With the recent banning and unbanning of pornography from the OnlyFans platform, sex workers are reminded of the precariousness of the industry. The initial stance to ban pornography from the platform forces us to further question our understanding of sex work, as well as work performed by women more broadly, as affected by censorship and violence.
OnlyFans hosts a range of content creators on its platform, but its reputation has largely been tied to sex work. It has been financially advantageous for sex workers, as it has enabled them to take a greater share from their services than on other platforms. The hasty decision to ban performers, then the subsequent u-turn, reveals that the company reflects society’s understanding of sex work, which is not viewed as the same as other ‘traditional’ forms of work. The attempted banning of performers further lends credibility to the continuous onslaught of demonisation and condemnation of the industry.
The suspension was ambiguous at best and potentially dangerous at worst. The entire process enshrines the perceived ambiguity that shrouds sex work. It is a type of work that can be easily disregarded and relegated to the side-lines by mainstream society. However, we can trace how the indifference, ambivalence and neglect towards sex workers in fact feeds into gender-based violence across society.
The attempted banning of pornography on OnlyFans gives credence to the broader arguments of demonisation and criminalisation which filters into the logics of carcerality and bodily autonomy. A typical attack line when discussing sex work usually presented by the state, as well as reactionaries and liberal feminists, centres around infantilising sex workers and posing safety as moral question; and whilst safety should be reinforced, it is often used as an ideological weapon to further criminalise sex workers. If safety were their primary concern, then greater resources should be put in place to support sex workers, or victims of sexual violence more broadly. Their rhetoric subsequently falls apart when the same logic surrounding safety is applied to more ‘traditional’ workplaces.
Violence against women permeates not only the private sphere, but also the public. The criminalisation of the industry further ghettoises and places women in further danger. The potential reduction of platforms such as OnlyFans places further stress on practitioners, as they are now forced to go further underground. The suspended banning of pornography on the platform feeds into the logic of the Nordic model, which presumes to focus on the safety of sex workers, however, in reality creates extra legal pitfalls for them.
In Lola Olufemi’s seminal book Feminism, Interrupted, she sets out a roadmap for showing support and solidarity to sex workers. She grounds her support by framing it as a feminist issue, one that cannot be divorced from the material conditions that disproportionately impact women, especially women engaged in sex work. Extending our solidarity to sex workers demonstrates our understanding when we consider how the state, and by virtue the law, can be organised to suppress sex workers, fostering a more hostile and dangerous world for them to operate in.
Olufemi further demonstrates that while the sale of sex is legal, lawmakers can criminalise the process of purchasing sex, as she posits that there are ‘host of related ‘crimes’ that are not: brothel-keeping, curb crawling, and soliciting in a public place’. The related crimes further feed into our understanding of sex work, which solidifies the demonisation the industry. These crimes therefore become a vector for ghettoisation and relegation to the underground. As a result, sex workers cannot find solidarity with one another, as the profession is now shrouded in secrecy, forcing women into more precarious situations and dangerous locations.
Such treatment of sex workers reinforces the existential danger that criminalisation can force them into. The law does not centre the reality of their lives but instead creates an environment that exacerbates gender-based violence. This is not to say that the profession is not without any danger, but the focus on criminalisation takes away from how sex workers can foster an environment that centres security, for example the vetting of clients that they are unfamiliar with. Criminalisation only increases the danger clients can pose if they know that the profession is without rights or safeguarding. The survivors of violence, therefore, are treated like the perpetrator as a logical consequence of criminalisation.
While the proposed banning of pornography by OnlyFans was not enshrined in law and has (for now) been suspended, the original position of the platform mirrors real-time legislation and societal attitudes that make it more difficult for the existence of sex workers. Instagram for example, has made it increasingly difficult for sex workers to navigate the platform by reducing visibility and censoring language and images under the guise of its community guidelines.
As discussed in Revolting Prostitutes by Molly Smith and Juno Mac, the work that women do is often devalued due to being ‘women’s work’. As a result, this shrouds the physical and mental labour that exists in all types of work. Relegating it to ‘not work’ creates an environment whereby we pathologise sex workers as people who are ‘unable to make good decisions’. But, as Smith and Mac argue, for some, sex work enables a way for people to get the resources they need – it fulfils, to some degree, their material conditions.
While the suspension of the proposed banning is welcomed, this does not excuse the threat of violence sex workers were faced with. As emblematic of the broader understanding of sex work, OnlyFans must now address this moving forward. The platform has further highlighted the attitudes towards sex work as not being considered as ‘real’ work. As Olufemi argues, ‘As feminists, our concerns should be more about that whether or not sex workers can ‘consent’ or how commercial sex changes what we know about sex. There is more at stake in the conversation; one thing that those across the spectrum of the debate can agree on is that no woman should be subjected to violence, at any time, in any place’.
Ashley Roach-McFarlane is a freelance writer who has written for the Verso Blog and Bad Form Review, where he discusses issues around politics, race, class and capitalism.