On the day in August that former Disney star Bella Thorne joined OnlyFans, a subscription site known for adult content, she made $1 million. Before week’s end, she had made another million.
That was bad in itself. Sex workers are the majority of creators on the site, and here was a celebrity coming in and making more in a day than they could in a year. Many sex workers rely on OnlyFans as their sole source of income during the pandemic, as in-person encounters became unsafe. But what especially angered workers was how Thorne caused a wave of chargebacks that “broke OnlyFans” after fans accused her of promising a $200 pay-per-message nude photo that she then shied away from sending.
Many sex workers rely on OnlyFans as their sole source of income during the pandemic, as in-person encounters became unsafe.
Shortly thereafter, OnlyFans changed its terms and conditions, limiting max subscription and tip payments and extending payout time by 23 days in 14 countries where fraud risk is deemed highest. The company denies these changes were due to actions of any single user, but it’s hard to believe the backlash to Thorne didn’t factor into the decision.
To rub salt in the wound, Thorne’s sister Kaili responded to the controversy by seeming to dismiss and shame sex worker concerns. As Sinnamon Love, a long-time adult performer and founder of BIPOC Adult Industry Collective, noted on Instagram, it’s incredibly insulting for rich white women to come into an industry and start judging the people who actually live it. “You don’t get to create some false hierarchy and shame sex workers who are doing this labor because they don’t have access to the same WHITE PRIVILEGE you have.” (Love is also the director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at PeepdotMe, an adult platform and OnlyFans competitor being built that promises 90 percent payouts to creators, compared to the 80 percent paid on OnlyFans.)
There’s a lot to unpack here. But while the scandal has mostly died down, the problems it revealed remain worthy of our attention, especially as we head into fall and winter without a clear end to the Covid-19 pandemic in sight.
Some sex workers accuse Bella Thorne of digital gentrification, fearful of a history of tech companies like Tumblr and Patreon that built their user base off of adult content, only to kick them off once they’ve become established. Others, like Railey Boo and Shae Ashbury, complained about discriminatory customer service. Their accounts were suspended after customers filed chargebacks, losing weeks of income. OnlyFans reportedly ignored their complaints, while Thorne’s account remained undisturbed.
But it’s important to note this isn’t a black and white issue. Not all sex workers are upset with OnlyFans, which has provided a safe platform and financial options. As veteran sex worker Marcela told me, the platform has provided the most freedom she’s ever had.
And that’s because OnlyFans indisputably changed the business model of porn, paying creators directly for their content and offering a higher cut than cam-girling or traditional porn. Here, finally, was a real alternative to PornHub and RedTube, theMindGeek-owned “tube sites,” that sex workers say steal labor from so many adult performers. OnlyFans takes 20 percent of revenues, approximately the same cut as Uber, without dictating the prices that contractors charge.
While mainstream attention could help some sex workers, it could also antagonize anti-sex worker advocates and law enforcement.
In this sense, the real problem with Bella Thorne’s OnlyFans dabbling was PR. While mainstream attention could help some sex workers, it could also antagonize anti-sex worker advocates and law enforcement. So whether it’s fair for Thorne to make more money than sex workers is a valid debate. But what’s clear is that everyone loses if her controversy contributes in any way to OnlyFans being shut down. Because right now, it’s still the best option out there.
Trans sex worker and activist Ashley Lake has spent years trying to hep sex workers find a way to work with digital platforms. She previously helped organize a labor dispute with hundreds of sex workers against Patreon, when the site began removing adult performers. That movement ultimately failed because Patreon’s payment processor, PayPal, refused to accept any sex industry payments — a common problem in the industry.
The 75 percent majority shareholder of OnlyFans, Leonid Radvinsky, previously built MyFreeCams, an adult webcam site. Its CEO, Tim Stokely, previously built Cams4U, another bespoke pornography site. While Stokely has told The New York Times that he’s eager to move the platform “out of the pornography niche,” this move would probably be as bad for the company’s bottom line as it would be to sex workers. After all, Tumblr’s worth plummeted after its porn ban.
So instead of criticizing OnlyFans, we really need to be working with it to make it better and safer for all creators. This means coordinating with organizations like the APAG Union for adult performers, which has helped sex workers restore Instagram and OnlyFans accounts.
Already we are seeing some media sites framing OnlyFans as a “pimp site,” which will doubtless be followed by unwanted and harmful attention from the kinds of anti-prostitution advocates that previously targeted sites like BackPage. Since April, OnlyFans has been involved in multiple scandals with fraud allegations and VAT tax evasion. Similarly, in April 2012, when federal prosecutors began investigating BackPage, finding it difficult to pin down sex trafficking charges, they turned their focus to money laundering.
Already we are seeing some media sites framing OnlyFans as a “pimp site,” which will doubtless be followed by unwanted and harmful attention.
“We’re seeing what happened with BackPage and RentBoy start to happen with OnlyFans,” Ashley Lake warns. “There are now over 750,000 creators on OnlyFans. What happens to these workers if this site gets taken away during the pandemic?”
Dwight Werc, an adult industry tech consultant, explains that many adult startups face similar challenges and repeat the same mistakes. Sex tech companies struggle with cloud hosting, due to SESTA-FOSTA laws restricting sexual content, so many rely on “old school physical servers sitting under employees’ desks.” It’s hard to hire engineers willing to take on the stigma, Werc explained. “Costs are high and profit margins are low, so most companies don’t make much.” Much like the physical sex industry, the landscape of the digital sex trade is also filled with shady dealers and enforcers, blinking in and out of visibility. Fraud and chargebacks occur at an extremely high rate, on the clunky, outdated payment processors.
Indeed, usually the fraud isn’t being committed by people like Bella Thorne — it’s being committed by customers, Werc said.”They want to get as much content as possible for free, and they don’t want to have to pay. They have wives that call the credit companies contesting charges, thinking it’s fraud, because their husbands won’t admit to it.”
Advocate SX Noir, the vice president of Women of Sex Tech and creator of the Black Sex Worker Liberation March, says problems of discrimination and repeat failures might be solved if there were more sex workers in the tech industry, helping to build the platforms that sex workers use. She advocates for equity for women and sex workers in the sex tech space, and dreams of platforms built by former sex workers retrained as engineers and designers.
Groups like Hacking//Hustling fight back against censorship and data privacy laws like EARN-IT. These laws create the legal hurdles that tech companies have to contend with, which they pass on to their users.
During the pandemic, tech companies like Amazon, Uber and MindGeeks are thriving, while porn performers and mom-and-pop retail stores can’t survive on the old business models. Quarantine has highlighted increasing inequality between the haves and have-nots.
To mend public relations, Bella Thorne promised to shout out sex workers on her OnlyFans account. So far, she’s only mentioned a handful. Many, like Aussie Rachel have paid tips to be included in her posts. Rachel received a curt answer from her assistant, “Putting u on the list, bb” — but it’s been weeks, and she’s doubtful she’ll ever be taken off that list. Some sex workers are asking for their money back.
But while those angry at Thorne are especially vocal, others worried for their earnings are keeping quiet.
Sex workers, ever fearful of losing their only source of income to anti-sex crusaders, usually learn to put up with discrimination and abuse from shady bosses and platforms. The precariousness of this labor sector due to criminalization and stigma makes negotiation for fair treatment and better labor conditions nearly impossible.
Mainstream artists like FKA Twigs and Kehlani use their influence to lend stability and support to sex workers by actively decreasing social stigma. But while this kind of solidarity is exemplary (and far better than Bella Thorne’s dabbling) what we really need are safe and legal ways for sex workers to do what millions of Americans depend on them for.