Over the past year or so, it’s become something of a rite of passage for celebrities of a certain tier — think reality TV villains, Disney stars gone wild, and British tabloid mainstays — to tease starting an OnlyFans account. And way back in February, the rapper Bhad Bhabie, a.k.a. Danielle Bregoli (a.k.a. Cash Me Ousside Girl) posted on her Instagram Stories that she would start an OnlyFans account when she turned 18, the minimum age for joining the website, with the caveat that she would not post nude or sexually explicit content. On April 1st, five days after her 18th birthday, she made good on her promise, tweeting “got tired of u asking, so fuck it. But if imma do it, imma do it wild and crazy as fuck. Give it 2 weeks and we break the internet,” along with a link to her account.
What happened next is a familiar, and uncomfortable, narrative: those who had been counting down for Bhad Bhabie to come of legal age flocked to her account, leading her to post a screengrab of her earnings indicating she’d made $1,030,703.43 in a mere six hours. Many people on Twitter were highly distressed by the fact that so many of her fans had clearly been eagerly anticipating her joining the platform. Many people took that argument one step further, stating that it was indicative of a larger problem of minors gravitating to the platform. “This Bhad Bhabie situation is why the eligibility for OnlyFans should be 21+,” one popular tweet read. Another, with more than 21,000 retweets, read: “Onlyfans should definitely be 21+ for content creators. No one talks about how predatory sex work is and how TEENS, literally 18-20 get groomed into it.”
The debate over whether the minimum age of entry to the adult industry should be raised from 18 to 21 is not a new one. As far back as 2013, adult-film director Axel Braun made headlines when he announced he would not cast anyone under the age of 21 in his new movies, on the grounds that 18-year-olds were not mature enough to make the decision to enter the adult industry, due to the potential lifelong repercussions of embarking on such a career. “I just hope that three extra years will give them the opportunity to evaluate if they are willing to accept the repercussions that a career as an adult entertainer will bring,” he told me at the time. The move was controversial even within the adult industry itself: while some applauded the decision, others argued that it infantilized performers under the age of 21, and would not be possible to practically implement across the entire industry.
In the intervening years, the adult industry has undergone a seismic shift, with the creation of sites like OnlyFans transferring the power from directors like Braun to the performers and content creators themselves. This has led to an influx of new, young talent into the industry, who see celebrities like Bella Thorne making millions on OnlyFans or stumble upon content creators boasting about their earnings on TikTok and feel inspired to start their own accounts. OnlyFans has gotten so popular, with 8,000 new creators reportedly joining per day, that it’s become something of a meme for young women to say they plan on starting an account once they turn 18. And this has some troubling implications, says former sex worker Sydney Leathers.
“TikTok is an app for kids used by kids, so I do think it’s inappropriate for sex workers to promote their OnlyFans on there,” Leathers told me earlier this month. “I just think it’s a bad look. I don’t have any shame in what I’ve to survive, but I still wouldn’t go up to minors and say, ‘This is how you should make your living.’ I don’t know if young people have the capacity to think about how it can impact things like your future employment.”
While acknowledging that it’s important for young people to think critically about their decision to enter sex work, OnlyFans creator Lydia Love says that raising the minimum age for entry is not the answer. Indeed, she points out, it could serve to harm the vulnerable members of the population that those concerned about Bhad Babie and other teenage content creators seek to help. And given that only OnlyFans has already become something of a target for the religious right, with Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Arizona) penning a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland last week requesting the site be placed under investigation for “promoting prostitution,” the perpetuation of these sex-trafficking myths could have disastrous consequences for sex workers in general.
“Eighteen-year-olds are [legally] treated as adults and they should be able to choose what they do with their bodies,” Love says. “OnlyFans and other forms of online sex work is a safer alternative to other forms of in-person sex work that they might choose if they weren’t allowed to do OnlyFans. I personally have done many forms of sex work and OnlyFans was the safest for me to do as a person under the age of 21.” Those arguing that the age of entry should be changed, she says, are neglecting to consider “people who are in bad family situations or relationships that don’t have the means to get out [of the industry] easily.”
Sex worker Allie Eve Knox agrees, adding that the issue isn’t teenagers joining platforms like OnlyFans, but the cultural fetishization of youth and “purity” that leads their age to be viewed as such a prized commodity. “I think the important question that people need to be asking is how are we allowing men like the people following Bhad Bhabie to sexualize these minors so easily,” she says. While sex workers should be straightforward about the realities of sex work and its future implications, she says, it would be a mistake to discourage 18-year-olds from entering the industry altogether. “We should instead give them resources to make the best decisions,” such as how to pick a good agent or keep their personal information private, she says.
Of course, as a mainstream celebrity who is not actually using OnlyFans to do explicit sex work, Bhad Bhabie is not exactly the prime test case for such complex questions about age, sexuality, and consent. Much like Bella Thorne before her, Bhad Bhabie has faced criticism from the sex work community for joining OnlyFans and essentially gentrifying the platform. “She didn’t have to make an account,” Love points out. “She can pay her bills without it, so she isn’t in the same category as a typical sex worker.” Given her young age, however, Bhad Bhabie’s entry onto the platform — and her lecherous subscribers’ glee upon seeing her reach legal age — carries with it an added dimension of complexity. “I think the people around her made her grow up too fast and this is just a product of that,” says Love.