OnlyFans exploded in notoriety and profit during COVID-19, as the subscription-based platform known for pornography preyed on widespread financial insecurities and capitalized on youth spending more time online. OnlyFans is set up as a potential “pyramid scheme” incentivizing “creators” to recruit new users – resulting in a flood on social media of false promises of fast cash and fame. Sex buyers and pimps maximize buying and selling people behind the security of a paywall. Yet survivors, whistleblowers, police, and investigative journalists have uncovered child sexual abuse material, sex trafficking, rape videos, and a host of other crimes, making the case clear: OnlyFans is a safe haven for exploitation.
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What is OnlyFans?
OnlyFans is a subscription-based website where “creators” can market their content to “fans” who will pay to see it. “Fans”, or subscribers, pay a monthly membership fee to “unlock” images, videos, and livestreams made by creators, and the OnlyFans business takes a 20% cut of all creators’ income. Although OnlyFans brands itself as a social media platform that can be used to sell any type of content, the truth is that the site is primarily used and known for pornographic and sexually explicit content. OnlyFans’ owner, Leonid Radvinsky, is also the owner of other large pornography webcamming websites.
OnlyFans has become the latest iteration of the commercial sex industry – and a very prominent and influential iteration at that. The site quickly rose in public consciousness since being launched in 2016. It has especially profited from the Covid-19 pandemic, drawing in new creators who suffered from financial insecurity and loss of work, and capitalizing on people spending more time online. OnlyFans’ revenue grew 553% within less than a year of pandemic lockdown. As of September 2021, the site had over 170 million registered users and over 1.5 million creators. This number has continued to grow at an astounding rate, with an estimated 500,000 people joining OnlyFans every day.
Increased Scrutiny of OnlyFans
As OnlyFans has grown in notoriety, so has recognition that it is a platform being used for exploitation and criminal activity. OnlyFans has rightly faced increased scrutiny by police, policymakers, and the press for growing evidence of child sex abuse material (CSAM, 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. Beginning in May 2021, the BBC has been publishing a series of investigative pieces which powerfully exposed many of these issues. In August 2021, 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. And in June 2021, the FBI opened an investigation into the financial activity and wide array of potential crimes of the multi-billion dollar company and its owners. OnlyFans’ owner, Leonid Radvinsky, reportedly has “a history of lawsuits and allegations of spam, theft, fraud, and drug dealing.”
There has been a disturbing amount of evidence of child sexual exploitation happening on OnlyFans. An U.S. Homeland Security child online exploitation investigator shared with NCOSE that he finds between 30 – 50 child sex abuse images a day that have “have clearly originated on OnlyFans.”
Alarming numbers of minors are uploading explicit videos and nude images of themselves to OnlyFans, after buying into the propaganda circulating on social media that OnlyFans offers them a path to fame, popularity, and riches. 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.”
In addition to the children who self-generate CSAM on OnlyFans, there are also cases of children being exploited by traffickers and abusers. For example, in January 2021 a Miami couple was charged for human trafficking after posting an intimate video of a minor on OnlyFans. 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. [In 2020] the number of those cases nearly tripled.” Police forces testified to the BBC that they receive complaints from children who had others upload intimate images of them to OnlyFans without their consent, these images sometimes being used for blackmail.
Law enforcement personnel have also shared with NCOSE that creating an OnlyFans account for minors has become a grooming tactic in itself, employed by predators. As OnlyFans’ popularity increases among young people, the desire to become a creator makes minors an easy target: predators “benevolently” offer to set up an account in order to cheat the age-verification system and then slowly assert control over the minor through the account.
While OnlyFans claims to have robust identity and age verification systems, they have proven to be insufficient as evidenced by the above cases (and many more) of CSAM on the platform. OnlyFans’ verification process for creator accounts requires submitting front and back pictures of a government-issued photo ID, a “selfie” with the ID held up to the account owner’s face, and providing a link to a social media account. As the investigations conducted by law enforcement and the BBC demonstrate, these systems can and have been routinely circumvented.
Law enforcement, including human trafficking investigators and federal agents, have been sounding the alarm about the instances and indicators of sex trafficking they’re seeing in connection to OnlyFans. It is very difficult for law enforcement to investigate OnlyFans for sex trafficking and criminal activity, due to the fact that most of the content is hidden behind a paywall. However, because OnlyFans is so heavily publicized on social media, police can use open-source data from social media to note sex trafficking indicators. A research collaboration project between Human Trafficking Detective Joseph Scaramucci and The Avery Center for Research and Services took this approach, analyzing public Instagram accounts which had OnlyFans links in their bios. Of these accounts, 36% were classified as “likely third-party controlled.” Detective Scaramucci explained that there are important indicators that the women in some of the pictures may be victims coerced by sex traffickers even when the pornographic images seem consensual to the casual observer.
Furthermore, OnlyFans encourages grooming and pimping through its referral system, which functions as a kind of “multi-level marketing scheme.” This system gives users a referral link and if another person signs up to be an OnlyFans creator through that link, the referrer will profit up to 5% of the new user’s earnings for the first year. It is no surprise, therefore, that online pimps actively recruit new women to join, often employing force, fraud, or coercion and therefore meeting the legal definition of sex trafficking.
One survivor of OnlyFans explained the tactics of online pimps: “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 [and] 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 a survey of past and current OnlyFans creators, 30% said that they had had this experience of suspected traffickers messaging them, offering to manage their account for a share of the profits. These creators had received such messages an average of seven times. Recent coverage from the Rolling Stone related numerous testimonies from OnlyFans creators who fell to the false promises of so-called “managers”, only to be financially abused, deceived, trapped into exploitative contracts, blackmailed, and to have their images distributed without their consent.
It is seriously doubtful that the pornography industry in general could ever develop a reliable metric for verifying consent to prevent sex trafficking, 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 that they are for studio-produced pornography. As such, there are even fewer barriers facing traffickers when it comes to using sites like OnlyFans.
OnlyFans has already demonstrated that it will tolerate material that goes against its terms of service if this material is making them a large profit. The BBC investigations discovered that OnlyFans moderators do not immediately shut down accounts that post illegal or banned content, and that they are specifically instructed to be more lenient towards lucrative accounts. One whistleblower who worked as an OnlyFans moderator testified to the BBC: “There is a discrimination between accounts. It shows money is the priority.” Considering the horrific crimes occurring on their platform, such as child sexual exploitation and sex trafficking, this avaricious approach is nothing short of despicable.
While some claim OnlyFans is safe because it doesn’t require physical contact with sex buyers, in reality it leaves people vulnerable to sextortion, stalking, non-consensually distributed pornography, escalation into more extreme acts, and mental and physical health harms.
In the aforementioned survey of past or current OnlyFans creators, 34% said that they had experienced direct negative impacts on their mental or physical health. Only 11% felt that OnlyFans was a safe platform for creators.
OnlyFans creators commonly testify that once they began selling content on OnlyFans, they were pressured to escalate toward producing “content” they were uncomfortable with. Complying with the demands of the “fans” was the only way to continue making money through subscriptions and additional “tips”. The high ratio of “creators” to “fans” on the platform means that the competition to attract and maintain subscribers is fierce. As one former OnlyFans creator explained: “The competition means that you push the boundaries, otherwise you leave.”
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 their guidelines and the subscriber’s account would not be removed.
Journalist Julie Bindel 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.’”
To make matters worse, OnlyFans has a policy of granting automatic refunds to subscribers who are blocked, regardless of the reason they are blocked. According to creators, this incentivizes abuse. Many creators have shared that they suspect subscribers intentionally become abusive at the end of a pay period, so that they will be blocked and receive a refund. It also felt unjust to creators that they should be financially penalized for suffering mistreatment. This system could discourage creators from reporting subscribers, therefore perpetuating abuse and leaving dangerous subscribers on the platform.
OnlyFans promotes itself as a safe platform, but the truth is it pedals psychological trauma, blackmail, harassment and abuse, “leaked” information and videos, and a competitive marketplace that drives performers to do increasingly violent or degrading acts.
OnlyFans has been disturbingly successful in normalizing and glamorizing the commercial sex industry, perhaps more so than any other platform to-date. This has resulted in many people engaging in the commercial sex industry who otherwise may not have and who are doing so without understanding all the risks involved. Adults and children alike have turned to OnlyFans hoping to make ludicrous amounts of money or achieve popularity and fame. OnlyFans marketing strategies and its “pyramid scheme” directly fuel this.
By branding themselves as an “influencer” platform, OnlyFans has convinced many children and adults that the way to become popular and influential is to sell one’s body. They intentionally blur the lines between the commercial sex industry and mainstream social media by saying, “As far as we’re concerned, if you use social media and produce your own content, you should be using OnlyFans.”
OnlyFans promises easy money to new and amateur creators with their slogan: “Anyone can earn.” They declare on their website that earnings could be between $1,499 and $7,495 per month. In reality, the average content creator makes only $151 per month.
Furthermore, OnlyFans’ referral system sets up a type of “pyramid scheme” where creators are incentivized to recruit other creators, since they then profit up to 5% of the new creator’s earnings. This means that OnlyFans creators have a vested interest in making the life seem more glamorous than it is and to flood social media with these messages.
OnlyFans can also draw individuals into other sectors of the commercial sex industry as well. Research published by The Avery Center found that creators often transition to in-person prostitution after discovering they are unable to make enough money on OnlyFans to sustain themselves. As one creator testified: “It [led] me to start in-person work. I realized I was already doing online [commercial sex transactions] and I knew I could make more doing in person.” Survivors and police also warn that platforms like OnlyFans serve as a gateway to prostitution. A Swedish police officer specializing in human trafficking, Simon Häggström, has stated: “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 is certainly not the first and, sadly, will likely not be the last company to build its business model on sexual exploitation. Nor is it likely the largest site hosting CSAM and sex trafficking, but its prominence in the current zeitgeist and glamorization of the sex industry warrants its place for the second year in a row on the Dirty Dozen List.
According to federal law (FOSTA-SESTA) it is illegal for websites to knowingly facilitate prostitution or sex trafficking. Call on the Department of Justice to investigate OnlyFans, and call on financial institutions to sever ties with OnlyFans. Take action below.