When It Comes to OnlyFans, Humans Can Outcompete AI
In the spring of 2001, when I was just 18 years old, I launched a multiyear career as an online porn model and cam girl, giving paying customers access to my naked body in the form of photo sets and weekly cam shows broadcast in the members' sections of my paysites. By today's standards, the work I did was laughably low-fi. The bulk of what I put out into the world was just softcore stills. Even my cam shows only offered viewers the chance to watch an image refresh every 15 seconds or so, basically providing access to a slow-moving digital flipbook. Over the course of three and a half years, I only shot two videos--and one of them was completely silent, thanks to a malfunctioning microphone.
And yet people still paid to see me naked. They joined the websites that I modeled for. They paid me directly for private shows that would play out on a custom link available to them, and them alone. It seemed that nudity was enough to overcome any shortcomings in production value: The images could be bad or blurry or low res, but as long as there were tits available to view, I had a marketable product.
That also seems to be the takeaway of folks in the AI porn camp. As image generators like Midjourney and DALL-E have gotten better at generating lifelike photos of people who don't exist, some have announced the beginning of the end for sex workers. Real-people porn? That's so last year. On Twitter, a user named Alex Valaitis went viral after tweeting an AI-generated image of four women alongside the declaration that by 2025, "over half of the top OnlyFans accounts will be AI-generated models secretly run by men." Another user echoed the sentiment, tweeting "It is SO over," with a gallery of four AI-generated photos of women in barely there bikinis.
Astute observers have noted that many AI porn fans seem to be overlooking glaring issues with the images they've shared, including misshapen hands, bikini tops that defy the laws of physics, and teeth that don't look quite human. But even if, or when, AI manages to overcome that hurdle and consistently produce realistic erotic images that rival what you'd find on top models' OnlyFans accounts, champions of AI porn will discover that they've been overly bullish on the medium's potential.
This isn't to say that no one will ever enjoy AI porn. There are, after all, people who purchase RealDolls, apparently unbothered by the love dolls' firm refusal to ever exit the Uncanny Valley. Men who enthusiastically post images of AI models, undeterred by their wonky teeth and other bizarre AI tells, probably aren't faking their enthusiasm for these artificial women. For folks who don't want to pay for porn, or who feel more comfortable masturbating to an image of someone who doesn't exist, AI erotica, with its ability to endlessly iterate images in almost no time at all, might fill a useful niche.
But the argument rarely seems to be that only some people will enjoy--let alone pay for--AI porn. The biggest boosters of AI-generated erotica seem convinced that it will find favor over images produced by human sex workers, to the point of dominating the industry entirely. They seem confident that the only thing anyone's looking for when they seek out porn is a collection of pixels roughly in the shape of a naked human being. But my own experience in sex work suggests otherwise--and today's top OnlyFans models don't seem particularly worried about an AI script coming for their income stream.
"People do not subscribe to my OnlyFans because they want to see a random naked woman, they subscribe to my OnlyFans because they want to see me naked, specifically, based on a parasocial connection formed by following me on other social media platforms," Laura Lux--an OnlyFans model who manages a free and paid subscription account--pointed out on Twitter. An AI-generated beauty might be the hottest girl you've ever seen, but if there's literally no there there, the attraction isn't likely to be sustainable--or get anyone to open their wallet.
There's no good data on who is paying for porn or how much money is being poured into the adult industry. Porn companies are all private businesses with no legal obligation to publicly share revenue information, and most of them have a pretty good incentive to keep consumer information private. But it's undeniable that, even in a world where free porn is easy to come by, many people have opted to financially support OnlyFans creators. A Fortune piece from earlier this year reported that over the platform's brief six-year lifespan, its 3 million creators have earned $10 billion from 220 million registered users. (OnlyFans itself reportedly took in nearly $1 billion in revenue in 2021, up 160 percent from 2020.)
Why do people pay for OnlyFans? An (admittedly unscientific) Reddit thread generated thousands of responses, many of which aligned with Lux's assertions and underscored the fundamental issues likely to plague AI porn. People pay for OnlyFans because they want to directly support a porn performer, rather than a third-party studio. They pay for OnlyFans because they feel a personal connection to the performers (and sometimes know them in real life).
People signed up for my website, paid me for the privilege of private webcam shows, and put up with laggy tech and mediocre camera work when they could just as easily have rented a higher-quality porn video for many of the same reasons. They didn't support me because I was the hottest girl in the world, some irresistible model with scientifically perfect body measurements. They did so because I was a real woman they felt connected to: someone who regularly posted about her life on LiveJournal, who popped up in the chat room and on site messageboards to talk with them, who shared not just naked photos but snapshots of (and access to) her real life. My fans felt a connection to me that went beyond some superficial attraction--and it was that human quality that underpinned our entire relationship. They helped me solve coding problems as I was building my site; they offered me sympathy and advice when I documented going off Paxil. They knew about my romances and my romantic troubles. And all of that enriched the experience of watching me put on a strip show.
Maybe someone will create AI images that are accompanied by an AI personality and AI social media and AI chatting. Maybe they will bundle all of that together in a simulacrum of an OnlyFans model and drive human performers out of business. But somehow I doubt it. Despite major strides forward, chatbots still struggle to capture the essence of human connection. Look no further than a New York Times reporter's recent exchange with Microsoft's AI-powered Bing chat, a conversation that rapidly went off the rails, with Bing professing its undying love for the reporter, insisting he wasn't happy with this wife, and using a baffling array of emojis in the process.
Even if a chatbot could convincingly replicate a conversation with another human, it's hard to imagine that interacting with a computer script churning out sexy chat would have the same appeal as knowing that there's another human sending you dirty texts. And even if creators could successfully obscure the AI bolstering their products, having to do so to lure customers doesn't make a compelling case for the inevitable and all-consuming appeal of AI porn. People are seeking a deeply human intimacy when they pay for sexual media, an intimacy that AI literally cannot reproduce.
In a 2018 New York Times opinion piece, MIT professor Sherry Turkle argued that robots and chatbots designed to provide companionship lack the fundamental humanity needed to offer real empathy rather than a superficial facsimile. Though Turkle wasn't writing about sex work, her theories hold. AI porn cannot desire a fan's attention, it cannot desire anyone or anything. While sex workers often have complicated relationships with their work and their fans, they're still humans with a capacity for desire, humans who understand what it is to be turned on, to want to watch or be watched by someone--and that understanding undoubtedly informs their performances. When I showed up on camera, it was because I found the work fun, and my fans could see that joy in my work. AI, on the other hand, can only put forth a simulacrum of sexiness. If the success of OnlyFans in an era of nearly unlimited free porn has shown anything, it's that realness, and real connection, still hold currency for many porn fans.
Anti-porn types frequently deride sex work as "objectifying" and "dehumanizing." But the fundamental humanity of sex workers is what makes the industry tick. The idea that actual humans sharing their bodies and sexual experiences and time with an eager audience can be easily replaced by an algorithm? That's far more science fiction than science fact.