In early August of 2020, actress and child-star Bella Thorne’s OnlyFans account captured the attention of many young adults when she posted a highly edited Instagram video, in which she revealed that she would be selling her nude photos for roughly $200 each. While she received thousands of orders, buyers never acquired the promised photos. Instead, while pocketing an estimated $2 million, Thorne created an immense amount of backlash and prompted a change in OnlyFans’ terms and conditions, limiting the amount one could charge for content.
While Bella’s pockets remained lined with stolen cash, the established sex workers who create OnlyFans content for income now have to limit how much they charge for their content. Thorne’s actions only cement the fears of the OnlyFans’ creators –– that “digital gentrification” would slowly push them out of a job as famous, wealthy and overwhelmingly white creators crowd the platform and acquire its members.
Before OnlyFans became a pop-culture reference –– and before Bella Thorne had misled its users –– it was a site creators could use to earn a living. So, how did we get here? And, more importantly, how has OnlyFans reshaped the image and relationship America has with sex work?
The Creation and Success of OnlyFans
OnlyFans was originally advertised as a platform for creators to produce and charge for “premium content,” offering modern-day influencers the opportunity to generate more income. But others had imagined a different use of the platform, and soon OnlyFans became a lucrative business, offering sex workers the opportunity to make tens of thousands of dollars a month. Especially as the established porn industry continues to dwindle worker’s wages as competition from free streaming platforms grow, OnlyFans has become more than just an opportunity to make a higher salary; it also offers a reclamation of power, giving creators the ability to set their own price. It is this allure that has attracted roughly 450,000 creators to the platform, a number that is only expected to grow as the site becomes increasingly relevant in popular culture.
To understand the power behind the platform, you need to first understand how OnlyFans has transformed the relationship between creators and their subscribers, and more importantly, between sex workers and the public. In an interview with the New York Times, creator and entrepreneur Ms. Harwood characterizes OnlyFans not as a site for pornography, but as a site for relationships. She states, “You can get porn for free. Guys don’t want to pay for that. They want the opportunity to get to know somebody they’ve seen in a magazine or on social media. I’m like their online girlfriend.” Thus, rather than being a medium for detached physical pleasure, OnlyFans appeals to users’ longing for intimacy and humanity, establishing a connection between creators and their subscribers that is relatively unseen in the sex industry. These connections ultimately pay off –– Ms. Harlow makes well over $100,000 in just four months.
Thus, not only does OnlyFans offer creators high pay and security, but it also is reshaping the way a large majority of Americans view sex workers. Rather than simply sexual objects, OnlyFans has humanized sex workers, a simple but transformative first step on the path to restorative justice for these laborers.
From OnlyFans to the Larger Sex Industry
While OnlyFans represents the positive transformation of the sex industry, there are still many Americans suffering under the status quo. Not only are thousands of sex workers criminalized or deported for their work, many experience harassment straight from the hands of law enforcement. In fact, among the 80 percent of New York sex workers who have experienced violence, 27 percent state that the violence was caused by New York’s very own police officers. This is in addition to the fact that, according to a study conducted in 2008, one in five sex workers were asked to perform sex acts by police officers. With the lack of institutional support, sex workers are often forced to work within the shadows, in an effort to avoid law enforcement, but in doing so, sex workers simultaneously expose themselves to even more risks.
With law enforcement refusing to support sex workers, many look towards legislative solutions, yet to no avail. The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) and the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) make it harder for sex workers to find clients, as they restrict the spaces sex workers can operate within. Passed in 2018, both SESTA and FOSTA target sex trafficking through online platforms that are associated with sexual content creation. In reality, these laws have preemptively shut down fourteen online platforms frequented by sex workers, which increasingly force these individuals to perform their work in more dangerous spheres. Additionally, these measures hurt marginalized communities the most, as POC and trans women who are pushed out of the formal economy often rely on these restricted spaces to make a living.
The answer may lie in New Zealand’s approach to sex work legislation. After the Prostitution Reform Act of 2003 was passed, New Zealand had completely decriminalized sex work, while ensuring that workers’ rights and safety were protected. After the passage of this act, sex workers were more comfortable reporting violence or malpractice and pursuing justice. Comparatively in the United States, as sex workers are increasingly criminalized and oppressed, the fight for more progressive, intersectional legislation still remains.
While OnlyFans has the opportunity to redefine sex work in America, legislative action must cement this revolution, and implementing legislation similar to New Zealand’s is a step in the right direction. If not, we may leave an entire class of marginalized individuals in the dark, as they remain subject to violence, incarceration and poverty.
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