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Digital Divide Art by Jamie Bennett

Digital Divide

Sex workers have long been speaking out against harmful laws. But how do online workers fit into the conversation?

When Rae Szereszewski got hired at a downtown Toronto sex club, she thought she’d found her calling. But just as she was about to join Oasis Aqualounge on a full-time basis, the pandemic abruptly cut her dream—and hours and pay—short. 

The club was figuring out how to move its in-person events online and didn’t have the capacity for a full-time staffer. Szereszewski was left to run two to three weekly events over video chat. For the Porn Watch Party, she’d curate a series of porn clips grouped under a certain theme, like Unrealistic Fantasies (sex acts you’d theoretically like to try but seem impossible in real life).

By August 2020, after a few months of working with reduced hours and pay, Szereszewski made a career decision: she created a page on OnlyFans—a popular social network where people pay for mostly sexual custom content. Though Szereszewski’s husband, a computer science professor, could support them for the time being, she was looking for an additional income stream to supplement her lost earnings. She also wanted to make up for the unpaid time and labour she was spending creating content on her other platforms. As a sex educator working towards her sexual health education certification, her TikTok and Instagram accounts are replete with sexy selfies showing her wearing latex and lingerie and informational guides about kinky sex, like bondage play or choking. She makes a sexual health and education podcast called Sex News with Rae, too. 

In part, Szereszewski made the OnlyFans page out of frustration. At the time, Instagram, which has recently been tightening its grip on “inappropriate content,” had repeatedly—and arbitrarily—flagged her images on the platform for being too sexually suggestive. “Apparently underboob is not allowed on IG, nor is covering your boobs with your hand,” she says. Szereszewski felt she was being unfairly judged for choosing to show her body and talk about sex on the internet. 

“[On Instagram] I can’t show butt crack, I can’t show a nipple, even if I’m just doing nature nudity,” she says. (Nature nudity is just what it sounds like: naked bodies in the natural world.) As far as she’s concerned, there’s nothing overtly sexual about the photos she’s posting. “That’s not allowed? Okay, so if my naked body doing non-sexual things is inappropriate, fuck that, I’ll go to OnlyFans, I’ll put it behind a paywall. People can pay for that.”

Szereszewski now earns, on average, between $300 and $1,000 each month from OnlyFans. She charges $5 for a monthly subscription to her feed and makes additional income creating custom content, like the time she took a portrait of her foot in a boot for a user who requested it. Her daily posts become more explicit as the week goes on: on Monday, she’ll post a sultry selfie, an “extra” that didn’t make it onto her Instagram; on Wednesday, she might share a partial nude. By Saturday, she could be in the forest wearing a butt plug with a furry tail attached.

She specializes, however, in dick ratings. Guys send her a picture of their erect penis for her expert review. Then she assembles the ring light on her phone, hits record and critiques the (usually average-sized) dick as though it were a work of art. She reviews the image, assessing its focal point, background and lighting. Then, of course, she reviews the dick itself, evaluating its shape, texture, appearance and how it might feel or taste. She charges $15 for a two-minute video ($30 if you want her to wear a latex dress or bikini) and $8 for a one-sentence text. 

Szereszewski waffles on whether she considers herself a sex worker. “My toe is definitely dipped in the sex worker pool,” she says. “I have people telling me I’m a sex worker, then other people tell me I’m not a sex worker. They’re very much like, ‘Oh, you don’t penetrate yourself on your OnlyFans, so that’s not sex work.’ I’m like, ‘No, but people pay me to rate their dicks.’ Like, is that sex work?” 

Online platforms like OnlyFans have made it unprecedentedly easy to buy and sell sexual content, from feet pics and nude selfies to masturbation videos. Between January 2020 and November 2020, the site added 120 million subscribers (up from twenty million) and its revenue skyrocketed by 553 percent. For many workers left abruptly unemployed during the pandemic, OnlyFans seemed like an easy way to make a quick buck. All you needed, hypothetically, was a computer, a Wi-Fi connection and a little imagination. 

While it may seem easy to snap a few pictures of your feet with your smartphone and upload them to OnlyFans for clients with foot fetishes, creating content of any kind takes time and labour. It’s work. Increasingly, sex work extends beyond the street or spa to encompass a wide-ranging list of online activities, like sharing images or videos of body parts, dick ratings, nude selfies, live cam work and more. 

The generally accepted definition (or stereotype) of a sex worker is a full-service sex worker, a person who provides “physical” sexual services, like oral or penetrative sex, for money either on the street or in indoor environments like parlours, brothels, or someone’s home. But the wide and growing spectrum of digital work complicates this understanding. More than ever, people are being forced to confront their biases about sex work—what it is, who does it, and why. These beliefs include the lingering myths that no one would “choose” sex work, or that it’s the domain of powerless women who are trafficked into it by abusive pimps. 

Sex workers have long been correcting these assumptions, and they’ve stressed that our current laws create both safety and financial challenges for those in the industry. In Canada, it’s legal to sell sexual services, but illegal to purchase or advertise them. This approach aims to eradicate sex work by penalizing buyers and framing the issue around trafficking. 

Street-based workers say the laws make it difficult to screen clients, since they can’t be as clear about what they do and don’t offer, and their clients are scared of getting caught and charged. The laws have pushed exchanges into unsafe environments and made it more challenging for workers to report violence to the police (should they want to). Ultimately, in many cases, lawmakers’ assumptions that all sex work is non-consensual have stripped sex workers of the right to self-determination and safety.

Meanwhile, Szereszewski and others doing similar work are operating in a legal and cultural grey zone, one that isn’t captured in Canada’s ambiguous sex work laws, which broadly define sexual services as any service that is sexual in nature for the purpose of sexual gratification. Existing legislation doesn’t mention digital sex work at all, so it’s impossible to know where a line gets drawn when it comes to online services, and it’s not always clear why someone might be charged. The online climate for these workers is becoming increasingly hostile. With limited legal rights, where can workers—both online and offline—turn to ensure their physical and financial security?

The first time Andrea Allan sold a photo of her feet, she got scammed. In February 2020, the thirty-two-year-old New York-based, Vancouver-born comedian and podcaster received a Twitter DM from a man offering her $60 for feet pics. She initially asked for a $30 deposit on Venmo, but instead he sent her $10 and then upped his offer to $200 in exchange for a live video of her feet over Snapchat. “I was on the video chat for a minute or two. His screen was dark—he was clearly jerking it,” says Allan. “He recorded the whole interaction then blocked me immediately.” He ended up stiffing her and she never got paid. Allan was angry over how easy it was for her to be ripped off, and how impossible it was to do anything about it.

Allan considers selling feet pics a kind of “peripheral” sex work. “I’d always been interested in it because I was like, ‘Oh, this is free money.’ It’s work but you don’t have to be [physically] sexual with the person,” she says. For Allan, digitally mediated interactions, like sending feet pics or financial domination—the act of transferring money to someone’s bank account—don’t feel sexual, even if they get someone else off. 

Workers define what they’re doing differently. Some who engage in online sex work might be reticent to call themselves sex workers precisely because they want to distance themselves from the stereotype of the survival sex worker. “A lot of people that may not identify sending feet pics as sex work have this very specific idea of what sex work is,” says Lady Pim, a thirty-eight-year-old dominatrix from Toronto who also hosts the sex podcast Bed Post. “They’re othering those types of sex workers, [known as] survival sex workers. They’re saying, ‘That happens over there, that’s not me.’ It’s transphobic, it’s misogynistic, it’s whorephobic.” Pim, who also sells feet pics, thinks sex work, like sex itself, encompasses a wide range of activities, including financial domination and even producing erotic literature. “Sex work can look, like, a thousand different ways,” she says. 

For many sex workers, it’s also unhelpful to cast online work as though it’s risk-free. It may seem like a computer or phone screen is a filter that protects people from violence. But digital workers still face a barrage of harassment and financial exploitation, despite their best efforts to screen clients for threats of online harassment or doxing (some workers ask for a picture of government ID, but the practice isn’t foolproof). 

Online workers are also prevented from having full control over their own content. When paid content is stolen and reposted elsewhere for free, sex workers have limited legal recourse to reclaim their lost earnings or intellectual property. Jenna Hynes operates an OnlyFans page and sells custom videos. “I’ve had instances of my content, even recently, being stolen, and then used to sell on different platforms by somebody that wasn’t me,” they say. “It was pretty devastating, actually.” 

Hynes is the online and indoor outreach worker and development coordinator at Maggie’s, a sex worker justice organization in Toronto. For many workers, hiring a lawyer to try to get stolen content taken down is either too costly or too big of a headache. Plus, in Canada, while there are laws that protect against the distribution of “revenge porn,” they don’t necessarily cover content like Hynes’s. 

Rather than starting to recognize more workers, laws are getting stricter. When the United States passed the FOSTA/SESTA legislation in 2018, the online climate for sex workers grew more fraught on both sides of the border. These laws were intended to eliminate illegal online sex trafficking by making web publishers criminally and civilly liable when third parties advertise sexual services on their platforms or sites. The penalty for failing to abide by the laws can include a fine or a prison sentence of up to twenty-five years. Hence the panic from publishers like Instagram, which can be quick to censor or ban potentially sexual content for fear of legal action.

As a result, workers can’t be clear about the services they offer, have further trouble screening clients as a form of harm-reduction, and are forced to accept the fact that their means of making a living can be interrupted at any time. “It’s becoming increasingly difficult to keep every platform that I make my very hard-earned income on up and running at this point,” says Hynes. “Everything’s just getting immediately shut down or moving away from adult content, even though these platforms are built on the backs of adult performers.” 

In the current climate, digital sex workers often have to keep their work a secret to keep their other jobs and their friends. If they’re public, they’re risking online and offline harassment or stalking. For workers trying to operate anonymously online, the interconnected nature of social media also increases the risk of workers being “outed,” harassed or blackmailed. “If you are out about your OnlyFans, you are putting yourself potentially at risk because people know who you are,” says Szereszewski. “People know where I live, and they know I have an OnlyFans, so there is an element of physical risk. I’ve been recognized on the street because I’m a public person.” 

As is the case with street-based sex workers, online workers who are Black, Indigenous, people of colour or trans often face the highest risks. Social media algorithms disproportionately target marginalized groups, including sex workers of colour, queer sex workers and those who use drugs. This increases the likelihood that they will be refused access to payment processors like PayPal, which shut down any account believed to be selling online sexual services. 

Elene Lam, the executive director of Butterfly, the Asian and Migrant Sex Worker Support Network based in Toronto, recalls the story of an Asian international student who had transitioned to camming online after the police raided the massage parlour she was working in. Someone recorded one of her videos without her consent, verified her identity on Facebook and Instagram and contacted her friends and family back home to blackmail her. 

“We hear a lot of people [telling us about their] videos playing on porn sites without their consent and the material is sent to their workplaces,” says Lam. “We need to recognize that there is a different type of sexual service [online] and the anti-trafficking laws and criminalization actually limit people’s [sex work] options.” 

For advocates like Hynes and Lam, reform is necessary. Hynes says inclusive sex work laws must ensure ways for workers to protect their original content through copyright, the right to privacy, and legal protection against threats of online harassment and abuse. Maggie’s is in the early stages of developing a legal committee to advocate for workers’ rights. Hynes believes decriminalizing sex work is an important first step toward granting all workers autonomy, anonymity and financial and physical security. Advocates hope doing so will destigmatize workers’ choice to earn a living, and allow sex workers to be recognized as autonomous and empowered, not as victims. 

In March, the Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform launched a constitutional challenge to strike down existing laws around communicating, purchasing and advertising sex work in the Criminal Code.The group is also pushing for sex workers to be consulted and considered full participants in reforming these laws.

The alliance primarily advocates for the rights of street-based sex workers, who are believed to face a more immediate threat of violence. But the challenge could still have a positive impact for those working online, since one of the alliance’s key demands relates to sex workers’ right to privacy and anonymity. Hynes, for one, is hopeful that a win for one is a win for all, and that the fight for rights will trickle into online sex work. “Movements have to start somewhere,” they say.

Organizing is happening online, too. In late August, OnlyFans announced that it would ban sexually explicit content starting October 1. The company initially said it was complying with payment processors and banking partners, like Visa and Mastercard, which were seeking to combat illegal adult content. (Last December, the same companies suspended payment to Pornhub after allegations that the site hosted underage content.) However, after public outcry from sex workers, OnlyFans suspended the decision just a week later. 

For the moment, Szereszewski’s work is safe. But she’s angry at the prospect of powerful people and institutions setting a moral agenda in the name of anti-trafficking, curbing sex workers’ incomes and pushing them further underground in the process. “We say we want to end exploitation,” says Szereszewski. “But when you remove control from the creators, that creates more opportunity for exploitation, not less.”

In the meantime, she’s ready to resume her hosting duties at the club. She hopes to soon be back running DTF, a gang-bang night for women who fantasize about being with multiple men at the same time. She also remains active on OnlyFans; there are countless average-sized dicks ready to be rated. 

Ultimately, for workers like Szereszewski, legal reform that includes all digital sex workers must dispel the harmful myth that all sex work is sex trafficking—and that adults need protection from their own choices. “I don’t need to be protected,” she says, “except from violence from people who have opinions about sex workers.”

Josh Greenblatt is the editor-in-chief of Sharp magazine and a freelance writer with work in Vogue, the Walrus, the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star and Architectural Digest. He is based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter @joshgreenblatt.