For $5 a month, Stephanie Michelle will let you follow her private Snapchat account. She promises you’ll see her hanging out with friends in Los Angeles, making goofy faces at the camera, or just loafing around watching anime. And if she’s at home: “I’m usually just wearing either underwear or some tight little tank top or nothing at all.”
This is the first reward tier for Michelle’s Patreon account, where she’s “creating naughty cosplay content.” In addition to her Snapchat account, Michelle offers her 435 paying subscribers access to variety of NSFW rewards: a signed “sexy” print, a “naughty” three- to five-minute personalized video, and access to her constantly updating Patreon feed, which includes erotic photoshoots and videos.
When she first launched the account about a year ago, she was hesitant. “I didn’t think anyone would be interested,” she says. “[But] in my first week I made over a thousand dollars.” Now, in a good month, with her current supporters, Michelle says she can make $5,000. Operating the Patreon account is her full-time job.
Michelle is just one of dozens of women who use Patreon to sell nude photos, videos, and other prizes to willing — and paying — fans. As a full-time Patreon creator, she’s on the more successful end of erotic content makers. Some of her contemporaries see Patreon as a side-hustle on the way to more lucrative gigs; others want to go full time, but haven’t quite figured out how. There’s no set career path here, but for these women, those paths all converge on Patreon.
Selling nudes on the internet isn’t new. But Patreon has made the transaction more appealing for both creators and their customers by simplifying the payment process, hosting content other companies won’t touch, and encouraging direct engagement. Clients say they like the intimacy of supporting a model’s career, while models say Patreon’s paywall means their customers feel like real fans, rather than strangers hunting for nip-slips.
But while the mini-economy appears to be thriving on Patreon, the women interviewed for this story shared the same concerns: that there’s a ceiling to how much money you can actually make, that internet platforms are fussy and unpredictable, and that there’s a finite amount of energy you can give to fans paying for your attention.
Launched in May 2013, Patreon is a relatively new entry in the crowdfunding universe. Rather than relying on reaching individual fundraising goals, like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, Patreon functions as more of a long-term income source, with patrons typically agreeing to an ongoing monthly donation schedule. The platform is pitched as a way for fans to fund the passion projects of their favorite creators, and for creators to focus on these projects, rather than ramping up one fundraiser after another.
And unlike social networks like Facebook and Instagram, Patreon explicitly allows nudity, which is one of the most obvious reasons for its popularity among erotic models. Patreon’s Community Guidelines state: “Patreon is not for pornography, but some of the world’s most beautiful and historically significant art often depicts nudity and sexual expression. Because of that, we allow nudity and suggestive imagery, as long as it is marked NSFW. Think of the policy as allowing “R Rated” movies… but not porn.”
In a statement to The Verge, a Patreon spokesperson said the company defines pornography as “content that glorifies or celebrates the act for sexual arousal.”
Patreon’s distinction between porn and art hasn’t always played well with more conservative companies like PayPal, which threatened to cut off all Patreon integrations in 2014 because of the platform’s subsection of erotic content. In order to prevent losing access to one of the most popular payment apps, Patreon told its NSFW creators they would be forced to do business by credit card only. Eventually, PayPal reversed its stance in 2016, but many other platforms remain skittish about nudity.
A 28-year-old former production assistant in California, who hosts a clothes-free cooking show called Naked Bakers, says she decided to use Patreon after reading about its relatively lax position on NSFW content. She had been using her own website and a PayPal account to monetize the web series, but, she says, PayPal banned her for nudity in 2015. So did Venmo. Without a payment plan, she was forced quit the show for about two years, before relaunching it this past winter on Patreon.
Now Naked Bakers is only hosted on Patreon, and the production assistant says she makes nearly enough money from her 280-ish subscribers to fund the series and pay her bills.
Stephanie Michelle thinks anyone can be successful on Patreon — if they can figure out what people are willing to pay for. “For me, the sexy content works. It may not work for someone else.”
“But I also think,” she pauses, “it doesn’t hurt.”
In this growing corner of Patreon, sex appeal is all-but-guaranteed to get you somewhere, but where that is depends on how much of your life you’re willing to dedicate to it.
Monica Zamora, a former Suicide Girl, says the amount of money she makes on Patreon (about $500 a month) could be higher — if she spent more time doing it. She makes most of her money — and spends most of her paid hours — as an erotic dancer.
Zamora first joined Patreon last fall, after realizing that her Etsy shop, where she sells clothing and erotic prints, wasn’t bringing in enough money to keep her afloat. She had a lot of followers on platforms like Instagram, but wasn’t able to monetize it. “I was selling prints and taking these photos, but I really wasn’t making as much off of it as I would’ve liked,” she said.
For Zamora, Patreon acts as a cushion for income she’s already bringing in, and a way to build on a brand that has expanded more rapidly on other platforms. For $1 a month, Zamora will unlock her Patreon feed, which features exclusive, uncensored photos. For $3 a month, subscribers get entered into a raffle for a nude print. Her highest-priced tier — she calls it the “True Support” tier, for fans who “really want to make a difference” in her career — is just $25 a month for a signed print. Zamora’s prices are significantly lower than the other models I spoke to, whose top-priced tiers asked for anywhere from $200 to $1,000 per month.
Zamora has around 100 patrons, which puts her somewhere in the middle in terms of popularity for the models I spoke to, but she has more than 118,000 followers on her official Facebook page. She says Patreon is just not her primary focus, because the payoff doesn’t make up for the effort. “I’ve been able to work out a system where I can provide the content I need without taking away from the other stuff that I do. But I’m always busy, so it’s really hard to dedicate that time to make [my Patreon] what it needs to be.”
Zamora’s rewards are simpler and require less effort than those of other erotic models on Patreon, many of whom offer personal, time-consuming live chats and video streams. “If you do make it a primary thing, you can make a lot of money,” Zamora says.
Stephanie Michelle made Patreon her primary thing — and it changed her life. Before Patreon, she was working at a media company making DIY crafting tutorial videos, which she loved, but she says her boss began making inappropriate, sexual comments. “I ended up having to leave because it made me so uncomfortable,” she says. Now Patreon is her only gig, and although she makes a living from it, she says her income is vulnerable to fluctuation. “It’s not like you expect a steady paycheck every month,” Michelle says. During her least active months, Michelle says she makes around the “high 3,000s” on Patreon.
When you factor in how much time she spends making sure her subscribers are happy, the hourly pay isn’t as impressive as the net sounds. Michelle estimates she spends more than 80 hours a week working on her rewards — tasks like printing, signing, and shipping hundreds of photos and talking “all day every day” to her patrons on Snapchat. And a Patreon-based income model definitely doesn’t leave time for vacation. She recently got married, and she says her honeymoon was interrupted constantly by emails, messages, and snaps from fans.
Instead of letting the honeymoon disruptions bother her, Michelle and her husband, a photographer who takes all of her modeling shots, decided to mine their European vacation for Patreon content. “I did a little video for each country I visited,” she said. “So this [most recent] video is going to be me reminiscing about my trip, and showing them these sexy clips of me in each country.”
“I don’t want to complain because Patreon has been a pure blessing in both of our lives, but it’s a lot more work than I was expecting,” she says. “I think if I added any more tiers I wouldn’t be able to sleep.”
— Stephanie Michelle (@omystephanie) July 28, 2017
Unless they can offer more rewards without burning out, or convince patrons to pay more, there’s a cap on how much these models can earn on Patreon. There are also various competing sources, like, say, almost the entire internet, where finding an image of a naked woman is as easy as a few keyboard strokes.
In some places, like on the subreddit r/PatreonGirls, users can post Patreon rewards (mostly nude or provocative photos) so that others can see them without paying a subscriber fee. An r/PatreonGirls moderator who goes by OlliesMeowMaster says the subreddit was created as a way to promote the work of certain models, or act as a kind of screening process before a user commits to becoming a patron. Members, he says, are just weighing their options before subscribing to a Patreon, as any informed consumer would.
Stephanie Michelle doesn’t see it that way. “Some people see leaks as free advertising. I personally don’t agree with that and haven’t noticed a huge influx of people when I see an image has been leaked.”
OlliesMeowMaster, a 30-something from the Midwest, says he used to support a cosplayer on Patreon because “her designs were great,” but several months would go by without any updates, and he started to feel like he was being taken advantage of.
“I do believe that we should support these models, but there are a few models that take advantage of the Patreon platform and mislead, scam, or straight up fail to provide ‘rewards’ to their supporters,” he wrote in an email. He no longer subscribes to any Patreons.
Ollies doesn’t see r/PatreonGirls as a loophole or threat to the “lewd” Patreon marketplace, and moderators will usually remove a thread if a model asks. And while he says he thinks “a majority” of the members come to r/PatreonGirls looking “lewds or nudes,” he believes some of them are just hoping to develop an emotional connection. “There’s quite a lot of men and women that get easily attached to models and that personal touch is what keeps them coming back,” he says. “Porn sites (from my experience) do not provide that kind of experience.”
Technically, r/PatreonGirls doesn’t provide that experience either.
Michelle says her best solution right now for stopping leaks is to be active on her own subreddit. She says she tries to interact with fans on her subreddit as much as she can, and sometimes she’ll even post free photos. “I’m hoping that building a kind community on Reddit will help end leaks. Or if they are posted, my Reddit pals will give the poster hell for it.”
Monica Zamora says some people have an immediate negative connotation associated with Patreon, and it can be difficult to convince people to spend their money there, especially if the photos are available to see for free somewhere else. “A lot of people don’t like it,” she says. “They see it as me being stingy, or me trying to exploit my fans. And I’m asking literally for a dollar.”
Both models and fans called out Patreon’s interactivity as one of its most unique qualities. It might not be hard to Google your way to free versions of a photo set, but you can’t pirate a human connection. Patreon’s built-in messaging system makes it easy and low-stakes for fans to talk to models who might be difficult to reach on a more crowded platform. And, because users can only message a Patreon creator once they’ve become a patron, multiple women noted that the messaging system acts as a filter for unpleasant or cruel messages common on other sites.
James, one of Stephanie Michelle’s subscribers who lives in North Carolina, says he’s been hesitant to take advantage of Michelle’s more personal rewards, for fear of overstepping some imagined boundary. “I didn’t want to come off like the pervy guy talking to the woman in my phone,” he says. “I have a relationship going on right now, so I didn’t want to come off that way to my partner.”
But Stephanie Michelle says her fans mostly come off as supportive and interested, rather than pervy. “Because it is a paywall content site, you are… not getting these Instagram creeps,” she says. “I’m not getting these gross comments. I’m getting people who are like, ‘Dude I love your body and I think what you’re doing is awesome, and oh, tell your husband what’s up.’”
— Dixie Queen (@MonicaZamoraLOM) May 3, 2017
A woman who goes by Naughty Nessa online echoes Michelle’s statements: “On Instagram, you get 50 million people messaging you a day saying something crazy, and you never message back. But on Patreon, those are the people that are supporting me, literally, financially, so I’m gonna message them back.”
Nessa says it’s been difficult in her northern Ohio town to make a living as an erotic model, even though she’s been doing it for a decade. She’s a single mother who also homeschools her children, and it’s not always easy for her to travel hours to a burlesque show or convention, with the hopes of building an audience or making money as a dancer. When a friend suggested she try Patreon a few months ago, she decided to give it a shot.
“I’d never made a steady income off of [erotic modeling] until I joined Patreon,” she says.
On her account, where she is “creating nude fetish [and] art photos,” Nessa offers her subscribers personalized “naughty” e-cards and computer wallpaper, fetish shoots, and exclusive topless pictures, which arrive on the 7th of each month. For $69 a month, subscribers can chat live with Nessa for 30 minutes about whatever they want, which often includes sharing their steamy fantasies and asking for sex advice.
With just a few months under her Patreon belt, Nessa is still new to the online business, and her current subscriber count, 12, reflects that. But Nessa says she makes between $100 and $200 dollars each month off Patreon — a number that she says keeps growing. “I don’t use Patreon often enough to completely support myself entirely there yet,” she says. “Though I feel how far off that is is entirely up to me.”
“As a single mom, for a set amount to come onto my card every month is something new for me,” Nessa says. “Most of the erotic stuff is not always thought of as a legitimate business. You don’t get a steady paycheck. Now we have legitimate paper trails to file taxes and legitimize our business.”
She plans to keep promoting her Patreon on Twitter, Instagram, and FetLife (a BDSM, kink, and fetish social network) to draw in new subscribers. She’s been banned from Facebook multiple times, and now the company is asking her to send in a copy of her photo ID to confirm her identity. She doesn’t want to do that.
“It’s a battle with [Facebook] over what’s allowed and what’s not,” she says. “Some people are posting really erotic things and they get away with it. But you get one wrong person on your page and they report you, and your page is flagged.”
Although most of these women rely on the massive audiences of mainstream platforms to promote their work, these companies and some of their policies — like Facebook’s ID confirmation or location settings — make it difficult for them to remain anonymous.
Fans might be attracted to the seemingly unobstructed access to models that certain Patreon rewards grant them, but the women must take care to protect their privacy. Nessa says she doesn’t use her real last name, age, or city on any of her online profiles: “I try to keep my two lives as separate as possible.”
Zamora says she never puts her home address on a package, and she makes sure when she posts something to social media that her location is never too specific. She doesn’t use a pseudonym, but she says she would if she could do it over.
Stephanie Michelle says she knows an Instagram model who has dealt with stalking, and she’s learned not to take any chances. She never shoots near windows, just in case an enterprising fan were to decode some blurry landmark. If she’s shooting outside, which only happens in rare cases, she’s careful not to show any street names or address numbers. She won’t post photos from a particular spot until after she’s left, and she uses a P.O. box to mail out rewards.
Despite this dedication to scrubbing her Patreon life of identifying markers, Stephanie says she trusts her fans. “So far I’ve never felt unsafe with my fan base,” she says. “I feel very lucky to have a group of people that my respect boundaries. “
For all of the positives echoed by these women — a safe community, convenience, decent pay — Patreon wasn’t built with NSFW content in mind, and its tools can be either useless or intentionally unavailable to erotic models.
Zamora says Patreon’s opaque user interface makes it difficult for curious would-be subscribers to discover models they might want to support. “I don’t really feel like it’s been a good way to get a new target market,” she says. “I don’t see a homepage where you can browse different creators and stuff like that. The only way you’re going to find someone’s page is if you’re directed that way.” (Patreon does have an “explore” tab, but a Patreon spokesperson says NSFW content isn’t surfaced.)
“Most of the users on Patreon are looking only for safe-for-work creations,” a Patreon spokesperson said. “For that reason, adult content on Patreon is clearly marked (and not included in the search or explore sections) so that it’s unlikely for someone to accidentally stumble upon it.”
And although Patreon presents itself as a platform for true supporters of the creative arts, there’s still a negative association attached to erotic modeling. “There’s not just a stigma with women who cosplay and make erotic content, but there’s also just a stigma of women on Patreon in general,” Stephanie Michelle says.
She says that stigma is especially bad in the cosplay community, in which members build and model costumes of their favorite fictional characters. She says some people tend to follow a rigid, seemingly arbitrary set of rules (one of which is apparently that cosplayers don’t get naked) and ostracize those who don’t stick to them. “A lot of these cosplayers are scared to defend themselves,” she says. “Because it’s scary to go against the whole internet, the whole Reddit community.” (Even for cosplayers who don’t mind nudity, it’s difficult to avoid the conversation about objectification and the accuracy of sexy costumes stuck on a loop in r/cosplay).
There’s also the little fact that although nudes are obviously popular on Patreon, the highest-earning accounts are still SFW: the political podcast Chapo Trap House and the mixed-media artist Amanda Palmer both sit solidly in the top 10. The most popular NSFW account is Fenoxo Fenfen, an adult text-based game, at No. 15. There are no erotic models currently in the platform’s Top 50 highest earners.
Because Patreon is a relatively new platform, there’s no prototype for where these models go from here. Startups can burn out fast. The women might be forced to move to a new platform, diversify their income sources — Stephanie Michelle says she eventually wants to be a mentor to younger erotic cosplayers — or find yet another side hustle to add to the stack. For now, Patreon is the platform of choice, but it’s not like these women will give up their careers if Patreon fizzles.
“For me,” Stephanie Michelle says, “doing whatever I want to do with my body, that’s very empowering.”