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Why aren’t more feminists fighting to decriminalise sex work?

Sex work is a profession that is consistently under threat—workers are judged, shamed, harassed and criminalised. However, sex workers have had a particularly rough time of it during the COVID-19 pandemic. Unlike others who were able to continue to work remotely or granted furlough when the former was not a possibility, sex workers received no governmental support. In lieu of this, groups such as CYBERTEASE—an online virtual strip event “created, organised, hosted and performed by workers of the UVW union”—were set up to allow sex workers to continue working throughout lockdowns while the sex worker advocacy and resistance movement (SWARM) set up a Hardship Fund to offer them financial aid during the outbreak.

Now that the UK government is easing restrictions and the outside world is officially open to its citizens, you could assume that sex workers’ financial strain is due to be eased. However, it just isn’t that easy, the amount of work available to sex workers greatly depends on where they live as many councils are now trying to ban strip clubs. Though Bristol Sex Worker’s Collective (BSWC) fought a proposed strip club ban last September and won, the two sexual entertainment venues (SEV) under threat have only been allowed to operate for another year. SEVs in Scotland are also being threatened, as Edinburgh City and East Lothian councils are considering bans of their own.

The argument proposed by the various councils as well as Bristol Women’s Commission, Bristol Women’s Voice and the Fawcett Society, who were also campaigning for the ban, is that the venues in question are linked to violence against women while the councillors of East Lothian claim their ban is to “protect our citizens.” However, as the USW union expressed, a ban will cause over 100 workers to lose their jobs, inevitably leaving “women fearful for their livelihoods, as they grapple with how they will replace the income that will be lost.”

As women—both cis and transgender—make up the majority of sex workers and cis men make up the majority of clients, the safety of sex workers is, without doubt, a feminist issue. This indicates that, although they like to call themselves feminists, the associations listed above which campaigned for the ban would rather endanger women than support them in their struggle against the criminalisation of their profession.

Criminalisation and bans on sex work will not make women safer, they only force sex work communities to go underground, making it harder to protect themselves. The UK is in desperate need of a change in its attitude towards sex workers, and that starts by decriminalising sex work entirely.

Although sex work in the country is not a criminal offence, soliciting transactional sex on the street and working in groups in venues is illegal. This doesn’t leave much room for legal work to take place and makes a dramatic difference to the safety of sex workers. Certain safety measures can be implemented for protection—such as working with a peer close by, in small groups on the street or being able to note down a client’s license plate, check their ID and ask for backup when a client refuses to wear a condom—however, these become extremely difficult to carry out when working solo. Preventing clients from being anonymous and checking in with colleagues can allow sex workers to create safer working environments for themselves. But as UK law prohibits them from working together in the first place, they are forced to work alone, threatening their safety.

Decriminalisation, as outlined by the English Collective of Prostitutes, would constitute “the removal of all criminal laws that are specific to sex workers.” It is a misconception that criminalising the profession prevents people from entering or staying in sex work. In fact, it is the prohibiting measures currently in place that make it harder for individuals to leave sex work entirely. The laws criminalising certain aspects of sex work—which enable workers to protect one another—mean that many of them end up with a criminal record and struggle to get other work.

Many countries have already decriminalised sex work, such as the Netherlands, Germany, New Zealand, parts of Australia and of the US. On 10 February 2022, Victoria, Australia, passed the Sex Work Decriminalisation Bill which stands to recognise the profession as a legitimate job, with reforms being added by the end of 2023. This legitimisation of the role allows sex workers to work independently, implementing their own safety measures.

It is often argued by feminists opposing sex work that this line of occupation should be criminalised due to its misogynistic roots. However, as Juno Mac and Molly Smith argue (co-authors of Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Workers’ Rights), it is precisely the dangerous nature of the industry that demands it be decriminalised. As mentioned previously, legitimisation of the field would allow sex workers to secure their safety, create unions and enforce better working conditions—things that all other types of labourers are encouraged to do as protection in our capitalist society. Talk about inequality!

In San Francisco, March 1917, sex workers went on strike, demanding an end to brothel closures. Fast forward to 2022’s soon-approaching International Women’s Day and sex workers are once again striking, with one core demand: “we want to live.” For those claiming to fight for the safety of women, the best way to protect women from the rising pandemic of gendered violence is to support the decriminalisation of sex work now. The ball is in your court.

From OnlyFans to Twitter, is digital sex work on the brink of eradication?

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.

Was the policy change a shock?

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.

Was OnlyFans ever supportive of its creators?

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.

Some creators have even been banned from OnlyFans on the basis of use violations. Vague terms of use allow the platform to remove content as and when it feels like. Em Rose also highlighted how the site once “called [her content] ‘obscene’ without [ever] clarifying what that means.” She believes that OnlyFans routinely sides with clients rather than sex workers.

Em Rose’s suspicions are not misplaced, from other accounts it’s made clear that OnlyFans’ policies favour the fan and not the creator. For example, its terms of use allow subscribers to request chargebacks from their bank for content they have already paid for, meaning they can use the content and then get a refund. So, creators will often spend a lot of time creating custom content only to have the payment back charged to the subscriber—an exploitative exchange.“Someone has seen your body for free,” Hendricks added, describing the experience as “utterly violating.”

Is OnlyFans now considered a safe space for sex workers?

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.

Are any online platforms safe for sex workers?

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.”

What can fans and supporters do to help?

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.

When visiting platforms like OnlyFans as a potential subscriber, it is important to familiarise yourself with the site’s terms of use. For example, don’t message asking for meetups on a creator’s OnlyFans page. This behaviour could be seen as a violation and get them suspended or even removed from the site.

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.