Recently, I attended an online conference and learned more about a phenomenon I’d already been hearing tidbits about. Then I attended a meeting for sex educators (online) and found I was the most knowledgeable person on this topic.
It’s time to spread the word. Every sex educator, therapist and parent needs to know about the slippery slope from social media content creator to sex worker. Everyone needs to know what’s happening on a new platform called OnlyFans.
Let me warn you though, this is a bit dark. I’m going to explain how people are being groomed and coerced into sex work. Some people might find this content upsetting. At the same time, it’s important to understand the path of this rabbit hole, so that you can protect your family and community.
OnlyFans is a social media platform created by executives from the porn industry. 90% of the content and traffic on the platform is pornographic.
If you visit OnlyFans.com, though, you’ll see it’s not presented that way. It is marketed as a place where social media leaders can earn an income from their followers.
What OnlyFans offers is a paid membership system. Anyone can start an account and be a creator or a follower. Creators post content, usually videos, and their followers pay a subscription fee to view that content. Subscribers can tip and direct message creators. Of course, OnlyFans takes a cut of what each creator earns.
This sounds great! It seems like you could post the freebie version of your content on a social media platform – Twitter, Facebook, Instagram – and the full version on OnlyFans, and get paid! You could build a following, move those most interested in what you do to OnlyFans, and make money from your talent. This is the dream, what OnlyFans markets on their homepage.
The Slippery Slope
The reality of what is happening is very different. The direct messaging feature and the tip feature open a relationship between the creator and the subscriber. These subscribers are not friends or people the creator knows in real life. They’re strangers, strangers who are already on OnlyFans for sex.
Some of the subscribers will follow new creators, someone who has just begun uploading content. Often they’ll choose to follow a young attractive woman.
That young woman may have checked the box that she is over 18 and created an account when she is actually much younger. That young woman might imagine that her subscribers want to see her workout video, listen to her newest song, watch her modeling the latest fashion. She believes there’s a shared interest between herself and her subscribers, and in her innocence and entrepreneurial spirit, she begins messaging back and forth with the men following her. She revels in the attention and is flattered by the tips. It feels like the start of something amazing.
With her new cash, she gains a little more freedom: luxury items, money to invest in her content, fewer hours at a crappy job. She starts to depend on that money.
But as time goes on, the subscribers start making suggestions. They offer big tips for certain content. They ask for more revealing clothes, fetishized videos, certain fantasies.
If she has the integrity to turn them down, she loses subscribers and income. If she plays along, making sexier content becomes normal, and they push her further. More revealing clothing, sexier poses, a little nudity, a lot of nudity, masturbation videos…
While we want our teens to be creative, to explore their interests, to be leaders, OnlyFans takes these healthy impulses and channels teens toward sex work.
It’s not just the women. This happens to male creators, too.
And it’s not just young people who are feeling entrepreneurial. Some of them are happily creating content on safer social media platforms, for free, and then get recruited to OnlyFans.
Some creator accounts on OnlyFans are owned by third parties. They control the account (and therefore the cash) while featuring someone else in their videos.
Some third-party creators recruit teens. They surf a social media site like Instagram, looking for a young person who has a following. They then give the OnlyFans sell, suggesting that the young person join their channel – which already has a significant number of subscribers – and earn a percentage or fee.
This “partnership” brings the young person and their following to OnlyFans, to the third-party creator’s channel. This third-party creator controls the money and the content, and he invariably solicits sexier content from the young person, leading them down the slippery slope.
If the young person refuses, they are blackmailed. The recruiter threatens to cut off their income and upload the most compromising content to YouTube, linking that video with derogatory social media posts, ruining that young person’s online reputation.
The recruiter is really an online pimp, and many go on to be in-person pimps. They groom their models to create risque content, then porn, and to sext subscribers. Eventually, they take their stars “on tour,” posting dates and cities, offering escort services.
That’s the rabbit hole. It’s a bleak picture, but if we’re aware of the danger here – the danger of being coerced, sexually abused, and sex trafficked – we can help protect our young people.
It might seem like the answer is to make sure that your child never hears of OnlyFans or chooses never to engage with the platform. They’re in control of their account, or they’re making videos of their own design, by choice, right? Maybe we can just make sure kids don’t know about this site or choose not to post content there. That would seem to do the trick.
But there’s another layer.
Against their will
Not everyone in a video has consented to have that video posted online. The third-party creator could be an abusive boyfriend who uploads videos which were initially made consensually and intended to be private. It could be a child abuser or sex trafficker who coerces their victim into making porn videos. It could be a peeping tom who placed a hidden camera in a locker room or bedroom.
Nothing about the OnlyFans platform ensures that the content being shared was meant to be shared. Nothing about the platform ensures that the videos do not violate the law.
With social media, and OnlyFans specifically, how do we fight for justice and protect the vulnerable? We already know about cyberbullying and revenge porn, but this takes it to a new level.
Law enforcement is well aware of what’s happening – I learned much of this information from a presentation by an officer specialized in sex trafficking. While they know what’s happening, police have little power to hold abusive third-party creators accountable.
Our laws, regulations, and investigators are scrambling to keep up. While they might be able to learn information about the creator, investigators often have a difficult time identifying the minors shown in the videos. Behind the paywall, it’s very hard for law enforcement to gain access to videos to build a case.
The internet is still the wild west. There’s a lot of lawless behavior, and we need to invest in creating systems that protect vulnerable young people online.
Now that we know, what do we do?
Since there’s no easy short cut around this, you know what I’m going to say: we need to talk about it. We need to talk about this at every level.
Talk with your kids about what content is safe to post online. We know that content posted to the internet takes on a life of its own. Once it’s up, it’s never really down. It’s backed up somewhere on some server, downloaded or screenshots saved. There are things which are public and things which are private, and your child needs to know the difference. If that boundary gets pushed, they need to go to you or know how to block that person.
Monitor your child’s social media posts. As much as you can, know what accounts they have and what they’re posting about. If you use parental monitoring software, you may be able to create settings which alert you to posts containing OnlyFans links or hashtags or which filter them out.
If you see any links or hashtags containing OnlyFans, educate those kids and parents. As you’re monitoring your child’s posts, you might see such a thing from one of their friends, and then you know it’s time to tell them the whole OnlyFans story. Or, you might see that one of your child’s friend’s posts includes a link to OnlyFans. Then it’s time to tell their parents what you’ve seen and what the danger is.
Lastly, and forgive me if this is obvious, boycott OnlyFans. Don’t be a subscriber to anything there, even if it’s the rare wholesome creator, and don’t be a creator yourself. Talk with your spouse and others and ask them to boycott OnlyFans as well. Put your money where your values are, and don’t give them a cent.
Activism for change
Most of us are full to the brim with careers and kids, coronavirus safeguards, and figuring out what’s for dinner. However, if you have energy for more, or happen to work in an industry that could produce change, here are some ideas:
- Educate parents, teens, and others to be savvy about OnlyFans
- Bring cyber safety experts to present to your child’s school
- Add OnlyFans to the list of unsafe unapproved apps for kids, and create phone settings and parental monitoring software which automatically limits teens from interacting with the site
- Lobby law enforcement to shift resources toward investigating online crimes, especially child pornography and sex trafficking
- Pressure financial institutions NOT to accept money from porn sites or OnlyFans. If banks, Visa, Mastercard, PayPal, and so on refuse to transact with OnlyFans, the system will crumble.
- Create laws which regulate social media platforms and pornography sites, holding them accountable for the content they disseminate.
- Learn more about activism campaigns already underway and sign a petition or two here.
Thanks for reading this
Really. I know it’s a dark underbelly and it feels heavy. If you’re galvanized to action, write that email or click on this link. If not, please take a break. Step away from the screen and have a nice cup of tea.
I’m so grateful that you’re willing to engage with me, to learn the hard truth, to think about and have the hard conversations. Forewarned is forearmed. I hope none of you need to have a conversation with your child about OnlyFans, but if you do, I’m here to help you with it. The link for a free call is here.
In support of you,
P.S. An update on me: I haven’t managed to be very active this summer, but in no way am I closing up shop. I still check email, have a few private clients, give workshops, and think about what to offer and write about next. I’m organizing my ideas for a new webinar. I’m also juggling parenting and teaching full time. I hope I can slowly bring my output back up to pre-pandemic levels, but it will be a while before I’m as active as I was a year and a half ago. All that said, please don’t hesitate to reach out if you want or need anything! And if you’ve sent me a message and I haven’t responded, it’s totally ok to nudge me again.