NYT OpEd Celebrates Labor Day By Proving It Knows Nothing About Sex Work
On today's installment of historically-trusted newspapers publishing edgy, out-of-touch OpEd-s that approximately no one asked for, the New York Times decided to celebrate Labor Day last Monday in the most New York Times way imaginable -- honoring the working class by printing a buzz-word heavy, fear-mongering essay attempting to categorize OnlyFans as a big, bad, purple-feathered-hat-wearing pimp.
“What is being done to them is neither sex, in the sense of intimacy and mutuality, nor work, in the sense of productivity and dignity,” wrote Harvard Law professor and anti-porn activist, Catharine A. MacKinnon in her essay, entitled “OnlyFans Is Not a Safe Platform for ‘Sex Work.’ It’s a Pimp." “Survivors of prostitution consider it ‘serial rape,’ so they regard the term ‘sex work’ as gaslighting," she continued, later adding that “legitimizing sexual abuse as a job makes webcamming sites like OnlyFans particularly seductive to the economically strapped.”
Throughout MacKinnon's reductive essay – which among other cringe-worthy mistakes, falsely blames the media for popularizing the term “sex work,” (in reality, a sex worker and activist named Carol Leigh coined the term in the late 1970s, which is still widely favored today), consistently confuses sex work with trafficking, and claims sex work can never be consensual as it's selling one's body (just wait until she learns about manual labor jobs!) -- there is one thing missing: A single f---ing scrap of nuance.
“There is no way to know whether pimps and traffickers are recruiting the unwary or vulnerable or desperate or coercing them offscreen and confiscating or skimming the proceeds, as is typical in the sex industry," she wrote. "OnlyFans takes 20 percent of any pay, its pimp’s cut.”
Before delving into MacKinnon's wild claims that OnlyFans is a pimp, it's important to make a clear distinction between sex work and trafficking, ones she fails to make in her article.
“Sex Trafficking is and always has been a long-standing global problem which is often confused with sex work,” reads a resource from STOP THE TRAFFIK, an anti-trafficking organization founded by Stephen Chalke, MBE, who once served as a Special Adviser on Human Trafficking for the UN. “Accurate statistics for the number of people enslaved into the sex industry are almost impossible to accumulate because of the hidden nature of the crime. Undeniably, Sex Trafficking or Sexual Exploitation is a human rights violation and it can happen to anyone, adult women, young girls, men and boys are all at risk," he continued, noting that "the distinctions might seem obvious, but they are often overlooked."
So where, exactly, does this distinction lie? Good 'ol consent. “When a person willingly takes part in the sale of sex, it is consensual and doesn’t affect their human rights. This is called Sex Work,” the site continues. “When a person takes part in the sale of sex through threat, abduction or other means of coercion this is called Sex Trafficking. The differences can almost be invisible, so you may not recognise a trafficked victim. You may see a girl in the streets looking for ‘work' and assume she is a sex worker but, the reality could be far from that.”
Considering these nuances, it can be helpful to think about the differences between sex work and human trafficking as a spectrum, where on one side, an adult knowingly and enthusiastically consents to sex work and on the other, someone is coerced, a distinction The National Harm Reduction Coalition outlines in their resources about sex work.
“The National Harm Reduction Coalition defines sex work as the provision of sexual services by one person (the ‘sex worker’) for which another person ('client' or ‘observer’) trades money or any other markers of economic value,” they explained. “While there are all sorts of reasons why people may engage in sex work, we believe that all sex work falls on a spectrum from choice (i.e. someone chooses to do sex work, regardless of whether they have other options) to circumstance (i.e. someone may not choose to engage in sex work under different circumstances, but is sex work is providing them with something they need right now) to coercion (i.e. someone is being forced by someone else to enage in sex work).” they continued, adding that “any sex work done against the sex worker’s will and without consent is trafficking, and does not condone sex work that is not explicity consensual.”
Considering this wide variety of experiences, those involved in sex work and the sex trade are vastly different. Although we should absolutely prioritize those whose health and safety are immediately in danger at the latter end of the spectrum, all of these people need our support, a notion that radical feminists, like MacKinnon, blatantly ignore, viewing every sex worker as a monolith, boldly assuming they know their needs better than they do.
“A few months ago, I met a feminist activist in Thailand who now works in the field of sexual and reproductive health and rights,” Borislav Gerasimov, who serves as the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women's communications and advocacy officer, wrote in a recent blog post entitled “Sex workers can tell you why sex work is work. Speak to them.” “She explained that she had been close to GAATW since the very beginning, and that back in the 1980s she had wanted to rescue Thai sex workers in the Netherlands. To her surprise, they had told her they didn’t want to be rescued. They did not mind trading sex for money but wanted to earn more and work in better conditions. If she could help them with that, she was welcome. This and other similar interactions changed her views of sex work and sex workers.”
This change of heart is far from an isolated incidence. Several other anti-sex work activists changed their tune on believing sex work is innately exploitative, Gerasimov says, a switch that often stems from, well, actually listening to sex workers. “Regular conversations with sex workers made both of these committed activists change their view from ‘prostitution is patriarchal violence against women’ to ‘sex work is work,'" he added. "That doesn’t always happen and I’ve long wondered why. Why does speaking with sex workers change some people’s minds about sex work, but not others’? I don’t have the answer, and probably never will. Perhaps for the GAATW founding mothers, a paraphrase of this old Latin saying held true: ‘Kathleen Barry is my friend, but truth is a better friend (amica Kathleen Barry sed magis amica veritas)’”
Considering sex workers are not a monolith and have unique, individual needs, speaking for the entire group as a whole is both incredibly reductive and condescending as hell. Who is MacKinnon, a person who has never publicly identified as a sex worker, to claim every single one of the roughly 42 million sex workers in the world are being exploited, essentially only listening to those who happen to agree with her? All the radical feminist theories in the world cannot make a consenting adult a victim to the sex trade if they are actively, freely, and willingly choosing to enter the industry. To say such is infantilizing, and ironically, arguably strips those sex workers of their autonomy.
“I've had to reconcile with the fact that sex work is a sticky business because it's operating under the current structure, which centers the male gaze and is capitalist by default,” wrote OnlyFans creator and Cracked contributor, Kaitlyn O'Bryon in a recent article recounting her experiences on the site. “I dream of figuring out a way to turn my work on its head, subverting the male gaze and changing the ways we view both sex and work and the economy, for that matter. But, under capitalism, no matter how much I'm able to use OnlyFans as an artistic outlet, I'm still selling a product," they explained. "In the same way that I go on runs and file receipts as a PA for money, I get cute and shake my ass as a sex worker for money. At least I enjoy getting cute and shaking my ass (and for those of you that enjoy filing receipts, you do you).”
Unlike parsing through the differences between sex work and human trafficking, however, the question of whether OnlyFans is pimp is a lot more cut and dry – it isn't.
“Most of the early adopters are professional pornographers who chose this profession because of the flexibility it offers," wrote Cherie DeVille, an OnlyFans creator and adult film star in her point-by-point rebuttal of MacKinnon's article for Daily Beast. "Our jobs have become more flexible because OnlyFans helps us sell content we own. Many performers have stopped performing for studios that don’t pay royalties because they can now film sex tapes in their house and sell them themselves. What ‘pimp’ offers such flexibility?”
If OnlyFans is a pimp for charging contractors a 20% commission for using their platform, then other sites, including ride-share app Uber, and online clothing resale platform, Poshmark, who also take a comparable percentage from their workers, must be pimps, too. But just like Uber drivers and Poshmark sellers still have valid reasons to use those platforms in spite of these commissions, which have become commonplace among online platforms for independent contractors, many sex workers feel the same about OnlyFans.
Although OnlyFans may not be a pimp, the site does have several serious issues it must reckon to ensure it is as safe of an environment as possible for the sex workers who use the platform. Despite having a rigorous age-verification protocol, which includes submitting “documents proving your identity and age,” as DeVille outlines in her retort, a BBC News report claims that the site has struggled to halt the spread of content featuring underage people, although OnlyFans previously told the outlet such occurrences are “rare.” Last year, several sex workers were peeved when tip amounts were limited after actress Bella Thorne made $2 million in one week, according to Insider, although the platform claims their decision was independent of the star's massive payday. More recently, OnlyFans made headlines last month after announcing – and later retracting – its plans to ban certain types of pornographic content, a move that seriously angered many creators who relied on the page for their livelihood.
Yet when it comes time to discuss these issues in a platform as prominent and well-respected as the New York Times, MacKinnon, who as DeVille put it, “built her legal career on sex workers’ backs,” advocating alongside “radical feminists and radical conservatives” in an attempt to abolish porn," is not the person to tackle these issues. Even with all her academic experience, the New York Times should provide more space for the real experts to speak about the complicated issues surrounding the highly contentious adult industry – actual, current sex workers.
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