When Bella Thorne joined OnlyFans, a subscription-based creator platform, the ex-Disney star charged users $20 monthly to access risqué content, from bikini pictures to hotdog-eating pictures to $200 pay-per-view nudes. After a day on the platform, Thorne broke the system, making $1 million in 24 hours and $2 million by the end of the week. Soon after, OnlyFans announced they would limit the maximum transaction amount and increase the time the company has to pay out earnings to creators from 7 days to 30 days, negatively affecting creators dependent on their earnings for a living (which of course, the company has denied being influenced by Thorne’s sudden success). On top of these policy changes, once subscribers realized that they were scammed $200 for pictures that were not nudes, the angry backlash against Thorne evolved into a whole new storm about the problem of celebrities gentrifying subcultures.
But it’s worth mentioning that before Bella Thorne, there were others, including influencers Blac Chyna and Caroline Calloway to Real Housewives, Safaree Samuels, The-Dream, and even stripper-turned-rapper Cardi B. OnlyFans was already becoming a mainstream icon for sex work in 2020. Not only did celebrities insert themselves as players in OnlyFans, they began carving it out as a trendy subculture. In Megan Thee Stallion’s infectious summer hit “Savage Remix,” Beyonce sings, “Hips TikTok when I dance / On that Demon Time, she might start an OnlyFans.” Thanks to The Beyonce Effect, after the song’s release in late April 2020, OnlyFans’ website traffic spiked 15 percent.
The latest scandal, in which Bella Thorne happens to be the villain, should not be treated like an isolated act of an individual but an indication of a greater trend in the sex work industry. It’s another instance of how powerful celebrities “reclaim” stigmatized professions and platforms in a way that profits them rather than the players who need it to survive. It’s another instance of how the coronavirus pandemic has caused the “world’s oldest profession” to adapt to a virtual space. Blake Montgomery reported that OnlyFans had 3.5 million new signups in March 2020, 60,000 of whom were new creators. But most of all, the latest OnlyFans scandal is another instance of how certain aspects of sex work have become gained attention without advocating for all sex workers and expressions of sexual agency.
OnlyFans is not a new phenomenon, but has remained fairly hidden since its start in 2016. A common misconception is that OnlyFans is a platform for porn and sex, but in its most simplest form, it is a platform meant to connect content creators with their (surprise!) fans. Creators offer paywalled content and users must pay a monthly subscription fee that ranges between $4.99 and $49.99 to access it. While the majority of OnlyFans content is 18+ explicit and NSFW photos and videos, nonsexual content like cooking tutorials, workout videos, and music performances are still shared by creators. But over time, OnlyFans has become a safe haven for creators in the sex and porn industries to sell nudes, boudoir photos, and fetish content, while retaining a generous 80 percent of their earnings.
Beyond OnlyFans’ notoriety for allowing the sale of sexual content, they created a platform that did it well. OnlyFans is often credited for revolutionizing the interaction between porn and sexual content creators and their fans. Now, content creators can private message their fans and offer exclusive content. Porn is no longer an individual act but, with payment, can be a personalized experience. Content creator Kevin Symes remarks, “(Creators) are opening up a different side of themselves to people who want to invest their time and money into them.”
The democratization of the porn industry is transforming its power dynamics between adult actors, actresses and powerful porn production companies. For a typical sex scene produced by a porn studio, adult actresses make a one-time amount that ranges from $700-1000 while newcomers make only $300. Now that anyone can create and post their own content for whatever price they want, performers have more control over when they work, what kind of content they make, and how they brand themselves. They can make reliable returns from their content as opposed to being paid once for a scene. OnlyFans creator and sex worker Fairy Odelia admits, “Selling a custom video for $300-plus feels amazing, because it’s one of the only times our prices feel fair to us.”
Even while the porn and sex work industry is changing and the shame of the Scarlet Letter is slowly fading into the periphery, deep-rooted stigmas against sex workers still exist. Celebrities and influencers who jump on the bandwagon of this now-cultural icon don’t seem to undergo the same social hazing, backlash and judgment that NSFW content creators and other sex workers seem to go through when making a living out of selling images of their bodies.
While all these changes are great for changing who gets to enter the industry and how much agency an individual can maintain, it does not change the fact that labor is labor. Being an OnlyFans content creator or even a virtual sex worker in general is often misconstrued as “passive income.” You just take pictures in lingerie and set a price, right? Well, no. Content creators, in order to create a fanbase that can support an actual living, must market themselves from scratch, an endeavor that’s laborious and unwelcoming to amateurs.
One OnlyFans creator says, “I do [Instagram] stories every three hours. It’s a lot of work. Doesn’t matter if you’re ill, you have to do it. Consistently.” There’s even a new term for the expansion of the performer’s role, the porntropreneur—someone who is technologically savvy, constantly adapting to changes in algorithms and trends: a social media influencer. More content means more exposure, and more exposure means more subscribers and more revenue. Thus, celebrities with millions of followers who join OnlyFans will achieve a level of success unimaginable to lesser-known creators.
That’s why it’s so important to support and subscribe to OnlyFans’ small, independent content creators. Being a porn performer whose business lives online in an oversaturated market, creators must always brainstorm innovative ways to differentiate themselves and create a community between their curated image and their fans. One performer points out, “Fans seek you out to learn more about you. You are a fantasy and you’re building that world for them.”
So what’s the verdict on Bella Thorne? As someone who has never been too keen on Bella Thorne’s antics in the past, I honestly have to say I felt a bit of a sadistic thrill by the way she was dragged out. But the reality is that Bella Thorne is only a single person who represents a larger issue of class and social privilege. We shouldn’t police who gets or doesn’t get to enter the sex industry because sex work is far too policed on its own. Like many other creators, Bella Thorne calls OnlyFans “the first platform where I can fully control my image; without censorship, without judgement, and without being bullied online for being me.” However, we should call out moments like these when we realize that certain groups of people are profiting off the sudden edgy desirability of sex work and the porn industry. When the success of these privileged few begin to invade and parasitically eat away at the existing creators’ work, accountability is needed.
OnlyFans was once championed as a safe alternative space for selling content, where creators and their profits were put first. But what happens when this “underground” platform blows up? When the cyclical pattern of agency and subjugation in marginalized spaces occurs once again? Today, the power between new celebrity creators and existing career creators threatens the democratization of content. Dominatrix and sex educator Mistress Eva Oh laments, “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.” For sex workers and OnlyFans content creators, Bella Thorne’s scandal is certainly not shocking news. Instead, they brace themselves for the next one.