Since the start of the pandemic back in March, most companies have taken a tremendous financial hit — but that’s not so for OnlyFans. A subscription platform where creators sell content directly to fans that has, since its inception in 2016, primarily been used by sex workers, OnlyFans has seen a tremendous jump in membership since March, with a 75% increase month-to-month in new signups. A plug from Beyonce in her “Savage” remix, compounded with mainstream celebrities like Cardi B and Blac Chyna joining the platform, has only added to its popularity, to the degree that starting an OnlyFans account to make easy money has become something of a meme.
Now, the platform is set to become even more popular after announcing that actor and singer Bella Thorne had become the first creator to make $1 million in a single day. By selling exclusive content at $20 per month, Thorne has made $2 million on the platform in less than a week.
Thorne’s financial windfall made headlines all over the country, with many on social media joking that she had inspired them to sign up for OnlyFans themselves; it was also, undoubtedly, great press for OnlyFans itself. Yet there was one group that was less thrilled about Thorne’s achievement: sex workers, who have been using OnlyFans for years and have been watching the mainstreaming of the platform with ambivalence.
And let me also say this, I’m all about celebs starting an Onlyfans, but what I’m not about is them treating it like some fun science experiment, with the audacity to claim they’re just trying to get the full experience
— Savannah Solo 🤷🏼♀️ Onlyfans (@savannah_solo) August 26, 2020
To be fair to Thorne, whose reps did not return a request for comment, has some experience with the adult industry, having helmed an NSFW film that appeared on Pornhub last year. Yet sex workers were particularly chagrined by Thorne’s comments to the Los Angeles Times that she had joined OnlyFans as research for a role in a film directed by Sean Baker, who previously helmed the award-winning 2015 film Tangerine. “The perspective she’ll gain won’t be representative of what most people experience as content creators on the platform,” says sex worker Ellamourne. “I am certain she’ll deal with some of the same issues — fans crossing boundaries, scammers, etc. But at the end of the day she is a celebrity and wields a large amount of privilege. Unless the intent is to drive the conversation toward decriminalization of sex work, I’ll be disappointed.”
The accolades for Thorne’s financial windfall were particularly offensive to some sex workers in light of the fact that BIPOC celebrities such as rapper Rubi Rose shamed for joining the platform. “[When Rose joined], everyone screamed ‘scam,’” says OnlyFans content creator Savannah Solo. “But Bella Thorne does it for ‘research’ and she’s a god damn entrepreneur.” Sex workers are concerned that coverage of Thorne and other celebrities who make a great deal of money on OnlyFans will deceive people into believing that building a brand on OnlyFans is easy, when it is more often than not an arduous and thankless process. “People think this is easy quick money, blah blah blah. But it ain’t,” says sex worker Allie Eve Knox. “It is full time communication, full time original content creation, full time being ‘on.’”
Content creators on OnlyFans often have to serve as their own photographers, marketers, social media managers, accountants, and technical support team members, which can result in grueling hours; the perception that posting nudes on OnlyFans is a good way to make a quick buck feeds into cultural misogyny and sex work stigma. “When people with huge platforms that happen to be [anti-sex work] or huge misogynists start bringing up OnlyFans in regular conversation, it’s an excuse for the rest of society to dog-pile on us [more than] they already did,” says adult performer Jane Wilde.
To an extent, some of the resentment toward the mainstreaming of OnlyFans can be attributed to concerns about competition: because the platform has exploded in popularity in such a short amount of time, many sex workers are worried that the market may have become oversaturated, and some have reported declining earnings during the pandemic. And as Rolling Stone previously reported, there is also concern that the platform is edging sex workers out, an allegation OnlyFans has denied but that some sex workers say is reflected in the platform’s marketing. “Onlyfans NEVER advertises that they host sex workers. It’s all ‘fitness trainers’ and ‘aspiring chefs’ and ‘models,’” says Solo. “They take 20% of every penny we earn and they can’t even bear to acknowledge we exist.”
Ultimately, however, the greatest issue that sex workers have with celebrities joining the platform is that they benefit from the financial spoils of their platforms, without having to deal with the societal backlash and shaming associated with the profession. “These celebrity users never have to face the stigma that we do,” says sex worker, writer, and cohost of the Peepshow Podcast Jessie Sage. “They can just profit off of platforms we have built, without enduring any of the backlash that we have to endure.” And unlike celebrities like FK Twigs, who recently launched a GoFundMe to donate to sex worker mutual aid funds, Thorne has not vowed to specifically use the money raised from her OnlyFans to support sex workers, instead saying she plans to invest it into her production company and to charity. “To witness a celebrity gentrifying a platform and making obscene amounts of money without acknowledging the plight of sex workers is truly a slap in the face,” says Aussie Rachel, a sex worker and OnlyFans content creator.
Not everyone feels that Thorne lending exposure to the platform is necessarily a bad thing for sex workers. “The influx of celebs will force some accountability on OF. It will make the platform have to fix the issues that it has,” such as technical glitches, says Knox. She’s also hopeful that Thorne making bank on OnlyFans will help erode the stigma associated with making money off NSFW content online, which could trickle down to sex workers and make it easier for them to be paid by, for instance, credit card processors, which are notoriously sex work-unfriendly.
“Maybe it will make it more common that people start paying for content,” she says. “[Maybe people will think], ‘Well, I’ll pay $20 to see Bella in a bikini, maybe I’ll pay $6 for this picture of titties on a beach.’ I’m all about anyone making money off of their content, celeb or sex worker or otherwise. Make that money.”