As the digital and real worlds become increasingly merged, prostitution is also changing. Street prostitution in dark alleyways is gradually being replaced by sleek, user-friendly, websites selling prostitution under the guise of “user experience.” Internet prostitution offers choice, discretion and accessibility. There’s a broad range of formats: Private groups where users can write exactly what they’re looking for; apps masked as dating sites or social networks; websites with ratings and user reviews – all you need is a cellphone.
These changes have sharply accelerated over the past two years, greatly thanks the increasingly popular, and arguably most deceptive, platform called OnlyFans. Masked as a social network, OnlyFans markets itself as a platform selling content, art, celebrating femininity and sexuality. It’s also simply a way of making easy money. Behind this very appealing and highly sanitized terminology, are women and men, some very young, selling their bodies for money.
It’s easy to confuse the user’s experience on OnlyFans with the familiar kind of experiences on Facebook or Instagram. The platform is easy on the eye, inviting and user-friendly, visually starkly different from other, more provocative, and is selling sexual content. The structure is almost identical to other social networking platforms – scrolling down for more content. As pages upload, little blue hearts flutter around the screen. You don’t actually need to be an adult to access the content. To register, the user must only state that they’re over the age of 18 and register details for a credit card, obtainable at the age of 14.
The profiles of various girls on the app are full of adoring comments, almost exclusively from men. When women and girls open an OnlyFans profile, they themselves set the monthly subscription fee for access to their content. It’s usually averages at about $20. To get users to keep paying, they must generate interest and personal interaction. Methods of making more money include posting naked pictures with just an emoji covering their private parts, with promises of full-frontal nudity for further payment, appealing for personal requests and promises of private videos in exchange for items of clothing, primarily underwear.
“OnlyFans is a platform for ‘grooming’ – cultivating trust to cause harm,” explains Naama Goldberg, founder of ”Lo Omdot Mineged” (Hebrew for “Not Standing By Idly”).
“Young women and girls are groomed for prostitution – no one’s going to buy a picture of a girl gazing at a sunset. It starts with requests for girls to just take off their top. Then girls start receiving more suspect requests. It’s not art. It’s not innocent. It’s a downward spiral. The problem is that the money isn’t transferred directly to the women. There are virtual pimps operating the platform, taking their cut. It’s men making money out of women while presenting it as empowering. Someone’s sitting in America counting the money as the girls take off their clothes and become traumatized.”
A recent New York Times article about OnlyFans, argues that the network propagates an exploitative power balance: “OnlyFans started in 2016, and has since emerged as the top platform worldwide for creators to sell monthly subscriptions for self-produced erotic content. The platform has become synonymous with this sort of business, though some use it for other purposes. It served as a financial lifeline for many in the pandemic, allowing people to monetize time spent indoors. In 2019, there were reportedly 120,000 content creators using the platform; by December 2020, that number had risen to more than a million. Many creators on the site aren’t just posting nudes. The real product is relationships. Money from subscriptions can be trivial compared with the profits earned by selling custom videos, sexting sessions and other forms of fan interaction that require more concerted engagement than simply posting to a feed.”
It’s no different in Israel, where OnlyFans has become a platform for selling home-made phonography. The devastating consequences are candidly recounted by 29-year-old Adi. The first time she worked for a platform similar to OnlyFans, the boss came to pick her up from her home in a car full of women she didn’t know. He took them to his house where each woman was given a room. “I remember looking around and seeing a girl who was really wasted. He took some pictures of me, and without talking to me or asking any questions, wrote a profile for the platform. He decided how to present me and wrote whatever he wanted – like what I like men doing to me. It was awful.
“I remember being very excited when I made my first NIS900. I’d never made that kind of money. At the time, I couldn’t say if it was good or bad. It’s like bungee jumping. You can’t say what you feel in real time. I did it on and off for five years. I’d sometimes collapse and I wanted to die – but I’d always go back. When you’re in it, you subconsciously accept humiliating, despicable, exploitative and abusive situations – rape in every sense – as ‘okay’. I happens to a lot women in prostitution. You convince yourself you’re in control but you’re not.”
Contrary to what many people claim, it’s not a choice. “While I was doing it, I didn’t meet ‘well-off’ women. Most came from backgrounds including family neglect, abuse, rape, drug addiction, despair, mental illness and depression. I myself was sexually abused by my father and was neglected by my mother. I grew up in a home where rape equaled love. I started webcam prostitution after a long period of deep distress, being unable to take care of myself.
What do you think about OnlyFans?
“OnlyFans is legitimate because porn is legitimate. I think it’s worse than webcam prostitution because you have to plead with men to buy your content for a few dollars. As with all porn, the content gets leaked out to Telegram, Pornhub groups and every other app you can think of. The video that you just sold for $20 can cost you your life. You’ve no way of protecting yourself.”
Or Abu, director of the Task Force on Human Trafficking & Prostitution believes there’s no real difference between OnlyFans and other online, webcam sex platforms. “It’s the same thing. They’ve just upgraded the interfacing and made the payment method more convenient. At its core, it’s commercializing human sexuality. Although it appears to be more normalized, and is publicly perceived as ‘artistic nudity,’ in reality, there’s a lot more going on.”
In the two years since enacting the Law Prohibiting the Consumption of Prostitution, enforcement has gradually increased. The number of women seeking rehabilitation from prostitution has also risen. However, the internet, arguably the industry’s most powerful engine, continues operating unchecked. Task Force on Human Trafficking & Prostitution data shows that in 2021, the Israel Police closed down only three websites advertising prostitution. There’s been no great improvement so far in 2022.
“Because the new law doesn’t apply to acts committed on the internet, there’s very little on-line enforcement. Furthermore, little if any enforcement of on-line pimping violations is carried out against individuals operating and profiting from the websites. There are hundreds of Hebrew language websites offering variations of sex for money – including both physically touching and a variety of onscreen formats. Some of these sites are legal. Advertising to recruit women for prostitution is not legal. Sadly, the internet is awash with such advertisements,” Abu says.
The Public Security Ministry issued the following response: “The battle against consumption of prostitution in general, and specifically on the internet is constantly on our agenda at the ministry. In conjunction with social action groups, the ministry has recently started working towards strengthening enforcement against individuals operating websites advertising prostitution on the internet.”
“OnlyFans is prostitution,” Abu declares decisively. “It’s a platform designed to confuse people and make them forget the human damage caused by the sex industry. Putting a price to a sexual act, be it pictures of feet or a tailor-made porn movie, constitutes the deepest kind of violence. Human sexuality should not be reduced to a commercial transaction. When it is, it causes irreparable damage.”
Some people claim the platform empowers women
“The biggest lie in the sex industry is that it ‘empowers’. We’ll all pay the price for looking away. Instead, we should be asking hard questions about a society in which young girls’ aspiration is to sell home-made porn when she turns eighteen.”
Liran, 21, has paid that price. “While I was doing webcam prostitution, I developed traumas which still affect me today. Even after I stopped, I found myself looking for someone to buy me. You need to do things that you don’t want to do with people you don’t want to do them with. They tell you what to do and that you’ll get money for it. Often, only you are exposed. The man doesn’t have to turn on his camera and you’ve no idea who he is. Men know who you are and you don’t know who they are. Perhaps it’s someone you know. Maybe they’re recording you and it’ll be all over the internet. It’s really sick. You’re constantly checking to see how much money they’re willing to pay for you. It’s not just a job. It becomes a measure of self-worth. It becomes your whole world.”
“It’s not just a job. It becomes a measure of self-worth”
Adi agrees: “This kind of work means that you’re alone in the world. You hate yourself more and more. Eventually you rape yourself for someone else. It makes me so angry when I hear people say that women turn to prostitution out of choice. No three-year-old girl says she wants to be a prostitute. Most normative people don’t want to be prostitutes.
“I compare prostitution to slavery,” Liran says. “I think it’s the same thing. It’s complete exploitation of a weak section of society. It’s immoral. I don’t understand how people don’t see the correlation. It kills me inside. It’s rape! I got out of prostitution a year and a half ago. I don’t know any women who managed to have healthy relationships after working as prostitutes. For a long time, I treated my partner as a customer. I’d work out in my head how much he’d pay for me. I’d have sex with him and feel like a prostitute. It’s really twisted.”
Over the past two years, as OnlyFans gained popularity both in Israel and overseas, the site has also won a lot of praise. People testify that during COVID lockdowns, as businesses closed and unemployment was on the rise, OnlyFans became their financial lifeline. Some people describe it as a community. They mention that it’s uncensored for artists and say that it’s a job for which they like getting up in the morning.
Angel, who opened an OnlyFans profile a year ago when she was only 18, says it has really helped her. “During the various lockdowns, I was at home a lot and I didn’t have a job.” She claims she’d wanted to do it for many years. “It helped me because I was working from home. I worked as much or as little as I wanted, setting my own hours. Earning money online seemed like a great idea – better than prostitution. You have control over everything an no one touches you.
“I didn’t do porn before, but I feel I this is what I was born to do it. I didn’t start doing this out of desperation. I enjoy it. I have total control over what I do. I wouldn’t give it up even for a better-paying job. I don’t want to give up working in the sex industry. I see people working in regular industries and I pity them. A lot of people don’t like their jobs and carry on doing them. I love my work and that’s what matters. Sex work is work. There’s no shortage of women in the sex industry who are there 100% by their own choice. If OnlyFans wasn’t there, I’d try stripping. I’d try and do some kind of sex work.“
Kitti, who also has an OnlyFans profile, says: “Before joining, you should be fully aware of all aspects and possible future ramifications, how it can affect you, your future relationships, that your family might find out.”
Kitti also found financial success on OnlyFans during COVID lockdowns. “I started using OnlyFans two and half years ago. “Before COVID, I was a fashion designer, sewing bespoke clothing and fancy dress costumes. During COVID, I didn’t have any work and my profile started taking off. My boyfriend quit his job and started working with me as photographer and video editor.
“This is what I’ve been doing for two and a half years. I’m making a living out of it. We try to produce creative content. I upload pornographic content, nudity, sexual acts with other people. It’s demanding work. You don’t make lots of money instantly. You have to work to maintain your audience. It can be mentally challenging. Constantly producing new content isn’t easy. It’s tiring. Some people are disrespectful, but I’ve learned to impose boundaries. Sometimes you have to tell people that they need to put up more money, which I’m not prepared to do.
“Some months are better than others. If you’re not feeling the passion, it’s not good. I know it’s not a job for life. I don’t always look my best and I don’t always feel like doing it. It’s not for everyone. I’ve seen girls start very young who then regret it. I don’t think girls should start before they’re 21.”
Goldberg isn’t dismissive about Kitti and Angel’s experiences, but stresses that “some women celebrate their sexuality and do it by choice, but as in other forms of prostitution, they’re very much the minority. Weakness is exploited. There are women, often very young, from troubled backgrounds who replicate past abuse and are desperate for both the money and the attention.”
Gaia is a good example. She grew up raising herself with her parents almost never home. She never felt as if she fit in at school. She didn’t have friends and was never one of the “popular kids.” Desperate for attention, she started uploading revealing pictures on TikTok and Instagram, and for the first time ever she felt love from strangers. In 10th grade, she opened an OnlyFans account, where everyone loved her and where she made money. But, even after closing her account a few months later, she still feels ashamed and embarrassed, never knowing who’s going to see the pictures.
“Women on OnlyFans constantly face the risk that their pictures will be further shared and that they’ll no longer be in control. Sometimes they have children, family, people they know and it stays forever in the ‘virtual memory.’ At this stage, I can’t make a direct connection between OnlyFans and prostitution, but online camera prostitution definitely comes at a price. I’ve met women who’ve never been touched by a stranger, but their souls have been touched. Virtual touching is certainly damaging.”
Support organizations have been finding increasing numbers of women trying to deal with the consequences of working on OnlyFans. Goldberg tells us: “These women experience post-traumatic symptoms. I know a young mother on OnlyFans who’s post-traumatic. She says she hates it, but makes a living out of it. I know another woman, whose partner films her, but it’s an exploitative relationship and she’s not mentally or emotionally well. She’s dependent on her partner and he makes the money. The society goes along with it, presenting it as legitimate. In reality, it’s just another face of prostitution. These are women with no protection, coerced into doing all sorts of things, crossing their own boundaries to constantly provide content.”
Abu says OnlyFans is a prostitution site “that has simply found effective public relations methods to mask the fact that it’s a prostitution site, which gained popularity during the COVID pandemic.”
She adds that OnlyFans contains some of the same violent patterns found in other kinds of prostitution. “Women do all sorts of things to ensure that men don’t cancel their subscriptions. To improve their ratings, they do things that make them uncomfortable. Making the big money on OnlyFans isn’t easy. You need to develop a following, do extreme things or become enslaved to keeping up the private correspondence, always falsely promising intimate relations to subscribers. Women who don’t do these things won’t make much money. OnlyFans, like regular prostitution, relies on young healthy bodies, which over time, clearly diminish in value. We need to be brutally honest: Deliberately confusing healthy sexuality and sexuality-by-price lays the groundwork for a smooth transition into the sex industry.
“Children and teenagers, who live a world inundated with social networks and lack appropriate guidance, get the impression that it’s okay to expose themselves to strangers. Receiving money for nudity and sex seems acceptable. This normalization presents a distorted image of healthy sexuality.”
“For teenagers, it’s complicated,” explains Sivan Loten, a clinical social worker specializing in sexual therapy and healthy sexuality educator at Safe School. “Teenagers are all alone on the net. They’re find themselves gradually exposed to more and more and there’s no one to guide them. There’s no one there to explain the difference between what’s good and what’s bad. As adults, it’s our job to help them understand.
“Porn is available on line. Sex isn’t presented to us gradually. Progression is important. First you hold hands, then you hug and kiss. On the Internet, teenagers are exposed to everything as if it’s all the same. The internet presents content which, once displayed on an internet platform, becomes legitimate. It’s hard for teenagers to grasp the idea of free choice. They assume that if a person is on a platform, they’ve chosen to be there. This is clearly not always the case.”
Liat, who teaches middle and high school students explains: “The idea of ‘uploading content’ has been sanitized. I know sixteen-year-old at-risk female students who’ve been using OnlyFans over the past two years. They tell me that there’s this really cool platform and they can upload whatever they want and sometimes people ask them to do stuff like lick a cat or drink water while dressed in a bathing suit and that you need to film yourself and upload the video. One girl told me that someone asked her to record herself saying a few things and that he’d transfer NIS500 to her. They say that they’d put it up on Instagram anyway, so they might as well post it on OnlyFans and get some money for it.”
Sexual education researcher and teacher, Sahar Gal, explains: “The girls feel that they’re in control and that they’re protected. The platform presents sex as a commodity, which I find extremely worrying. Adults are hesitant about talking to teenagers about exposure to unfiltered, unmediated content. It’s prostitution, but it’s invisible and they don’t regard it as prostitution. The whitewashing and sanitized language is extremely disturbing.”
Liat’s concerns are backed by Hadar Lahav, a criminology doctoral student at Bar Ilan University, specializing in on-line sexual abuse and formally a sexual offences investigator at “105”, the Child Online Protection Bureau. “OnlyFans meets all the criteria for grooming,” she says.
She adds that it constitutes behavioral patterns of establishing and preserving communication between unequal parties. This imbalance can be in age, intellectual or social and economic standing. The stronger side initiates the relationship, manipulates a dependence which they then abuse and exploit.
How does it differ from porn?
“I think about that a lot. Few women in porn and prostitution have really chosen to be there and feel good about it. I think those who don’t do it by choice are damaged by the experience. We can’t just look away.”