A Considerate Top (ACT) has been having a bad time on the internet. The OnlyFans performer lives off the income it provides, but he’s received racist abuse and had his content pirated several times, with one person even offering to sell his videos at a cheaper rate. ACT has also been doxed on a number of occasions, which is particularly troubling for someone who goes by an alias and only shows his face behind a paywall. Recently, someone posted screenshots of his Facebook profile, LinkedIn resume and even playlists that he’d made on Spotify.
“What’s really wild,” he says, “is that the tone of the message didn’t even sound like it came from a place of spite. It just seemed coldly academic, like they were sharing what they knew with the class.” All of this behaviour took place on a series of forums dedicated to discussing gay men where, alongside less sinister activities, doxing and image-based abuse are rife.
Daniel, another OnlyFans performer, found out that his nudes had been leaked on these forums, where they were being discussed in a manner he found violating. “I felt like I was a piece of meat at a zoo and it was feeding time,” says Daniel. This experience has had a long-lasting effect in his personal life. “It’s sad but I don’t trust anyone very easily if they start flirting and immediately want to see explicit pictures.”
It isn’t just OnlyFans performers who experience this kind of violation. Nathan was alerted to a discussion about him on a message board, where people were alternately insulting him and trying to find his nudes.
“At the time my boyfriend had a private Twitter account,” he explains, “and we’d uploaded some sex videos. Not to victim blame myself, but that’s probably where it was coming from.” Once he realised people were trying to track down his nudes, he “freaked out” and demanded his boyfriend delete the account. “I felt loads of shame that something that was fun and basically private was suddenly out of control. In the moment, it felt life-ruining.”
Without being alarmist, you don’t need to be a celebrity to find yourself targeted in this way. Any level of online visibility will do. If someone has seen your Twitter or Instagram and likes the look of you, there are sites where they can solicit explicit images. “The behaviour is fixative and obsessive. It’s about ‘collecting’ more and more information and content of victims,” explains Kate Worthington, a practitioner at Revenge Porn Helpline, a service that provides advice and support to people experiencing image-based sexual abuse.
On these platforms, nudes leaked from dating apps sit alongside content pilfered from OnlyFans. Image-based sexual abuse is usually defined by the publishing of “private” content, so whether material uploaded onto a public platform would fit the legal definition is ambiguous. “This is a very different behaviour to sharing images of ex-partners to bring upset and distress,” says Worthington. But it’s still a violation, a breach of contract, and something which deprives people of income.
“Using any sexual acts, including a distribution of an image, as a tool to cause harm definitely qualifies as sexual abuse in some way,” says Dr Amy Hasinoff, an academic specialising in gender, sexuality and new media, and the author of Sexting Panic: Rethinking Criminalization, Privacy, and Consent.
Researchers like Hasinoff argue that the term “revenge porn”, which came into common usage around 2011, isn’t fit for purpose. Looking at forums, it becomes clear why: this behaviour isn’t about revenge. You don’t need to be a scorned lover with a grandiose motive to violate someone’s privacy; you just need to be bored, horny and inconsiderate.
What’s disturbing is the gulf between the impact and the intent. If you’re in the audience for image-based sexual abuse, you may well be complicit in destroying someone’s life, even when all you’ve really done is have a wank. A study by the End Revenge Porn campaign found that 51 percent of US victims have considered suicide, while the practice of outing sex workers has had devastating effects. For gay men who are in the closet, the consequences of image-based sexual abuse can be particularly serious.
These forums don’t target OnlyFan performers specifically, but there is the sense that anyone who has uploaded explicit content of themselves, in any capacity, is fair game. According to this logic, sex workers have forfeited their right to privacy, which is concerning given that many sex workers work anonymously to some extent. You might be happy for your friends and Twitter followers to know about your OnlyFans; less so your parents or employers.
“People often lack respect for people who engage in any kind of sexual commercial services,” says Hasinoff. “We need to help people understand that people who sell sexual services deserve all of the same rights as anyone else. In fact, it’s even more important to protect the privacy of people who are selling sexual services, because of the stigma.”
OnlyFans performers occupy a strange position within gay online culture. On one hand, they’re subject to the same stigma that affects anyone who engages in sex work, sometimes known as whorephobia, which can breed disdain. On the other hand, they are often afforded a degree of high status, which can inspire envy. The combination of the two can be a potent mixture, with inferiority and superiority complexes battling it out.
Alex is a student who creates content for OnlyFans and has achieved a decent amount of success, ranking in the top 4 percent of performers. Despite this – or maybe because of it – he has suffered verbal abuse on social media, as well as having people attempt to leak his nudes.
“There's this idea that porn performers are sexually superior, that they have the most sex or the best sex,” he says. “Gay performers obtain a kind of ‘sexual capital’ that porn performers in the straight world usually don’t.”
Sometimes the discussions on these forums seem to be based around gleefully taking people down a peg or two. Image-based sexual abuse, as Hasinoff explains to me, is often a way of exerting power.
“There's a very fine line between worship and resentment,” says Alex. “People will project onto me whatever fantasy they want to and none of it is true. I often live a boring life. I spend days and months without sex. But as soon as I become my OnlyFans persona, I stop being a person and become a fantasy. If I step a foot wrong, it’s striking how quickly fantasy can turn to seething resentment.”
ACT echoes this sentiment: “It’s about entitlement to other people. It’s rooted in bitterness and perhaps even jealousy that people have the audacity to demand money for what in their eyes should be distributed freely.”
Porn piracy has been a trend for years. People who consume adult material are largely unaccustomed to paying for it. But piracy impacts the finances of individual performers more than it does major studios, who are better positioned to weather the blow. Whatever other factors might be at play, most people on OnlyFans are doing it for the money. This is particularly true in the middle of one of the worst economic crises the world has ever seen. While some performers are making six figures, for many it’s a precarious gig economy role not a million miles away from being a Deliveroo driver.
If you find images of yourself leaked onto one of these sites, there are actions you can take. Without wanting to sound like I’m defending them, I’ve been told by a number of sources that they can be good at taking images down quickly. When I reached out to a moderator of one forum, they told me: “All copyright and abuse reports are responded to within hours (sometimes minutes) of being filed. We make it very easy for performers to reach out to us and get help with any issue they may have.”
It would also be a good idea to contact Revenge Porn Helpline, who have a solid track record of getting images taken down. “Our advice for all victims of intimate image abuse is to stop, breathe and try not to panic,” says Worthington. “We’re here to help, regardless of whether the perpetrator is someone you know. If you have found that your images have been non-consensually shared online, try to collect as much evidence and information as you can.” Going through a third party will almost certainly be less stressful than trying to solve the problem yourself.
If you do view image-based sexual abuse, try to remember that the harm it causes is tangible. You’re not entitled to anyone’s work for free, and you don’t have the right to see images someone has shared privately. “I’ve had a few conversations with people that engage in this behaviour,” Daniel tells me, “and I truly think they forget that the people in these images and videos are real humans with real lives.”
Despite what the distancing effects of the internet would have you believe, the person whose privacy you’re violating is more than an image, a symbol, or an abstract fantasy.