By Sneha Singh
 Illustration by Magdalena Xochitl Burtnik Urueta

A pregnant OnlyFans star was recently in the news for planning to live-stream a birth for $12,000, and also offered to sell her breast milk. 39-year-old Carla Bellucci said that it was lot of money to refuse. It was certainly one of the most distasteful news stories that has surfaced on the internet, especially in a time when the pandemic has pushed the essential frontline women workers further down the economic ladder.

Biological determinism has always been a topic of grave concern and internalisation of such ideas have only undervalued women’s labour. The gender pay gap, which was already high, has only been aggravated during the pandemic. The widening socio-economic inequities have come to the fore in a form that is worse than ever. And while we think about dealing with this problem, websites like OnlyFans pose another major threat. Thousands of videos of women have been shared online where they speak about how they have made thousands of dollars just in a week.

OnlyFans talks about a safe way of selling sex and empowering women. But stop and think about it. Commercial sexual exploitation and the horrors of prostitution cannot be papered over using some sanitised language to describe it. It gets more troublesome when several women share that they would never make as much money in a full-time or a part-time job as they have made by posting nudes on OnlyFans in a week’s time.

This brings us back to the issue of low compensation and recognition received by the essential women workers. In a society where a woman’s job is already treated as inconsequential in certain areas, websites like OnlyFans are further undervaluing essential labour. If this trend continues, we will soon be living in a world with an absence of support systems like babysitters, daycare workers, house-helps, nurses, teachers, etc. But there will be no dearth of these micro celebrities providing pornographic content and earning apparently good money.

But can you blame them? OnlyFans is presenting sex work as a lucrative career option with the bonus of being your own boss. More money, more freedom – it certainly makes it sound so much better than the doldrums of other jobs like nursing or waitressing. This becomes central to understanding the gendered labour which is both essential and expendable.

As per a report by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, women working in sectors like hospitality, education, leisure, healthcare and retail have been let go at a higher rate compared to men, indicating that women’s labour is more expendable than a man’s. Today, when employment has become even more insecure and unequal, women from marginalised sections of the society are the worst hit.

Story of Sabrina Hopps, a 46-year-old housekeeping aide as shared by NBC news draws our attention to the real problem here. Sabrina Hopps works at a critical care facility in Washington, D.C. and her job is to clean rooms of residents exposed to COVID-19. An asthma patient, she has to be extremely cautious as she shares her small apartment with three generations of relatives. Her low income but essential job does not give her the option of social distancing at home. Her dedication to her job has been applauded and her story has been shared widely, but is that enough? There are many more Sabrinas whose stories garnered a lot of attention during this period. The funny thing is that such labour has always been essential, but before the pandemic it were concealed by society’s indifference.

But is it enough to call their jobs heroic as if choosing to go to work is a brave “move”. Celebrating their work is important, but calling them heroes in a way discounts the value of their labour and is a matter of concern. When we call someone a hero, we just assume that they will do their job without ever wanting to be fairly compensated. A hero does not need a pay check. They will serve the society, no matter what – and this is where the problem lies. Women engaged as domestic, social, healthcare and sanitation workers, have been on the frontline even though they face a paucity of incentives, job insecurity and lack of access to necessary facilities. But if a woman offers to go topless on a website, she ends up making a crazy amount of money.

When we focus on issues like exploitative working conditions, discrimination and harassment, don’t think that the women on OnlyFans do not go through any of this. The only difference is that in some cases they make better money, but at the cost of their safety and often suffering devastating physical, emotional and psychological abuse. 

OnlyFans is not just sex work, it’s pornography as well. Not only does it encourage men to view women as commodities, women are judged solely for the way they look and their sexuality. This becomes problematic as women end up obsessing about the way they look, undervaluing themselves and judging themselves only on the basis of how much they appeal to men.

Being treated as a commodity takes its toll. While websites like OnlyFans talk about making easy money, no one highlights the devastating psychological and emotional effects women suffer on being sold and bought by men. Women using these websites to earn money are empowered is the biggest myth. How it it empowering having someone use your body only for sexual gratification in exchange for some money ?

In the long run, and not taking into account the moral and ethical implications, we must consider the impact on society with women (especially younger ones) rushing to fortunes by choosing the “easy” lucrative methods to make money, leaving the less lucrative but essential jobs which offer no decent living. The jobs done by these essential workers, most of whom are working class and non-white women, are so underpaid and undervalued that they have become an invisible labour force. But this labour force is what keeps the world economy running.

Workers who provide the majority of social assistance, including child care and emergency services, are women. Occupations like nurses, flight attendants, personal care aides, teachers and many others allow the rest of the economy to function effectively. Also, the burden of childcare is not going to move away from women anytime soon, so if the role they play in keeping the economic engine running is not recognised, everything can come crumbling down.

If all these women leave behind the essential jobs to look for “easy” money, society will cease to exist. Recognising their contribution to society will not just help these women feel empowered, but will also encourage more women to take up these jobs, which in turn benefits the economy.

As per a Washington Post report, due to the pandemic-induced recession, 11.3 million jobs held by women vanished almost immediately as women are overrepresented in the retail, travel, restaurant and hospitality sectors. As economies begin to open, it is important that the policy makers take a look at the essential industries that are anchored by the female workforce. The old normal did not work for all, especially for working class women and women of colour. So, in the post-pandemic world, the decision makers must ensure that the new normal includes the essential women workers in their growth plan and fix what was wrong with the system.

Easy Money but a Toxic Environment – Inside the Life of a Former Professional Dominatrix

Interview by Sneha Singh

Whips, chains and torture aren’t all that takes to be a professional dominatrix. Ask anyone to describe a dominatrix and they will bring up an image of a leather-clad woman wearing red lipstick, whipping a man as he yelps submissively on all fours.

A stereotype forced into our minds by pop culture. When the show Bonding surfaced on Netflix, the inaccuracies and stigma surrounding the life of a dominatrix that was portrayed on the show received a lot of flak. A 24-year-old former dominatrix based in Chicago, Jenny (name changed), shares similar thoughts about the show.

In a candid interview, Jenny provides some interesting insight into her life behind the scenes, the world of professional domination. “Having been there myself, the storyline of the show is nothing how it is in the real world. It is way more complex and shows nothing about the true dominatrix experience. The technical aspects of the job, portrayal of the doms and the clients aren’t realistic at all”, she points out.

Considering domination as a profession was initially an experiment for Jenny. “I was living in Chicago last year and juggling between two different jobs. Chicago is a costly city. Even after spending over 30 hours a week on each of the jobs, I was still struggling to make enough money to support my expenses.”

“The idea of being a dominatrix always fascinated me. Being in control and experiencing that women don’t have to be confined by what people expect them to be was something that attracted me towards it. I wasn’t in a relationship at that point and I felt that it was the right time to try it out. I contacted a number, went for the interview and this is how it all started.”

Describing the dungeon, she says, “This business place looked like any other building in Chicago. There was one man running the whole place and a headmistress who was in charge of all the dominatrixes. There were rules you had to follow. You were not allowed any outcalls and you would have designated spots where you could meet your clients. You weren’t allowed to go to a client’s house ever and you go under a stage name there. My stage name was Mistress Blair.”

A Stage Name and Quick Bucks

“First day when I went for my orientation, I remember being very nervous. I was assigned a client and the demand he had made me a bit uncomfortable. But he had paid 200$ for the session and I made a 100$ from it. This was the quickest 100$ I had ever made. And this can be a good as well as a bad thing. You get so easily sucked into this because all you see is easy money.”

“We worked in shifts but only made money when we booked a session. The manager would keep track of all the sessions. Whatever the client would pay, half of it would go to the business place and the rest of the amount was given to the dom. If the client demands any special service, that’s an additional charge. I would usually make 150$ per session which was great for me.”

“I was dealing with a lot of family troubles at that point, trying really hard to earn some money, always working two jobs but still not making enough. So, when I started working as a dom, I realised I should continue doing this. It was all very interesting in the beginning; being the dominant one, exploring fetishes, making good money but in no time, it started becoming really toxic.”

Easy money, toxic environment

Talking about the most important thing about being a professional dominatrix, she says, “The most important thing to remember is that it is all a fantasy. You have a stage name and you are very different from the personal reality. Being overwhelmed by it, you could lose your personal identity and might end up intermixing your personal and professional lives. This is the only regret I have. I let myself get sucked into it to a point that I felt my identities as Jenny and Mistress Blair have been swapped.”

Operating as an independent dominatrix also crossed her mind at one point. “So, there are two ways of doing this. You work through these business setups or operate independently. A lot of dominatrix who work independently communicate more freely and are free to make a lot of their own choices whereas when you are operating through some business centre, you have a schedule and you need to report as per your shifts. At one point, I did think about working independently, but it’s too logistical.”

When asked about the most weird kinks and fetishes her clients have had, Jenny shares, “Most of my clients were married men in their 30s. Each one would be so different from the others. One of the most weird ones I got was a man with a Woody Allen fetish (Allen is married to the adopted daughter of his former partner). The man wanted me to enact a scene similar with him and I was horrified.”

The Race Play

“Ethnicity is also a huge selling point in this world. I was one of the Asian mistresses there. Racial fetishism is quite marketable and men have all sorts of weird demands surrounding it. Racial slurs was among it. For example, there was a client from Africa who wanted to be referred with the N word. This was something that made me really uncomfortable. As doms, we were allowed to list down a number of things that we are not comfortable doing. So, I told my manager that I can’t do any racial slurs.”

Jenny explored this secret world for about eight months. “I was fired from the job during the pandemic just because I requested for a leave. I was dealing with some issues in my personal life and I wanted a break. So, I was fired. The manager’s words were, ‘I don’t need you, You need me’. This is how toxic that environment is.”

“After leaving this job, I also tried sugar babying for some time through seekingarrangements.com. This was something I regret doing. I ended up losing all my independence and had to start therapy immediately. I am still processing everything.”

The surge in OnlyFans pages during pandemic

“I always used to joke that even if everything around us collapses, one thing that would still make money is sex. Pandemic has had a very huge impact on almost everyone’s lives. There are single mothers, women who need to support their families who lost their jobs during the pandemic and OnlyFans gave them that window of opportunity to make money from the comfort of their homes.”

“I did think about creating a profile on OnlyFans but I got a bit lazy to keep up with it. You have to be quite active on these platforms. I have been to fetish parties and I have been taken by surprise by the kind of fetishes I have come across. There is a website where men pay women to eat because they like large women. This is all too weird”, she adds.

“There are women who have earlier worked at the strip clubs and the pandemic hit their business hard. These women already know the rules and know how to handle the clientèle. OnlyFans and TikTok has given them a platform to earn from a much safer environment. Pornhub gave free premium membership to its users because they knew they will get the views anyway”, Jenny says.

Sex sells but you do have to pay a price

“But, it’s all not that safe”, Jenny points out. “You do leave a digital footprint behind. The place where I worked as dom had my pictures up on their website. Although they did not have my face, but they had my tattoo, which is quite distinctive. I was really worried about that.”

Is it really empowering women?

“I have different types of responses coming from the women I have worked with. While there are some who do feel empowered, in control of their body. There are also others who had a tough time dealing with the repercussions. I met a 19-year old girl who told me that she hated herself for the way her body was objectified. You need mental support and if you have nobody to share what you are going through, it gets even more toxic”, she shares.

After her experiences in the secret world and living a life with two identities, Jenny is happy that she is now out of  it. She is attending a vet school now and wants to do a specialisation in surgery. “Although I still have a lot of things to process and I am seeking therapy for it but things are going well for me now”, she says.

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