The content selling platform OnlyFans was launched by creator Stephanie Matto in 2016, and quickly began to gain popularity as a site on which to distribute explicit content for a profit. However, no one has so intensely, quickly, and explicitly changed what OnlyFans looks like in a more damaging way, than actress Bella Thorne.
In late August of 2020 the actress Bella Thorne of Disney Channel fame created an OnlyFans account and set up a pay-per-view photo set that she claimed was nude. She grossed over $1 million in profits in only 24 hours. However, she later tweeted in reference to her OnlyFans that she would “not be do[ing] nudity.” Soon, hundreds of fans were requesting refunds from the site, when they discovered that the photo set allegedly featured very mild, non-explicit swimsuit photos. This switch, viewed by some as a scam, caused extreme backlash on multiple levels for the content creators on the site, and those dependent on the platform felt this the most.
OnlyFans operates similarly to how many social media platforms do. A simple way to describe it is as a social media site where you have a profile and feed, like anything else, but your followers pay to subscribe to you. Subscribers pay a monthly fee set by the content creator, minimally $3.00. Creators can also set up pay-per-view content, where subscribers can pay an extra fee to view certain content. Subscribers can also send tips to content creators. In addition to sex work, some users post exercise tutorials, and music. Top earners can make up to $1 million a year.
OnlyFans served as an easy-to-use platform where adult content creators felt safe. This was much-needed, as laws like SESTA (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act) and FOSTA (Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act) had begun to make it incredibly difficult for sex workers to safely and effectively sell digital content without fear of legal repercussions, or exposure to unsafe, unvetted clients. Black women, in particular Black trans women, were largely responsible for creating the popularity and profitability of the site, by turning their audiences to it.
Although some users use OnlyFans as a side hustle, survival sex workers and full-service sex workers recognize and utilize the site as a way to make ends meet. Moreover, white upper-class people have co-opted the space and now share it with BIPOC who are more vulnerable on the site. Luna, a queer Mexican content creator who goes by @aristiocat on OnlyFans, in a phone interview with F News this August, asserts that “White people do this with everything. It’s all about how hip it is.”
Black trans sex workers do not have the same kind of casual relationship with sex work that an established celebrity like Bella Thorne has. Terri (Kendra Fox on Niteflirt.com), a phone sex operator, states that although she no longer sees it this way, she once viewed sex work as something she needed to do because of a prejudiced system. “My perception has changed from it, because I know we are able to get work… but I’m trans, and we all do sex work because we believe we’re not going to get hired because of what we are.”
Thorne was quoted as saying to Paper Magazine in early August, “OnlyFans is the first platform where I can fully control my image, without censorship, without judgment, and without being bullied online for being me.” Thorne is seeking “safety” from things such as societal judgment, rather than threats to her livelihood. All content creators want an autonomous platform on which to distribute, but our class structure dictates that some content creators will do so for survival, while others do it for their image. Celebrities approach a want for self-published content from a place of privilege and ability, while others approach it from a place of pure need.
In mid-August, Thorne expressed that the choice to make an OnlyFans was made in order to gain research for a feature film she is to star in about sex work. She claimed this film would be directed by Sean Baker, who later denied the project’s existence .
After Thorne’s scam effectively overloaded OnlyFans, the site implemented a $50 price cap on pay-per-view content, as well as capping the allowed tip amount at $100. This drastically reduces the profitability of OnlyFans. “I have one subscriber who tips really substantially, and he can’t do that anymore. Some people will lose hundreds a week,” Spud (Twitter and OnlyFans @delvilryfairy) told F.
Lulu (@angel_ic333 on Twitter, ratprincess333 on OnlyFans) said, “I think it starts with Bella Thorne committing a very violent, harmful act due to lack of education… and also taking a white supremacist position. Sex work started with Black trans femme people for the most part, and the history of sex work is incredibly colonized, so it’s a lot more complicated for non-white people doing it. You have to really do the self work for [sex work] to be an appropriate and non-harmful action. Bella Thorne did not.”
Luna adds, in light of the price caps: “I’ve seen a lot of people needing to do promotional work on Twitter and discount their prices.” Terri expresses her frustration at the injustice done to her fellow sex workers. “I don’t know if she did that just to pick up a quick million, but it was fucked up, because some people rely on that.”
Thorne attempted to apologize for her actions by tweeting an offer to promote others’ OnlyFans, and to contact the company about the policy changes. However, Terri asserts that instead, she should take some of that million and “She should donate it to some of the girls who were affected by it.” Thorne has yet to tweet that she has any intention of doing so.
Sex workers will feel the backlash of Bella Thorne’s OnlyFans exploit, but like they have for centuries, they will adapt and continue to stand as a vital part of our market, culture and community.