A person sits in front of a laptop computer as a moral panic spreads about sex work.
A person sits in front of a laptop computer. Credit: Mikayla Mallek / Unsplash Credit: Mikayla Mallek / Unsplash

Back in May, Kristin MacDonald, an educational assistant (EA) working at Port Coquitlam School District in the suburbs of Vancouver, received notice from her employer that she should immediately shut down all of her social media accounts, including and especially her OnlyFans account.

MacDonald’s story is just one of many instances in which conventional employers have dismissed or threatened to dismiss workers who were found to be doing sex work as a second job. I use the clumsy phrasing “who were found” because finding something is somewhat haphazard. To find something, someone must be actively looking, while the person being found merely exists. The person doing the looking has to be in the right place at the right time.

First, there is a consumer of adult content or services, who figures out a sex worker’s personal details, and then takes the time to inform an employer what they learned. Sure, sometimes a person might stumble upon their neighbour’s OnlyFans account or recognize them dancing on stage at the local strip club. But instead of deciding it’s none of their business what an adult does with their body, they choose to take steps that lead to a person losing their more “respectable” source of income.

Prejudice against sex work spreads to other jobs

The overwhelming majority of sex workers use a pseudonym precisely to avoid situations like this. Our sex work persona is only one of our intersecting identities and yet often it’s the only thing we are judged on. It simply doesn’t make sense to get a paramedic working at the height of the pandemic fired – or the fast food worker, teacher, nursing student, or in MacDonald’s case, the educational assistant.

The complaint against MacDonald came about because someone found her OnlyFans account, not because of anything related to her performance at her EA job. Someone took the time out of their day to be the morality police at the expense of children’s access to education.

If that’s not bad enough, EAs are underpaid, as evidenced by education workers’ mass protest in Ontario last November. EAs don’t get paid a living wage, while facing an unprecedented housing crisis and record inflation. I did some basic math and ran some salary calculations online. I’m not an accountant, but at the median wage for EAs in British Columbia, the take-home pay is about $691 per week.

As a single mother, MacDonald would need a two-bedroom apartment, which in her school district costs on average $2,925 per month, or $731 per week. The math isn’t adding up. It’s an impossible damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation. Risk your reputation or risk homelessness and hunger for yourself and your child? When put this way, sex work becomes the rational choice.

What’s the crime?

MacDonald’s union supports her because, as they rightfully point out, she did nothing wrong. OnlyFans is legal (at least, for now), so there is no crime. There is only a matter of opinion. The school district, on the other hand, is taking the standard, conservative “think of the children” stance.

These moral panics are nothing new. Remember when heavy metal music was going to turn youth into Satanists? Or the “concern” about employing gay teachers in schools because they were perceived as predators? Or the current, ongoing drag queen story hour debate?

The school board claims that kids could access MacDonald’s OnlyFans. But to subscribe to an OnlyFans account, you need a credit card, which means that the subscriber would be an adult with a credit card. Her settings are such that non-subscribers cannot see her nude.

Next, the board says she’s using the whole situation to grow her social media following and OnlyFans subscriber base. Basically the employer wants to blame her for the mess they created and that she dared to expose.

The complainant and the school board are thinking about highly improbable, hypothetical, morality-based scenarios that may cause harm to children. What they fail to see is that there are real-life harms for children if their educational assistant gets fired for no good reason.

It takes time to replace and train staff. It takes time for children to get used to the new adult in their lives; students and staff need time to adjust. If MacDonald is fired, it will take time to hire and train a replacement. During this transition, while her replacement settles into a new job and new students – each with their own sets of challenges and learning styles, hence the need for an EA to begin with – the students are not getting the education they deserve.

If you are concerned about the needs of children, don’t fire the people who are there to help them learn. Don’t fire the people who help your most vulnerable students.

Turning the tables on employers

If they didn’t want MacDonald to tell her side of the story, the employer should have let her be. Ideally, they would have paid her enough to begin with so that she didn’t need to work a second job. What employers fail to see is that they are telling on themselves when they engage in such punitive actions. They are admitting that they are underpaying their staff and show that they treat their employees as if they are disposable.

In New Zealand, where sex work is decriminalized, employers would think twice about pulling this type of bullshit. Sex workers in New Zealand have won settlements for human rights-related sexual harassment cases. Because really, when your employer keeps bothering you about the bikini pics you post in your spare time, what is that if not textbook sexual harassment?

MacDonald is hopeful that her case will make it easier for other sex workers down the line to make autonomous choices about their bodies without the fear of losing their conventional jobs:

“What I hope the final outcome will be is that this situation sets a precedent for other people in similar situations where maybe they are being discriminated against based on doing some sort of sex work… I would like to see policies and employers be more accepting and progressive with their opinion and outlook on sex work. Because sex work is still work.”

MacDonald deserves as much public outcry and sympathy as educational assistants received when their labour action almost led to a general strike in Ontario earlier last year.

There cannot be solidarity for a predominantly female workforce of public service employees such as nurses and educational assistants without solidarity for sex workers – we are also members of the working class! We are also a predominantly female workforce, and like all women, we demand bodily autonomy, a life free from violence and harassment, and equal access to employment and economic opportunities.

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Natasha Darling

Natasha Darling is a pseudonym to protect the author’s true identity from the stigma and harm associated with her sex work. Darling is a stripper and community organiser based in Toronto. Plant...