How do you catch a predator in 2020? In a recent investigative series, streamed out in parts to his 308,000 YouTube subscribers, former Dateline host Chris Hansen has been digging into abuse allegations against fellow YouTuber Onision.
This in-depth investigation from the To Catch a Predator guy is the latest surreal chapter in a seemingly endless saga, with various YouTube celebrities, ex-girlfriends, online vigilantes and sexagenarian former network journalists banding together in an attempt to expose Onision (James Jackson) once and for all (James has gone by a number of names in the past, most recently Greg Jackson). The makeshift coalition alleges that Onision, who has more than 2 million YouTube followers, has exploited his online fame for nearly a decade, grooming young fans and coercing them into sexually and emotionally abusive relationships.
In an interview published on Hansen’s YouTube channel on Jan. 29, 2020, Ed Troyer of the Pierce County, Washington Sheriff’s Department said that his department is in the process of gathering information on Onision, which will then be handed over to the prosecutor’s office. A source confirmed to The Daily Beast that the Sheriff’s Department has been in contact with Onision accusers. Addressing alleged victims, Troyer continued, “We want them to know that there is a detective assigned, they are working with other agencies, the prosecutor’s aware that this is going on, we’re continuing to put stuff together and feed it to the prosecutor, and when the time’s right, we would like to do what we can to put an end to this.”
Hansen has stated on multiple occasions that he has been in contact with FBI officials in regard to Onision. The FBI could not confirm or deny the existence of an investigation, citing DOJ policy.
Onision petitioned for an order for protection in Washington State against Hansen and another YouTuber in early January. According to court documents obtained by The Daily Beast, the petitions were subsequently denied after Onision requested their dismissal. In Onision’s initial statement, he described a recent incident in which Hansen came to his house requesting an interview (Hansen has spoken about this interaction at length on his YouTube channel), continuing, “Chris Hansen has been making hateful videos about myself/my spouse since Aug/Sep… Chris Hansen has been stalking us for nearly half a year already.”
Onision is best known for his early video “Banana Song (I’m A Banana),” which has amassed over 79 million views over 10 years. He went on to convert his viral fame into a fruitful YouTube career. The YouTuber, now 34, has made countless videos about self-harm and eating disorders, body image, and body positivity. His content seems geared for teenage fans, the same demographic that Onision has been accused of targeting and abusing. And while Onision was banned from Patreon last month for doxxing one of his accusers, he still regularly uploads videos to YouTube.
Onision’s brand of alleged predation is just the latest co-option of body positivity, which has devolved from radical movement to “woke” marketing tactic to grooming device.
There are a number of online creators who appear to exhibit similar patterns of predation, initiating relationships with young fans under the guise of fostering body positivity.
Recent examples include the rapper Lil B, who created a body positive social media “gallery for female selfie expression” called GirlTime and then allegedly asked underage posters to send him photos with his name written on their bodies, and the YouTube gamer ProJared. Last May, Jared “ProJared” Knabenbauer and his “elf wife” went viral after a divorce announcement spiraled into allegations of sexual predation. Knabenbauer’s newly minted ex-wife took to Twitter with a slew of allegations ranging from emotional abuse to soliciting nudes from fans. She posted, “In the beginning, it was a joke on tumblr. Then it was its own tumblr account just for nudes. It was ostensibly a body-positive space for consenting adults, and I approved on that basis.”
Other accusers quickly followed suit, with multiple former fans alleging that ProJared exchanged explicit images with them when they were underage. Knabenbauer has since made a video denying allegations that he exchanged nudes with underage fans, and attempting to refute the specific claims made by two of his accusers.
Disturbing parallels between ProJared and Onision abound: both are alleged to have actively appealed to a young fan base and offered validation in exchange for suggestive or explicit images. Like Onision, whose debut novel starred a fictionalized version of his high school self, ProJared connected with teenage fans through a boyish virtual avatar. An animated version of Knabenbauer starred in the 2016 “dating simulator” game Asagao Academy: Normal Boots Club, which reimagined famous YouTubers as high schoolers at a Japanese boarding school. Within different game routes, players were able to romance adolescent renderings of their favorite YouTube celebrities.
As one former ProJared fan told The Daily Beast at the time, “It was known quietly yet widely throughout the Asagao fandom that people could live out their fantasies that were spurred on by his route in the game by messaging Jared himself.”
Allegations of abuse have followed Onision for years. In a since-deleted 2012 social media post, an ex-girlfriend of Onision’s named Shiloh wrote, “We had sex when I was 17 in a state where it was legal on Dec. 28, 2010,” adding, “I was mentally, physically, and emotionally abused in that relationship.”
During a recent interview with Hansen, Shiloh elaborated on her two-year relationship with Onision, to whom she first reached out for advice after watching one of his videos. Shiloh, who was a successful teenage recording artist when she first met Onision, who was in his mid-twenties, found her career derailed by Onision’s countless demands. Onision moved to Toronto to live with Shiloh, where she says he pressured her to break off contact with her mother. Later, they moved to Washington together, alienating Shiloh from her personal and professional network. Eventually, Shiloh found that she was dating Onision—and starring in his YouTube videos—full-time. She described it as “the ultimate submission,” telling Hansen, “I gave him everything.”
Shiloh described sexual relations with Onision as “very aggressive,” saying that they had sex up to eight times a day and she was frequently in pain. Since it was her first sexual relationship, she assumed that this was “normal… how adults do things.” Reflecting back on the “abusive situation” that she was in, Shiloh explained that, “the body-shaming is probably what stuck with me the most.” She recalled an instance when Onision told her that she was “clinically obese” and needed to lose weight so that he could pick her up during sex; she started hyperventilating and eventually passed out, in what she now refers to as a seizure (she says that she’s been having them ever since). She later learned that, instead of taking her to the hospital, Onision had recorded a video of the incident to share on his YouTube channel. When Hansen pressed Shiloh on what would have happened if her on-and-off again relationship with the YouTuber had continued, she replied, “I think I would have committed suicide in his house,” adding that Onision would have likely responded with a video titled “My Girlfriend Committed Suicide in My House.”
Among the allegations of abuse and coercion that have been leveled against Onision are accusations that he leveraged his current partner, fellow YouTuber Kai, to pressure young fans into sexual relationships.
Kai Jackson previously posted that he and Onision began dating in February 2012, when he was 17 (Jackson, who was previously known as “Laineybot” on YouTube, now goes by the name Kai and uses he/him pronouns). A number of former fans have alleged that they formed virtual friendships with Kai, a YouTube celebrity in his own right, only to find themselves being coerced into three-way relationships with him and Onision. (Onision and Kai have not responded to The Daily Beast’s numerous requests for comment.)
Haylee, who goes by the name “Luxymoo” online, first started interacting with Onision and Kai in 2016. She was a huge fan of Kai’s and felt “star-struck” by the YouTuber. She had been tweeting at Kai “for a long time,” and even tweeted pictures of herself to him. She says Kai eventually DM’d Haylee and asking her how old she was. After a “week and a half” of texting, Haylee told The Daily Beast, Kai was already talking about flying her up to visit him and Onision in Washington.
Haylee ultimately decided that she wasn’t comfortable with a polyamorous relationship, which she says deeply upset Onision. He then initiated a textual offensive, switching between insulting Haylee and flattering her. “He insinuated that I could have kids with him, he called me sexually dormant, he said he thought my mind might be broken. Then he would go, oh, but you’re a good person, I really wish this could work out,” she recalled. “Just trying to manipulate me into agreeing to go up there.” It was during this days-long conversation that “it clicked for me that he was a predator,” Haylee concluded.
Another former fan, Billie, did embark on a three-way relationship with the couple after first being contacted by Kai in 2015. After talking for two weeks, Billie told Hansen during a recent interview, Kai offered to fly her out to Washington. During that first visit, Billie recalled being pressured by Onision into kissing Kai. On her second visit to see the couple, Onision told Billie that he was under the assumption that it was going to be a three-way relationship. “I didn’t know that was what I was signing up for,” Billie recalled. Their first sexual encounter “kind of just happened,” Billie continued. “Greg would tell me what to do to Kai. Instead of letting us do our own thing he would be like oh do this, touch her here… It was definitely too early, we weren’t ready for it.”
Over the course of this relationship Billie and her best friend Ayalla, who joined her on a later visit to the Jackson house, both interacted with Sarah, a young fan who was living with Kai and Onision at the time.
Like Billie, Sarah first encountered Onision on YouTube, where he made videos about “teenage stuff” that really spoke to her. She started tweeting at Onision and Kai, and says she received her first private message from Kai when she was 14—“Hi Sarah, how old are you?” At one point, Sarah says Kai told her that he had shown a picture of her 14-year-old self to Onision, who thought she was “cute.” Sarah was in a “very bad place” in her life at the time, and told The Daily Beast that she looked up to the couple, “Like they were going to help me. And they didn’t.”
Beginning in Sept. 2016, when she was 16, Sarah lived with the couple for months at a time. Her former legal guardian gave Kai power of attorney over the teenager, Sarah confirms. “It was finalized like a week after I moved out there,” Sarah told The Daily Beast. Publicly, Sarah continued, “Greg would say, oh, we’re like foster parents to her, or I view Sarah as a little sister.”
She now categorizes Onision’s behavior toward her as grooming. Kai allegedly told Sarah that Onision had once attempted to cheer him up after a falling out with Billie by saying, “We can just wait for Sarah to turn 18.” (Sarah was 15 at the time.) Beginning when she was 16, Sarah says, she would occasionally lay in bed or cuddle with the couple. “[Onision] would do little things when no one else was looking… Like running his hand up my back at dinner or something like, as soon as Kai left the room, telling me that he wanted to hug me but he didn’t want to be creepy,” Sarah told The Daily Beast. “I’ve been doing research and learning a lot, and now I understand that they were getting me accustomed to physical touch.” According to Sarah, this behavior escalated once she turned 17.
“I was in a state where I didn’t know anybody else,” Sarah told The Daily Beast. “They fed me, they took care of me, I lived in their house, I was part of their family. They were like my parents.”
The presence of a minor in Onision’s home caused something of a PR nightmare for the YouTubers, especially when concerned witnesses like Billie’s friend Ayalla started speaking out publicly. Sarah recalled, “I had to sit there and watch Greg make videos calling everybody disgusting weirdos [for] sexualizing all of this.”
“The situation always felt a little off to me, but I ignored it,” Sarah told The Daily Beast. “I had a fear that things would take a sexual turn as soon as I turned 18.” She explained that, when she was 17, Onision started pushing for a relationship between Sarah and Kai. “He didn’t say a three-way relationship,” she continued, “but he said a ‘relationship,’ and I knew that a relationship with Kai meant a relationship with him.” Once she turned 18, Sarah continued, the pressure became more overt.
“Kai and I would talk about just being friends,” she explained, “but anytime I would go up there Greg would always turn it into something else.” Sarah told Chris Hansen that Onision first initiated sex with her via a threesome; Onision and Kai began having sex next to her, at which point “[Onision] kind of pulled me in.” Sarah continued, “I feel like Kai and I were both pressured into it the first time… I didn’t really sleep that night.” Sarah told The Daily Beast that, the day after the threesome, Onision made her sign an NDA.
Since Sarah has started speaking out publicly, Onision has used his YouTube platform to attempt to discredit her. Sarah is not the first of his accusers whom Onision has gone after online, or whose personal details he’s divulged—his recent Patreon ban came after he shared screenshots of private text messages he exchanged with Billie, one of which included her phone number. Sarah, who says that Onision’s online harassment has increased in recent weeks, has a message for the YouTuber: “I’m not scared of you.”
Last January, YouTube shuttered Onision’s biggest channel, “UhOhBro,” “due to multiple or severe violations of YouTube’s policy prohibiting hate speech,” only to reinstate the channel a day later. When reached for comment, YouTube told The Daily Beast that “UhOHBro” was removed in error, and quickly reinstated. According to YouTube, they do not terminate a channel based on allegations alone when its content is not in violation of their policies. They added that they would generally re-evaluate if there is an investigation into allegations which concludes in a conviction or guilty plea. While Onision is still active on YouTube, his recent videos hover at around 20,000 views—a far cry from his older content, which often attracted over a million views.
“I’m glad that a lot of people are waking up,” Haylee told The Daily Beast about Onision’s rapidly shrinking fan base. “But still, if you look at his Twitter or you look at the comments on his videos, most of the people that are commenting or interacting with him are very young girls. Because he’s so easily accessible, a lot of young viewers will turn a blind eye to everything because they think they have a chance to interact with someone who is famous—a YouTube celebrity with a big platform.”
The majority of the women who have come forward about Onision first encountered him as teenage girls, drawn to the seemingly targeted content he churned out. Ayalla, Billie’s best friend, recalled Onision’s videos coming up in response to “stuff that I was looking up” as a high school freshman—“videos about women’s bodies or eating disorders or self-harm.”
“They’re topics that adult men probably don’t Google on a daily basis,” she told The Daily Beast. “It’s just very obvious: he posts content that will appeal to very young women, and then he uses his power and his influence to contact these young women on the internet.”
The now-defunct Onision forums, onision.xyz, were a place for these young fans to convene online and hang out with their favorite YouTuber. They were also a content engine for Onision, who converted fans’ posts and photos into YouTube videos. In 2016, the conservative commentary website Heat Street published an extensive report on the objectionable Onision forums, where teens and tweens “register and then submit pictures of themselves in hopes of being featured in one of [Onision’s] videos.”
“[Onision’s] videos run as long as six minutes and garner hundreds of thousands of views,” the 2016 Heat Street article reported. “In the photos they submit, many girls write his name on their bodies in deference to him…In just a half-hour of scrolling through some of the pages and pages of posts and photos in his forum, I found dozens and dozens of examples of girls who list ages for themselves that are between 11 and 17.”
While the forums’ archive is incomplete, evidence of an active ecosystem remains. Fans are encouraged to submit photos for upcoming videos on threads titled “Show off your body abnormalities,” “Before and after anorexia/bulimia,” and “Share your thigh gap.”
Fans saw Onision as someone who could arbitrate their appearance, and as an expert on the sensitive topics he addressed online. One fan posted on the forum that they “found out about Onision a couple of weeks ago when I was researching something related to weight on YouTube.” Another posted, “I hate my body and I feel like there is nothing I can do about it. I have tried everything and nothing works… what should I do? I love your videos, you kind of help me feel better x.”
Erica Corcoran, a former fan and Onision forum moderator, first found the YouTuber around 2007, when she was 17. Corcoran believes that she was on the forum for longer than almost anyone, moderating the site for over five years. “I was essentially in charge of his forums,” Corcoran told The Daily Beast.
She recalled those days as lawless, saying that there were very few rules she was tasked with enforcing. New waves of tweens and teens were constantly finding their way to the Onision forums. She and her established forum friends were exasperated by the kids’ immaturity whenever they logged on, but Onision didn’t appear to have any qualms about connecting with potential minors. “There was always a way to contact him,” Corcoran explained. In retrospect, she almost can’t believe that Onision was so willing to engage with these young fans, who would approach him with deeply-personal problems and confidences.
Then again, Corcoran suspects that Onision’s content was engineered to attract this fan base: young girls, particularly vulnerable ones. She recalled being confused by the YouTuber’s first book, a semi-autobiographical novel with a teenage protagonist. “Why did a 29-year-old man write from the perspective of a high schooler?” Corcoran wondered. “He would always make himself look younger than he was in his videos with his haircut, his makeup,” she added.
Onision was so successful in cultivating a young fan base that, according to Corcoran, apparent predators attempted to use the Onision forums to contact young girls. Corcoran told The Daily Beast that she took screenshots of these conversations at the time because, even then, she “knew that it was wrong.” Screenshots from one exchange, dated May 2012, show a user saying that he “delve[d] into CP [child pornography] for a while.” In another message, he claims to have sexually assaulted an unconscious 16-year-old girl when he was “18 or 19.” Corcoran also took screenshots of a separate conversation between two users, in which one solicits nude photographs. While the ages of the users are not disclosed in the screenshots, Corcoran insisted that, “I know for sure the girl [the girl] was underage. Possibly just 14.”
In a 2016 video titled “Body Positivity (Brutal Honesty),” Onision outlines his ethos. Noting that people like to call him “body positive,” he insists, “I’m body honest.” Flipping through a number of photo submissions from his Onision forums, he praises the bodies of some half-naked submitters, calls one fat and tells another to “institutionalize herself” for an eating disorder that he’s just diagnosed. He points out when submitters’ perceived flaws would not be a sexual deterrent. “What I’m teaching you is that what a lot of girls think is not OK actually is OK,” he continues, “and that yes in fact sometimes people are actually fat, but the majority of girls are actually awesome looking.”
To this day, a YouTube search for “body image” will likely yield an Onision video.
A generation of girls has been brought up to self-love by submitting selfies, whether it’s to forums like Onision’s or hashtags like Lil B’s #GirlTime—virtual communities made up of young people, but overseen by male adults. Wynter, who posted #GirlTime selfies when she was 15 and 16 “looking for attention and validation,” told The Daily Beast that she received a DM request from Lil B soliciting his trademark photos. She admitted that this interaction only seemed odd in retrospect. “Growing up on Twitter, there were other accounts also engaging in such behavior and posting pics of yourself was super common,” she explained. “Me and most of my friends have been on Twitter since 12/13, so seeing this stuff for a while normalizes it. I think that’s part of why a lot of young girls did send pictures.”
And while Onision stands accused of using his partner to ensure continued access to young women as he grows older, his video oeuvre won’t age along with him. Like ProJared’s high school avatar in Asagao Academy, the internet has a way of freezing people in amber. Every day, newly minted tweens and teens furtively scan the internet looking for answers. In their quest for validation, to be told that they’re pretty, or skinny, or right, they might enter a search term that brings them straight to Onision—a boyish-looking YouTuber who knows just how badly they want to be seen.