Ronan Long challenges us to consider how our porn habits affect sex workers.
Content Warning: Discusses rape and sexually explicit content.
The consumption of "adult" entertainment remains one of our most persistent taboos. As much as the private browsing adverts are geared towards the anniversary gift purchasing demographic, it is an all but open secret what the feature is generally used for! As we continue to dance around the conversation of consumption, the question of ethics surrounding the standards of the porn industry remains a hushed discussion. With the advent of direct consumer services such as OnlyFans and ManyVids, adult entertainers have the opportunity to distribute pornographic material directly to the consumer. Adult entertainers are becoming increasingly prominent and visible among the social media sphere. Even Beyoncé alluded to the craze, rapping in her feature on Megan Thee Stallion’s Savage (Remix); "On that Demon Time, she might start an OnlyFans / Big B and that B stand for band"’. Is this wave of direct consumer pornography consumption indicative of a new era of respect and economic liberation for sex workers, or is this yet another step further down into a culture of consumption that fundamentally subjugates the performers being accessed?
Recently, social media influencers, such as Tana Mongeau and Dominic Deangelis, have set up profiles on OnlyFans for distributing selfies and other standard Instagram content for a chargeable fee; circumventing the general "influencer" economic model that relies on posting on free-to-access media platforms promoting certain products or services for a sponsorship fee. Following suit, former Disney star Bella Thorne has come under fire for allegedly earning $1m in a single day through selling photographs directly to users. Many subscribers lodged complaints that the content received wouldn’t have had trouble getting through even Instagram’s adult-content restrictions. Her actions lead to new sanctions being implemented across the platform, meaning that grassroots adult entertainers now have strict limitations on their maximum price per post, restrictions which will affect their monthly income significantly. Especially given the already harsh deficit in income the Covid-19 has placed upon sex workers.
Alternatives to these sites remain easily accessible; anyone with a consistent internet connection can easily reach free to access sites such as Pornhub. There is no age-verification process or requirement to sign up to access content; it is as easy to stream as YouTube. The problem here, which to a certain extent the OnlyFans model sought to rectify, is that this platform is equally accessible to content creators. Anyone with an explicit video on their phone can upload it to the site, meaning that ugly realities such as revenge porn, trafficking, and abuse are rife across the platform. The BBC reported on just one example of this in February. This kind of content is accessed, distributed, and internalised every day; The Guardian reports that from their January 2020 survey "most children had viewed pornography they found disturbing or overly aggressive, with many saying they believed it influenced how they behaved in sexual encounters and influenced concerns about body image".
Without consistent and strict regulation, violent pornography has moved toward the centre of cultural awareness, yet remains peripheral to the conversation. While access to adult entertainment has never been easier, access to educational resources remains inconsistent. Often it seems young people are being taught to navigate the internet by people for whom internet pornography is a strange other world, some kind of seedy red-light district of the internet they are naturally inclined to stay away from. Attitudes like these only perpetuate a cycle of sexual repression and contribute to a culture of shame that invades the recesses of the reality of social interaction.
But the reality is pornography is consumed by roughly a third of the UK (a statistic to be taken with a pinch of salt). So how then do we navigate the inevitable pull of supply and demand in an industry in which the primary product is marred by a culture of complicity? The reality is that free to consume pornography, without strict regulation, despite the proposed mandatory age-verification system proposed by the Government that was later scrapped, is going to be subject to the influence of the violent, dark, and oftentimes disturbing fantasies; often permanently damaging reaches of the sexual zeitgeist. While there is something to be said for sites such as PornHub branding themselves as "everyday" public services, such as Blac Chyna’s choice to advertise a single release with a PornHub pre-roll ad video, the issue remains that we now have a situation where the public and celebrities have seemingly provided an endorsement to a streaming platform rife with graphic videos of rape, drug-taking, and abuse. The solution lies not in business models, but in a shift in culture; a shift in the conversation. While sex work remains so severely criminalised, the onus is placed upon sex workers, many of whom are more responsible and adroit small business owners than is often assumed, and the conversation around the ethics of pornography remains mired in taboo. With platforms such as OnlyFans, sex workers can navigate this roadblock by cutting out the middle-man distributor. Many sex workers now enjoy certain levels of social media fame. Even YouTube mainstay Trisha Paytas seems to have successfully rebranded as a sex worker and fans who follow her on Twitter will now often encounter explicit content to support her OnlyFans profile.
Part of the solution is to demystify the consumption of adult entertainment. No longer should we should reduce sex workers to back-alley, dim-lit, midnight rendezvous. We can engage on a human level and acknowledge the duality of adult entertainers as real, valued, and most importantly morally centered members of society. It seems hard to extricate the fact that sex workers, especially transgender and Black sex workers, are subject to a level of abuse and threat that would imply their lives are of less value than other labourers.
We must remember that if we are to consume pornographic material, the person on the other side of the camera is a living, breathing, and feeling human being. Do you know their story? Do you know how consensual this interaction was? Do you know what their relationship to sex work is? If not, perhaps it is time to seek less exploitative media, maybe try explicit literature; remember, the imagination can have far more to offer than any streaming site.