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Lithium “Selling Sexy” is a half-hearted takedown of OnlyFans

Jul. 29, 2021
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As he sifts through rainbow-colored underwear for his next photoshoot, OnlyFans creator Tyson Dayley explains why he’ll never pose nude. “There is a constant pressure to continue ramping up your content,” he says. “But there are definitely lines I see for myself in terms of ‘this is too much.’” In Selling Sexy, Hulu’s latest documentary, popular creators like Dayley break down their experience with OnlyFans. Although the filmmakers shed light on recent controversies about the platform’s ethics, the creators’ reviews are largely positive. 

Many of the popular users interviewed emphasize the energy of OnlyFans and their ability to make other people feel good. “I have the ability to say no,” claims an older female creator who brands herself as a MILF. Another user argues that “it’s great to be able to control your own platform.” Especially as studio work has become less realistic due to COVID precautions, at-home fan sites like OnlyFans provide a way for performers to direct their own shoots and continue participating in the porn industry. Using the context of current events, the documentary defends the platform as a way for people to make a little extra money in financially challenging times. But it is more than problematic that selling one’s body, or at least a digital representation of it, is seen as a normal and fun side hustle. According to sex therapist Shan Boodram, OnlyFans encourages the notion that bodies are “worthy to look at,” a concept that makes the feeling of confidence more accessible to people whose bodies have not been historically valued. But a more accurate diagnosis of OnlyFans might be that it encourages the notion that bodies can be profitable, not worthy. OnlyFans attaches monetary value to the body, equating “worth” with nothing more than income.

It’s hard to argue with users like Dayley about their own experiences. If someone is making tens of thousands of dollars on OnlyFans and feels comfortable and safe doing so, how is that a problem? But we have to remind ourselves that this narrative of autonomy is not universal, and the personal feeling of empowerment does not mean the industry is safe or ethical. An 18-year-old girl can make a profile on OnlyFans and call it feminism, but there is still a broader cultural norm of personal sexualization that led to her decision. The normalization of ordinary people venturing vaguely into the sex work industry has mystified the question of how far creators are willing to push their content, and if they are capable of setting boundaries in the face of fans, money, and social pressure. 

The appeal of OnlyFans, perhaps for younger creators in particular, is not only that it is more financially beneficial than underpaid studio work, but that it offers celebrity and influence. For a generation fixated on fame and sex positivity, OnlyFans offers the perfect combination. While the site may claim to sell sex, what it really sells, at least in the eyes of young users and creators, is celebrity. OnlyFans, as one interviewee observes, is the new Playboy centerfold—it sells the idea that sexual appeal and progressive politics are intertwined. It seems only natural that an industry so heavily influenced by social media would start out with one purpose and quickly turn into a spectacle of itself.

That spectacle is seductive to young women in particular, who have learned through influencer culture and social media that their personal brands are profitable. Over the past year, the number of ordinary people making their own profile skyrocketed, with a 75% increase in new creator registration between March and April 2020 alone. Its popularity has led to criticism that new creators are oversaturating the market, “gentrifying” the site, and causing competition with sex workers who depend on OnlyFans for their livelihood. Selling Sexy uses Bella Thorne as a case study of that oversaturation, interviewing various journalists and experts who have criticized Thorne for taking money away from real sex workers on the site. What is frustrating here is the documentary’s failure to examine the fact that most people are making an OnlyFans not to compete in the sex work industry, but to align themselves with the excitement and seduction of sex and the internet. Even though there are more people joining OnlyFans, it is the site’s function as a side hustle, not a full-time job, that has driven its rapid surge in popularity.

The most unsettling shot in Selling Sexy comes when 24-year-old Kristen Vaughn sits at a doctor’s office, discussing the details of her upcoming breast augmentation. Being able to change a body part about which she’s always been insecure is a moment of personal empowerment and confidence for Vaughn, but it’s also a business decision. She hopes that her larger chest will increase her subscriber count, boosting her income. There’s something a bit uncanny about watching her undergo surgery for the purpose of profit, as she embodies the extremes that people will go to in the pursuit of extracting every last penny from their own image. The surgery is essentially an investment, a logical choice for Vaughn as she navigates a culture that monetizes the body.

Illustration by Julia Tabor.