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Bella Thorne and Celebrities Inhabiting Shared Spaces

photograph of bella thorne on red carpet with crowd behind her

The age of technology has brought many new things into modern life, but arguably one of the most influential and important is social media. A radically new world was created online where everyone around the globe can be connected within seconds no matter their location. One of the groups to take advantage of this instant connection was celebrities as social media and online platforms allow them to connect with their fans directly and give audiences glimpses into their private lives, without having to actually even meet in-person. This has given rise to the phenomena of celebrity culture where the public can know almost any aspect of a star’s life. Some have used this trend to help build their fame and monetize their brands. While celebrities have every right to use these platforms just like any other member of the public, they enter into these spaces with an unfair advantage. They have a following and a brand, which usually disrupts some of the communities that are made up of the public, who might depend on these platforms to make a living. There’s a fine line here for celebrities to watch, as their introduction to these spaces threatens to undermine these platforms, and perhaps eliminate, or at least adulterate, this communal space.

Recently, one platform in particular, OnlyFans, has taken over the pornography market by allowing individuals to have autonomy over what and when they create. This form of pornography can be highly personal with subscribers getting to know the performers whose bodies and lives they are consuming. With OnlyFans, as long as you gain a following, anyone can make money through this form of sex work, without having to find a studio, or work in the public space. A new creator on the platform, actress Bella Thorne who started her career with the popular Disney show “Shake it Off,” broke records within 24 hours of her appearance on the site. She announced her introduction to OnlyFans with Paper Magazine where she wanted to discuss “the politics behind female body shaming & sex.” Immediately, she made headlines with her addition, which inevitably began sparking conversations around sex work and female sexuality — the discussion that she hoped would be happening.

There are both advantages and disadvantages to a celebrity of Bella Thorne’s caliber joining OnlyFans. Sex work has historically been a job that is not seen as a valid form of work and is criminalized in most countries around the world. As a consequent of this criminalization there are specific dangers that sex workers face in their line of employment, which are usually ignored by politicians, police officers, and society as a whole. If celebrities begin to partake in creating this type of content, however, a normalization may begin, which could work to validate and decriminalize sex work, and possibly address those issues that sex workers face daily. This appears to be Bella Thorne’s intention behind her move to OnlyFans. But she gravely miscalculated the responsibility she had to ensure that she didn’t hurt the very community she was trying to help.

Sex workers who rely on their income from OnlyFans faced a crisis as the website suddenly changed their policies, limiting the freedom and ability of performers to make a living off the platform. The catalyst to these changes was directly after Thorne made her debut on the platform, however, OnlyFans claims the two weren’t connected. Thorne made $1 million dollars within her first day on the site and $2 million after the first week. She also caused massive refunds after people paid for a nude photo, which in reality was not nude, and therefore many of those subscribers were demanding their money back from OnlyFans. Shortly after, the platform set limits on how much creators could charge for their content and the amount that consumers could give in tips to performers. Additionally, they lengthened the time that performers would receive their income to 30 days. A company that was once a safe space for sex workers to earn their living is now catering to the effects of celebrities. They profit from the audience that these big names bring on to their site, all the while ignoring the concerns of everyday sex workers whose livelihoods depend on the platform. For Bella Thorne, joining the platform is a way to have fun with her sexuality and popularity without the censorship or judgement of platforms like Instagram. She does not depend on that money for rent or food. She experiences little to none of the stigma that sex workers face daily. Her actions did not help the sex worker community, but actually severely hurt a community that is already one of the most marginalized.

What responsibility does Thorne even have in starting these conversations over sexual politics and female sexuality? How should she use her celebrity status and the privilege of millions of followers listening and watching her? One cannot ignore the fact that a lot of this increasing legitimacy of sex work has centered around middle-upper class white women beginning to explore the realms of sex work, while women of color continue to experience the stigma and marginalization of sex work. While sex work may slowly begin to be seen as a proper line of employment, there seems to be an otherness appearing in it, in which it is acceptable for certain women, but deplorable for others to take part in. This normalization is beginning to look more like a gentrification in which white women profit off the work that other women have been doing for decades, which would of course only continue to hurt a large portion of the sex worker community. So, perhaps it was not even Thorne’s place to be the catalyst to start those conversations she wants to have. Her attempt to make that conversation was centered around herself and her own experiences. Instead of reaching out to women already experienced in the industry, she decided to see for herself the inner workings of the industry. But, it is impossible for a celebrity like her to experience sex work in a way that accurately represents the issues that sex workers deal with in reality.

Bella Thorne, however, is not the only celebrity to hop on this trend. The biggest name to recently join the platform is rapper Cardi B, although she won’t be creating sexual content, but rather exclusive content on her life and music. Some other celebrities like rapper Tyga, or YouTuber Tana Mangeau are deciding to follow in Thorne’s direction and make sexual content for their consumers. All of these celebrities can bring waves of fans to the site looking to buy subscriptions for the exclusive content. Whether their selling sex or exclusive updates on music, however, they will be entering a platform that already has plenty of competition for subscribers. Sex workers and musicians depend on their subscriptions from OnlyFans to continue paying rent or buying groceries, especially in the midst of a global pandemic, which are concerns that none of these celebrities would ever have to troubles themselves with. While the platform may be useful for them to promote their albums, have fun with their sexuality, or connect with fans, all their profits are solely pocket money for them. They could accomplish all of those things through Instagram pages with their millions of followers, or with a multitude of opportunities that are not open to the public. Celebrities need to recognize the havoc that they can wreak on the lives of everyday people when they decide to turn their livelihoods into fun experiments on social media.

The Decriminalization of Prostitution and the Commodification of Sex

close-up photograph of red signal light

Democratic lawmakers in New York State have moved to decriminalize sex work, making it legal to engage in the consensual sale of sex. Massachusetts, Maine, and other states have similar laws already in force, but the New York bill will release those in prison for acts that are no longer illegal as well.  

Practically speaking, making sex work illegal has not created safe environments for many people living in the US. When an activity is illegal, it pressures the participants into anonymity and makes it harder for them to receive care and support when harm results from participating in the activity. For sex work, this can mean theft, sexual assault, harassment, exploitation, rape, and worse.

For example, rape and gonorrhea dropped significantly in Rhode Island in the decade following decriminalization of indoor prostitution (as a journalist for Vox reported in 2015: “there was a 31 percent decrease in rape offenses and 39 percent fewer cases of female gonorrhea — and no extraordinary drop in other kinds of crime, suggesting the reduction in rape offenses was not representative of a broader crime drop or better policing across the board.”

Opponents of decriminalization generally object on the basis of the moral standing of sex work, claiming sex work can be categorized as exploitation or commodification.

To argue that sex work is exploitative, one has to establish that it takes advantage of a vulnerability that should be protected, or *not* taken advantage of. This argument points to empirical trends of who engages in sex work (typically members of disadvantaged groups) and the rate of unfortunate side effects or corollaries of engaging in sex work (typically the harms listed above). This line of argument suggests that people ought to be protected from engaging in sex work similarly to how we should be protected from other unfortunate work environments – “sweat shops”, etc.

However, advocates for decriminalizing sex work point out that many people choose to engage with the variety of jobs that qualify as sex work. Further, the risk and negative correlations are greatly reduced when the threat of being subject to the criminal justice system is removed through decriminalization, as the Rhode Island example suggests. Further, this argument can be interpreted as stripping sex workers of their agency, characterizing sex workers in a way that undermines their ability to make their own choices about what to do with their bodies.

Some take issue with sex work even while conceiving of sex workers as free and autonomous people in control of their decisions. The concern here is that sex is not the sort of thing that should be a job or for sale. In short, sex work commodifies something of moral value.

Commodification refers to the moral wrong involved with treating something only in the domain of marketplace norms. In other words, the standards for how something should be treated become understood economically, which is inappropriate given the nature of the object. When we engage with products, it is typically appropriate to treat them as commodities: Norms of the marketplace are maximization norms. The economic marketplace is competitive and if you can get a good deal on something that benefits you, that is not only permissible but the system supports it. If I have a book and am willing to sell it for a certain price, but someone offers me much more for it, according to the norms that constitute the economic domain I get to take that better offer and benefit myself. If I choose to let them know they can save some cash and let them have it for the price I originally envision, I’m being a nice person, surely, acting beneficently. But no economic standards demand this as long as parties act freely and consensually.

A prime example of commodification is slavery – where human beings are treated as products on the marketplace. Clearly there are more norms than economic that apply to how we should treat people. Thus, even if there are willing parties on both ends of an economic transaction, it is not right to buy or sell a person.

Recently in bioethics more complicated questions related to commodification have become relevant. When having a child with a surrogate, parents exchange money for the surrogate mothers’ services. The pregnancy is something that a person can provide in exchange for money, and thus using a person’s body in a sense is treated as a commodity in the market. In New Jersey, surrogacy agreements where the surrogate is compensated are illegal, and in 27 countries compensated surrogacy is illegal (the legal standing of “altruistic surrogacy” varies). Similarly, exchanging money for organs, like kidneys, is criticized as objectionable commodification. The values associated with the human body and medicine, say some, extend beyond the free exchange of goods and services in an economic market.   

To restate, what’s happening with commodification is that you are using norms (namely, marketplace norms) that are inappropriate for the circumstances (typically because they are insufficient, there are more principles or standards that you ought to be governed by than the rather austere marketplace norms). Marketplace norms say that what you ought to do is get as much as you can for yourself. You pursue your own best interests, and as long as the other party consents, you get to exact benefits. Commodification happens when the value of a good or service is reduced to its mere economic worth despite its greater social significance. For example, you shouldn’t approach family interactions using only marketplace norms – there are additional (moral usually) norms you should attend to. There is something of value missing or being disrespected if the only reason families interact is for goods and services exchanged ($20 for showing up to Sunday dinner, if not supported by some kind of relationship, begins to look less like a family relationship for these sorts of reasons).

To take a biomedical example, the doctor-patient relationship comes with extra norms and rules beyond those established by the marketplace. There are often extra protections and responsibilities that come with inhabiting a particular role that means that it would be wrong to treat a patient as merely a person in an economic exchange. There is something going wrong, we think, if a doctor barters with a patient over the cost of revealing lab results, for instance. The nature of the relationship should be based on providing care, which supersedes the doctor’s economic standing as seeking financial benefit.

When critics of bills that decriminalize sex work take moral issue with buying and selling sex, often it is in these terms. Sexual relationships, one could say, should not be solely subject to norms of economics. However, it’s hard to ignore the fact that sexuality is intricately, intimately, and inextricably involved in the economy. Also, workers use their bodies to earn a living in myriad ways that don’t raise a commodification objection – consider manual labor.

Whether opponents consider sex work to be exploitative or commodifying, attending to the wishes of those who actually occupy the professions and respecting their autonomy is an important ethical imperative. In addition to this, the empirical evidence that negative correlations of sex work dramatically reduce when decriminalization occurs have important implications if finding a sensible way forward.

Modes of Morality in (De)criminalizing Sex Work

Liberal ideas of women’s rights and conservative perspectives on sexuality and sexual violence have come to a head in India following the infamous 2012 Delhi gang rape case that made international news. On October 12th, India’s Supreme Court ruled on a twenty-year-old case to acquit three men of the rape of a woman who was allegedly engaged in sex work. According to the Times of India, the “vengeful attitude” of the victim to recover money from the suspects after a history of working for the men constituted a compelling reason to forge a fake accusation. Ultimately, the acquittal keeps us asking questions about the nature of sex work as legitimate work, in relation to rape as sexualized violence — mutually exclusive actions with separate motives and disastrous effects on workers and victims.

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