When Clara thinks about balancing her business as a sex worker and her life as a nursing student, she tries to channel the Disney character Hannah Montana.
In the show, the main character Miley Stewart seems like a normal teenager, but she has a double life as pop star Hannah Montana, and Clara said keeping her own identities separate is the key.
“Hannah Montana,” said Clara, 20, who asked to keep her last name private over concerns about discrimination. “Best of both worlds, but you keep them separate. You don’t mix business with pleasure.”
Clara, who goes to college in Florida, was working in the university hospital as a patient care assistant until she said at least a dozen nurses caught the coronavirus, and the hospital changed staffing, leaving Clara without a job. Without a paycheck and bills to pay, she decided to open an account on OnlyFans, a site known for homemade pornography. It’s been a hectic couple of months for Clara, and even with the TV character in the back of her head, she said it’s still been a challenge to manage it all.
“I feel like I’m walking on a tightrope with being blindfolded while holding two pounds of oranges... No matter where I’m going, I’m either going to fall to the right or to the left, but I have to keep going straight,” she said.
Clara is a first-generation American, the daughter of immigrants from Peru, and she’s determined to use what she describes as the skills God gave her — a good brain, the ability to work hard, and an ease with people — to make her parents proud and show people that she’s going somewhere. Sex work wasn’t part of her plan, but it’s helping her stay on the path to where she wants to go so long as she can just hold on to the oranges.
“[I’m the kind of person] who thinks the whole world is watching, and what I’m doing with OnlyFans, in a way it’s true, said Clara. “It’s the future that holds me down, and then expectations, making sure I don’t disappoint anyone. What’s going to happen now? You know.”
Stories of young women paying their way through school with sex work are nothing new, but in the seven months since the WHO declared the coronavirus to be a pandemic, online sex work — often left out of discussions of ride-hailing and food delivery apps — has become an increasingly mainstream facet of the gig economy, and people like Clara say the risks are worth it to keep themselves afloat.
“At the end of the day, nobody is paying my rent for me, nobody’s gonna pay my car insurance, my phone bill, my cat food. Nothing,” she said. “So I have to do it. And it’s been so helpful.”
In the spring, when cities across the country were cheering each night to celebrate healthcare workers as heroes, Michelle Bleimeyer was fired from her job as a home-care nurse.
Bleimeyer, 33, had been working for the family in western Massachusetts for about a year. She said she wasn’t exactly sure why she’d been fired, but the dynamic had changed when the parents started working from home.
“One was an office manager and the other was an accountant... I think that was part of the problem. I think they were both a little bit on edge from working from home, and that’s part of the reason why I got canned,” she said.
Bleimeyer got her nursing degree in 2009, and said it was hard to find a job in the aftermath of the Great Recession. “I was panicking because my student loans were coming due, and I wound up really liking [home care],” she said.
Bleimeyer had also been enrolled in a master’s degree program in midwifery earlier this year, but failed a test around the same time she was fired. She was already struggling with depression and anxiety, so she decided it was time to take a break. She knew about OnlyFans from Twitter and decided to open an account when she realized the money she was getting from unemployment wasn’t enough to live on.
In many ways, this is how sex work has always functioned. “People who were not sex workers started using OnlyFans and became sex workers due to losing their other jobs during COVID-19. So, again you see sex work, as it often is, as a sort of gig of last resort for people,” said sex worker rights advocate Kate Zen. “This is the way it’s always been. Not just during this pandemic. For a lot of the people ... sex work is not necessarily their only occupation, or the main occupation even, it’s this emergency source of informal income that they can get when they’re in a bind.”
But OnlyFans, which has been around since 2016 and was a popular source of alternative income for porn performers and other sex workers before the pandemic, has grown rapidly as shutdowns force people to stay home and the US faces massive unemployment. It has attracted mainstream attention from celebrities likes Beyoncé and Bella Thorne, and many more people like Bleimeyer and Clara who had not done sex work before.
The site is a subscription platform that allows content creators to post paywalled photos and videos, chat with subscribers, and receive tips. While the content on the site is not all pornography, that is what it’s most well known for.
Bleimeyer, who is unabashed and frank about the ups and downs in her life, said that so far the experience has been better than she expected. She posts lingerie photos, nudes, and some videos, and when she chats with subscribers through messages, she says they have been more polite than she expected.
“Actually they ask before they send their dick pics. It has been a very lovely experience,” she said. “That’s what I was most surprised by.”
While the notion of sex work itself may be new to many users, Clara and others said posting on the site didn’t feel like a huge leap because the content is not that different from what they’re already posting on Twitter or Instagram.
Mia, 32, who was 8 months pregnant when she lost her job as a certified nursing assistant at a nursing home in South Carolina in April, said it seemed obvious to make money off the pictures she was already posting.
Mia, who asked to go by the name she uses on her OnlyFans account for privacy reasons, is not romantically involved with the baby’s father at this point, and she said she posts provocative pictures on Twitter or Instagram. “I guess to just garner attention and get people’s curiosity going, like ‘OK, I see what she’s doing over there,’” she said.
Mia had some money saved, plus the stimulus money and her tax refund, and that was enough to survive on for a couple of months. But when she learned that a friend was making a lot of money on the platform, she figured: why not?
“I already post borderline explicit content on my social media, so why not get paid for it?” she said.
At a time of incredible financial precarity, some of the women who spoke to BuzzFeed News said that staying out of debt was also a priority. Student loan payments were paused through September, but federal reserve officials have warned for years that the level of student debt in the US, which ballooned after the Great Recession, is unsustainable, and young women like Clara have taken that seriously.
When Clara was unable to work at the hospital, she said people suggested she take out loans like other students, but she has heard horror stories from older nurses at the hospital about how much they’re still paying on loans, and she wants nothing to do with that.
“As soon as I graduate, I’m going to owe so much more money than the original loan ... for a shitty apartment?” she said. She also said she would have a higher payment because of her parents’ poor credit, and that it just wasn’t worth it. “I’ve struggled financially my whole life and I don’t want the burden of, you know, trying to buy a house, and I’m like, ‘Aw shit, I have to pay my loan from five years ago.’”
Nikki, another nursing student who is based in Detroit and also asked to go by the name she uses on her OnlyFans account for privacy reasons, had a similar perspective.
Nikki decided to go back to school for a nursing program in May, after dropping out of college a few years ago when she got injured in a lacrosse game. She said she’s always wanted to be a nurse, but the tuition fees are based on her father’s salary even though he’s not paying for school.
“I’ve heard nothing but bad things about student loans... I just don’t do the payments. I never have, I never really want to,” she said. “I think it’s stupid to pay extra for something I could just pay for now and pay less. Interest is crazy on school loans especially.”
Like other gig economy jobs, OnlyFans takes a cut of content creators’ pay — 20% — and offers no benefits to people making a living on the platform. But while many workers for companies like Uber and DoorDash said they had been worse off during the pandemic, Nikki — who was working as an Uber driver before she started on OnlyFans — said making money from online sex work has made her life easier.
Nikki enrolled in an accelerated nursing program this spring, and said managing the workload has been intense.
“I’m in an accelerated program on top of everything so I’m at a fast pace. It’s just so crazy to balance that and work,” she said. “It’s like four years in one...They just throw everything at you all at once. We were doing 4 chapters every class. We had two exams a week, it was just so much.”
She said she prefers the work on OnlyFans because it gives her more time to study.
“I’ve definitely not had to do Uber as much, so I’m home more, which helps with studying because I can study and be on OnlyFans at the same time,” she said. “I’m not out driving all the time. It’s easier just doing like one thing instead of being out and about all the time. It’s made my life a lot easier.”
Mia, similarly, said she’s using the money she makes on OnlyFans to supplement her savings while she pursues a nursing degree.
Mia decided to pursue work as a certified nursing assistant after caring for her grandfather, who had Alzheimer’s disease, and she had been doing the work for nine years before she was laid off in April.
“I used to care for my grandad back in 2011. When he passed away, my boyfriend at the time was saying, ‘You know you could go to school for this type of stuff,’” she said. “I [was] basically trying to fill that void because I had spent almost two years every day taking care of him because he lived next door to me.”
She said she’s always wanted to pursue a nursing degree, but between work and family obligations there had never been enough time. Since she’s only working about two hours a day on OnlyFans right now, she’s using the extra time to enroll in a nursing program.
“The plan [now] is to go from CNA [certified nursing assistant] to LPN [licensed practical nurse] to RN [registered nurse]… you know, life got in the way, I had a couple of children, the work schedule can be demanding,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to be a nurse since I was a teenager, but never took the time to apply myself.”
While some of the newcomers during the pandemic say they only plan to be on the site temporarily, Mia said she’s intending to stay on even after she gets her nursing degree.
“I’m gonna continue doing it [once I get my LPN],” she said. “If I promote myself every day for a year, it has to get somewhere, it has to take off at some point. I want to see the earning potential behind it.”
The promotion work is no small task. OnlyFans doesn’t have a main page for viewers to discover new accounts to follow, so content creators must build a following and advertise through other social media accounts.
Bleimeyer said she had picked up tips on how to use OnlyFans through groups on the encrypted chat app Telegram and in conversations on Twitter, and Nikki said she’s been learning online too.
Nikki has only been on the platform for a couple of weeks, and said she was nervous about what to post at first. Would it be too explicit? Not enough? Weird in some way? But she’s been googling and got the hang of it from watching other people’s accounts.
“I honestly watch YouTube videos and I search the internet. It’s like studying,” said Nikki.
She also joined Reddit groups and learned about financial domination, a sexual fetish where submissives give money or gifts to their master, on Twitter. She didn’t know anything about it, but it seemed like the best way to make money on OnlyFans, so she did some research.
She said it was a little strange at first, but she has 58 “slaves” now, and it’s paying off. “It’s worth it though. I mean, I’ll wake up some mornings and — this morning I woke up to a $100 Cash App just because,” she said, laughing in amazement. “That’s just one of my slaves. He pays me $100 every time he gets paid.”
The influx of newcomers to OnlyFans has created issues for more experienced sex workers who were already using the platform, or who joined after in-person work became untenable in the spring. Referral bonuses were cut in May because so many new users had joined, and rates for pay-per-view messages and tips were capped in August.
The changes have led to growing suspicion that a platform made popular by sex workers is once again abandoning them. But Zen said most of the experienced sex workers she had spoken with were still able to make good money on the platform despite their misgivings, and were primarily worried that the growing attention to the platform would lead to attempts by sex work abolitionists — who often frame their arguments in terms of the anti–sex trafficking movement — to shut it down. One woman, Zen said, told her “she feels like it’s only a matter of time before the anti-trafficking bandwagon is going to jump on it. So, her main concern is ‘How do I make as much money as I can on this platform that’s being good to me right now before the bubble bursts and it becomes bad again?’”
While the increasing numbers of people using OnlyFans indicates some degree of widespread acceptance for online sex work, the work is still heavily stigmatized, and Heather Berg, an assistant professor at Washington University in St. Louis, said the increased visibility of the platform has also produced a backlash.
“The expected answer is that OnlyFans is mainstreaming, and I think that's partially true,” Berg told BuzzFeed News via email in response to a question about growing acceptance of the platform. “But increased visibility has brought intensified pushback as much as it has more mainstream acceptance. We're seeing increased online harassment from incels and concern trolling from anti-sex worker feminists and conservatives.”
Bleimeyer said she had faced harassment online before she started the OnlyFans account, but that it’s gotten significantly worse.
“It’s different than just being a woman online, because that’s its own special harassment,” said Bleimeyer. “You’re more quickly discounted, you’re just written off immediately to some people.”
Clara said she had had similar experiences, especially when discussing politics.
“It makes me really mad,” said Clara. As a patient care assistant, she said, “I’ve seen people die, I’ve seen people not being able to breathe. I’ve seen coworkers wondering when we’re going to have more people working because the workload has gotten so bad … I've seen it all, and it’s just insane when people try to bring me down, saying like, ‘Oh why are you talking, you know nothing.’ And it’s actually like, ‘Dude, I do.’ I know a lot.”
While Bleimeyer is open about her work on OnlyFans — “If I’m going to be a midwife, it’s kind of along the same lines” — the other women who spoke to BuzzFeed News said they felt they had to keep at least some elements of their work a secret because they feared judgment or consequences at work.
“Going into nursing and OnlyFans is not really a great mix. You can get in trouble for that,” Nikki said, adding that she believed it was possible to lose your license. “I’m very wary about it. I don’t want to ever lose my license if I go to school and pay all this money.”
For Clara, the experience has created a distance with her classmates that she said is hard to overcome. “I feel isolated from a lot of the students. I feel that if they were to find out — a lot of them do know, and they’re OK with it — but I feel like if other people know, they’re going to get a bad idea of me.”
Zen said it was too early to tell whether the growing numbers of online sex workers will mean anything for sex worker rights. She also cautioned that such discussions in the context of OnlyFans are limited because they focus on a legal form of sex work, but she thought it was hopeful that people were using the term “sex worker” more openly.
Clara has gone back to work in the hospital again and was doing sex work alongside her work as a patient care assistant, but she tested positive for COVID-19 after working with a patient who had it last week and is stuck at home again while she and her boyfriend recover.
She said the experience of working both jobs has been eye-opening.
“Just because I’m someone who’s basically a cam girl doesn’t mean that I deserve less than anybody else. People have to stop being so judgmental. We’re in hard times right now. The way people choose to support themselves is their own business,” she said.
“If it’s not hurting you, then why is it such a big deal?” ●