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Sex is Survival

Nilab Siddiqi breaks down the post-pandemic trend of sex-work-related content on TikTok, challenging the liberal feminist narrative of economic agency and digging deeper into what it means to rely on sex for survival.

Content warning: brief mention of sex trafficking

“Sex work is one of the oldest professions known to man,” many love to say. And they’re right! Sex work is one of the oldest professions, but the real question is, is this the only good thing? Or, is sex work more nuanced than what many people pretend it is today? (Answer: Yes. Yes, it is more nuanced.)

In the last few years, there has been an astronomical shift in modern perspectives on sex work, which I believe is almost entirely a result of the pandemic and social media, particularly apps like TikTok. 

Despite not knowing anything about the industry, except what I know about the profession as it was during the ancient world (e.g. prostitution in ancient Rome), I too found myself being overwhelmed with sex-work-related TikToks at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, something which has not eased even now, years later. Whether it was sex workers discussing how they shifted to OnlyFans due to lockdown, people doing end-of-day money counts, or workers vlogging their day-to-day lives and doing storytimes, my FYP was inundated with sex-work-related content. And it had me thinking, why is no one talking about the negative side of sex work?

I would like to emphasise that I have no problem at all with sex work and will always support people doing what suits them. Many existing sex workers actually moved over to OnlyFans as a means of survival when brothels were either shut down or not gathering any business during the pandemic. But I cannot ignore how this trend of OnlyFans creators on TikTok has had many negative ramifications. 

From what I’ve gathered, the liberal feminist view of sex work is what has dominated modern understandings of sex work in the last few years; sex work is simply a means for women to attain economic agency. Sex work then becomes something that is empowering. And it is! For some people. Emphasis on some. What about the others? Why do we only ever talk about how much money people make on OnlyFans and not all the systematically disadvantaged women stuck doing sex work?

What this increasingly dominant view neglects is the extensive and enduring presence of prostitution as a means of survival. While it is jolly good for many women – who are not systematically predisposed to relying on sex work for survival, might I add – to choose to enter the profession as a means of making money, as often discussed on TikTok, we often forget how many sex workers have little to no choice in their position. 

As outlined by Mariani, many homeless teenagers engage in survival sex – exchange of sex for basic necessities (food, shelter, clothes, etc.) – to find a place to stay, but will often find themselves forced into exchanging sex for money (sex trafficking). The point of this is that a significant amount of prostitution is not an act of free will, nor is it empowering for young adults who have no other option but sex work.[1] 

I’ve also noticed a startling trend of young girls with an existing social media platform being lured into the luxurious promises of OnlyFans. From 17-year-olds counting down the days till they turn 18 and can start OnlyFans to male followers begging young teen creators to start OnlyFans, I have unfortunately seen it all. Again, everyone can make their own choices. What empowers someone else won’t necessarily empower me, and that’s okay. But we cannot ignore that our sugar-coated representations of sex work, especially online sex work, are entirely warping the perceptions young people have. 

How can we expect young girls – whose brains have not even fully matured – to make informed decisions when we hide reality from them? Of course, if someone wants to make an OnlyFans, they can, but it's our job as a community to cease censoring and sugarcoating discussions about sex work just to appease a liberal feminist outlook on life. A young person considering sex work should be fully informed about the ramifications of starting an account: what happens if the account is banned? What happens if subscribers leak photos and video content? What happens if you change as a person and move on from sex work, and the online footprint, unfortunately, does not stop existing? What if you can’t leave sex work, even if you want to?

So, yes, prostitution is one of the oldest professions in the world. But can we really sit here and act like that’s a good argument for normalising the increase in current sex work levels when most of those ancient sex workers did not choose to be sex workers? 

It’s entirely possible to empower women to make the choices that suit them best without ignoring those who are suffering. It’s about time we expand our current conversations about sex work to include, if not to centre around, women in the industry who are being exploited and are soon to be exploited. 

[1] Mariani, Mike. “Exchanging Sex for Survival.” The Atlantic, 26 June 2014,


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