When Elaina St. James launched her OnlyFans in April, she initially decided not to show her face. The world was a year deep into a global pandemic, and the self-described “newbie amateur MILF” was stuck working an insurance sales job she hated for a boss she increasingly resented. But much to her surprise, her subscriber count started racking up after just a few weeks. Soon, her inbox was overflowing with messages from horny twentysomething dudes desperate to see more. In her second month online, she made twice as much cash selling nudes as she did at her day job, where she was “busting her ass” 40 hours a week.
It’s 10 a.m. on a weekday morning when we log on for a video call, but St. James brims with energy — “Hell yeah we’re doing this, I put makeup on!” — as she recalls the earliest days of her still-burgeoning career. Her eyes bulge with mock cartoonish shock as she describes her surprise at her fans’ voracious appetite for MILF content, and a glimmer of satisfaction spreads across her face as she recalls quitting her nightmare day job and starting online sex work full-time.
Buoyed by the early success, St. James decided to give her boned-up subscribers what they wanted — more shots of her face and more hardcore content. Her earnings quickly snowballed, but these choices raised a new dilemma: Should she tell friends and family about her work? If so, when?
First, a disclaimer: In a world determined to stigmatize and criminalize sex workers, plenty don’t have the luxury of coming out at all. “It isn’t safe for a lot of us,” says pseudonymous non-binary sex worker Jay, who was outed to their family by an ex-boyfriend. “I used to feel pressure to come out for visibility reasons, but maybe half the times I did tell people, I ended up regretting it.” Jay alludes to stigma without going into specifics, but does say they’ve had some incredibly “affirming experiences” with close friends and family who received the news without judgment. “I don’t have kids, though,” they say. “I don’t have to worry about sex work being used against me in a custody battle.”
Others, like St. James, have more security when it comes to taking the leap. When researching other MILFs before taking the plunge and uploading her own content, she came across the story of Mrs. Poindexter, whose kids were expelled from Catholic school when her OnlyFans account went viral. “It made me realize I had to commit 100 percent and understand that my content could end up being leaked,” she explains.
Before long, St. James decided to come out to her mom, an 83-year-old cancer survivor who spent her life working as a schoolteacher in the Midwest. “I did not feel alright about it at first,” she laughs. “My mom is über conservative — not politically, but she was a virgin when she married my dad at 29 years old. You know, she’s the mom that would flinch at hearing the word ‘fuck!’”
Prepared for the worst, St. James eased her mom into the news by leading with how much cash she was making. When she finally explained the concept of OnlyFans — “like Playboy but digital” — her mom paused momentarily, and then started to giggle. St. James cackles at the memory: “She’s had a mastectomy, so my mom just started laughing even more. Then, she said: ‘Do you think they might want to see an 83-year-old with one boob?’”
Naturally, not all stories end so well. In Jiz Lee’s brilliant 2015 anthology Coming Out Like A Porn Star, they collate dozens of accounts from across the adult industry — some good, some bad, some downright ugly. One is simply titled “Please Don’t Publish With My Name” and is credited to “Anonymous.” Others are truly heart-warming, like queer porn creator Courtney Trouble’s transcribed conversation with their dad, who praised their resourcefulness. “You were able to minimize your student loans and survive going to school doing sex work,” he told them. “I just have always admired how self-sufficient you are and how businesslike you are about things.”
There’s still very much a politics of visibility at play — for sex workers who are undocumented, unhoused or unable to access online sex work, there’s a hugely amplified level of risk to coming out — but Mistress Kye, a pro Domme who now works as a kink consultant, says plenty has changed since she started doing sex work more than 35 years ago. “I guess I was worried about being outed when I was younger because the world was a totally different place back then,” she explains. “I did tell certain friends back in the 1980s who were progressive like me, but who weren’t in sex work.”
Their response was mixed; while some were understanding, others lashed out. “Although I was only managing brothels, they assumed I was a man-stealin’ whore by proxy,” she says. “I phased those people out of my life, because I don’t want to be around that level of insecurity, let alone mistrust. I found the actual whores to be my people, and I never looked back!”
Now, Kye gets a “mixed response” from people of “her generation” — either they’re progressive or “repressed, and therefore incredibly intimidated by my kink lifestyle.” These people usually crawl back out of the woodwork, though. “They often reach out to me on the down-low to help them bring a spark back to their decades-long marriages,” she says. The rise of technology also means it’s easier to out yourself than ever before — Kye accidentally came out to her dad when she synced her Facebook to her horny-on-main Instagram account, yet she didn’t realize for almost a year what she had done. Even when her dad told her she “looked like a dominatrix,” she remained oblivious. “Quite frankly though, anyone who knows me even remotely wouldn’t be surprised by my work,” she laughs.
This never-ending cyber footprint can make for some awkward coming-out stories. Ruby Lynne shoots regular content with her partner, which made its way onto a Pornhub ad. This caught the eye of an “old childhood friend” of one of their four “adult children,” who broke the news without telling them. Three of the kids said they supported their parents unequivocally. The other has since disowned them, “although there were issues there before,” Lynne clarifies.
Even while writing this article, my inbox was flooded with stories of anonymous sex workers who have been outcast by friends, lovers and family members. “I’m lucky that I haven’t faced too much stigma,” says St. James. “But I don’t have an ex-husband, I had my son on my own through IVF and people know I’ve always been a little black-sheep crazy,” she laughs. The only issue she’s had is with one of her two sisters, but St. James says it stems more from jealousy and resentment than straight-up malice.
There’s been some suggestion within media that sites like OnlyFans have dispelled some of the stigma around sex work. The logic behind this claim is that not only has OnlyFans rebranded sex work (although arguably the site has taken pains to sanitize and distance itself from actual sex workers), its popularity has normalized the industry in a way that makes life easier for adult content creators. This might ring true for some sex workers, but it only takes a little digging to see that coming out is still a process fraught with risk, especially for those without a safety net who might end up abandoned by support networks or fired from much-needed jobs.
We might be as horny as ever for the people we see on screen, but we still too often ostracize them when we know them IRL.