Interview with Rose Kalemba, words by Tom Farr

On the 10th  February, the BBC published the story of Rose Kalemba, a young woman from Ohio who had been through what anybody would describe as a truly horrific series of events. For anyone unfamiliar with the story, as a 14-year old girl Rose was kidnapped at knife-point, stabbed, and then raped over a period of 12 hours while one of the men filmed the attack. In the following months, she suffered at the hands of disbelieving authorities and an unsympathetic justice system, and things became so bad she attempted to end her own life.

The brutality of this is of course shocking in and of itself, but the tragedy didn’t end there for Rose. Several months after the attack, Rose was made aware of a link being passed around by people from her school: a link which she was tagged in by name. Upon opening the link, she was directed to Pornhub. What she saw induced a wave of nausea and panic: videos of her assault and rape had been uploaded, with titles such as ‘teen crying and getting slapped around’, ‘teen getting destroyed’, ‘passed out teen’. One of these videos had been viewed over 400,000 times. Rose pleaded with Pornhub via email to take the videos down, but they ignored her every single time. Until one day, she decided to threaten them with legal action – not knowing whether it would work and not knowing whether it was even something she could follow through with – and the videos quickly disappeared. But the trauma remained.

I first spoke with Rose in the summer of 2019. As she talked me through her story I was struck by how courageous she was, and is, for coming forward in an effort to shine a light on just how rotten the porn industry is. 10 years had passed, and she had begun her recovery process, but it was the prospect of other girls and women suffering as she had, and Pornhub subsequently profiting, that had motivated her to speak out.

This had come as a response to Pornhub rolling out a “Save-the-Bees” campaign drawing attention to the environmental issues caused by a dwindling bee population. If this sounds like an absurd campaign for a porn website to be involved in, you’re not wrong. But Rose was angered by this; the profiteers of her exploitation seemed to be portraying themselves as a progressive, environmentally conscious and forward-thinking organisation that happened to also host porn videos. She was furious. And so should we all be.

Speaking to me now, Rose tells me:

Pornhub are a human trafficking hub wrapped up in shiny faux-woke gift wrap and topped with a bow- all an illusion to distract us from seeing what they really are. 

 This is a damning, but wholly accurate, indictment of what type of company Pornhub really is. While some people may object to terms such as “human trafficking” being used, this is not just emotive language to garner a reaction. Last year the owners of the company GirlsDoPorn were charged with human trafficking offences, and found guilty of lying to and coercing young women to perform on camera for them. There was industry-wide outrage at this supposed “bad apple”, and a move towards distancing themselves from the company. It should come as a surprise therefore, or perhaps not, to find that Pornhub is still hosting these videos and profiting off them.

And this is not confined to GirlsDoPorn either. To understand these links, we need to look at the Trafficking Victims Protection Act 2000 (TVPA), a federal statute passed in the US in 2000. When people think about what trafficking entails, often it is the image of people being forcibly shipped across borders into situations of domestic and/or sexual servitude and slavery. This, sadly, is of course common. But the TVPA goes further in defining the context in which trafficking can take place. Section 102(a) TVPA defines domestic sex trafficking as:

“A commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age.”

 This legislation takes the idea of trafficking beyond that of being a solely international or cross-border issue. It sets out criteria that where a commercial sex act takes place through force or coercion, it constitutes trafficking. Under this definition, huge quantities of porn are implicated.

Exploitation in the porn industry

“I was threatened that if I did not do the scene I was going to get sued for lots of money.”

“[I] told them to stop but they wouldn’t stop until I started to cry and ruined the scene.”  

“He told me that I had to do it and if I can’t, he would charge me and I would lose any other bookings I had because I would make his agency look bad.”

 These quotes, from survivors of the porn industry, highlight that force, coercion and abuse are key elements of getting women to “perform” in the desired ways. Make no mistake, this is sex trafficking. As Rose rightly points out, Pornhub is a hub for this material, and consequently is complicit in the propagation of human trafficking both domestically and across the globe. Not only is the production and consumption of porn on the rise, but so is “gonzo” porn, featuring frequent violence  such as gagging, slapping and choking. In this context it is all but guaranteed that the abuse and coercion in porn If this sounds far fetched, why not hear what the performers themselves have to say about it.

Often there are attempts to separate this explicitly abusive and violent porn from so-called “ethical” porn, but this is a contradictory notion. Porn is the wholesale commodification of human sexuality, sold for profit, which disproportionately negatively affects the women involved in the industry. It matters not that “some” porn is allegedly ethical, because it is still part of the wider industry that functions by commodifying abuse into a consumable product. This is something that Rose herself discussed with me:

 I don’t believe the porn industry could ever be ethical, because the potential for abuse is far too great. Neither sex nor porn are human rights that anyone is entitled to. The safety and lives of the victims involved, largely women and girls, however, IS a human right that must be protected at all costs. 

 Further to that, Rose was also keen to stress that the exploitation extends beyond Pornhub, and into the industry at large:

 A lot of people try to argue that while big companies like Pornhub are exploitative, independently produced porn is not. But when my story first went public, I received dozens of messages from young women who were forced by their traffickers or in some cases abusive boyfriends or husbands to produce content for websites like Onlyfans, Manyvids, and others. One nineteen year old woman told me that her abuser forced her to keep a smile on her face while he violated her and made her do things to herself on camera against her will. The truth is that the problem with the industry isn’t “a few bad apples”- it’s a rotten tree. 

When our eyes are opened to the exploitation and violence that occurs at every level of the porn industry, it becomes obvious that thrives on a destructive power imbalance: men wielding abusive power over women, which is often repackaged as being empowering or “sex positive”.

Moving beyond porn specifically for a moment, the effect this has had on the lives of women within other aspects of the commercial sex-trade, specifically the system of prostitution, is disastrous.Pornography has normalised violence and coercion, and has many links to prostitution. It doesn’t require great feats of imagination to realise that as porn continues to propagate harmful attitudes towards sex, men will want to act these out on women within prostitution , and indeed, the research confirms this. The links are all too clear to Rose as well:

As women, we must remember not to fall for the lie that our own objectification is empowering. Something is only empowering if it gains us real, tangible power. If sexualizing violence was truly “empowering” then men would have been lining up to be the target of it decades ago.

 Once again, Rose cuts through all the noise with an acute awareness of just how oppressive and exploitative the porn industry is. It has convinced women that their own empowerment lies in sexual objectification through porn or prostitution.

In that vein, I will draw this post to a close with some final words from Rose. It is a privilege to know her, and CEASE UK stands alongside her and all other victims and survivors of sexual exploitation and male violence against women, and we are fundamentally committed to seeing an end to the abhorrent profiteering off human misery and despair propagated by the porn industry.

What people who watch porn don’t understand is, they might think that they aren’t harming anyone, but this is plain wrong. They are the ones enabling and creating a demand for the exploitation. This absolutely makes them complicit.