Recently, People’s World published an article in which the author, Andrew Wright, criticizes OnlyFans, a popular pornography platform, for banning some forms of sexual content. Wright forgoes a Marxist position of the sex trade, and instead, espouses a neoliberal line on the topic, claiming “sex work is work,” in defence of preserving the industry. In Wright’s worldview, the ruling class is pitted against those dependent upon the sex trade for survival, viewing them as social pariahs rather than an asset for mass capital accumulation. This couldn’t be further from the truth. In this piece, I argue that the ruling class continues to profit off of a sex industry which needs to abolished and only uses regulation as an afterthought to cover their tracks.
The article begins by vagueley reporting on the recent developments of OnlyFans, an online platform where content creators sell private content, mostly pornography, to subscribers. In an update to the terms of service for content creators, OnlyFans officially banned some sexually explicit content on the platform in an attempt to shift the company’s brand to one similar to Patreon or other fan-based subscription services. While they are specifically banning image and video content which include masturbation, penetrative and oral sex, and prescence of bodily fluids, other forms of nudity and sexual content are still allowed. The reason for this, as cited by Wright, is “mounting pressure from banking partners.”
While it is true that financial institutions are applying pressure, they and digital pimps such as OnlyFans, view the issue of hosting sexually explicit content as more of a financial or legal liability, rather than a moral one. Wright conveniently omits the reason why financial insitutions are hesitant to continue ties with sex trade startups, corporations, and monopolies, such as OnlyFans, PornHub, and it’s parent enterprise, MindGeek. These companies openly and commonly host sexually explicit content of minors, revenge porn, filmed rape, and other forms of real world sex trafficking. Further, it is still impossible to get age or consent verifications on the more “tame” media. Getting caught profiting off of more explicit sexual exploitation creates legal and investing difficulties for the growing company. Their inability, or more frankly, unwillingness, to regulate content is a testament to their business model: perpetuating harm in exchange for short-term profit.
Fortunately, sustained pressure from organizers can sometimes force regulation. For example, in December of 2020, PornHub scrubbed all unverified content (millions of videos and 80% of PornHub’s total content) from the site only after lawsuits by dozens of victims, backed by campaigns such as #TraffickingHub, were filed. The ensuing bad publicity caused partnering companies Visa, Discover, and Mastercard to take cover and pull out.
Wright poses this contradiction as one of conservative vs. liberal moralism rather than one of capital accumulation. For example, the idea that social stigma is the main perpetrator of harm against participants of the sex trade implies that moral repositioning of society will improve their conditions. In reality, Western society, specifically directed by men, increasingly encourages women towards sexual liberalism. Yet in the process, the social objectification of women, mass rape culture, and commodification of sex worsen. No matter what moral position they claim to take, it is understandably easier to ban sexual content completely as an appeal to future investors than it is for them to do the impossible task of regulating digital content for age and consent verification.
The Sex Work Pyramid Scheme
OnlyFans accumulated over $2 billion dollars in sales in 2020 alone, raking in 20% of the income of all of their content creators---most of whom were women pushed into the sex trade during the global pandemic. Tim Stockely, son of a banker and owner of OnlyFans, stated that in May 2020, the site was onboarding 7,000-8,000 new content creators and 150,000 new users per day, expanding by 615% in one year. The company utilizes it’s top content creators to propagandize for the platform in the style of multi-level-marketing schemes, otherwise known as pyramid schemes. Those facing poverty are told that they can easily make a living by becoming a “sex worker”. For each new content creator onboarded, the referrer is awarded 5% of the new content creator’s revenue. Like in every pyramid scheme, only those at the apex are profitable. In a now over-saturated market of tens of thousands of women vying for survival, the average income of an OnlyFans content creator is only $180 per month.
“Sex work is work” is typically circulated as blind rhetoric in response to complicated contradictions and shared as a common sense truth among academic and reformist activist circles. It intentionally obscures the basis upon which the sex trade is perpetuated, primarily upon the backs of the most marginalized in society. As pointed out by revolutionary communist and sex trade survivor Esperanza Fonseca,
The question of whether sex work is work was framed to fuse the interests of the sex worker with the industry. The problem, of course, is that this fusion is entirely superficial because the prostitute’s interests are diametrically opposed to that of the pimp and the buyer. “Sex work is work” then becomes more about protecting the interests of the sex industry and less about protecting women forced and coerced into prostitution. (The problem with the phrase “sex work is work”, 2020)
She points out that the question we should instead be asking is, “what is the commodity bought and sold and what effect does this commodification have on women and LGBT people in our class?” Communists should, on principle, oppose all forms of exploitation and seek to transform society, rather than capitulating to capitalist industry. That so-called socialists seek to normalize and defend sex exploitation is a grave situation to be in. Blanket phrases such as “sex work is work” serve to obscure and flatten the exploitation inherent in the reification of bodies, sex, and relationships.
The Communist Tradition
Self-proclaimed pro-sex trade socialists like Andrew Wright refuse to acknowledge that the sex trade itself exists upon the nexus of capitalism and patriarchy, and should in no way be defended as an institution. They abandon the decades-long communist analysis against sex exploitation and financial coercion in favor of neoliberal feminist talking points, as correctly pointed out by comrades at Midwestern Marx. In recent decades, the Western left has increasingly sided with capitalists on the topic of the sex trade. Even the slightest critique of the sex industry is seen as an attack upon the workers themselves. In no way should the ruling class be viewed as sharing in our interests as workers, nor should they be considered our saviors.
Instead of aligning ourselves with corporate pimps such as OnlyFans and Pornhub, it is the duty of revolutionaries to assess the sex industry on a materialist basis. We know that the vast majority of those in the sex trade do not wish to remain there. Funding and providing exit programs and support systems for people to be able to exit the sex trade and stay exited should be prioritized. Legislative policies that decriminalize the exploited while not protecting their exploiters (pimps, johns, and capitalists) should also be a top priority. Pro-sex trade leftists rarely, if ever, acknowledge this necessity---even in a global pandemic.
Unlike under capitalism where women’s bodies are commodified, Bolshevik revolutionary Alexandra Kollontai explains:
Under communism all dependence of women upon men and all the elements of material calculation found in modern marriage will be absent. Sexual relationships will be based on a healthy instinct for reproduction prompted by the abandon of young love, or by fervent passion, or by a blaze of physical attraction or by a soft light of intellectual and emotional harmony. Such sexual relationships have nothing in common with prostitution [...]. Under communism, prostitution and the contemporary family will disappear. Healthy, joyful and free relationships between the sexes will develop. A new generation will come into being, independent and courageous and with a strong sense of the collective: a generation which places the good of the collective above all else. (Prostitution and ways of fighting it, 1921)
As socialists, we must view socialism as the pathway to the abolition of all forms of exploitation. I encourage all those who care about the lives of those in the sex trade to abandon their liberalism and adopt the communist line against the institutions of capitalism and patriarchy, and against sex exploitation of all forms.
Brigid Ó Coileáin is an NYC-based communist organizer, educator, and sex trade abolitionist. She is a founder and host of the Probably Cancelled podcast, a project that challenges mainstream liberal ideology and analyses feminism from a revolutionary Marxist perspective. In following the lineage of Alexandra Kollontai, Thomas Sankara, and Anuradha Ghandy, her work aims to unite the struggles of class and sex/gender-based oppression.