In late January, Bolu Okupe came out publicly on Instagram. The 27-year-old Nigerian fitness model and bodybuilder posted a photo of himself shirtless with a big smile across his face and wearing rainbow shorts, which matched the rainbow flag he held behind his head. “Yes I’m Gay AF,” he wrote in the caption. Thousands of likes and supportive comments began pouring in.
But Bolu’s own father, Nigerian politician Doyin Okupe, was quick to express his disapproval. “He knows that as a Christian and a witness for Christ (an evangelist) I am vehemently opposed to homosexuality as it runs contrary to the avowed precepts of my Chrisian faith,” Doyin said on Twitter to over 250,000 followers the next day.
Doyin’s negative reaction wasn’t unexpected. The politican previously worked as special assistant to former President Goodluck Jonathan, who signed a draconian law in 2014 criminalizing same-sex relationships in Nigeria, marking one of the most significant setbacks for LGBT rights in the region. The country continues to be a dangerous place for queer people — only 7% of Nigerians surveyed by the Pew Research Center last year said that homosexuality should be accepted by society, the lowest percentage in all the countries polled.
But despite the risks, Bolu, who moved to France in 2016 for graduate school, has continued defying his father and talking openly about his sexuality online. He even opened an online store that sells rainbow-themed apparel and decorative items like the transgender flag. And in 2019, he joined OnlyFans, a platform that allows creators to charge subscriptions for their content in exchange for a 20% cut of the revenue. It permits users to share explicit content, earning the site a reputation for porn, though Bolu himself doesn’t share full nudity.
Thousands of people like Bolu flocked to OnlyFans over the last two years, especially during the pandemic. The site handled over $2 billion in payments in 2020, according to Bloomberg, and at one point told creators that it was “growing all over the world.” That includes places like Nigeria, where OnlyFans is officially not accessible to creators who want to earn money. “When I first heard that Nigerians were starting to use OnlyFans, I was almost surprised, then I remembered that, as Nigerians, we have been conditioned to adapt,” Bolu told Rest of World. “I find it incredible. But surprised? Not anymore.”
Bolu said he joined OnlyFans because he wanted to broaden the idea of what it means to be Black and gay, and show people that you can be both queer and masculine at the same time. In the first several weeks after he started using the site, he said he earned around $2,000 (he declined to share more information about his income). “I’m an exhibitionist by nature, so I feel good doing this. When I post pictures and videos of my Black, gay, muscular body, it does numbers. So, I’m going forward with that,” Bolu said.
Bolu’s experience on OnlyFans epitomizes the rewards — and risks — Nigerians face on the platform, especially if they’re queer. In just the last few years, gay people in the country have reported being kidnapped, extorted, and arrested. Bolu said he plans to visit Nigeria this summer but is taking precautions to protect his safety. “I do plan on coming to Nigeria,” he said. “However, this is not without my personal bodyguards.”
Bolu signed up for OnlyFans in Paris where he now lives, but creators in Nigeria need to use loopholes to set up their accounts. The site permits banking transfers to a number of countries around the world, but a test account set up by Rest of World showed that Nigeria isn’t one of them. To get around the restriction, Nigerian creators said they relied on contacts who live in places where the platform is functional. Others started their accounts while they were abroad and kept using them when they returned home.
Some Nigerian creators worry the informal setup means they could lose access to the platform at any time. “I mean, you could just be chilling, editing a video, or actually creating content on the app, then boom, everything’s gone,” said Uki, an OnlyFans creator based in Nigeria. “Imagine all those months of hard work going into smoke because you’re in a system that doesn’t favor you.” (Like all OnlyFans creators in this story, she asked to use a pseudonym to protect her privacy.)
OnlyFans didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment about how the company treats content creators in places where its platform is restricted.
OnlyFans stars in Nigeria also have to worry about the possibility of being exposed to their friends and family as sex workers in a deeply conservative society. A 25-year-old Nigerian creator who goes by the name Nude Fairy said that a double standard exists — while creators may be judged for using the platform, the clients who pay for their content don’t necessarily face the same discrimination. “I am in fact concerned about the stigma attached to using the app,” she said. “Although Nigerians claim to be very conservative, they constitute a higher percentage of my followers. Yes, I’m exposing them. Y’all pretend a lot.”
Nude Fairy said she takes precautions to protect her identity, including wearing masks and keeping the camera away from her face. But she said that she’s made peace with the fact that people from her offline life might one day find out about her OnlyFans gig. “I actually started doing it with the fear of being outed the next day. Right now though, I don’t even think about that anymore,” she said. “What bothers me is why people are going to lengths to learn who’s behind the cam. If I do not want to be seen, why are you disrespecting me by forcing me out?”
The same sentiments were echoed by the founder of FunFor10k, a Nigerian porn production company that joined OnlyFans last year and has amassed over 34,000 followers on Twitter. “I’ve been outed before and it didn’t kill me. It’s not even something I worry too much about these days, since I try to take the necessary precautions,” said the founder, who asked to remain anonymous for privacy reasons. “I only slightly worry. However, if it happens, it happens.”
The founder said they had earned around $1,000 after being on OnlyFans for only a few weeks (they declined to share their total earnings). If Nigerian customers can’t pay through the site directly, FunFor10k accepts direct bank transfers, another way to get around the site’s restrictions. “It’s a full-time business for us,” the founder said. “Sometimes, I spend the whole 24 hours replying to messages, emails and posting contents. I also have to think about paying fans so they are satisfied.”
The creators said being on OnlyFans is not all about making money. “My relationship with my body has changed,” NudeFairy explained. “I take care of it now, more than I used to, because I now really understand it. It has also improved my relationships with others — communicating with people and understanding their needs. I honestly think I’m a better person, thanks to OnlyFans.” For now, NudeFairy still considers the platform to be a part-time job, even though it can take up between 14 and 18 hours per day, depending on how much traffic she receives.
Bolu also views OnlyFans as a side gig — he still has a full-time job in marketing. But even if the platform remains a small part of his life, it still serves as another avenue for exploring his race, sexual orientation, and freedom. “I simply just decided that I will no longer be living my life for anyone else,” Bolu said.