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Lithium Sexual empowerment or reckless endangerment?

Mar. 18, 2021
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Once, when I was sitting around with some friends, we were on the subject of how irredeemable men are. To give an example of one of my negative experiences with men, I sifted through some of my memories: should I share the time I was 16 and was followed by a screaming shirtless man? Or the time a man grabbed me while I was walking down the street, and I thought I was being kidnapped? Or maybe the countless times a Lyft driver has missed a left turn somewhere and made untoward comments? I decided to go with being followed as a 16-year-old, exaggerating the oafish appearance of the man while downplaying the intense panic I had felt when it was happening. I also chose to omit the part where I had to actually call the police, instead opting to self-effacingly refer to the story as yet another example of the gendered tribulations women experience throughout our lives. 

As I was speaking, I could tell my other friends were being reminded of their own experiences, and were also deciding which one—with the reduction of trauma and exaggeration of details—they were going to share. One of them shared the time a man tried to follow her into her apartment building, another the time her boyfriend left her crying outside in the middle of the night, in a neighborhood she’d never been to before. Both of these stories were told to me in a jocular tone, indicating that the stories, despite having left a lasting impact on my friends’ psyches, are now perfect storytelling fodder. It’s as if to cope with the impact of these interactions, women have neatly extracted the fear and panic of the events and meticulously filed them into a repository of stories that will only emerge as joking references and party anecdotes. 

Stripping these stories of their more frightening qualities is possible because, so far, none of them have concluded in any brutal physical trauma, like torture or assault. While these experiences were scary, the danger never reached its true potential—instead merely leaving mental scars and emboldening us to take future risks for granted, confident in our capacity to avoid physical danger and endure future uncomfortable encounters with men. 

In fact, these scarring memories even become tolerable once we repackage them into “a story, something condensed and communicable. Even funny,” as Alice, Emma Cline’s protagonist in her short story, “Los Angeles,” puts it. 

In the story, Alice is selling her worn underwear to afford acting classes. During one of her transactions, the man tells her to get in his car and she gets in, “hesitat[ing,] but not as long as she should have… [after all, w]ho would try to kidnap someone at 4 PM? In a busy parking lot? In the midst of all this unyielding sunshine?” As the man leers at her in a lurid blend of disgust and sexual attraction, Alice imagines telling Ola, her coworker, this story later, deciding which details to exaggerate (make him uglier, creepier, maybe?) and which details to omit, namely the fact that he’s locked her in his car. 

Even if Alice is sure she won’t be kidnapped by this man, she remains captive to a familiar kind of logic: women are safe because there are witnesses, because our past experiences have resulted in our relative safety, or because “that kind of stuff just doesn’t happen to me”—until it does.

The story ends with Alice jiggling the handle frantically as the man tells her to stop, that she’s only making it worse. The reader doesn’t know if Alice has been kidnapped, or if the man’s car is just really old and his handles routinely lock. Any fate could await Alice, a fact emphasized by the myriad references Alice makes to past instances when a man acted predatory toward her. She and Ola share these stories as a way to signal the lived experiences of women, distilling these terrifying experiences into humorous anecdotes. 

Because Alice had already endured so much creepy treatment, she took it for granted that any future risks she ran—like selling her underwear to strangers on the internet, for example—would probably end similarly, with a general sense of discomfort and new material for her arsenal of personal legends. Though Alice and her particular story are fictitious, the panicked feelings and repackaged trauma central to the story are applicable to most women. Nearly every woman has experienced lewd catcalling or some sort of physical assault, and nearly every woman has emotionally sanitized and hyperbolically decorated these terrifying experiences to make them perfect for retelling. 

Perhaps it’s this propensity for sharing traumatic instances in a more palatable manner that gives us the impression that similar situations down the line will have a minimized risk. If we can reduce these experiences into conversational material, then why not expose yourself to possible harm by starting an OnlyFans, or selling worn underwear, or doing sex work? There might be some discomfort, but ultimately it’ll make for a great story later. 

The popularity of OnlyFans and the avid encouragement for women to participate in sex work have long mystified me. It has always been my presumption that feminists should criticize any form of commodification of women; sex work, therefore, should be routinely criticized by feminists as an unfortunate necessity under capitalism. It’s an unfortunate reality for LGBT youth and poor women who are denied access to necessary resources or other lucrative options, but not something we should accept as an empowering act or an example of a woman exercising her bodily autonomy. If a sex worker was able to have all her needs met and had unobstructed access to vital resources, it’s highly unlikely she would continue to subject herself to the sexual desires of men. 

This is not an indictment of sex workers, but more the capitalist structure that necessitates the commodification of their bodies so they can survive. Even Marx, the father of anti-capitalist thought, was against sex work, having stated that the abolition of prostitution would be imperative to dismantling capitalism. Considering that sex work is only necessary because capitalism has left no other options for so many women, it’s not hard to see how he arrived at that conclusion. Resources that could help women avoid sex work (like mental health services, healthcare, and shelter) have been privatized and made inaccessible. Despite this reality, activists are choosing advocate for the destigmatization and decriminalization of sex work to protect sex workers’ safety, when they should be fighting for a society in which sex workers’ needs are met and no one has to sell sexual services in order to survive. 

But now there are women eagerly creating OnlyFans, or selling feet pics or nudes to strangers on the internet, despite this sex work being unnecessary for their survival. The potential dangers associated with these behaviors (men becoming stalkers, one’s pictures being leaked, etc.) are ignored, and anyone who does acknowledge them is dismissed as a sex-negative prude who doesn’t properly understand the dangers associated with sex work. There’s virtually no nuance in the discourse: you’re either a sex-positive feminist who supports sex work or you’re a conservative shaming women’s choices. 

With this kind of support from feminists, and the glamorization of online sex work per Beyonce’s OnlyFans reference in Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage Remix” or Kat Hernandez’s cam work in Euphoria, it’s no wonder why women are participating in sex work just for the fun of it. They want to look back and say they were a part of this new sexual revolution, that they took ownership of their bodies by profiting off their sexualities. 

Even celebrities like Bella Thorne and Tyler Posey have made their own OnlyFans accounts. As two fairly big celebrities, it’s unlikely that either of them needed to resort to selling pictures of themselves on the internet as a way of sustaining themselves—they simply wanted to capitalize on the current trend and their own fame. They felt compelled to be a part of the story, to have their own stake in the sexually empowering narrative that surrounds sex work.  

Despite both of them having made an account around the same time, they enjoyed very different experiences. There was a flurry of excitement in response to Posey’s OnlyFans, whereas Thorne was met with widespread scorn and recrimination—largely thanks to the sentiment that she was sabotaging other creators who needed the money more. This disapproval only intensified when she scammed various men out of their money, prompting OnlyFans to limit the amount of money a subscriber can send to a creator. Thorne subsequently deactivated her account and posted an obligatory Twitter thread apology, citing her desire to “normalize” OnlyFans as her reason for even starting an account in the first place. 

Obviously, the exorbitant amount of money she was charging men for her pictures is enough to discredit her reasoning. However, the vitriolic reaction to Thorne was, while understandable, misplaced. Her harsh critics should have redirected their outrage toward OnlyFans as a corporation, which is ultimately responsible for implementing these harsh regulations. By controlling how much money its creators can obtain from their content, as well as how much the company will profit off these creators, OnlyFans has become a legal, digitized pimp. 

Because OnlyFans creators are portrayed as entrepreneurs taking control of their own image and brand, the role that the platform itself plays is often obscured and dismissed, especially since the company prefers to hide behind the feminist, sex-positive glow emanating from the sex workers that have flocked to the site. Corporate exploitation is just one of the negative side effects of sex work that is obfuscated by the sexually empowering, girlboss narrative surrounding this practice. A few other potential dangers include stalkers, incessant harassment, breaches of privacy, and, if one does in-person sex work, even worse things—such as sex trafficking—could occur. 

If we really want to create a world with reduced rates of rape and murder, the solution does not lie in the decriminalization or destigmatization of sex work. Instead, it can be found in advocating for a society where women have access to vital resources, rendering the commodification of their bodies unnecessary. This is more sexually empowering than encouraging women to “choose” to sell their sexuality, as it ensures that sex is a self-interested and non-transactional act, rather than something someone must do in order to make rent. 

Maybe in this future society, women will truly be able to weigh the risks of their encounters, or be granted access to professionals who can help them process their gendered trauma. Perhaps then these horrific events will no longer be reduced to breezy anecdotes shared at parties. 

Illustration by Eutalia de La Paz.