IF THESE PAYWALLS COULD TALK

by anna mcguire, cease intern

From being name-dropped in a Beyoncé lyric to serving as a punchline on Saturday Night Live, OnlyFans has increasingly become a part of our popular culture. While it might seem easy to joke about, the consequences of OnlyFans’ expansion are incredibly serious. Behind its paywalls, the platform conceals sexual exploitation, trafficking and underage users.

Founded in 2016, OnlyFans markets itself as a platform that allows influencers from various industries, like fitness and cooking, to share lifestyle content directly to paying subscribers. While OnlyFans has not quantified how much of their platform is ‘adult content,’ the platform is most commonly associated with  sexually explicit content. OnlyFans’ basic business model operates like other sex industries whereby consumers (primarily men) pay to view explicit images and videos produced by creators (primarily women) and can pay for certain ‘premiums’ like direct messaging. At the corporate level, the process is highly lucrative: OnlyFans reported over $5.5 billion in sales in 2022.

Online, it’s common to see OnlyFans celebrated by influencers touting the financial success the platform has supposedly helped them obtain, or in interviews with OnlyFans executives describing safety measures on the platform. But behind the smoke and mirrors of PR and marketing, various forms of sexual exploitation continue to exist on the platform.

An investigation published by Reuters earlier this year identified 128 complaints in the United States of nonconsensual shared pornography uploaded to the platform. And in 2021, the BBC reported instances of minors bypassing platform age-verification procedures and successfully uploading explicit content. Other news outlets, like the New York Times and the Washington Post, have also reported on OnlyFans trafficking schemes where individuals are able to encourage, control and manipulate individually posted content. Perhaps the most high-profile example of this is Andrew Tate, who was accused of forcing women to record content for OnlyFans in recent Romanian court filings.

While OnlyFans claims to be responsive to these concerns, this type of content continues to exist on the platform. In fact, at the beginning of this May 2024, Ofcom announced it would be investigating OnlyFans’ age-verification measures due to reports that the mechanisms were not effectively preventing minors from accessing the platform. While these types of investigations are a positive first step, unfortunately, fully uncovering the extent of harmful behavior on OnlyFans will be a difficult process. Given that most OnlyFans creators operate behind a paywall, it can be difficult to conduct systematic investigations or even for police forces to investigate singular allegations of misconduct.

With the recent passage of the Online Safety Act, the UK has been granted a unique opportunity to push for greater digital safety measures for children and adults alike. For platforms like OnlyFans, which will eventually fall under the Online Safety Act, the implementation of the bill will allow for regulators to advocate for greater transparency on the types of harmful behaviours occurring online. OnlyFans CEO, Keily Blair, has welcomed the Online Safety Act as an opportunity to push for greater duty of care online. Truly upholding this public duty of care would mean pushing against the distribution of illegal and illicit online content and preventing further sexual exploitation. So, as implementation of the Online Safety Act begins, it’s imperative that we finally take OnlyFans seriously.

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