OnlyFans ‘explicit’ content ban conceals the fact: Sex work is work
A phone shows the website of OnlyFans, a site where fans pay creators for their photos and videos. Among many people familiar with the site, its name is synonymous with amateur home-produced sexual video content. A spokesperson for OnlyFans now says the site will ban 'sexually explicit' content starting Oct. 1 after requests from banking partners. | Tali Arbel / AP

The online platform OnlyFans announced on Aug. 19 that it would no longer allow the posting of “sexually explicit conduct on its website.” For anyone who knows of OnlyFans, the announcement sounded perplexing. At least among people familiar with it, the name OnlyFans is generally synonymous with amateur, at-home production of sexual video content.

The interesting twist in the company’s announcement is that the platform will still allow “nude photos and videos.” The decision was reportedly made due to “mounting pressure from banking partners;” it’s part of a scheme for OnlyFans to raise money from investors at a valuation of $1 billion.

The company said it made the choice in order to “continue to host an inclusive community of creators and fans.” Supposedly the company wants to pivot toward being more exclusively a platform for people like musicians, fitness instructors, and chefs.

Last year, the company handled over $2 billion in sales and is trending to double that this year. It keeps 20% of that number as its hosting fee. So OnlyFans has been raking in the cash, and the bulk of it is from creators of sexual content.

The argument the company is now making seems to pit so-called content creators and artists against sex workers by suggesting sex workers never belonged in the first place. The reasons for making this decision, based on the “mounting pressure” from banks noted above, also betrays the fact that the ruling classes do not give sex work any sort of serious valuation, perhaps only seeing the work itself as free labor.

The debate over the connections between sex work, prostitution, and capitalism isn’t a new one. The conservative religious right has long denounced the role of the sex worker, but the left too has struggled to accept sex work as a legitimate arena for the traditional workers’ struggle. Whether it’s well-known socialists or people arguing on Instagram, the nature of the work is ridiculed if it’s considered “labor.”

The problem with questioning whether sex work actually involves labor is that it assumes (the same old fantasy) that sex is “special” and enjoyable for all—that sex, because it’s enjoyed, cannot be work. Of course, this argument falls short for anyone who has ever actually enjoyed their job; but, on top of this, it assumes that sex must be enjoyed—this itself betrays the implicit chauvinism of these arguments.

Sex workers face many levels of discrimination and threats to their personal safety. Whether it comes from some sort of “moral majority” trying to “rescue” sex workers, police arresting and committing violence against the sex worker, or the ever-present violence from the client (rape, murder, etc.), sex workers have a lot of existential concerns to wade through before even considering “enjoyment.”

The old joke that any man will enjoy sex as long as there’s a pulse gets the full reversal in this logic: The assumption that any sex worker will enjoy their day on the job actually projects the enjoyment fully onto the worker. The idea that sex can be a service, one that the worker can detach themselves from, appears to be scary to many.

Socialist writer Paul Cockshott, in his essay “Socialists Can Never Support Prostitution,” makes the very mistake of comparing labor from our hands and brains to the labor of our sex organs. First and foremost, this reduces all sex work to some form of penetrative intercourse. Secondly, his conclusion from this is to say that sex organs create people and in “post-slave” societies we no longer treat people as things. This couldn’t be further from the truth and is the de facto problem that all socialist movements are attempting to overcome.

Cockshott also attempts to equate rape to handshaking—that somehow the law protects the means of labor in the one sense but not in the other. The law has a complicated history with labor to say the least. There are plenty of examples of workers trying to get their labor recognized or win dignity and protection in the workplace, and the law has stepped in to suppress such movements. Police are usually on the side of management, and there are good reasons why police unions are not part of the labor movement. Even if we sidestep this history for a moment, if someone brutally forced themselves onto your hands for their own pleasure or power, this would certainly be a matter for the law.

The fact remains that sex work is a labor issue, one fraught with racial and gender injustices. The policing of sex work hits those most vulnerable hardest, which tend to be Black women and transpeople. Black women are disproportionately represented in sex work, and because many transpeople are often forced to accept low-wage jobs (if offered anything at all), sex work is the one of the few ways to earn decent money.

To suggest sex work is not labor is to brush right over the issue of labor relations to begin with, not to mention the racial and gendered violence and class subordination involved here. This erases the labor of those who perform sex work in order to survive, those who earn living wages doing such work. All these arguments do is repeat the failure of capitalism itself: They attempt to secure acts of social reproduction as sacred and as free labor. This is precisely how the system itself ensures its very exploitation.

To be sure, like any other job, sex work can absolutely be exploitative. Considering that it’s constantly pushed to the fringes of society and policed, even while any of those who suppress it also try to hide the fact that they partake of it, speaks to the fact that it already is exploited labor in this country. Across the globe, people are sold into sex slavery and trafficked, and this is certainly a problem; but viewing sex work in the U.S. through this lens confuses the “evil” of it all.

Instead of seeing agency in the sex worker themselves or the systemic oppression that leads to the need of such labor, we take the law and its defense of the market for granted, presuming that any sex worker can simply go back to school or work their way up to management in a different field.

Instead of concerning ourselves with the debate over whether sex work is work, we ought to first concern ourselves with the question of: “If sex work is pure enjoyment, exploits the client, or is even ‘empowering’ to the self-employed, why does it have no home in capitalism?” As we’ve seen, policing sex work has very clear racist, misogynistic, and classist tendencies.

Sex work is work, and the labor, dignity, and safety of sex workers are the rightful concerns of the labor movement.

As with all op-eds published by People’s World, this article expresses the opinions of its author.


Andrew Wright
Andrew Wright

Andrew Wright is an essayist and activist based in Detroit.  He has written and presented on topics such as suicide and mental health, class struggle, gender studies, politics, ideology, and philosophy.