Recently, the 22-year-old former Disney actress Bella Thorne joined OnlyFans. It sparked minor controversy and a lot of interest, and, a week later, she’s now being accused of destroying the lives of thousands of sex workers. What happened, and what can it teach us about the economic power of celebrities?
OnlyFans is a platform where content creators can post premium provocative and intimate photos, videos and text messages. It has around 60 million users and 750,000 creators globally, according to the most recent data. Some of these creators are sex workers, but many are singers, dancers, musicians and comedians who do not produce any sexual content. For the sex worker portion of the website, OnlyFans has proven a reliable and primary source of income during the pandemic, and it allows them control of their bodies and money in an industry that is typically highly exploitative (save the 20% cut for the platform itself).
Payments also shifted to monthly instead of weekly, limiting access to funds, directly and immediately impacting the financial situation of half a million people
Thorne joined the website at the end of August, gaining over 50,000 followers and earning approximately $2 million in a week ($1 million in a single day), easily breaking OnlyFans’ records. However, issues soon emerged. Thorne was charging fans $200 for a pay-per-view nude image that was actually a lingerie picture. Thousands of subscribers demanded refunds, and price caps soon followed. They may or may not have been linked to Thorne’s actions, but many creators angrily blamed her for jeopardising their earning potential.
Prior to the Bella Thorne story, creators had a greater freedom to charge whatever they wanted, and customers were also able to tip as they wished. After the introduction of these caps, paid private messages were limited at $100 (down from $200), and pay-per-view posts dropped from $200 to $50. A new maximum tip price was set to $100 for the first four months, with an increase to $200 after that. Payments also shifted to monthly instead of weekly, limiting access to funds, directly and immediately impacting the financial situation of half a million people. OnlyFans said that the changes reflect an “evolving process” that is designed to “ensure payment protection for both content creators and users”.
If celebrities help drive a transition towards less explicit content and creators, it could help side-line and undervalue the contribution of sex workers on the site
The platform said in a comment that “any changes to transaction limits are not based on any one user”, but Thorne’s public statements since her week on OnlyFans have only infuriated creators more. Initially, she apologised on Twitter and said she joined OnlyFans for film research purposes, not because she needs to make a living. In response to the controversy, the film’s supposed director Sean Baker then distanced himself from the controversy and Thorne: “I would never do anything that could possibly hurt the community.” He later said that he “advised her team to consult with sex workers and address the way she went about this as to NOT hurt the sex work industry”.
In a Tweet, she said: “I wanted to bring attention to the site, the more people on the site the more likely of a chance to normalize the stigmas, and in trying to do this I hurt you. I have risked my career a few times to remove the stigma behind sex work, porn, and the natural hatred people spew behind anything sex related. I wrote and directed a porn against the high brows of my peers and managers because I WANTED to help with the stigma behind sex.”
Since its launch in 2016, OnlyFans has become synonymous with sex work and nudity, and its popularity has grown during the pandemic. Celebrities like Cardi B joined the platform, and Instagram influencers like Caroline Calloway used it to sell nudes. But as famous faces begin to use OnlyFans, it has resulted in a sense of weariness among sex workers. If celebrities help drive a transition towards less explicit content and creators, it could help side-line and undervalue the contribution of sex workers on the site. As many in the community rely on OnlyFans for earnings, celebrity involvement is a real risk that could force them out of the market and an income in the process.
Bella Thorne has no right to speak for us and could never know the daily challenges we face every day
In response to the moves, Thorne has announced that she is meeting with OnlyFans to discuss the new policy changes. She tweeted: “This is fucked up and I’m sorry comment any ideas or concerns you want brought up to OF!! and send me your links and a pick so I can promote you guys.” But this too has caused upset – sex workers are angry that Thorne’s actions have impacted on their income, and that she has now appointed herself as their representative. As Stephanie Michelle, a professional cosplayer, says: “Bella Thorne has no right to speak for us and could never know the daily challenges we face every day.”
The Bella Thorne story is a fantastic example of the market power wielded by celebrities. It can be positive, raising awareness of products or causes, but this example illustrates its destructive potential – by seeking an easy payday, a celebrity may have financially ruined a lot of sex workers living on the breadline. As OnlyFans content creator Bea King said: “It threatens our livelihood when major celebrities join platforms for working class sex workers because it changes the market and, in Bella’s case, makes a mockery of the work we do.” It may be glamorous to see famous people on these platforms, but the consequences further down the line can be considerable.