On August 19, the actress Bella Thorne took to Instagram to announce that she had joined OnlyFans. The platform offers a subscription-based model that allows creators to earn money from fans with exclusive content that can only be accessed via a monthly fee. After only eight days, Thorne — who is arguably best-known for her time as a former Disney Channel star — has raked in around $2 million in earnings from her OnlyFans page. In an interview with the LA Times, Thorne revealed that she joined the platform partly as research for a film she’s making with Sean Baker, the director of Tangerine and The Florida Project. She also said that she plans to use the money made from OnlyFans for charitable endeavors as well as further investing in her own production company. This isn’t the first unorthodox career move of Thorne’s. She recently directed a short film, Her and Him, that premiered exclusively on PornHub and even won her the Visionary Award from the site.
OnlyFans has exploded into the mainstream this year, but it’s been around since 2016, founded by Brit Tim Stokley, who had a history of working with porn websites. In 2018, Leonid Radvinsky, owner of MyFreeCams, a website that offers live webcam performances, became a person of significant control with over 75% ownership of the site’s parent company, Fenix International. He’s now a director of the company. While OnlyFans was not explicitly designed for sex workers, it’s become a preferred platform for many over the past few years. Unlike similar subscription sites such as Patreon, pornography is allowed on OnlyFans. So, it has become a key tool in the modern-day online sex industry. The official OnlyFans website also offers advice on how their platform can be used in other ways, by anyone from chefs to fitness gurus to rappers and musicians.
The site became front-page news over the past few months as more and more people turned to OnlyFans as a means of financial security during the ongoing COVID-19 lockdown. Thorne wasn’t the only celebrity of note to join the site this year. Other members include Cardi B, Blac Chyna, rapper Safaree, and multiple Real Housewives. While OnlyFans isn’t exclusively a platform of sex work, it’s defined almost exclusively as such to the outside world. It’s become commonplace for people to joke about starting up their own nudes business on OnlyFans to stave off economic anxieties during this pandemic. It’s now so ubiquitous that Beyonce even referenced the site in a collaboration with Megan Thee Stallion. Stokley told Buzzfeed that, after that namedrop, the site was seeing ‘about 200,000 new users every 24 hours and 7,000 to 8,000 new creators joining every day.’
The big hook with platforms like OnlyFans is the illusion of closeness. It’s not hard to find naked pictures on the internet without having to pay for them. So, sex workers bank on well-maintained relationships between subjects and fans. In that aspect, it’s no different from Patreon, which encourages creators to reach out to their fandom for artistic and financial support. In theory, these services are a means to avoid the corporate mainstream and endless strings attached to every part of the deal. They’re not beholden to broken internet algorithms and their niche expertise can be elevated in a way it may have previously struggled to maintain. In the world of sex work, this is crucial.
Moreover, OnlyFans offers a level of security that most websites and online services deny sex workers. In 2018, Patreon announced that they were suspending creators of adult content from the site. In 2020, they garnered a lot of attention for their policing of off-site content that they deemed inappropriate. PayPal also has a long and sordid history of refusing to serve sex workers. A lot of this is related to FOSTA-SESTA, a controversial piece of legislation that Trump signed into law in 2018 that decreed that website publishers would be held responsible for third party hosting of ads for prostitution (consensual or otherwise) on their platforms. Essentially, if you’re, say, Craigslist, and there are ads on your website for sex work, you’re liable to be charged with aiding sex trafficking.
It’s a deliberately vague piece of law with good intentions that, according to its opponents, seemed mostly designed to clamp down on free speech and sex work. Sites ended up being pressured under the threat of arrest to delete vast amounts of content, even if it had nothing to do with sex work. A furry-centric dating website called Pounced was an unexpected casualty of FOSTA-SESTA, as were a number of Reddit forums. Even erotic fiction sites have faced this wrath. As noted by many opponents of the bill, including supporters of the decriminalization of sex work, all that this legislation does is make it more dangerous for sex workers to do their jobs.
In that context, a place like OnlyFans is an oasis in the middle of a treacherous desert.
Sex workers are internet pioneers in many ways, and OnlyFans is but one example of that. If you want to see how the economics of online business work, check out what sex workers are doing. They have to be ahead of the game because of terrible legal roadblocks. It’s no wonder, then, that many of them are now concerned about the sudden popularity of OnlyFans with people other than sex workers, especially major celebrities. We’re already seeing how Thorne is being heralded as a pioneer of sorts for joining the website. Meanwhile the sex worker who built its popularity are dismissed or seen as a bug rather than a feature. As noted by professional dominatrix Mistress Eva Oh in an interview with InsideHook, “It’s a common reality that sex workers popularize platforms only to then be forced out when the platforms reach a level of mass popularity.”
Exacerbating this problem is the growing racial gap on such platforms. BIPOC sex workers, in particular, are hit the hardest when this crunch happens. Maggie Clancy of KnockLA detailed how PayPal’s terms and conditions limit the types of services that sex workers can receive payment for, an issue that forcefully impacts BIPOC and LGBTQA+ sex workers. Mashable also discussed how the invasion of OnlyFans primarily by these wealthy cis-het white celebrities further reduces sex workers, especially those who are BIPOC and LGBTQ+, into niches. Caroline Calloway, someone we’ve talked about on this site before, faced criticism from the sex worker community for joining OnlyFans and charging $50 a month for what she called “emotionally poignant, softcore cerebral porn.” It is a market in which she claimed she was unchallenged. (She also claimed she was the first graduate of Cambridge University to have an OnlyFans account.) Calloway was called out for treating sex work like a fun game she could try out, all while marginalizing and pushing out the voices of those who rely on sites like OnlyFans to pay the bills. Safe spaces for sex workers like OnlyFans are at risk of becoming the playgrounds of the privileged, all of whom are seen as more welcome to the site’s mainstream reputation than the marginalized voices that got them where they are today.
When I saw how sex workers reacting negatively to the likes of Thorne on OnlyFans, my brain took a strange U-turn. The experience oddly reminded me of the world of children’s publishing. Especially in the UK, the biggest names in literature aimed at kids are pre-established stars like David Walliams who have so thoroughly dominated the market that it’s become nigh-on impossible for long-time writers in the field to get any sort of attention. The average annual wage for an author in Britain is below the breadline. That stands in stark contrast to the likes of Walliams, whose work made up a staggering 40% of the bestselling children’s books sold nationwide. Granted, this is a somewhat shaky comparison to make. Other writers weren’t made illegal by the intrusion of celebrities as often happens in sex work. Yet it’s another reminder of capitalism’s sickening thrall. Anything that can be appropriated by the powerful for their own gain will become their domain, and usually at the expense of the marginalized voices who can’t afford to be shunted to the side in such a manner. Dominance by the mainstream in formerly niche places too often ends in the exclusion of those who started it, whether it’s OnlyFans, Patreon, YouTube, Twitch, or art in general.
I can already hear the cries of whataboutism over this issue, with people eager to claim that I’m demanding that celebrities like Thorne abandon OnlyFans or stop doing things full stop. What I’m saying is that it doesn’t take much of a push for these corporate entities to abandon their ‘underdog’ persona and cuddle up to the already rich and powerful for further clout. OnlyFans may be a rarity with its pro-pornography stance but between smothering legal restrictions and the sudden glare of the spotlight, it’s no wonder that so many of its sex worker users are fearful for their financial futures. The wealthy (and all their powerful backings) love to capitalize on new ideas and spaces for further gain at the expense of those who established them. They’ll even find ways to get the credit for it, whether it’s Conan O’Brien being called a podcasting pioneer a solid decade after the medium became a thing or Bella Thorne being the queen of OnlyFans after less than a fortnight.
Indeed, OnlyFans tide may already be turning. A May 2020 article in Rolling Stone alleged that various sex workers were being inexplicably locked out of their own content. The pattern is familiar, so sex workers have every right to be concerned. The celebrities will always win in this race, but so will crooked laws and systemic whorephobia.
Header Image Source: Getty Images.