Only Fans? Major musicians are embracing sex work culture
From FKA twigs, to Kehlani, Rico Nasty and Cardi B – there’s been a surge of cam girl and pole-dancing references in mainstream pop culture. In a pandemic, support for sex workers is crucial. But where’s the line between homage and appropriation?
Yesterday, calls for the full decriminalisation of sex work rang across FKA twigs’ Twitter account. The artist’s usually sparse feed, last used to shout out Lil Uzi Vert, was flooded with Tweets about the fight for sex workers’ rights. During a takeover by SWARM (Sex Worker Advocacy and Resistance Movement), there were memes about sex work discourse, links to petitions to help the fight for decriminalisation, and educational resources explaining how the law is failing sex workers.
Over the last week or so, FKA twigs has been particularly loud in her support for the community. So why now?
twigs’ 2019 album is conceptually inspired by Mary Magdalene – a biblical figure who has been portrayed as a sex worker over the centuries, and pole-dancing has become a central aspect of her live performance and Instagram output. This year, twigs released short film titled We Are The Women which explored “matriarchal dominance” in Atlanta stripclub Blue Flame, and she portrayed an ‘onlycamzzz’ girl in the video for her recent collaboration with Chipmunk-voiced rapper 654AR. And recently, there’s been mounting criticism and calls for her to credit sex workers and show more support.
Last week twigs released a statement about her experiences working in a gentleman’s club. Wanting to “step forward, pay respect, and shine a light on the challenges facing sex workers, especially during these uncertain times,” she made a £10,000 donation to a fundraiser in collaboration with Lysistrata, SWARM and East London Strippers Collective – three collectives who have taken over twigs’ social media platforms this week.
It’s a crucial time to elevate the voices of sex workers, and other musicians are honouring the industry in their work. Kehlani, who recently released her “ode to sex workers” with the video for Can I, was applauded for properly crediting people in the industry. “Sex workers deserve proper pay, protection, and to exist in their careers without consistent shame & violence,” Kehlani wrote while sharing the video, which ends with words from nonbinary abolitionist and community organiser, Da’Shaun L. Harrison.
Over the last week, Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion have dominated the cultural discourse with their summer-defining collab WAP. With the beat largely based around the vocal sample of “There’s some whores in this house”, the hit single reclaims a once-pejorative term for sex workers. Writing for Complex, Brianna Holt argued that the house in the video “is homogeneous to Amsterdam’s Red Light District, where sex workers dance in front of windows to attract potential customers.”
In 2020, the sex industry has become increasingly prominent in pop culture. A statement from SWARM says “sex workers have received unprecedented attention from the press since the outbreak of Covid-19”, as social distancing measures impact those working under already precarious conditions. And with the pandemic provoking a boom in camming sites, platforms like OnlyFans are becoming household names.
The subscription service, erupting into mainstream consciousness this year by remodelling adult entertainment online, is having its own moment in music. After seeing a 75 per cent increase in sign ups in March and April, by May it had a 15 per cent spike in traffic after being blessed by The Beyoncé Effect. Shouting out OnlyFans in her Savage remix verse, Beyonce also namechecked Demon Time, the trend of masked strippers performing on Instagram Live for Cash App tips. Both have provided ways for sex workers, who found themselves out of work due to the pandemic, to generate some profit digitally from explicit content.
Launched in 2016, OnlyFans has become best known as a hub for sex workers. But it has always been open to any content creator, marketing itself as a platform for influencers and musicians too. An OnlyFans blog post published 14th July encourages musicians to move “concerts to the digital space” to connect with fans and “recoup the income lost to those cancelled gigs”. Big name artists are all over it. Blac Chyna, The-Dream, Safaree Samuels, and Casanova were on the platform before Bey’s shout out. This month, Rico Nasty launched an account, reportedly to premiere the new video for her single iPhone. So did Cardi B, who’ll “share glimpses into her private life and address ongoing rumours”, but has ruled out sharing any nudes.
As OnlyFans becomes more and more mainstream, what happens to the sex workers largely responsible for the site’s popularity? Some fear it could have an impact on their NSFW content, following reports of suspended accounts “reaching fever point” during the site’s boom.
With sex work becoming increasingly influential in music, there’s likely to be a backlash whenever artists appropriate the aesthetic without supporting or publicly advocating the rights of sex workers. So taking inspiration from sex work, how can artists be better allies?
Speaking to The Face, East London Strippers Collective say, “[creators should] consider hiring a sex worker as a consultant on projects. It is not difficult to find sex workers who are creatives themselves, who are willing and able to provide insight and working knowledge of their own industry, which can help artists avoid the pitfalls of misappropriation.”
FKA twigs’ Instagram account has 1.8 million followers. The East London Strippers Collective used it to spotlight other sex worker-led organisations and advocate for their support. They also drew attention to the fight to establish employment rights, highlighting the case of Sonia Nowak, an ELSC performer. (With the help of the Strippers Union, in 2019 Nowak made history by achieving legal recognition as a worker.)
As the pandemic further exposes the struggles faced by sex workers, artists like twigs using their platform to speak out could contribute to a broader movement to tackle stigma. “When people’s jobs are criminalised and stigmatised they can’t access essential support when they need it most,” ELSC say. “Social stigma and silence are huge obstacles to overcome.”