By Kate Waldock
Sex work is the trade of money (or goods) for consensual sexual services. The key word here is consensual. The conflation of sex work and trafficking has been extremely damaging, and exploitation of the underage or non-consensual is not to be compared to sex work. You will have no doubt heard the statement that “prostitution is the oldest profession”. Sex work can be traced throughout history, and yet it remains one of the most fiercely debated topics in our world. On the one hand, some feminists (most likely second-wave) argue that sex work is oppressive; treating ‘human bodies as a marketplace’. On the other hand, there are calls to decriminalise sex work across countries throughout the world in order to give sex workers legal protection, and others possess the belief that sex work is an expression of body autonomy where there should be work to bust taboos surrounding the profession. Whatever the case, there is no denying that wherever there is sexual desire, there is a place for sex work, and wherever there is taboo surrounding aspects of sex (hint: taboo is everywhere) sex work can offer a space for people to freely explore their interests outside of judgement. The online platform OnlyFans has provided a space for both content creators, and those that want to see that content.
The pandemic has made it incredibly difficult for sex workers, with many seeing an increase in violence against them as well as the obvious fact that the government did not have sex workers in mind whilst creating COVID-19 measures. Depictions of sex work fall short of the mark even now; Louis Theroux’s ‘Selling Sex’ documentary pushed an untrue narrative. Representations in popular culture coupled with a lack of protection from the law make sex work a misunderstood and mistreated community. With the knowledge of this, it would seem that OnlyFans could be a step in the right direction for sex workers; a platform for adult content that puts its creators first.
Interestingly, a quick look on the OnlyFans blog shows a ‘Rising Stars’ article – with no mention of sex work at all. It says something about the view and presentation of sex work, even on a site that has a huge number of sex workers using it. If even one of the biggest online platforms for sex workers won’t openly acknowledge that part of themselves, then how can there possibly be any improvement for representations of sex work?
To gain a little more insight on OnlyFans, I spoke to a content creator, who, for the purposes of this anonymous interview will be called Celia*, to speak about their experience with the platform.
Celia started creating content on OnlyFans because she was at the bottom of her overdraft in 2019. Since creating the account, she has been able to move out of the overdraft, and now has enough money to pay her rent for a year if she stopped now. In a period where the government has failed to take into account the professional lives of those outside of the most privileged, OnlyFans has stepped up to the task of providing an avenue for sex workers to make money.
Cultural depictions of sex work portrays the profession as a dangerous one. Blockbuster films feature men in drug cartels abusing the sex workers they’ve paid to come to their houses for hedonistic parties, and often we see sex workers as the unnamed victims of male violence. Despite the global market for sex work, there are little to no protections for those in the profession. I was curious as to whether OnlyFans has been a positive change, allowing sex workers to feel safe and free from concerns of violence or scams. To this, Celia replied that “I feel about as safe as I can be using the site. It’s a lot harder for someone to scam a creator out of money on OnlyFans than selling things as one-offs independently.” For Celia, she has had more control over her own content on the platform. Before OnlyFans, Celia was “independently selling photos and occasionally escorting so [her] income from it wasn’t consistent, it was just whenever a job came up.” The platform has improved the stability of sex work as Celia “can do everything from home without worrying about being scammed” and the money she has made has been “fairly consistent for the last 8 months”, taking the worry out of the job.
In terms of online violence, however, the stigma attached to sex work prevails. I asked whether Celia had been at the receiving end of any abuse online for her account, to which she replied “I get a bit of stigma mainly from the ‘wannabe edgy’ type people who like to argue with everyone on the internet and for a brief time from dating app matches before I got with my partner.” It seems as though she brushes the ‘wannabe edgy’ ones off, reminding herself that these online trolls, afforded the anonymity of the internet, will argue about anything and everything. This online hate, however, still presents the issue that sex workers often receive hate for something that these very online trolls may be benefiting from.
The contradictions of the internet didn’t sway Celia, but the abuse she’s had from her dating app matches were indicative of a bias that simply shouldn’t exist. Celia said that “the dating app ones were the worst because a conversation could be going great and then suddenly they’re hurling abuse at me because some people have this notion that doing sex work makes a person inherently bad or untrustworthy”, which of course simply isn’t true. She said that “in a relationship- if you’re all aware and okay with it then it shouldn’t be an issue.” It certainly should not be an issue. Sex work is a way to make money, and if you can tap into a market that consistently takes advantage of minorities whilst taking control of your own assets, then you have earned your place as a professional. Seeing sex work as anything other than a job adds unnecessary weight to the misguided belief that it is an extension of the sex workers’ private lives.
OnlyFans has provided a new avenue for sex workers to make money, with perhaps a steadier income, and one that offers greater protection for creators. The stigma surrounding sex work is one that has lasted almost as long as the profession itself, but hopefully with this platform sex workers will see a rise in acknowledgement and fair treatment. Historically, there is a belief that sex work means women are sexually exploited for monetary gains, and this issue exists in the cases of revenge porn or trafficking, but online creator-led sex work, particularly OnlyFans, may be able to give sex workers that control over their professional success and gain. Ultimately, if we start to embrace the idea that people (and perhaps women in particular) have autonomy over their own bodies, we can begin to pave the way for a society free of Victorian prejudice.
*Name changed for anonymity