On the power of pushing back against the marginalisation of sex workers

So over the course of the course of the last week OnlyFans decided that they were going to suddenly ban adult content from their site. This may be seen as an inexplicable decision given that this is, actually, the thing that they make all of their money from. It is especially odd, given that a majority share of the company was bought in 2018 by Leonid Radvinsky, who has for over twenty years been working expressly in the porn industry. It would seem like he knew what he was getting into and exactly what it is that people were using OnlyFans for.

In the scramble to explain why this decision was made, fingers have been pointed in numerous directions. The official line from OnlyFans is that they were being pressured to drop porn by their banking partners who didn’t want to continue payment processing agreements with them because of all the porn. In other words, it wasn’t OnlyFans pushing sex workers out – it was the banks!

However, one might ask exactly why the banks suddenly didn’t want to take money from OnlyFans, given that they aren’t exactly known for having morals provided there is money involved. This is where the pernicious Christian group Exodus Cry comes in.

Exodus Cry is an extremely shady group with links to the evangelical Christian group International House of Prayer Kansas City and they claim that their whole thing is wanting to stop sex trafficking. Of course, actually what they want to do is stop any kind of legal or decriminalized sex work from happening. In other words, they would like to pretend they care about harm to sex workers by actively working to make the lives of the people who do sex work much more harmful. Yay.

You may remember Exodus Cry from such hits as forcing Mindgeek who own PornHub to bring in stricter rules about user uploaded content. Or from their shady fake documentaries about how it is bad to have sex during Spring Break, actually. Anyway, it is becoming clear that it is these creeps who put the pressure on the banks to blacklist OnlyFans in a classic “Won’t someone please think of the children” move.

Obviously, this entire thing reminds me very much of fourteenth-century Prague.

A brothel, from brothel, MS Getty e Breslau Valerius Maximus

This is obvious because Prague, and medieval Europe more generally, as I will never tire of telling you, were sites of legal and legitimate sex work. After all, unmarried men needed a sexual outlet so they didn’t get too horny and tear their cities apart, and fourteenth-century Prague was one hell of a city that emphatically did not need a bunch of sex-crazed dudes messing with it.

Prague was very much in the ascendancy at the time, having been pumped full of money and prestige by friend of the blog the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV (1316-1378). His whole thing was creating Prague as a viable static Holy Roman imperial capital, ideally tied to the succession of his own Luxembourg dynasty. In order to do this he spent a whole bunch of time building new churches and monastaries, expanding the city walls, rebuilding the castles both in and out of town, and basically doing the civic spending that makes cities boom.[1]

So to build all these churches, walls, paved streets, and new houses a bunch of new migrants showed up to do the work. This was all well and good if you were a dude. There extremely was paid work to be done. If you were a woman and showed up cuz you heard money was going to be handed out, there were fewer options to choose from though. If you didn’t want to be a washerwoman, or a housemaid, it was hard to get a foothold in one of the most sophisticated cities in Europe. There were guilds and old families who controlled the trades, and women in general had fewer choices in terms of employment if they weren’t connected to a family or man. However, all those men who just showed up to the city sans family had a chunk of change in their pockets, and the brothels needed workers so there were a few institutions where women could always find work.

The legal institutions had been the brothels Venice, Hampays, and Obora. After my boy Jan Milíč z Kroměříže’s (d. 1374) got Charles IV to abolish the Venice brothel and give it to him so he could just chill with a bunch of ex sex workers and other preachers, that left two official municipal brothels. Hampays was over on the river near the Jewish Quarter, and Obora was in the Lesser Town up on the hill near the wall and the castle.

Obora and Hampays are in the stars here, respectively. I have adapted this map from David C. Mengel., Bones, Stones, and Brothels: Religion and Topography in Prague Under Emperor Charles IV (1346–78), PhD, University of Notre Dame, 2003, p. 251, because making maps is really hard.

Obora and Hampays function here in much the same way OnlyFans does now. These were legal institutions that were following the legal strictures put in place to do sex work. There is no real way to think of medieval institutions or individuals as being imbued with rights (Magna Carta freaks, I am looking at you), but one could say that had legal permissions. They had municipal charters from the city that said that they could do sex work in these places, and so they did it.

How do we know that they had legal permissions to be there? Well because some of the fore-runners of Exodus Cry extremely fucked around and found out.

Here I am speaking of the adventures of one Master Ulrich, the priest of St Nicholas in the Lesser Town who came to my attention for being a massive fucking crybaby in the Archdeaconate Protocol of 1379-1382. Essentially this was an exercise wherein a new Archdeacon, Pavel of Janovice came into power and went from church to church asking if anyone had any religious problems he could sort out. Master Ulric was like, “Yeah I am a big whiny baby, and I keep trying to shut down the Obora brothel. I have on several occasions run up in there, and chased all the sex workers who were just trying to work and make a living out of there.”[2] To Ulrich, much like these Exodus Cry basics, depriving these women of a livelihood with absolutely no recourse to any help when he did so was a good thing because sex is bad and you should feel bad for selling or buying it.

The thing is, absolutely no one agreed with Master Ulrich. Quite to the contrary, he was complaining because every time he pulled this stunt, the city magistrates, alerted by the sex workers showed up and kicked him TF out of their brothel because what they were doing was perfectly legal. This is how we know that Obora probably had a charter, because the city magistrates sprung in to action to do the right thing and support the sex workers when they made a complaint. Was it their favourite thing to ever happen? I very much doubt that it was! However, that didn’t matter because just because you don’t like something doesn’t mean you get to interfere with people who are just trying to make a living, and the magistrates knew that.

Joan of Arc being a massive SWERF and chasing sex workers away from her army. BnF, MS Fr. 5054.

So it was Master Ulrich and his massive fucking L – which the Archdeacon informed him he was going to have to take – that I thought of when OnlyFans reversed their whole “no more tiddy pics” policy. Because what happened – very hearteningly – is that when they tried it, sex workers got mad, and everyone who supports them showed up to yell at OnlyFans. Exodus Cry, much like Master Ulrich before them, massively overestimated the appeal of the whole “sex is always bad” campaign, and it turns out people want to support and help sex workers instead of impoverishing them. OnlyFans got pushback, the banks who allegedly wanted this in the first place would much rather take money and not get yelled at, and the whole October 1 deadline has been suspended. This is a feel-good story.

I am not saying that sex work in and of itself is necessarily “good”. In fact, I am completely unwilling to label sex as a whole “good” as I am out here on team sex critical. Moreover, I am absolutely not going to tell you that “work” is good either. It is bad but we have to do it in order to survive in our garbage society. What I am saying, and as I have written about before, is that depriving people of their livelihood with absolutely no plan to support them after you do is extremely bad. Sex workers have a right to a safe and dignified way to make a living, and taking that away from them is not helping anyone.

Really what I think is nicest about this OnlyFans debacle and the story of the Obora sex workers is that it shows what people can do when they band together to push back against what prudes think is a fait accompli. Not everyone thinks that it is cool to make the lives of sex workers hard, and we are not going to ignore it when we see people trying to do so. However, it is important for us to note that while OnlyFans has suspended the decision for now, a suspension is not a full reversal. We need to be prepared to stand up for our sex worker allies once again, and push back as much as possible to secure their safety and livelihoods. When we do so let’s remember we are part of an important tradition.

Solidarity forever, friends.

[1] Eleanor Janega, Jan Milíč of Kroměříž and Emperor Charles IV: Preaching, Power, and the Church of Prague, PhD, University College London, 2014, see Chapter 2 in particular. And yeah I am citing myself. You want me to cite you, you go on and do a PhD about it.
[2] ‘Dominus Ulricus…interogatus per iuramentum dicit, quod est quidam locus ante valvam mulierum publicarum meretricum, que aliquociens fuerent expulse ad peticionem suam per scabinos et semper revertuntur ad eundem locum et ibidem foventur per iudicem civitatis; qui locus in wlgari dicitur Obora.’  Ivan Hlaváček and Zdeňka Hledíková (eds.), Protocollum visitationis archidiaconatus Pragensis annis 1379–1382 per Paulum de Janowicz archidiaconum Pragensem factae, (Prague, 1973). , p. 118.

For more on sex work in the medieval period, see:
On putting sex work on the map
On Prague, preaching, and brothels
On St Nicholas
On sex work and the concept of rescue
These hoes ain’t loyal – on prostitutes and bitches in medieval and hip hop culture
Sex and the (medieval) city: social hygiene and sex in the medieval urban landscape

Author: Dr Eleanor Janega

Medieval historian, lush, George Michael evangelist.

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