When the economy went virtual during the coronavirus pandemic during 2020, so did sex. The combination of loneliness and financial anxiety created a boom for OnlyFans, the online platform where anyone can join to sell unique content (almost always sexual) to their “fans.” The Guardian reported that the number of OnlyFans users grew from 7.5 million users in November 2019 to a staggering 85 million in December 2020—which is an increase of more than 1000 percent.
But as the world has reopened, much of sex has stayed virtual. OnlyFans has continued to expand: TechJury, a software review company, reports that in 2023, “over 170 million users have registered an OnlyFans account, including 1.5 million creators.” This means that purchasable intimacy is scaling: never before has sex been more available for such low costs.
As the sex work industry grows, debates about it have intensified. Some proponents focus on decriminalizing sex work, arguing that it is a matter of life and death. Others focus on moral justifications, pointing to arguments about bodily autonomy, the extra income such work provides, and even the fulfilling nature of the work.
These defenses overlook intractable harms caused by a growing sex work market. Sex work takes advantage of underage women who easily bypass OnlyFans’ weakly enforced age restrictions, and low-income women desperate for quick cash. It also has a corrupting effect on human well-being and dignity, since it denies the fullest meaning and power of sex. And it impacts the broader culture, encouraging men and women to commodify one another.
The sex work industry’s barbarity is apparent in the ways it manages its clients. Last May, the New York Times magazine published a report by Ezra Marcus on the “The ‘E-Pimps’ of OnlyFans.” These e-pimps are exactly what they sound like: middlemen who serve as mediators between digital sex workers and their clients. E-pimps also manage communications between digital sex workers and their clients. They hire chatters, who are ghost writers for OnlyFans “creators.” Marcus writes: “These chatters work in shifts, responding to incoming messages and reaching out to new subscribers, trying to coax them into buying expensive pay-per-view videos.” He continues:
The subscribers presumably think they’re talking directly to the woman in the videos, and it is the job of the chatter to convincingly manifest that illusion. Their clientele—typically horny, lonely men—make it pretty easy. “Our best customers come to us not so much to buy content as they come to us to just feel a connection,” reads a post on Think Expansion’s website. This desire, the post explains, is a pimp’s bread and butter, “e-” or otherwise: “Hustling simps has been an art since the beginning of time!”
In other words, pimps and their chatters use male loneliness as an opportunity to coax as much money out of clients as possible. Perhaps some people applaud this as an example of the unfettered market working its magic. There’s a demand for companionship, people are willing to provide it at market price, and product delivery is streamlining.
But these market defenses too often ignore the real nature of demand, and the ways outside circumstances shape it. Our demands are not always on equal footing with one another: some things tempt us even though we know, ultimately, we don’t want them. Desires conflict with each other. Most of the men paying for digital sex would probably prefer freely chosen, genuine companionship rather than flirting with men in Europe, Africa, and Southeast Asia posing as beautiful women. But when counterfeit intimacy is just one click away, it creates a demand for something that men might not really want, but that is born of desperation or even addiction.
Digital sex work, like pornography, is probably reinforcing incel status and even turning men into incels. The sex recession has been widely documented at this point. In an April 2022 New Yorker essay, Zoe Heller cited some striking data: “In a study released in 2020, nearly one in three men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four reported no sexual activity in the past year.” Many users on OnlyFans are weary from the hardcore violence of porn, and have turned to OnlyFans for something that more closely resembles the intimacy of a relationship. It’s not hard to see how men might opt for these e-girlfriends and might shrink away from relationships with flesh and blood women who, like any human being, have needs, opinions, and imperfections.
Scaled sex work, therefore, manipulates and exploits men, and distorts the broader sexual environment. But what about the women who are sex workers? Is it harmful to them, or is it an edgy but ultimately fun way to make money? Is it a necessary revenue stream for women who would otherwise be bereft of economic opportunity?
For many sex workers, their experience is not as glamorous as the industry’s defenders suggest. In an unintentionally revealing conversation, Reason Magazine asked a sex worker and data science researcher named Aella to “explain the class differences in types of sex work.” Aella responds:
I did a survey of a bunch of escorts and found that the amount of bad things they encountered, like sexual assault … was pretty strongly correlated with their price range. Basically, the more money you charge, you’re pricing yourself out of more sketchy clientele. The people who are going to be paying you $1,000 an hour are not going to sexually assault you. They’re a lawyer or a doctor or a politician or someone who just doesn’t want to mess with that.
Educated, attractive, and interesting sex workers like Aella can get away with charging high prices and dodging “sketchy” stuff like rape. Those at the top of the sex work food chain avoid much of the violence and harm those at the bottom experience. As a significant body of research indicates, there are disturbing links between sex work, porn, and human trafficking.
Even for online sex workers who are not trafficked into the industry, some turn to digital sex work out of economic desperation. Again, this might seem like a defense of sex work: it offers income to those who need it. But on OnlyFans, only a small percentage of “creators” are making a good income. Another 2021 New York Times magazine report noted that “90 percent of creators take home less than $12,000 a year.” In other words, the vast majority of women are getting just a few hundred dollars here and there.
Yet even if all these women were making enough money selling digital sex to live comfortably, selling and buying sex is discordant with human well-being. Unlike other actions we perform with our bodies, the ramifications of sex are not confined to the activity itself. Someone can sell their labor mowing a lawn, but they probably won’t stay up for nights wondering if they did anything wrong or embarrassing while cutting the grass, desperately hoping that the lawn’s owner loves them, or anxious that a baby will emerge. Even when pregnancy isn’t a concern, sex stirs our inner lives. The clichés are true: sex can be like a drug because, when not tempered by self-restraint and social norms, desire for it can control the rest of one’s life. It’s something that’s too sacred and powerful to be bought and sold.
The power of sex is apparent in the ways its ramifications extend beyond the two people who do it. This is no less true of paid sex: as the sex work industry grows and moves online, it encourages a transactional view of relationships in mainstream culture. To borrow an image that Unherd writer Mary Harrington has used, our attitudes about sex and sexual practices are part of a broader ecosystem. The mainstreaming of virtual sex work means that sex will become more and more commodified for everyone else. Thanks to the rise of “sexfluencers,” women who have no connection to sex work but have an online presence regularly get approached by men requesting sexual images. And “buying” sex with culturally approved gestures is a mainstay of dating culture: two or maybe three dinner dates is the standard price of going to bed with a Tinder match. Women in this environment must often choose between sleeping with a man they just met or being ghosted by him since he can easily find someone else who’s willing to put out. The more sex is for sale online, the more likely these trends will continue apace.
Some like sex advice columnist Dan Savage have argued that all relationships are transactional, even marriages; so sex work is actually not fundamentally different than any other sexual relationship. Yet the idea that all relationships are transactional and therefore morally equivalent relies on an overly hazy, expansive definition of “transaction.” It’s true that marriage is transactional insofar as it’s mutually beneficial and an exchange between two people. But what marriage exchanges is self-sacrifice and, if it’s working properly, it makes people grow in virtue. Exchanging sex for money, by contrast, gives the buyer a sense of ownership over the product (another’s body), and requires no sacrifice other than a dent in the wallet.
The more sex work scales, the easier it will be for men and women to see one another as commodities to be used and discarded—all the while dulling their natural longing for love and companionship. We should not only make every effort to remove sex work (digital or otherwise) from the market, but also to make it utterly unthinkable.