If Catharine A. MacKinnon didn’t teach at Harvard Law School, I would wonder if she knew how to read. On Labor Day (of all days), she wrote a screed declaring OnlyFans a pimp that exploits female models and branding OnlyFans a gateway to filming professional pornography. “‘Sex work,’” she writes, “implies that prostituted people really want to do what they have virtually no choice in doing. That their poverty, homelessness, prior sexual abuse as children, subjection to racism, exclusion from gainful occupations, or unequal pay plays no role.”
MacKinnon writes these words without interviewing a single sex worker. Which isn’t a surprise. MacKinnon begins her tirade complaining that the media forces people to call prostitutes “sex workers,” “gaslighting” the “survivors of prostitution.” MacKinnon leaves out that the press began this standard after years of lobbying by… well... sex workers!
As someone who shot porn long before the pandemic, I wasn’t shocked to read MacKinnon’s op-ed. She built her legal career on sex workers’ backs. In the 1980s, MacKinnon traveled the country with both radical feminists and radical conservatives, advocating for porn abolitions. Thanks to civil liberties lawyers, and Hustler founder Larry Flynt, MacKinnon failed. But that hasn’t stopped her from penning books and blog posts condemning consenting, legal adult performers.
The First Amendment protects MacKinnon’s right to smear sex workers, just as it protects my right to call out her lies. Within her op-ed, MacKinnon prints unsubstantiated statement after unsubstantiated statement. An even bigger problem: The New York Times, the so-called paper-of-record whose readers digest its every word as a fact, printed MacKinnon’s lies. These falsehoods cannot go unchecked. So, I’ve decided to fact-check some of MacKinnon’s more ludicrous claims.
MacKinnon: “[Porn] normalizes itself, becoming ever more pervasive, intrusive and dangerous, surrounding us ever more intimately, grooming the culture so that it becomes hard even to recognize its harms.”
Reality: RAINN defines “grooming” as “manipulative behaviors that the abuser uses to gain access to a potential victim, coerce them to agree to the abuse, and reduce the risk of being caught. While these tactics are used most often against younger kids, teens and vulnerable adults are also at risk.” How can an entire industry manipulate a country of over 300 million people? And what would we be grooming them to do, exactly?
MacKinnon: “There is no way to know whether pimps and traffickers are recruiting the unwary or vulnerable or desperate or coercing them offscreen and confiscating or skimming the proceeds, as is typical in the sex industry. OnlyFans takes 20 percent of any pay, its pimp’s cut.”
Reality: Most sex workers agree 20 percent is a significant cut, but if a porn star builds their own website, purchases cloud storage for their content, and pays a credit card company to process their payments, it typically costs more than 20 percent of their income. OnlyFans provides us with a website, cloud storage, and payment processing for around the same price or less.
MacKinnon: “OnlyFans has been to conventional pornography what stripping has been to prostitution: a gateway activity, sexual display with seeming insulation from skin-on-skin exploitation, temporary employment for those with their financial backs against the wall and few if any alternatives.”
Reality: MacKinnon believes OnlyFans took off because of the pandemic, but Beyoncé, the safest of all pop stars, rapped about the site in April 2020. It took more than a month of the pandemic to turn the platform into a juggernaut that Beyoncé would name-drop. Sex workers have posted videos on OnlyFans for nearly half a decade now. Most of the early adopters are professional pornographers who chose this profession because of the flexibility it offers. (I, for one, ended a physical therapy career to film porn, and I make much more as a porn star.) Our jobs have become more flexible because OnlyFans helps us sell content we own. Many performers have stopped performing for studios that don’t pay royalties because they can now film sex tapes in their house and sell them themselves. What “pimp” offers such flexibility?
MacKinnon: “Silent in the discussion of OnlyFans’ proposed rule is whether preventing underage youth from being used on the site has ever been possible. Prepubescent children, maybe. But almost anyone past the onset of puberty can be presented as a so-called consenting adult.”
Reality: To sell content on OnlyFans, you must submit documents proving your identity and age. OnlyFans enforces this policy to verify performers’ ages and ensure they can pay us through our banks.
MacKinnon: “As long as the violated lack effective rights and equality based on sex, ethnicity, and gender, survivors of abuse through these sites—including Pornhub and SeekingArrangement and sites adjacent—will be exposed to theft, coercion and all manner of unauthorized expropriation of their sexuality.”
Reality: Here, MacKinnon assumes that men coerced all sex workers—including, of all people, sugar babies—into their occupations. MacKinnon—a lawyer!—leaves out the legal process we go through, which leads readers to presume we are victims who perform in settings that lack complicated legal procedures. She fails to describe how these mysterious pimps force adult women to film themselves, upload the images on a website, and provide said streamer with legal identification. Never mind when sex workers perform on professional porn studios sets, we fill out the age verification form 2257, sign model-release contracts, provide multiple forms of identification, and often film a consent video where we discuss which sex acts we are willing to perform. Last time I checked, illegal pimps don’t consult lawyers or carry around contracts for their victims.
These are just a sampling of MacKinnon’s unverified statements published in The New York Times. Her fearmongering and lies follow Nicholas Kristof’s distorted writing about pornography on the Times opinion page. This exact section of the paper of record also publishes panicked stories about disinformation on a near-weekly basis. Perhaps, in the future, it should post an op-ed warning about the misinformation it regularly publishes about sex workers.