OnlyFans markets itself as a social media platform where “influencers” can sell their content to a subscriber base. However, it is no secret that the overwhelming majority of the content sold on OnlyFans is in fact pornography. OnlyFans has thus become the latest iteration of the commercial sex industry—and its popularity is rapidly escalating. What is perhaps most concerning is that OnlyFans is even growing in popularity amongst children.
Recent news stories (also see stories here, here, and here) have highlighted cases of minors creating and selling sexually explicit content of themselves on OnlyFans. The child sexual abuse material (CSAM, the more apt term for “child pornography”) found on OnlyFans also includes instances where children are exploited by traffickers.
Thus far, OnlyFans’ Age Verification systems have failed to detect and prevent these cases of CSAM. What’s more, their marketing strategies and attempts to normalize the commercial sex industry are contributing to the allure children feel towards webcamming through OnlyFans.
Children Selling Self-Generated CSAM for “Easy Money”
A recent BBC article offers a very thorough investigation into the issue of minors creating and selling CSAM of themselves on OnlyFans. A common theme emerged among multiple cases: children are enticed by the promise of easy money, as well as the hope of growing in popularity and social influence.
As one 13-year-old said: “I know it’s not appropriate for kids my age to be doing this, but it’s an easy way to make money. . . Some of the girls have thousands of followers on Instagram and they must be raking it in—I wanna be just like them.”
Another 16-year-old bragged to her school career advisor about the money she was making through OnlyFans, asking why she should listen to any career advice from her.
OnlyFans’ marketing strategies are contributing to this dangerous allure for children. By branding themselves as an “influencer” platform, OnlyFans has helped fuel these children’s tragic notion that the way to become popular and influential is to sell their bodies. OnlyFans intentionally blurs the lines between the commercial sex industry and mainstream social media, saying, “As far as we’re concerned, if you use social media and produce your own content, you should be using OnlyFans.”
This serves to further normalize the commercial sex industry amongst young people, who likely don’t understand the extensive short and long-term harms and risks inherent in the industry. OnlyFans promises easy money to new and amateur “content creators” with their slogan: “Anyone can earn.” They declare on their website that earnings could be between $1,499 and $7,495 per month.
Even if OnlyFans is not deliberately targeting children, or designing their market strategies with minors in mind, a dangerous consequence of their marketing has been to attract many minors into the commercial sex industry, many of whom likely would not have been attracted to the industry in other forms.
Lesser Known Risks Associated with Webcamming
As the commercial sex industry becomes increasingly normalized in society, many adults—let alone children—may enter the industry without properly understanding the risks or harms involved. Webcamming in particular is often lauded as being harmless and especially empowering, and an increasing number of young people consider it to be normal.
Research and anecdotal evidence from survivors shows that the webcamming sector of the commercial sex industry is still rife with potential psychological, socio-emotional, and physical harms.
Participants in studies have described webcamming as psychologically traumatic or distressing. For example, in one study a participant named Jessica describes sitting in a corner traumatized for the entire day after her first webcamming performance, while a participant named Ken says he did not leave his room for an entire week. This psychological trauma is a common theme in studies on all forms of prostitution; the online nature of webcamming does not appear to erase the trauma.
There are also other risks and harms which are in fact heightened by the unique nature of the webcamming industry. For example, the online nature of webcamming leaves performers extremely vulnerable to doxxing, stalking, extortion, blackmail, and “capping” (ie. customers filming the webcammer’s private “shows” and posting them online without her consent). Webcammers in one study state that capping is “pretty much inevitable” and is “one of the risks you’ll have to come to terms with in this line of work”. Some researchers argue that the risks of stalking or other forms of harassment are heightened by the interactive nature of webcamming and the fact that webcammers are encouraged to communicate directly with subscribers.
In addition, the ease with which anyone can start webcamming and the increased normalization and popularity of webcamming has turned it into a highly competitive industry, as it is flooded with content and content-creators. As a result, studies find that webcammers often must escalate to performing more and more dangerous, extreme, or degrading acts, to stay ahead of the competition. Finally, the risk of being trafficked is not eliminated in webcamming, as numerous studies show. Which brings us to the other form of CSAM found on OnlyFans: instances in which children are being exploited by traffickers.
Cases of Trafficked Children on OnlyFans
While much of the CSAM on OnlyFans is a product of minors uploading their own self-produced content, police and child protection agencies are also uncovering cases of children being trafficked or exploited on the platform.
For example, the Vice President of the National Centre on Missing and Exploited Children, Staca Shehan, states: “In 2019 there were around a dozen children known to be missing being linked with content on OnlyFans. Last year the number of those cases nearly tripled.”
Police forces have also received complaints from children who had others upload intimate images of them to OnlyFans without their consent. In another case, a minor had her face edited onto someone else’s body (i.e. “deepfake”), and the resulting pornographic content uploaded to OnlyFans. Yet another minor complained to the police that she was blackmailed into posting images on OnlyFans.
Insufficient Age Verification Systems in Place
Although OnlyFans claims to have robust, constantly improving Age Verification systems to prevent CSAM from being uploaded to the site, these systems have failed in all of the aforementioned cases.
Minors have been able to cheat the Age Verification systems by using fake ID’s or ID’s owned by older relatives. In one case, a minor named Leah used a fake driving license to create an OnlyFans account and upload sexually explicit material. Leah’s age was anonymously reported to OnlyFans at a later date, but after reviewing the account, the company decided that it “appeared legitimate”, and no further action was taken. Leah’s age was also stated on numerous other social media sites; OnlyFans claims to check other social medias as part of the account verification process, but this evidently did not stop them from allowing Leah’s account. OnlyFans finally shut down Leah’s account after being contacted by BBC News, but by that time CSAM from her account had been downloaded and uploaded in numerous other places, all across the internet.
OnlyFans claimed that Leah’s case, and others like it, happened during a transition “from one effective ID age verification system to a new exceptionally effective” system. However, BBC News tested this supposedly “new exceptionally effective” system in April, and succeeded in creating an OnlyFans account for a 17-year-old by using her 27-year-old sister’s passport.
OnlyFans is putting children at risk with their lack of sufficient age verification and their dangerous influence on culture. That is why OnlyFans was named to the National Center on Sexual Exploitation’s 2021 Dirty Dozen List. We must work collectively to prevent platforms like OnlyFans from further normalizing sexual exploitation and causing harm to women and children.