- Sylvie Dulson
Only-Fans: The Normalisation of Underage Sex Workers in Popular Culture
'Done correctly, online sex work can be a big fuck-you to the thousands of us who have had personal photos leaked or our boundaries encroached upon...but creators need a strong understanding of the job description.'
mage Description: In this piece titled the ‘Pink Lady’ I explore themes of loss and vulnerability, especially within the stages grief. Painting has always been an extremely cathartic process for me, so in a way creating this artwork was a coping mechanism for dealing with the struggles in life.
While shows like Euphoria can glamorise sex work for the barely legal, iOnly Fans, Web-camming, and porn, in general, should not be the shameful or exploitative industry it has been for decades. If the business is in the hands of the people who make the content, then in theory it should be a relatively safe job for those that partake. But the popular culture surrounding sex work and platforms like Only Fans are marketing it towards the wrong age group. Sex work is not an entry-level, weekend job for minors and the barely legal. It is a job that can only be properly performed when the creators have resolute boundaries and a strong understanding of the job description, which shows like Euphoria and wealthy celebrities do not demonstrate accurately to their young fans.
The recent trend towards the popular legitimisation of sex work as a ‘real job’ is a welcome one, allowing creators and those in front of the camera more autonomy over their own bodies, prices, and their boundaries (1). Done correctly, online sex work can be a big fuck-you to the thousands of us who have had personal photos leaked or our boundaries encroached upon. Sex-work instead allows (predominately women) to capitalise on the very things we are told are shameful, charging the same boys from school who would leak our photos up-scale prices for the pleasure of viewing them. In all honesty, it’s grossly satisfying. I cannot speak from a place of experience, but hundreds of women who have started Only Fans often speak about the empowering nature of the job. However, no matter how empowering, we cannot allow platforms like Only Fans to become exploitative, as they so often do. In a place where creators are their own bosses, it seems paradoxical that people can ‘exploit themselves’, but that is exactly what seems to be happening amongst teenagers.
It’s a tricky topic to speak on from a privileged position such as mine, especially as speaking out against sex work can often be viewed as slut-shaming or straight-out misogyny; this is not my objective at all. The glamorisation of sex work, especially Only Fans, and the ‘easy-money’ it can make has been skewed to look like the best option for young girls for as soon as they reach eighteen (or even before). The idea of selling photos for money seems easy, fun, and relatively safe since it’s all online, and trends on Tik-Tok, shows like Euphoria, and the many celebrities on the app, like Bella Thorne and Cardi B, only encourage this narrative. If a person decides to partake in Only Fans with full knowledge of what that could entail, then all power to them. However, the thousands of girls as young as fourteen who are joining the app illegally seems to suggest that this isn’t the case. Out of the 130 million subscribed to Only Fans, and the 2 million creators on the platform, only the top 1% of the accounts make 33% of the money, and the average earnings are only around $180 a month (excluding tips), thereby not making it a career that an individual can live on sustainably, despite that being the prevailing narrative. Yet the ease at which underage users can create accounts with fake IDs or even passports of family members is worrying, and an individual does not even need a creator account to ‘unofficially’ sell explicit videos and photos by advertising their services in their bio. The tolerance Only Fans have for underage accounts, and its leniency in moderation only exacerbates the problem and encourages more underage girls to flock to the app.
The popularity of Only Fans and platforms like it aren’t popular amongst teenage girls just for the financial incentive alone. The platform can also act as a 3 in 1 problem solver for the regrettably common issues teenage girls face: a lack of self-confidence, a need for independence (which money can provide) and a desire for validation (male or not). While we can agree that sex work is not a safe space for girls to work through these issues (even if the issues they face are sex-driven), for many teenagers Only Fans is a quick fix. We can see this manifest itself in the character of Kat in the popular HBO show Euphoria, now as much a part of this generation’s shared cultural psyche as Skins was of the mid-2000s (although more sparkly than its predecessor). I really enjoyed Euphoria and could sing its praises for its queer representation and depiction of drug abuse. However, Euphoria reached millions of teenagers, many of whom saw Kat’s storyline only as one of sexual empowerment and body positivity, which it was, but with some major obstacles. First Kat loses her virginity through the coercion of three boys, of which she is outnumbered, which is then filmed and leaked onto Pornhub. Now it's not screaming ‘Girl Power!’ but Kat’s reaction to seeing the comments on the video praising her looks drives her to start her own Webcam. It is good to see that Kat isn’t reduced to the victimised, ‘Fat Best-Friend’ trope, and instead is a desirable and empowering character. Yet Euphoria seems to completely ignore the fact that Kat is also a 16-year-old girl. While it’s a refreshingly positive outlook on sex-work, the fact said sex-worker is an underage, sexually inexperienced girl is not so remarkable. It also mistakenly makes sex work look ridiculously easy. Kat replies to messages throughout the day, Webcams now and then yet still earns hundreds a day through her ‘Cash-Pig’. The millions of young people who watch the programme would see a job that is low-stakes, high reward, and incredibly accessible, making it a more lucrative trade than it really is. While Kat’s camming is one that allows her to earn money and take ownership over their body, it also stems from her insecurity and need for male validation. It’s arguably a reactive decision to her video getting leaked without her consent, rather than a proactive decision towards empowerment that many girls would take at face value to be.
Another uncomfortable issue arises when you can see how ready audiences are for teenage girls to ‘come of age’ and start selling pictures of themselves. Danielle Bregoli (the Cash Me Outside Girl) made an Only Fans account on her 18th Birthday, making $1,030,703 in just six hours as nearly a million subscribed to her page. The knowledge that a large proportion of her male audience was waiting to legally sexualise her is unpleasant yet unsurprising. Similarly, Tik-Tok trends are saturated with similar promotions of Only-Fans. In one video a girl shows her increasing outgoings, with the caption, “This is your sign to get started”, in reference to her Only-Fans account, yet one look at her bio tells us she is just seventeen. Another quick scroll through Tik-Tok’s hashtags shows multiple videos of Sugar Babies showing off their payments, or tutorials for ‘How-To become a Sugar Baby’ or ‘How-To grow your Only Fans’, despite Tik-Tok’s major fanbase being pre-teens and teenagers. Tik-Tok and its creators can be a great place for education and reality-checks, but these are not the videos that the algorithm promotes, and they’re not the videos teenage girls looking to make money want to see.
Only Fans, Web-camming, and porn, in general, should not be the shameful or exploitative industry it has been for decades. If the business is in the hands of the people who make the content, then in theory it should be a relatively safe job for those that partake. But the popular culture surrounding sex work and platforms like Only Fans are marketing it towards the wrong age group. Sex work is not an entry-level, weekend job for minors and the barely legal. It is a job that can only be properly performed when the creators have resolute boundaries and a strong understanding of the job description, which shows like Euphoria and wealthy celebrities do not demonstrate accurately to their young fans.
Cameron Cory, ‘Legitimizing Sex Work- Legal and social appeal to dismantle state-justified victimization of prostitutes’, Public Seminar, 18.12.2017, accessed 10.09.2021, https://publicseminar.org/2017/12/legitimizing-sex-work/