Virtual sex work is work

Canada’s pandemic response has been far from perfect and has resulted in people being left behind. Among that group are sex workers. 

Many sex workers have turned to Onlyfans as a way to maintain an income in the COVID-19 pandemic. OnlyFans is a user-run, subscription based platform allowing creators and entertainers to share multimedia content with their fans. 

While the site is not strictly for sex worker’s content — it also features musicians, fitness experts, cooks and others creators — it became very popular among sex workers through COVID. Content creators received payments directly from their fans through a monthly subscription, along with pay-per-view and one-time tips. 

Many sex workers have been using OnlyFans since 2016. With the loss of employment and economic downturn caused by the pandemic and isolation brought on by the pandemic, OnlyFans became an attractive site for a lot of people stuck at home — the platform saw a 75% increase in sign-ups with approximately 150,000 new users every 24 hours at the start of the pandemic last year.

Ramona* had previously worked as a dancer at Roxxanne’s in Waterloo Region, but made the switch to Onlyfans during the pandemic. With the lockdowns and restrictions at the beginning of the pandemic, dancers saw their revenue drop significantly. She described it as being “dead” at times. 

“I remember the last night I was there. It was a Saturday and there were maybe five people in the club, it was bad.” It was at this point she began thinking about her future, and whether she would continue stripping. 

With Roxxanne’s closed along with all the other strip clubs in Ontario, she settled in at home and relied on the Canada Emergency Relief Benefit. She considered transitioning to pole dancing competitions and burlesque shows, which inspired her to buy a pole to practice with at home. Unfortunately, Ramona ended up developing vertigo from all the practice she was doing. It was at this point she began talking with others who had jumped into making Onlyfans content.

Stacy Hannem, associate professor of criminology at Wilfrid Laurier University, is a researcher studying the evolution of sex work laws in Canada, particularly their impact on sex workers’safety and access to services. Recently she’s been studying regulations in other countries and how they reduce stigma and challenge criminalization. She says Onlyfans has brought the conversation around sex work to the forefront as it grows in popularity. 

Not a new phenomenon

Whether through direct methods such as cam sites or personal websites, sex workers have been offering their services via the internet for a long time. Onlyfans is not the first site to offer direct payment to sex workers. There are other sites like JustFor.Fans that were made by sex workers for sex workers that take only 15 per cent of earnings versus the 20 per cent that Onlyfans takes. Many sex workers have opted to build their own websites that allow them to keep all their earnings. 

Hannem says that even with the explosion of interest in supporting sex workers via OnlyFans, it’s still difficult to gage people’s attitudes towards sex work. She describes an interesting tension among sex workers in that space; for some just starting out, they don’t identify what they do as sex work and don’t connect to or are as familiar with the sex worker rights frame

“In some ways they contribute to the stigma by differentiating themselves, linguistically from sex work,” Hannem says.

It also hasn’t stopped people from naming and shaming those who produce Onlyfans content, with tabloids running stories with little regard to privacy. This experience is not new to those working in the profession. Sex work is still not regarded as a legitimate form of work by many, and continues to be stigmatized.

There’s a misinformed and pervasive perspective that all a dancer needs to do is show up to work looking pretty and dance for clients and that’s her only role. In reality, sex workers wear multiple hats: they provide emotional labour, and as Ramona pointed out choreograph stage performances to music and lap dances.

Ramona herself has had people judge her for her work. Her boyfriend objected to her Onlyfans unless she kept it non-nude. She did at first.

“We broke up and I said f*** it.” 

Ramona first started stripping after getting out of a long-term abusive relationship. She said that stripping helped her gain confidence in herself.

“And I was at a point in my life where I didn’t have any self esteem. I was very depressed, and my anxiety was very bad,” she said. One of her friends invited her out to compete during amateur night at Roxxanne’s. She fondly recalled how support from her friends and staff helped her overcome her anxiety. 

“I could not believe the internal rush that I felt after my dance … I had so many people cheering for me,” she said. She even managed to get second place. She returned the following week, snagging first place, and by the third week she was working there almost everyday. 

Roxxanne’s closing due to COVID restrictions meant she not only lost a source of income, she also lost a supportive community. At the very least, her OnlyFans account has helped her cover her rent, and then some. From February to April, she made over [redacted].

I’m always curious about the reasoning for when articles state the amount a sex worker (in this case, a stripper) makes. I find it is always without much needed context. It presents at worst as misinformation or at best misguided. For example, it doesn’t name the boom and bust economy that is sex work. A stripper can make $4K over two months but then could make $900 the following two months because of a variety of factors: the economy, the season, if she gets sick and can’t work — sex workers don’t have sick leave/pay.

Author’s note, Nikki

Ramona said that although it is possible to make good money on the site, people underestimate the amount of work that goes into her videos and photosets. Her work involves creativity, physicality, and elements of social media management. The stigma surrounding sex work de-legitimatizes the work in sex work. There is emotional labour, job training and preparation, investment in workplace attire, and as mentioned before creative output. 

Romana says there is a wide range creating custom videos, picture sets or pole routines. That may also involve working with clients to find out exactly what they want. Ramona also has to take care of promoting her account on social media, along with interacting with her fans, one of the selling points of Onlyfans. Keep in mind, all of this, the equipment, stable internet connection, and private space needed, are already an obstacle for other sex workers. 

“We broke up and I said f*** it.”

According to Hannem, she says people should consider supporting Onlyfans creators over traditional free porn sites. Sex workers and those in the porn industry have long argued in favour of paying for your porn. 

“Fact: free porn is not ethical; you want to make sure that there’s payment going to the people who are producing that content,” Hannem said. “And so, I think this is just an extension of that kind of logic in a more social media frame.”

As for Ramona, her work online has given her some peace of mind amid the global pandemic. She says she will continue doing both Onlyfans and stripping at Roxxanne’s once everything is back to normal. The pandemic has also given her a lot of time to think about what the next stage of her life will be. 

“I mean I’m gonna make as much money as I possibly can. If it pays for my college; yeah I’m gonna f***ing do it.”

Ramona is just one sex worker among many in the region. This is the last part of a three part series on the changing nature of sex work in Waterloo Region through the pandemic.

*name changed under condition of anonymity.

Lane Taylor is a queer & trans escort living in Waterloo Region. They often work to provide advocacy and education surrounding sex work and labour rights. They have lived experience with disability, homelessness, and addiction.

Nikki is a harm reduction night witch stripper babe hailing from the underpaid red light district of Montreal. She likes sugar free cocktails, body-positive bookers, sweet consent, trans-inclusive clubs and sparkly 7’ heels. IG: soldiers_of_pole Tip Jar:

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