Jazmine Hughes, a writer and critic at the New York Times, remembers—or, to use her words, is “haunted” by—a tweet that goes, “Most of sex is committing to the bit.” She remembers this cheekily and with a sly wink in her review of the short fiction collection Kink, edited by R. O. Kwon and Garth Greenwell. There’s a new stage to do yours bits in town, and, while it’s taken the the world (and the sex industry) by storm, there’s still, as ever, a lingering economic uncertainty.
OnlyFans, a subscription-based platform which allows users to pay creators directly for their content, has innovated/democratized/gentrified sex work and has emerged as another wrinkle, another tool, to shrink the distance between performer and audience while simultaneously expanding their reach. It’s rich soil on which to unpack our ever-evolving relationship to identity, technology, sex, and performance, albeit saddled with the complicated baggage of an industry and line of work that is still stigmatized and whose performers frequently reside at the margins of society. Additionally, it is becoming more evident that OnlyFans’ enormous growth, due predominantly to the presence of sex workers on the platform, is less a guarantee of security, the recent debacle concerning the site’s content policy and the banks that seek to ban such content an indication of the apparatus’s brittle bones.
Nonetheless, Brooklyn-based playwright Gage Tarlton is compelled by the ways in which OnlyFans seems to occupy the eye of that aforementioned storm, both as theatrical space and tool, for younger people negotiating their lives and identities on the internet. His production xXPonyBoyDerekXx: an only fans experience, part of the Misfits Theatre Company, functions like an OnlyFans creator’s account would: it updates regularly with videos featuring a young, svelte man in little else but an orange balaclava, monologuing about desire and fantasy; there are written posts imploring the audience to subscribe, there’s a live show, and xXPonyBoyDerekXx—the titular content creator—will even respond to your DMs. Because, after all, you’re engaging with his desire to be yours. As his direct addresses orbit confession and performance, muddying the two with the familiar taunt of an amateur finding their rhythm in the lines, you’ll get to ask yourself, “Who’s committing to their bit better?” In early September, I spoke with Tarlton over Zoom, shortly after the first week or so of posts had debuted, and we discussed the origins of the play, using the platform, and how capitalism depersonalizes desire.
Kyle Turner (Rail): Would you tell me about the origins of this idea?
Gage Tarlton: I had been thinking about it for a while, actually, around February or March. And then I applied for this theater series called “Break the Ritual,” which is through the Misfits Theatre Company. They took a little bit of a hiatus last March, but for their coming-back programming, they were looking for things that were a part of our everyday lives, and they were interested in experiences that broke that ritual. So other things in the series, I think one is about breaking the ritual of yoga, breaking the ritual of grief, and then mine was breaking the ritual of masturbation. They were very interested in the question of, “how can we make this an experience and not just a play, but something that an audience has to actually interact with?” And they were interested in doing it digitally. So I came to them with the idea of doing an OnlyFans play on OnlyFans.
Rail: In terms of “breaking the ritual of masturbation,” what did that mean to you?
Tarlton: Breaking the ritual of masturbation was about finding the ways that our public personas are different from our private ones and making the private public and vice versa. Masturbation has come to be known as a very private thing that you do in private, you don’t do with people. And OnlyFans to me is a very interesting platform because it allows those kinds of private moments to now become public for everyone to see. And for people to join in. It’s very communal, almost like you’re watching someone else masturbating online, they’re sharing with you, and you’re masturbating with them. But I was interested, even taking that further and, and exploring what happens when the body that we’re seeing engage in these sexual acts, starts talking to us as the person who they are. It’s not just the sex act, they’re also a human being, they have thoughts. So what happens while they’re doing these sexual acts, they’re talking to you about who they are, and what’s going on in their brain and, and things like that. And with it, the conversation that starts.
Rail: Why was it important for you to draw this direct connection between sex and confession, particularly in a mediated context?
Tarlton: They’re almost soliloquies for the digital age. It came out at a very opportune time. I think sex is always a confessional act, whether it be with one person or with several people. It’s always showing a part of yourself, it’s very vulnerable to show a part of yourself. And it can also be very, very powerful. The whole piece is him trying to figure out, can he exist in the world as just a body? Or does he have to be a person? And this confessional nature of the piece, because it’s always addressing the camera, is him just throwing everything he has out on the line and trying to find out where he belongs, in this digital sphere of the world.
Rail: Every OnlyFans creator has their particular aesthetic. Can you talk about the process in terms of cultivating the aesthetic and the persona for this character?
Tarlton: I think that OnlyFans is such an interesting platform because what I have seen on the internet is a lot of younger people who, as soon as they turn 18 and they don’t really know where to go or what to do, they turn to OnlyFans. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I think that sex work is his work. This character is someone who I picture as having just stumbled upon this platform and is just trying to make it work for himself. It’s kind of semi-autobiographical in terms of the way that I have navigated sex work in the past, where it sometimes feels like a last resort, and you don’t fully think through all of the implications of how to go about it, and then you end up traumatizing yourself a little bit because you didn’t take the necessary precautions. And that’s what’s happening with him, he’s lost and doesn’t really know where to turn, he doesn’t know who he is. But he does know that he has a great body and that he can use that body to make money to survive and to live. But again, he doesn’t think it through, which is why I was going for this amateurish aesthetic, and I don’t say that in a negative way. Just that the lighting isn’t great. He has a mask that he just found on. He is still reckoning with the fact that this isn’t something to be embarrassed about. This isn’t something to hide. But he does; he is hiding it.
Rail: How much energy are you putting into cultivating an audience? And is that cultivating an audience part of the theater?
Tarlton: It’s a very interesting experience because all of these posts have been pre-written, and we’re releasing them as the audience grows. We got a DM from a subscriber last night that said, “Are you going to show us your cock?” And I think we responded, “Maybe” with a little winky face. But that is technically not written in the script, right? I have an instinct to go back and rewrite things to please the audience, but then I also have to remind myself that just because I’m using this platform that is very interactive with the audience, it is still a narrative story. I’m just telling the story as I wrote it.
Rail: Do you think there are subscribers or audience members who don’t know that this is a piece so that they engage with it like it’s any other OnlyFans creator?
Tarlton: I think so, based on some of the usernames and their profile pictures? I’m certain that some of these some of the subscribers are not aware it’s a theatrical piece, or they are because they think it might be just the normal OnlyFans account. It kind of is just a normal OnlyFans account.
Rail: Given the show’s preoccupation with capitalism and how society incentivizes us to depersonalize desire and how that’s wrapped up in the evolution of and manifests through the use of modern and digital technologies, how do you yourself negotiate those quandaries?
Tarlton: [Laughs] I’m still figuring it out. That’s why I wrote this. That’s why a lot of my work right now is finding the happy medium between digital space and in-person spaces. Am I presenting these things authentically? Or am I presenting them in a way that feeds into those very problems? It’s just a constant battle in my brain. And that’s why I’m writing work like this is to try to figure it out.