When Sex Workers Speak, Who Listens?

When Sex Workers Speak, Who Listens?

The initial decision by OnlyFans to ban porn illustrates how ostensibly legal online sex work is, in reality, criminalized.


OnlyFans updated its “acceptable use policy” on August 19 to ban “sexually-explicit content or conduct,” limiting if not fully prohibiting porn on the platform. Then just six days later, following outrage from sex workers and allies online, it backpedaled. The company said it would “suspend” the policy changes. It did not, however, reverse them, leaving low-income earners in ongoing precarity. At any moment, OnlyFans or the banks could cut off sex workers again.

The initial decision by OnlyFans to forbid porn on the site illustrates how ostensibly legal online sex work is, in reality, criminalized. This is a problem that sex workers have repeatedly pointed out and been organizing against for years—but too much of society won’t listen. That refusal to actually hear what sex workers need to keep themselves safe is at the core of “political whorephobia,” a concept developed by Fordham legal scholar Chi Adanna Mgbako to explain how state violence against sex workers is enacted and justified by the government.

Losing access to safe online spaces puts sex workers, especially Black sex workers, in danger. “Isolating stigmatized workers during the best of times leads to police and communal violence,” the Philadelphia Red Umbrella Alliance remarked. And the consequences can be particularly severe for disabled and drug-using sex workers, who may rely on digital platforms to accommodate a range of chronic health issues. These sites and surveillance technologies also repress and silence sex workers engaged in social justice work through punitive content moderation and deplatforming. Danielle Blunt, a dominatrix and co-organizer with Hacking//Hustling whose Instagram account was just permanently deleted on August 30, told me that “denying access to technology is a form of structural violence.”

Cycles of using, discrediting, and purging sex workers from platforms like OnlyFans are partly due to financial discrimination against people selling sex. MasterCard, for instance, recently blocked transactions on Pornhub following a decades-long bipartisan crusade led by Christian anti-porn lobbyists. Few sex workers were surprised when OnlyFans suddenly barred porn. “Sex workers losing access to spaces is nothing new. There is a deep history,” Blunt said.

“This happens every time—with Craigslist, Backpage, Tumblr, Twitter, more, and now OnlyFans,” said Peech, the editor and director of accessibility and inclusion for the Heaux History Project, an organization dedicated to centering the stories of Black and brown sex workers, “Clock the next ‘sex-work friendly’ brand who pops up and watch the percentage they take from creators—and how long it takes them to make this same move.”

Public reaction to the initial OnlyFans announcement reveals how little sex workers’ voices are valued. Outside sex worker networks, many people attempted to show support but ended up just drowning out the voices of sex workers. Still others deemed the platform’s decision as “necessary.” Although this uproar from non–sex workers helped legitimize sex workers’ concerns, it highlighted a disconnect between existing sex worker-led movement efforts and the general public. On social media, waves of people and digital rights organizations posted in shock and outrage, asking, “Why did OnlyFans decide to ban sex workers?” For those who wondered this, ask yourself, “Why don’t I already know about what’s happening to sex workers?”

The more political whorephobia affects a growing population of people doing sex work, especially online, the more attention it is given. While the media framed the OnlyFans suspension as a victory for sex workers, it ignored the roots of sex worker resistance and the power that the platforms still have over sex workers. “These cycles of media events don’t capture the totality of this movement,” said Caty Simon, an organizer with Whose Corner Is It Anyway (WCIIA), a group in Western Massachusetts by and for low-income sex workers who use drugs or experience housing insecurity. “They reflect how the sex worker labor movement is erased from labor history overall.”

For decades, sex workers have been collectively speaking out about increasing police surveillance and digital repression. Sex workers warned us about FOSTA/SESTA, a 2018 law that effectively criminalized the online facilitation of sex work, and even communication between sex workers. Marginalized sex workers warned us about Backpage and cried out #LetUsSurvive when the government seized Backpage and passed FOSTA/SESTA shortly thereafter.

After years of sex workers’ organizing for full decriminalization and creating innovative ways to exist online, most people who do not have such jobs do not understand the threat posed when a platform like OnlyFans decides to suddenly purge sex workers.

What sex workers, then, have been doing for a long time is organizing networks of mutual care and support. As Zee St. James, an organizer with ANSWER Detroit and the sex worker group of the Urban Survivors Union, told me, “We keep ourselves safe.”

With Covid-19 rates spiking across the country, mutual aid networks have become especially vital to sex workers’ survival. Philadelphia Red Umbrella Alliance, for instance, set up the Philadelphia Sex Worker Relief Fund to assist community members. Tamika Spellman, the policy and community engagement manager at the harm reduction nonprofit HIPS, and other co-organizers launched the Survivor Support Fund to support Black trans people in Washington, D.C.

St. James emphasized that when the pandemic hit, “national organizing helped our local efforts.” They said they wanted to make clear that government cash assistance is essential to sex worker survival and sustainable community mobilization: “Helping people get Pandemic Unemployment Assistance led to us being able to put more effort into mutual aid funds, funds for low threshold employment that ultimately served as training, for example.”

Despite long-standing mutual aid networks, the rapid pace of new threats and misinformation can be demobilizing and demoralizing. “I can’t keep up,” admitted Madeline Marlowe, a sex worker and member of the Disabled Sex Workers Coalition.

But the fight will continue. Sex worker–led groups like Lysistrata, Support Ho(s)e, SWOP Behind Bars, Green Light Project Sex-Worker Aid Network Initiative, the Black Sex Workers Collective, and countless other mutual aid networks have been organizing against state violence facilitated by surveillance for years. The BIPOC Adult Industry Collective has hosted urgent conversations about representation of Black, Indigenous, and other nonwhite performers within the adult industry and community. The sex worker collective Red Canary Song has increased awareness of the unique challenges that migrant sex workers face. “Migrant sex workers and massage workers, especially those who are undocumented people of color with language barriers, are not people most think of as being affected by surveillance technology or connected to this issue with OnlyFans, but they are,” Yves, an organizer with Red Canary Song, told me. The Internet “is increasingly becoming a place for none of us.”

With Covid-19, mutual aid groups have sprouted across the country, but, as WCIIA’s Simon put it, “sex workers have always been doing it because we have to.” She added, “The most marginalized are the least well positioned to follow this trend of just hopping online or adapting to a new platform.”

Many of WCIIA’s members have little to no access to technology or lack the ability to submit to personal verification checks online. Simon herself was permanently banned from Green Dot, a platform payment company, in 2007. “This is why sex workers have been doing mutual aid work in our communities for years.”

Even with the decision by OnlyFans to suspend its porn ban, we’re witnessing a mass cleansing of sex work from the safer sections of the Internet. You can see political whorephobia in the intentionally vague language that platforms embed in their terms of service to chill speech and prevent sex workers from organizing. You can see it in the decision-making processes of algorithms that discriminate based on social hierarchies of race, gender, class, age, disability, body size, and migration status.

But political whorephobia does not operate solely in the realm of contracts and coding. It’s deeply entrenched socially. Patterns of ignoring sex workers’ calls for help until they’re trending on the Internet reflect a larger complicity in sex worker erasure, especially the disregard the public has for Black sex workers.

Mickey Mod, an erotic film performer and director, told me that political whorephobia reinforced white supremacist ideologies against sexual pleasure and intimacy. Mod said that sex workers of color exist within intersections of misogyny and capitalism, where the “consumption of [their] labor without the admission of being a patron of that labor” is, unfortunately, the norm.

“We want to get off, but we don’t want anyone to know it,” Mod added, regarding the phenomenon of people refusing to acknowledge that they consume sex workers’ content and services.

Political whorephobia is why entire digital advocacy and media networks are confused by a major platform decision that sex workers have been explaining, predicting, and researching, in detail, for years. It’s also why when the most marginalized sex workers asked for solidarity in resisting growing worker surveillance, censorship, and dispossession, even before FOSTA/SESTA, they were largely ignored.

Sex workers are always on the front line against technological changes. As power concentrates in just a handful of tech companies, sex worker–led collective action faces growing threats from mass data mining, facial-recognition technologies, artificial intelligence, and other disciplinary outcomes of surveillance capitalism. At the same time, as Simon put it, “the hustle of incredibly marginalized and street-based sex work will continue, but also be gentrified into smaller and smaller more policed spaces. It’s blow after blow after blow.”

Too many people are asking “Why is this happening?” And when sex workers answer, too few listen.

Thank you for reading The Nation!

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read. It’s just one of many examples of incisive, deeply-reported journalism we publish—journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media. For nearly 160 years, The Nation has spoken truth to power and shone a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug.

In a critical election year as well as a time of media austerity, independent journalism needs your continued support. The best way to do this is with a recurring donation. This month, we are asking readers like you who value truth and democracy to step up and support The Nation with a monthly contribution. We call these monthly donors Sustainers, a small but mighty group of supporters who ensure our team of writers, editors, and fact-checkers have the resources they need to report on breaking news, investigative feature stories that often take weeks or months to report, and much more.

There’s a lot to talk about in the coming months, from the presidential election and Supreme Court battles to the fight for bodily autonomy. We’ll cover all these issues and more, but this is only made possible with support from sustaining donors. Donate today—any amount you can spare each month is appreciated, even just the price of a cup of coffee.

The Nation does not bow to the interests of a corporate owner or advertisers—we answer only to readers like you who make our work possible. Set up a recurring donation today and ensure we can continue to hold the powerful accountable.

Thank you for your generosity.

Ad Policy