‘‘Shut Down Pornhub and Hold Its Executives Accountable for Aiding Trafficking”
This petition, started by Laila Mickletwait, Director of Abolition at Exodus Cry, has grown into a global campaign dubbed #traffickinghub in an effort to hold the largest porn website in the world accountable for enabling and profiting off the mass sex trafficking, rape and exploitation of women and children.
Below, we examine the accusations and explore the extent of Pornhub’s complicity.
The accusation: what kind of sex trafficking, rape and exploitation is occurring on PornHub? How common is this?
Pornhub is the self-proclaimed largest and most popular porn website in the world, receiving around 120 million videos per day. In recent months, the media has brought to light numerous shocking instances of sex trafficking and child rape films hosted on Pornhub. Illegal footage on the site includes everything from ‘professional’ pornography that involved trafficking and coercion to user uploads of so-called ‘revenge porn’, secret cam porn, public sexual harassment, and the recorded rape, sexual assault and abuse of minors.
Such illegal, non-consensual material is absorbed into Pornhub’s ocean of content, camouflaged by its indistinguishability from the millions of other videos. It often attracts hundreds of thousands of views and remains for months or even years at a time, and is only flagged and reported by the victims themselves, despite the psychological and legal risks entailed.
There’s no way of verifying how many such videos are currently hosted on the site. However, it’s likely that the cases that reach the headlines are just the tip of the iceberg.
There is no question that the accusations against Pornhub are well-founded.
In response, Pornhub refers to its “steadfast commitment to eradicating and fighting any and all illegal content on the internet, including non-consensual content and under-age material.” It says: “Any suggestion otherwise is categorically and factually inaccurate.”
What then constitutes this ‘steadfast commitment’? Saying the right thing doesn’t mitigate the fact that it is making money from the trafficking, abuse and exploitation of women and children. Does such illegal material somehow ‘slip through the net’ of Pornhub’s robust safeguards?
Pornhub states that it is, “actively working to put in place state-of-the-art, comprehensive safeguards on its platform to combat this material. These actions include a robust system for flagging, reviewing and removing all illegal material, employing an extensive team of human moderators dedicated to manually reviewing all uploads to the site, and using a variety of digital fingerprinting solutions….”
There is no acknowledgement of failure here, only the implication that more is needed. Even the proposed solutions are reactive rather than proactive and fail to address the fundamental aspects of Pornhub’s structure and corporate strategy that facilitate the continuation of abuse. It seems as though the company’s commitment to fighting the sexual exploitation of women and children is tokenistic, undermined by its strategy of aggressive expansion and profit maximisation at any cost.
- Pornhub is slow to react to reports of abuse
Aged 14, Rose Kalemba was brutally raped by 2 men for twelve hours. A third man filmed the incident. A few months later, people from her school tagged her into a link which led Pornhub and the several videos of her attack. Distraught, she contacted Pornhub repeatedly, begging them to take the videos down. However, they ignored her and only took action when she posed as a lawyer and threatened to sue them.
“The titles of the videos were ‘teen crying and getting slapped around’, ‘teen getting destroyed’, ‘passed out teen’. One had over 400,000 views…The worst videos were the ones where I was passed out. Seeing myself being attacked where I wasn’t even conscious was the worst.”
When abusive footage is put up online, victims often speak of feeling traumatised all over again. What’s more, when technology companies fail to act robustly, they invalidate the victims’ experience, which further impacts psychological well-being.
Rose’s struggle to get Pornhub to respond to her requests is not unique. Kate Isaac of #NotYourPorn, an organisation which tackles the epidemic of revenge porn says: “Mums are coming to us in utter despair, begging to know how videos ended up on a porn site and how they can be removed. They, like us, have found Pornhub to be very slow in responding to reports.” Shockingly, in October 2019, Isaacs claims that Pornhub had only 6 content moderators- a laughably insufficient number considering that last year alone, over 6.83 million new videos uploaded to the site.
Cara Van Dorn, whose firm represented 22 of the women trafficked in the Girls Do Porn case reported that despite reaching out to Mindgeek, Pornhub’s parent company, many times over a period of years, it wasn’t until the trial began and numerous favorable rulings demonstrated the strength of their case that Pornhub started to take action. She says, “ It’s not really ‘believing victims’ when it takes a team of lawyers and years of litigation before you lift a finger. It’s not really ‘doing the right thing’ when you only act when it is in your self-interest.”
Pornhub finally removed the official Girls Do Porn channel in October 2019, only after the company owners were arrested for sex trafficking. However, hundreds of the videos still remain on multiple free porn sites, including those hosted against banner ads that make Pornhub money. Angela Chaisson, Principal at Chaisson Law, believes that getting images permanently removed from a site like Pornhub is next to impossible: “I will often tell a client that it’s just not worth the effort that it takes, which is a very unsatisfactory thing to say to a client as a lawyer. It’s like whack-a-mole. If you get them taken down from one place, they pop up in another.”
According to Rob Jones, UK chief of the National Crime Agency, tech firms do have the technology to be more proactive in stopping the spread of illegal images and videos, but they are instead choosing a reactive approach. Instead, the burden of finding, flagging and fingerprinting abusive content lies with victims themselves which is not only traumatic, but also not guaranteed to work. Months and sometimes even years later, videos of abuse are still being viewed by thousands of people and still generating revenue for Pornhub.
2. Pornhub has no robust process for verifying the age or consent of its members.
Pornhub is set up in such a way that encourages anyone to upload virtually any kind of porn, making the whole process ‘zero friction’. There’s no robust verification process of verifying user age or consent and no barrier to stop users uploading illegal or non-consensual content. This set up inherently incentivises anyone to upload anything, which ultimately increases the site’s content and raises Pornhub’s focus.
Becoming a verified Pornhub account holder simply involves users to upload a photo of him/herself along with a username and website. This explains how one verified Pornhub member was a 15-year-old girl from Florida who was missing for a year and found after 58 videos of her rape and abuse were found on the site.
3. Pornhub’s videos contravene its own terms and conditions.
On Pornhub, there are literally tens of millions of videos that fetishise abusive situations and promulgating rape myths, as a quick glance through some of the titles shows:
- Teen girl kidnaped and captured pervert man use her young body to destroy
- oyeur on the subway
- Kidnapped Degraded And Abused
- Older Man In Elevator Harasses 10 Japanese Schoolgirls
- Uncle sneaks to niece’s room and abuse her
- Struggling Slut Fights Rough Anal Abuse – Fails Miserably
- Black Girlfriend Punished HARD for Not Doing Dishes (by African Sex Slaves)
The porn industry turns abusive material into its own genre. Professional studios deliberately mimic the abuse, normalising pornography depicting the subordination and exploitation of women and children. Pornhub endorses this, creating official categories for such things as ‘teen abused’, ‘revenge porn’, ‘very small boy’, ‘tiny girl’, ‘f*** me daddy’, ‘black slaves’, ‘black cocks matter’, ‘violation’, ‘violent abuse’ ‘used like meat’, ‘hidden cam’ and ‘exhibitionist’.
Having such titles and categories is extremely problematic, for a number of reasons:
- It allows real abuse videos to camouflage and go undetected. In most cases, it’s almost impossible to distinguish between real abuse and fantasy role play.
- As abusive terms and categories trend, such material becomes more common, accessible and normalised. Users become conditioned to associate abuse with arousal, and desensitised to the sense of discomfort bred from transgressing socio-ethical norms. What’s more, because they’re actively seeking out material simulating abuse, we can assume users will be less likely to identify and report material they suspect of being real abuse. Even so, the Internet Watch Foundation found 118 reports of child sexual abuse in 2018.
- The prevalence of such abusive material leads to a toxic vicious cycle of supply and demand: users’ appetite for the depiction of abuse is met by users inspired to upload footage of real abuse. So-called ‘teen porn’ fuels the demand for porn featuring minors, a demand that unscrupulous pornographers, traffickers and exploiters will seek to meet at any cost.
What’s more, it’s difficult to imagine how these videos don’t contravene Pornhub’s extensive terms and conditions which (among other things) do not allow anyone to:
- “act in a manner that negatively affects other users’ ability to use the Websites, including without limitation by engaging in conduct that is harmful, threatening, abusive, inflammatory, intimidating, violent or encouraging of violence to people or animals, harassing, stalking, invasive of another’s privacy, or racially, ethnically, or otherwise objectionable;
- post any Content that depicts any person under 18 years of age (or older in any other location in which 18 is not the minimum age of majority) whether real or simulated;
- post any Content depicting underage sexual activity, non-consensual sexual activity, revenge porn, blackmail, intimidation, snuff, torture, death, violence, incest, racial slurs, or hate speech, (either orally or via the written word).
3. Pornhub profits off the escalation of our sexual preferences
Pornhub functions as a repository of gendered aggression. Rather than merely reflecting consumer tastes and expectations, Pornhub also plays a key role in shaping them. The whole website is cleverly constructed to draw users in ever further with endless free videos and pieces of free carefully curated content to act as a ‘breadcrumb trail’ ultimately leading to pay for a subscription.”
“…men are drawn into the online commercial pornography network, where they find themselves enmeshed in a well constructed set of relationships designed to extract maximum profits through the circumscription of consumer choice. The structure of the network is designed to prevent ‘leavers’…”Jennifer Johnson
Watching porn is an escalating habit. Research has shown that over time, heavy users build up tolerance and require increasingly extreme content in order to reach the same level of sexual arousal. In order to keep users engaged and to ensure that they keep coming back, Pornhub’s algorithms recommend content not only aligned to user preference, but also more extreme,often introducing them to categories depicting illegal or unethical scenarios. What’s more, promoting “most viewed” videos that include other users’ comments causes users to justify and rationalise their interest in such material.
This is how Pornhub makes a lot of its money; it’s also how heavy porn users often find themselves watching material that they previously considered to be inappropriate or unethical, and why real or simulated sexual abuse has such a popular appeal.
4. Pornhub fought to legally remove all barriers to the representation of minors in pornography.
The explosion of internet porn led lawmakers to pass the Child Pornography Prevention Act in 1996, which prevented the representation of any image that “is, or appears to be, of a minor engaging in sexually explicit conduct.” In 2002, Pornhub’s lobbying arm, the Free Speech Coalition, managed to secure a Supreme Court decision that overturned the restriction and permitted the representation of young-looking girls in pornography as long as the performers were actually over 18.
Almost overnight, this released an avalanche of pseudo-child pornography featuring young-looking girls with flat chests, no makeup, braces and pigtails with lollipops being seduced and aggressively penetrated. This so-called ‘teen’ porn is one of the most searched categories on PornHub.
Whilst there is a backlog of millions of suspected CSAM images and videos, Pornhub is making many millions of pounds from the fetishisation of sex with underage girls. This is unacceptable, especially since we know that Pornhub is influencing users’ search terms and sexual preferences. Police investigators are noting the increasing trend for men who have no prior sexual interest in children ‘crossing the line’ from adult to children pornography as a result of heavy porn use, often via the bridge of ‘teen porn.
5. Pornhub fought to legally remove robust age-ID and consent procedures.
Permitting the representation of very young-looking women in porn makes the need for robust age verification procedures more vital than ever.
However, the Free Speech Coalition put a million dollars into fighting against Section 2257 of the Child Protection and Obscenity Enforcement Act, which required the industry to keep strict and transparent records of performers’ ages. It claimed that the regulations “placed an undue burden on pornographers’ free speech and violated Fourth Amendment protections against warrantless search and seizure”. Incredibly, it also claimed that, “there was hardly any porn featuring young-looking females”.
As Gail Dines and David Levy note, “This case highlights how porn has become big business, flexing its political muscles to fight regulation it sees as costly with wanton disregard for the consequences.”
The case turned on whether the public interest (protecting children from exploitation) justified the regulatory burden infringing on another group’s right (keeping records).The judgement went in the industry’s favour, apparently prioritising the cost to porn business over the cost to children.
Perhaps the reason overturning 2257 was so important to the porn industry is that “the regulations strike at the heart of the business model of the major corporate distributors of porn… The growth of the market segment featuring young-looking females represented a potential legal threat. And distributors of porn…want to avoid responsibility for content that could expose them to substantial legal and financial liabilities.”
”Pornhub has the capacity to tag every image or video with data on the performance, but due to the complex distribution networks and the large quantity of third-party uploaded content, this would be complex and expensive. It therefore prefers to shape regulation to support its evolving business model.”
Pornhub’s credibility, incentives and vested interests
PornHub has a nice Professional face and excellent PR. It donates to charity, it has solidarity campaigns, a whole section on its website on Sexual Health and Wellbeing and even has its own merchandise.
But beneath this fun-loving, socially-responsible facade, Pornhub is owned by MindGeek: a shady, ruthless world-leading tech company with questionable ethics:
- MindGeek has made untold billions by ruthlessly hoovering up virtually every porn site in the world. This monopolistic business has created a ‘vampire ecosystem’, profiting off stolen material and forcing smaller companies and performers to lose out and shut up or face being blacklisted.
- This leaves performers under pressure to make more extreme content, and encourages the creation of amateur porn videos.
- Mindgeek has an extremely complex, distributed structure in order to avoid corporate tax and to reduce liability.
- There is a pronounced lack of transparency regarding its business practices and financial transactions; official records are hard to come by.
- MindGeek’s owners have been implicated in cases of fraud, tax evasion and money laundering.
- In 2012, the company laundered money in an attempt to cover up a donation to oppose the introduction of a political bill requiring producers of adult films to obtain a public health permit and the use of condoms.
- Mindgeek’s lobbying group the Free Speech Coalition has poured millions of dollars into actively opposing all forms of regulation.
- Pornhub has illegally circumvented India’s attempt to ban it.
- Mindgeek has made various strategic donations to child protection charities, including InHope and the ASACP in an uncomfortable conflict of interest.
“Like other major industries that generate harmful social impacts, the porn industry wages legal and lobbying strategies against existing and proposed regulations while simultaneously creating a discourse that links its industry to wider social ambitions like sexual emancipation and free speech.”Heather Bruskell Evans
Pornhub attacks its opponents by claiming the groups working to hold them accountable are “fundamentalist” “right wing” “conservative” “religious” and “anti-lgbtq”.
But the campaign to hold Pornhub responsible is based, not on any kind of moral argument but on concerns over serious breaches of human rights. It has been endorsed by over 300 of some of the most respected child protection and anti-trafficking organisations in 192 countries across the world, as well as by individual experts on and survivors of sex trafficking, politicians and other important public figures. People from diverse backgrounds—liberal, conservative, young, old, male, female, religious and atheists have endorsed and supported the effort to hold Pornhub accountable for complicity in sex trafficking.
Even the porn industry itself has revolted against Pornhub. Porn performers and producers have started their own petition and created a manifesto against Pornhub for enabling and profiting from exploitation.
The Traffickinghub campaign wants to ensure that this global behemoth has public accountability, legal regulation and proactive policies that prioritise duty of care, children’s rights and social justice above capital ends. Pornhub has a vested interest in avoiding the cost involved with effective safeguarding procedures and currently, it has limited incentive to change. Regulatory action is urgently needed.