Thousands of Australians turn to adult websites during COVID-19 restrictions despite privacy risks

Covid-19 has seen thousands of Australians seek digital intimacy through OnlyFans; a subscription-based website popular for amateur porn. While they face serious piracy concerns, two content creators share their insights into this lucrative online business. (Image source: Wired)

By Annabel Bowles | @annabel_bowles

Covid-19 has seen thousands of Australians join OnlyFans, a subscription-based website popular for amateur porn.

More than 200,000 Australians joined the social network in the first four months of this year—5000 of them as content creators—according to the NZ Herald

Unlike traditional adult websites, OnlyFans allows users to hide content behind a paywall and sell custom images and videos to paying subscribers.   

But creators are at risk of people redistributing exclusive content without their knowledge or permission.  

In a tweet, Australian eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant reported a 200 per cent increase in image-based abuse reports during Covid-19.

According to the eSafety Commissioner website, image-based abuse involves sharing intimate images and videos without the consent of the person pictured, as well as threatening to do so. 

Ms Inman Grant attributed the rise to an increase in digital intimacy and sextortion schemes through OnlyFans and similar platforms.

Natalie* joined OnlyFans in April after her hours at a childcare centre were reduced due to Covid-19 restrictions.

The 24-year-old has had no issues with subscribers, even among those she knows in her personal life. 

But she said she was almost fired by her workplace for engaging with the adult website.

“[My boss] told me it was inappropriate, not in line with our code of ethics and was worried about a father signing up and seeing my content – even though my face isn’t on my public profile,” Natalie said.

“I made about $1300 in the first month, but I’ve since had to promote my account much more discreetly.”

OnlyFans encourages content creators to publicly link their profile to personal social media accounts as a way to attract subscribers.

But the company has repeatedly failed to protect users against piracy attacks.

In February, between 1.5 and 4 terabytes of stolen content was uploaded to Mega, a cloud storage service.

After news of the leak went viral on Twitter, OnlyFans’ Head of Marketing Steve Pym said the company found no evidence of any systems breach.

“The content contained in the supposed ‘leak’ seems to be curated from multiple sources, including other social media applications,” Mr Pym said in a tweet.

It’s unclear who started compiling the leak, but there are Reddit communities dedicated to cracking user accounts and redistributing stolen content.

The Google Chrome Web Store also features an extension that allows subscribers to easily download a creator’s exclusive images and videos.

Because of these risks Amber*, who’s been on OnlyFans since June last year, keeps her online sex work hidden from those in her personal life.  

The 20-year-old said most of her subscribers are from the United States, but she rarely knows their specific location, name or age. 

“Online sex work is still sex work obviously, but there’s a lot less consequences – it’s a lot safer than other forms of sex work,” Amber said. 

“You have a lot more control over everything that you do.” 

Though Amber understands the risks involved in sharing adult content, she said she’s confident her material won’t be pirated.

“You have the option to print a watermark on your photos and videos, so although you might not necessarily know if it was stolen, if someone came across it they’d know it was stolen,” Amber said. 

“There are pretty malicious people out there that you should be aware of but it just doesn’t happen – it’s very, very rare that it happens.” 

Since March, Amber has made over $1400 a month on OnlyFans; almost ten times the amount she was making on the website last year.

She said the website has more individualised content than free porn platforms, which has been increasingly popular amid Covid-19 social distancing. 

“It’s amateur porn so I feel like a lot of people do feel more of that personal connection with a small-time content creator,” Amber said.

“I had one person who paid me to text them as if I was their girlfriend for a day, and to send videos of me saying cute little things like a girlfriend would say.”

Natalie agrees that although there are risks, OnlyFans is usually a positive experience for both creators and subscribers.

“I’d rather watch and see someone I know than free porn, it’s more mysterious and exciting,” Natalie said.

“And it makes me feel sexy and good about myself, I feel empowered.”

*Names have been changed for privacy reasons.

*As OnlyFans functions in USD, the conversions made to AUD were accurate at the time of interviewing.

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