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Until a few short weeks ago, Bella Thorne was best known as an actor, model and singer, having risen to fame through squeaky-clean Disney show Shake It Up.
We live in a curious age for celebrity obsession; an age where high-profile individuals are expected to cultivate their image beyond the red carpet, beyond the glossy magazine shoots that offer glimpses into a world many of us will never get to touch.
I know I’m not the only one to feel a strange tug of fascination at the sight of amateurish Instagram pics taken in palatial A-list mansions; breakfast cereals on show and chargers dangling from ordinary plug sockets.
So it was no great surprise to me when 22-year-old Thorne raked in a record-breaking $1 million during her first 24 hours on OnlyFans, charging people $20 per month to view her content.
We view sex and nudity differently when it comes to celebrity bodies, with their flesh having long been used to shape each generation’s ideal of what a body should look like.
However, Thorne has since faced a fierce backlash from subscribers and OnlyFans content creators alike, and has been widely accused of lying about creating nude content.
When discussing her account over Twitter, she stated that ‘Nooooo I’m not doing nudity!!! <3’, however allegations quickly began to circulate that she was in fact selling a misleading pay-per-view (PPV) ‘nude’ for $200.
A screenshot of an apparent conversation between a user and Thorne soon went viral, a conversation that shows her confirming the pay-per-view pic was indeed a naked picture.
This ‘naked’ pic allegedly turned out to be just a lingerie photograph, not too dissimilar to pictures that can already be freely found on her Instagram page. This led to a flood of users demanding refunds for their purchase.
Shortly after this controversy, OnlyFans placed a cap on the prices content creators can charge for PPV content as well as on tips. A spokesperson has since denied this was because of Thorne, telling media outlets ‘any changes to transaction limits are not based on any one user’.
However, many content creators remain unconvinced, and are still angry at her for potentially damaging the livelihoods of sex workers during what is an extremely difficult time for the industry.
In the eyes of some subscribers, she’s led people on. But for many sex workers using OnlyFans, it’s about way more than this apparent deceit.
Many believe Thorne has completely undermined what it means to be a sex worker, jumping into an industry she knows very little about while potentially taking work away from those who rely upon such sites for income.
Celebrities have long exasperated professionals by dipping a toe in industries in which many have spent years of their lives building a name and a reputation for themselves.
Cooking and children’s books come to mind, with famous faces all too often drowning out the voices that you don’t hear on the telly, the less recognisable but hugely talented individuals who have quietly proven themselves in a less sparkly, less extraordinary world.
UNILAD spoke with Elysia Nicole, a sex worker from Buxton, Derbyshire, whose decision to start creating adult content was financially motivated and based upon her circumstances.
A single mother, Elysia has worked hard over the years to build up her social media following, and at the time of writing has 300 Onlyfans subscribers and an approximate 20,000 followers from various social media platforms.
Although Elysia believes Thorne’s decision to join Onlyfans account was ‘well intentioned’, she has emphasised the ‘devastating impact’ this decision has had for many full-time sex workers.
Elysia told UNILAD:
Lots of Onlyfans creators, like myself, are single parents who solely rely on creating adult content to pay their bills and keep a roof over their head.
[…] There’s not just the content creation side either, for a lot of us it’s also the maintaining of relationships with fans that helps to keep us afloat, but that can be hugely draining and time consuming.
When celebrities with millions of established fans enter a space like adult content creation, they instantly dominate it – it’s the equivalent of putting a shark in a tank with lots of little fish. All the little fish now have to fight even harder to survive.
It appears Thorne believes she had good intentions, explaining in a series of tweets that she had wanted to ‘remove the stigma’ by ‘bringing a mainstream face to it’.
However, sometimes good intentions simply aren’t enough, and it’s important for celebrities to have a full and educated understanding of an industry before diving in, especially when it comes to industries that are already so stigmatised.
Elysia believes Thorne’s foray into OnlyFans has already taken money away from full-time sex workers, but noted that this was ‘only because it wasn’t a very well thought-out plan’.
According to Elysia, if Thorne’s account had been better planned, the additional publicity and new OnlyFans subscribers could have actually been ‘very beneficial’ to those creating adult content:
A good example of this would be Cardi B, who recently started an Onlyfans to share exclusive content from her video WAP ft. Megan Thee Stallion and made it clear she wouldn’t be sharing fully nude content.
My advice to celebrities would be to carefully think about how their actions could impact the industry as a whole, and ask themselves who it may help and who it may hinder, both long and short term.
I think the reality for a lot of sex workers is that we get into the industry because we need a way to make ends meet. It took Bella Thorne a week to make $2 million, but that certainly isn’t the reality for most of us.
Speaking with the Los Angeles Times, Thorne claimed that she was partly using OnlyFans for research for an upcoming movie about sex work she’s making with director Sean Baker (The Florida Project and Tangerine).
Research for a role is absolutely important for actors who want to better understand their characters’ lives and motivations.
However, there are arguably less disruptive ways Thorne could have gone about this, all while appreciating that her own enormous privilege means she can never truly step into the shoes of the majority of ordinary sex workers.
UNILAD also spoke with Crystal Denison, a sex worker and ambassador for escort site, Ennvy.com, who hadn’t heard of Bella Thorne prior to the scandal.
Although she thinks Thorne’s upcoming film about sex work sounds ‘interesting’, she feels ‘she needs to speak with real sex workers, hearing their truths instead of just focusing on her own profits or merely scratching the surface’.
Whilst Crystal has no ‘significant issues’ with Thorne joining OnlyFans, she has been left displeased by recent comments made by her sister Kaili Thorne, who clashed with sex workers after claiming sex work is ‘not real’.
Kaili, who has also joined OnlyFans, stated that content creators were ‘not creative’, arguing ‘all your bios say the same thing: ‘Insatiable sl*t.’ Get creative and maybe you’d keep your clientele’. Thorne has not yet spoken out publicly about her sister’s comments.
For Crystal, there ‘needs to be mutual respect’, and she has described the notion that sex workers can in any meaningful way compete with Bella’s £2 million profit through creating a more ‘unique’ bio as ‘ridiculous’.
I think her use of OnlyFans pushes it into the mainstream which should be great, but this unfortunately does mean that OnlyFans is moving further away from sex workers. They don’t welcome us onto the site like they used to, especially publicly like they have Bella…
[…] Seemingly, Bella’s use of OnlyFans is making its bosses more dismissive of sex workers which is very ironic… we’ve helped to make the platform what it is today!
However, there are some adult content creators who believe Thorne is being judged a little harshly, with OnlyFans professional Lauren Elizabeth sympathising that ‘it must be really mentally hard to get that much hate’.
Lauren told UNILAD that she believed Thorne’s intentions had been good, and remarked that ‘whatever she did, she didn’t ask for Only Fans to change how it was running its platform’.
Shortly after OnlyFans changed its policies, Thorne herself took to Twitter to apologise, describing the restrictions as ‘f*cked up’. She revealed she was set to meet with OnlyFans representatives and invited fans to share any ‘ideas or concerns’.
Lauren believes Thorne would not have gone about things in the way that she did if she had known what was going to happen, and feels that people have been ‘mean’ to her.
She added that there are some positives to be taken from Thorne’s presence on the site:
Ultimately, a celebrity joining the platform shows a user that it is safe. Then they’re more likely to sign up to your page. They’re aren’t going to take anything away from you, or stop you getting fans. Because they aren’t you.
Of course, as told to UNILAD by Catherine Stephens of the International Union of Sex Workers, this issue is ‘much bigger than one clueless celebrity claiming good intentions clodhopping into sex workers’ lives and doing us harm’.
According to Catherine, sex workers are unfortunately ‘all too used to’ this sort of careless behaviour:
It’s about the power of unaccountable platforms – like Amazon, like Facebook, like Uber – in a context where the right of sex workers to earn a living, even to exist, on equal terms is contested by campaigners who want to see a world in which no woman makes money selling sexual services.
Everyone who finds work online needs a platform that works for its users rather than its stockholders. Sex workers are endangered when we are excluded and when others speak for us rather than listen to us.
Some adult content creators have publicly expressed fears they are being edged out of OnlyFans altogether, with marketing focusing instead on less stigmatised professionals such as chefs and fitness gurus.
As in many areas of society, it would appear sex workers are increasingly being kept in the margins of the platform, on account of what Catherine has referred to as the ‘gentrification of the internet’.
As with many industries, the ongoing pandemic has proven to be a very difficult time for many sex workers, and platforms such as OnlyFans should arguably be showing greater support and respect.
Many client-facing sex workers have been forced to take their work online during the outbreak, and, of course, will not be experiencing anywhere near the same instant success as Thorne.
A spokesperson from the English Collective of Prostitutes told UNILAD that it is ‘increasingly hard for sex workers to make a living’, remarking ‘every way we turn our money is being cut’:
OnlyFans has taken advantage of the situation and used it to reduce women’s income. If women have less coming in then they’ll be forced to take more risks to earn the same amount. This could include giving up their anonymity and showing their face online.
This may be the reason for the big increase in stalking cases that we are dealing with at the moment. The criminalisation of sex work encourages online platforms to take advantage in this way, and for others to persecute and discriminate against sex workers.
This situation reinforces the need for decriminalisation of sex work and government Covid-19 financial support for sex workers.
Governments around the world have shown support for various businesses during these unprecedented times. However, sex workers are all too often left without a safety net or financial assistance, leaving them particularly vulnerable.
The decriminalisation of sex work would help offer greater security for so many sex workers at this uncertain time, while offering better protection against sudden policy changes by platforms such as OnlyFans.
In 2003, the New Zealand Prostitution Reform Act (PRA) fully decriminalised sex work, and just like any other struggling professionals, sex workers received emergency wage subsidies throughout lockdown. Enough to pay bills, cover rent and stay afloat during the worst pandemic in living memory.
In contrast, the UK – with the exception of Northern Ireland – has a system of partial criminalisation in place, meaning many sex workers do not receive the sort of social benefits that many other workers would expect.
This lack of recognition – now more than ever – pushes many vulnerable workers into poverty and homelessness, while forcing some sex workers into continuing their client-facing work despite the health risks involved.
Quite understandably, the actions of Thorne have angered a lot of people, whether or not they work in the sex industry.
But this recent scandal sheds light on a far bigger issue, with many ordinary sex workers not having the time or luxury to make mistakes or ‘divide opinion’. Many just want to put food on the table for themselves and their families, and it is their voices that we should be hearing right now.
You can find out more about how you can show support for sex workers on the Ugly Mugs website.
UNILAD has reached out to OnlyFans for comment.
If you have a story you want to tell, send it to UNILAD via [email protected]
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