Porn, Privilege and Privacy: Understanding the Vulnerability of OnlyFans Creators

It's time to recontextualize our perception of the porn industry and its subsequent associations with adult content creators. Unfortunately, Bella Thorne has complicated the matter.
September 20, 2020
7 mins read

OnlyFans, a subscription service, markets itself as a medium for content creators, be it fitness trainers, chefs or music artists, to offer videos and photographs behind a paywall. Out of the millions of users on the platform, though sex workers make up the majority. Various celebrities have thrown their hat into the ring, too, and while it is fair in a free market, their motives appear more greedy than empowering.

Recently, Bella Thorne demonstrated precisely why this behavior from public personalities can complicate the field of adult entertainment. Thorne, who already possesses a net worth of more than $12 million, allegedly earned more than $2 million in less than a week after opening an OnlyFans account of her own. While the page advertised risqué content, buyers soon demanded refunds after she clearly overvalued her product. Some even claimed the content was no different from her Instagram feed.

“People have to understand that OnlyFans was created as a way to redistribute wealth back to the sex workers the industry has been exploiting… Bella Thorne already has the money and resources to make and promote the content she wants to,” user C0ncreteveins explained.

Not only did her actions frustrate those who use the platform as their sole means of revenue, but it also forced the company to instate relatively harmful policies: Tips are now limited, and the payout period has been extended.

Her delve into the realm of adult content is nothing new, but this time around, Thorne’s escapades effectively complicated the income of countless OnlyFans users. Her flippant adoption of the website also hurts the cultural understanding of sex work in general — those unfamiliar with the production of adult content could use Thorne’s uncalculated, distasteful behavior as a benchmark for the community at large.

The Los Angeles Times clarified, “Part of the reason she started her own OnlyFans page … was to do research for [a film] project.” For many, however, OnlyFans is a livelihood, not some half-baked social experiment.

Thorne might have the pleasure of retreating to a lavish mansion after a long day of scamming folks, but others must wrestle with the consequences. This restrictive class difference exemplifies why it’s so important to understand key facets of the platform.

OnlyFans simplifies the producer-to-consumer relationship, transcending hefty contracts and greedy film agents. The interface unambiguously offers three options when visiting a user’s page: the ever-familiar follow button, a messaging platform and the choice to leave a tip.

This unmediated market system places all of the power in the hands of users, aside from the 20% cut that OnlyFans takes for themselves. Yet, Thorne’s recent interference challenged this autonomy.

With the recent limitations put in place, creators now must find alternatives to make up for lost revenue. While the millions Thorne made likely siphoned from others’ paychecks, it’s doubtful she would attempt any monetary reconciliation.

Surveying the landscape

An official blog post from OnlyFans intrepidly states, “Content is king… unlock the power of your influence.” Creators are served an immovable pair of rose-colored glasses from the beginning, coerced by dollar signs and promises of a loyal fanbase.

Behavior on these online platforms then metamorphosizes into something more permanent, revealing that our digital and material identities are not as separable as it once seemed. A departure from the porn industry alleviates concerns of physical health and safety, but moving into the slurry depths of digitized content raises issues surrounding the private identity inherently tied to produced material.

Thorne’s behavior underscores the evident privilege of her wrongdoings; these actions pulled her into the spotlight, but how far will the consequences take her career? At the end of the day, her Instagram and Twitter accounts collectively boast over 30 million followers, and, after all, any press is good press for most of the rich and famous.

Sex work inarguably remains stigmatized in the public spotlight, forcing those who participate in the industry to often hide this facet of their lives. Billions of users flock to porn websites annually, yet most fail to protect these women when their private identities trickle into the world.

With consideration to virtually any upset on social media, the internet evidently grants many the esteem to cross moral and personal boundaries. Beyond demonstrating interest in a creator’s work, some have used OnlyFans as a means to converge the user’s private and public lives; Thorne may have unintentionally harmed thousands of adult content creators, but others target users with objective spite.

“I created a fake page & went undercover… these women are about to learn a lesson about participating in online sex work,” wrote Twitter user ProfessWilhelm.

ProfessWilhelm solicited photos through proper payment procedure, then forwarded the sensitive content to family members and friends of the models.

Consequently, ProfessWilhelm and his callous #AbolishSexWork movement is only a microcosm of a greater issue at hand for OnlyFans creators. Of course, Thorne is still vulnerable to misogyny, but her reckless behavior runs linear with the same oppressive behavior.

She claims the account was initially created to raise awareness for women in sex work, but the payoff is far from intersectional. When thinking back to the seven-figure paycheck, it seems protected class interests take priority over genuine progressivism.

Her response to the backlash reasserts her own social ascendency and privilege without entirely acknowledging those she affected: “I was trying… to help bring more faces to the site to create more revenue for content creators on the site.” In a later tweet, she adds, “I’m truly sorry.”

Her follow-up gaslights critics and victims of her behavior into thinking any intention should outweigh her actions; the condolences dragging behind Thorne’s meager justification delineates an understanding that she can exit the room virtually unscathed, a zipless movement akin to switching off one’s smartphone.

G., and undergraduate student who requested anonymity for this piece, called attention to a silver lining sewn into the tricky playing field of adult content creation.

“I really appreciate the time we are in right now, because five years ago something like this would be seen so much more negatively. I think allowing space for women to celebrate their bodies, sometimes for a profit, without being defined by it is long overdue,” G. noted. “In my opinion, taking away the stigma of ‘sex work’ will also lead to less disrespect and allows it to be empowering, rather than degrading.”

Though members of the nouveau riche, like Thorne, may attempt to co-opt an inimitable social and sexual platform, G.’s own experience clarifies that OnlyFans may stand resilient in the wake of such appropriation.

Luke Gair, Sewanee: The University of the South

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Luke Gair

Sewanee: The University of the South

Currently a senior at Sewanee: The University of the South, Luke Gair enjoys long days on the Cumberland Plateau and winding conversations with friends.

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