A letter signed by more than 100 members of Congress on Tuesday is demanding that the Department of Justice investigate allegations of child sexual abuse materials (CSAM) on OnlyFans, a request that’s spearheaded by the same Congresswoman who introduced FOSTA, a law that sex workers said would literally kill them.
“The presence of CSAM on OnlyFans is undeniable and it appears OnlyFans does not have adequate safeguards or protocols in place to notify the proper authorities when CSAM is found on the website,” Congresswoman Ann Wagner, who is leading the coalition to pursue an investigation, wrote in a press release. Wagner introduced and co-authored the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), which has been proven to be a catastrophic failure for curbing trafficking and devastating to sex workers.
The letter, addressed to Attorney General Merrick Garland, states:
“With the COVID-19 pandemic forcing our kids to spend more time isolated and online, it is our responsibility to ensure children are protected from bad actors operating via the internet. Of particular concern is the website OnlyFans.com, which has become a major marketplace for buying and selling Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM) in the United States, as well as soliciting sexual activity with minors. We write today to call your attention to potentially illegal activity, including child sexual exploitation, that this website is facilitating.”
“OnlyFans has a zero tolerance policy relating to child sexual abuse material (CSAM) on our social media platform,” a spokesperson for OnlyFans said in a statement.
The spokesperson added that the platform uses several third-party technologies to find and prevent abusive material, including detection software Safer, Microsoft PhotoDNA which is also used by platforms including Adobe and Facebook, moderation software Sight Engine, as well as OnlyFans’ own proprietary technology and a human moderation teams that review all content.
“This is a robust system that works to identify, escalate and report illegal material swiftly. Any claim that OnlyFans does not report CSAM is patently false,” the spokesperson said. “OnlyFans is compliant with US law and all laws and regulations in the countries we operate, all incidents of CSAM are immediately reported to NCMEC’s Cyber Tipline, and when appropriate, reports are made by a specialist team to the relevant enforcement agency. We work in full cooperation with law enforcement authorities, regulators, NGOs and policymakers to combat this type of abuse and are open to new collaborations and partnerships which would improve this worldwide effort to identify and penalize all bad actors.”
The letter cites an incident in January where a Florida couple who ran an OnlyFans page together were arrested for selling a video on the platform in which a topless 16-year-old appeared.
Since its launch in 2016—and especially during the pandemic as unprecedented unemployment rates brought a tidal wave of new users to the platform—OnlyFans has been a vital revenue stream for millions of adult content creators who already deal with discrimination from major financial institutions.
“Their only leverage is false moral panic”
NCMEC is a private non-profit, and companies aren’t legally required to report CSAM to the corporation. The letter says that NCMEC has seen “steadily increasing” amount of CSAM on OnlyFans, and that in 2019 NCMEC was aware of 10 cases, and in 2021, was linked with at least 80. NCMEC confirmed these numbers to me independently.
To compare these numbers to other major social media platforms: In 2020, Facebook reported 20 million instances of child sexual abuse material to NCMEC, Snapchat reported 144,000 instances, and Twitter, more than 65,000.
When this kind of content is found, platforms can report it to NCMEC and law enforcement; platforms like adult advertising site Backpage worked directly with authorities to help find and stop sex traffickers. Backpage shut down in 2018 just before FOSTA became law, after CEO Carl Ferrer pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy to facilitate prostitution as a result of a DOJ investigation.
“The Wagner letter is large on accusations, but short on actual facts—the porn equivalent of crying election fraud,” Mike Stabile, communications director for the adult industry organization Free Speech Coalition, told me. “They claim that OnlyFans is a major marketplace for CSAM, but can’t provide any evidence. While all internet platforms are vulnerable to unwittingly hosting CSAM, OnlyFans is incredibly rigorous in its vetting process, certainly more so than mainstream social networks. Ask any of the adult creators on that platform how difficult it is to get content approved.”
“Signing up for an OnlyFans account requires multiple forms of ID, a face scan, as well as signing all federal required tax documents before users can post anything,” Mary Moody, a founding board member at the Adult Industry Laborers & Artists Association, told me. “Adult industry workers are already held to a higher standard, and those that think OnlyFans are the issue are letting their moral objection to sex work cloud their judgement. There is no evidence whatsoever of their accusations.”
A press release from Wagner quotes Dawn Hawkins, CEO of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE), saying that “OnlyFans preys and profits from abuse and exploitation of vulnerable people, and potential criminality must be investigated.”
Onlyfans has reached a level of mainstream visibility that’s comparable to Pornhub’s, in that it’s become a household name for selling porn. In December, following similar pressure from politicians and special interest groups claiming that Pornhub is full of CSAM, major payment processors cut ties with Pornhub, leaving sex workers earning a legal living on the site without an income. NCOSE, formerly known as the Catholic non-profit Morality in Media, previously pushed for payment processors to stop serving Pornhub, which directly harmed sex workers’ livelihoods and put more people at risk of exploitation and financial precarity than ever.
“Their only leverage is false moral panic,” Moody said. “This letter is Representative Wagner and religious extremist conservative’s attempt to hide FOSTA’s failure, and to further deliberately harm to online sex workers.”
FOSTA, which Wagner helped pass into law in 2018 and amended Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act to make platforms liable for sexual speech, is a proven failure. If it was meant to curb online sex trafficking, the law was unsuccessful, and even hampered law enforcements’ efforts in finding traffickers by pushing them offline and underground. In June, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report examining the impacts of FOSTA, and found that the bill resulted in just one single prosecution of trafficking. If it was meant to push safe sex work further off the internet, it’s been successful: Legal and academic analyses of FOSTA have found that the law was devastating to the lives of sex workers who depended on online communities and client-screening capabilities for their safety—as predicted by sex workers who rallied against the law.
On Tuesday, Congressman Paul Gosar, who also signed the letter, tweeted that “the DOJ sent me a letter acknowledging the potential issue,” but provided no other context for what that letter might contain. In April, Gosar called on the DOJ to investigate OnlyFans, claiming that it was violating the Mann Act, a 1910 law that’s also known as the “White Slave Act.” The Mann Act criminalizes transportation of women across state lines for forced prostitution and “debauchery,” or “any other immoral purpose.” Historically, it was used to target Black men, during a time when more women were entering the workforce and becoming independent. It was amended in the 1980s to replace debauchery and immorality with “any sexual activity for which any person can be charged with a criminal offense.”
“It was a law passed during a racist moral panic about white women and sex work, and it’s not surprising it’s being invoked here,” Stabile said. The goal, said, isn’t about protecting children, but banning adult content and deplatforming sex workers.
Neither Wagner’s or Gosar’s offices responded to a request for comment.