Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has vowed to criminalise prostitution in the country, 26 years after its decriminalisation, because it “enslaves women.” The politician has made headlines over his recent statements about the practice.
Speaking to his Socialist party at the final event of its three-day congress in Valencia, the leftist politician stated, “Out of this congress emerges a commitment I will implement. We will advance by abolishing prostitution, which enslaves women.” Sánchez—citing previous policies implemented by his government that have ‘advanced’ Spain such as tougher domestic violence laws—explained that this ban could do the same. The new legislation would seek to punish those, including clients and/or locations, for allowing and profiting off of sex work.
This is not the first time Spain’s Prime Minister has put forward this policy change. As part of his 2019 election manifesto, Sánchez pledged to criminalise the practice, stating that it was “one of the cruellest aspects of the feminisation of poverty and one of the worst forms of violence against women”—a decision that was used to draw in female voters. However, about two years later, no direct legislation or law has been implemented yet.
As part of this same manifesto, Sánchez’s party also vowed to crack down on surrogacy agencies (an illegal practice in Spain) claiming that it “undermines the rights of women, in particular, the most vulnerable, by treating their bodies and reproductive functions as merchandise.”
First decriminalised in 1995, with sexual exploitation and pimping remaining illegal, the industry has boomed in recent years. This largely unregulated industry, according to a United Nations (UN) study conducted in 2011, placed the country as the third biggest hub of prostitution after Thailand and Puerto Rico. A further updated study by the UN in 2016 estimated that Spain’s prostitution industry was worth around €3.7 billion (£3.1 billion, $4.2 billion). Where there is supply, there must be demand.
A survey conducted by Spain’s state-owned Social Investigations Centre (CIS) in 2009 found that one in three men in the country had paid for sexual services at least once in their lifetime. However, alternative reports from that same year implied the number could be significantly higher—reaching 39 per cent of men. A more recent report of the prominent sex work industry in Spain, roughly employing around 300,000 women, has found that the profession has contributed around £19.30 billion (€22.8 billion, $26.5 billion) to the country’s economy.
While pimping or sexual exploitation remains illegal in this unregulated industry, it must be clarified that there is currently no punishment for sex workers who are operating of their own free will, as long as activities do not occur in public places. However, concerns have continued to rise around the lack of free will in Spain’s sex work—more specifically, concerns around sexual trafficking and pimping. Spanish police discovered around 13,000 women as part of their anti-trafficking raids in 2017, concluding that at least 80 per cent of these women were forced against their will into sex work by another party.
Towards the end of August 2021, OnlyFans, the online platform that built its $60 million net worth off the back of sex workers, stated it would be closing its doors to them. This new update of its policy would “prohibit the posting of any new content containing sexually explicit conduct,” dealing a massive blow to the incomes of many who relied on the platform. However, due to great uproar from the sex worker community, the company quickly backtracked on its decision.
The breaking of this news—coupled with the community’s justified anger and retraction that followed—all happened in the mere frame of five days. The media took OnlyFans’ change of mind as the end of the discussion, unsurprisingly giving the million-dollar company the final say. Few stopped to ask the sex workers impacted by this policy change about how this may affect their financial and mental state, or their residual feelings about the platform. So this is the opportunity to hear directly from sex workers on their reactions’ to OnlyFans, how safe and supportive the site actually is and the constant battle they have to fight for their right to even exist on digital platforms.
Having heard rumblings of the proposed changes for months, the initial announcement about the update did not shock most creators. OnlyFans’ dismissal of sex workers, who had made the site what it was, demonstrated a clear lack of respect for their work. In my chat with Em Rose, a rope enthusiast who has been creating content on OnlyFans since January and became an online acquaintance who gave me useful resources for shibari how-tos in the dull months of winter lockdown, explained how she is tragically used to such treatment, having “regularly been disregarded and treated unfairly.”
The threat—although never actually put into action—still damaged the income of many of its creators. Like any threat of redundancy would, many were left feeling insecure and anxious about their pages. OnlyFans creator Babyspice confessed that the change affected her ability to create content altogether. Having felt “very ill and anxious for a month,” it is only recently that she has been feeling better and therefore able to create content again.
As OnlyFans retracted its user agreement, we will never be able to see how fairly this prohibition would have been implemented. But Em Rose pointed out the presence of an uneven distribution when implementing policies like these. “Explicit is such a subjective term [furthering] the racism, classism, and fatphobia that intersect with whorephobia,” Em Rose said. Other social media platforms have already demonstrated such discriminatory behaviours towards sex workers; Twitter purges for NSFW (not safe for work) accounts are becoming a regular practice and it is not uncommon to see warning tweets by fellow sex workers, advising users to change their profile pictures and remove links from their bios to avoid being banned from the platform.
Many content creators never found OnlyFans to be that helpful for its creators in the first place. This is because the platform is not set up to encourage organic reach, as Iska Hendricks self-titled ‘circus freak’ and online sex worker told Screen Shot. OnlyFans does not advertise its creators and as Hendricks puts it, “You can’t search for creators that you like.” Therefore, even with an account, promotion on other social media platforms is still necessary to grow and maintain subscriptions. The only way to gain subscribers, due to OnlyFans lack of organic reach, is to link your page on social media platforms—which in itself makes you vulnerable to bans, shadow bans and unwanted exposure.
OnlyFans now claim it is “committed to providing a safe and dependable platform for all creators and their fans.” But many of its creators, having been burned once already, are cautious of this promise.
Like many others, Hendricks is one sex worker who is still planning to switch over to Fansly, a competing site that offers organic reach and gives more profits back to its creators—partly because she wants to give OnlyFans “the middle finger considering how they treated us” and refuses to be burned twice. “If you look into the terms of conditions, they say they have the right to do it again but give us no warning next time.”
It is clear from the multitude of problems creators faced even before the policy change that OnlyFans may have profited off the sex workers that made its platform so popular, but has no plans to protect them.
Sex workers use Twitter, Instagram, Reddit and TikTok to promote their content, even though they constantly hit roadblocks on these sites. A clear sign that a sex worker has already been scarred by a ban on such platforms is the existence of a second account in their bio, as if to show they’re already prepared for the inevitable.
Shadowbanning has become a regular occurrence for many sex workers on Instagram and Twitter. In such instances, the platform won’t even notify the account’s owner that they are under a shadowban, but the posts will not be visible to any who follow, or to anyone who doesn’t follow and tries to search for them. Although with an entire ban the person must create an entirely new account, the shadowban takes more of a toll on the creator’s time and mental energy. Because the whole point of a shadowban is for creators to be unaware of it.
Creators can spend days posting before becoming aware that their account has been targeted by Instagram’s algorithm. Hendricks explained how this eventually started affecting her self image, leading her into questioning her worth while trying to remind herself of the fact that “social media just hates sex workers.” It’s been highlighted before that while the algorithm is supposed to be impartial and exists to catch potentially triggering content, this punishment targets creative and queer-leaning accounts more often than racist or homophobic ones.
Bans and shadowbans don’t just affect a sex worker’s ability to advertise themselves and their working mentality, for some it also has an effect on their personal life. Em Rose shared that although she was not using Tinder for her work, she was banned from the dating app. Stating this had a “significant impact on my life, as a poly sex worker living through a pandemic, [making] it way harder to meet people.”
OnlyFans recent news may have clouded the headlines but it’s abundantly clear that its policy change is not the only fight sex workers have to face on online platforms. Back charges, shadowbans and bans in general have a large impact on not just sex workers’ mental health but also their income on a regular basis—making digital sex work an uphill battle against the social media platforms and businesses that profit off their existence and the traffic they bring to these sites.
To help fight the digital eradication of sex workers on social media platforms, we can all actively interact with their accounts. Em Rose, in this case, advised supporters to follow creators to whatever platforms they choose to use. And most importantly, to remember that “sex workers are people too! Websites like these already treat us as a disposable money-making tool.” So always be respectful to the creators you are interacting with.