Exploitation website OnlyFans unleashed a media frenzy when it announced last week that in order to comply with pressure from banks, it would no longer host sexually explicit material starting October 1. As the site is primarily known for (and profits most from) pornography and prostitution, this news was met with disbelief and skepticism.
And in fact, just a few days after its initial announcement, OnlyFans backpedaled issuing a statement that they would suspend the ban on sex videos in the hopes of assuaging outraged “creators.”
OnlyFans has clearly been feeling a lot of pressure lately—and not just from payment processors or people using their platform. The subscription-based site where “fans” can purchase images, videos, and livestreams from “creators” has rightly faced increased scrutiny by police, policymakers, and the press for growing evidence of rampant criminal activity on its site: including child sex abuse material (the more apt term for child pornography), sex trafficking, harassment, doxing, cyberstalking and image-based sexual abuse and a host of other harms and potential crimes.OnlyFans is facing increased scrutiny by law enforcement, policymakers, and the press for growing evidence of rampant criminal activity. Call on U.S. DOJ to investigate! Click To Tweet
Just two weeks ago, 101 Members of Congress sent a letter to US Department of Justice demanding an investigation into OnlyFans for reports of child sex abuse material and sex trafficking. Journalists shared insider information that the FBI opened a “sprawling” investigation into the financial activity and wide array of potential crimes of the multi-billion dollar company and its owners. And coincidentally (?), the day after the initial OnlyFans announcement of their ban on porn, the BBC published the third installment in its investigative series exposing the UK-based company for criminal activity. The most recent article was largely informed by a whistleblower who asserted OnlyFans moderators were advised to ignore illegal content on the site especially if an account was profitable—prompting many to speculate that their announcements were merely a PR ploy to draw attention away from the damning evidence they knew the BBC would reveal.
The intensified scrutiny on the platform converged with another significant event: new regulations by Mastercard were to go into effect October 1: the same date as the ban on pornography was to be in place. Mastercard’s new policy requires that banks working with merchants hosting “adult content” must comply with several common sense regulations, that should be essential standards for such a high-risk industry: age and unambiguous consent verification for anyone featured in posted content, as well as a clear reporting process with swift removal. Though OnlyFans CEO Tim Stokley denied that the Mastercard regulations had anything to do with these possible changes and claimed they were already in compliance, we find this hard to believe given the timing.
While OnlyFans seems to be tying itself in knots trying to appease payment processors, potential investors, and their profit-generating pornography creators with its flip-flopping statements and actions, whatis glaringly missing is any serious commitment or outline by OnlyFans about how it plans to stop the criminal activity, sexual abuse and exploitation—including of children—that it is hosting and profiting from on its site.
Increasing Evidence of Criminal Activity and Harm
As OnlyFans grew in notoriety this past year, capitalized off the deepening financial insecurity caused by COVID-19, so too did recognition that this was a site being used for sexual exploitation. Law enforcement, including human trafficking investigators and federal agents, have been sounding the alarm about the increasing instances and indicators of child and adult sex trafficking and child sex abuse material they’re seeing in connection to OnlyFans. A US Homeland Security child online exploitation investigator estimates that he finds between 20–30 child abuse images a week that “have clearly originated on OnlyFans.” Human trafficking detective, Joe Scaramucci, has noted that “When we looked at specific cases targeting human trafficking, there was very obvious signs of people that were under 3rd party control.” He goes on to say that many pornographic images seem consensual, but explained there are high indicators that the women in some of the pictures may be victims coerced by sex traffickers.
Child safety organizations (like the National Center on Missing and Exploited Children), researchers, and survivor leaders are seeing the same concerning trends that law enforcement is witnessing. Survivors working with those recently out of or currently in the sex industry have been reporting that OnlyFans is being used by traffickers/pimps to sell adults and children and by sex buyers to “shop” for people to buy—much like backpage.com was used before it was seized by the Dept. of Justice in 2018. Although technically prohibited on OnlyFans, the site is widely used to advertise prostitution and escort services.
Furthermore, alarming numbers of minors are uploading explicit videos and nude images to OnlyFans themselves—thereby self-generating child sex abuse material after buying into the propaganda circulating on social media—imagining that they too could purchase a car or new wardrobe from the money they’d make on OnlyFans.
OnlyFans creators have publicly noted that once they began selling content on OnlyFans, they were pressured to escalate to content they were uncomfortable with, as satisfying the demand was the only way to make any money. “The competition means that you push the boundaries, otherwise you leave,” a former OnlyFans from Sweden shared with the media.
Creators have also reported being harassed, doxed, stalked, having their images stolen and reposted without their consent, threatened, and more.
On creator shared with the BBC that a male subscriber threatened violence after she declined to have sex with him. He sent her messages including:
“I know where you live.
“I’m going to hunt you down.
“I’m going to kill your children.
“I’m going to rape you.
“I’m going to make your husband watch me as I hurt you, then I’m going to kill you.
“I hope all of your family get Covid and die.”
When the creator reported these threats to OnlyFans they responded that “rude messages” did not violate its guidelines and the subscribers’ account would not be removed.
Journalist Julie Bendel wrote for the UK Standard: “Some of the women who provide content end up scared and traumatised. One woman told me she still can’t sleep after a stalking incident two years ago. “My biggest fan,” said Lisa*, laughing bitterly at the irony, “managed to trace me to my place of work and actually waited outside for me one day. I was appalled and terrified.”
Normalizing the commercial sex industry
Even absent cases of CSAM or trafficking, OnlyFans is propagating harm and exploitation by normalizing the commercial sex industry, perhaps more so than any other platform to-date.
OnlyFans has been disturbingly successful in blurring the lines between commercial sex and mainstream social media, which has resulted in many people engaging with the commercial sex industry who otherwise may not have. Adults and children alike have turned to OnlyFans hoping to make money (the average creator only makes only $180/month), without a proper understanding of the many short and long-term risks and consequences that are inherent within the commercial sex industry. Survivors and police warn that platforms like OnlyFans serve as a gateway to prostitution:
Swedish police officer specializing in human trafficking, Simon Häggström, has warned that Onlyfans can lead to minors, especially girls, being drawn into prostitution. “We notice that on these platforms the number of children, young people and young adults who have been drawn into the world of prostitution has soared if we compare with ten years ago.”
OnlyFans’ referral system also motivates the normalization of grooming and pimping/trafficking. If a user refers another person to start creating on OnlyFans, they receive a 5% cut of the new creator’s profits for the first year. This means that creators have a vested interest in making OnlyFans seem more “glamorous” and harmless than it is to market it to other potential creators.
The referral system also encourages pimping and grooming, as one former creator explains:
There are tons of “promoters” and “managers” (online pimps) who actively prey upon new girls (the younger the better). They usually approach the model on Twitter and groom her so that she will agree to let them help “manage” her online presence in exchange for a cut. People are desperate naive and they fall for it. This naturally creates a perfect opportunity for blackmail and other types of emotional manipulation. It happens all. the. time. And it isn’t talked about nearly enough in the online sex work community.
Sadly, although survivors of the commercial sex industry have been posting warnings of the short and long-term risks of entering into the sex trade through OnlyFans and former OnlyFans creators were speaking out on public forums like Reddit and through media interviews about very real harms on OnlyFans, the propaganda of empowerment sadly seemed to be winning over the reality of exploitation.
While OnlyFans is certainly not the first and sadly not the last company to build its business model on exploitation of vulnerabilities, nor is it likely the largest site hosting CSAM and sex trafficking, its prominence in the current zeitgeist and glamorization of the sex industry warrants the scrutiny it’s received about shady business practices.
Policies That Mean Nothing in Practice
While OnlyFans may have some policies that look good on paper, they fall grossly short in practice.
With respect to age verification, OnlyFans currently only verifies the age of account owners, not the age of everyone featured in the videos. As the BBC investigations demonstrated, this has led to adults creating accounts and publishing CSAM of others. Furthermore, many children have been able to fool OnlyFans’ age verification systems, creating accounts for themselves through which they publish self-generated CSAM: a 14-year-old girl was able to verify age on OnlyFans using her grandmother’s passport. In a recent interview, US Homeland Security Investigator Austin Berrier says that he has seen children on OnlyFans who appear to be between 5 years old and 17 years old, and are trying to make money on the platform. He says: “They understand the monetization of it [and are] on there to make money for girl scout camp, for cheerleader camp, or for their new bike.”
With respect to Consent Verification, it is seriously doubtful that the porn industry in general could ever develop a reliable metric for verifying consent, as people can always be coerced and manipulated into signing contracts. When it comes to user-generated content, however, contracts are not even required the way they are for studio-produced pornography. As such, there are even fewer barriers facing traffickers when it comes to sites like OnlyFans. Some believe that the very fact the content is user-generated is a guarantee that it is consensual, as it appears to be people choosing to make content of themselves. But no one can know for sure who is behind the camera, or if the individual in the video is being coerced by a third party to make the content.
And the latest BBC article made clear that OnlyFans content moderation practices were not only insufficient, but purposefully neglectful if a profit was to be made. OnlyFans moderators do not immediately shut down accounts that post illegal or banned content, and they are specifically instructed to be more lenient towards lucrative accounts.
One moderator, who testified to BBC under the pseudonym of Christof, states: “There is a discrimination between accounts. It shows money is the priority.”
Christof attested to finding illegal and/or banned content on multiple occasions, including content featuring bestiality, the use of spy cams, weapons, and drugs, and also advertisements for prostitution and escort “services”. Christof says that some content which goes against OnlyFans’ Terms of Services is not searched for by moderators as frequently as it should be. In fact, Christof was told by OnlyFans numerous times that he “over-moderated.”A recent BBC article revealed that OnlyFans moderators do not immediately shut down accounts that post illegal or banned content—even being instructed to be more lenient towards lucrative accounts. Click To Tweet
What Needs to Happen
We have no faith that OnlyFans—a business built on exploitation and buttressed by abuse—can do enough to actually stem the harms it fosters on its site. Nor, despite what their PR firm claims, do we believe that they truly care about any of their creators beyond whether or not they make OnlyFans a profit: just like any other pimp. And by taking 20% cut of earnings from commercial sex and sexual abuse, OnlyFans IS a pimp.
OnlyFans must be held accountable: by payment processors, by policymakers, by police, and by the general public for perpetuating sexual abuse and exploitation.