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On a recent Zoom call, while discussing her work as an adult-content creator on OnlyFans, Cherie DeVille burst into tears. She explained that one of her most loyal subscribers, Simon, had died a few months before.
DeVille had formed a relationship with Simon on the subscription platform for two years, chatting with him regularly — often daily. She helped him bring his sexual fantasies to life but also discussed his everyday life, his hobbies, and his terminal cancer diagnosis.
“He’d request videos of us saying, ‘Fuck cancer, we love you,'” DeVille said, referring to herself and other creators Simon interacted with on the platform.
In May last year, a few months had gone by without hearing from him. DeVille searched for him on Google and found out he’d died.
“It was just terrible,” she said. “I’d never cried over a fan before.”
DeVille, who’s in her 40s, has been a mainstream porn actor for over a decade. She joined OnlyFans when work ground to a halt during the pandemic, and now she spends most of her time on the platform chatting with fans.
“OnlyFans is really different; it’s really real,” she said, comparing it to her other adult-content work. “You get to know people.”
That sentiment appears widespread: Nine of the 10 OnlyFans creators Business Insider spoke with for this story said they’d had long-term digital relationships with fans that extended well beyond sexuality. Some call it a “girlfriend experience” and charge top dollar, while others treat them more like friendships. Many said they believed these connections were what set OnlyFans apart from other porn-focused platforms.
“They can go to Pornhub and get naked people and sexual videos,” Rae Richmond, another content creator, said. “They don’t come to OnlyFans for that. They come to OnlyFans to make a connection with the creator.”
As a married medical executive in his 60s, Walter’s not necessarily the type of person you’d expect to spend time on the platform. And when he chats with Farrah, an OnlyFans creator, things rarely get sexual. Instead, Farrah is a confidante on anything from parenting stress and relationship matters to his favorite NFL team.
“There are certain things that I shared with her, certain emotional things, that I probably wouldn’t share with other people, that I certainly haven’t shared with my family,” said Walter, who asked to use a pseudonym to protect his privacy — as did the other fans referenced in this story.
Walter’s decision to turn to OnlyFans comes at a time when researchers have found people around the globe are feeling more isolated and lonelier. A Meta-Gallup survey published in October found that 24% of responding adults felt very or fairly lonely.
Men, in particular, seem to show difficulties forming deep relationships. In a Pew survey published last year, 63% of responding men under 30 said they were single, while only 34% of responding women in that age group described themselves the same way. In another 2023 Pew study, responding women of all ages reported they were more likely to talk to their close friends about personal subjects such as family, health, and work.
OnlyFans has become a place for users — the majority of whom are men — to fill their emotional needs. Many creators on the platform aren’t just selling photos and videos; they’re selling connections. “Microtransactions” — such as pay-per-message chatting or custom content — pay-per-view videos, and tips account for over 50% of OnlyFans’ revenue, which hit over $1 billion in 2022, the last year for which data is available.
Walter, for instance, pays hundreds of dollars whenever he chats with Farrah.
While the moneymaking potential of these OnlyFans connections is clear, the impact these relationships have on the lives of paying fans is murkier.
A 2023 study found that responding men and women reported improvements in real-life relationships — including better communication, greater intimacy, and clearer boundaries — after using OnlyFans.
But some experts warn that these relationships can kickstart a downward spiral: Lonely people turn to OnlyFans in search of connection, but some can leave feeling more isolated.
“If you’re hungry and you go to the 7-Eleven, you buy a whole bag of chocolate bars and chips, is that going to fill you up? Over time, are you going to get what you need? No, of course not,” Robert Weiss, a certified sex-addiction specialist who focuses on digital intimacy, told BI. “It’s the same thing emotionally. I’m filling myself up with candy, but there’s nothing real there for me.”
Cherie DeVille at the 2023 XBIZ Awards for adult-content performers.
Albert L. Ortega/Getty Images
Creators are cashing in on conversation
Minutes after the OnlyFans creator Amber Sweetheart’s alarm goes off — before she walks her dog or heads to the gym — she grabs her phone to film personalized “good-morning” video messages for her four “boyfriends,” subscribers who’ve been chatting with her regularly, sometimes every single day, for years.
She makes a different one for each of them, talking about her plans for the morning or the weather. She continues filming short snippets throughout the day and shares them regularly, incorporating inside jokes or things she knows the fans would appreciate.
During a recent trip to Italy, when she saw an old Aston Martin, she filmed a video of it for one of her “boyfriends,” a fan of vintage cars.
“He was so happy,” she said. “It’s exactly how you’d do with someone that you are dating.”
While OnlyFans creators make money on subscriptions to see their photos and videos, they can also earn money with more individualized fare such as custom content, direct messages, and tips. Several creators told BI that interactions with fans in direct messages make up a significant portion of their income, sometimes overtaking subscriptions.
“Users want to interact,” Keily Blair, the CEO of OnlyFans, said at the Axios BFD conference in October.
Sweetheart has made well over half of the $2.6 million she’s earned on the platform since 2020 from direct messages. “The queen of sexting,” as she calls herself, spends up to eight hours a day chatting. She said she’d developed such close relationships with her “boyfriends” that she doesn’t ask them for money for daily content — they give her a spontaneous “tip” depending on their interaction with her.
Sweetheart had hundreds of thousands of subscribers on OnlyFans.
OnlyFans creator Jade Nicole has a free account with safe-for-work photos and another account — with a $14.99 a month price tag — with more explicit content. Clients pay extra to message her, unlock pay-per-view content, and receive custom content.
For $600 a month, Jade offers the “girlfriend experience”: near-constant messaging and access to her personal-cell number. Those clients pay more for custom photos and videos and can end up paying nearly $2,000 a month. Over the past two years, she’s earned more than $36,000 on OnlyFans from her “main man,” as she calls him. Nearly $25,000 of that is from messaging.
“It’s amazing that someone would pay $600 just to talk to me,” she told BI, adding that she saw increased interest during the pandemic when people were more isolated. “A lot of us creators have seen a decline in the personal-connection type stuff, but some guys are still missing that connection.”
OnlyFans creator Jade Nicole
Mark talks to the OnlyFans creator Liensue, who is known for her cosplay content, almost every day about topics ranging from his mental health to his grandmother’s illness. The conversations are sometimes the only interaction he has with another person all day.
“I don’t have many friends in real life,” he told BI. “I feel that Sue always makes extra time to take care of me, and make sure that I feel good and that I’m OK.”
While the sexual content draws many of these fans to OnlyFans, they often stick around because of their connection to creators.
OnlyFans creator Elaina St James said Tom, a married man in his 70s, has turned into a sort of pen pal for her and spent $1,200 over about a year. There’s nothing sexual about their conversations — Tom has told St James about his family and his previous health issues. She said he credited her with giving him the motivation to get fit again.
“He’s like, ‘Elaina, you don’t know what you’ve done for me. I haven’t been in this kind of shape for 20-plus years,'” St James said.
From strip clubs to phone sex, emotional intimacy has always been present
The idea of finding companionship in sex work is nothing new, and many experts said that OnlyFans is an evolution of phone-sex lines, strip clubs, and chatrooms — all places where men have sought connection.
The difference with OnlyFans, though, is the accessibility: No longer do people have to hide in bathrooms with a running faucet to call a phone-sex operator or sneak out of the house to go to a strip club.
“The more advanced the technology becomes, the more problems we see,” Weiss said.
Ronald Levant — a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Akron and the author of several books, including “The Psychology of Men and Masculinities” — pointed to a 1999 study.
In the study, “G-Strings and Sympathy: Strip Club Regulars and Male Desire,” Katherine Frank, an anthropologist, went undercover as a stripper.
“She found that her customers wanted to talk about the most anodyne things, and it was just like they were so lonely,” Levant said.
A lot of it comes down to masculine norms — specifically “normative male alexithymia,” which is characterized by difficulty in recognizing and expressing emotions. For some, it’s easier to open up on OnlyFans than it is to be vulnerable to family or friends.
“They could consider themselves above the woman because she’s a sex worker, and that enables them to feel OK about violating the masculine norms,” Levant said.
“It has to do with how boys are socialized to conform to masculine norms from a very early age,” he added. “One of the most destructive masculine norms is the norm to restrict the expression of vulnerable and caring emotions.”
The phenomenon has experts split. Some think the OnlyFans relationships help, while others think they can make people lonelier.
One 2023 study surveyed 425 OnlyFans users, who reported feeling more comfortable expressing themselves and having improved self-expression.
“They mentioned improved communication, improved knowledge of their partner/s, improved boundaries, greater intimacy, and increased flexibility and openness to new shared experiences,” said Marie Lippmann, an author of the study and an associate professor at California State University, Chico.
David, another fan of Farrah’s, said he speaks with the OnlyFans creator before going on dates for a confidence boost, or after a rough day.
“You can just reach out and then have a chat or flirt with each other, and that gets you through whatever kind of difficult day you’ve had,” he told BI.
But some experts said the relief from a platform like OnlyFans — with its transactional relationships — is a temporary Band-Aid to real-life problems, and that reliance on it can become a kind of addiction.
“They don’t know how to be intimate. They don’t know how to grow. They literally didn’t learn that,” Weiss said of some of his clients.
Liensue, an OnlyFans creator, is known for her cosplay content.
Genuine connection can be an unintended consequence for creators, too
Despite the transactional nature of OnlyFans relationships, a real sense of companionship can develop on both ends.
Liensue said she’d given out her home address to multiple fans, one of whom had made her a 10-foot-long epoxy table.
“The fans I give my address willingly are all people that I have known for years,” she said, adding that she trusts that their relationship is “built on the mutual trust of chatting every evening.”
Liensue said she considers the relationship she’s built with some of her regular chatters “a kind of friendship.” She asks them for advice about her content, talks to them about her day, and confides in them — sometimes sharing more than she does with people outside OnlyFans.
Many creators BI spoke with said that their daily interactions with subscribers had also led to bonds that transcended business transactions for them. Adult-content creators have described feeling judged for their jobs, which doesn’t happen when they talk to their subscribers.
“We are so marginalized by society,” St James said. “I’ve lost a lot of friends. I’ve lost all my family. My sisters have nothing to do with me because of what I do for a living. So we can be lonely too.”
Sweetheart said she hadn’t been on any dates since she began creating OnlyFans content over three years ago. She’s become so accustomed to interacting online that she feels it would be “weird” to date someone in real life.
“I think a lot of men would struggle with it, the money situation, the content that’s out there. I just want to save the hassle,” she said. “If I dated in real life, it would be hard to not be viewed as some sort of porn star, or a sex kitten or whatever.”
She said the emotional connections with her OnlyFans “boyfriends” are enough.
But being someone’s online — and paid — girlfriend can easily cross boundaries.
Now that Candice, a New York-based creator on OnlyFans since 2020, is making enough money on the platform to feel comfortable, she’s started to restrict clients who rely on her too much or go down dark paths.
“I have to say, ‘This isn’t healthy. I am not going to message you as much,'” she told BI. She pointed to one subscriber who often insinuated that he was dealing with major depression. “There are things I’m not equipped to handle.”
That points to what is, perhaps, the most basic reality of most of these digital affairs: at the end of the day, they’re transactional. While authentic emotion can — sometimes — be a side effect, the fan is paying for the creator’s attention.
“Who doesn’t want to be instantly adored? Instantly special?” Weiss asked. “Unless it wasn’t real.”