Self-Isolation, Sex Work, and Stigma

Some of the names in this piece have been changed.

With lockdown seeming to stretch on indefinitely, the nation has been coming together in common interests and activities, as everybody but key workers have been confined to their homes. Amongst this, a few key activities have stood out, from sharing instagrams of home baking to taking part in Joe Wick’s PE classes and, less wholesomely, pornography. Isolated from partners and dates, it’s no surprise that an increase in consumption of pornography has occurred. According to Pornhub’s own analytics, traffic increased by 18.5% on the 24th of Marchwhen it was announced that Pornhub’s Premium service would be free to all visitors worldwide for one month to encourage people to stay at home and help flatten the curve of new Covid-19 cases.” In countries that went into lockdown earlier, like Italy, traffic increased much sooner, and when free Pornhub premium was first offered to Italian visitors, it resulted in an increase of 57% above normal traffic levels. 

But how does this affect the actual sex workers producing this content? Pornhub cites that Compared to an average period before the pandemic, daily uploads from models have now increased by more than 30%”, and in order to help support these models during these times where more and more people are losing other sources of income, Pornhub declared that they will be giving them a 100% payout for the entire month of April, compared to models usually receiving only a 65% payout.

However, whilst our porn consumption may be increasing, so is the awareness of the issues surrounding its production (an issue RAZZ has covered previously in our guide to ethical porn consumption). A problem with large tube sites is that it’s impossible to know where the porn is sourced from, or what the ethics of production were. This is causing many people to move away from the conglomerates, and into instead buying directly from the source. Different companies and sites have been all too happy to help supply this rising demand in the masturbation market, and no site seems quite as prolific as capitalising on this as OnlyFans. OnlyFans serves as a subscription-only social media where creators can post sexually provocative content to their paying subscribers. In short, it puts the creation of pornographic content back into the hands of the stars, rather than large conglomerates. 

It was in this search for ethical pornography that OnlyFans contributor Zara found the site, and she immediately liked how the sex workers had autonomy. She described how, “After a while of being on the consumer side of online sex work & wanting a creative outlet, [she] finally took the plunge and thought maybe it [nude photographs] was something [she] could monetise.” Indeed, at a time when other industries have seemed to grind to a halt, OnlyFans seems to remain a consistent way to make bank. OnlyFans contributor Belle (not their real name), entered March with 92 subscribers, but reported that since the UK went into lockdown, she began gaining an average of five new paying subscribers a day, jumping up to 132 subscribers paying the $10 subscription to view her content, which she describes as “more lewd than nude.” Belle attributes this success to how “it seems like people want a break from it all and luckily, they’re going to accounts like mine.” Whilst other contributor Zara doesn’t believe lockdown has caused a rise in her subscribers, OnlyFans has remained a consistent way to make money – if you’re willing to put the work in.

OnlyFans creators make sure to distinguish themselves from full-service sex work such as porn or escorting services, with Zara instead describing her work as producing “adult content.” In the UK, this is legally defined as being “an alternative model,” a title that Zara feels doesn’t really apply to the content she produces. Whilst OnlyFans creators are often perceived as merely posting nude photos, it’s actually a very in-depth service. Zara says how the services she offers through OnlyFans “are more personal than porn,” she talks regularly to her subscribers about kinks and fetishes, but also their lives, pets, feelings. It offers a real, human element to porn, which Zara believes is helping lessen the stigma around sex work, as subscribers realise she’s “a real person with a life outside of my job and [has] interests and a life like anyone else.”

However, whilst the fact that anyone can create an OnlyFans may be lessening the stigma around sex work, it also sets up a false ideal that OnlyFans is easy money. As Belle puts it, just because anyone can do OnlyFans, it doesn’t mean that anyone can do OnlyFans. Like any profession, it comes with its own set of stresses. Belle states how OnlyFans creators are expected to upload daily, and be almost constantly available to their subscribers, as well as marketing their accounts on social media to maintain and grow their following. Both Zara and Belle describe it as overwhelming at first, and with Zara describing the pressure as “[y]ou’re your own photographer, but you’re also in your content – you’re constantly challenging yourself to improve and grow; you’re doing your own marketing and networking, it’s being self-employed and your own boss.” It is because of this pressure that many OnlyFans creators end up closing their accounts within the first month – sex work may be alternative work, but it is still work.  Furthermore, on top of effectively running your own business, there is also the added stress of opening yourself and your body up to intense scrutiny, both from subscribers and the general public.  Like all sex work, OnlyFans still carries a stigma with it, and with stigma, comes hate.

When you search OnlyFans on Twitter, you can immediately find a myriad of tweets insulting and degrading those who use the platform. Belle labels them “football twitter” and, despite the fact that OnlyFans is not an exclusively female creator based site, the misogyny behind the insults is unmistakable. While Zara was happy to be named in the article, she has also taken precautions. Her Twitter account (that features much of her promotion for OnlyFans) never features any photos of friends or family, and whenever she meets someone for the first time she says that she works in online marketing (which isn’t exactly untrue, a huge element of OnlyFans creation is having to market yourself effectively). Zara doesn’t want to immediately tell someone that she is a  sex worker because of the risk it faces, both of doxing, and how she is perceived. As Zara puts it, “they may just see a sex symbol/objectify me and forget I also have feelings and a personal life.” This is sadly almost an intrinsic part of being an online sex worker and sadly spreads beyond tweets. An OnlyFans creator recently had somebody send her nude photos to her brother, and when talking to Belle she mentioned wanting to stay anonymous in this article out of fear that OnlyFans could potentially risk her full-time job. [To respect her anonymity, Belle’s name has been changed in the article].

All this online hate came to a head in early 2020, when 1.5 terabytes of stolen OnlyFans data was uploaded for free online. For reference, this is the equivalent of three million photos, and suddenly nude pictures that were once behind a paywall were part of streaming free for all. Reddit and Twitter became a hunting ground for links to the cache of stolen pornography, with others even profiting off of selling links to the stolen content. Whilst OnlyFans claims to have a strict copyright policy, it was an unmitigated disaster for creators who rushed to see if their private content had been released for free online. Furthermore, it also highlights a more serious issue, that the dislike of OnlyFans workers seems to stem more from disliking a mainly female-dominated media making them pay for porn, when in the age of streaming people have begun to expect it to be free. This is only heightened by tube site such as Pornhub taking advantage of the pandemic, releasing free premium globally, increasing the perception that it is more important for pornography to be free, rather than ethical. 

Luckily, the dislike towards OnlyFans is not universal and instead stays in the realm of the bigoted few. Belle hastened to add that not only is her girlfriend fine with her OnlyFans hustle, she thinks it’s incredible and that her friends have all been very supportive. Zara also stated how the reason why she got into OnlyFans in the first place was following creators on Twitter and being inspired by their work, as well as liking the feeling of community around it. She uses her Twitter, @zarajpgxxx, to help uplift and support creators, as well as running a podcast on Spotify, @Dual_Brain, where she and a marketing pro give sex workers free advice and support. Meanwhile, on OnlyFans Twitter, creators make frequent promotion threads where creators can link their OnlyFans. They seem to thrive in uplifting and supporting their fellow workers, rather than viewing them as competition with creators like Zara often collaborating with other workers. 

As more people become educated about tube sites and the abuse they perpetuate, more people seem to be becoming aware of the necessities of paying for ethical pornography and supporting individual sex workers rather than conglomerates. Seeing as we are willing to self-isolate for the greater good, perhaps we can pursue some moral masturbation at the same time. 

-Emma Ingledew

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