A few years ago, a teenager from Singapore named Ris began attracting a following on Twitter. Like many popular users on the platform, her tweets were bubbly, snarky, and fun. “Males would kill for their gf but won’t block their ex,” she quipped in one recent post. Ris also began posting provocative selfies, talking frankly about sex, and making explicit jokes. “In Asian culture, sex is taboo,” Ris, who asked to be referred to using her OnlyFans name for privacy reasons, told Rest of World. “That’s what makes sex funny.”

At first, Twitter was just a side hobby for Ris, but the now 21-year-old learned she could translate her 32,700 followers into a lucrative business. People began messaging her asking for nudes, and she realized she could charge money for the “lewd” photos they wanted. So in late 2019, she joined OnlyFans, an online platform that allows creators to charge subscriptions for their content in exchange for a 20% cut of the revenue.

At first, Ris didn’t put much effort into her account, focusing instead on her day job in hospitality. But after the pandemic hit and she was laid off, Ris decided to go back to university and found herself struggling to afford tuition. So like thousands of other people — many of whom were already social media micro celebrities — she decided to see if her OnlyFans could help her make up the financial loss.

2020 was one of the worst years on record for many people, but a landmark time for OnlyFans, which found an enormous audience during the pandemic by offering a potent blend of porn and influencer culture. The platform is similar to Patreon, another site that lets creators receive payments directly from their fans, with one big difference — it allows pornographic content. By December 2020, the company hosted more than 1 million creators and was adding as many as 500,000 new users every day, according to Bloomberg. Some are musicians, artists, or fitness coaches who don’t post explicit content, but OnlyFans has become best known for just that. Rest of World spoke with creators in three different countries and found working on the platform can be a radically different experience, depending on where you live. 

It seems that OnlyFans has been focused on international growth as part of its strategy since launch. Not long after the U.K.-based company was founded in 2016, it began recruiting creators abroad. A Singaporean influencer who spoke to Vulcan Post, a Southeast Asian lifestyle publication, said she was scouted in 2017. There are now influencers based in dozens of countries, according to a site that allows users to find creators on OnlyFans. A spokesperson for the company did not respond to repeated requests for comment on its approach to international expansion.

OnlyFans is essentially the latest evolution of the camming business, which has always been “a global industry,” with performers and customers all over the world, said Angela Jones, a sociology professor at Farmingdale State College, State University of New York, who has studied the online sex market. Leonid Radvinsky — the owner of camming site MyFreeCams — now owns 75% of OnlyFans and is one of the directors of Fenix International Limited, its holding company.

Expanding OnlyFans into new regions comes with complications both for creators and the company itself. Several countries have laws about explicit content that could leave OnlyFans creators without protection or that outlaw pornography altogether. One creator who spoke to Rest of World said she was forced to pay a middleman, who took a portion of her earnings to route payments through his American bank account, because OnlyFans wouldn’t send money to hers in the Philippines. 

“Mostly the people that subscribe to me from the Western countries are men who have Asian fetishes…I thought that was weird, but I realized that it’s very common in Western culture.”

Creators from different countries must also contend with the downsides of having a global audience. All the OnlyFans creators who spoke to Rest of World benefited from having subscribers outside their home countries, but they also sometimes had to deal with the baggage of sexualized racism. “I do have U.S. [and] U.K. subscribers but not often. Mostly the people that subscribe to me from the Western countries are men who have Asian fetishes,” Ris said. “I thought that was weird, but I realized that it’s very common in Western culture.”

Over the past year, Ris learned that building her online brand in earnest was more than a full-time job. “At first, I spent basically 16 hours [a day] replying to DMs one by one, talking to [my fans], things like that,” Ris explained. She has since hired an assistant to help with the workload but tries to maintain a sense of authenticity with her clients. “They don’t just want to subscribe to a celebrity — you know, Mia Khalifa and [people] like that. They’re big porn stars, so they would never have personal interactions with their fans,” said Ris. “But I would provide them that personal interaction.” (Khalifa, a Lebanese-American cam model and former porn actress, gained notoriety after she wore a hijab while filming a sex scene.)

ArtdTax, a Mexico City–based creator who asked to be identified only by his OnlyFans handle, also joined the platform before the pandemic. “I wanted to buy a marine aquarium,” he said. But the one ArtdTax wanted cost over $2,300 (roughly 50,000 Mexican pesos), far more than he could afford working at his day job. “I thought, ‘Never in my life will I be able to buy it.’ So I started to experiment.”

In late 2019, when he was most active on the platform, ArtdTax said he was earning between $230 and $330 a month. But making that kind of money required spending lots of time promoting his OnlyFans on social media, particularly on Twitter. ArtdTax has since gotten a new day job and spends less time on OnlyFans, but he still dedicates hours each week to selecting photos, posting content, and answering messages, which earns him around $100 a month. “It’s extra money,” he said. Not enough to live on, “but it helps.” 

ArtdTax said the key to succeeding on OnlyFans is building a large audience somewhere else first. Like Ris, he began by posting provocative photos and videos on Twitter, one of the only large social media sites that doesn’t ban explicit content outright. “You need to have a lot of followers on public social media networks,” he said. “It took me almost a year to get into the top 25% of creators, but my friend who is an influencer here in Mexico City opened up an OnlyFans and, in a few weeks, was in the top 10%.” (How OnlyFans ranks creators is still somewhat of a mystery, but it’s likely based on their earnings in comparison to others on the platform.)

“Sites like OnlyFans have to be viewed within the greater societal context of what we have seen be rewarded in our culture,” said Jenna Drenten, a marketing professor at the Quinlan School of Business at Loyola University Chicago, where she studies the influencer industry. Sexualized imagery, even if it’s not promoting sexual products, tends to rack up likes, comments, and engagement. “The people that are able to hack this attention economy are very proficient and wise about how they execute this form of sexualized labor,” she said. 

Drenton said that social media has helped create a trendy, uniform Kardashian-esque look that many influencers mimic in order to succeed. But as on other platforms, OnlyFans creators have also found an audience by occupying unique niches. Ris said one of her greatest strengths is how she appeals to the local context in Southeast Asia.

“I look Malay even though I’m not Malay,” Ris said. She also speaks the Malay language, she added, and was raised Muslim. Ris thinks her cultural similarities are what the largest demographic of her fans find attractive, which includes men from Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia, who often have fantasies featuring women from Southeast Asia, whom mainstream porn sites usually don’t feature. 

Men from places like the U.S. and U.K. “are more heavily demanding,” she said. “They care about the quality, the plot line.” In contrast, her Southeast Asian fans are happy with the videos she shoots on her phone, which she attributes to the fact that the region has a less-developed porn industry, where much of the content is still produced by amateurs.

Ris now makes more than enough to live comfortably from OnlyFans, but getting there required a great deal of time and investment. At first, when she was living at home with her parents and siblings, the most she could provide subscribers was often the equivalent of a bathroom selfie. “As my platform grew, I finally saved enough money to move out,” she said. “I was able to take more videos, more pictures, and I was able to make noise.” Ris said she now makes five figures every month but declined to specify an exact amount.

Jones said that succeeding on OnlyFans, as well as at many other types of online sex work, requires creators master a range of skills. Not only do they have to constantly produce new types of creative content, they must also be adept at social media marketing, good listeners, accessible, approachable — in other words, always “on.” Some creators feel constant pressure to push their own limits. “[I spoke to] a lot of cam models who initially said, I didn’t sign up to make porn, but increasingly it became necessary in order for me to sustain myself and have some kind of longevity,” said Jones.

Ris said she also didn’t want to make porn videos at first, but her subscribers kept asking for them, and eventually, she acquiesced. She now uses part of her earnings to give a commission to the male partner she films sex scenes with as well as to pay her assistant. 

“You don’t have the legal benefits that you have in a job; you don’t have social security; you don’t have vacations; you don’t have a Christmas bonus or profit sharing.”

Ris also needs to factor in lots of other costs associated with running her OnlyFans account: there’s the lingerie; makeup; sex toys; cosmetic procedures, including Botox; and regular gynecological and STD checkups. Another business expense? Therapy. “It would upset [me], because you’re not selling a product,” she said. “You could definitely fix a product, like, let’s say they’re not satisfied with whatever you’re selling, like clothes. You can definitely fix the clothes, but you cannot fix yourself.”

While OnlyFans has given creators greater autonomy over their work and safety, trying to earn a living on the site is not without its own risks. “You don’t have the legal benefits that you have in a job; you don’t have social security; you don’t have vacations; you don’t have a Christmas bonus or profit sharing,” said ArtdTax. “You don’t have all that when you work on OnlyFans.”

For Shereyes, a stay-at-home mom who wanted to use only her screen name, the simple fact that she lives in the Philippines left her open to exploitation. For years, she used the site Camfrog to DJ popular virtual music parties. One of her fans was a Filipino-American man based in the United States, who later convinced Shereyes to open an account on OnlyFans. 

While customers from the Philippines can access the platform, Shereyes said OnlyFans doesn’t allow payments to creators with Philippine bank accounts. The man Shereyes met on Camfrog offered to set up an account in the U.S. for her to connect to her OnlyFans profile, so she could use the platform. The cost was a 30% cut of her earnings. 

Within a few months, Shereyes was in the top 18% of OnlyFans creators, making just under $2,300 between November 2020 and February 2021.Most of the content was shot on her phone, and she enjoyed interacting with her clients, most of whom were from the Philippines, the Middle East, and the U.S. 

But as Shereyes began making more money, she said that the man started asking for a bigger cut. When she refused, arguing that she was doing all the work, Shereyes said he threatened to cancel her account, so she closed it herself. At the beginning of February, she posted a video on YouTube explaining why she was leaving the platform. “I was sad because I really liked OnlyFans,” she said. “They were very legit. I just wish they would launch in the Philippines soon so that I could restart my account.” (A spokesperson for OnlyFans didn’t answer questions about its presence in the Philippines and how it protects international creators in time for publication.)

For Ris and ArtdTax, the downside of using OnlyFans is the ever-present risk that their jobs will spill over into the “real world.” Their success is predicated on maintaining public Twitter and Instagram accounts, which could easily be discovered by their friends and family. “My family doesn’t live in Mexico City, and they don’t have internet access,” said ArtdTax, who said he has already been recognized several times on the street. “My sister does have the internet, but I am relying on luck that she doesn’t follow the networks I am a part of.” 

ArtdTax has made sure to keep his OnlyFans content away from Facebook, which most of his personal contacts use. Though no one from work has found his profile yet, he still worries they might. He tries to ensure he always exceeds his boss’ expectations, so that his company wouldn’t have another reason to fire him if they came across his OnlyFans profile. “I always seek to outperform what is expected of me so that I can continue to do both,” ArtdTax said.

Ris has also been recognized offline and has been stalked by several people who recognized her. “When I started my OnlyFans, and I had a part-time job at a café, someone stalked me to my workplace and just sat there for two hours,” she said. Ris added that she doesn’t post on social media in real time anymore, to ensure her safety.

Ris still plans to stay on the platform for a few more years. According to market research she conducted, Ris estimates that, when she reaches the ripe old age of 27, her earning potential might start to diminish. So she’s started planning for a future beyond OnlyFans. “I decided to hire a finance manager,” she said, who helped her invest in cryptocurrency, stocks, and her own fashion business. “I want to be a millionaire by the time I’m 26.”