on Reddit, Mr. Blythe offered the warmest of congratulations. “Refreshing to know that investigative journalism isn’t dead,” he said.

Still, the best he could offer were written responses to questions for Mr. Stokely, the company’s chief executive. The answers were maddeningly vague, but Mr. Stokely did say that he works at Fenix with his father, Guy Stokely, who, before becoming its chairman, was an investment banker with Barclays, the storied British bank.

Mr. Stokely also confirmed that one of Fenix’s directors is Leo Radvinsky, a 2003 Northwestern University graduate who went on to start MyFreeCams (one of the industry’s largest chat sites) and who has been a defendant in three lawsuits related to phishing attempts and patent infringement. (Mr. Blythe said he could not comment on the status of those lawsuits because they “do not pertain to OnlyFans.”)

Mr. Stokely is eager to take OnlyFans out of the pornography niche and make it a platform for all sorts of influencers and audiences.

One hurdle is that there is no iPhone app. The platform as it exists now likely runs afoul of Apple’s restrictions on “overtly sexual or pornographic material.” And even if Apple did allow an OnlyFans app, the fees — 30 percent — would certainly be a problem, Mr. Stokely said. He would have to pass along those expenses to performers.

Technical problems on OnlyFans also threaten its longevity and help explain why synonymous sites, such as JustFor.Fans, have managed to siphon off considerable numbers of performers and revenue.

Still, Chanel Santini, a 21-year-old performer who has been with OnlyFans for more than a year and earns at least $8,000 a month in subscription revenue, can’t muster serious complaints.

Not when she experienced the alternative.

She grew up in Albuquerque with a single mother who was a hairdresser. Ms. Santini came out as transgender when she was a teenager. That got her thrown out of the house. She never finished high school.

In 2015, Ms. Santini moved to Las Vegas and took a job as a clerk at Hollister, the clothing chain. Even in a city with a fairly low cost of living, it wasn’t enough.

So she started doing porn, filming scenes that paid as little as $400, which then led to escorting. She worked for a madam who stole her money, she said, and threatened her with violence.

With popular feeds on Instagram and Twitter, Ms. Santini’s name got bigger. OnlyFans started and she signed up.

A couple of weeks ago, she burst into tears over the phone while recalling her first pornographic shoot. There, a director had told her that the only way to make a living in porn was to also be a prostitute.

“He said that straight to my face,” she said. “Now, I just want to run into him again, so I can say, ‘Well, here I am. I’m pulling in tens of thousands of dollars every month just posting content online. I don’t have to escort anymore. I don’t have to do that. Guess you were wrong!’”

More on the changing economics of porn:
‘Who Gets to Be Sexy?’
Technology has made it possible for just about anyone to shoot, direct and star in their own porn films. Women are leading the new guard.

Virtual Reality Gets Naughty
With 240-degree views, headsets and “sweet, musty scents,” a new kind of pornography offers a realism that is exciting to some, disturbing to others.

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