Posted on November 03 2020
BELLA THORNE'S ONLY FANS: DESTIGMATISATION OR GENTRIFICATION?
By Emily Evans
Online sex workers woke up on 28th August 2020 to a fun surprise: the announcement that OnlyFans would be introducing a cap on the amounts creators can earn for exclusive content and tips. They also changed their weekly payments to monthly (at least in the US), completely changing people’s financial situations in the middle of a pandemic and global recession. As well as that big ol’ kick in the crotch , SWs were already tackling a controversy surrounding ex-Disney starlet and present-day actress Bella Thorne.
If you’re unfamiliar with Bella Thorne’s OnlyFans controversy I recommend following @prettyboygirl and reading fear take on the situation. To break down the situation into its most simple facts: Bella Thorne created an OnlyFans under the guise of doing “research” for a new acting role (this alibi was later proven false by the film’s supposed director, Sean Baker). Thorne charged a subscription fee of $16.99 and advertised exclusive content for $200, teasing fans about the possibility of nude photos, only to deny this after making $1million on the site. So far she claims the money is going to charity and towards film production, but sex workers are calling for the money to go into mutual aid funds or to help sex workers start creative projects that actually tell their stories. Whether or not the OnlyFans limits and Bella Thorne’s controversy are connected, both situations are deeply shitty for digital SWs and those who have recently transferred onto the site in order to make a living wage during the pandemic.
To give Bella the benefit of the doubt, let’s look at her reasoning:
“[I wanted to] Remove the stigma behind sex, sex work, and the negativity that surrounds the word SEX itself by bringing a mainstream face to it that’s what I was trying to do, to help bring more faces to the site to create more revenue for content creators on the site.” (source: Twitter)
“I am a mainstream face and when you have a voice, a platform, you try to use you [sic] in helping others and advocate for something bigger than yourself. Again in this process I hurt you and for that I’m truly sorry.” (source: Twitter)
She claims the motivation was to remove the stigma around online SW and bring the platform into the “mainstream”, but what did she think this would do to existing sex workers on the site? Adding more famous people onto a site where everyday SWs already struggle to compete only makes things worse. Adding more clients to the site probably wouldn’t hurt, but the clients she’s bringing aren’t going to suddenly decide to redirect their money to other content creators, especially if they’ve already forked out $216.99. In addition, more mainstream clients on the site opens up the possibility for increased harassment and privacy complications that SWs have to face when, as many have pointed out, Bella herself won’t be experiencing that kind of abuse.
Her ‘apology’ tweets clearly show that she views OF as a charity. She claims she joined the site as a favour to struggling sex workers, but failed to realise that you cannot help people by bulldozing their business like this or speaking over them. Her attempt to ‘destigmatise’ sex work reeks of gentrification and is part of the larger problem of inequality that exists in the world of digital sex work.
In her article on racialisation in the camming sector, Angela Jones suggests that recent trends in sex work point to a larger increase in gentrification in the industry.
SEX WORK IS REAL WORK. I’M NOT SURE IF I CAN SAY THIS ANY CLEARER, BUT SEXUAL LABOUR TAKES INTENSE PHYSICAL, EMOTIONAL AND OFTEN SPIRITUAL WORK
Although the global sexual economy continues to draw participants from the most disadvantaged strata of the working poor, it increasingly incorporates members of other social classes as well—in particular, individuals pertaining to what has been variously termed the ‘‘new’’ middle class.
Meanwhile, studies show that racial inequality and fat phobia affect earning potential amongst SWs. The digitisation of Sex Work has created an image of the industry as a pluralist sexual market, meaning people have bought into the belief that ANYONE can make THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS if they start posting foot pics on tumblr or spend a few hours masturbating into a camera once a week. This is completely untrue for many reasons, the first being that SEX WORK IS REAL WORK. I’m not sure if I can say this any clearer, but sexual labour takes intense physical, emotional, mental and often spiritual work. To misrepresent it as a get-rich-quick scheme not only devalues the work of existing SWs, but also leads the young or inexperienced to enter an industry that can be more challenging and potentially dangerous than they expect. Additionally, it creates the illusion that the internet is a haven of total equality and pluralism, when it’s not.
Angela Jones’ research points out that on camsites like MyFreeCams, Black and Hispanic women had “disproportionately lower cam scores than other ethnic groups”, and white women “were overrepresented in the highest camscores”. In terms of camming, higher rating translates to higher earnings and more exposure. BIPOC women on escort sites were also found to earn less than their white counterparts, as evidenced by a comparative study of online escort services: “while white women’s fees ranged up to $1000 an hour, no woman of colour in the sample charged more than $500”. BBWs (Big Beautiful Women) also seem to suffer since their earnings were “in the lowest range of the sample” despite their popularity. As we see reflected in the rest of society, the bodies and labour of women of colour and larger women is not generally seen as valuable as typically thin, young and white women. As this recent analysis points out, income made on OnlyFans is not well distributed, with the top 10% of accounts making 73% of all the money. Although comprehensive studies haven’t been done on OF yet, it’s probably safe to say the site is replicating existing racist and fatphobic patterns in the digital industry.
ALWAYS REMEMBER: IN ORDER TO SUPPORT SEX WORKERS, YOU NEED TO PAY THEM FIRST.
However, the pluralism illusion creates the myth that this is due to desirability. In the open market of sexual labour, surely those who are more popular and make more money are simply more in-demand. As the argument goes, people can’t help their preferences. Perhaps the main reason this is wrong comes down to social engineering. Instagram and Facebook are finally examining their racist algorithms, just one problematic feature of AI that have been recognised since 2016 (and probably way before that). You only have to scroll through one or two Black, plus-size, disabled and/or queer model’s instagrams to see that there’s a prevalent issue with shadow bans and censorship on the platform. So it’s clear that Bella Thorne doesn’t represent the stigmatised portion of Sex Workers, and her presence on the site does little except exacerbate the gentrification and racial inequality that already exists.
How can things change? Some say we should throw the baby out with the bathtub and abolish sex work all together. ‘Radical’ feminists like Finn Mackay, author of ‘Radical Feminism: Feminist Activism in Movement’ approach the issue from an abolitionist perspective, claiming that sex work involves selling “access to one’s body”, not just your labour. According to them, the Nordic model should be used to make it illegal to buy sexual services, so theoretically more pressure would be on clients. For years SWs have made it clear that this model DOES NOT WORK.
Let’s take the instance of Sweden, who outlawed the purchase of sexual services in 1999. Rather than decreasing the risks of the sex industry, Petra Ostergren claims that the situation has made it “impossible for them to be open about their work, speak out against injustice and to organise themselves”. She points to the fact that three separate reports concluded that there was no overall decrease in activity, and it was more likely that women in the industry were now forced into more dangerous situations that exposed them to violent clients, STIs and placed them at a higher risk of deportation. The main effect of criminalisation is that it feeds into existing hierarchies of power. In Sweden it allowed women from Nigeria to be deported en mass during the early 2000s as those working on the streets could be detained immediately, regardless of their immigration status. Sweden’s National Police Board also claimed that with less clients and more competition, already vulnerable women are now taking increased risks to avoid poverty.
As this Nordic model continues to spread, and America’s recent adoption of SESTA/FOSTA continues to conflate sex trafficking with consensual sex work, it is more important than ever that sex workers are heard, rather than subjected to gentrification and erasure by already rich celebrities. If you’re wondering how to support SWs during the pandemic, then I recommend looking at this list of 85 Ways to Make Sex Workers’ Lives a Little Easier written by Femi Babylon for VICE. If you want to know what sex workers really want, listen to them. Follow these blogs and instagrams, and SW trade unions to keep up-to-date with current events that effect the industry. And always remember: in order to support sex workers, you need to pay them first.
Emily is a non-binary writer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. They work in social media and spend any extra time writing stories and articles about queer history. You can find more of their work at @queersandbooks across all social media or their website.
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