On Aug. 19, 2021, OnlyFans announced that the platform would ban sexually explicit content. This came as a shock to many, especially sex workers who depend on posting their content on the site for income. OnlyFans’ publicity has skyrocketed because of its explicit content, and it is supported immensely by explicit content creators. Banks and payment companies were the main reason behind OnlyFans’ decision. Many banks do not process payments connected to the adult industry, citing the risks of associating with adult content. A similar business move was seen when PornHub removed all unverified partner content in response to Mastercard and Visa prohibiting the use of their payment method on the site after images of rape and abuse were discovered. Despite OnlyFans’ seemingly set-in-stone intention to ban explicit content, the company suspended it only six days later, claiming that they received assurance that they would be able to support their entire creator community. This action from OnlyFans was a major discredit to sex workers’ labor. Sex work is and should be seen as labor that is valued. Further, sex work should be legalized or at least decriminalized because the benefits of legalized sex work outweigh the moral aversions those against sex workers hold.
OnlyFans’ demeanor toward the sex workers on its platform is indicative of the wider negative stigma attached to sex work. Several arguments are common, often made to discredit and immoralize sex work, but most of them neglect the complexity of the issues they discuss. A common argument is that sex work isn’t “real” work. This takes a narrow view at what the concept of work can entail. Work is not just a process by which a laborer produces an object or traditional, physical labor. Sex work is actually closely related to the work of a masseuse, therapist, actor, and so on. This type of work produces emotional labor that consumers gain a benefit from. While sex work may not be be providing a “traditional” good or service, the labor provided suffices the occupation as real work.
Another common argument against sex work is that female sex workers’ choice to become a sex worker harms other women and sends a bad message. For one, this argument neglects that people of all genders can be sex workers, but that’s besides the point. Some sex workers do say that in an ideal world sex work wouldn’t exist, but you have to play the hand you’re dealt in life. Sex work can often be easier to do than getting help from the state by hopping through tons of bureaucratic welfare hoops.
But on the point that women partaking in sex work harm other women, it could be claimed that many occupations women assume harm other women. Lawyers, police officers and other occupations can cause real harm to women at times. Sex workers are often targeted and harassed by police even more viscously than the clients they deal with. So, if those against sex work wish to claim that sex work is wrong because it harms women, they have to play the harm against women card consistently.
The reality for sex workers at the moment is bleak, to say the least. Because much of sex work is criminalized, sex workers are regularly apprehended and arrested. Police brutality against sex workers is also not uncommon. Lack of legalization or decriminalization means that the industry is mostly unregulated and leaves sex workers unprotected. Sex workers are threatened by clients, others in the industry and the law. If a sex worker is on the receiving end of abuse from a client, they are unable to go to law enforcement for help because they will most likely be detained for participating in sex work or prostitution. Contacting clients through the internet can be safer for sex workers as they can screen clients before meeting in person. But laws like SESTA and FOSTA have made doing that quite difficult, influencing platforms like Tumblr, Craigslist and most recently OnlyFans to curtail or ban not safe for work (NSFW) content from their platforms. Criminalizing sex work makes the occupation a form of black market labor that ends up being unsafe for the sex workers themselves. A lot of these issues could be helped through legalization or decriminalization.
Legalizing, or at the very least decriminalizing, sex work would bring about many benefits for the lives of sex workers and the sex work industry. For one, it would keep sex workers safer. Having sex work decriminalized would likely abate some of the police brutality afflicting sex workers, since officers would not be able to charge them on account of their occupation. It also would allow sex workers to be able to reach out to law enforcement when needed if they experience danger in their work. Another benefit would be that sex work would become taxable and would be able to generate more income for governments if it were not criminalized.
In terms of whether sex work should be decriminalized or legalized, many sex workers advocate for decriminalization over legalization. Legalization has the potential to create a sort of brothel system that may not allot much agency to sex workers and to create a two-tiered system where only some sex workers are able to front the fees to pay for proper licensing. Decriminalization, on the other hand, would put power directly into the hands of sex workers and would not create legal barriers that only some have the means to bypass.
Sex work should be legalized, or at least decriminalized. As the OnlyFans’ NSFW content ban shows, stigma around sex work is still rampant. When looking at all of the arguments leveled against sex work, only personal moral imperatives remain. One should not be able to dictate the profession of another based on their personal beliefs. Sex work is valid labor, it should be viewed as such. The OnlyFans ban is a litmus test that indicates the devaluation of sex workers. It’s time for this to change for the benefit of sex workers everywhere.
Ben Davis is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at email@example.com