By Divya Chandrasekharan

A catastrophic mistake to make when examining the transformation of sex work through the centuries is to take the common adage of “prostitution being the world’s oldest profession” at face value. This leads to the assumption that sex work has remained unchanged from ancient times until the rise of sexual rendezvous sites and online platforms such as OnlyFans. The globalization of the sexual market did not start with the internet, but rather with forms of transportation like the car. The invention of the car, and the introduction of the car as a middle-class product to own, decentralized prostitution from only being in brothels to sex workers being picked up by clients away from their place of business in the city. While the invention of cars may seem like technology made sex work more dangerous for sex workers, this would be a sweeping generalization. The invention of telephones allowed a barrier between the client and the sex worker that was not previously seen: it introduced the option of anonymity. This is an example of the diversified economies that have emerged due to technological advancements in the sex work sector. 

Bringing a service to an online platform is often seen as an advantageous move because companies can increase their clientele. This means that sex workers who cater to a specific clientele, such as those with a particular fetish or fantasy, now can gain more profits. Online platforms such as OnlyFans allow users the ability to cut out the middle man. Often, sex workers who worked in the inner city would be part of a business structure. The way a pimp manages sex workers is done through a hierarchy. Pimps require a cut of profits to create financial reliance. Pimps then use the cut of the profits for “business costs” such as transportation, legal services, and condoms. With a service that operates the way OnlyFans does, those who choose to post on the site have a greater amount of autonomy than if they were under the control of a pimp. In a traditional inner city prostitution ring or a brothel, the pimp or the head of the brothel gets a final say on who each sex worker can take as a client, how far they can travel, and how much they should be getting paid for each sexual act. It is also expected that in response to the workers abiding by the pimp/matrons’ rules, their safety will be guaranteed by the pimp. The introduction of technology in the realm of sex work has blurred and erased the lines between manager and worker. 

Being bound to an online platform does create obstacles for content creators and sex workers. The reason that many sex workers move towards online platforms is to redefine the autonomy they have in the content/services they put out, as well as a desire to be one’s own boss. However, within the sex work industry, not all sex work is valued the same way. Oftentimes those who offer “full services”, meaning intercourse with a client, are discriminated against and stigmatized. This, however, is not solely because of technology. In any country where prostitution is criminalized, it means that sex workers who offer full services will have less access to legal help and healthcare. When prostitution is criminalized and someone abuses a sex worker whether it is a client or their pimp, it is very difficult for a sex worker to receive any legal help, speak to a law enforcement officer, or test for sexually transmitted diseases. 

In the digital world, barriers still exist. In 2021, Only Fans discussed a policy about banning sexually explicit content. If this policy was enacted, the blurred lines that technology created between manager and worker become starker as the company begins to restrict what the content creator can post. Digital platform also raise queries about the idea of a “following”. In the case of brothels, or inner city prostitution rings, sex workers were able to gain business and fairer rates, when compared to the advantage of a platform such as OnlyFans. It has become of recent controversy that celebrities, such as Bella Thorne who have large followings, can come onto only fans and make money off the site. For content creators trying to break into OnlyFans, it is much more difficult, since oftentimes they will have to rely on another social media site. An example of a social media site that content creators will try to advertise themselves, is Instagram. However, Instagram has very strict censorship rules, making it difficult to even create a platform. 

Another factor that greatly impacts the lives of those who partake in digital platforms, whether it is OnlyFans or a sexual rendezvous site, is the fact that when participating in a business that takes place online, the separation between work and home balance dissipates, making it hard to distinguish a boundary between work and personal life.

Just like how the relationship between a sex worker and their pimp is layered with contractual obligations, there is the same contractual obligation between users and digital platforms. While its pimp advocates for sex worker safety and other expenditures, OnlyFans are meant to safeguard the data that users are entrusted with them. This is why when OnlyFans had a data leak, it was an example of how just like employers often forsake their workers, and digital platforms are no exception.

As established earlier, aside from the online platforms, all types of technology have created a large impact on what sex work looks like today. From platforms like OnlyFans to traditional brothels, sex work remains a nuanced field. While OnlyFans and other digital platforms have given creators the ability to have autonomy over their work, with this autonomy raises new complications. The good news with digital platforms, is that since the online world is so readily accessible those who participate in sex work or now considering new alternatives to OnlyFans, including some websites that are run by sex worker themselves.

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