In the last 20 years, sex, hookup culture, and kinks have fully integrated into our culture. The normalization of sex and sex abuse is facilitated and even perpetuated by OnlyFans – history’s largest, digital pimp.
Sex in media is no longer limited to being a marketing tool à la Victoria’s Secret Fashion show or Abercrombie & Fitch advertising from the 2010s. At this point, sex is everywhere. From the VMAs, which used to be something you could watch comfortably with your friends (grinding on a cross-gurney would be weird to watch with your parents, and probably even with your friends); to first graders being taught that “touching themselves” is good and fun; to teenagers being increasingly encouraged and in some cases pressured to explore different sexual identities, even if their issues go beyond putting a flag in their Twitter bio.
Sex is everywhere, and “sex work” (a broad spectrum, anywhere from selling nude or lewd photos online, to camgirling, to prostitution) is highlighted, celebrated, and encouraged among young women and girls, especially since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic when many of them were laid off or had their jobs disappear altogether. Even now, former Disney child star Demi Lovato posted a recent Instagram story telling fans (many of which are young girls) to “be a slut, show [their bodies], get naked.”
While people claimed objectification over the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show and general marketing across several popular brands, the vast majority of people remain absolutely silent about the objectification of women who engage in “sex work.” They applaud it all, call it empowering, liberating, and inspirational – without considering that such professions are “empowering” for a small minority of women, and that sites like OnlyFans and PornHub have established themselves as digital-age pimps, which will always take a cut of their money or refrain from paying them at all.
The “Empowering” Profession of Sex Work
Whether you consider sex work actual work or not, the term encompasses many activities, depending on who and how many activists you talk to.
For instance, a cam girl could log onto a platform like Chaturbate, strip to a song for her audience, and be rewarded for that. An OnlyFans user could do as little as post lewd pictures, and engage as little or as much as she wants with her fans.
The minimal effort in either job entails taking out their phone, opening the camera app, snapping a picture or two, and uploading that to OnlyFans. Or, they log in to Chaturbate, start a session, and interact with the audience at a bare minimum level. This isn’t to say that more couldn’t be done, it certainly could (many cosplayers take their abilities to a more sexual level, which entails elaborate costuming and makeup, as well as set design), but what falls under “sex work” entails a minimum of very little real work. Because of this, anyone can do it.
Even with no access to the internet (if a girl finds herself in a low-income situation without the access to easily facilitate that, and in developing or impoverished nations), then there’s a simpler threshold to cross, should you want to get into sex work. There are strip clubs, bars, self-posted ads, street corners.
Truly anyone can get into sex work, and many women who are involved, whether or not they were forced into it, find it very difficult to exit the profession of their own volition. As of 2018, there’s a global estimate of 40-42 million prostitutes, with 80% ranging between the ages of 13 and 25. 90% of those women are dependent on a pimp, who cannot be relied upon to have their interests in mind.
There’s a global estimate of 40-42 million prostitutes, with 80% ranging between age 13 and 25.
Sex workers who deal in person with clients are still essentially dealing with people who pay for access to their bodies, which puts them in an incredibly vulnerable situation. If sex work were empowering, liberating, and something women should embrace, why are there so many risks involved that celebrities and activists just nonchalantly gloss over?
The Role of Traditional Pimps
The role of a pimp is to address some concerns client-facing sex workers face in their day-to-day actions. Simply put, a pimp is “one who controls the actions and lives off the proceeds of one or more prostitutes.” While the image of pimps and prostitutes is influenced in the mainstream largely by movies (think Pretty Woman or Taxi Driver), it’s rooted in some truth. But the image of a pimp isn’t uniform across the board. In United States v. Anderson, pimp Eddie “Fast Eddie” Lee Anderson was convicted of a total of 19 violations of the Mann Act, for interstate transportation of females for prostitution and interstate transportation of minors for prostitution.
For the case, government witness Dr. Lois Lee provided expert testimony on the modus operandi of pimps and the pimp-prostitute relationship. Lee testified the following:
"Sophisticated pimps usually travel in an intercity circuit with a group of 10 to 40 girls working for them."
"Recruits are usually vulnerable young women, often runaways who have been abused or neglected by their families."
"[A] pimp will encourage his prostitutes to compete for his affection by earning money, and will beat his prostitutes if they fail to adhere to his rules."
"Prostitutes are often so financially and psychologically dependent on their pimps that they are unable to leave even when they are beaten."
"Pimps usually spend the money earned by their prostitutes on drugs, clothes, and jewelry, since the ability to support a ‘flashy’ lifestyle is a source of status in their subculture."
"On several ways in which the pimp-prostitute relationship ends: the prostitute becomes pregnant, goes on welfare, turns to more serious kinds of crime, commits suicide, or dies at the hands of a customer."
Many pimps now (and even Anderson) argue that such claims are prejudicial. One pimp reportedly claims to actually have concern for the women he manages. But a pimp merely manages a prostitute’s interactions, and can’t actually save her if and when things go wrong.
Vulnerable teens are often targeted by pimps since their hierarchy of needs is easily met by pimps.
Dr. Lee’s second point, that recruits are usually vulnerable young women, is supported in part by Shared Hope International, which says vulnerable teens are often targeted by pimps since their hierarchy of needs is easily met by pimps, on account of preexisting negative factors in their life, such as homelessness, a difficult home life, foster care, financial hardship, or abusive peers.
Pimps will provide food, shelter, and clothes to a youth or teen in need. They will also offer “safety and protection” from an abusive or absent family and promote a relationship by being a “friend” or offering “love.” This usually includes gift-giving and flattery to further manipulate the teen. Once the teen is hooked by the false relationship, pimps will pitch sex work or prostitution as a way to achieve the teen’s dreams, bringing the teen totally under their control.
The New Age’s Digital Pimps
So maybe traditional (sans-online platforms) sex work is the most physically risky, but maybe online sex work is where the true empowerment is: there are no men involved in-person to potentially abuse sex workers, they’re not reliant on a pimp who isn’t obliged to protect them and who takes their money for their own wealth, they can set boundaries and never risk feeling violated in an instant. Now for the first time in history, sex workers hold all the power.
At least, that’s the narrative activists continue to push. But internet sex work is no less risky or exploitative than its in-person variants, and where there are sex workers, pimps seem to be behind it. This time, in the form of online platforms like OnlyFans, or PornHub and the other porn websites owned by Mindgeek.
OnlyFans is pushed as something girls should try, with many social media influencers posting about what they’ve been able to buy with their site earnings. One small-scale influencer (82.2K followers) posted about her buying a house thanks to OnlyFans. Another posted about being able to afford a luxury car after starting an OnlyFans.
This gives the impression that the rewards outweigh the risks – risks like it being harder to get a “normal” job should you ever want to quit OnlyFans, or having a harder time dating someone long term. Not to mention you could be doxxed and harassed by “fans” who find you in real life, or have your content leaked to the rest of the world, i.e. without your consent.
Online sex work still has risks: finding another job, finding a life partner, being harassed by clients.
As much as activists want to destigmatize sex work, women can't be surprised if men prefer not to date someone who has shown everything to anyone who pays $9.99 a month (as is their right, everyone is entitled to have preferences). Meanwhile, the men who consume porn excessively will inevitably begin to dehumanize women, be it through objectification or, some psychologists suggest, animalization of women, whether they’re aware of it or not.
While truly few women make considerable money, in comparison with the sheer number of creators on OnlyFans (reportedly 2 million as of August 2021), OnlyFans has seen approximately 1.7 billion dollars in revenue, and its founder, Tim Stokely, presently has a net worth of $120 million. MindGeek has seen annual revenues of half a billion dollars, and doesn’t always award compensation to porn stars featured on their websites: Mia Khalifa claimed that of her $4 million net worth, only $12,000 came from PornHub directly.
Call it what you want – empowering, inspirational, etc. – but at the end of the day, many sex workers, even internet ones, are still beholden to a pimp.
Many women, who fall in the lower rungs of the pyramid scheme that is OnlyFans, make little or no money, and meanwhile, no one at the top of the chain, much less Stokely, is hurting at all. Sure, some women can be successful on OnlyFans, but unless you create your own website, and host your own porn there exclusively, you’re obliged to share your profits with a digital pimp. Who could, if he wanted to, cut you off completely.
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