Pornhub Exposé Spotlights Pitfalls of ‘Sex-Positive’ Lifestyles

COMMENTARY: The New York Times’ investigative report of the pornographic video distributor shows that combatting child exploitation transcends political ideologies.

Both Visa and Mastercard have withdrawn their services from the Pornhub site.
Both Visa and Mastercard have withdrawn their services from the Pornhub site. (photo: Wachiwit / Shutterstock)

I commend New York Times writer Nicholas Kristof, Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., and Visa and Mastercard for exposing and fighting the plague of the sexual exploitation of children on the internet. Kristof’s pathbreaking story shows just how widespread kiddie porn really is, and how easily the innocent can be entrapped in its snares. Hawley has introduced legislation making it easier for victims to sue. And Visa and Mastercard have withdrawn their services from the Pornhub site. This issue transcends liberal and conservative, left and right. However, something more needs to be said. 

In his Dec. 4 story, Kristof focused on the pornography distribution site Pornhub. He noted that a search on the site for “girls under 18” and “14yo” both yielded more than 100,000 videos. They  include the rape of children, as well as strangulation and other vile acts. The mega-site attracts more than 3.5-billion visits a month, making it the 10th most-visited website in the world. 

Largely in response to this story, Visa and Mastercard announced that they would no longer allow their cards to be used to pay for services on Pornhub. In addition, Hawley filed the Survivors of Human Trafficking Fight Back Act, creating a private cause of action for victims of rape and sex trafficking. The act would allow victims to sue websites that knowingly depict forced sex acts, criminalize the knowing distribution of videos of coerced sex acts, including criminalize “revenge porn,” which is the non-consensual distribution of sexually explicit images by an ex-lover to cause embarrassment or distress to the victim. 

All these are good steps. I very much appreciate Kristof and The New York Times for this reporting. However, there is still one thing that troubles me. 

Kristof stated, “The issue is not pornography but rape. Let’s agree that promoting assaults on children or on anyone without consent is unconscionable. The problem with Bill Cosby or Harvey Weinstein or Jeffrey Epstein was not the sex but the lack of consent — and so it is with Pornhub. ... It should be possible to be sex positive and Pornhub negative.” 

Perhaps it “should be possible.” But I’m not convinced. I think this is one of those exquisite distinctions that is possible in theory, but not possible in fact. The reason? The underlying principle of pornography is that sex is a recreational activity with no intrinsic moral or social significance. The only possible problem with porn or with any sex really, is a lack of consent. Assenting to this view of human sexuality is, I suppose, what it means to be “sex positive.” 

But this view places more weight on the concept of “consent” than it can reasonably bear. We’ve seen throughout the #MeToo movement, that power imbalances can blur the lines between consensual and nonconsensual sex. As Catholics, we have seen many of our bishops ignore the sexual harassment of seminarians, under the theory that they were adults. And I think we have all seen enough to conclude that being “sex positive” does not actually empower the potentially weaker party. Potential victims, such as seminarians in relation to their superiors, employees in relation to their bosses, and children in relation to anybody, are not in a position to give meaningful consent. Our current crop of ideas about sexuality actually disarms potential victims, placing too much responsibility on their shoulders and ignoring their vulnerability relative to the offenders. 

Kristof quotes some of the victims. Their responses are telling. 

I had expected the survivors to want to shut down Pornhub and send its executives to prison. Some did, but others were more nuanced. Lydia, now 20, was trafficked as a child and had many rape videos posted on the site. “My stomach hurts all the time” from the tension, she told me, but she doesn’t want to come across as hostile to porn itself.

“I don’t want people to hear ‘No porn!’” Lydia told me. “It’s more like, ‘Stop hurting kids.’”

In my opinion, Lydia doesn’t need to be “nuanced.” She has every reason to be angry. She should not have to worry about whether she comes across as “hostile to porn.” She has every right to be just as darned hostile as she wants. 

Here is Kristof again: 

I asked Leo, 18, who had videos of himself posted on Pornhub when he was 14, what he suggested.

“That’s tough,” he said. “My solution would be to leave porn to professional production companies,” because they require proof of age and consent. 

I don’t think this line can hold. “Consent” isn’t strong enough. An arbitrary age isn’t strong enough. The underlying problem is that too many of us believe sex is a recreational activity to which all consenting adults are entitled. In fact, some go so far as to believe that a person cannot have a healthy or meaningful life without plentiful sexual activity. 

These ideas about human sexuality have put down very deep roots in individual minds and in public institutions. As a culture, we have no objective moral reference point by which to judge any particular intimate encounter, apart from “consent." And let’s face it, we can easily deceive ourselves when we are deciding whether to excuse ourselves or restrain ourselves. In an intimate encounter, almost by definition, there is no one else around to judge us. The power of “sex positive” ideas will bulldoze through the thin line of “consent.” 

I propose an alternative view of human sexuality. No one is “entitled” to sexual activity. Sex is something sacred, that potentially holds the literal power of life and death. The lifegiving potential of sex, the life-threatening power of sexual exploitation, we should accept these as facts, not as outmoded prejudices that we are well rid of. 

I don’t think poor Leo should be put in a position to have to say this is “tough.” What happened to him was wrong. What led up to what happened to him was also wrong, including the thought processes and ideas. 

I hope people from across the political spectrum can work together to eliminate the sexual exploitation of children. It’s an issue of justice for the victims of child sex abuse. This plague is eating away at the soul of our society. I appreciate Nicholas Kristof’s important work on this subject. I do hope he will be willing to rethink some of his ideas. He is right on the brink of a breakthrough. And I also hope everyone reading this, will pray for him. 

Rohingya Muslim refugees gather during the Eid al-Fitr holiday inside their temporary settlement on May 14, 2021 in New Delhi, India. A lockdown is in effect as COVID-19 cases have surged in India, causing a shortage of oxygen supplies across the country.

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