The web-camming site OnlyFans might have caught on during the COVID-19 quarantine, but sex workers started using the site years ago. It's the latest tool they use to ply their trade in safer and more autonomous ways.
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"I thought it would honestly be really funny if I read my blog posts naked," says Cathy Reisenwitz, a former Reason staffer and freelance writer who joined the web-camming site OnlyFans during the COVID-19 quarantine. OnlyFans reports that with the world on lockdown, its traffic has grown at a rate of 150,000 new users daily.
OnlyFans is a social network like Instagram or YouTube, except that creators get to charge for their content, and they keep between 70 and 80 percent of the proceeds. Nudity is common. Reisenwitz says her goal is to break down stigmas around mixing sex and money. People assume that "you're either someone who makes money from their brain or their body," Reisenwitz told Reason. "And I think that's dumb."
OnlyFans is another milestone in the long fight for sex worker freedom, who have embraced peer-to-peer platforms as a way to eliminate middlemen, thwart the vice police, and ply their trade with more creativity and autonomy.
"So many more women are able to be their own producers now," Film Studies Professor Constance Penley told Reason. In the early 1990s, she and her colleagues at the University of California, Santa Barbara, were among the first academics to give pornography serious scholarly attention. Penley says that camming has birthed a new world in which performers are calling more of the shots, edging out studios and distributors.
It's also turned sex work into a more common side hustle. "It's not the main part of their living," says Penley.
Professional sex worker and writer Siouxsie Q started in the industry after college, performing on stage and in live peep shows at San Francisco's Lusty Lady Theater. But she eventually migrated her career online, where it's possible to interface more directly with her customers. Q has seen many camming sites come and go, but over time, platforms have shifted to giving performers more autonomy and the freedom to be creative.
Siouxsie Q runs part of her webcam business through a website called Modelcentro, which owns Fancentro.
"Modelcentro really created essentially the adult industry's Squarespace and the ability to just plug and play your own site where you could feature your own content and then users can access that via their smartphones," she says. "That really changed the game,"
Before the commercial internet, sex work was done mostly on the street through pimps. It was a dangerous trade. The internet has made the industry safer by integrating customer screening tools and reputation networks, which mitigate risk even when sex workers choose to meet their clients in person. OnlyFans and websites like it mean sex workers get to decide who they let into their world.
"It's funny, I've been on social media, I'm super active on Twitter. I have been for a really long time," says Reisenwitz. "OnlyFans is like the nicest place on the internet for me right now. Like, by a lot."