Opinion | OnlyFans Doesn’t Make ‘Sex Work’ Safe or Ethical

OnlyFans became a household name during the pandemic, when demand for pornography skyrocketed. People started living their lives online, domestic violence exploded, women lost their means of economic survival even more than men, and inequalities increased. OnlyFans, niche pornography as mediated soft prostitution, was positioned to take advantage of these dynamics.

OnlyFans has been to conventional pornography what stripping has been to prostitution: a gateway activity, sexual display with seeming insulation from skin-on-skin exploitation, temporary employment for those with their financial backs against the wall and few if any alternatives. It offers the illusion of safety and deniability for producer and consumer alike. But the outcry over the proposed ban made clear that only explicit sex — mostly, the sexual consumption of feminized bodies, usually female, gay or trans — sells well in pornography’s world. As Dannii Harwood, the first so-called content creator on OnlyFans, told The New York Times, “Once subscribers have seen everything, they move on to the next creator.” Empirical research has also documented that dynamic.

Though OnlyFans said its motive for the now-retracted ban was to comply with the policies of credit card companies that process payments on the platform, there is some reason to think that the platform was trying to get ahead of its Pornhub moment, in which the possible conditions of its girlfriend fantasy — youth, diminished agency and destitution among them — might be exposed. Allegations have already been made of inadequate screening for incest, bestiality and child sexual abuse. A complaint recently filed in Korea alleged that OnlyFans hosted videos of minors. (OnlyFans has said the company “does not tolerate any violations of our policies and we immediately take action to uphold the safety and security of our users.”) There is no way to know whether pimps and traffickers are recruiting the unwary or vulnerable or desperate, or coercing them offscreen, and confiscating or skimming the proceeds, as is typical in the sex industry. OnlyFans takes 20 percent of any pay, its pimp’s cut.

Silent in the discussion of OnlyFans’s proposed rule is whether preventing underage youth from being used on the site has ever been possible. Prepubescent children, maybe. But almost anyone past the onset of puberty can be presented as a so-called consenting adult. Most women enter the sex industry underage, their vulnerability central to their appeal hence marketability. Children cannot be protected from sexual exploitation as long as pornography is protected and prostitution of adults is tolerated, because these are the same group of people at two points in time, sometimes no more than one day apart, sometimes at one and the same time — children presented as adults, adults presented as children.

Equally missing in the conversation is any concern for people who have been forced, pimped or deceived, or had their intimate pictures stolen. Much of the commentary on OnlyFans’s once-proposed rule wails that the consumer should have the right to buy what the producer should have the right to sell. Meanwhile, the coerced, violated, exploited and surveilled have no effective rights against being bought and sold against their will. As long as the violated lack effective rights and equality based on sex, ethnicity and gender, survivors of abuse through these sites — including Pornhub and SeekingArrangement and sites adjacent — will be exposed to theft, coercion and all manner of unauthorized expropriation of their sexuality.

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