OnlyFans performer Ariel Anderssen has recently written about the ways in which she is empowered as an adult performer who is an active participant in the sex economy by choice. Good for her. Sex-positive feminist rhetoric often talks about empowering women and refusing to feel shame. But is selling your attractiveness capital on the market actually empowering, or has a fad—camgirling—merely been rebranded as empowerment for a new generation, despite the fact that the majority of its participants are desperate, terminally underemployed gig economy workers suffering under the new economic austerity? Masturbating online for money is no more radical or dignified than waiting tables—while it isn’t necessarily bad, it isn’t necessarily great, either. Young people with well-paying career options don’t usually voluntarily decide to get into sex work. They do it in response to a lack of other lucrative options. Uber empowered thousands of people to become taxi drivers and food delivery workers, but this isn’t the same as having a savings account, a pension, or, ideally, finding work in a specialized field that you trained for and find rewarding. Airbnb empowered many to rent out spare bedrooms to turn a small profit, but there’s still a housing crisis. Gig economy jobs serve as a distraction from austerity issues. Rather than being celebrated as a pro-sex, individualist triumph, the rise of OF and amateur sex work should be seen as the digital neoliberal grift it actually represents. The oft repeated phrase sex work is real work obscures the fact that it’s not the kind of work most people would prefer to do.
Is it merely a coincidence that the slogan started around the same time as an entire generation of people realized that their economic opportunities were precarious? The phrase that was once used to legitimize the reality of survival sex work has been co-opted by people so far behind on their rent and bills that they’ve decided to monetize their nudes. Making money from your sex appeal is nothing new: what is new is that so many people have almost no other choice. This is especially worrying considering the pandemic-related decimation of other industries that allow people to use their attractiveness as capital, such as stripping, bartending, waitressing and modeling.
The notion that all OF performers are entrepreneurial self-starters engaged in a proactive, business-minded enterprise is misguided, as a quick glance at the disparities in OF earnings can verify. As in the general economy, only the top one percent of income earners make significant money. For every Reno Gold, there are a hundred performers barely managing to scrape together an additional couple of hundred dollars a month. Most OF performers are probably economically disenfranchised twenty-somethings. The idea that OnlyFans is liberating is about as believable as that it is liberating to be a cash dom demanding money from pay pigs. It may be an interesting niche fetish, but relying on other people to give you money is never empowering. A findom may fancy him- or herself a master, but he or she is still a slave to market forces. Any activist position that treats its constituents as a permanent underclass—whether dependent on state handouts or on precarious sources of income like OnlyFans—rather than people who may aspire to a stable, middle-class income in the future, is a flawed approach.
In summer 2020, media outlets began to report an up to 70% increase in people signing up to be performers on OnlyFans: an increase directly correlated with an increase in pandemic-related unemployment. At the same time, the sex industry was conveniently tied to other areas of identity politics, with a focus on intersectionality, not class. One Black Trans Lives Matter rally organizer tweeted, “black trans lives matter, and black trans sex workers lives matter. Sex work IS work. A blowjob IS a job.” For all of their concern about exploitation, activists are curiously inept at acknowledging the difference between merely being paid to do something and a job. That hyperwoke online activists who have probably never resorted to performing oral sex for money themselves are so quick to advocate for others to have the opportunity to do so seems telling.
There is an interesting parallel between Only Fans and safe injection sites for intravenous drug users. Safe injection sites are seen as a form of risk reduction, but only in combination with addiction support, rehabilitation services and suboxone treatments. Their advocates don’t simply say shoot up freely and be addicted to heroin. Sex work is not the same as addiction, of course, but, like those experiencing addiction, sex workers require a full spectrum of support. Merely telling someone that he or she should have the right to exchange sexual services for money, or make porn from his or her living room, doesn’t address the material and economic issues that may lie beneath that decision.
Anyone who has found him- or herself in a position of want knows that resorting to something isn’t necessarily the same as voluntarily doing it. That why Teen Vogue and Twitter activists who went to private schools shouldn’t be driving the messaging on what we consider valuable options. Sex workers are not political props, but real people with unique dreams, desires and goals. Yes, sex work is real work, but those who are engaged in it may be hoping that something better will come along soon.
In December, when the New York Post doxed a 23-year-old EMT worker for having an OnlyFans account, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez poignantly tweeted: “Leave her alone. The actual scandalous headline here is ‘Medics in the United States need two jobs to survive.’” There was also a backlash when celebrities decided to get in on the fun and were chastised for disrupting the economics of the side hustle. The celebrities received massive payouts, prompting OnlyFans to put a cap on what creators can charge. This stunt damaged the earnings of ordinary OnlyFans performers and led a lot of users to say the quiet part out loud: you don’t need to do this, we do. A basic economic principle is at work here: when a market becomes oversaturated, the value of the product declines. The other issue, of course, is that celebrities were able to get in on the grift without doing any of the dirty work: they cashed in on their fame, but didn’t post their nudes—because, unlike the majority of OF performers, they didn’t need to.
If you’re going to valorize the legitimacy of doing sex work by choice, fine, but make sure that’s what you’re doing, as opposed to normalizing the idea that people should need to supplement their incomes in endless ways. As with so many other categories within identity politics, being a sex worker is often rattled off among other qualifiers of oppression, as if it were an essential, fixed way of being. Once again, the focus on the group experience takes precedence over economic issues. Radical analysis should address root causes, and OnlyFans is more of an effect than a cause. People should be able to make a living without being economically coerced into a side hustle.