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The Fraught World of Sex Workers Selling Nudes for Black Lives Matter

What’s helpful, what’s self-promotion and what’s profiting off of Black trauma?

Immediately after the news about George Floyd’s death broke, my Twitter feed exploded with tweets from online sex workers offering content incentives in exchange for donations to various organizations and bail funds. A findom friend even “abused” her sub’s credit card by using it to donate $200 to a BLM fund. 

Many of these sex workers were women who have a history of advocacy and activism. Siouxsie Q. James, who served on the board of the Adult Performer Advocacy Committee — the adult industry’s advocacy group — and worked at both the Free Speech Coalition and the ACLU, quickly began doing cam shows on ManyVids to raise funds for the L.A. chapter of Black Lives Matter and the People’s City Council of L.A. 

“I see this as a time to take inventory of what I have to contribute to this crucial uprising, and support Black liberation and police abolition in as many ways as I can,” she tells me. “For me, that means using my platform, my body, my connections, my access and my assets as weapons for the revolution — just like so many women and sex workers have done before me.”

Women leveraging sex to engage men politically and socially is neither new nor a trend — it’s one of the oldest tactics we’ve used to access political power, exert social influence and fund movements to champion causes we care about. In precolonial Nigeria, for example, women of the Igbo tribe formed councils and appointed leaders to keep the men in check (much like a union). If the the men got out of line, they’d often respond by declaring a sex strike. All the women would leave the village and abandon not only conjugal duties, but all the labor they performed. Usually, their demands would be met. 

In the 17th century, the Iroquois Nation frequently warred with other tribes. At the time, only the men could declare war, but the women, despairing of all the conflict, wanted a say. What did they do? You guessed it — they held sex strikes. They refused sex — and therefore childbearing — but they also cut off access to the resources they supplied, like the corn and moccasins that were needed for war. They got their way and were given veto power over declarations of war.  

More recently, in 2003, Leymah Gbowee and the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, among other nonviolent actions, called for a sex strike that led to the end of a 14-year civil war, a feat for which she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. When asked by HuffPost what makes sex strikes work, she said, “It’s effective in the sense that it gets people’s attention. People start saying, ‘Who’s this person doing this?’ and they start asking why the person is using sex to highlight an issue. And it gets men thinking. Our strategy helps the good men because it gives them a reason to take action. Our husbands obviously noticed what we were doing. We said, ‘We need you to take a stand.’ And they did.’”

But it’s not just abstaining from sex that’s proven to be an effective tool for social change. In the 1960s, Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, two trans women and sex workers, formed Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), an activist group with the goal of increasing trans visibility, sex worker rights and a place in the burgeoning gay rights movement. STAR was also directly involved in providing food, shelter and protection to trans people who found themselves homeless or victims of violence. They funded the project largely through their earnings from sex work. 

This marked a shift in the dynamics of leveraging sex for access to power because the emotional investment of their clientele in their cause was irrelevant. As long as the money was flowing into the organization, and the organization had a clear mission for social change that extended beyond personal interest, their clients didn’t have to involve themselves beyond paying for their services. 

Despite sex workers’ reputations as a pox on society, we’ve always been on the front lines of social justice because we’ve always been extralegal. And so, activism is woven into the fabric of our labor. Even porn performers, who have some legal protections, are used to having to load onto a bus every election year and head to Sacramento to argue against a new proposition to get rid of us. 

We’ve always been on the bleeding edge of technology when it comes to perverting platforms into revenue streams, too. OnlyFans has become our most recent weapon. A platform that allows girls-next-door to leverage their nudes into real capital, the app was popularized by porn stars, but proliferated by women who’ve never stepped foot on a set or done full-service sex work. Often, these women are the site’s highest earners. 

Twenty-year-old model Kaylen Ward was one of them. Earlier this year, she wanted to do something about the bush fires consuming Australia, so she offered her followers a deal: She would send them nudes in exchange for proof they had donated $10 to the relief effort. Within a week, she said, she’d raised more than a million dollars

Immediately, the world took notice. News stories and think pieces flooded the internet, and with her elevated profile came more traffic than any networking could ever bring (one mention in the mainstream media can be enough to drastically change a model’s earnings for years). With her newfound popularity, she branded herself as “The Naked Philanthropist,” and suddenly, everyone was talking about this “new” trend of porn for charity

I can’t help but think that’s what inspired the onslaught of tweets I saw from models offering free trial subscriptions to their OnlyFans in exchange for donating to Black Lives Matter.

For a moment, it was beautiful to see so many men and women, who are generally considered vain, vapid or lazy (“GET A REAL JOB, SLUT!”), engaging in the moment and leveraging their platforms for justice and change. But then, several models of varying ethnicities started tweeting their dismay at white models using the free-trial-subscription model in exchange for donations to this particular cause. 

“Non-Black people of color and white people have long profited off of Black people and causes under the guise of solidarity,” explains Janice Griffith, a longtime friend and coworker in the sex industry. “You are actively funneling people into YOUR content, which creates profit FOR YOU because you then have a new subscriber who is likely to remain subscribed, all off the work of Black people and organizations trying to generate funds to release people from unjust imprisonment and to provide food, shelter and other necessities.” 

Therein lies one of the biggest pitfalls of online activism — it can be ill-informed and/or performative because despite the best of intentions, it’s so easy. Which, of course, is also why it’s so easy to fuck up. 

Even the “Naked Philanthropist” hasn’t gotten it exactly right. Just two months after Ward’s moment of viral fame, she was in hot water when she put out a series of tweets that amounted to a casting call. The idea was that she would select a group of 15 to 20 girls from across the country with no previous experience in sex work to live with her in a large house, where she and others would train them to be OnlyFans stars, all while being filmed for both TV and YouTube. Reading between the lines, it seemed like she was enticing women across state lines to do sex work, while filming it for her benefit. 

The sex worker community was quick to critique her, the mainstream media got a whiff of it and then a new onslaught of think pieces started to circulate that crucified her for being a “sex trafficker.” And while she was being painted unfairly, it was, ironically, her first dose of the stigma that sex workers face. 

Whether or not her nudes-for-charity campaign was about her concern for wildlife or simply a marketing and branding move, the media was quick to take up her cause after Instagram suspended her account because she was young, white and beautiful. She had a global platform and was given the bona fides of an activist in the sex work community without any real experience or concern for the issues that sex workers face outside of her narrow experience. 

She just hadn’t thought it through. She hadn’t educated herself in the nuances of the prejudices and challenges sex workers face, both of which she claimed to advocate for. And in the long run, she ended up using her platform to reinforce the public perception that sex work is just a front for sex trafficking. 

It’s the same with white models offering free trials to their OnlyFans in exchange for BLM donations. It was a nice thought, but they hadn’t considered that the very issue they were trying to address was the same one they were inadvertently engaging in: white folks profiting off Black pain.

The larger question that this brings to the fore, though, is how social media has changed the nature of activism and charity of any kind. In a culture where so much “activism” is relegated to “Sign this digital petition,” “Please RT!” or “It’s so easy, you don’t even really have to do anything,” I worry that we’re encouraging people’s apathy instead of engaging them to think about the causes they’re supporting. I’m concerned that it excuses us from having to take real action, and in some cases, can actually do more damage than good.

That said, not everyone is clutching their pearls in the same way I am. Heather Berg, a professor of women, gender and sexuality studies at Washington University, counters my concerns with pragmatism: “Getting fans to donate in exchange for content may not challenge [their] thinking, but directing cash to get activists home safe and back in the movement might be a bigger contribution right now,” she says. 

In other words, while online activism and fundraising can be fraught, it’s also filled with beauty and hope. 

To that end, when content creators of color reproached their white peers for using this fundraising model for BLM, most of the interactions I came across saw models listening and course correcting, with the shared goal of getting it right. 

In short, I saw what I think Gbowee was talking about when discussing what makes sex strikes effective: Activism isn’t so much in the means of change or the funds raised (though they obviously matter) but in how we come together to do it. By overcoming differences and finding shared values, we form a community, and that’s when we have the power to make change.