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The War on Sex Returns: Why Is Sex Work So Reviled?

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Have you ever heard anyone talk about “the oldest profession”? It’s a euphemism for sex work. People realized early on that they could easily trade sex for almost anything else in society and the rest is history.

Throughout the ages, people have treated sex work in a wide variety of ways. In ancient India, for example, courtesans were quite respectable. In Renaissance Italy, though, ladies of the night had to wear bells. Around the same time, in Tokugawa Japan, people argued that geisha made better companions than legal spouses.

Two women in traditional geisha garb, makeup, and elaborate hairdos walk away from the camera down a crowded street in Japan.
Even more fun fact: Some of the earliest geisha were boys. (Satoshi Hirayama / Pexels.com)

Clearly, society moves between two poles on sex work, revering it or belittling it. As tides ebb and flow, attitudes about sex work change.

We are currently seeing a resurgence in suppression, spear-headed by far-right evangelists.

So, why are sex workers so reviled? Why should the rest of us be worried about what’s gone on with sites like PornHub and OnlyFans in recent years?

The Pink Scare: Trafficking and Exploitation

If you ask the people spearheading these movements, it has to do with trafficking and exploitation. The claims lobbed at Twitter, PornHub, and other platforms were about illegal content uploaded to the platforms.

The content in question features minors or is uploaded without the subject’s consent. These are certainly valid concerns. Yet this kind of content is not nearly as widespread as detractors would have you believe.

Why? Most sites remove the content when they find it. PornHub said they used YouTube’s CSAI Match, even before accusations. A Canadian charity project combs the web for this kind of material and sends takedown notices. Almost two-thirds of sites remove content after the first notice; compliance is 90 percent after three notices. And consider that, of 13,000 notices issued to PornHub in 2020, less than one-third were unique complaints.

PornHub moved to end unverified user uploads, in an effort to quell the storm. They want to ensure they can accept credit card payments.

You need to go deeper than a commercial site to find most of the really wretched stuff. You’re looking to the dark web, where transactions are shady and the people shadier. This “shadow web” operates incognito. It isn’t advertising its existence precisely because of the nature of what goes on there. PornHub and OnlyFans attract too much public attention to be safe.

The internet has changed a great deal. Many sites have always had strict rules about what kind of content they’ll host. The usual caveat here is that you might get away with it. Enforcement of the rules remains the biggest issue.

On the dark web? There are no rules.

What’s Actually Happening Here?

The story goes beyond concerns about real people with real lives. The true goal is about control of people’s bodies.

Sex work is, by and large, the sale of one’s body. You might sell your body to engage in sexual relations with someone else. We might also think of porn stars and the new breed of social-media enabled porn star. Tumblr was infamous for this before the NSFW crackdown of 2018. OnlyFans had become synonymous with the practice by the time it announced it would ban sexually explicit content from its platform in October 2021.

Many of these individuals actively choose to engage in sex work, often for a wide variety of reasons. First and foremost: sex sells, which means sex also pays. OnlyFans has paid out $5 billion to its content creators.

Some also find sex work empowering. While we often see representations of the desperate woman beaten half-to-death by her john, many sex workers find a good deal of control with their work. The switch to online has made sex work safer.

That’s not to say sex work is without its dangers. Sex workers are at higher risk for violence. Many do not report this violence for fear of being prosecuted themselves. Online workers may be stalked, harassed, or even doxxed.

Sex Work Offers More Control

Despite this, sex work can offer a degree of control over one’s life. It may allow someone to control their schedule. It may allow someone to pay for school.

Sex work is often one of the only available avenues for people with disabilities; it allows them control over when and where they work. A phone sex operator, for example, may be able to work from home for a few hours a day. A content creator may only work a couple of days a week, and their schedule may be quite flexible and forgiving.

A young woman in an apron looks to the right of the frame at her co-worker, who appears to be showing her how to operate the till.
“Oh yeah, you’ll love customers yelling at you all day about their coffee.” (Streetwindy / Pexels.com)

Contrast this with the average retail job. You work for minimum wage and you have little to no control over how many hours you receive. Some weeks you may work many hours; other weeks, you may have next to none. You may be called in unexpectedly and fired just as suddenly. If you call in sick too often or take too much time off, you’ll be fired. Cashiers and baristas can face plenty of verbal abuse from customers. Some jobs come with a great risk of physical violence or even death. Gas station attendants, for example, are at risk of being held up at gunpoint and even killed.

So, is sex work really any worse than a job in retail? Actually, a job in retail is worse—the pay sucks, there’s no flexibility, and it’s more exploitative, more dangerous than sex work in a lot of cases!

Female Bodies and Male Desire

Before we dive in here, let’s be clear: anyone of any gender can engage in sex work. In fact, many trans women are sex workers. Nonbinary individuals, those who are agender, androgynous, or otherwise genderqueer may also engage in sex work.

Sex work is more dangerous for these individuals for the same reasons that it is dangerous for cisgender women. Effectually, it comes down to the ideal of male sexual control.

We have to remember that until relatively recently, women were quite literally owned by a father, brother, husband, or even son. In some cases, women couldn’t inherit or own property. People referred to married women as “Mrs. John Smith” or “Mrs. Jack Brown.” Women lacked their own separate identities in the public sphere.

In the patriarchal social climate, men also own women’s bodies—including their sexual labor. This plays into the capitalist model as well. The ideal is always female homemaker as dependent upon male laborer or “breadwinner.” In this way, the man exerts considerable control over his wife. She lacks the financial resources to leave him and make her own way.

This is part of the reason sex work is so utterly reviled. It circumvents male patriarchal control of sexuality, reproduction, and family structures. Sex work exploits a weakness in the patriarchal-capitalist complex. Women and other marginalized individuals can make a lot of money by fulfilling demand for sex and sexual services.

Pearl-Clutching and Unwanted Rescues

We can see sex work, to some degree, as a form of liberation from the patriarchal-capitalist model.

Through exchanging sex for money, sex workers gain control over their bodies, their sexuality, and their livelihoods. This subverts both patriarchy, which seeks to subordinate women’s bodies to their husbands; and capitalism, which seeks to exploit people in poorly paid labor, which is often just as violent, dangerous, and harmful—if not more so.

Sex work thus becomes reviled at a moral, ethical level. Patriarchal-capitalist society constructs sex work one of two ways:

  1. Morally depraved and criminal
  2. Exploitative and dangerous

Criminalizing Sex Work

The first argument suggests sex workers are criminals. Indeed, the law in many countries treats sex workers as criminals. This creates an underground, illicit trade. That, in turn, creates many of the dangerous conditions we associate with sex work. Sex workers operate in “bad” neighborhoods or adjacent to the drug trade. They’re also less likely to report violence to the authorities. This is often because they’re afraid of being booked themselves.

Laws that criminalize the work also force sex workers to the margins. In Canada, for example, it is illegal to live off the proceeds of someone else’s sex work—allegedly an anti-trafficking measure, but one that pushes sex workers to the margins. They work off the books and underground, fail to report transactions and incomes, and work alongside other “shady” businesses. They may also be criminally underpaid. The risk of violence, theft, or being swindled is much higher.

This is an attempt to force people away from the sex trade and back into what society deems “legitimate” avenues of work, even though the “legitimate” avenues are often even more exploitative.

Positioning Sex Workers as “Depraved”

Society also heaps a “morally depraved” assessment onto sex workers. Sex workers, being treated as criminals, are seen as inherently unethical. They must not be “nice girls,” if you will.

“Good girls” will date boys and wait for marriage. Sex workers must be sinful, lustful creatures whose very nature leads them to do “bad” things. Sex workers are thus seen as “dirty” and morally bankrupt. This leads to attitudes that sex workers invite violence on themselves. In effect, many people believe sex workers are “asking for it.”

Sex Workers as Poor, Unfortunate Souls

There is another attitude toward sex work that extends a somewhat more sympathetic understanding. But it is often just as harmful and misguided. In this view, sex workers are “victims,” often of a cruel and uncaring society. In some cases, people argue sex workers must be “desperate.” Some may believe that all sex workers have not chosen their occupation of their own free will.

This is not to discount the idea that there are “victims” of the sex trade. Indeed, some sex workers are victims of trafficking. Some have been coerced into the trade. Financial hardship or need does drive others.

This attitude assumes, however, that all sex workers are in need of some form of “rescue.” The assumption here is that no one really wants to be a sex worker.

Victoria Morals to the Rescue

This stems from society not seeing sex work as legitimate work; since it is not legitimate work, nobody could ever want to be a sex worker. All sex workers, then, are exploited in some way.

People who espouse these arguments believe that if someone were to give sex workers a legitimate job or help them go to school, they would quickly leave the trade.

Some would, but others would not. Take a look at some of the people earning big bucks on OnlyFans. Do you think these people want to quit that job and go work at Wal-Mart for peanuts? Of course not!

Two women prepare food in display cases at a cafe; surprisingly, this job has many of the same risks as sex work.
Pictured: A workplace with a risk of getting murdered. (Gary Barnes / Pexels.com)

Many people tell the story of becoming a stripper or a sugar baby or an escort to help fund something, such as their education. These people are sex workers, by and large. In some cases, they continue to engage in sex work even after they’ve paid for their education. Some prefer it to the more “legitimate” work they’re supposed to perform via their education.

It’s wrong to assume that all sex workers need a rescue. Yet, in the popular imagination, sex workers just need to be redeemed—look at Julia Roberts’s character in Pretty Woman.

Why Can’t People Wrap Their Heads Around This?

Because it leads to liberation—from patriarchal control, from capitalism, from fundamentalist Christian doctrine, all of which seeks control over marginalized bodies. Sex work is perhaps the single largest “fuck you” to any of those belief systems.

In general, most people can wrap their heads around the idea. What tends to happen is they move between the “rescue” and morally depravity poles. They’ll extend sympathy to sex workers so long as they believe the sex workers to be unfortunate souls. If someone expresses enjoyment of sex work, asserts that they chose the profession, and is earning a living at it, then the argument flips back to depravity.

These two arguments work in tandem to delegitimize sex work in Western societies. Even historical arguments about, say, the geisha of Tokugawa Japan works to sanitize the idea that they were sex workers. Many have suggested geisha were “inverse prostitutes”: men would visit geisha to receive cultured entertainment and enlightened conversation they couldn’t get at home from their uneducated wives.

What we can actually understand from the case of the geisha or courtesans in Renaissance Italy or Madame de Pompadour or even modern escort services is that “the oldest profession” has also long been a respected profession. It’s only been in the last 200 or 300 years that this attitude has changed. And it changed in line with expanding Western influence and puritanical Christian-patriarchal-capitalist ideals of the 19th century.

Why Should We Care about OnlyFans?

Sex work is lucrative for many sex workers, and it could be much safer with decriminalization. Many of the “problems” with sex work actually come from its criminalization. In addition, driving it underground encourages nefarious individuals to exploit vulnerable populations for high profits. In short, it creates a black market for the trade of sexual services, which, unregulated, allows for all kinds of abuse and exploitation.

It’s doubtful that trafficking would be quite as lucrative if sex services were freely offered on a well-regulated market—as OnlyFans demonstrates. Sex workers meet demand, and more join of their own free will. Every content creator on OnlyFans is there because they want to be, by and large.

OnlyFans is only the latest victim of a puritanical push against not just sex work but anything deemed “sexual” at all. Based upon the arguments of abuse and exploitation, sex work is deemed unsafe; it becomes risky, even illegal to distribute it. This forces sex workers away from well-regulated spaces, driving them underground, resulting in higher black market prices, more risk, more exploitation, and more trafficking.

Listening to the Canaries in the Coal Mines

Wait. Aren’t the people arguing against OnlyFans trying to “protect” people? Don’t they want trafficking to stop and people to not be exploited?

They definitely want people to stop being sex workers. They believe the best way to do that is to make being a sex worker so undesirable, so dangerous that only the most desperate would take it up.

Why? Because it takes away a legitimate route by which marginalized people can circumvent terrible labor conditions under capitalism; and patriarchal control, violence, and exploitation.

In short, the only way they can make people stop being sex workers is by making it worse than any minimum-wage job under capitalism; by making it worse than being property of a husband.

Some of us may think we don’t need to worry about this. But sex workers are merely the first victims of expanding control and morality creep. Women’s autonomy is threatened; trans bodies are policed even more virulently; and queerness is to be repressed.

Someone once said sex workers are often the “canary in the coal mine” in terms of social attitudes toward sexual freedom, marginalized autonomy, and much, much more. And given how OnlyFans has tried to treat sex workers lately, we should all be very worried—and ready to help push back the tide.

About the author

By Cherry

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