‘The more queer women in porn, the better’: Is OnlyFans empowering or objectifying women?

Megan Barton Hanson in front of neon lights

OnlyFans is giving queer women in sex work “control”, says Megan Barton-Hanson – but the full picture isn’t exactly black and white.

Frequently, conversations around sex work frame the industry and its workers in binary oppositions: empowering/oppressive, sex positive/sex negative, feminist/anti-feminist, and so on. It does not often take into account that sex work, as a lived experience, is a tangled enmeshment of personal and cultural values, shaped by time, place and experience. 

Megan Barton-Hanson is one of the UK’s most well-known sex worker advocates. She worked as a stripper before going on ITV’s Love Island, and has since found huge success on OnlyFans. She thinks the site, where creators sell content directly to viewers, is a game-changer for women in sex work.

“For years men have made money from sexualising women,” Barton-Hanson tells PinkNews, ahead of International Women’s Day. “Now it [OnlyFans] gives the creators complete control, to set their own boundaries, set their own prices whilst keeping all the profits.” 

OnlyFans “gives the creators complete control” Barton-Hanson tells PinkNews (Megan Barton-Hanson on Instagram/Steve Read)

Barton-Hanson thinks sites like OnlyFans mean “we are moving in such a positive direction”.

“[They have] allowed models and porn actors a platform to cut out the middle-man, the photographers, directors and greedy porn companies taking a large commission and pressuring new models/actors beyond their boundaries,” she says.

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“It’s a much safer and lucrative workplace for sex workers now.”

While this is no doubt true for many, there are concerns that men are also using the platform to profiteer from women’s bodies – for example, alleged sex trafficker Andrew Tate has reportedly been accused of forcing victims to perform for OnlyFans content. The site also face criticism in 2021 for announcing a (since-reversed) ban on sexually explicit content, which would have ousted the adult creators who’ve made the site millions.

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All of this, of course, sits within the fact we ultimately live under a patriarchal milieu where sex workers face heightened stigma, exploitation and risks of violence.  

Dr Olivia Snow, a dominatrix and research fellow at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), is “wary” about categorising sex work within solely an empowerment narrative.

In her opinion, “at the end of the day, it’s still labour to survive under capitalism”.

Dr Olivia Snow
Dr Olivia Snow is a dominatrix who works as a research fellow at UCLA (Olivia Snow)

“I don’t think sex work is any more empowering than any other job, on a systemic level,” says Snow, whose research focuses on sex work/ers, labour rights, tech, and policy.

She believes stigma is still a huge issue, noting that she wouldn’t have “any issue whatsoever” with doing sex work herself “were it not for such widespread stigma that is just so dehumanising”.

However, Snow, who is bisexual, believes “it can be really empowering for consumers, say, who don’t see representations of themselves in mainstream media, to finally see queer joy, queer sex, kinky sex, things like that”.

Queer sex content is certainly on the rise. ‘Lesbian’ was Pornhub’s most-watched category of 2022, up from second most-watched in 2021.

While historically, most lesbian porn has been made for a male gaze, the rise of creator-led content such as that on OnlyFans seems to be shifting that. Pornhub’s Year in Review found that lesbian porn was viewed more by women (69 per cent) than by men, suggesting that a large number of straight women are enjoying it too.

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In Snow’s experience, “most of the women [she knows] in the sex industry are queer”, and it is “more unusual to be cis-het in the sex industry”. 

But Barton-Hanson, who is bisexual, believes that most of these women are “objectified” by filmmakers, certainly in mainstream porn.

“It’s all made for the male gaze, never focusing on the women’s pleasure,” she says.

Barton-Hanson thinks this is damaging for women “questioning [their] sexuality and looking to porn for an idea of what lesbian sex is like”.

That’s why she thinks it’s a “good thing” that “actors are uploading their own videos” with their real-life partners.

With so much lesbian porn not offering “a healthy or realistic representation [of queer women]… the more genuine couples or queer women in porn the better”, she adds.

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