Toronto sex workers talk pivoting to OnlyFans, the PornHub backlash and the rise of sex work tourism during the pandemic
Gwen Adora says the popularity and acceptance of OnlyFans is very removed from the stigma she is used to while working in the sex industry.
The pandemic has forced most of us to be more intimate with our screens. Whether for work, play or sex, our relationship with video apps like Zoom and OnlyFans has gotten more intense.
“Sex workers are the unsung heroes of this pandemic,” says Modern Whore author Andrea Werhun. “They’ve been keeping people alive, happy and productive.”
Werhun is a former escort who was working as a stripper before the pandemic pushed her to find creative ways to make a living online. In the short film Last Night At The Strip Club, which is streaming on CBC Gem, Werhun describes that transition, which involves becoming an online muse for clients. She reads Dr. Seuss to them while naked on Jitsi, an encrypted answer to Zoom.
She and other sex workers and activists joined NOW’s roundtable to discuss what it’s like for an entire industry that does not typically access federal supports like CERB to survive during the pandemic.
They describe staying indoors and building their platforms online on apps like OnlyFans or sites like ManyVids. They also discuss how social dynamics and stigmas have been reinforced online, how sex workers have to fight for their spaces, and the repercussions that mass migration to OnlyFans will have going forward, especially after the app has attracted so much attention from people outside the community.
Former Disney actor Bella Thorne joined OnlyFans last summer, engaging in a form of sex work tourism, making $1 million in a single day. She hurt the people who rely and survive on that income.
The star, who is among a wave of newcomers gentrifying the platform, engaged in a misleading transaction, charging $200 for a “naked” picture, which turned out not to be the full buff. That ruse triggered demands for refunds. In the wake of Thornegate, OnlyFans placed caps on its tipping features and added a waiting period to payouts, which had a greater impact on the sex workers who rely on the platform for income.
Sex workers suffering for other people’s sins is nothing new. In December, Mastercard, Visa and Discover pulled transaction services from PornHub following a campaign organized by Christian non-profit Exodus Cry called Traffickinghub. They seized on illegally posted child sexual assault videos that PornHub did not remove from its platform.
According to Gwen Adora, an online adult industry creator and influencer, sex workers agree that PornHub has been notoriously slow in the past to respond to requests to take down illegal material. Writing in the Guardian, founder of the #NotYourPorn campaign Kate Isaacs describes the months-long process to get an illegal video removed, and how much damage is done in the interim.
PornHub had a much swifter response after the Traffickinghub campaign percolated into a New York Times op-ed that recounted victims’ stories. Credit card companies pulled their services. Last month, PornHub embarked on an unprecedented purge of illegal content while also banning unverified posters. In a blog post, PornHub called the move “the most comprehensive safeguards in user-generated platform history.”
The problem with the action from the card companies, who have yet to return to PornHub, is that it doesn’t affect illegally posted content. PornHub only charges credit cards for the subscription or per-view services on its ModelHub platform, where sex workers make a living posting content legally.
“That’s how people roll,” says Adora, capping the whole fiasco, “making these decisions without really looking at the full consequences of them.”
In our roundtable, Werhun and Adora join escort, multi-disciplinary artist and Tart With A Heart podcast co-host Elizabeth Lorde; web cam model and adult content creator Vixen Vu; journalist and trans adult content creator Ana Valens; and former dancer Ellie Ade Kur, who works with Maggie’s Toronto Sex Workers Action Project. This is an edited and condensed version of the conversation. You can listen to the entire chat on NOW’s YouTube page, at the bottom of this page, or on the NOW What podcast, which is available on Apple Podcasts and Spotify .
Andrea Werhun says attempts to take down PornHub are the front in an idealogical war.
NOW: On Twitter, I saw someone compare PornHub to Amazon, suggesting that if you want to support local, you go to OnlyFans (and) subscribe to your local talent. Does that analogy hold true?
Andrea Werhun: It’s important for people to pay for porn. We have a culture that is porn obsessed but has no relationship with the people who produce that porn.
I can see the local versus big-box analogy, but it’s not very accurate. It’s kind of complicated. Prior to the credit card scandal, people were making money off of stealing other people’s videos. It’s as if it was a big-box store and everything inside of that big-box store was stolen.
NOW: Gwen, can you give us some background on the Pornhub/credit card scandal?
Gwen Adora: A group called Exodus Cry put out a campaign called Traffickinghub, which branded PornHub as this big human trafficking website, [saying] all the videos there were contributing to increasing child sexual assault material on the internet, and that PornHub was profiting off of these terrible videos. But underneath that was this anti-porn push as well, obviously to take the entire site down.
Vixen Vu: In terms of videos of sexual assault and child assault, Facebook is way more guilty. PornHub had a few cases [118 from 2017 to 2019 according to Internet Watch Foundation], but Facebook blew it out of the water. And you can still use Visa and fucking Mastercard on Facebook, just FYI, to buy ads and whatever. It’s one hundred per cent not about “this is for the children.” It’s “we don’t like sex workers and we’re going to take them down.”
[Editor’s note: Out of 69 million images of children being abused on the internet reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, 94 per cent came from Facebook.]
AW: It’s an ideological war.
Ana Valens: Absolutely. If they could go after OnlyFans, they would. They aren’t because they’re trying to build their way into that. Mastercard and Visa is a huge victory for the Traffickinghub folks. They’re trying to build this precedent of attacking other sites too.
It’s all about trying to attack payment processors, because the banks and the payment processors are the ones that control our ability to operate or to have bank accounts, which a lot of us are constantly afraid we’re going to lose.
AW: Did any payment processor step up to replace Mastercard and Visa on PornHub? Have people been able to get their money yet?
GA: There’s no way for anybody to purchase any content as of late December. Obviously people rely on that money. To help models, PornHub has been calculating 50 per cent of their average income from ModelHub specifically, and then paying that for December and January.
VV: They’re literally like, “here’s your stimulus check”?
GA: Essentially, yeah. I don’t know if a lot of other sites would pull money out of their own pocket like, “Hey, we realize we rely on you, so we want to make sure that you’re paid.”
VV: They are doing more for sex workers than the American government is doing for citizens.
Vixen Vu says sex workers are building community on online platforms like OnlyFans.
NOW: Let’s talk about this transition then. Elizabeth, you made the transition from being an escort to being online during the pandemic. What was that like?
Elizabeth Lorde: It was really stressful because it’s such a different form of sex work and it utilizes a bunch of different skills. Content creation is exhausting. People expect so much all the time. Being an independent escort is also exhausting. But I had just gotten used to that and figured it out for myself. And now I had to figure it out all over again for the digital space while also under the stress of the pandemic and knowing that as a sex worker I had limited options and limited supports. I was lucky enough to qualify for CERB because I’m also an artist full-time. But a lot of people weren’t. It’s a completely different world. I’m still getting used to it.
NOW: For Vixen, Gwen and Ana, who have already been on the online space, what’s it like to have this influx of people?
VV: It was crazy. There was more demand for me to be online live. People are lonely. People are at home by themselves. I make a lot of my money online. Even with OnlyFans and MyFreeCams, I’ve decided to also spend more time on Twitch and grow my platform on there.
When [the pandemic] started there was an influx of not only people buying, but also people selling content. Gwen and I have been online for ages; we have the following. It was fantastic. But we’re seeing so much more competition.
GA: It’s so weird that having an OnlyFans is now a mainstream thing. All of a sudden there are these YouTubers and celebrities who are utilizing the platform, or being aware of it. People casually say “when’s the OnlyFans dropping” underneath people’s hot selfies. That is very removed from the stigma that I’m used to working in this industry.
VV: My DMs were getting flooded by just my friends being like, “Okay, I’ve got to start an OnlyFans. Can you help me out?” I’ve set up Zoom meetings for groups. I walk people through it. It’s so easy to become greedy. It’s COVID. You’re so isolated. You think about yourself. But on OnlyFans you’re in touch with other people, watching girls shout out other girls. There are OnlyFans chats and telegram groups. It’s not just what we’re getting from buyers. What we’re getting from each other is a community right now.
AV: It’s really complicated. There is internalized whorephobia in people who are starting to embrace OnlyFans. They don’t really understand a lot of the complex issues of what we call the whore-archy: the ways that sex workers relate to each other, who gets stigmatized and who doesn’t.
“I don’t sell sex offline. I just sell feet pics. This person over here is a full-service sex worker. I would never do that.” [The new trend towards OnlyFans] does simultaneously destigmatize sex work as a whole, while re-enforcing some stigmas.
Ellie Ade Kur: I love the rise of virtual strip clubs like Sanctuary NOIRE and The Strap House (an all-Black revue hosted by Strapped.TO and Maggie’s Toronto Sex Workers Action Project). I just feel like being able to have spaces run by and for dancers has removed so many barriers. There’s no more Black quota: walking into a club and being told, “We already have one of you” or “put a wig on and pretend you’re something else.” These are spaces where we can [avoid paying] massive club fees. We run our own shows. We don’t police our own music. The rise of stuff like that has just been such a powerful thing. It gives us the ability to have creative control.
But in the same way we’re talking about Visa and Mastercard pulling out of PornHub, there’s Instagram terms of service or Zoom pulling out of virtual clubs and cancelling sex shows. There really is an all-out attack across these digital platforms.
There’s this influx of people coming through, this really great sort of solidarity, and these workshops on how to run your OnlyFans or how to pole dance and twerkshops. I feel like virtual strip clubs have completely changed the game and are a serious threat to how strip clubs currently run by just giving dancers back the power.
Elizabeth Lorde says that moving online is not liberating for full-service sex workers.
EL: I feel like this conversation is really exciting. But I’m feeling a lot of bitterness and sorrow, particularly for full-service sex workers. It’s great that every other person has an Only-Fans now. But I think about full-service sex workers who need to continue doing full service and how that is really frowned on even within the industry.
I just feel like this is not liberating for full-service sex workers. It doesn’t help us at all. It just kind of continues to fuel that whorephobia and that stigma that still remains on us. The only reason I made an OnlyFans is because I am high risk. I can’t go work. But I desperately would rather do that and go back.
And I feel like coming out of this pandemic, maybe things will be better for online sex workers. Maybe things will be a little bit better for dancers. But I don’t see how it’s going to be better for full-service sex workers.
I think about the fact that during the pandemic I chose to show my face. And I chose to do that because I’m now only an online content creator. Can I go back safely to full-service now that my face is shown? You can find me on the internet. You can find my art on the internet. It’s not hard.
AV: I started doing ManyVids specifically because I had to pay the bills. I knew right away that this is going to affect my career forever as a journalist. This is going to affect my internet footprint forever. There’s like a stalking forum [where they] take my nude photos and plaster them to specifically make fun of me for no other reason than because I’m a trans woman that sells sex online.
And it’s really, really difficult to navigate the world doing that because it affects civilian jobs. When I don’t hear back from interviews, which has happened even though I’m overqualified, it’s always in the back of my head. “Did I not hear back because they know that I shot porn?” You never really know. The online repercussions are severe.
AW: We’ve seen several news stories about OnlyFans girls being outed at their workplaces and fired. We saw it with that autoshop in Indiana and the Taco Bell in Arkansas. It’s not going to stop. We’re in an era of survival sex work. OnlyFans is survival sex work. They need that extra $250 a month.
When you’re in survival mode, you don’t have time to think about the stigma and how this might affect you in the long term. But undoubtedly, in the wake of the pandemic, we’re all going to have to reckon with the fact that we’ve got our naked bodies online and why that should not be a mark on our character and it shouldn’t be a reason that we can’t work in other industries.
EL: It’s something I worry about a lot. Especially with the new people entering online sex work. I see a lot of people using their legal names. Or using their regular profiles to promote it with their personal Instagram that’s attached to all the people they went to school with, and not knowing how dangerous that can be for you. I know somebody who went to go see a client. I’m like, “Did you screen? Did you tell anybody where you were going to go? Does anyone know where you’re going to be?” That is so dangerous and I don’t think a lot of people know that.
After the pandemic, everything goes back to normal. They are going to have to face a lot of whorephobia. Being a sex worker can affect your ability to adopt children. It can affect your ability to travel to certain places and to get jobs. Visibility is not liberation.
I think of Bella Thorne making sex work look cool and being unaffected by anything that regular sex workers go through. That’s so misleading to a lot of new people entering sex work because they need to survive. They can’t think about the stigma. But it will fuck them up.
AW: There’s this civilian tourism into the sex industry because it’s taboo. They’re just going to put on a sex worker outfit, try it on for the day. And then they get to take it off and they don’t get to experience any of the stigma and long term discrimination that we face. Fuck them.
AV: These people that are new to the industry, these baby sex workers, they don’t know about screening clients. They don’t have anyone in their social circle to teach them these things. When I was first starting out, I wasn’t doing full service, I was doing online, but I was surrounded by trans women that would pop in and say, “Hey, you might want to do this through a service because then this handles the legal repercussions of doing this.” Or like, “Remember to sign this paperwork.”
Without that social circle, without that connection, without ability for someone to catch you, those basic 101 things are lost on these people.
AW: Which is why it’s so insidious that social media platforms are cracking down on sex workers. Communicating with each other on social media is how we keep one another safe. And Twitter has been like a kind of promised land for a while. And we know it’s not going to last. We know that people are already being deleted, shadow banned, etc. It’s not safe. There is nowhere safe for us to be able to communicate that information to the most vulnerable of us. And that includes the baby sex workers.
EAK: I’m just reminded of how important having sex worker-run organizations are. I’m thinking about the street outreach that Maggie’s has done during the pandemic. If anything, the amount of safe sex supplies and drug use supplies that we’re handing out has actually increased by a lot throughout the pandemic. Back when Maggie’s was founded, a lot of that stuff was started and funded with our own sex-working dollars to buy the supplies and do routes. Everything I’ve ever learned about how to do my work safely, I’ve learned from other sex workers who have taken the time to step up and show me.
It feels like now more than ever, it’s important to have a really solid network run by us, for us.
You can support the COVID support fund and Black Sex Worker Emergency Survival Fund at MaggiesTO.org/Donate. Funds go toward emergency grants, box programs and supplies for street outreach.
The Node Project (nodeproject.org) is a New York-based coalition crowdfunding for the tech-based needs (phones, computers, webcams, etc.) of progressive and marginalized people including sex workers.