The Education of Alex Grant: OnlyFans, Grindr, and Growing Up Gay in America Today

OnlyFans.

The social media and content sharing platform has in four short years transformed the adult film industry and created a powerful and easy path for fame and money that puts artists in almost complete control of their work and its distribution.

Still the company, as performer Alex Grant points out during a wide ranging discussion, was virtually unknown when the he began three years ago.

Grant says that changed around November last year when after being named People‘s sexiest man alive, “Michael B. Jordan announced during an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live! that his next move was to ‘use my body for good’ by joining subscription social media site OnlyFans and donating all the proceeds to charity.”

Suddenly the  four-year-old service best known for proffering racy to pornographic content from adult entertainers for a small monthly fee, was generating headlines around the country.

Though it appears Jordan was only joking — as of press time, he had yet to create an account — it was a fitting cap to a big year for OnlyFans that included Beyoncé name-checking the company in a verse on the remix of Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage” in April.

“That was a pretty frantic morning in the office,” OnlyFans founder and CEO Tim Stokely told the The Hollywood Reporter. “My phone was just going off the hook.”

Porn has always been an industry that’s an early adopter of new entertainment platforms and media (see: VHS, DVDs, etc.) , and with OnlyFans it may provide a path forward for Hollywood once again, which seems incapable of pivoting quickly enough to counter the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to Stokely, OnlyFans has grown from five creators when it launched in 2016 to more than 1 million today, over 100 of whom make at least $1 million annually on the platform. Since May, its audience has jumped from 30 million users to 85 million users.

 

“Talent from all walks of life are looking to generate revenue outside of what they traditionally were doing,” says Tony Minter, head of talent at OnlyFans agency Behave, which helps creators optimize income from the platform. “You’ve got models, influencers, musicians, dancers, cooks — we’re having conversations with everyone about how they can get on OnlyFans and monetize.”

OnlyFans operates most like a traditional social network. A creator’s feed of photos and videos looks a lot like Instagram, with one key difference: A user has to subscribe to see the content. Most creators’ subscriptions run $5 to $10 per month, but many offer discounts to people who pay for several months up front. Once behind the paywall, a user can like and comment on the posts. They can also send direct messages to the creator and, if they want to show extra support, send tips (the minimum is $5). Often, a user will be instructed to tip to unlock extra, even-more-exclusive posts.

Before founding London-based OnlyFans, Stokely ran a website for personalized adult entertainment called Customs4U. The enigmatic executive, who’s only recently made himself available for interviews as OnlyFans gains mainstream traction, says he wanted to build a social media platform with a payment button “so that all of these creators making this amazing content for free could get paid.”

He describes the early days as a pretty standard tech startup story where he was focused on “legitimizing your brand, building that user confidence and trust, and helping creators buy into your idea and understand the earning potential.”

It eventually took off with talent because it encouraged a level of interaction with fans that just wasn’t available on other social media platforms.

Enter Alex Grant.

Alex Grant had a fairly typical if not idyllic childhood in Potomac, Maryland outside of Washington D.C. before enrolling at the University of Delaware where he ran track and began studying economics.

Grant says that he began working out a ton in high school, because he was “tired of being skinny.”

To describe Grant as beautiful almost seems an insult. He is so classically beautiful he could be an avatar for fashion photographer Bruce Weber’s oeuvre. This isn’t hyperbole. I created and was the editor-in-chief of the A&F Quarterly.

A magalog that served as the primary advertising vehicle for the hugely popular and successful retail giant Abercrombie & Fitch, I worked with Weber for nearly eight years. It was Weber’s aesthetic that was the imprimatur of Abercrombie brand. In a welcome bit of kismet, Grant tells me he wrote a paper about the Quarterly in one of his college business classes.

Grant attracted quite a bit of attention upon arriving at the University of Delaware. “Building,” he says what was a fairly large social media presence for a suburban college kid. “I did it by posting a lot thirst traps on Instagram” he half jokes. But either way he was getting attention. And so were some other photos of him that were floating around the internet that were certainly more risqué — some nude — and impossible for Grant to walk away from completely as he became more recognizable.

It was also around the time he says that friends began asking when he was going to do an OnlyFans. Suggesting that success was all but inevitable.

Grant eventually decided to tackle the “compromising” photos head on. Prior to that he hadn’t given much thought about what to do, but decided that a course of action to embrace them was the only way to win this particular battle. “I realized that they weren’t going to go away and people would eventually connect my social images to those, so rather than allowing them to control me, I used them to my advantage.”

Make no mistake, the decision wasn’t nearly as easy as it sounds and he is quick to point that while he appears nonchalant when relaying that time period now,  at the time he was fucking terrified and freaked out. “It would keep me up at night, like, oh my god, there’s these fuckin’— there’s me online, I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

He started by learning a little bit about “copyright law and how to file DMCA complaints and have things removed, so I was able to get a lot taken down and scrubbed a bit. So, I was doing that for a while, and then at some point, I began to stop caring. ‘You know what? Fuck it. Go with it. Just embrace it and see where it goes.'”

“That’s the great thing about meeting obstacles head on,” he says, “it diminishes their power. They went from causing me a near personal existential crisis to simply being a minor annoyance.”

It was around this time, about halfway through his freshman year, that he realized his social media footprint had become significant enough to take more seriously and he began formally modeling which led him to do work with the underwear company BOX Menswear.

That’s when “I decided I’m just going to enjoy it and see how I can get the ball rolling. So, I started this OnlyFans account. And at first, I started posting suggestive photos and stuff because I didn’t know what I was doing yet. Then I started posting tease pictures, things to get people going, but nothing really explicit. I was just like, let’s just play around. You know, leave them wanting more.”

Grant says it was via the process of performing he reclaimed his agency. And it worked.

This was about three years ago when OnlyFans was becoming known but not nearly the cultural behemoth it is today. “It’s crazy how in the past few years, OnlyFans was just under the radar and suddenly exploded into what it is — It become so mainstream that now when you’re walking through the shopping mall — there are now kiosks selling OnlyFans merch like tees and hoodies—It still blows my mind a little.”

Grant pauses, musing, “I don’t know why anyone would ever honestly wear that if they weren’t a creator, but when I saw that, I was like, ‘Who would wear that? Who would honestly wear that, except someone that was making content and stuff like that on there?’ But obviously there’s a larger market.”

After a few months of perfecting his suggestive photos to the point that they were titillating enough to start building him a huge following, he graduated to doing jerk off videos. “You know, nothing too crazy. But I started to have fun with it. I really started to embrace — It turned into something that was sexually exciting for me.”

“I’d never done anything like that,” he says, “I’ve never done anything where I was making videos of that nature that the public was seeing.”

He began to get more confident because of the tremendous positive feedback he was getting. “Whenever someone’s like, “Yeah, it’s great. Keep going.” you get this validation. You’re like all right, sure, let’s keep going. And I began to evolve and grow.”

And so did his following . 

“I really got into it. It’s exciting for me. It’s hot and exciting for me.”

Though the subscription fees and tips are usually small, they can add up quickly.

Actress Bella Thorne made a reported $2 million in less than a week when she joined the service in August and charged a $20-per-month subscription fee. Earnings can vary significantly depending on the creator. A calculator on the OnlyFans website estimates that someone with 500,000 social media followers can generate monthly income between $25,000 and $1.2 million from subscriptions alone, depending on the fee charge. (The company takes a 20 percent cut of all revenue earned.)

Grant has nearly 400,000 Twitter followers.

The earning potential of OnlyFans has become particularly important for creators whose main source of income has been cut off because of the pandemic. Ironically, while creators on the platform were not able to regularly produce the content that drives their sites due to COVID-19 restrictions on film productions, the national waves of shelter in place, quarantines, and self isolating drove viewership on the platform into the stratosphere in addition to adding to its roster of creators, thousands of laid off workers, an especially lucrative side hustle if you have a niche.

Recently however, OnlyFans removed some of his content. “OnlyFans took down — I had a handful of videos of me using these big dildos and butt plugs that I’d fuck my asshole with. They took down a handful of those videos because I guess it was, I don’t know, indecent to them. They also took down some vids of me getting fisted. There were four of them that they took down.”

He  finds it infuriating, especially considering the plethora of really “Indecent” things you can find on the platform. “I was talking about that with someone the other day. Literally, I was like, they have videos of people smoking meth.Injecting (slamming) meth. I don’t know. I don’t do meth. I just smoke weed.” 

Alex explains that he did some research and because OnlyFans is a British company, operate in the UK, “my basic understanding is that in the UK, there are common decency laws where, I guess because OnlyFans, they don’t describe themselves as a porn company but rather a company in which you can subscribe to your favorite content creators. They just so happen to allow pornographic content, but it doesn’t make them a porn hosting company. Because of these decency laws, they’re not allowed to host content that’s got like this fisting, piss, and I guess other things on these that are defined in these British decency laws. So, I assume that if they were to market themselves as a porn company, they would I guess be subject to that law. I don’t know. So, I can understand what their basis is for removing that content because it’s against their national law, but at the same time, I don’t think it’s very supportive of the vast majority of people, of the sex workers, that use their content to make their living.”

Grants cites part 10 of their terms of service and acceptable use, “it says you may not use OnlyFans for the purpose of exploiting, harming, inappropriate content, or excuse me, or harm minors in any way by exposing an appropriate content. Here we go, 10.3, ‘You shall not create upload post or display user content that is obscene, illegal, fraudulent, defamatory, hateful, discriminatory, threatening, harassing or self-harm.’ But those are pretty general terms. It’s like with a lot of these social media giants, where they just have these boiler plate docs. They leave it up to themselves to decide what’s good and what’s not okay to post, and they can decide for themselves, which doesn’t leave any power in the hands of the creator. And it’s sort of, I won’t call it dishonest because it is right there, written in their thing, in their TOS, but it shows how they feel about their money.”

I can’t help but think that perhaps now that the company has caught the eye of Hollywood are they looking at a future where the platform is scrubbed of pornography completely. It is doubly insulting because so much of the content that drove the company’s tremendous growth was LGBT content.

The company shows no sign of slowing down and is now so mainstream that it’s fodder for late night. Bill Maher recently hinged his New Rules segment that concludes his HBO show Real Time with an OnlyFans joke. Maher notes in the clip that OnlyFans’ users went from 12 million in early 2020 to 85 million now.

I ask Grant if he’s aware how incredibly important it is for someone like him, someone who looks like him, to help de-stigmatize kink and just queer sex in general, which is policed by social media algorithms that disproportionately punish LGBT content in general due to implicit biases transferred from the coders themselves.

Another concern is the intersection of social media, smart devices, and making sure that there is adequate information for parents. There is a growing and disturbing trend in the HIV-epidemic among men who have sex with men: young adults are acquiring the virus younger and younger every year. Data is scarce because doctors aren’t allowed to ask children about their sexual history without their parents’ consent. But it’s impossible to not see the ubiquitousness of smart phones in the hands of younger and younger kids whose parents may not be aware of the dangers or how to prevent access to both pornography and dating apps like Grindr.

According to the CDC, HIV transmission rates in 2020 saw two particularly alarming numbers:

  • Among 13 to 24 year olds, the rate went up 17%.
  • Among 25 to 34 year olds, the rate went up 34%.

Grindr requires users to be over the age of 18, but it has no real remedies to curtail the influx of underage users. Recently there have been call-to-actions from segments of the community about the increasing number of underage users on the dating app.

RELATED: If You’re Not 18 Please Stay the Fuck Off Grindr

Many parents have no idea of the computational power they hand to their children.

“Well, first of all,” Grant responds, “I think Grindr is a super unsafe space for really definitely anyone under 18, but also honestly, I find the app to be rather toxic.  I don’t like using it. I mean, definitely if you’re young and underage you really shouldn’t be on it, it’s just so — it exposes a lot of things that I don’t think minors need to be exposed to because obviously, it’s when you’re growing up like that, you want to grow up quicker than you are. So, you want to go and feel like a grown up and go and do, I guess, scandalous things, but it’s really just not good.”

Grant pauses, “Yeah. I wish everyone knew this when you’re so young, because believe me, you’ll get a big taste of it in your twenties. There’s no doubt.”

“I did it a few times. I go on in high school and I just go on and you never even find anything you want really. Maybe that’s just because I’m picky. But I just would never — it always felt like just a big time sink. I never found it. I never found it rewarding.”

“You can’t trust anyone.” he says. “I think that Grindr has totally destroyed the gay dating scene. I think it’s completely, in my opinion, in shambles. It’s honestly like just some of the worst experience because now I think it just made —It’s taken all the fun out of dating, in my opinion. I don’t think that it’s  beneficial in a society. It’s bad for so many reasons, it’s bad for health reasons, it’s bad for mental health reasons. There’s a   a lot of STDs and stuff going around much more easily, because people are hooking up more frequently and I think it affects people mentally. It’s just bad for mental health, self-esteem.”

I think it [Grindr] brings out the absolute worst in people and I hate it.

Grant is finishing school and getting a business degree but he plans to definitely keep my OnlyFans profession going for a while because he enjoys it. “I like being able to interact with people and be sort of a fun personality and also a sexual personality. I think it’s exciting and I keep it going. But at the same time,  when it is time to get out, I don’t know when that will be, but when the time comes I don’t know if I’m actually going to want to leave the industry as a whole. But— instead, what I’d like to do is with my investing background, I’d like to  help people that do OnlyFans. I want to do financial wealth management for them because a lot of these people have gone their whole life and hasn’t made much money now all of a sudden, they’re doing only fans and now, they’re making 10 grand a month. And a lot of people don’t know how to be responsible with that much money. So, with my investing background, I would be a good fit —  to fill that role well, because who wouldn’t want to take their financial advice from someone that’s been in the industry that knows how it works, that knows investing, and advice from someone that’s been in the porn industry, I think is valuable. I think I would be a good candidate for people to trust with their money and to make wise decisions. Because I know exactly what it’s like being in this position.”

Lastly I ask Grant, what would be the biggest piece of advice you would give to somebody starting out right now? “I would say save your money. Don’t go spending it and live below your means. And also, try to have fun and make good content and do what makes you happy. Yeah, you have to feel happy when you do it.”

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