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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — When OnlyFans announced a ban on sexually explicit content, panic among some content creators ensued. 

Public uproar drove the subscription site to suspend its decision in August, causing pushback from online human trafficking victim advocates, while creators who relied on the site for income celebrated.

Claire of Kansas City, whose last name is withheld for security, said she created an OnlyFans account in February 2020 after a family member recommended online sex work, rather than paid modeling gigs and exotic dancing.

She looks at her livelihood on OnlyFans like anyone else who’s committed to a career.

“Any job you’re doing, you’re selling your body for an allotted amount of time,” she said. “For me, I choose to be a 23-year-old that can travel the world and work two hours a week.” 

But victim advocates say with the popularity of the platform comes the risk of predatory behavior, human trafficking or violence.

“Every time you get on camera, you run that risk of that one [person] that could possibly do physical harm to you, and god forbid, kill you as a result of it,” said Dr. Stephany Powell, director of law enforcement training and survivor services at the National Center of Sexual Exploitation.

The Money Lure of OnlyFans

Megan, 31, whose last name is withheld for security, has been posting nude photographs online for money since she was 27 years old.

Unlike other jobs she’s had, she says online sex work has made her feel happier and is more lucrative.

“It was very liberating to be able to not have to worry about the pressures of anybody else, and just do what I wanted to do,” she said.

She estimates a revenue of $2,000 to $3,000 from her OnlyFans account each month.

“I do classify myself as a sex worker at this point just because there really is no intermediate between that,” she said. “Do I do porn? By no means, no. Do some people do it on OnlyFans? For sure.”

Ami Gan, spokesperson for OnlyFans, said in an email that OnlyFans creators receive 80% of earnings on the platform.

Claire said sex work is a spectrum, and knows girls who have only made $100 their whole time on OnlyFans, as well as some who make $100,000 per month.

“That’s the thing, is it can be such a bottomless pit,” she said.

But Powell said the majority of people on websites, like OnlyFans, are not making big money, which makes explicit content creators relying solely on sex work for income prime targets for online trafficking recruiters.

“If money becomes the driver, and you’re talking about a person that might be immature and only thinking about the money, it’s going to be really easy to drag them down this rabbit hole of doing more for more money,” Powell said.

“Now, the risk is involved that they are meeting someone who is, not only exploiting them and using their bodies, but could cause harm to them, as well.”

Empowered or Victimized?

Websites like OnlyFans, where asking for money in exchange for explicit content, have become exceedingly popular, and it’s a slippery slope to exploitation and abuse, Powell said.

She said visitors may not realize some people are not advertising themselves online for sex on their own accord.

“They [traffickers] can post you online, so they’re advertising you, and having people buy you for the purposes of prostitution,” she said.

Human trafficking involves some level of force, fraud, or coercion to lure victims to participate in sexual acts that they don’t want to do. Powell said the victims have no control over the money they are making, whereas a prostitute might have greater access to their income. 

“It’s pretty difficult to separate them out as two separate things when they’re both within the same system,” Powell said. 

Traffickers capitalize on the anonymity of the internet, using fake profiles to conceal their true identity, according to a 2018 report by Polaris, which connects survivors of human trafficking to victim services.

Traffickers might comment on potential victims’ photos and send direct messages, carefully building a rapport in order to entice the victim into a false sense of trust, the report states. 

Generally, the online relationship culminates with a trafficker purchasing travel tickets for the potential victim in order to meet them face-to-face, Powell said.

“Here’s where the problem starts, is when that same person who has bought you to watch you do things on camera has now asked to meet you in person, or that third party person, who is the pimp or the trafficker, is encouraging, ‘Hey, so you’ve seen this. Wouldn’t you like to see this person in person?’ and now that meeting happens,” she said.

“That’s where the danger can occur because no one knows who this person is that they are meeting.”

Claire said she doesn’t believe sex work is inherently bad, but it can become dangerous if a sex worker is dependent on it for an income, with no other source of money, and they need resources like housing, addiction serves or financial help.

“They don’t need sex. Yes, sex work can be a tool for those things, but if that’s the sole reason you’re getting into sex work, it’s not a good idea because that’s when you get into some of the more dangerous parts of sex work, where you’re doing things out of desperation.”

Alison Phillips, consultant at the Human Trafficking Training Center, said women in the sex industry, such as strippers, are viewed as victims of human trafficking, whether they feel liberated by the choice or not.

“I’ve found that most of the women working there [strip clubs] are single moms and they’re doing it to provide for their kid so they can stay in a good school district,” she said. “Is that really a choice of an empowered woman? I would say not.”

Safety for OnlyFans creators

Though some subscribers assume she gets the “weirdest DMs or requests,” Megan said all of her OnlyFans subscribers are respectful and have never made her feel unsafe or uncomfortable.

“The people that subscribe to my Only Fans, and all the people that I know that have them, have super respectful people that are there,” Megan said. “They understand the concept. I suppose they’re buying into what you’re doing.”

Megan said it is much easier to ensure interactions with subscribers’ remains entirely online than some might think. 

“People really don’t understand that it is totally easy to keep it 100% online, and on OnlyFans, you post your content, people enjoy your content, and then that’s it,” she said.

“They’re not sexting with people. You’re not dirty messaging people all day.”

Claire said she has never feared for her safety while interacting with subscribers from OnlyFans, but was admittedly stalked by an Instagram follower while travelling abroad. 

Claire makes enough money on OnlyFans to spend her time travelling the world, having been to 39 countries already. She said she takes the precautions necessary not to violate any local, state, or national laws while working in the countries she visits.

“There was this one time that I posted a sunshine picture from the roof of the hotel I was staying in, and this guy who lived in that country knew where it was and went to that hotel and tried to check in, and just walked up and was like, ‘Hey Claire,’” she said. “I had no clue who this guy was.”

Powell said it’s just not worth the risk.

“The part that you can’t control is the person that is very hellbent on causing you harm, and that person is the – it only takes one,” she said. “It would only take one to start stalking you. It would only take one to physically or sexually assault you – only takes one.