Sarah has wanted to do sex work, specifically porn, for a very long time now. It is only recently, in her forties, that she decided to just go for it and began creating content on OnlyFans.
“I’m a very sexual person. I didn’t always have the confidence to explore that side of me. I’ve thought about doing porn since I was a teen,” Sarah told me. But when Covid hit, she found some free time for herself as her job as a veterinary nurse required her to work every other week for shifts. “Then something clicked in my brain,” Sarah told me, “And I said to myself ‘Screw it! Give it a shot, what do you have to lose?’”
However, in mainstream society’s collective imagination, even today sex workers are seen as either oppressed souls waiting to be rescued or deviants who need to be exterminated from the margins of respectable society. In other words, they don’t see sex workers as people who have the right to exercise agency over their bodies. Despite the growing consensus that sex work needs to be decriminalized, a 2020 report by American Civil Liberties Union, National Center for Transgender Equality and other US-based human rights organizations found that 35% of Americans are still opposed to the idea of decriminalization.
“There’s also a lot of misinformation about the kinds of people who do sex work. Sex workers are in fact, extremely diverse,” said Trip Richards, an adult entertainer and sex educator He explained: “We are disproportionately minorities– including people of color, LGBT people, and people with disabilities–as we are the folks most likely to gravitate toward sex work due to its autonomy, scheduling flexibility, and inclusiveness of diverse bodies.”
“Many sex workers are single parents. Others are college students. Some are older and retired,” said Richards.
When we cram all these diverse identities into one monolith and then decide to treat them as anything but people, we create an environment where sex workers are not only continually shamed but also at risk of harm and danger. When Sarah was in her twenties, she was told by the people around her that pornstars were filthy and uneducated, that sex work was a shameful profession. Today, just short of turning 42, Sarah knows better. Interestingly, despite her recent foray into sex work, Sarah has no plans of leaving her day job, which she also refers to as her ‘vanilla job’. She remarked, “Sex work can be risky financially. There is nothing wrong with wanting to have a stable income in case you have a bad month. I love my job as a veterinary nurse and as a new sex worker. I get a steady paycheck, health insurance, retirement fund, and overtime if I want it and there is nothing wrong with wanting those things.”
But as Sarah overcame her biases against sex work and pornography, something else happened. The more porn she watched, the more she hated it because she could not see herself in them. “The women in porn are super thin, usually blonde or brunette; the women of color they do have are also always thin. These are completely unrealistic bodies [to match up to] for any woman watching at home,” she told me. In fact, the main thing that held Sarah back from doing sex work when she was younger was her lack of confidence in her body. “I’m not thin, so it’s been a bit of a difficult road to get started,” she said.
Even BBW (Big Beautiful Woman) porn, with its fetishization of fat women’s bodies, did not make Sarah feel comfortable or seen. “The women are made to fetishize their bodies by squeezing or smooshing them. The women are not portrayed as sexy or beautiful in a way that thin women in porn are. BBW porn plays into every stereotype you grow up hearing about bigger women,” Sarah opined.
While the debate about whether BBW is empowering or offensive really boils down to an individual’s personal preferences, we must accept the fact that fat women continue to have dismal representation in mainstream porn barring the one subcategory. Fetishizing fat bodies might be a good way of increasing visibility and celebrating them, but at the end of the day, fetishes, by their very definition, are rarely accepted as the norm and exist only as a subcategory enjoyed by a niche audience.
Jessie Sage, a Pittsburgh-based sex worker and writer, hopes that someday bigger bodies won’t be siloed into the BBW category, and will be recognized for their beauty and talent alongside their thinner peers. However, she adds that BBW is a search term that is good for marketing content, allowing consumers to easily find what they are looking for. “I don’t necessarily identify as a BBW because I don’t think of my own body in terms of marketing lingo. I do, however, label my work BBW for obvious reasons,” Jessie said.
In the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing and the protests that erupted across the country, Sarah noticed conversations beginning to take place on social media around the urgent need for BIPOC visibility in pornography, which expanded to include demands for the diversity of all kinds in mainstream pornography. She said, “I was like, this is great, maybe they will include bigger models as well. I commented on posts of several bigger named models about including size diversity in their fight for more diversity in porn. I got shot down every time. No one seemed to think including bigger bodies into the diversity fight was as relevant as BIPOC and the LGTBQIA+ community… simply because most people believe that being bigger is a choice you make, you’re not ‘born fat’, you choose to be fat.”
While the body positivity movement has made it big in mainstream culture thanks to social media, somewhere along the way its true purpose seems to have been lost. Lizzo, in a recent TikTok video, said that because the movement has now been “co-opted by all bodies, and people are finally celebrating medium and small girls and people who occasionally get rolls, fat people are still getting the short end of this movement.” The mainstream success of the movement has veered it into a territory where it is no longer about celebrating big women, specifically black and brown big women. As this Huffpost article noted, “Body positivity has been commodified by capitalism, and is commonly used by social influencers, celebrities, and brands as a term that is synonymous with self-love.”
This may be why the concept of body neutrality has been gaining steam. It’s impossible to celebrate and love one’s body at all times, and so body neutrality focuses on simply being at peace with the body you have. Jessie thinks that people should have the right to identify in a way that feels right to them. “We don’t know what people are dealing with or where they are in their body journey. I think that while, I, as a size 16, sometimes grimace at people who are straight sizes tagging their photos with terms meant for larger bodies, I also don’t think that there is anyone in our culture who is not impacted by fatphobia,” she added.
Acclaimed adult film director and writer Jacky St. James is of the opinion that the concept of body neutrality seems to be catching up in pornography, specifically in the content she has been creating as well. She said, “It is unusual to see that porn would eventually get to that point given that porn has historically focused on bodies, body types, looks, and sex–but now with more reality-based porn and amateur porn, we are seeing that it isn’t just about the body. It’s about the whole story.”
For Sarah, this journey of coming to terms with her body has been hard. She admitted that the pressure to be the ideal size from a very young age had left her in this struggle to toe the line between toxic positivity and genuine self-love. “When you are in a body you’ve been groomed to hate, it can be harder than anyone can imagine, to look at that body and see beauty and strength and love. She continued: “For me, it’s been a ‘fake it till you make it’ situation. The porn industry perpetuates this ‘if you’re not thin, you’re not in’ rhetoric and has for so long. I was actually told once by an agent that looks don’t matter so much because makeup can make a 5 look like a 7.”
Despite these unsavory confrontations and realizations, Sarah is still hopeful. After all, this is something she’s wanted to do for years. As she manages her day job and recovers from surgery, Sarah is also planning to shoot her very first scene for a small, indie production company and she couldn’t be more excited.
The problems in pornography must be fixed and countered by pornography itself. According to Jacky, the biggest challenge with mainstream porn is that it’s a very small group of people who are hired through talent agencies that have built a reputation of professionalism. She explained, “There is a fear of taking a chance on someone who isn’t repped by an agency because if a performer is unprofessional or cancels a shoot that is at a great cost to the production. This is why most producers rely on agencies to hire talent and if there isn’t a diverse talent pool at the agency level then it is harder to cast in such a way.” She proposed that agencies should seek out a diverse talent pool and represent them so that the practice of hiring through an agency can continue, ensuring the protection of all.
Jessie firmly believes that it is the bigger models being their beautiful selves and being unashamed of their work, their sexuality, and their bodies that helped normalize bigger bodies, and continues to do so. “Working in the sex industry teaches you that all bodies are desirable and that there is space for so much diversity,” she added. Jacky too thinks that things are moving in the right direction, especially with platforms like OnlyFans where “fans are getting to know the performers’ personalities and falling in love with that over simply their looks, body, sex. Most people assume that porn is what you see on tube sites [but] it is a lot more nuanced than that.”
For this cultural shift in pornography to be successful, consumers must rise to the occasion and support the amateur, indie adult content creators who are making the effort to bring in more diversity.