You may or may not be familiar with OnlyFans. The site, which has gained notoriety over recent months, is a content subscription service in which creators can post pictures, videos or other services for a nominated fee. It has revolutionised the pornography industry. That being said, many of its creators don’t identify themselves as pornstars – and many more don’t post content in any way related to porn.
However, the site has built a reputation as one where subscribers can access a huge range of potentially personalised (depending on how much you’re paying) pornographic and other content – and as one where content creators have more autonomy than ever before. Removing the need for a middleman, OnlyFans creators need only a camera and themselves, with the only costs being the 20% commission taken by the site.
On multiple levels, the site has opened up the pornography industry like never before, providing creators with increased flexibility, independence and safety. Over the pandemic, it became a valuable outlet for sex workers to protect their incomes and, in the wake of convictions like that of Ron Jeremy, themselves. In some ways, it appears to be the first step (of many) on the way to both democratising and destigmatising the sex work industry.
When historically sex workers have experienced discrimination and abuse, the way in which OnlyFans has so thoroughly opened up the industry has worked to combat the stigma so often attached to sex work. Many of the site’s creators use OnlyFans as a way in which to supplement their primary income – others, as a main stream of income that will allow them to take control of their bodies, their finances, their lives.
On the 19th of August, Bella Thorne joined the roughly 450,000 content creators on OnlyFans. Within 24 hours, she made $1 million, the most made by any creator on their first day on the site: something later confirmed by the OnlyFans site team. Within 6 days, she had made $2 million – ostensibly, she’d brought the sex work portion of OnlyFans fully into the mainstream, destigmatising and increasing accessibility to sex work and pornographic content.
As those already familiar with Bella Thorne’s OnlyFans reputation will know and as it quickly became apparent: there was a problem. Upon paying to subscribe to her account, many of Bella Thorne’s potential clients and fans were quickly faced with a disappointing reality – the pictures for which they had paid up to $200 each (in addition to the subscription fee) for were not in fact nude, but of her in lingerie; within 6 days, thousands of OnlyFans subscribers were appealing for refunds from the site. While her Twitter account did state “I’m not doing nudity!”, many fans maintained that they had been misled by the build-up from her social media accounts.
Suddenly, new restrictions and pay caps were placed upon content creators on the site: tips were limited to $100 each, and paid posts limited from $100-200 per item. For many, this was a huge loss to a primary stream of income – compounded with the fact that many creators who were living from paycheck to weekly-paycheck were then also faced with the fact they were only being paid monthly. Thorne faced enormous backlash, despite site admins saying the decision was taken independently of her actions.
As a woman with a net worth of $12 million, many criticised her decision to use (and abuse) a site that provided an income to individuals who relied upon it to make all or part of their living, arguing that removing the stigma from sex couldn’t come from someone with a huge amount of privilege who could easily turn to other streams of financial and personal support if things went wrong.
To me, Thorne’s empowering (and profitable) OnlyFans moment struck parallels to Kim Kardashian’s sex-tape moment. While for some, sex work (or having a sex tape) could result in stigma or discrimination, due to Kim’s level of privilege and prestige, the Kardashians were able to monetise and benefit from their actions. Because of her ability to profit, many later regarded it as a feminist-watershed moment: here’s a woman who can own and make a living from her body and sexuality!
However, it’s just not that simple. The nuance is, without celebrity-level privilege and financial security to buffer them, most women still suffer from the stigma and discrimination surrounding their bodies and sexuality – and when Bella Thorne’s semi-feminist moment also resulted in increased restrictions for those other OnlyFans creators, perhaps the backlash was warranted.
Later, Thorne apologised on her twitter account, stating her intentions to ‘Remove the stigma behind sex, sex work, and the negativity that surrounds the word SEX itself by bringing a mainstream face to it’ and revealed she would be talking to OnlyFans on behalf of sex workers to discuss the new restrictions that were affecting them. However, once again her actions were met with a backlash from the sex workers who argued that they didn’t call to be represented by the person who affected their ability to create and profit from their content.
It may appear that wherever she steps, Bella Thorne appears to be in the wrong – even when she tries to remedy her mistakes. Certainly, a number of articles and thousands of tweets have levelled criticism and disappointment her way after her arrival on OnlyFans. As someone who has tried to destigmatise sex and sex work, normalise and promote sexuality and body positivity and empower other women through her work and platform, perhaps she’s getting a hard time.
But they’re missing a key point. When using herself as an example of that empowerment, her actions can only go so far – and her experience on OnlyFans has encapsulated this limit. Rather than destigmatising she has, to a certain extent, gentrified OnlyFans and the sex work on there; rather than emancipating sex workers, she has removed their reality from the ‘more acceptable’ form of sexuality and sex work that she and those like her promote. When speaking to OnlyFans ‘on behalf’ of sex workers, she denied those who she claims to represent a platform on which they can voice their own concerns, realities, and ambitions for the direction of the site.
Bella Thorne is, ultimately, a well-meaning and mostly effective advocate for body positivity and sexuality. However, on this occasion, she crossed the line between empowering others and declining them the airspace to voice their opinions and empower themselves – moving the daily lives and the needs of sex workers further from the spotlight they deserve.