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Burlesque Gone Digital

Does burlesque become digital sex work on OnlyFans? A conversation made more relevant since the platform just tried banning sexually explicit content By Emily Latimer
  • Julia Matias / Photo courtesy of Matias

Ferrera Rosé knew it was only a matter of time before OnlyFans got popular. The digital creator and freestyle dancer has been on the platform since September 2018, where she posts go-go sets, stripteases and twerking, plus more explicit content. “Because I was an online sex worker and I always use Twitter, I was telling people it’s going to blow up,” she says. And sure enough, it did.

You may have heard about OnlyFans – a subscription-based platform where creators earn money from fans who subscribe to see their original content – at the beginning of the pandemic. It’s commonly used by sex workers, the most successful content creators being porn stars, models and celebrities with large social media followings. Timothy Stokely, the site’s founder, says OnlyFans hits the sweet spot between influencer culture and webcamming. 

“It was like an explicit version of your Instagram,” says Rosé. 

Founded in 2016 and based in Britain, OnlyFans has seen an increase in popularity since the pandemic. The New York Times reported that as of May 2021, OnlyFans had more than 120 million subscribers, a number that sat at 17 million in December 2019. In 2020 alone, the company grew by 553 per cent.

OnlyFans now hosts work from creators of all types – including burlesque dancers. Coronavirus-related industry shutdowns, mass layoffs and shuttered performance venues meant some artists had to look for ways to monetize their skills online. 

For some creators, OnlyFans allows them to survive financially, and for others, it compensates for the few spaces available to actually share their artistry. Anti-nudity policies on platforms like Instagram, Tumblr and more prevent explicit content that OnlyFans allows, putting it at the centre of the exodus from the stage to online. And some burlesque dancers already saw a soft boundary between burlesque and sex work, so the jump was not a radical one. 

For this article, I spoke with burlesque dancers and sex workers about how the dance form fits into OnlyFans. Opinions differed about whether posting burlesque content on the platform is considered sex work. Some creators say if you’re posting on the platform, even as a burlesque dancer, you’re a sex worker – point-blank, period. Others disagree. Either way, the content will likely be labelled by the platform as sex work – a profession that many believe still needs to be destigmatized. 

“There was this attitude that anyone can do [burlesque] and has something different that they can bring to the table.” - Rhapsody Blue 

Rhapsody Blue is an entertainer and burlesque veteran who brought her talents to OnlyFans in 2018, long before the pandemic. She got involved in the burlesque scene back in 2009 – a very DIY, punk rock aesthetic, with performers donning electrical tape Xs on their nipples instead of pasties. 

“I loved the vibe, I loved the bodies, I loved the diversity,” she says. “There was this attitude that anyone can do it and everyone has something different that they can bring to the table.” For about six years, she performed in a weekly burlesque show in Ottawa. 

She has also danced in strip clubs. “Now, obviously, these are very transferable skill sets. But they are not precisely the same,” she says of burlesque and stripping, the latter of which is more interactive and sales-intensive. “And it was my work as a stripper that led me to launch my OnlyFans.”

Blue landed on OnlyFans because there was nowhere else for her art. “If you were to subscribe to my OnlyFans and scroll all the way back to the beginning, you would see a post saying, ‘I’m here because I’ve made this beautiful art and there’s nowhere that it is allowed to be,’ ” she says. 

She has also brought her burlesque aesthetic to all of her content. “Which is not to say that everything looks vintage, but rather there is a real dedication to creativity; the music, angles, lighting and overall message is cohesive,” she says. “One of my popular videos right now is just me hula hooping, except the camera is on the floor looking up. As you can imagine, there’s a lot of butt cheeks squishing and hip swaying and whatnot,” she says. 

Although OnlyFans spiked in popularity during the pandemic, platforms like it have been developing for longer. Teela Sanders is a criminology professor at the University of Leicester who studies how digital technologies have affected the sex industry. She says that pre-COVID, there was a steady trickle of online spaces developing for sexual consumption – a trend that she attributes to more than a decade of webcamming. 

“These are spaces of safety, generally, where there is no physical contact and where providers and creators have much more control over their products that they sell,” she says. 

Since the coronavirus hit, she says that even people who don’t identify as sex workers showed up online: “Those who were forced out of regular jobs, particularly those in the gig economy or those where there were no government protections through social [assistance] whilst whole industries were ordered to close.”

Global News also reported that although sex workers could have been eligible for the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), a lot of them didn’t (and still don’t) feel comfortable disclosing their jobs to the federal government since most parts of sex work are criminalized under Bill C-36.  

 

Knox Harter is one of those people whose industry was closed. She’s a professional dancer and burlesque artist in Toronto and signed up for OnlyFans in January 2020 in an effort to focus on her art and be more independent, but she didn’t touch it right away. When the pandemic hit in March 2020 and performances were cancelled, Harter, feeling burnt-out anyway, decided to take a vacation. April brought with it the realization that the pandemic would last a while, and Harter looked for ways to make money from home and pull herself out of survival mode. “I did start seriously thinking about how I wanted my work to make money as the future of CERB, CRB and any other financial support was – and still is – so uncertain for live performance artists and arts workers,” she says. 

Luckily, she had access to a Twitter DM group of burlesque artists who also did sex work: “They were instrumental in helping me navigate the platform, set and enforce boundaries with myself as well as with fans who subscribed.”

After playing around with stripteases and adapting her performances to online, Harter liked how uncensored and sexually suggestive she could be on OnlyFans compared to other social platforms. Plus, she was actually making some money off her content, unlike on Instagram. 

Her move to OnlyFans has also informed her ideas about sex work. Before, she danced onstage and didn’t consider herself a sex worker. “Honestly, I still struggle with the label as I don’t work strip clubs, escort or do porn. I just make naked/lewd art. My work is much safer and arguably less stigmatized as I can hide under the guise of ‘art,’ which puts me in a position of privilege,” says Harter.

“They’re both sexy. They’re both dance forms. They’re both stripping.” - Astrid Luxe 

A sticky, contentious topic is how sex work and burlesque are different, or rather, the same, with many dancers hesitant to draw a line between the two. The history of burlesque is closely tied to the history of sex work and sexual revolutions, with the golden age of burlesque of the early 1900s characterized by theatrical striptease and bawdy cabaret entertainment. 

Burlesque parodied established forms of entertainment, like opera and Shakespearean drama, and included sexually suggestive dialogue, punny humour and, of course, revealing clothing and stripteases. 

The exact origins of burlesque are contested by researchers, but some trace it all the way back to ancient Greece. “Burlesque was historically a farcical pantomime for adults,” says Julia Matias, a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto who is researching burlesque. 

 

“Something I personally love about burlesque is that it’s way more about charisma and making things your own onstage than it is about codified technique or virtuosity,” says Matias, who also performs burlesque by the stage name Força. “The idea that nothing has to be perfect in burlesque and, in fact, kind of nothing should be, it’s really exciting,” says Matias, who doesn’t consider neo-burlesque performance onstage to be sex work. 

“I guess the second you cross into porn or strip club stripping, it is sex work,” she says. One difference is the respective goals of each performance. “As a burlesque performer, even if I do a really sexy act that involves a lot of strip club inspiration, you don’t actually have to turn anyone on, and you would still be successful as long as you’re entertaining.”

Because burlesque acts tend to feature weird, funny or absurd movements in the overall goal of humour, if no one is attracted to what you’re doing onstage, it doesn’t matter. “Whereas in sex work, to a degree, that’s the primary goal.” Also, the money thing. “We make very little money,” Matias says of neo-burlesque stage performers. 

Astrid Luxe, a performer who has three active performance personas depending on the gig and has worked as a sex worker and burlesque dancer for years, says the difference between stripping and burlesque is certainly a grey area, that they are two sides of the same coin: “They’re both sexy. They’re both dance forms. They’re both stripping. … Sometimes the ‘need’ of the viewer is different.” 

In her experience, a burlesque show usually takes place in a performance venue or a Queer bar. It’s often silly and sexy, and then she’ll spend the night dancing, having a few drinks and hanging with friends. But ultimately, she adds, “Oftentimes the only difference between a burlesque dancer and a stripper is, you don’t ask the stripper what the difference is between stripping and burlesque.”

Harter offers another side of the conversation: when “classy stripping” isn’t considered sex work. The attitude behind this kind of narrative is called whorephobia, Harter explains. “It removes burlesque from its history in sex work and can invalidate (or downright insult) the members of the community who are working sex workers outside of the art form.” 

“Even if you’re doing something light, it’s still considered sex work. They’re going to label it as sex work.” - Rosé

When OnlyFans became more mainstream, some creators got worried. “When the burlesque dancers started showing up, there was definitely the impression amongst other OnlyFans creators that, ‘Oh, here you come to take our market segments with your privilege and your access,’ ” Blue says. But that wasn’t the case for her. “If anything, my subscriber base grew because more people became aware of the platform and more aware that you can support dancers online, if you want.” 

Blue likens the “instinctive fear-based response” to working in a strip club and seeing a new girl get hired. “It’s a response that I was used to seeing in the sex work community, so I knew it was coming. But I also knew that it would go away. … You’ll calm down. You’ll realize that you have more in common with these people than you realize, and we’ll all be friends.” 

Besides, many creators landing on OnlyFans in the wake of the pandemic were not new to sex work. They may have been on cam platforms or working in person doing things that were no longer possible with COVID, like private encounters, fetish education or working in private lounges. “They’re just trying to make ends meet like anybody else,” Blue says. “You don’t know their history.”

Ultimately, Rosé says joining OnlyFans is not a decision to be made lightly and points out that dancing in a club and doing online sex work are not the same thing. She says that your mental game needs to be strong, especially with the combined factors of pandemic stressors. And if it’s not strong, “It’s very hard to make it through this,” she says, noting that the work is physically demanding and draining.

“Even if you’re doing something light, it’s still considered sex work. They’re going to label it as sex work.” For this reason, Rosé hopes people understand that sex work is a long-term commitment. “The internet is forever.”

Sanders echoes the importance of digital hygiene. “Keeping tabs on your digital footprint and realizing what control you are relinquishing to images and content is often not understood at all,” she says. “Image abuse and other digitally facilitated crimes have been on the rise for some time.” 

Veteran online sex workers also caution against putting all your eggs in one basket and say that users shouldn’t get too comfortable on OnlyFans – or any sex worker-friendly platform for that matter. 

Luxe says that sex workers were aware that OnlyFans would likely kick them off – and that’s exactly what happened.

On Aug. 19, the platform announced that it would be banning all sexually explicit content starting Oct. 1. The company reasoned that the shift was needed for sustainability, that they were feeling pressure from banking partners and payment providers.

“Many platforms that were built up by sex workers, oftentimes they get their ground, they get their footing, they test out all their betas on us, and then when they become popular, they start changing the terms of services. And that’s what’s happening right now,” says Luxe. 

The “war against sex workers” has been unfolding online in recent years, with sex workers speaking out against SESTA/FOSTA (a set of controversial bills) and the Visa/Mastercard/Pornhub debacle, and it circled back to OnlyFans.  

But in a surprise turn of events after outrage from users and sex workers (who can be credited for the platform’s success), the company went back on their decision. On Aug. 25, the company tweeted: “Thank you to everyone who made their voices heard. We have secured assurances necessary to support our diverse creator community and have suspended the planning October 1 policy change. OnlyFans stands for inclusion and we will continue to provide a home for all creators.” 

Even so, there are alternatives.  

Subscription-based platforms are an emerging frontier that is continually developing, with companies with different goals gunning for OnlyFan’s market share. Alternatives include Frisk, who say their vision is to provide “an innovative, sex worker friendly platform that gives creators all the tools they need to be successful on their own terms”; freeQ, which means “freedom for Queers,” a Queer-centred, gender-inclusive and body-positive platform; and Justfor.Fans, a sex worker-run competitor that was created for and by adult industry members. 

“This happens in all online spaces and is only to be expected in the adult entertainment online space,” Sanders says of the competitors. “Particularly where there is rightful resistance from the sex work community to take ownership and control over platform production, giving more rights and equity to sex workers and not the profit-making companies.”

Rosé – and other sex workers – feels that there’s not enough conversation about OnlyFans existing under the umbrella of sex work. She says many who joined the platform were quick to dismiss their participation in the adult performance industry, but above all opinions, and whether you identify as a sex worker or not, creators need to unite. 

“We all need to come together and we need to stop stigmatizing sex work. Because at the end of the day, even if you’re ‘just’ doing burlesque or you’re ‘just’ dancing, you have to realistically understand that it’s being viewed, most likely, in a sexual way.”

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