Who Gets to Call Themselves a Sex Worker?

Thanks to platforms like OnlyFans, a once-marginalized identity is being refashioned as an influencer trend

May 28, 2020 10:28 am
sex worker
The nature of sex work is changing. Is the definition changing too?
Rinee Shah for InsideHook

You may have noticed that sex work is trending right now. Beyoncé is rapping about OnlyFans on a Megan Thee Stallion remix, a recent ELLE magazine headline asks why everyone is suddenly selling their nudes, and perpetual internet antagonist Caroline Calloway is getting yet another public dragging for touting her supposedly one-of-a-kind brand of Cambridge-educated, “softcore cerebral porn” on Twitter. 

In other words, as sex worker, writer and activist Maggie McNeill puts it, “Sex work is cool again.”

While OnlyFans’ newfound popularity among celebrities, coupled with the simultaneous boredom and financial desperation of the pandemic era, has been largely credited with bringing the so-called oldest profession back to the forefront of mainstream culture in recent months, it’s a trend McNeill has been chronicling in her blog, The Honest Courtesan, for a few years now.

“With things changing over the past few years, the tide is turning. Sex work is becoming cool again,” she tells InsideHook. 

But as subscription platforms like OnlyFans make online sex work more accessible for both amatuers and celebrities alike, the rising popularity of a historically marginalized, often criminalized practice refashioned as an influencer trend has sparked recent debate among industry professionals about identity and appropriation within the changing landscape of sex work. As Claire Downs wrote for ELLE, what many new members hoping to cash in on the OnlyFans boom stand accused of failing to realize “is that sex work is actual, serious labor, not a bandwagon to hop on.”

“I’m tired of seeing people who post pictures or videos online calling themselves sex workers,” wrote porn star Ańa Rose in a recent Twitter thread, echoing similar criticisms of amateurs in various branches of online sex work accused of “stealing valor” from supposedly “real” sex workers.

While, as far as McNeill is concerned, anyone selling their own erotic labor is in fact a sex worker, she acknowledges that as online sex work becomes more popular, “some people [are] claiming the mantle of sex worker who really shouldn’t because they think it’s going to give them cachet.”

However, she adds, that’s just one half of “a weird dynamic” currently at play in which others who are engaging with sex work decline to identify within the sex industry or attempt to distance themselves from others in the field in what is often criticized as a display of internalized whorephobia.

Essentially, the debate comes down to who should and should not call themselves sex workers. On one side are those who stand accused of appropriating a marginalized identity for clout, and on the other are those who stand accused of refusing that identity out of whorephobia. What no one can seem to agree on, however, is who belongs on which side.

Defining sex work

This debate isn’t new. While the most recent iteration tends to center around OnlyFans, the question of what constitutes “real” sex work far predates online subscription platforms.

Sex work — a term commonly credited to artist and activist Carol Leigh, AKA the Scarlot Harlot — has typically functioned as an umbrella term for a wide variety of professions within the sex industry. But which professions belong under that umbrella has always been a subject of debate.

“I believe it’s fair to say that currently ‘sex work/sex worker’ are useful umbrella terms for individuals in various sectors of the industry to self-identify with should they choose,” says Mistress Eva Oh, a professional dominatrix. But as with self-identification within any community, especially one that lacks official and sometimes legal recognition, the freedom to self-identify also leaves that identification open for debate. 

For some prostitution purists, only direct, full-service sex workers make the cut, while others may include or exclude various other sex-industry professionals such as porn actors, cam girls, phone-sex operators, pro dommes, strippers, nude models, burlesque dancers and any combination thereof. Some recent debates have even questioned whether Hooters employees should be considered sex workers. Meanwhile, these arguments are often further complicated by the fact that many people who work in one sector of the industry often work or have worked in others at various points throughout their careers.

As far as McNeill is concerned, defining sex work isn’t half as complex as quibbles over identity politics often make it out to be. Lifting her definition from sex worker and activist Furry Girl, McNeill defines a sex worker as “a person who is paid for their own erotic labor.” This includes anyone who creates and sells their own erotic content or services, but excludes those who profit solely off of the erotic content or services of others, such as brothel owners who are not providers themselves.

Mistress Eva is similarly uninterested in a nuanced policing of the term. “If you are selling a product created to engage with sexuality, I see it as a form of participation in the economy of the sex industry,” she tells InsideHook. “If someone is engaged in the commodification of sexual gratification, then I am ready to see them as a peer.”

The whorearchy, reversed

Part of the reason many experienced industry professionals like McNeill opt for a more inclusive definition of sex work is that such nuanced delineation among different branches of the industry is often rooted in the same whorephobia that has historically informed conceptions of whorearchy, or the hierarchical stratification of sex work that attempts to divide sex workers into a kind of caste system. 

Writing about the whorearchy back in 2012, McNeill noted that “many strippers, dominatrices, porn actresses, etc. insist not only that they aren’t whores, but that they’re better than we are.” Direct sex workers, in turn, “sometimes see themselves as better, smarter, more discreet, etc. than strippers or porn starlets,” while “sugar babies and other halfway whores deny that they’re sex workers at all; and some unusually self-deluded escorts will even try to draw imaginary lines separating themselves from other hookers.”

Essentially, the intra-industry class system hinges on the idea that certain kinds of sex work are inherently better or “classier” than others, and while McNeill wrote that “nobody agrees on anything about that system, only that it exists,” porn star Belle Knox attempted to outline a logical structure underlying the whorearchy in a 2014 Jezebel article:

“The whorearchy is arranged according to intimacy of contact with clients and police. The closer to both you are, the closer you are to the bottom. That puts “outdoor” workers, ie street-walking prostitutes, at the foundation. They are disdained by “indoor” prostitutes, who find clients online or via other third parties. They are disdained by the strippers and escorts who perform sex acts for clients, who are disdained by those who don’t. At the top sit sex workers who have no direct contact with cops or clients, such as cam girls and phone-sex operators.”

A mere six years later, however, the most recent iteration of the sex work debate seems to present something of a reversal of the whorearchical system Knox outlined. As sex work grows in status and popularity, the sugar babies, “halfway whores” and other fringe erotic earners who once sought to distance themselves from the industry seem to be increasingly laying claim to the identity they previously rejected — and are often criticized for doing so. Meanwhile, as the bar to entry for online sex work gets lower, those who actually get up close and personal with clients are lording their direct work experience over the newbies on OnlyFans. 

“There are things you just will NOT understand about the sex industry and just because you have an OnlyFans does not mean you’ll get it,” porn star Ańa Rose continued in her Twitter thread, adding that those things beyond the ken of your typical OnlyFans member include everything from escorting to fasting before anal scenes. “My experience as a famous pornstar is NOTHING like being on onlyfans. NOTHING,” she concluded.

Where Belle Knox once found herself denigrated for “sitting on a dick for a living” by strippers who saw their distance from the dicks they were paid to arouse as a sign of status, sex workers are now flaunting the dicks they’ve sat on for street cred over the wannabes of OnlyFans. 

In this climate, it’s unsurprising that newcomers who risk being criticized or minimized for “just selling nudes” might feel inclined to distance themselves from the now-coveted mantle of “sex worker” out of fears of appropriating an identity they haven’t earned. McNeill, however, remains skeptical of lurking whorephobia surrounding any sex worker’s refusal to identify as such. 

“That sounds to me more like wrapping yourself in the flag,” says McNeill. “I don’t think very many people really refuse the label of sex worker because they think they haven’t earned it.” 

Mistress Eva voices similar reservations. “As a laborer on the ground I appreciate it if an individual is aware of the historical marginalization,” she says. “But to distance oneself based on that awareness seems thoughtful but potentially unproductive towards the destigmatization of sex work.”

Sex work for celebrities

Part of the criticism against participants in the recent OnlyFans boom also accuses those that have turned to online sex work amid the current financial crisis of perpetuating the myth that sex work is “easy money,” while also taking up space in an already saturated market. 

“The criticism that those ladies are leveling at the newcomers is a correct one, but at the same time you kind of have to give them the side eye and say, ‘Yeah, honey, you were new at one time too,’” says McNeill. “We don’t want people getting the impression that it’s easy, but at the same time, you can’t knock people for trying it.”

Ultimately, most established professionals seem to agree that any fears of losing significant business to amateurs are largely unfounded anyway. As adult content creator Maia Rain told InsideHook back in April, “Longevity in the sex work industry is rare. We can expect to see quite a few abandoned accounts as newbies decide it’s more than they bargained for.”

Moreover, while the current wave of OnlyFans interest has frequently been attributed to the massive spike in pandemic-era unemployment, it bears keeping in mind that the tradition of cash-strapped individuals seeking out sex work as an alternative source of income is as old as sex work itself. 

“It’s not a new thing,” says McNeill. “We have examples going back at least to Roman times of women who were in shitty, low-paying jobs doing sex work on the side to stave off the wolves at the door.” 

McNeill actually traces the current wave of amateurs dipping into sex work back to the 2008 financial crisis, explaining that whether today, 12 years ago or 1,200 years ago, women turning to sex work amid financial strife are simply “doing what women have done since the beginning of time: using our sex appeal to make our way in the world.”

But along with the recent influx of amateurs, platforms like OnlyFans have also seen a potentially more troubling rise in popularity among celebrities and influencers. Since the site began welcoming stars like Beyoncé and other high-profile members of the mainstream elite in recent months, the sex workers who have dominated the platform for years have started to fear they’re getting edged out of the community they built.

Unfortunately, those fears are neither unfounded nor unprecedented. “It’s a common reality that sex workers popularize platforms only to then be forced out when the platforms reach a level of mass popularity,” says Mistress Eva. 

However, while McNeill agrees that celebrity interest in sex work “does steal work from the professionals” and will probably “suck money from women who really need it,” she remains hopeful that mainstream exposure from celebrities may eventually have a positive effect on the progress of sex work destigmatization.

“The truth is it always does get worse before it gets better,” she says. “But I think in the long run it’s going to be a positive thing for us.”

Mistress Eva, however, is less optimistic. “I don’t see how celebrity presence on the platform does anything to support sex work except for bringing in more (but potentially irrelevant) traffic until sex workers get kicked off,” she says. “The concept of celebrity is essentially about overshadowing others, isn’t it?”

Paying your dues

If the current debate surrounding sex worker identity entertains the sometimes paradoxical concerns of appropriation, whorephobia, amateur saturation and celebrity intrusion, then Caroline Calloway has managed to emerge as a remarkably convenient embodiment of all those issues at once.

The scandal-prone influencer came under fire earlier this month after feminist writer Reilly Wieland criticized Calloway for “engaging with sex work essentially for the clout” and then flaunting her six-figure salary “in the midst of a pandemic that has sent and will send more fulltime, non-influencer sex workers into profound poverty.” 

In an almost impressively misguided attempt at defense, the influencer turned OnlyFans star then proceeded to dig herself deeper, tweeting that her purportedly unique brand of “emotionally poignant, softcore cerebral porn” is “basically unchallenged” by the work of other sex workers on the platform.

According to Wieland, these claims are not only untrue, but also represent a classist attempt on Calloway’s part to “build her brand off an image of profound privilege” while distancing herself from sex work by weaponizing inherently whorephobic “I’m not like the other sex workers” rhetoric.  

“It seems to me that she has decided to engage with sex work because OnlyFans is so hot right now, and thus, she can dip her toe in and garner attention for it,” Wieland tells InsideHook, adding that Calloway appears to be “signalling that she could be either a professional or a sex worker, but chooses the latter” purely for clout.

Naturally, Calloway’s attempt to justify her pricey intrusion into sex work by elevating herself above the professionals whose turf she’s invading did not go over well with the professionals in question. Calloway’s claims that her unique brand and Cambridge-educated background distinguished her from other creators on the platform were met with a barrage of swift backlash from sex workers who accused the influencer of whorephobia and unchecked privilege. 

“Do you really think the rest of us don’t know how to use our brains or make artistic smut?” replied award-winning erotic entertainer Ari Dee. “Lovely tinge of whorephobia there! Your ‘brand’ is privilege & a superiority complex. It’s not cerebral porn.”

According to McNeill, Calloway’s mistake had less to do with privilege and more to do with her attitude. While McNeill rejects a politics of sex work that automatically excludes people from privileged backgrounds, she does subscribe to the idea that newcomers to the industry owe a certain amount of deference and respect to the professionals before them, regardless of background.

“There’s a concept of paying our dues,” says McNeill. “When you come in, you have to recognize you’re the low one on the totem pole. You have to be respectful of the ones who’ve been there. Don’t act like you know everything.” 

Wieland, who clarifies that she has “no issue with anyone being on OnlyFans” and sees sex work as a powerful way for women to subvert a history of withheld wealth, echoes McNeill, calling for newcomers who jump on the bandwagon to “show respect to the industry they are just entering into.”

Of course, as McNeill notes, this concept isn’t unique to the sex industry. “That’s the same in any profession. If a new, hot shot doctor straight out of medical school comes into a hospital and acts like he knows everything, I’m sure the older doctors would probably not have a high opinion of him either,” she says. “If a newcomer shows that she’s going to respect those ethics and those people who have been there before, I don’t think she’ll have any trouble becoming a part of that community.”

While it may still be annoying for seasoned sex workers to watch even the most deferent newcomers flock to OnlyFans, McNeill remains optimistic that the trend will benefit the community in the long run, comparing sex work’s recent ascent to mainstream popularity to similar trends that have emerged out of other marginalized identities. 

“When I first had my first girlfriend in the early ’80s, we had to hide that. We couldn’t talk about that,” says McNeill. “By the mid-’90s, every high school girl was claiming to be bi. And some of them really were, but some of them were just doing it because it was cool — it was edgy.”

While this refashioning of a historically persecuted identity into a mainstream trend is ripe for accusations of appropriation, McNeill credits it, in part, with helping to destigmatize LGBTQ identities — a pattern she hopes to see repeated within the sex industry.

“People become more blasé about it, and that’s the way it’s going to be with sex work eventually,” says McNeill. “‘Yeah, okay, she’s a sex worker. So what? Her and my Aunt Mabel.’” 

That doesn’t mean change is going to happen overnight, though, and until the OnlyFans bubble bursts, McNeill acknowledges there may still be tension within the growing sex-work community. 

“I think it’s going to be uncomfortable for a lot of people who are in it right now,” she says. “But I think the end is going to be a good one.”

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