Stop Asking Sex Workers to Fix Sex Work

Photo: Gabby Jones/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Last Thursday, news broke that OnlyFans, a platform famous for hosting sexually explicit content, will ban sexually explicit content as of October 1, and the public response seemed to break down into either cruel celebration or mocking of the company for making a stupid business decision. Some well-meaning outsiders suggested that models should start a worker-owned co-op to replace the site, thereby granting them greater stability and control, as if the real problem is an absence of sex-worker initiative or problem-solving skills. Of course, models already sell their own content direct to consumers through inventive work-arounds that are quickly stamped out, and worker-run sites exist, though JustForFans, the most prominent among them, has received pushback from creators for taking a 30 percent cut of their earnings. (OnlyFans takes 20.) Porn creators also regularly work together to make and promote their content; cooperation is built into the business model.

What most people don’t understand is just how difficult it is to conduct basic business as a sex worker, even when your work is ostensibly legal, as with stripping and making porn. The history of sex work on the internet is a history of workers fighting to control their own labor, which includes but isn’t limited to devising ways to work safer and without managers, and to keep more if not all of their income. But what the internet gave — easy and no-cost means of advertisement, better tools for screening clients, cheaper ways to record and distribute porn — the government, with the devastatingly effective propaganda arm of anti-sex-industry civilian coalitions, keeps taking away.

The co-op proposal isn’t just predicated on an insulting estimation of sex workers’ drive; it’s also based on the misconception that OnlyFans is jettisoning X-rated content due to puritanical pandering or a distaste for the déclassé. This idea is implicit, too, in the refrain that sex workers built the platform only to be discarded by the very titan they created; they think they’re too good for us now is the subtext of the complaint. But it’s because sex workers made OnlyFans into the money-printing machine it’s become that their displacement can only be explained in financial terms. Are we really to believe OnlyFans’ executives think the site stands to make more without sex, or that they’ve suddenly located a moral compass that requires they spurn that much cash? This is a company, after all, and it operates like any other, with profit as its sole purpose.

The source of the decision, sadly, is far bleaker than the aggravating but easily mocked figure of a reactionary prude. This is not the whim of a C-suite of born-again Christians willing to torpedo a billion-dollar enterprise. In its official statement on the impending change, OnlyFans pointed to “our banking partners and payout providers” as the impetus, meaning they’re trying to avoid the fate of PornHub, which was blocked by Mastercard, Visa, and Discover in December of last year. (That move also rendered a swath of sex workers essentially unemployed overnight.) Payment processors are the ultimate arbiter of what can be sold online in a sustainable, aboveboard fashion, and they can deny service to anyone they deem suspicious or high-risk. OnlyFans is acting out of self-preservation, making defensive decisions to protect what (comparatively little) profit it can.

In an increasingly cashless economy, the banking industry exerts a terrifying degree of control over us all, but sex workers have long been especially vulnerable to denial of accounts, loans, and mortgages, regardless of whether or not their work is technically legal. Paypal, Venmo, Stripe, Square, CashApp, and ApplePay all have terms of service that forbid payment for any sort of sexual product or service — again, including those that are legal — and those processors can also refuse sex workers just by virtue of their engagement in the sex industry, even if their use of the platform is unrelated. While many sex workers have tried to pivot to cryptocurrency, it’s far from a permanent solution, and even as a stopgap requires fresh-tech literacy and the time to acquire it, which are luxuries many workers can’t afford.

The regressive, oppressive ideology wrongly attributed to OnlyFans’ higher-ups is present in this equation, but it’s coming from anti-sex-industry organizations of the religious right like Exodus Cry and the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (formerly Morality in Media), and the politicians who enact the policies they back. The mission of these groups is to eradicate sex work entirely, and they intend to do it by leveling relentless, exaggerated, or wholly unfounded allegations of child abuse and sex trafficking at every outlet sex workers rely upon. (It’s no surprise these groups are also anti-LGBTQ rights and anti-abortion, nor that their rhetoric has been eagerly embraced by QAnon supporters and neo-Nazis.)

Some commentators linked OnlyFans’ porn ban to its so far unsuccessful investor search, but far fewer connected it to a congressional effort spearheaded by Republican Ann Wagner to have the attorney general investigate the site for “undeniable” child abuse, a hyperbolic accusation backed up with zero citations and endorsed by 101 signatories. Wagner calls OnlyFans a “major marketplace for buying and selling child sexual abuse material,” but makes no mention of Facebook, which had over 20 million reported incidents of child exploitation in the same year that MindGeek, Pornhub’s parent company, had 13,229. Anyone in the United States who enters the space of adult content does so with the knowledge that these groups, backed by a sex-hostile, pro-prison government with little interest in preventing actual systemic harm, are ready to take them down. And that remains true regardless of how closely a site may try to adhere to the law or how diligently it cooperates with federal investigators.

Sex workers can’t evade the crushing effects of criminalization and the discrimination and stigmatization it begets with sheer cleverness and will, especially not while they’re struggling to simply survive. They need informed, vocal allies to support them as they build political power. They need a populace that won’t tolerate scapegoating and fear-mongering, especially not as a substitute for confronting exploitation and labor violations. Instead of making suggestions about what sex workers should do differently, genuinely concerned civilians would do well to listen to sex workers about what they themselves can do to act in true solidarity.

Stop Asking Sex Workers to Fix Sex Work