Sex Workers Are Furious About Bella Thorne's Self-Serving OnlyFans 'Tourism'

Sex Workers Are Furious About Bella Thorne's Self-Serving OnlyFans 'Tourism'
Photo:Sarah Morris (Getty Images)

Bella Thorne took to Twitter over the weekend to apologize over the controversy surrounding her newly-created OnlyFans. Just last week, the media lit up with news that the former Disney star had made $1 million dollars during her first 24 hours on OnlyFans, a premium social media platform that has become a vital source of income for many sex workers amid the pandemic, with Thorne claiming that she joined to conduct research for an upcoming project with the acclaimed director Sean Baker. In the days that followed, though, she was accused of engaging in fraudulent behavior on the site and triggering OnlyFans policy changes that harm sex workers. Now, in a multi-part Twitter thread, Thorne has apologized, claiming that she was trying to “remove the stigma behind sex, sex work, and the negativity that surrounds the word SEX itself by bringing a mainstream face to it.”

This has, appropriately, only led to more outrage.

After last week’s headlines about the million-dollar payday, there came allegations that Thorne had charged $200 for nudes that she failed to deliver, and which reportedly led to numerous refund requests from OnlyFans. She denied the allegations to the Los Angeles Times. (Thorne’s publicist did not respond to Jezebel’s request for comment.) That same week, OnlyFans introduced a policy change that rankled content creators, adding a 30-day wait period for payouts and restricting pay-per-view prices to $50. The company says the policy change wasn’t based on a single user, but many saw it as a response to the alleged chargebacks resulting from Thorne’s purported research. What’s more, Baker, the acclaimed director, came out to say that, counter to her initial claim, he is not working on this project with Thorne and had urged her to “consult with sex workers and address the way she went about this as to NOT hurt the sex work industry.”

Now, Thorne is on the defense—and her defense of “bringing a mainstream face” to OnlyFans has been met with skepticism. “I think it’s bullshit, frankly,” said Sinnamon Love of the BIPOC Adult Industry Collective. For one, Love points out, OnlyFans is already mainstream. At the start of this year, the platform was featured in the New York Times. Then came Beyonce’s famed shoutout in Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage” remix. Earlier this month, Cardi B joined OnlyFans, but there were no big payday headlines and she was clear from the start about the nature of the venture: “No I’m not going to be showing my titties, or my pussy, or my ass,” she said. In contrast, Thorne promoted the launch of her OnlyFans with a video in which she wore a necklace reading “SEX” and pulled at the top of her pink bikini. As Love said of Thorne’s OnlyFans, “Stigma is not dismantled by a mainstream celebrity pretending to do sex work.”

In fact, it’s precisely the stigma of sex work that can benefit a mainstream celebrity like Thorne. Love points to the classic case of Disney teen idols who throw off the shackles of their previous “good girl” selves by adopting sexier dress or taking on risqué acting roles in an attempt to “rebrand themselves” (see: Miley Cyrus, Britney Spears, etc.). Thorne got her start in a Disney series and it’s easy to see her distanced proximity to sex work through a similar lens. As Maxine Doogan of the sex work advocacy group ESPLER puts it, “She’s a tourist, a wannabe.” Similarly, Cristine Sardina, director of the sex worker rights organization Desiree Alliance, said in a statement to Jezebel, “This is not a game or a ‘fun’ thing to do. This is our business and livelihood.”

Stigma is not dismantled by a mainstream celebrity pretending to do sex work.

Love notes that Thorne hasn’t done any of the mutual signal boosting that is common among sex workers on social media. As Love put it, “The idea of, ‘Oh, I’m going to draw attention to OnlyFans so other people will get more traction and more money—how? Not unless you are consciously amplifying the voices and images of actual creators on that platform.” Currently, OnlyFans creators are posting links to their own accounts in Thorne’s apology thread in hopes of a signal boost—but, as of this posting, Thorne has yet to retweet any. She has, however, retweeted the porn performer Lena The Plug, who defended Thorne by saying, “this just normalizes having an [OnlyFans].” Meanwhile, Thorne’s sister has been called out for allegedly making anti-sex work commentary on Instagram.

In her Twitter apology, Thorne pointed toward a porn film that she directed in 2019. “I wrote and directed a porn against the high brows of my peers and managers because I WANTED to help with the stigma behind sex,” she wrote. The film, Her & Him, tells the BDSM-tinged story of a guy who thinks his girlfriend is trying to kill him and it was largely shot in a soft-core style. Although it stars two prominent porn performers, the most explicit penetration shot is of a knife entering into a man’s chest. Less than an attempt at diminishing the stigma of sex work, it seemed a bizarre attempt at sanitizing it. Similarly, just last week Thorne tweeted, seemingly incredulously, in response to several days of OnlyFans buzz: “Also nooooo I’m not doing nudity!!!”

It’s worth noting that Her & Him was shot in collaboration with Pornhub, a tube site helping to decimate the adult industry; and Thorne is now bringing attention to OnlyFans, a platform that has cut referral bonuses and reportedly kicked sex workers off the platform. The changes instituted last week by OnlyFans are a huge blow to content creators, and sex workers in particular, because they limit incomes and delay payouts. “There are people who are literally trying to survive a pandemic and you, with your privilege of working in Hollywood, are literally stealing money out of their pockets,” says Love. OnlyFan’s sudden policy change highlights the extreme tenuousness of mainstream platforms for sex work. “I don’t think OnlyFans was made for us. In fact, I know it wasn’t,” says the porn performer and director Courtney Trouble, who sees it as a platform designed for mainstream influencers and celebrities like Thorne and Cardi B. “My advice to sex workers is to stay on the platform, but diversify.” Trouble adds, “When celebrities gentrify our industry, bad things happen.”

Even taking Thorne’s research claim at face value, it’s questionable just what she could have learned from such an endeavor. Love points out that Thorne’s privilege “puts her in a position where she doesn’t even get to experience the kind of harm that happens to sex workers every day by using these platforms to make a living,” pointing to the widespread piracy of content from OnlyFans accounts, particularly from women of color. Sardina argues that Thorne is “an opportunist who is far removed from the realities sex workers are facing—financially, criminally, and the stigma we experience.”

If Thorne wants to support sex workers’ rights, there are many more direct and effective ways than joining OnlyFans. “Take that money you made and give it to some sex worker-led organizations,” suggested Love, who highlighted the organizations Street Youth Rise Up, The Okra Project, Black Sex Workers Collective, and WeCareTN. She added that celebrities like Thorne can help by educating their followers about decriminalization, and why sex workers prefer it to legalization. Love also points to FKA Twigs who recently helped raise funds to support sex workers during the pandemic. “[Thorne] needs to make reparations to our communities for the damage that she has done,” said Doogan. “She has cost a whole bunch of women who have just suffered through pandemic a major loss of income.”

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