MASTURBATION ENTREPRENEURSHIP OR THE CONTEMPORARY UBERIZATION OF INTIMACY
On TikTok, OnlyFans and new emerging economies since the pandemic.
The 2020s were foreseen by Octavia E. Butler as The Burn, predicting a surge in food prices, a rise in sea levels and crippling climate change. We can add to that the mark left by a pandemic that has affected our lives on several layers. Not only are we barred from collective gathering and organizing, but we also face a labor market that is hyper-hostile towards workers, in which flexible, unregistered job positions are prevalent. With the progression of the COVID-19 pandemic, different forms of state aids have been set up benefitting certain actors while excluding others. Government bodies have maintained and reinforced the further exclusion of marginalized people from the market and from the flow of cash. Instead, we see the emergence of alternative ways of revenue-making, notably involving TikTok and OnlyFans for the pornification of labor. Platforms where desire is stimulated through an articulation of technology that is easily available and used for the production of self-produced porn. Though, the frontier between fetish, pleasure and work becomes increasingly porous; where nudes become constituent of the means of production. This is chronic of new economies that will continue to emerge in the upcoming years.
Economic, social and health policies have been rethought by governments as a response to the pandemic. Whole industries have been forced to close, from cultural institutions to bars and restaurants. Social distancing has been introduced in daily interactions and bodies have been unable to gather as before. Governments introduced various measures as a means to alleviate the threat posed by a drop in gross domestic product. Whether through interest-free loans or direct helicopter money, public bodies have reacted differently to the crisis induced by the spread of the virus. These measures have come as direct responses to unemployment, mass termination of work contracts, and the closure of entire industry sectors. By allocating resources, the state acknowledges which actor is entitled to welfare support and which is not. Looking at the exclusion of the latter enables us to critically examine the state apparatus.
As the world started to grapple with the virus, institutions – artistic ones for instance – were quick to lay off workers under precarious contracts or those working independently without a contract, namely freelancers. Some of the wealthiest institutions, such as MoMa, quickly terminated the contracts of all museum educators at the beginning of the first wave in 2020. New York City's Whitney Museum where 91 workers were laid off, São Paulo’s Afro Brasil Museum where a quarter of its employees were dismissed at the peak of the initial wave, or UK’s Tate which cut 415 positions in 2020 constitute situations in the cultural realm that are symptoms of a global crisis. In such moments of urgency, like the one posed by the pandemic, windows of opportunities are opened to further cut spendings and budgets. It disrupts not only classic labor relations but also informal or domestic ones, disproportionally affecting people of color, femme-identifying or queer individuals; given the position of freelance workers at the margins of economical and political structures. Just as governments dismiss the help for domestic workers, freelance and informal work often constitute grey areas that are untouched by welfare systems. The lack of corresponding aid for such work relations is what fuels a quest for alternative revenue.
DULLNESS MEETS CAPITALIST REALISM
People relying on freelance work, short term contracts, or unregistered labor have always had to seek informal methods to survive. It also means to be(come) your own entrepreneur. Contemporary technocapitalism under a pandemic only reinforces such a dynamic. Museums and cultural institutions–spaces crucial for the public, providing spaces for encounters, education but also critical for the employment of economically-marginalized individuals–remain mostly closed. Shopping is one of the only activities allowed outside of work. In such a context it is perspicuous that individuals turn to the most powerful driving labor force as sources of income: bodies. More specifically, to exploit the orgasmic potential of bodies.
The emergence of pop culture platforms such as TikTok or OnlyFans – centering on moving images of producer's bodies – is recent. Albeit with different contexts and content: TikTok caters mostly to a Gen Z audience feeding ultra short videos while OnlyFans is mostly used to disclose nudes and sexual content to paid subscribers. Opposite vibes. However, their popularity surge constitutes a major shift in visual culture when it comes to auto-representation. In both cases, whether when sharing a quick vibe check or a morning jerk off, both moments capture daily life scenes staged by the protagonists themselves, and create possibilities for glitches in dominant narratives.
"You have become the entrepreneur of your own masturbation."
The disruptive potential in the practice of image-making by sex workers is notably addressed by visual artist Will Fredo in their work Sexual Healers TV (2020). In a clip, together with actor Leo Galileo, they explore how the attention received in platforms dedicated to porn can lead to discourses on sexual health or broader political concerns. Though, Fredo points at the complexity behind the lives and environments of such workers, where multiple factors such as migration play a critical role. While one could argue there might be other people involved in the shootings; it nonetheless involves primarily organized and skilled content makers who understand how to use a camera built in a phone and what images have potential to go viral. This understanding thus brings followers who constitute an audience, attracts companies for partnerships and sponsored content, and so on. On both platforms the possibility for revenue, although requiring content-making and diffusion skills, exist.
It constitutes a source of income for workers without the usual contractual relation nor official recognition by public agencies. When the state ignores your need for assistance and care because of its racist, sexist, and/or queerphobic bias, turning to your body as an available resource, to use and shoot it as you intend with the help of available technological devices, ultimately activates new politics of representation on bodies: where you control the production of images. You have become the entrepreneur of your own masturbation.
The transformation of sexual resources into work is a process well described by Paul B. Preciado in his book Testo Junkie (originally published in 2008, translated in 2013), in which he describes the mere possibilities of a viewer’s sexual arousal being visually exploited by workers through “biopolitical work”. What appears online as a spontaneous expression of intimacy draws to a global commodification and exploitation of the capacity of bodies to produce an orgasm, with sex as the main driver of capital and all labor serving the purpose of “keeping the planetary cock upright”. In what the author designates as the “pharmacopornographic era”, as renewed form of mass culture, is characterized by the multiplicity of producers, opening up daily life and domestic spaces to porn stages.
The loss of monopoly in the production of images creates a new labor force of users working below the level of state recognition without any union or legal protection. Analog to tech companies such as Uber, the uberization of wanking makes up a network of seemingly independent producers, which employs no driver or airbnb-host, who owns no property. Anyone is a potential porn director.
In another interview between Will Fredo and performer Erik Michel for Sexual Healers TV (2020), the exhaustion caused by porn shoots is evoked. The line between work and kink is drawn: when does preparing a scene or doing webcam shows for hours become work? Pornified work (further investigated by Marcos Namba Beccari in the 2020 text The pornification of work: a reflection from Paul B. Preciado) is part of a broader underground layer of labor in which we can all take part, whether creating content (that is sexual or not) for friends, followers or paid subscribers.
Nowadays, a smartphone with a stable internet connection is sufficient to produce content fuelling the sex industry. It is the kind of content that “works”, explaining the rise in popularity in categories such as “amateur” in porn sites and the rise of camming. Every 24 hours, OnlyFans is used by 150,000 new users: people who want to see sex proletarians messing with other jerk off entrepreneurs, fueling voyeuristic classist fantasies. Preciado would even add that what sells online is the vision of a drug-fuelled body: “there’s no porn without the Pill or without Viagra” for the author. The costs of artificial body modifications and enhancement are thus taken up by actors themselves, allowing viewers to project on performers their repressed desires.
However, the popularity of visually-driven social media comes at a cost, in the form of rules and regulations on what kind of content can be uploaded and what is forbidden. Once images are produced and shared on definite platforms, their diffusion relies on restrictive frameworks set by developers. Apps and websites–most of them developed through a masculine colonial engineering infrastructure–capture and monetize data of their users, with varying privacy policies that limit the the agency of sex workers, content makers, and workers online. The case of another platform, Instagram, is emblematic. The rules have recently become even more restrictive, censoring all content that is suggestive to sex work on top of the nipple ban that affects only femme-identifying people. The move is part of a larger trend, removing porn from mass platforms or heavily restricting it. While sex is still the biggest driver of the cyber industry, its representation continues to be subject to abstract norms defining what shall (and shall not) be visible. Though, users of such platforms, especially queer individuals used to cisheteronormative performativity, have constantly found ways to play and counter the rules. This includes using such platforms as revenue-making tools.
"Anyone is a potential porn director."
Moments of crisis, amidst all the chaos of the current COVID-19 pandemic, expose and push the limits of power structures that have been at work for decades. The fact that domestic, freelance or sex workers are economically marginalized is not new. Rather, the current pandemic and the consequent state support that has been liberated sheds light on the exclusion and marginalization of those actors from a capitalist system built on the recognition of only certain types of labor. The resources allocated by state organs to support and alleviate the economic shock caused by the pandemic has failed to reach all workers equally. Instead, turning to the body as a meaningful resource to produce value has served as a coherent strategy to generate income. Platforms for the creation and diffusion of images such as TikTok or OnlyFans constitute opportunities for auto-representation, where most of the direction falls to the performers themselves. Possibilities of glitch in dominant narratives arise from a meaningful use of available shooting technology. Nude = work. The production of such images by decentralized actors constitutes a renewed form of labor where each actor bears the costs and risks of their labor: a form of entrepreneurship further blurring the line between fetish and work. However, the limitations posed by platforms online restrict each performer’s agency. Can liberation and emancipation arise on apps developed by tech bros? Though in depressing economic states, becoming curators of their nudes appears as a viable and more stable option than what the market has to offer. From sex-workers to twinks in need of cash, platforms such as OnlyFans cater to a wide audience eager to monetize their nudes. The uberization of wanking today seems indeed a peak response to late capitalism.