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Sex work

OnlyPain: the evolution of sex work in a virtual climate

In 2021, the nude photos we were warned not to take, let alone share, have become financial capital for a generation willing to put a face and name to their assets. The art of the thirst trap is no longer exemptible: it’s planned, assembled and hidden behind an easily accessible paywall. Sex work has existed online since before the birth of broadband internet, with the lagging feeds of early 00’s cam girls evolving into major camsites, but it has now reached its logical conclusion – on a subscription based platform known as as OnlyFans. 

OnlyFans and similar websites were originally established as a non-affiliated monthly subscription content sharing service, which sex workers have largely recontextualised on their own terms for porn. The idea, of course, is to sell or purchase original content, and to then be able to continue conversationally with your “fans”. The platform benefits with a 20% cut to all profits. While forums of this kind existed previously, the change in stigma and steady normalisation of “online perversity” has meant that these ventures are now commonplace, and those who might not have involved themselves in the past are platform royalty. 

Still, there is something inherently provocative about the rationale of OnlyFans, tapping into the subconscious pull and logical guidance system of the traditional client and attendant model. There is allure in the nod toward exclusivity, even if the illusion does not hold. The client is here the “fan”, the fan can communicate with the content creator, even establish a rapport, building a connection behind dozens of paywalls and tipping schemes, going beyond just porn. In an isolating global lockdown where real intimacy and touch has been effectively stripped away, the client is no longer simply a voyeur.

With closures to strip clubs, brothels, massage parlours and independent work deemed illegal, the world’s oldest profession was forced to reanimate its identity in the online sphere. But what does this rapid shift to OnlyFans mean for workers who fell through the cracks, those who need to stay faceless, or those who don’t possess self marketing and admin skills or have access to resources, let alone excessive lingerie collections and high quality cameras? Until recently, sex work was a rare workforce that didn’t necessarily require resume characteristics of prior experience, education or a specific skill set to enter. It typically doesn’t discriminate by age, race or physical attributes. In a piece for n+1, Sarah Nicole Prickett argues that “pornography yet presents a universe with more alternatives to white supremacy, compulsory heterosexuality, and standards of beauty than television, film, contemporary art, or advertising; literally anything you need, anything you find attractive, you can find in porn.” OnlyFans has changed the fundamental dynamics and exchange rate of the sex industry, and as an increasing number of influencers created profiles during quarantine (Caroline Calloway, Tana Mongeau, Bella Thorne, Jordyn Woods)  the online sex worker community began accusing these celebrities of gentrifying the landscape. Inside these online communities, workers typically band together to support their tight-knit circle and promote each other, as they are so often seen as outsiders to the so-called civilian world. Influencers, however, have changed online sex work to be largely for ‘insiders’.

Diminishing the notion of sexualised labor to selling one’s body is reductive toward the worker themselves. A sex worker simply provides and transactionalises a sexual service, whereas a body is only sold in organ blackmarkets, not in brothels. ‘Sex work is real work’ is a phrase often referenced in sex industry discourse, and while some sex workers choose to highlight that they find their choice of work empowering, spiritually enlightening or financially freeing, many workers do not. They may still push that ‘sex work is real work’. The politics of choice and necessity within the industry divides the “whorerachy” of workers, where some workers fail to recognise their own privilege and contribute to the stigma against workers who may use drugs, don’t enjoy their work or “do more for less.” Onlyfans heightened this divide, and over-emphasising a narrative of “empowerment” through work discludes the many workers who simply work to make ends meet, rather than those privileged enough to simply explore their sexual identity.

Rita Therese is a sex worker, Philosophy Masters student and writer based in Melbourne, who has floated through every facet of the industry over the past decade and who’s bestselling memoir Come was released at the beginning of the 2020 lockdown. She has long been notoriously known online through alter ego Gia James, but with a focus on a transparent, lucid and raw insight into the highs and lows of everyday encounters in her world of sex work. Years prior to Come she released three personal high concept zines that sold out instantly. She has never projected her ethos solely to clients, and her words speak to fellow workers and long time followers, captured by her natural wit, banter and singular talent for writing. 

In a Q&A open-end discussion with Rita, we discuss Come, the prevalent online transition for workers, the wrongs and rights of Caroline Calloway’s loud entrance into OnlyFans and a look at how OnlyFans is impacting workers, clients and anyone else who might be having sex. 

After following you for years and seeing you bounce around all areas of the industry, what motivated your move from “traditional” sex work to OnlyFans over the last year?

I actually started using OnlyFans way back in 2017/2018, and dipped in and out of the platform. Coming back to online work -was due to the lockdown and the pandemic. The media coverage sex workers got for their choice to transition into a different medium was quite insane. The narrative I remember hearing over and over again was – well, you can just go online, can’t you?

It just showed to me how ignorant and narrow minded the view of our work is. Like yes, you can go online, but in order to compete with sex workers who predominantly have always worked in those spaces, it required a huge amount of skill learning. Having access to an iPhone felt like it wasn’t enough. Suddenly you had to learn video editing, photo editing. I have been an in person worker for a decade, and I felt like I was back at my very first strip club shift staring cluelessly around. It was a decision fuelled purely by economics, and the fact that one of my family members has emphysema so I was terrified of passing on Covid to them…

I also had to make a choice that would likely impact my future career. I love the porn I made, but at that moment I was at a juncture of becoming a face in sex worker so I could minimise the damage I would face post degree employment. I actually missed out on a job I applied for due to the OnlyFans porn I made in 2021. I chose to keep a roof over my head and I’m okay with that, like many people I was forced to make hard decisions but it had consequences for me.

There’s almost this sense of privilege that comes with being able to move to online work, compared to just being able to walk into a new workplace.

Absolutely. Like everyone felt ugly during lockdown. I definitely did. I had no nails, a monobrow, my feet looked like something from The Hobbit and I had to get up everyday and try to take a bunch of sexy nudes. I know that sounds very “Kim, there’s people dying”, but I truly have never been in a darker place with my appearance. I felt so ugly and self critical because I’m not a naturally hot woman. I need my nails done. Sex workers make it look easy I guess, but we have lumps and bumps and things we need to do for our own beauty rituals, especially if you’re marketing yourself for a decade a certain way. I can’t suddenly pivot to a “natural girl next door” when I’ve been a platinum blonde in 8 inch heels. 

You started porn early on in your career, do you find the creative control with your OF easier to manage, or is there more pressure? Are there any other compromises with OF that impact your emotions with the platform? I often see workers trying to control when content is leaked, or when OF doesn’t release payments straight away. Does it feel like a sacrifice to big tech?

I try to find a silver lining with everything I do, and the creative control I had with OnlyFans gave me a sense of autonomy that traditional porn here in Australia around 2012 never did. I was able to style and shoot myself and I think it helped me heal a lot of the trauma and anxiety I felt over the porn I’d shot when I was 18. Ultimately, I don’t think porn is wrong or anything like that, but my experiences for these “feminist” Australian porn companies were chalk and cheese compared to my own creative vision I executed.

I remember when a couple of major influencers joined the platform and it was such a bizarre experience. Famous people are obsessed with sex work aesthetics and performing drag in them, and it annoyed me but it’s always been at the fringes of our actual work, and didn’t impact my money directly. OnlyFans was built by sex workers, in that sex workers brought engagement to a fairly rudimentary platform that just simply grew because of their TOS allowed porn to be shared. OnlyFans is now a name I believe that is synonymous in popular culture as deviant, taboo, sexy, whatever you want to say about it. It makes it really sexy and exciting and “ground breaking” for people like Caroline Calloway or Bella Thorne to join and profit simply off the brand of OnlyFans.  

That became a moment where I felt so fucking demoralised. It was like – you’re in your bedroom, during a pandemic, trying to sell your porn and hustle the way sex workers always have and then along comes a Disney star or whatever the fuck she does and she charged some stupid amount of money for a barely visible nipple photo and you’re like, what the fuck is the point of all of this?

During lockdown there was that crossover of IG influencers and celebrities normalising the platform, or majorly profiting off of it. Everything erupted when Caroline Calloway entered the OF realm, especially when sex work can be somewhat of an outsider job where it’s not always about conventional attractiveness. 

Not to mention the platform created a capping limit on tips for OnlyFans creators because of Bella Thorne’s chargebacks. Caroline Calloway justified her $50 USD a month subscription fee because she was making, I believe, “cerebral porn” and it was just her in a Jane Austen cosplay. It was totally maddening. It felt hopeless and I still haven’t quite found the words to express why. Perhaps because it seemed like my work was just a joke, or that I could never charge $50 a month or that it was so easy for women outside these margins to dip a toe in and I had to sit there for weeks deciding if it was worth risking my future career. You know?

Those moments felt like this weird crossover in normalising the adult content that the Internet is always trying to ‘clean up’ and not be associated with, and these celebrities don’t deal with the same overheads that sex workers who first entered the platform had to. Bhad Bhabie launched her OF a week after she turned 18 via an Instagram announcement and made over a million dollars in six hours! I often see so many TikTok videos of girls counting down the days until they turn 18 and can start an OF…what are your thoughts?

Bhad Babie is so interesting because she reminds me of the girls I would work with when I was 18 and new to the industry. Like I actually think she gives actual sex worker energy – had she not been on Dr Phil, I think she would have been the first girl to be at the strip club at 18 and be a mad hustler. I think that people should absolutely choose to do sex work if they want. I used to feel like a gatekeeper, but now I understand that there’s always going to be a group of people who are drawn in. That said, I think a lot of the girls who are that age aren’t aware that it’s sex work. Eventually, your subs will ask for boy/girl porn. Eventually they are going to want to see something shoved in your ass. Very, very few people can survive on titty pics alone after how ever many years – that itself is a skill set in the hustle of sex work. Look at Belle Delphine – her probbo stuff aside, she hustled for how many years before she dropped that boy/girl?

The stark reality is – taking hot nudes simply isn’t enough. Porn is an art form, it’s performance, it’s engaging and you have to have that skill set to be successful. And if you don’t plan on doing porn, which a lot of these girls say that they don’t, well, you better be ready for a decade of trying to stay relevant. It’s harsh but it’s true. It’s a hustle and a grind. It’s not easy money in any fucking sense of the word and when it’s all done and dusted, the internet is an archive of your nudes your going to have to explain to future employers.

It’s been happening for a few years now but sex work is so overly romantasised on social media with such little talk about the consequences. OF almost seems like it’s becoming this ‘socially acceptable’ form of sex work because younger people don’t quite know what they’re entering until they’re in it.

I agree. And this is why it’s problematic when an influencer with great bone structure who’s built a following for 2-5 years online makes an OnlyFans and she’s like, wow! This is amazing. What the audience isn’t seeing is her subs dropping off as the novelty of a titty pic for $50 USD wears off. They don’t get told – hey, this is at the end of the day, porn. And the girls I know who’ve survived without doing explicit content, they are working so incredibly hard to do that. Explicit content is hard too. It’s all hard.

I often wonder, what happens to these new workers? Do their online nudes fade into the abyss when they get bored and realise they can’t make the money they thought they could easily, and the glamour on Instagram and TikTok is really just now a resume downfall.

I wonder what happens to them too. I think they pivot and rebrand. I’ve built up a massive online following for years and I’ve never had a single company approach me nor even share the photos I tag my clothes in. I struggled to get any kind of PR boxes made for my book because brands don’t want to be associated with sex workers. I worry for these younger girls. They don’t understand that if their business survives off brand endorsements, that they’ll be rudely awakened when the PR freebies and sponsored posts stop coming. It’s awful but it’s true. There are some brands that will work with OF girls – I know Fashion Nova is one of them but I can basically list the brands I see work with sex workers or even sex adjunct people on my fingers. What’s even funnier to me is how many women ask me where I got my rug from or my jacket or my lingerie from. It’s one of my most popular questions. Brands shoot themselves in the foot to be honest but the world isn’t changing anytime soon.

And you’re an out worker too! You wrote a best selling memoir about your experiences and I would have assumed that the media’s obsession with taboo glamour would have meant brands would be all over your inbox trying to get involved.

It was the complete opposite. I sent email after email, I contacted so many brands and it was cricket sounds. I reached out to one local sex store in Melbourne and they were incredible and happy to help me out, but overall it made me realise I had hit an immovable glass ceiling and as much as I tried, I couldn’t bust through it. It killed me watching other people with similar demographics and followings to me be given things I had to beg and scrape for. I mean, maybe that would be different for these girls but I just don’t feel optimistic about that. I think brands carefully distance themselves from sex workers, especially ones who do in person work.

I can only try and understand it from the most simplistic perspective, did Come just not glorify sex work the way most sex work memoirs do? Books written about sex work always seem to be an alluring, sultry memoir of sex work experiences, or trafficking stories. There’s nothing in the middle, that sex work is good and bad, and I feel like Come filled that brief.

I think because I felt that would be such a disservice to the people I wrote it for – the other workers in the industry. I never anticipated my book would do as well as it did – I always saw it as a weird, fucked up little book along the lines of a John Waters movie. It has sold almost 10,000 copies (8,000 in hardback, 2000 or more in audio / eBook format). It was always meant to be a weird book for other sex workers to go- this is how I feel. It would be dishonest for me to try to paint something as complex as fucking for money as being good or bad. It just simply Is. I wanted to shine a light on all these conflicting thoughts and feelings and emotions and bodily sensations that took place. I think that confused a lot of readers – their take away was “this is a fucked up job and she’s fucked up”, whereas the sex workers – retired and present- who read it said to me more often then not – “you explained things I felt too”. I wanted to show this wide range of feelings and experiences and I felt I did the best I could at 25, fairly undirected and unguided in a market fairly hostile to young women who didn’t fit the narrative of what a writer should be or look like or sound like. Especially a woman who doesn’t want to paint a moral brushstroke over their work, and is openly sexual and openly deviant. I hope I busted a door open for a smarter, funnier and more talented younger sex worker in doing what I did and that’s my take away from that experience. We should be allowed to write in nuance and shades of grey just like every other fucking writer whose lauded and applauded for their sexualised work.

Come kind of exactly proved that notion that ‘sex work is real work’. We don’t all love our work. Whatever real work is to any worker is filled with good and bad experiences, and I felt as though Come pushed through these glitzy memoir’s I’d read with like, Louboutin’s on the cover and really only highlighting the aspirational highs of the industry, which only a small percentage of ‘elite’ workers reach.

Absolutely. That’s what I wanted. Initially I wrote an entire draft of the book that followed a sequential memoir style that was more of a heroes journey style narrative that I knew would be more accessible as a general sex worker style memoir. I hated it and I binned it. Why should sex work be limited to one style of writing? Nobody else is limited to that. I also had so many comments saying – well? What about your childhood? And I was like, why is that any of your business? Haha. I just wanted to throw the reader in, no context. The book was a series of vignettes and short stories. It was meant to feel like you could just pick it up anywhere and read it. That said, in hindsight, I wish I’d known I had ADHD when I was 25. But art is never perfect. It’s always in flux and moving. It serves as a time capsule for me. 

Would you do it again?

No, I don’t think I would.  Maybe that answer will change for me in years to come, I might be able to feel some pride or some sense of achievement. I still believe in my skills as a writer, I believe I’m talented, I believe I would benefit greatly from going and doing more writing and learning from great writers but I wouldn’t want to go through that experience of feeling like I was going to have literary validation and then my work- which is ultimately a book about the very real deaths of my siblings, packaged as a salacious sexy romp.

After Sydney Writers Festival was cancelled with COVID I knew that was the final nail in the coffin for me and I just went off the grid in lockdown and processed all the grief and sadness and deep pain I had about the book. I understand that everyone has a different idea of what success looks like but all I have ever wanted was for my work to be engaged with critically and with the same brevity that’s given to other young female writers. When that didn’t happen, I was crushed and I wouldn’t wish that feeling upon anyone. I sincerely hope that if another sex worker is offered a book deal they know my door is always open and I’ll help them fight to be taken seriously.

Something I’ve always admired about you is your willingness to be so open and raw- which is exactly what the book did too. But after following your presence online for so many years, to be a follower feels like being a friend, having seen you go through so many doors of the industry. How did clients take the idea of you publishing this book? It’s almost as if this is really where the line between client and ‘fan’ is blurred.

I felt so conflicted about sharing my book. Once again, this is something I just wish I had a little more hindsight on. I took a gamble with my book. I said, ok, this publishing house thinks I’m talented, I have a strong voice. Is isolating a bunch of potential clients and alienating them because of the nature of my writing going to be a sensible gamble if it means a potential career as a writer? I was incredibly careful throughout my book to only ever paint my experiences as my own. The chapter about being raped was something that did happen, but I was careful in that I didn’t make that client identifiable. I had to toe an incredibly challenging line to give my story the truth but also not alienate people. I think most clients were not very interested in my book. Most of them had the common sense after reading it to realise it was raw and deeply personal, and perhaps they weren’t privy to having a discussion with me about it seeing as they valued their own discretion and privacy. Some clients were very sweet about it. One asked me to sign his copy. I felt more acceptance in that moment than I ever did from any of the literature community. Because of COVID I never got to have a book signing or anything like that, so it was a pretty nice moment. But overall, it was hard. It felt very scary to expose myself as a flawed, fucked up person when my branding had always aimed to be anything but that. I felt really vulnerable and ultimately my gamble didn’t pay off but I just came back to work and I was like – fuck it! And luckily with sex work, you can do that. I came back and hit the ground running and said ok, let’s add writer to your sex worker persona now. Cats out of the bag baby!

 

 

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Gemma Jordine is a freelance journalist invested in pop culture, fashion, beauty, women's interest and investigative journalism.

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  1. Legalising/decriminalising sex work over three decades ago is one of the things this state (NSW) has gotten right!

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