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nudes4sale, BBC documentary
Courtesy BBC

Nudes4Sale: the real stories of underage girls selling nudes online

A new BBC documentary investigates the rise of under 18s selling explicit photos and videos on OnlyFans, Twitter, and Snapchat Premium

“It was always my dream,” says Hannah*, carefully applying make-up. “I want to be successful; I want to make money.” The 17-year-old is discussing her success as an explicit content creator, a career she embarked on when she was just 15.

Hannah is one of the subjects of the BBC’s new documentary, nudes4sale, which premiered on BBC Three yesterday (April 7). Exploring the democratisation of sex work through sites like OnlyFans, Twitter, and Snapchat Premium, reporter and presenter Ellie Flynn discovered a disturbing number of underage creators using social media to sell nudes.

Research commissioned by the BBC found that on a single day, a third of global Twitter profiles advertising ‘nudes4sale’ belonged to users under the age of 18. Of the 7,728 profiles ID’d by the broadcaster, 2,545 were flagged as underage, though Flynn is adamant the actual number is higher. “It was so shocking,” she tells Dazed. “Even after many months had passed since I found this out, I still couldn’t get over it.”

Although UK law states that you must be over 18 to sell or distribute explicit content, age verification checks on OnlyFans seem to be easy to cheat, while platforms like Twitter and Snapchat don’t require ID. As it stands, there’s no legal requirement for these sites to scan for underage material, meaning criminal liability lies with the person who uploads the content. “It makes whoever does it a victim and a perpetrator at the same time,” says Flynn, “which is quite complicated in the eyes of the law. When they’re 17, they can consider themselves able to consent to sex, so for the police and social services, it’s a grey area when it comes to legislation.”

In recent years, selling nudes has become an increasingly popular way to build a successful career, or earn a bit of money on the side. Though similar sites existed before, the launch of OnlyFans – where users pay a monthly fee to specific creators for a steady influx of their content – in 2016 marked a turning point for selling and buying explicit content. As of this year, the site has 20 million registered users and claims to have paid $400 million to its 200,000 content creators. Lauren, an adult creator featured in nudes4sale, earns almost £35,000 a month through OnlyFans, though she’s admittedly in the minority.

Flynn believes that the perceived ease of earning potentially thousands a month is what initially appeals to underage creators. “It’s seen as an easy way to make money because you can do it on your phone in your bedroom,” she explains. “There’s some girls and boys who are at the top of their game, living a lavish lifestyle, and (lots of under 18s) want that too.” 20-year-old Sasha, who’s also featured in nudes4sale, started selling nudes as “a big fuck you to all the guys who hurt me in the past” after explicit images of her were sent around her school. “I think it was my way of trying to fight back, like ‘they’re my photos and you don’t have control of them’.” 

“It’s seen as an easy way to make money because you can do it on your phone in your bedroom. There’s some girls and boys who are at the top of their game, living a lavish lifestyle, and (lots of under 18s) want that too” – Ellie Flynn

In retrospect, though, she does see the danger of sites like OnlyFans being accessible to teens. “When you’re young and you start having your first sexual experiences, it’s like, ‘oh, I can make money for sending pictures to random strangers, how fun’.” Flynn adds that the appeal for under 18s may also lie in the fact that there’s “a sense that you don’t even have to include your face in photos”, leading to the belief that it’s possible to share explicit photos anonymously. Though she warns: “There’s always a risk that someone is going to recognise something in the background and find out who you are. People don’t really think about what the consequences might be in the long term.”

However, this isn’t always the case. Hannah – who started making over £15,000 a month when she was 16 years old, and has now accrued 80k Instagram followers – has always been open about her chosen career path. “Everybody knew her in her local area,” explains Flynn, “and even her mum knew what she was doing.” Despite being reported a number of times, there was nothing the police could do. “She’s living at home, is supported by her family, and says she knows what she’s doing, so the police can’t really stop her. The social services check in, but it’s more a welfare measure than a criminal one.”

While she doesn’t need proof of age for Snapchat Premium or Twitter – where many content creators promote their paid-for channels – Hannah had to use her friend’s ID to get onto OnlyFans. Although her account has been reported and shut down a number of times, she says it’s easy to create new ones. Addressing these accusations in a statement to the BBC, OnlyFans said: “We constantly review our systems to ensure they are as robust as possible. If we are alerted to any underage individual who has gained or tried to gain illegitimate access to the platform, we will always take immediate steps to investigate and suspend the account.”

“The age verification process on OnlyFans isn’t good enough,” asserts Flynn. “The number of accounts that we found suggests that more needs to be done by the platform to ensure that there aren’t underage users selling nudes.” The platform said that in May 2019, they “introduced an extra safeguard into our account verification process so that a creator now has to provide us with a selfie headshot with his/her ID in the image in order to prove that the ID provided belongs to the account holder”.

Snapchat and Twitter, on the other hand, seemingly offer free reign to anyone hoping to sell nudes. Hannah says the youngest person she knew using Snapchat Premium for explicit content was just 14 years old, explaining that many young people use it “because it’s easy to get onto”. She adds: “You just need to get a few followers, and that’s that”. In a statement, the platform said it strictly prohibits “accounts that promote or distribute pornographic content”, but explained that it does “not scan the content of private accounts”. Twitter also said it has “zero tolerance for any material that features or promotes child exploitation” and will “take action on any accounts that violate our rules”. Both sites seem to operate on a reactionary basis when it comes to explicit underage content, as opposed to introducing preventative methods.

At a time when everyone is stuck at home due to coronavirus lockdown, adult site moderators need to be extra vigilant about who’s signing up to their platforms. According to BuzzFeed, OnlyFans has received 1.85 million new registrations (both creators and consumers) since February 29, when social distancing measures began to emerge in the west. Between March 6 and 17, there was reportedly a 75 per cent increase in people signing up. “At a time when there’s so much boredom and uncertainty around money, there’s a potential for this (under 18s selling nudes) to happen more,” says Flynn. “The platforms are going to have to work really hard to ensure that underage profiles aren’t slipping through unchecked.”

“(Snapchat Premium) is easy to get onto. You just need to get a few followers, and that’s that” – Hannah*

Questions should also be raised about the liability of users who – knowingly or unknowingly – buy underage nudes from OnlyFans. “People are probably buying in good faith thinking that there’s an ID check,” Flynn tells Dazed. “If you’re a customer on the site, you would expect age verification processes to be stringent enough, but we don’t have any evidence of whether people know the ages of the creators they are buying from.”

Despite her discovery about the prevalence of explicit underage creators online, Flynn hopes that viewers don’t take a negative view of sex work from nudes4sale. “There’s a misconception that everyone who works in the sex industry is a victim,” she declares. “People don’t seem to think that you could possibly do sex work out of choice.” The presenter praises OnlyFans for reducing the stigma surrounding sex work, and says that a lot of the people she spoke to said that the site “has provided them with a safe space, and the money they’re entitled to through the work they’re doing”. 

“There’s an entire community of people out there selling nudes who engage with each other and share one another’s profiles,” Flynn concludes. “As long as you’re over the age of 18 and you’re doing it because you want to, then there’s no problem with that. The issue is when (selling nudes online) becomes such a big, accessible industry, and that’s when platforms need to check everything that gets posted to ensure the people doing it are over age.”

*Name has been changed