Writer Ty Mitchell explores porn stardom, overexposure, and OnlyFans
Over the last several years I have felt jolted by the sense that I had shown too much. So I began to make little retractions, small measures that mean little to people outside of this world but which, for me, flickered out segments of the neon sign that had become my identity, piece by piece.
Two years ago I stopped filming studio scenes. I stopped making amateur “collabs” shortly thereafter. Later, I deactivated my “xxx” Twitter account, including its hundred-thousand followers and countless flirty DMs. I started to archive the more cheesecake photos on my Instagram, abandoning the posting habits of a bona fide Instagay. Eventually, I deleted all the hardcore from my fan pages, leaving behind sparse solo content and letting the passive income dwindle. Last month I eliminated my OnlyFans account altogether, the last light to go out on my gradual exit from gay pornography.
I’ve been struggling to find a satisfying antonym for “strip.” The best the English language appears to have is “cover” or “conceal,” and while the latter implies that something has not yet been revealed, the former doesn’t quite counterbalance the act of peeling away an image of yourself to reveal a new one. (Alas, to “unpeel” is to peel; to “denude” is to make nude.) Digital culture has coined the term “unsee,” albeit as something that can’t be done, but suspiciously, we have yet to speak much of the wish to “unshow.” We delete, we go private, we wait for people to forget, but we accept this hazard of digital life, and perhaps of life more generally; once you expose yourself, you cannot take it back.
I didn’t wish to take it back, not exactly. I spent my twenties performing, writing, traveling, fucking, with steadfast integrity to who I am and what feels right for me. I am deeply proud of what I’ve done. I never felt shame around my sexuality or my exhibition of it or my transactions of it.
But I did, at a certain point, feel overexposed. When you get into porn, you understand that it will likely preclude you from more mainstream modeling and acting, no matter how progressive or edgy people in show business like to fancy themselves. This wasn’t initially an ambition of mine, but I suppose I underestimated how much I would enjoy performing on camera, and how low the ceiling for marginal media really was.
There are no residuals in pornography, and per-scene rates ranged from $400 to $2,000, including the rights to your image in perpetuity. It took me over five years to ratchet my scene rate up to the higher end. You are only guaranteed scenes if you are signed as an exclusive model with a studio, which I’ve never been. Otherwise, you wait for a call and hope it’s from a bigger company. By the time I achieved a sense of stability, I found myself longing to star in bigger features and campaigns – storylines, costumes, locations! – but those seemed to belong to a bygone era, replaced by a streaming-era output of quick, simple scenes. The whole industry, I felt, had lost its luster, and lost even more as it began competing with the diffuse, independently-produced adult content hosted on OnlyFans.
Reluctantly, I participated in this shift to amateur content. I hated it. I like performing, not producing. The whole ethos of OnlyFans is its amateurism, whereas I considered myself a professional. In an industry rife with delicate egos and unreliable talent, my professionalism was what got me a lot of work. There are a dozen other reasons I never liked the OnlyFans hustle, but chief among them was the abrupt deskilling of porn work such that the culture no longer distinguishes pros at all. In the dense metropolis of social media, big dicks are a dime a dozen, each feed an endless hall of beautiful boys next door.
When anybody can try to be a porn star, nobody gets to be one.
This is a tricky grievance to air, because even though the platform didn’t satisfy me, it appeared to democratize a form of sex work previously gate-kept by shallow and shady studios. Hundreds (if not thousands) of people have made livelihoods from the safety of their own homes, some of whom needed an alternative to in-person sex work and some of whom needed an entry point to sex work in general. For me, though, it was dramatically more taxing on my mental health to recruit people to “collab” with me; to maintain a horned-up persona on social media, to manage the nerves and insecure feelings of my partners, to seek out settings and situations that might make my content stand out, to spend hours editing images of my own body, and to relentlessly advertise content without giving too much away. Most of all, it was draining to feel constantly that I was making less than my labor and image were worth because viewers had already seen me before, while shiny new twinks lapped my subscriber count without even doing anal. Perhaps this was what made me feel so overexposed.
However, I didn’t start doing porn to make a fortune. I wanted to be a porn star, the kind of gay person I idolized in my adolescence, when all the other famous gay people had to be soft, sterile, and respectable. I wanted the glamor, the adventure, the platform. I wanted to make a life out of what I was, a shameless gay slut who thinks too much and too loudly. And, of course, I wanted to feel sexy, measurably sexy, because I couldn’t really believe it without some external proof about the matter. It was never quite reflected in follower counts or studio contracts, but after enough people started to recognize and regard me as such, I realized I’d done it. In my own way, I became a star.
The pandemic seemed to strike many of us right at the precipice of greatness, but maybe that’s just how any calamity feels in retrospect. At the start of 2020, I was booking bigger and better gigs, making friends with all my favorite models, and publishing my own sex column. I managed to resume shooting after the lockdown subsided, but things didn’t feel the same. I felt estranged from the people I once saw as comrades, most of whom became absorbed by content creation. My body succumbed to a long bout of health problems, and I found myself less and less interested in the sexual expression that had propelled me through the last seven years. I felt tired of seeing myself get fucked from the same six angles, and although I longed for a more innovative style or approach to pornography, I couldn’t figure out what that looked like or how to make it happen.
What happens to porn stars then, after we’ve stripped ourselves completely? It’s not like we make enough money to retire with it. Lots of performers are transient anyway, only doing a handful of scenes before returning to a career they’d already begun. But it’s always unclear where the stars are supposed to go when they fade. Some return to the industry, sometimes behind the scenes. Some go off the grid, some find regular jobs. One friend of mine published an excellent horror novel last year. Some pursue other modes of performing, but none succeed at becoming another kind of star.
If I ever had any embarrassment about gay porn, if that yearning to unshow came from such a place, I suppose it was this— that immense, bubbling anxiety that I had painted myself into a corner. A younger version of myself felt this anxiety, too, and I understood all along that porn is not a long-term career. Nonetheless, that younger self held tenaciously to the idea that I could reshape the world to fit myself into it, not the other way around. I still believe in the essence of this, that “what’s past is prologue.” It’s much harder, I feel, to follow life’s twists and turns when you treat it like a dotted line.
While I realize scenes of mine will keep circulating in perpetuity, I shut down my triple-X pages because I needed closure to that stage of my career. I found myself wishing to cover myself not out of shame or disavowal, but because I needed space to create more of myself, yet unrevealed. Perhaps that is the word I’m looking for: ‘cocoon.’