- The status of sex workers in a world where being OnlyFans-famous is aspirational?
There are a great deal of taboos and stigma around ‘the world’s oldest profession,’ and not too long ago, a woman based in America went viral on social media after she included ‘sex work’ under work experience on her public LinkedIn profile. She also wrote an explanation as to why she chose to list sex work as a part of her work experience, ultimately asking: “Why is this different than any other client work?” She shared that in her opinion, it was in fact no different to any other work, therefore she had it up on her LinkedIn.
Let us consider her statement – that sex work is not different to other client work. How true is it, and if it is, how much of it remains true in given various different contexts?
Sex work is like other client work
Hashtag Generation gender specialist Saritha Irugalbandara shared her thoughts on whether sex work is in fact no different to any other client service work, noting that it wasn’t that simple. “One of the most common catchphrases in liberal feminism is ‘sex work is also work,’ which is true – it is legitimate work – you provide a service and you get paid for it. Even in Sri Lanka, judicial precedents have established that if you engage in sex work to make a living, that is not a criminal offence,” she said, however also noting that this type of thinking had its drawbacks.
Saritha noted that there was a problem in thinking this way where it could result in an oversimplification. “Is it like any other employment, like a freelance gig? That is not entirely the case, because sex work deviates from this due to two main concerns. One is that it is high-risk, in that it can actually be a criminal offence in many countries. Even in Sri Lanka if a person is caught having sex in a brothel they are arrested, even though the ones that should be arrested are those who are soliciting sex. So within our legal system, it’s difficult to earn a living through sex work.”
“The second point is the moral standpoint, where if you engage in sex work you are very likely ostracised, looked down upon, and thought of in a very derogatory manner. So I don’t think it is anywhere close to being the same as working with a client in what would be a broadly accepted ‘normal’ job which is unfortunate, because it is legitimate work,” Saritha said.
Saritha also added that it was important to note how sex workers were treated before law and society’s moral judgement, noting: “Sex workers are abused by their clients, especially in countries where they do not have the freedom to engage in their work. Clients know this and the men who solicit sex from women or trans people know that these sex workers cannot seek any help, so the risk factor is so much higher than in a normal job. On the flip side, they are harassed and abused by law enforcement as well.”
“I think this is where liberal feminism oversimplifies it by saying ‘sex work is also work,’ because it invisibilises the social and cultural realities within which sex work exists,” Saritha concluded.
Becoming OnlyFans-famous and sex work
OnlyFans is an internet content subscription service where content creators can receive funding directly from their fans. While the platform is not exclusively for sex workers, it has become popular with sex workers as a lucrative and non-invasive platform, especially for those in pornography.
The platform has come to be known for its amateur and professional sex workers and its growth has been further facilitated by mainstream celebrities like rapper Cardi B and actress Bella Thorne joining the platform, though in the case of celebrities, for the most part, content created is more suggestive than outright explicit.
OnlyFans has grown to such an extent that it is somewhat of a cultural phenomenon, so much so that it has become synonymous with being a fast cash method. If one is looking to make a quick buck, and morals be damned, then ‘off I go to make an OnlyFans’. While it is now something people often say for fun, it has also proven to be a legitimately good revenue generator for numerous people around the world.
Dominique Ksacha, an outspoken feminist on social media, recently shared her thoughts on the matter of sex work and the existence of OnlyFans, casually mentioning that had it not been for the stigma attached to sex work and women knowingly engaging in sex she would have legitimately considered starting an OnlyFans herself.
Sharing her thoughts on this matter of agency and women taking ownership of their bodies and doing with it as they pleased, Dominique noted that it was a form of empowerment and was often met with resistance because of Sri Lanka’s ‘purity culture’ which happened to be deeply rooted in religion.
Dominique also added: “Women have been oppressed for centuries, and when it comes to sex and sexuality there is a lot of stigma attached.” Specifically addressing sex work she noted: “While there are many issues such as lack of access to contraceptives and lack of legal protection, what may be the biggest deterrent is the social stigma – the judgement you are bound to face.”
Still no change?
As discussed, even mainstream celebrities have opened OnlyFans pages and are openly engaging in what can be considered pornographic content, so one could assume that this may legitimise the movement. However, this simply has not been the case; even in our current society where OnlyFans celebrities now thrive, sex work remains stigmatised.
Saritha spoke on this matter further, noting how sex work was fundamentally a very gendered form of labour, “because we are looking at women predominantly here. It is affected by these cultural beliefs of it amounting to ‘selling your body’ and that if you have sex with someone it is seen as ‘degrading yourself’. Whereas, in the case of retail work for instance, we would not be told that we are selling our body to a major corporation, even though it is at times psychically excruciating work. Our ideas of labour are still very puritanical.”
Commenting on the phenomenon of OnlyFans, Saritha expressed that she wasn’t too surprised by the lack of systematic positive change toward sex work despite the popularity of platforms like OnlyFans.
“OnlyFans is a company, and its business model cares about generating revenue. Companies don’t stand to benefit from dismantling power structures. They only created a platform for sex work to go digital. Sex work has existed since time immemorial and having a new platform to do that work doesn’t necessarily remove that stigma because it doesn’t address any of the root causes,” she said.
Looking at the bigger picture, Saritha commented that the OnlyFans platform had made sex work seem “fun and trendy” without actually making it easier for people who relied on the work as their livelihood. “Realistically there are levels to this – there is an obvious difference between a celebrity like Bella Thorne doing sex work and a single mother who can’t feed her kids doing sex work. Both are making that same choice but the conditions that necessitate them to make that choice are very different,” she explained.
She added that while this platform had made it so that a subset of people – mostly cisgendered, white, skinny, conventionally attractive, able-bodied women – were able to actually make money off of sex work, real sex workers still got left in the dust.
“I don’t think creating a platform solves problems like the social stigma and sex workers getting ostracised at all. If anything, it allows people who may ‘not need’ to do sex work to do it as a fun side hustle without addressing any of the structural violence and constraints that sex workers have to navigate in reality.”
Not all jobs are equal
Brunch also reached out to a former sex worker, a transwoman suffering from a disability, for her thoughts on this conversation of whether sex work is equal to ordinary work and how she sees this new era of OnlyFans celebrities making sex work mainstream.
Choosing to remain anonymous, she said: “All of these global or international trends and practices can change, but if you are illiterate, poor, and generally disadvantaged it will not matter what is popular or trendy. For people like me – who are not very literate and live on a daily wage – we do not attract the type of clients who will help us crawl out of poverty. As long as the system remains in place where the Police take sexual bribes by intimidation and there’s bare minimum legal protection, it doesn’t matter how many OnlyFans pages open up.”
Saritha echoed these sentiments on this aspect of the discussion, noting that context matters. “What necessitates the sex work is important. Sure, it is legitimate work, but often people turn to sex work when they don’t have any other option. I am not denying people’s agency when they chose sex work as their form of employment, but let’s be very realistic. Sex workers are more vulnerable to violence and are at the intersection or the overlap of people who are most vulnerable to economic, social, and other structural forms of violence.”
She noted that it was not so easy to simply say that sex work was just work. There is a need to ask ourselves questions such as what factors necessitate sex work, why it continues to exist, and why it continues to be ostracised and unprotected.