Sex Workers Unite: Is OnlyFans the Answer to Bringing Decriminalisation of all Areas of Sex Work?

7/11/2021

In many everyday circumstances both men and women sell a service to a customer and receive payment. This continues to be the fundamental concept of any job in modern day and in past and recent history. However, sex workers, whilst still maintaining this fundamental concept have consistently received criticism for the nature of their occupation. Both society and the government have judged sex workers for many years. If you are a sex worker you will be ostracised by society and offered next to no protection by the government for choosing to undertake such work. This was until recently when OnlyFans was introduced to the world, a site where you can take pictures or videos of yourself and charge customers to view them. Whilst this still falls into the category of sex work, there is unparalleled support that comes with doing this kind of work than there is with prostitution, live sexual performers or web-cam work who receive constant criticism. Suddenly there is a new, refreshing perspective on sex work that encourages female body empowerment and advocates this occupation. There is undeniably a class difference between those partaking in real life sex work and those who are creators on OnlyFans. This difference in class correlates directly to the level of support given by society and this has to change. Whilst I do not agree that different types of sex work should receive less acceptance in society, to believe that this isn’t the case would be naïve. This new perspective on sex work, brought about by OnlyFans, could bring about much needed, progressive change to the UK government’s stigmatisation and criminalisation of the sex industry. This article will discuss the differences between the two types of sex work and how these differences fall predominantly down to the social-class system, it will also outline that the OnlyFans trend should bring about decriminalisation for all areas of sex work.

CLASS DIVISION

The stigma that comes with being a sex worker has shunned them from society for years. This starkly compares to OnlyFans creators who are now being glamourised on social media. Fundamentally, the difference between the two types of people who partake in real-life sex work or OnlyFans, is that OnlyFans creators tend to be working/middle-class and real-life sex workers are mostly lower-class members of society. Whilst this shouldn’t make a difference whether sex work is accepted in society or not, clearly the support shown to OnlyFans and lack of support towards real-life sex workers proves otherwise. OnlyFans means that sex work can be undertaken in a much safer environment, but to think that both classes have equal opportunity to be safe at work is ignorant. Lower-class sex workers are less likely to have access to a quality camera to upload pictures, a safe and/or private location to create content and access to the internet. As a consequence, this leaves them with limited options other than to partake in real-life sex work which can be incredibly dangerous and leaves them in a much more vulnerable position. It is unfair that someone's placement on the social ladder determines whether they will receive less protection in the workplace despite having the same occupation.

Middle-class creators on OnlyFans are more likely to have a choice as to whether they make this their occupation than lower-class sex workers. Lower-class members of society, more often than not, are forced into sex work due to the fact that conventional lower-skilled jobs in the UK, if they are lucky enough to even find one under the current climate, do not pay well enough to cover the costs of childcare, food shopping or house bills. Minimum wage is substantially lower than what a sex worker can charge for their service, for example a 32 year old sex worker from Camden, London says that “her hourly rate from the job is more than 18 times what she earned serving popcorn in a cinema” and that “the minimum wage is not enough for anything; neither are benefits. I can’t afford anything i need without sex work”. Living in a society that does not provide enough for the lower class to sustain themselves forces them into sex work. The Sex Worker Advocacy and Resistance Movement indicates that “We know first- hand that poverty is a huge factor in why people sell sex. However, we cannot understand why criminalising the income source of people who sell sex is presented as a ‘solution’ to the economic coercion of poverty”. Sex workers are fighting against poverty and the government is criminalising their attempt to do so, another clear message that they do notsassociate with the lower/working class. In 2019, it was recorded that 22% of the UK live in poverty and it is increasingly worrying that despite temporary increases in benefits announced in response to the pandemic, the benefits system in 2020 provides less support to out-of-work households than in 2011. So why wouldnt you turn to sex work, when it is recorded on average sex workers make £2000 a week? Would you apply for the lucrative Universal Credit scheme and claim £409.89 a month instead? The current UK law forces lower-class members of society to make one of two choices, poverty or crime and it’s this choice that makes lower-class people look at sex work. This ultimatum paired with ineffective legal protections afforded to the occupation, leaves lower class sex workers vulnerable to the dangers that sex work may entail in comparison to OnlyFans creators who can earn money from the comfort of their home.

People who have decided to jump on the OnlyFans trend to earn some side cash do not have to worry about not being able to pay their bills. If these OnlyFans creators do not get many subscribers to their page it is not as detrimental as it would be to real life sex workers, as generally being an OnlyFans creator is a second occupation or they have began creating content after losing their job during the pandemic. For example, a creator on OnlyFans answering questions for The Tab outlined that when her “job found out about my second job as a sex worker and OnlyFans model, they had a discussion with me but that was about it”. Not only are the government offering flacid protection to sex workers, they are now allowing OnlyFans to be the financial prop up that people use instead of ‘burdening’ the benefits system. With the current UK government failing to stop 22% of the UK falling below the poverty line this, as well as not having access to materials needed to be an OnlyFans creator, leaves lower class members of society with the only option to work in less safe areas of sex work. Even if these types of sex workers can protect themselves physically, the element of vulnerability they could be subject to due to having to come into contact with strangers, is something that creators on OnlyFans never have to consider, but can make money all the same. And a lot more of it. 

There are some real life sex workers that love their job and I will be the first to support them for this, but this article wants to bring emphasis to the lack of protection and acknowledgment to the occupation of sex work regardless of whether you choose to partake in sex work or not. I believe that with the new found support through the trend of OnlyFans, we can push the government to decriminalise activities surrounding sex work to increase protection for all sex workers and acknowledge it as an occupation. The site is being sung about by top artists and American actress Bella Thorne has even become a creator, we need to rally this support for sex work to bring legislative change in the UK. People who become creators on OnlyFans are seen as people who are body confident and women are being hailed as empowering if they wear little, if not no clothing and charge people to see it. Those who do the same thing but in a real-life setting are seen as less of a person even though OnlyFans is no different from prostitution, stripping or web-cam workers.

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Photo by Markus Spiske on Pexels.com

LEGISLATION

Why can OnlyFans creators be encouraged and accepted in society but other sex workers cannot? If sex work is finally going to become just another normal occupation like being a taxi driver or a waitress, now more than ever is the time to give those who are most vulnerable the protection they have always needed. The UK government’s current stance on sex work, outlined in the Sexual Offences Act 2003 is that the person taking part in the sexual activity is not committing a crime and therefore the exchange of sexual services for money is legal. However, activities surrounding sex work are criminal, such as soliciting in a public place, kerb-crawling, owning and managing a brothel and pimping. This means that whilst the government looks to be protecting sex workers, there probably will be some part of the law broken at some stage whilst performing sex work. The Sexual Offences Act implies protection and de-criminalisation but in practice continues the negative stigma surrounding sex work and offers mechanisms that mean that taking part in sex work is almost always criminal. We cannot carry on crazing virtual and online sex workers and leave prostitutes, live dancers and web-cam workers behind being unprotected by this outdated law.

The reason sex workers have not received real protection in the past is because it is usually the lower-class who take part in sex work and therefore near enough at the bottom of the government’s priority list. This is highlighted by the fact that the UK government has shown no real effort to re-visit the outdated legislation surrounding sex work and local authorities have been left to handle it as seen fit. There are recognised “red-light” zones in places like Leeds and they have seen to be increasingly effective. The“red-light” zones are an area where sex workers can trade their services without fear of arrest within agreed hours, so effectively sex work is decriminalised. In a survey done in Holbeck, Leeds, it was stated that 70% of community members in that area said that this ‘Managed Approach’ should stay and be offered further support. Researchers from the University of Huddersfield were commissioned to review the policy and provided an outcome that Holbeck’s approach to sex work was “in fact leading nationally”. Therefore, the government’s complete mishandling on its approach towards sex work has given an opportunity for local authorities to show that decriminalisation is effective and by listening to sex workers and involving them in discussions, protection and the removal of negative stigma could be achieved.

For real change to be made, the benefits of protecting of sex workers needs to be appreciated. So contrastingly, working for a brothel could offer a sex worker protection, they will be able to take clients into the brothel and begin the service where other people are present. It is legal under the UK’s legislation to work for a brothel however managing or owning one is not. Therefore, if an attack does happen and sex work was decriminalised, the brothel owners can’t call the police in full confidence they will get the response they need without the fear of them being arrested. Currently, if an attack does occur brothel owners take matters into their own hands, resulting in increasing amounts of violence and abuse for clients and workers. So, whilst on the surface it seems that the government is protecting sex workers by making their service legal but brothel owning and managing illegal, it is actually a lack of incentive to really acknowledge sex work as an actual occupation. If all areas of sex work were decriminalised, sex workers could be part of a union, have employment rights and be protected fully by the law. Police forces would have no choice but to enforce a national law regarding the decriminalisation of sex work.

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Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

NEW ZEALAND

Decriminalising sex work has been done successfully before and it was achieved by continued activism which eroded the stigma that comes with it, and this is exactly what OnlyFans is currently doing. In 2003 New Zealand became the first country to decriminalise sex work with the passage of the Prostitution Reform Act. Positive aspects of the legislation include: prohibitions on use in prostitution of persons under the age of 18, health and safety requirements, a brothel operator certificate system and the Prostitution Law Review Committee. These provisions make it extremely safe and secure for real life sex workers to partake in sex working as an occupation. There has been huge positive impacts since decriminalisation happened in New Zealand, for example a “sex worker from Wellington successfully prosecuted a brothel owner through the Human Rights Review Tribunal for sexual harassment by her employer. A New Zealand activist suggested that “[sex workers] will slowly find that they are not working in an environment where that behaviour is tolerated”. Comparing the New Zealand model to the UK’s, New Zealand prioritises the protection and safety of sex workers and encourage it as an occupation. New Zealand’s reform was brought about by listening to the voices of sex workers and this very point is why now, more than ever, whilst OnlyFans is creating more and more sex workers, it is the time to demand change. On reflection of this, I strongly believe that the OnlyFans trend can be a push in the right direction and empower lower-class sex workers to have the confidence that they should no longer have to work in volatile environments and as a consequence everyone should demand more from the UK government.

Due to the nature of sex work as an occupation and the secrecy surrounding it, it is difficult to engage with lower-class sex workers that will support a movement such as this. I believe this is because there is a loss of hope and lack of confidence the UK government would support or listen to their voices. However, OnlyFans being popularised by mainstream media and gaining support by celebrities can make a real difference to looking at how and why lower-class sex workers who do not have the option to partake in OnlyFans, are offered no protection by the government. We cannot stand by and let the lower-class sex workers continue to not be protected by an outdated law whilst OnlyFans creators continue to prosper comfortably and securely in their own homes.

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