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The rise and fall of OnlyFans

Due to its recent growth in popularity, many people are aware of the content subscription service known as OnlyFans. The platform is a hub for content creators to share videos and images, typically of the pornographic variety, to their ‘fans’ or subscribers. It currently has around 12 million registered users, with over 70,000 content creators. The organisation has continued to grow and reach new audiences.

Due to the overwhelming amount of content that contains explicit or pornographic material, the platform has received its fair share of backlash from religious organisations and parents concerned that their children may be exposed to explicit content. Sex workers use the platform to help promote their likeness instead of common social media platforms that typically ban any explicit content from being posted.

Let’s discuss the OnlyFans site some more, how it became a household name and its recent policy change that sparked outrage.

Early days of OnlyFans

OnlyFans was created in 2016 by Timothy Stokely and is based in London. Stokely already had a hand in the adult media industry when he founded in 2011 and Customs4U in 2013. After spending time with those ventures, Stokely realised the opportunity to launch a website that accommodates adult content creators.

Stokely understood that traditional social media platforms, such as Instagram and Twitter, don’t allow explicit content to be posted. He saw this as a chance to create OnlyFans to solve this issue for those interested in sharing pornographic, explicit content for cash. Thus, the creation of OnlyFans. So, how does it work?

Subscribers need to pay either a monthly subscription fee, which ranges from $5 to $50. OnlyFans takes 20 per cent of the profit content creators make off the app, while the creators themselves take 80 per cent. The site appeals to subscribers because of the exclusive content they have access to once they pay their fees.

Fans can interact with the creator they subscribe to and even make special requests, asking creators to customise their content for them. Surprisingly, most of the special requests are not explicit in nature. One creator mentioned that more subscribers simply wanted more time to talk to her—creators feel that they’re offering more than just explicit content to their subscribers. 

While the platform has helped sex workers break into new audiences and grow their online persona, there are concerns regarding minors on the site.

Issues of child trafficking, exploitation and pornography

With any online platform, parents and child trafficking advocates worry that there are risks associated with their access to OnlyFans content. Girls as young as 13 are posting personal content on their pages and making money from subscriptions. While OnlyFans does have an age verification policy, the system can experience issues. In some cases, children will use older relatives’ information to set up an account. Still, OnlyFans believes that their age verification process goes “over and above” the regulatory requirements. 

Schools have shared cases with the UK police, saying that they know students use the platform to share explicit content. One student even reported being blackmailed.

OnlyFans enlists moderators to check on content daily, using keywords to search for illegal content in bios. Moderators can give multiple warnings to anyone posting content that breaches their policies. If enough notices are given, OnlyFans will terminate the account.

While these issues are still prevalent, OnlyFans recently dealt with a murky situation regarding possible policy changes in the coming months.

Policy change issues surrounding OnlyFans

OnlyFans planned to ban sexually explicit content, which helped the platform grow in popularity and gain thousands of subscribers and content creators. The platform claims that pressures from investors, banks and payment processors contributed to this monumental change.

After announcing that sexually explicit content would be banned, OnlyFans received a ton of backlash. Many sex workers who rely on the platform as a source of income are upset—their content contributed to the platform’s growth. Some creators even deleted their OnlyFans accounts and transitioned to other platforms, like Fansly, where they could still share whatever content they’d like.

As a result of this widespread outrage, OnlyFans decided to retract its statement and hold off on making the policy change. The official OnlyFans account sent out a tweet explaining its decision. The company received assurances from investors that it would continue to receive their support regardless of distributed content.

Sex workers have noted that this ban will endanger lives, according to The Guardian. Many believe OnlyFans to be a safe space for employees in the industry, and by taking it away from sex workers, this change may force them on the street. In addition, activists say this riskier job could endanger more lives through unsafe conditions.

Is OnlyFans safe?

When we discuss the exploitation of sex workers, the topic gets a little tricky. Though sex work can be dangerous, like all work, some wonder if the app is safe enough for sex workers to use. Many critics even perpetuate the idea that some OnlyFans users prey on sex workers through the app.

Though sex trafficking is a serious global issue with thousands of victims, there are many activist groups that debunk the connection between sex work and sex trafficking. Additionally, OnlyFans released a statement of commitment to proactively monitor and take action against any fraud or security threats against its users and creators:

“OnlyFans is strictly an 18 and over social media platform. OnlyFans does not tolerate any violations of our policies and we immediately take action to uphold the safety and security of our users. The platform’s Trust & Safety division has grown alongside the business and OnlyFans continues to commit top resources to this area. OnlyFans hosts over 1.25 million creators. The site has in-depth policies and procedures in place to proactively monitor any attempt to fraudulently access the platform, including access by minors, and should there be any contravention of these terms, the account is immediately closed. OnlyFans continues to increase monitoring measures to prevent any fraudulent breaches.”

The uncertain future of OnlyFans

While the policy is suspended right now, the situation is evolving. The policy may be reinstated, while some believe that creators will still release sexually explicit content and continue using the site for financial security.

While street-based sex work is a popular and legitimate trade, we could very well see an increase in sex work activisim and street-based work if OnlyFans were to move forward with this change.

Children are using fake IDs to sell explicit videos on OnlyFans

On 1 July 2016, British entrepreneur Tim Stokely launched OnlyFans, a subscription-based platform that allows creators to charge fans for the content they share. Fast-forwarding to 2021, OnlyFans has been dubbed “the hottest social media platform in the world” with over 1 million creators and 100 million users. While DJ Khaled and Fat Joe cemented OnlyFans’ growth with their own sign-ups, a recent BBC investigation revealed the company’s failure in keeping a particular demographic off its platform: underage users—with children as young as 13 setting up accounts using fake documents of their older relatives.

As part of the investigation, BBC News spoke to several child protection experts and police forces across the UK and US, and obtained anonymised extracts from child counsellors at various schools. The BBC also set up an underage account leveraging a 26-year-old’s identification to show how the platform’s age-verification process could be easily cheated. From ‘co-authoring’ explicit material with older creators to spotting missing children in some videos, the investigation revealed a number of shocking insights regarding underage experiences on OnlyFans.

The case of feet photos and a grandmother’s passport

According to the Hertfordshire Police, a 14-year-old girl had managed to trick OnlyFans’ age-verification system by using her grandmother’s passport and bank details. The money made from selling a plethora of explicit images was then redirected by the girl from her grandmother’s account into her own.

Another case reported by the BBC followed Leah, a 17-year-old girl based in England, who was able to set up an underage account and sell explicit videos by using a fake driver’s licence. She told her mother, Caitlyn, about her original intention of posting pictures of her feet on OnlyFans after making money selling them on Snapchat. However, she quickly escalated into sharing explicit videos on the platform, which raked in as much as £5,000 under a week. The 17-year-old reportedly spent the money to buy presents for her boyfriend including more than £1,000 splurged on designer clothes. The BBC also found comments like “beautiful” and “sexy” under tweets that advertised her OnlyFans account. These tweets sometimes included teaser videos with some users even asking the underage creator to meet up offline.

Leah’s underage account was reported to OnlyFans by an anonymous user in January 2021. This led to a moderator reviewing the account and double-checking her identification document (ID). According to the company, her ID appeared legitimate and no further action was taken. In a statement to the BBC later, OnlyFans explained how Leah’s ability to access the platform was an “oversight” evading a red flag. The company also added that her account was approved during “a transition from one effective ID and age verification system to a new exceptionally effective one.” OnlyFans further highlighted how it checks social media when verifying accounts although there is no particular obligation for a website to investigate. Leah’s mother, however, stated that her daughter’s age was mentioned on every social media account she was on.

Although Leah stopped posting on OnlyFans, her account remained active on the platform for four months after the initial report in January. After being contacted by BBC News, OnlyFans shut down Leah’s page. The platform has also refunded all active subscriptions to her account. But images she previously shared have reportedly been leaked on the internet—leaving the 17-year-old anxious about leaving the house in the fear of being recognised.

According to her mother, Leah has had “big issues growing up and missed a lot of education.” The girl also had an experience where explicit images of her were once shared around school without her consent. The present situation added fuel to her harrowing experiences, with Leah delaying her plans for college altogether. “She won’t go out at all,” her mother said. “She doesn’t want to be seen.”

‘Co-authoring’ videos with minors and missing children

In terms of ‘co-authored’ content, OnlyFans requires creators to submit documentation proving all contributors to be above 18 years of age. All contributors are also required to be registered creators on the platform. The BBC investigation, however, unveiled a shocking case where an underage user was repeatedly cast in explicit videos featured on an account run by an older creator.

Aaron, a teenager based in Nevada, was 17 when he started making videos on the platform with his older girlfriend. According to his friend Jordan, Aaron didn’t have an independent account on the platform but “got sucked into” appearing in explicit videos posted by his girlfriend, Cody. The duo amassed as much as $5,000 for a single video, which they split among themselves.

“Aaron was elated that they were making such an amazing amount of money for just having sex on camera for other people to watch,” said a woman who has known the 17-year-old for many years. She added how Aaron had a tough childhood and was “very vulnerable to exploitation.” The teen also encouraged an underage Jordan to make videos on OnlyFans. “He used to say: ‘Bro, you can do it. We make so much money a week. It’s easy, you don’t have to work ever’,” Jordan admitted. Although his girlfriend’s account was reported to the police in October 2020, it wasn’t removed until the BBC contacted OnlyFans about the case in May 2021. Aaron, who is 18 now, has broken up with Cody—currently harbouring plans to start his own OnlyFans account.

As part of the investigation, BBC News also approached police forces in the UK and US about complaints they had received involving children appearing on the platform. The list of complaints lodged included claims of revenge porn faced by a 17-year-old in South Wales—who was blackmailed into continuing her OnlyFans account or having photographs from the platform shared with her family. Three other children complained about their images being uploaded to the platform without their consent while another 17-year-old claimed to have her face edited onto someone else’s body.

Then there is the case of missing children being linked to videos on the platform. “In 2019 there were around a dozen children known to be missing being linked with content on OnlyFans,” said Staca Shehan, the Vice President of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). In her statement to the BBC, Shehan explained how these numbers have nearly tripled over the last year. While much of the explicit content was self-initiated by underage children, NCMEC also admitted to finding evidence of sexual exploitation and child trafficking on the platform. The BBC further mentioned how a couple based in Florida were charged with human trafficking after selling a topless photograph of a missing 16-year-old girl on OnlyFans.

Age-verification and the “toxic cocktail of risks”

As a response to all the findings from the investigation, OnlyFans said that it would work with online exploitation agencies like NCMEC to raise any potential issues with the relevant authorities. The platform also plans to take swift action and disable accounts if notified. It also claimed to have updated its age-verification system since then to further reduce the chances of cases like these happening again.

BBC News, however, tested the platform’s “new exceptionally effective system” in April 2021. The updated age-verification system requires applicants to upload a picture of themselves holding up their ID cards next to their face. While a fake ID did not work, the BBC investigators were able to set up an account for an underage creator by using her 26-year-old sister’s passport. In this sense, OnlyFans’ verification system essentially failed to distinguish between the sisters despite the age gap.

After setting up an account, applicants must provide bank details to receive payment through OnlyFans. This step, however, is not a deterrent to posting videos and images on the platform. The investigation further revealed how creators can monetise their content by arranging payments through third-party apps. One of the most popular alternatives found was Cash App, with scores of accounts advertising the payment method on the platform—all of this in violation of the company’s guidelines that prohibits the mention of Cash App and its variants.

On 12 May 2021, the UK government published the Online Safety Bill with the aim of moderating and protecting children from being exposed to explicit content online. The bill is set to implement an age-verification process for accessing porn in the UK and imposing fines of up to £18 million or 10 per cent of a company’s global turnover if they fail to keep children safe on the platform. While concerns are raised about the time the bill requires to be implemented, some are wondering if the law would suffice as a deterrent for wealthy tech companies.

As critics argue how the government should have acted sooner, child safety experts are increasingly expressing their concerns over the mental risks children are exposing themselves to by appearing on such platforms. According to the notes shared by a Childline counsellor with the BBC, both underage users and creators of the platform include those with traumatic experiences of prior sexual abuse, mental health issues and suicidal thoughts. Although the majority of the accounts are self-initiated, the permanent way forward is rooted in high moderation—thereby reducing the chances of underage users “accidentally stumbling upon” such explicit content.

Innovations like OnlyFans may have “changed internet culture and social behaviour forever,” but it has also blurred the line between influencer culture and sexualised content on social media platforms. Although OnlyFans has had a tremendous impact on various lives over the pandemic, the one they have on such young, mouldable users may just be more etched and permanent.