Opinion: The desexualization of OnlyFans is not only sex workers’ problem

Meredith Ralston is a professor of women’s studies and political studies at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax, and the author of Slut-Shaming, Whorephobia, and the Unfinished Sexual Revolution.

OnlyFans, a website that allows its estimated two million content creators to sell pictures and videos directly to fans via a paid subscription model, announced on Aug. 19 it will ban the very material on which it primarily made its name and money.

Many people joined OnlyFans as content creators during the COVID-19 pandemic as a safe way to make extra money, and some creators have found significant success providing explicit material among the site’s approximately 130 million users. But the company, which has been seeking outside investors and said it is under pressure from banks and payments processing companies, will prohibit sexually explicit material and remove depictions of sexual acts, though apparently not nudity itself, come October. Instead, it plans to emphasize more mainstream content, such as cooking shows, fitness videos and music.

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OnlyFans’s decision comes amidst intense lobbying from anti-sex-work and religious groups succeeding in convincing governments and private companies that the best way to “protect” sex workers is to make it a crime to buy sex or depictions of sex. Campaigns against Backpage and Craigslist, and U.S. legislation titled FOSTA (Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act) and SESTA (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act) have vilified safe and lucrative spaces for sex workers.

These campaigns combine moralism about sex and pornography with fears about the exploitation of women, while fomenting moral panic about sex trafficking. But what are the unintended consequences of banning adult websites, criminalizing some aspects of sex work and continuing to stigmatize all sex work?

While the negative effects on sex workers themselves are clear – loss of income, the criminalization of clients, and continued stigma – what might not be so obvious are the negative effects on people who are not sex workers.

Criminalizing sex work – even if that comes in the form of only arresting clients, as in Canada’s modified Nordic legal model – perpetuates stigma toward sex workers themselves, with devastating results for anyone so much as presumed to be a sex worker. Think of the young man in Thunder Bay who killed Barbara Kentner with a thrown trailer hitch because, as a witness told the court, the man wanted to go “yell at hookers” and made assumptions that two women who were just walking down the road were sex workers, and thus undeserving of respect.

Stigmatizing sex work thus reinforces the “good girl/bad girl” binary that pervades society more broadly. Too often, being associated with sex means being dismissed and having your humanity questioned.

This “bad girl” stigma influences how society views sexually active women generally, and allows men and women to police women’s sexuality with impunity. It means accepting patriarchal messaging that certain women do or do not deserve respect based on their behaviour, dress or sexuality. Think of Joyce Echaquan, a young Indigenous woman who died in a Quebec hospital with the staff making crude remarks about her being only good for sex.

This kind of thinking reinforces the sexual double standard between men and women, which itself leads to slut-shaming more generally, and the judgment of women according to their sexual experience or virginal status. As a result, women get blamed for any potential violence against them, based on their performance of “purity” or “impurity”: Why did you go to his house, get into the cab, wear that dress, get drunk?

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Indeed, seeing women as “prostituted” and “used” by men reinforces the idea that all women are “dirtied” or degraded by sex. Ironically, this is the primary problem for both right-wing and left-wing critics of sex work: the flawed belief that sex work is degrading because sex is degrading for women. Stigmatizing sex work, and the wrong-headed perception that women cannot consent to sex work, fundamentally undermines and restricts the bodily autonomy of women.

Spaces such as OnlyFans are – or were – necessary sites of conflict and challenge around these harmful beliefs. In the recent Nova Scotia election, a Liberal candidate was forced to end her candidacy because she had posted photos on OnlyFans; in California, a woman making a six-figure salary had to remove her three sons from their private Catholic school because of complaints from other parents. The assumption, unfortunately, is that sex workers do not deserve respect or equal treatment because of what they do for a living.

These assumptions need to be challenged at every turn, and in October, there will be one fewer platform from which to do so. Fifty years after the so-called sexual revolution, it is past time to decriminalize sex work and destigmatize sex.

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