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Sex Work is (Gig) Work
Assessing the OnlyFans effect
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For sex workers—including but by no means limited to escorts, porn performers, strippers, street workers, camgirls, rent boys, and exotic dancers—the rallying cry “sex work is work” has never been about merely stating the obvious but about making the obvious. That is, working to counter the conservative and, frequently, feminist forces that consider sex work a form of moral degradation, as dangerous, sinful, demeaning, or always coerced. Sex workers have sought to assert that while some workers labor variously with their bodies in hospitals, offices, fields, or factories, others choose to do so in actual or metaphorical bedrooms. The refrain “sex work is work,” therefore, insists on its own obsolescence, designed to be repeated until it is too apparent to be uttered.

“Sex work” was always intended to have wide coverage, adjoining the struggle for legitimacy of the street worker in London to the lap dancer in Las Vegas. Since the 1970s, when the sex worker Carol Leigh (also known as Scarlot Harlot) coined the term, however, the advance of digital technologies has multiplied the avenues for selling sex and, in so doing, expanded the already broad church of sex work to encompass both more and new forms. It widened further with the advent of OnlyFans in 2016, which quickly became the most successful among a number of internet-based subscription services for explicit content and now reports over 170 million registered users and 1.5 million content creators. Never before has the term sex worker applied to so many people across so many different social strata.

In recent years, a host of celebrities have taken to OnlyFans to make exclusive, sexualized content for paying fans. Last October, the actress Sarah Jayne Dunn, best known for her role in the British soap opera Hollyoaks, started an account to share “racier content” with her fans, later citing pandemic-induced financial insecurities as her reason for doing so. She was fired from the show after refusing to remove her page. Dunn defended her decision to remain on OnlyFans with familiar feminist appeals to agency—the kind insisted upon by Leigh—stating, “This is my choice to do what I want with my body.” By January, Dunn had risen to the top 0.5 percent of earners on the platform.

Perhaps more famously, however, the former Disney Channel star Bella Thorne made an OnlyFans account in August 2020, drawing so many of her twenty-five million Instagram followers that she earned $1 million in the first twenty-four hours. Like Dunn, Thorne invoked feminist defenses of sex work, tweeting that she joined the website in an attempt to “remove the stigma behind sex, sex work, and the negativity that surrounds the word SEX itself.”

Clearly, “sex work is work” is increasingly applied by and in defense of a new group of explicit content providers quite removed from the original, disenfranchised figures whom the adage was designed to protect. And yet, recent events indicate that everyone’s position remains precarious. On August 19, 2021, OnlyFans announced that from October of that year, it would no longer host sexually explicit content. The announcement came, coincidentally, just nine days after the Republican congresswoman Ann Wagner penned a bipartisan letter, signed by over one hundred members of Congress, to the attorney general demanding that OnlyFans be investigated for allegedly facilitating child sex trafficking, the distribution of child pornography, and god knows what else. Officially, OnlyFans cited the worries of pearl-clutching banks like BNY Mellon and JPMorgan Chase, likewise distressed over unfounded allegations of widespread criminal activity on the platform, as the reason for the policy change. Although the platform reversed its decision less than a week later amid criticism from producers and consumers of content alike, the tumult revealed exactly where the balance of power lies.

The technological luster—including the gift of heightened autonomy—of platforms like OnlyFans has transformed online sex work, enabling a small percentage of porn performers to become rich. But, in turn, the platforms have exacerbated, or at least publicized, longstanding inequalities within the landscape of sex work. Accordingly, “sex worker” has become an incoherent class position, with a politics ill-suited to protect workers from the increasing hostility of executives and lawmakers.

Studio Blues

The ascendance of OnlyFans marks another in a series of significant departures from what was once the dominant model of porn production. From the 1970s into the 2000s, the vast majority of paid-for pornography was produced by professional studios. But as home video equipment became more affordable, people increasingly began to produce and consume “amateur” pornography. Either provided gratis by exhibitionists on a proliferating array of streaming sites or for profit on dedicated websites, amateur porn offered the viewer the opportunity to view apparently real sex, which made the casting couches and bang buses of studio pornography appear artificial by comparison. Niels van Doorn, a professor of new media and digital culture, contends that amateur porn sites like YouPorn emerged at the juncture of the mainstreaming of porn and porn aesthetics, the rise of reality television, and the emergence of community-led content creation at the dawning of Web 2.0. These developments, along with the consecration of the celebrity sex tape, helped secure the legitimacy of amateur pornography that OnlyFans would later capitalize upon to the tune of $1.2 billion in revenue by the end of the first quarter of 2021, according to analysis by Statista.

While the top performers easily pull down six figures in subscriptions every month, the majority of users on OnlyFans take home less than two hundred dollars in the same time.

The shifting interests of consumers toward the aesthetics of amateur porn created a tantalizing market opportunity for sex workers. Porn performers, in what gender studies scholar Heather Berg describes as the “decentralization of the industry,” increasingly began to produce and monetize their own content, wresting control away from a studio system that unevenly split profits with higher-ups. OnlyFans, originally created by Tim Stokely to assist social media influencers in monetizing their content, provided sex workers with a platform from which to capitalize on this market opportunity—with, seemingly, full agency.

Contiguous with an ever-expanding gig economy of independently contracted laborers, creators on OnlyFans found themselves able to set their own monthly subscription rates, interact with followers, and decide on the terms of their own content. This, all on a single platform that takes only a 20 percent slice of their revenue, in comparison to some webcam sites that regularly pocket as much as 50 percent. Moreover, equipped with the ability to promote their own content on social media platforms, many performers have been able to build large followings and make extraordinary sums of money.

Performers can now have heightened control—within limits—over the creation of porn. As well as providing performers with the ultimate say in who they work with, moving the means of production away from studios with often deeply conservative tastes has allowed an alternative ecosystem of sexual content to flourish. Mainstream studio porn has long been criticized for its attachments to a narrow set of—among other factors, racialized and cis-centric—bodily norms. In that world, the perfect porn star is big-breasted or exceptionally hung (but not both), preternaturally tan, hairless, and bereft of body fat (except in the right places, with the right texture and shimmy). Yet the stuff of studios’ fantasies is wildly out of step with the actual tastes of porn viewers. In 2017, Vice reported that videos featuring Black performers were among the most viewed gay porn categories on Pornhub in the United States. But performers of color made up less than three percent of the over one thousand men who had ever appeared in content from Sean Cody, the most popular gay studio of the same year according to internet searches.

The DIY nature of OnlyFans has allowed what professor of cultural studies Feona Attwood has described as “new sex taste cultures” to blossom. The landscape is still far from ideal, and no doubt an individual with the appearance of a conventional porn star is more likely to succeed in independent, platform sex work. But now, to the advantage of performers and viewers alike, a greater diversity of bodies is available to watch than ever before: fat, hairy, curvy, small-dicked, flat-chested, femme, trans, non-binary, Black, Asian, pierced, modified, impaired, and on and on.

This broadening of the pornographic marketplace expands the horizons of what is depicted and constituted as a “normal” body. But this is not just a matter of representation; it redresses existing inequalities in who gets paid to make porn and how much. No longer subject to the exclusionary hiring practices of studios, performers with non-normative bodies (by studio standards) are being remunerated for producing porn. Moreover, platform-based sex work at least holds the possibility of more equitable pay for performers of color, divorced as it is from the whims of studio bosses who regard non-white performers as surplus and, therefore, underpay them in comparison to their white counterparts. In 2013, author Mireille Miller-Young noted that Black women, for instance, were routinely paid half to three quarters of what white women are paid within the studio system.

The emerging picture here is that the OnlyFans turn represents something of an emancipation of sex workers from employers who have held, since contemporary porn’s inception, the lion’s share of power in the industry. In the world of studio porn, imbalances of power have often led to the exploitation of sex workers. Women, in particular, have been put at risk—less empowered to feel they can say no and, therefore, more vulnerable to coercion and sexual abuse. Heather Berg notes, however, that in a purportedly post-feminist landscape of porn, men are also vulnerable within the studio system, since studios’ reckoning with fairness and safety on set often assumes that only female workers require protection with, for example, consent procedures. Drawing on interviews with sex workers and porn producers, Berg suggests that contrary to how the porn industry has been framed by its feminist opponents, “the vast majority of the workplace strains and abuses that porn workers describe are about work, not sex.” For instance, Berg describes how porn’s perceived labor surplus limits sex workers’ attempts at collective bargaining.

Porn performers have also been met with opposition from the existing structures of organized labor: the powerful Screen Actors Guild union has steadfastly refused to represent them since 1974. This has left those in the studio system less capable of negotiating the terms of their work and working conditions. Although platform-based sex work on OnlyFans does mean the loss of certain industry oversights—such as mandatory STI testing—in offering dividends and a path away from the studio system, it allows workers to lay a claim of ownership over their workplace.

OnlyOption

As rosy as this picture appears, the reality is hardly a utopia. OnlyFans’ decision in August 2021 to prohibit explicit content—and then its abrupt reversal—demonstrated the structural precarity of online, platform-based sex workers, who operate at the whims of tech and bank executives. While these suits profit from the deluge of paid-for porn, they are often squeamish about the content that has made them rich. OnlyFans is notoriously shy about explicitly acknowledging pornography in its public facing messaging, even though this, no doubt, comprises the majority of the platform’s content and revenue. Note that in the tweet that broke the news they would not be banning sexually explicit content after all, the company played coy: “Thank you to everyone for making your voices heard,” the tweet read. “We have secured assurances necessary to support our diverse creator community and have suspended the planned October 1 policy change. OnlyFans stands for inclusion, and we will continue to provide a home for all creators.” Rather than proudly recognize the porn performers and consumers who had pushed back en masse and, against the odds, overturned the ban, OnlyFans traded in euphemisms, opting not to produce a Twitter trail that would anchor them to unequivocal support for the sex workers who make up their “diverse creator community.”

The move to online platform sex work has only deepened existing contours of inequality that exist among and between sex workers.

OnlyFans’ prudishness also manifests in the form of an increasingly strict “Acceptable Use Policy” that limits what and how performers are able to post. In addition to obviously unethical extremes like rape and necrophilia, OnlyFans prohibits content that “shows, promotes, advertises, or refers to”: drug use (including poppers), “extreme” fisting, “hardcore” bondage, and piss or scat play, among other perfectly acceptable acts. Despite the galling rhetorical collapse here between consensual kink and transgressions like rape, performers who produce this kind of content risk having their accounts permanently banned—and, therefore, their livelihoods threatened—with little hope of reinstatement. Sex workers’ anxieties are only inflamed by the vague and inconsistent application of the policy, which, as performers routinely note, the platform lazily appeals to when removing content that appears compliant while refusing to clarify the manner of the violation. Moreover, the platform strictly prohibits content creators from advertising themselves as escorts or prostitutes, which stifles creators who use porn to promote and supplement their in-person work. The message from OnlyFans is clear: they set the terms.

Alternative, more sex work-friendly platforms to OnlyFans do exist—like JustForFans, a site founded and staffed entirely by sex workers. On the day that news of OnlyFans’ explicit content ban broke, JustForFans condemned the decision: “The adult industry is sadly used to companies cutting their teeth on the adult market and then abandoning them once they reach critical mass,” they tweeted. “We are a porn site. That will never change, and we have no interest in ‘mainstreaming.’” However, while JustForFans claims to be the second most popular platform in terms of traffic and competitively offers to take a 15 to 20 percent cut of performers’ revenue, OnlyFans maintains something of a monopoly on the porn subscription model, which has made it difficult for performers to be ensured an equivalent income on alternative services.

Moreover, even if certain adult content platforms are more hospitable to performers, they still must contend with the wider ecosystem of social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram, which are, to varying degrees, fearful of adult content. Both platforms are notorious for shadow- or outright banning sex workers, suppressing their access to their audiences and limiting the exposure of their posts. Although these companies deny the practice, data reported in 2020 suggests that sex workers are twice as likely as other users to report being shadowbanned and significantly less likely to get their accounts reinstated after a ban: about 45 percent of non-sex workers were able to get their accounts back, compared to just over 7 percent of those who had done sex work. Sex workers of color have contended that they are particularly vulnerable to being banned from social media platforms, since flagging or reporting a profile for explicit content serves as an easy tool for online racism. Precarity for sex workers, therefore, extends to an internet almost entirely mediated by corporations that are constantly threatening to disappear them—as Tumblr famously did in 2018, when it banned all pornographic content.

Forms of algorithmic oppression are not, of course, uniformly applied. The internet researchers Katrin Tiidenberg and Emily van der Nagel have noted that social media platforms play a key role in shaping contemporary understandings of what sex is by determining what content is deemed too sexy to appear online. They argue that, far from “objectively” appraising visual media, the algorithms used to detect “pornographic” content are trained on images that incorporate a host of designers’ a priori assumptions of what “sexually explicit” looks like—judgements that pose a particular threat to “body positive, sex positive, queer, and kinky people.”

Other forms of algorithmic despotism derive from how they circulate content on social media feeds. Algorithms operate both by feeding users examples of posts they have already expressed an interest in and by prioritizing what other users are engaging with. They couch a circular logic: that which is already popular catches fire. Driving up the visibility of posts via a metric of relevance, algorithms pose a challenge to the romantic optimism of scholars like Peter Lehman, who have regarded the proliferation of images on the internet to be a means of expanding the Overton window of sexual desire. Images online, it turns out, are not regarded equally. Rather, click-thirsty social media companies collude to march the “conventionally attractive” right to the top of your feed. For platform sex workers, this means more marginal figures in the landscape of desirability—not white, not cisgender, not gym-sculpted, not able-bodied—are less likely to receive and, therefore, profit from social media exposure.

Despite the promise of more equitable pay outside the studio system, earnings on OnlyFans are ruthlessly unequal: the top one percent of performers take home 33 percent of all the money made on the platform, according to xsrus.com, which about tracks with the broader misappropriation of household wealth in the United States. While the top performers easily pull down six figures in subscriptions every month, the majority of users on OnlyFans take home less than two hundred dollars in the same time. Although OnlyFans does not release detailed information about the top earners on its platform, the briefest glance at the social media followings of its popular performers indicates that, overwhelmingly, cisgender, fit, and white performers—bolstered by algorithms—are raking in the most cash.

Instate the Obvious

OnlyFans hardly kicked off a democratizing revolution in porn. Indeed, it might be said that the move to online platform sex work has only deepened existing contours of inequality that exist among and between sex workers, lubricating what sociologist Paul Ryan has observed to be the overlapping of sexual capital, social media presence, and, therefore, earnings in online sex work. As such, OnlyFans has invited a motley crew of nascent sex workers to see what they can gather from the pornographic gold rush. These include a milieu of celebrities with enormous followings, established porn performers, Instagram influencers, models, bodybuilders, camgirls, exhibitionists, hobbyists, the merely sex work-curious, and many others. What distinguishes these individuals is not only the nature of their content, nor their intentions for engaging in sex work, but the material conditions within which they work and live—simply put, their class position. The anonymous gay man who monetizes his weekend’s sexual escapades as a hot financial boost to his job as a day trader is not in the same boat as any of the scores of people who turned to online sex work as a means of survival during the economic downturn caused by Covid-19. Of course, these disparities are merely a synecdoche for broader disparities that separate the vulnerable street worker from the high-class escort under what the historian of sexuality Jeffrey Escoffier has referred to as the “broad and rather vague term” sex work. More so than ever, “sex worker” is not a coherent class position.

More so than ever, “sex worker” is not a coherent class position.

It is imperative that those of us invested in the emancipation and rights of sex workers recognize these disparities of class and position at this particular moment. The unprecedented popularity of OnlyFans, a phenomenon so of the moment that it has been enshrined in a Beyoncé verse, and the concomitant ease with which it can be used to turn a profit, means that there have seemingly never been more sex workers operating at one time and, in turn, that sex work has never been more visible. And yet, the public face of this tidal wave of sex work, the individuals called on to speak in print or for clickbait, tend to represent only the most bourgeois of sex workers: celebrities like Bella Thorne, Bhad Bhabie, or Sarah Jayne Dunn. The issue here, of course, is that centering the celebrity class of sex workers obscures those significantly worse off and, moreover, disappears their concerns under the voices of the most privileged. “Sex work is work” is a forceful piece of rhetoric—one that challenges the stigma of sex work. But it has also become the only visible rhetoric, at least in mainstream channels, rolled out by affluent celebrities in defense of their OnlyFans accounts in order to banish their real concern: public scorn.

Of course, battling the expression of anti-sex work stigma is, in the round, a worthy cause. Stigma puts sex workers at risk of harm, makes them less likely to report incidents of workplace assault and less likely to open up to health care providers and access necessary treatments, and shores up discriminatory policies, including the criminalization of sex work. Yet the celebrity faces of the industry rarely tether their personal pleas for freedom of expression and bodily autonomy to more acute and wide-reaching issues precipitated by stigma. Deploying “sex work is work” rhetoric in defense of their individual right to do sex work, the new ascendant class of sex workers fail to level demands to secure the rights and protection of sex workers in general. Here, once again, the landscape of platform sex work echoes the pitfalls of the studio system: the repression of collective bargaining.

The privileging of certain rhetoric by better-off sex workers, which may come at the expense of the more marginalized, is nothing new. Indeed, we might find parallels in the way Heather Berg has described sex workers’ struggles with the question of state oversight. Rightly suspicious of state intervention given discriminatory anti-sex work policies, porn performers have often expressed an interest in privacy—that is, complete exemption from state oversight. Yet, Berg notes, privacy demands are often a “luxury loaded with whiteness and class privilege”—leveled by those who can afford the disinterest of the state.

Online sex workers, like their offline counterparts, require the guarantee of a permanent and safe home to sell their services

While celebrity sex workers like Thorne do not explicitly make demands for privacy, their politically thin assertion that what they are doing is simply an expression of bodily autonomy is, in no uncertain terms, a plea for disinterested eyes—private and public—to merely look away. But an online landscape governed by deregulated social media companies, themselves largely shielded from state oversight, leaves sex workers at the mercy of capricious executives who arbitrarily police the borders of acceptable and unacceptable sex work. Asking the state or the public to simply look away does nothing to address the specific vulnerabilities of sex workers working online in the wake of OnlyFans’ rise.

A growing—and largely imagined—hysteria about the role of the internet in facilitating child sex trafficking has given cover for the implementation of draconian U.S. laws like the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (FOSTA-SESTA) designed to harm sex workers. Around the time of FOSTA-SESTA’s passage in 2018, many major websites, including Reddit, Google, and Craigslist, began to clamp down hard on users who were engaged or suspected of engaging in paid-for sex, and Backpage—one of the largest platforms dedicated to hosting adult classified ads—closed for good. These actions not only strangle sex workers’ online incomes but push those engaged in in-person work into riskier offline environments where they have less autonomy. Similarly, the Earn It Act, reintroduced by the Democrat Richard Blumenthal and the Republican Lindsey Graham earlier this year, is an apparent bid to protect children from explicit content online. Yet the bill, which proposes to end strong encryption of data by social media companies and enforce widespread content moderation across digital platforms, would disproportionately affect sex workers by limiting their privacy and freedom of sexualized speech online. Clearly, in such a context, online sex workers, like their offline counterparts, require the guarantee of a permanent and safe home to sell their services—a guarantee that may, in part, be forged through laws that enshrine such a right.

The church of sex workers grows broader by the day. This means that the adages that used to protect its workers have been stretched thin, rolled out by an ascendant class of sex workers in the interests of self-preservation, rather than to secure the safety and security of sex workers as a collective. It is no longer—if it ever was—sufficient for us to affirm that sex work is work; we must build solidarity from top to bottom and explicitly demand permanent protections for sex workers on and offline. We need to instate the obvious.