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A Guide to Online-Grooming Allegations (and Why Everyone’s Talking About Them)

Photo: Kevin Mazur/WireImage/Getty Images

The YouTube community has been overwhelmed with sexual-misconduct allegations in recent months, embroiling one of its biggest creators, James Charles, legal last name Dickinson, in serious accusations of grooming. At least six men and boys have come forward with similar experiences, saying Charles tried to pressure them into sexual interactions over Snapchat regardless of their age or sexuality, kick-starting an internet campaign for accountability from the platforms and brands that support him. But Charles isn’t the only major influencer to be accused of grooming by the community. Shane Dawson, once one of YouTube’s biggest creators, had his behavior called into question last year in D’Angelo Wallace’s since-deleted viral video “The exact moment Shane Dawson’s career ended: 12:37 PM, 06/30/20.” TikTok star Tony Lopez is currently being sued by two minors who claim that he coerced them into sexual relationships despite being aware of their ages. And YouTuber Onision, real name James “Greg” Jackson, was investigated by Chris Hansen of To Catch a Predator fame in a 2021 Discovery+ documentary. As allegations continue to come out about high-profile creators, let’s understand the dynamic between influencers and their fans and how it’s potentially dangerous.

What is grooming a minor?
Grooming is the process of establishing trust in order to take advantage of someone sexually. Trust is created by treating someone well, giving them gifts, or showing them attention. Online grooming can be perpetrated to enable sexual abuse online or offline. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, which provides education and resources, online sexual harassment or abuse can include sending hateful comments, sending unwanted requests for nude photos or videos of sexual acts, performing those acts without the consent of everyone involved on livestreams, sharing private images without consent, and more, though these examples are not necessarily involved in the allegations discussed in this story. Also referred to as “cybergrooming,” online grooming is distinguished from a single occurrence of sexual exploitation by repetition, misuse of trust, and the specific relationship between the victim and the perpetrator — in this case, influencers and fans — per a 2012 study published in psychology journal Psicothema.

“Now more than ever, we as a society are beginning to appreciate that online life isn’t in any way less real than in-person life, and that means taking it seriously when someone has experienced online harassment or abuse, that there is a trauma to having trusted someone and having that trust violated,” says Laura Palumbo, communications director at NSVRC. “The emotional trauma of it can also be really [accentuated] by the fact that a person may have a photo or video of you that they can then share with others or repost to other places online. So the harm is really significant. This is not something that is happening, quote, unquote, ‘behind closed doors’ on the internet; it’s happening across mainstream platforms. It can be through this process of trust and relationship-building, which is not always what people know to look for when it comes to harassment and abuse.”

Why are influencer-fan relationships unique?
As celebrities, influencers hold a unique type of clout that no one is chasing after. All interactions between celebrities and fans begin as parasocial interactions where one person is emotionally invested in a relationship while the other party is unaware. It is experienced across mass media. Being a wealthy public figure creates a power dynamic between a celebrity and a fan that’s more similar to a boss and an employee, or a coach and an athlete, than two friends. “The very idea that you’re a social-media influencer is that your ability to influence people is what has made you a celebrity or noteworthy online — that in and of itself — and so it is sort of a matter of fact that if you’re an influencer, you have this power over the audience that you reach,” Palumbo says. “That’s why brands are partnering with you. That’s the business model of what it is to be an influencer. And so when it comes to relationships, that power needs to be taken into account. For anyone with any type of celebrity, for them to assume they’re on a level playing field with anyone who is not a celebrity or influencer is off base.”

Why is Shane Dawson accused of grooming?
YouTuber Korviday coined the term “parasocial audience grooming” in a video describing how Dawson’s hypersexual content enabled the creator to cross lines with his young fans. Dawson’s exploits over 12 years on the platform were put into context by commentary creator D’Angelo Wallace in his video “The exact moment Shane Dawson’s career ended: 12:37 PM, 06/30/20.” (Wallace removed the viral video on April 9, saying he didn’t want anything on his channel that “could possibly be used to defend self-admitted child predator James Charles.” Charles partly admitted and partly denied these charges.) Wallace’s video uses examples like Dawson’s 2010 to 2012 channel with Benny and Rafi Fine of Fine Brothers Entertainment, “HeyItsMilly,” which starred a hypersexual 8-year-old puppet, Milly, who was obsessed with Dawson. Dawson’s audience was also primarily young girls, whom he frequently interacted with in video chat rooms, photo-sharing platforms like DailyBooth, and in person, asking them to “twerk,” asking for pictures of “ur orgasm face” and “crotch,” and having sexual conversations. In his apology video on June 26, Dawson did not address the full extent of his sexualized content for kids. On June 30, YouTube confirmed his channel was “indefinitely” suspended. He has not posted anywhere outside of Instagram Stories since June 2020.

Why is James Charles accused of grooming?
Charles has been accused of inappropriate interactions with over 15 men and boys. The beauty influencer “took accountability” for sending unsolicited nudes to two minors, claiming he was not aware of their ages in a video apology on April 1, but in a statement on April 16, he said, “Many other people have come forward with a series of misleading stories and false allegations, which have been reported on by many people, creators, and news outlets.” He continued, “My legal team has begun taking action against those that have spread misinformation and/or created completely fake stories, as this has gone too far.” Charles has been accused of grooming by at least one victim and many outspoken critics in the drama community. In his video apology, the influencer admitted to using his Instagram and TikTok like a “dating app,” ignorant as to how his celebrity affected the power dynamics of these interactions.

What has Onision been accused of?
Since 2019, the YouTuber Onision has been accused of predatory grooming and abusive behavior by at least six women, several of whom were interviewed by Chris Hansen on his livestream. At least two of the women were former fans. One survivor, Sarah, alleges that he and his husband, Kai Avaroe (who was 17 when he began dating the then-26-year-old), groomed her when she briefly lived with them due to an unstable home life. A three-episode docuseries featuring several accusers premiered on Discovery+ in January, after which YouTube suspended Onision from monetization on January 19, citing “allegations of off-platform behavior related to child safety.”

Onision has denied all allegations of predatory behavior and abuse. On his website, he specifically claims he is innocent of accusations from two victims, Sarah and Shiloh. In a January 8, 2021, response to Onision: In Real Life, he called the documentary “inaccurate and dishonest.”

What are the grooming accusations against Tony Lopez?
Popular TikToker Tony Lopez was accused of sexual battery and emotional distress by two teenage girls in a lawsuit filed on January 8, 2021. According to the court documents, they both claim the now-21-year-old had attempted to coerce them into sexual encounters and solicited explicit photos despite knowing they’re underage. In a January 7, 2021, statement to TMZ, Lopez denied the allegations, calling the lawsuit a “money grab.” “These allegations are not at all true,” he stated. “I never sent nudes to these women and didn’t ask them to send me pictures either. And, I certainly wouldn’t have sex with someone who told me they were underage.”

What are the allegations against Ondreaz Lopez?
On January 26, 2021, video footage implying that Ondreaz Lopez, Tony’s then-23-year-old brother, had an inappropriate relationship with an underage fan surfaced on TikTok. The TikToker, who has since deleted their account, also included a letter from a law firm saying that a 14-year-old and her parent had retained services regarding an “interaction” with Ondreaz. A spokesperson for Ondreaz told Nofilter that the accusations were a “scam.” “Ondreaz has done absolutely nothing wrong and has not been sued by anyone,” they said at the time.

What are the laws on child grooming over the internet?
The main federal laws regarding online grooming fall under the coercion and enticing statute, 18 U.S. Code 2422, and 18 U.S. Code 2251, sexual exploitation of children. 18 U.S. Code 2422 covers whoever “knowingly persuades, induces, entices, or coerces any individual who has not attained the age of 18 years, to engage in prostitution or any sexual activity for which any person can be charged with a criminal offense, or attempts to do so,” per the U.S. Code via Cornell Law’s Legal Information Institute. Since exploitation is often what exposes grooming, the law works jointly with 2251, which makes it illegal to induce, entice, or coerce any minor into sexual explicit conduct for the purposes of creating visual content, like nudes.

According to Emily D. Baker, YouTube legal commentator and former Los Angeles deputy district attorney, different states have various statutes but are modeled after these federal codes. “In the influencer space, a lot of this stuff ends up on film. Then it’s finding prosecutors who are willing to take it forward, sometimes over the objection of the minors, who feel like they’ve actively participated because they wanted to talk to their favorite celebrity. And they don’t always realize, until years later — because they’re children — that they had been groomed inappropriately, because they trust the person who’s engaging in this behavior with them, which makes it so complicated,” Baker told Vulture over Zoom. “But the two main federal statutes are what states are starting to use to try to blend what is happening online and inappropriate messaging and inappropriate photos — because a lot of these statutes started with the idea that children would really be trafficked — which is a little bit different than grooming them for purposes of personal gratification through nudes and things like that.”

While the child-grooming statute, 18 U.S.C. 2422, covers special relationships like influencers and fans, Baker says prosecutors and lawmakers must “understand” that celebrities and influencers have a trust similar to that with family members. “Celebrities are in positions of power, having access in a way they didn’t [before],” Baker explains. “This last statute, 2422, was updated in 2006. I mean, what social media existed in 2006 that we’re still actively using today? The access to children is different.”

What are social-media platforms’ policies on sexual harassment?
All platforms have protection under section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which says users cannot sue a platform for banning them, even if it’s based on unconfirmed allegations. YouTube holds its users to a “creator responsibility” agreement, which says creators must follow community guidelines and terms of service, including “protecting the YouTube community.” “If we see that a creator’s on- and/or off-platform behavior harms our users, community, employees or ecosystem, we may take action to protect the community,” it reads. This includes “intending to cause malicious harm to others” and “participating in abuse or violence, demonstrating cruelty, or participating in fraudulent/deceptive behavior leading to real world harm.” Restrictions include suspending, canceling, or removing YouTube Originals, losing access to monetization, and videos no longer being recommended on YouTube. YouTube officially invoked its “creator responsibility” agreement against Charles in an April 19 statement to Insider, restricting his monetization. On March 26, Charles had been replaced as the host of Instant Influencer, a YouTube original, amid allegations. YouTube also used this agreement to demonetize Dawson and Onision. However, most platforms handle creator irresponsibility on a case-by-case basis, like when Twitter, Snapchat, Twitch, and more banned Donald Trump on January 6 and January 7, following the Capitol riots, based on “hateful content.”

“YouTube has taken action against [Charles] for behavior that happened really on Instagram and TikTok and Snapchat, not on their platform, but all the media coverage is ‘YouTuber James Charles,’ and YouTube believes that hurts advertiser confidence, it hurts the community at whole, it hurts other creators,” Baker says. “So where’s their obligation to James Charles, because these are allegations, but where’s their obligation to other creators whose businesses can be hurt because the platform loses confidence?”

What resources do victims of online harassment have?
Minors who feel they’ve had an inappropriate interaction with someone online should share the info with a trusted adult or reach out to “a community-based resource, like the local rape crisis center in your area or even the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network’s hotline,” Palumbo advises. Going to the police to pursue a criminal case can be difficult for minors and their families, Baker says, especially if local law enforcement isn’t equipped with a human-trafficking unit. Many victims choose to “expose” their accusations despite backlash from an influencer’s fans, like Justine Paradise, who accused Jake Paul of forced oral copulation on April 9, 2021. (Paul denied the allegations in a statement, claiming he’s a “momma’s boy.”) “Going forward to the community can be a way to warn people, even if you’re not seeking a criminal punishment,” Baker explains. “You also see people like FKA Twigs bringing her story out through a civil lawsuit, and not necessarily seeking financial restitution but really seeking a judge to say, ‘Yes, what you experienced in this relationship was illegal and abusive, and we see you.’ And sometimes that can be the kind of restoration that somebody is looking for.”

Have any influencers faced legal charges for online grooming?
In many cases, accusations of online grooming do not lead to criminal charges or consequences outside the court of public opinion. In 2018, British YouTuber Chris Ingham was accused of inappropriately messaging fans, including texting a 16-year-old girl to “sneak out” and meet him in the middle of the night. Ingham denied doing “anything that could be classed as sexually grooming somebody” in a video posted on August 24, 2018, and remains active on his family YouTube channel. Another example is Ryan Haywood, a former host on the gaming channel Achievement Hunter, who was accused of preying on and having sex with several fans while they were under the age of consent. On October 6, 2020, Haywood was let go by the video production company Rooster Teeth. He hinted at a return to his personal Twitch in January 2020, but backlash prompted the platform to ban him on January 20, 2021.

One notable exception is former YouTube musician Austin Jones. On May 5, 2019, he was sentenced to ten years in prison for soliciting explicit videos from underage fans. He pleaded guilty to one count of “receipt of child pornography” after reports surfaced in 2015 claiming he contacted fans to send him inappropriate videos. Per Buzzfeed News, Jones admitted that, in 2016 and 2017, he enticed six girls as young as 14 to send videos to “prove” they were his “biggest fan” in a plea agreement. He also admitted to attempting to persuade other girls “on approximately 30 other occasions,” asking them to send “twerking,” modeling, and sexually explicit photos and videos, telling some he would help them gain followers. In 2017, he was arrested, and YouTube demonetized his account, removing the channel entirely on February 6, 2019. As of May 2021, he is incarcerated in Loretto, Pennsylvania, with his earliest possible release set for December 2027.

A Guide to Influencer Online-Grooming Allegations