Dr Elena Martellozzo and Paula Bradbury of the Centre for Abuse and Trauma Studies examine the impact OnlyFans has had on young women during the coronavirus pandemic.
The existence of OnlyFans predates the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown of 2020, but its popularity and notoriety increased significantly over the last year. OnlyFans came to our attention through celebrity endorsements, other social media platforms, and apps. Notably, there was also the BBC Three documentary entitled Nudes4Sale.
This British investigative documentary revealed how thousands of people across the world – including celebrities, ordinary members of the public and, more concerningly, teenagers – are making a healthy profit from selling self-generated sexual content for cash through the platform OnlyFans. On OnlyFans you earn money by gaining member subscriptions and by generating content that people want to pay for. The girls featured in the documentary reported to be earning as much as £35,000 in a single month. We now know that potential earning figures go way beyond this.
But these kinds of successes are unique, and only experienced by the few – leaving a significant number vulnerable to a darker side of OnlyFans, and the manipulative and predatory behaviours of individuals that operate within it.
With a fast-growing subscription of more than 200,000 new members every 24 hours, it’s easy to see how enthusiastic endorsements by the likes of Beyoncé and Cardi B make OnlyFans an attractive site for young women.
What the endorsements don’t show, though, is that OnlyFans is a fiercely competitive market where young women fall into a cycle: they are compelled to raise their game by sharing more and more of their bodies, and perform sexual acts requested by subscribers to maintain their interest, increase their popularity and earn more money.
The women in the Nudes4Sale documentary had all received messages from subscribers asking them to participate in offline sex acts. One of the girls interviewed in the documentary, Lauren, admitted that she received messages offering £5,000 for sex. While Lauren can afford to say no, many less successful young women – potentially young teenage girls – cannot. And so, they’re lured into danger with the promise of money.
And during a pandemic, having an income is more crucial than ever.
“It’s impossible to say precisely how lockdown is impacting our behaviour and what the side effects will be”, said Anne Marie Tomchak, in her recent piece in Glamour, “but there are already indications that more nudes are being requested and sent during this time as people increase their digital interactions while staying at home, and OnlyFans reports a spike in activity.”
OnlyFans sparked a global media response to rising concerns of adolescent online risk-taking, and the legal ramifications of creating, distributing and possessing sexual images of a minor – laws which children themselves are no less impervious to.
A 2020 report published by the IWF revealed that they have identified a 44% increase (of all intercepted content) in the number of self-generated indecent images produced by children, of which the most prolific age group is girls between 11 and 13.
The COVID-19 global pandemic has not only revealed our vulnerabilities to biological viral threats, but also to our ability to protect our children online.
In the midst of lockdown, COVID-19 has facilitated a greater opportunity for digital immersion. While the internet opens up a plethora of positive opportunities for individual growth and self-acceptance, there is also the potential for great harm to be caused against the most vulnerable in our communities; children and young people.
Immature cognitive development and reduced capacity to self-regulate has left children at risk from criminal accountability, sexual predators, and the dark side of the online sex industry (Naezer, 2018). With the easy opportunity to view pornography and violent content at the click of a button, there’s also the easy opportunity to produce it, and sell it to those with a sexual predilection in children (IWF, 2020).
In 2021, the online marketplace for sharing sexual images for cash is no longer dominated by the sex industry and adult sex workers. It is a phenomenon that goes beyond regulation, and is being dominated by teenagers as purveyors for their self-production of nude, semi-nude, on-demand kink images and videos for online clients.
Andy Burrows, head of child safety online policy at the NSPCC, said: “We are concerned that there are risks to be associated with user-generated explicit abuse content sites, such as Only Fans, which are worthy of substantive academic focus. This relates to children being readily able to access inappropriate and sexually explicit content, both on the site itself but also as a result of user generated content being posted as ‘trailers’ to social networks.”
We would encourage all parents to familiarise themselves with social media, particularly those platforms which are popular with young people. Don’t assume that your teen will not visit sites such as OnlyFans.
Parents need to be aware that social media apps such as Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat are the most commonly used platforms for sex offenders to target and groom children, at a rate of 37% of recorded cases for Instagram alone (NSPCC, 2020).
Tiktok has aggressively responded to the high volume of Onlyfans members who prolifically use their platform to advertise links to their accounts and content by introducing stricter community guidelines, but as the authors have seen, a large volume falls beneath the radar which includes sexually explicit information about sex acts, fetishes and violence. Many Onlyfans members simply create a new account once removed.
If you discover that your child is actively engaging with such sites, don’t make them feel guilty. It’s not your child’s fault. Children often visit such sites through peer pressure, general curiosity or simply by accident. However, do prevent them from accessing it in future. It may not make you a popular parent, but it’s what needs to be done to keep your child safe, online and offline. We recommend the following:
Martellozzo et al (2020) found that stumbling across inappropriate content can have significant adverse impacts for children and young people. This includes distorting their view of sex and relationships, and potentially having a desensitising effect for some young people.
Online pornography is increasingly widely identified as an influence on children’s and young people’s sexual lives (Crabbe & Flood, 2021) . Whether we like or not, pornography is recognised as an important part of young people’s sexual socialisation and deserves to be addressed with young people. The existence of sites such as OnlyFans should be included in the discussions.
Dr Martellozzo is an Associate Professor in Criminology at the centre for Child Abuse and Trauma Studies (CATS) at Middlesex University. She has extensive experience of applied research within the Criminal Justice arena, and her research includes exploring children and young people’s online behaviour, the analysis of sexual grooming and police practice in the area of child sexual abuse.
Dr Martellozzo is a prolific writer and has participated in highly sensitive research with the Police, the IWF, the NSPCC, the OCC, the Home Office and other government departments. She has also acted as an advisor on child online protection to governments and practitioners in Italy (since 2004), Bahrain (2016) and the Rwandan Government (2019) to develop a national child internet safety policy framework.
Paula Bradbury is a Criminology Lecturer and Doctoral Researcher within the School of Law at Middlesex University, exploring the appropriateness of current policy and practice relating to adolescent sexual offending and sexual behaviour between peers. She is passionate about researching online sexual offending behaviour and child abuse.
Paula is an active member of the CATS team engaging in multiple research pathways to combat child sexual abuse both online and offline as a mixed methods researcher proficient in both quantitative and qualitative analysis, and project management. She is also the National Child Sexual Abuse Lead for Victim Support, serving as a project manager developing online support content for adult survivors or child sexual abuse.
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