I originally found it difficult to understand why so many people online declare sex work to be “empowering.” On Twitter this is standard theory, and “Sex Work is Empowering” could easily be listed after “Science is Real” on those rapidly proliferating yard signs. As with many members of the broader community of squares, I found it hard to comprehend how precisely a job that generally requires you to have sex with large numbers of strange and frequently disgusting men, any of whom might suddenly injure or kill you, counts as “empowering.” But I realized that I was missing a key feature of this curious mindset and a crucial dimension of the ever-evolving category of sex work.
I had not realized that sex work to most cultural commentators nowadays means having an account on OnlyFans. The experiences of streetwalkers are rarely parsed and discussed; you can peruse the mind-numbing discussion of these issues on sites like Jezebel and Vice to get a sense of the current terrain. For those of you who have not heard and remain in a blissful state of pre-technological ignorance, OnlyFans is essentially the Uber of porn. It allows entrepreneurial young women (and men) to post pictures and videos of themselves online, usually pornographic in nature. Subscribers pay a monthly fee to access this content.
Sex work has thus, in many people’s minds, curiously divorced itself from the life of the body and entered the pseudo-life of digital images. Nude pictures and videos are substitutes for physical intimacy in the simulation that is rapidly overriding the real world. They become part of the process described by Christopher Lasch as “the cultivation of winning images” – the characteristic way to sell yourself and get ahead in the West. Validation of one’s image or “psychic survival” far outpaces ethical cultivation or even physical survival as a social imperative. Writing for Athwart, Ahmed al-Dakhil referred to this as the “Tik Tok to OnlyFans exploitation conveyor belt”—a matrix of cultural influences by which younger people, primarily girls, are goaded into marketing self-made porn online. The recent scandal over Pornhub’s toleration of pornographic videos featuring underrage girls on its platform provides a particularly clear illustration of this conveyor belt in operation.
Individualism, Atomistic and Organic
Before proceeding further with this analysis, I should probably clarify what I mean by the kind of person who engages in this form of sex work discourse. I do not mean people on the left in general, and I am actually referring to quite a lot of people on the right. I mean, specifically, people who adhere to the notion of atomistic individualism, the idea that we are free-range consumers, by nature detached and independent from any greater communal, familial, intellectual, or spiritual whole. One could perhaps call this “neoliberalism,” but the term is perhaps overused and too broad. At any rate, this perspective views the individual as a consumer only, a rational free-agent navigating an ever-expanding market.
While individualism is not a bad thing, the individualism I support is organic and not atomistic. Organic individualism recognizes that social, natural, and spiritual sources nourish and form personality. One learns from tradition and nature, is nurtured by a greater matrix of influences, and adds one’s own style to it. In the arts, learning from past masters is the key to developing an individual point of view and aesthetic. The musician, Wynton Marsalis, described something similar recently when discussing the nature of jazz. He noted that it harmonizes the individual and the collective. By improvising, you’re expressing your individuality, while by paying attention to what the other musicians are doing, you swing—you look out for the common good. Jazz is deeply rooted in tradition. It both loves and competes with its canon of greats.
The atomizing form of individualism, by contrast, asserts that you are “self-raised by [your] own quickening power,” in the words of Milton’s Satan. It denies any organic dependency on nature, on the divine, on any tradition, on family, or on anyone else. It is like trying to play the trumpet without having heard anyone else do it—and without loving any recordings of anyone doing it either. This is a mistake: the individual is not a branch growing naturally from a tree but a particle floating in the whirling chaos of space.
Now, if we take this atomizing worldview, and we apply it fully to human relationships, we find that it makes them completely transactional—just like Karl Marx famously said it would. It is capitalism treated not as an instrument for attaining certain goals but as a system of values in and of itself. Rather than using markets as beneficial tools in certain areas, it makes the market the master metaphor for all of human life. It is capitalism-as-religion, essentially. It grows from acknowledging how effective markets are for certain aims, assuming the same beneficence will accrue in all areas of life by making all of those areas part of an omni-market. Rather than being an utter error in and of itself, it grows from recognizing a relative truth and absolutizing it.
We can call this hyper-capitalism. To craft a simile, a hyper-capitalist system is like a human body in which the biceps are extremely developed, while all the other muscles remain unused. It is a disproportionate physique. From this hyper-capitalist standpoint, marriage or a committed relationship is strictly for suckers. It is potentially all “give” with no clear requirement for “take.”
Sex work simplifies things considerably. You will get a return. The hyper-capitalist finds sex work empowering because the hyper-capitalist can only conceive of power in terms of currency transactions. Since sex work necessarily generates income, it is therefore empowering. Since marrying someone does not necessarily generate any income, it is probably patriarchal residue. What this restricted form of liberal individualism cannot comprehend is simply the idea of a pure gift. The expectation of reward, of validation by transaction, is absolutely fundamental to the hyper-capitalist worldview. Hence, it does not understand sacrifice—whether for a cause, a faith, a family, or anything else—since sacrifice is always a gift. Hyper-capitalism believes, first and last, in a number on a bank account app on its iPhone.
The Realm of the Gift
I have been turning over some of these ideas after reading an essay a friend recommended by Wendell Berry entitled “Feminism, the Body, and the Machine.” I suddenly realized, as I sat down to write this essay, that Berry’s discussion of hyper-capitalist notions of marriage are applicable to the discourse surrounding sex work as well. Berry writes, “Marriage has now taken the form of divorce: a prolonged and impassioned negotiation as to how things shall be divided.” This “prolonged and impassioned negotiation” regarding the division of spoils is now the primary mode of online discourse regarding human relationships. Sex work falls into this discourse more naturally and easily than any other topic. It makes the division of spoils curiously cleaner and definable. On OnlyFans, you can pay to see specific sex acts or even for a simulation of personal concern—a friend for rent. You can cut off each aspect of intimacy, tag it with a price, and consume it. The value of each transaction is clear and monetary. Again, Berry writes: “They assume—and this is the orthodox assumption of the industrial economy—that the only help worth giving is not given at all, but sold. Love, friendship, neighborliness, compassion, duty—what are they? We are realists. We will be most happy to receive your check.”
For one partner in a marriage to pay off all the debts he or she owes to the other is impossible. Likewise, for a child to pay their debts to a parent is impossible, just as, in a strange sense, it is probably impossible for parents to pay their debts to their children. The obligations we owe to one another in these areas are nebulous and not susceptible to quantification. Paraphrasing the religious scholar Huston Smith’s dedication to his parents at the beginning of The World’s Religions, such debts are as wide as the sky. Mutual self-giving is the essence of these relationships. We exist, here, in the realm of the gift, which is also the realm of love.
But the hyper-capitalist spurns this realm. He is necessarily an obsessive quantifier. Since the hyper-capitalist thinks he exists as an atom, detached from all other individuals and seeking his own self-interested aims, he needs to keep track of his progress by rigorously assessing his gains in numerical terms (i.e., in money). The ledger is essential. Sex work, of course, makes this assessment much easier. Bringing a ledger into a marriage or into any relationship would, of course, ruin it. We cannot constantly tabulate each other’s faults and bright points without eventually hating each other. But, by predicating the ledger, making it the absolute standard of life, one forestalls any such complaints.
The ethic of consumption is the only ethic of hyper-capitalism, as far as I can tell, and it hardly qualifies as an ethic. It insists that we express our selfhood through what we consume rather than through what we create, and the act of self-creation and the act of consumption somehow become the same thing. Its most prominent mythical illustrations are the vampire sucking blood and the zombie eating brains (aristocratic consumption and mass consumption, respectively, to cite the Eastern Orthodox icon carver and Youtuber, Jonathan Pageau). While I do not think sex workers should be subject to punitive restrictions, the attempt to present sex work as “empowering” seems like another dismal chapter in hyper-capitalism’s relentless self-propaganda, its insistence on cold hard cash as the only standard. It equates personal, social, and even spiritual power as purchase power alone and disguises the sad, lonely consumption of detached aspects of intimacy as enlivening and fulfilling for the consumer and consumed alike. It encourages people to believe that their quest to obtain power over their own lives and destinies is primarily a matter of widening the range of consumption. More insidiously, it makes this idea so pervasive that it becomes impossible to see beyond it, to conceive of power in non-capitalistic terms.
The Domination of “It”
Another issue worth touching on is the destruction of the life of the body—a key feature of Wendell Berry’s essay. The popularity of OnlyFans and its digitized form of sex work removes sexuality from the realm of the body. Granted, it reduces the physical dangers inherent in prostitution, which is preferable, but its effects on consciousness are also worrying. I reckon that many more men would be likely to subscribe to OnlyFans than would try to pay for sex on the street. This has the effect of transitioning a considerable amount of sexual life into a purely onanistic sphere governed by the logic of capital. One becomes a consumer of images rather than a physical being moving in a physical world. Sexuality becomes a matter of a mind hungry for images rather than a body searching for touch.
Jewish thinkers like Martin Buber and Emmanuel Levinas long ago noted the critically important role of the face-to-face encounter in how we experience others and how we experience our own being. Touch is obviously involved in this as well, reminding us that the other’s presence is not virtual. As face-to-face encounters become less frequent, thanks to the pandemic, and more of life is mediated by images, we see how this further inculcates a neoliberal mindset of absolute consumption.
By losing their physical presence and appearing only as an image on a screen, people become more readily consumable. In Buber’s terms, we experience them as an “it” rather than a “Thou.” He also notes that the “I” that experiences the other as “it” is not the same as the “I” that experiences “Thou.” We can only use and experience “it,” Buber writes, but we cannot really relate to it. He warns: “We only need to fill each moment with experiencing and using, and it ceases to burn. . . He who lives with It alone is not a man.” This illustrates how digitizing and de-physicalizing sexuality transforms human consciousness. Even beyond sexuality, we are being rigorously trained to see the other as an object of consumption, existing only to be used and experienced. Eventually, we may find ourselves completely lost in a world that seems to only contain objects of consumption. Perhaps some of us already exist in such a world.
Yet there are limits to how hyper-capitalism can quantify and commodify the self. Theoretically, unfettered and total hyper-capitalism would lead to the total exploitation of nearly everyone—a Sadean nightmare universe. But we can see that other systems of values still conflict with it and even push back against it. The Pornhub scandal, earlier mentioned, is a clear case in point. Thanks to other value systems, society won’t actually tolerate the sexual exploitation of minors beyond a certain point. When pressure actually mounted, Visa and Mastercard both decided to prevent their credit cards from being used on Pornhub. In response, Pornhub stated it would do a better job vetting its videos to eliminate child pornography. Only time will tell if this statement amounts to anything. But, if nothing else, the entire debacle shows that value systems outside hyper-capitalism still counter it. The point at which hyper-capitalism actually becomes the sole system of value might actually prove to be the point at which it self-destructs.
I am only making these points because I can see the quantification and transactionalization of human relationships proceeding apace. In Japan, you can pay another human being to make eye contact with you or to cuddle for a few minutes and the United States is fast catching up to these mores. Currently, half of single adults are looking for neither a relationship nor casual sex. They are resigned to the neoliberal void, the empty consumerist space in which Amazon packages perpetually arrive at the doorstep, while the exchange of less tangible gifts from soul-to-soul becomes impossible to sustain. The tendency to quantify intimacy betokens a deep loneliness at the core of technologically advanced societies. And it seems that the ongoing valorization of sex work as empowering is, essentially, a defense against the realization of this loneliness. It is also delusional in its insistence that exploitation will not creep into sex work, that it can remain a series of pure feats of perpetual empowerment.
Of course, it is easy to combat this system of consumption and exploitation. You start by giving a gift.
Sam Buntz is a writer based in Chicago. He is a graduate of Harvard Divinity School and Dartmouth College, and his work has appeared in The Washington Monthly, The New English Review, The Federalist, Fare Forward, Pop Matters, and The Symbolic World. You can find more of his writing at his blog The Muted Trumpet. He invites you to follow him on Twitter.