Don't blame Bella Thorne for succeeding in an industry that we enable
22-year-old Bella Thorne — a former Disney child actress now turned actress, model, singer, and director — claims that she was on a mission to “[r]emove the stigma behind sex, sex work, and the negativity that surrounds the word SEX itself” when she set up an account on OnlyFans, a platform that allows sellers to share sexually explicit photos of themselves with paying fans. Within 24 hours, she had set a record, earning $1 million USD. Within the week, her earnings topped $2 million.
During her brief career as an OnlyFans star, Thorne allegedly offered to send customers naked photos of herself for a price of $200, only to then send photos in which she was not actually naked. Enraged customers demanded a refund, overwhelming the customer services department, and leading to a change in policy, with new payment caps introduced.
Many media outlets framed this as a story of female intrasexual competition, with headlines reporting that “Sex workers blame Bella Thorne for changes at OnlyFans” and “Bella Thorne Screwed Over Sex Workers on OnlyFans”. After the scandal broke, Thorne issued a tearful video apology to other OnlyFans sellers, along with a series of tweets explaining her noble intention to destigmatise the sex trade. Her apology has, it seems, not been accepted.
For anyone not familiar with the OnlyFans model, let me briefly summarise: it is where love, trust, and intimacy go to die. The platform is sometimes described as the ‘Patreon of porn’, but is perhaps better understood as the ‘girlfriend experience’ of porn — since free porn is plentifully available online, OnlyFans makes money by offering something special.
Its 60 million customers (overwhelmingly male) pay a regular sum of money in order to access not only sexual images of 750,000 sellers (overwhelmingly female), but also an illusion of closeness. The most successful sellers will chat with customers, message them on their birthdays, and remember their children’s names, giving foolish men the impression that this woman has some emotional attachment to them. All this is enabled by the OnlyFans subscription model, which gives a false impression of privacy, allowing customers to delude themselves that they are in a real relationship with the woman of their dreams, and lulling sellers into a false sense of security. Although the money can be good (sometimes), sellers live under constant threat of exposure, since aggrieved clients may leak images, sometimes to a woman’s relatives or her employer. And once those images are uploaded to cyberspace, they’re never going away.
I have a great deal of sympathy for the OnlyFans sellers, most of them young and poor, whose incomes have been hit as a result of the new rules imposed following the Bella Thorne incident. But I have rather less sympathy for the argument that Thorne acted badly in signing up to the site. She is clearly clueless about the true nature of the sex trade and she seems to have a poor understanding of economics — she is, lest we forget, 22 — but spare me the outrage of the sex trade apologists who are shocked (shocked!) that a tax-dodging tech giant that feeds off male lechery and female naiveté might not have behaved entirely decently towards the women whose youthful flesh it commodifies.
The sex trade is not progressive, or edgy, or empowering. It is a capitalist industry, as any critic of capitalism ought to realise. Bella Thorne did nothing more than ply her trade in the free market of sexual imagery, and she did it well. It’s not Thorne who is at fault, it’s the industry itself.