Pornography Profiteer Faces a Reckoning

The pornography distributor Pornhub deleted 80% of its content amid fierce criticism that it profits from child rape and sexual trafficking.

The problem of pornography.
The problem of pornography. (photo: RedPixel / Shutterstock)

WASHINGTON — Pornographic video distributor Pornhub deleted millions of videos in response to a major newspaper story that contended the company profits from child rape and sexual trafficking, and a financial backlash from major credit-card companies followed.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof cast a new spotlight this month on the fact that Pornhub, one of the largest distributors of pornography in the world, has profited off of child rape and sex trafficking while making little to no effort to police the violent and sometimes illegal content posted to its website. 

His Dec. 4 column, “The Children of Pornhub,” highlighted the stories of minors and rape victims who were traumatized as Pornhub circulated their videos and images even after requests for their removal. The story spurred massive change resulting in Visa, Mastercard and Discover blocking payments to Pornhub and the group deleting millions of videos following a policy change in which only “verified” users could post content.

While experts and studies have documented the harms of porn consumption on mental health, Pornhub markets its content as a harmless diversion and has even painted itself as “wholesome.” 

However, Kristof’s column told much darker tales of what takes place on a website with a business model built around objectification. He pointed out multiple instances of the site profiting off of the rape of minors, noting “after a 15-year-old girl went missing in Florida, her mother found her on Pornhub — in 58 sex videos. Sexual assaults on a 14-year-old California girl were posted on Pornhub and were reported to the authorities not by the company but by a classmate who saw the videos. In each case, offenders were arrested for the assaults, but Pornhub escaped responsibility for sharing the videos and profiting from them.”

One woman, Cali, who was sex trafficked at the age of 9 by a couple who adopted her from China, told Kristof that “Pornhub became my trafficker,” and videos of her abuse still regularly appear there. Another girl, Serena Fleites, told Kristof that she made the mistake at age 14 of agreeing to send a boy she liked a naked video; the boy shared the video, which ended up on Pornhub and resulted in bullying that led her to suicide attempts, dropping out of school and becoming homeless. 

 

‘Empire of Exploitation’

Kristof’s column prompted Visa, Mastercard and Discover to block payments to Pornhub, stating this week that an “investigation over the past several days has confirmed violations of our standards prohibiting unlawful content on their site.” 

Pornhub announced a policy change allowing only “verified” users to post content as well as disallowing the downloading of videos. The website deleted more than 10 million videos, or 80% of its content.

Lina Nealon is the director of corporate and strategic initiatives at the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE), a nonprofit that was co-founded by Jesuit Father Morton Hill and other faith leaders in 1962 to combat all forms of sexual exploitation, including pornography. She told the Register that “MindGeek, which is Pornhub’s parent company, has created an empire of exploitation, and what we’ve seen in the past two weeks is a significant amount of that infrastructure that props up the porn industry start crumbling.” 

NCOSE has been trying to raise awareness about the sexual exploitation and abuse going on at Pornhub for years, and the group is “thrilled” that the website has taken down the majority of its content, Nealon said, but added that the 3 million remaining videos are “3 million too many.” She said that “even with verified users, there are instances of actual sex trafficking and actual sexual assault.” One instance of this occurred in the case of the kidnapped 15-year-old girl in Florida, whose kidnapper was able to upload videos of her rape through a verified account.

 

Survivors Speak Out

Nealon said that the recent backlash against Pornhub would not be possible without “the courageous survivors that have come out and spoken,” saying that “when one survivor speaks out, then I think others gain strength. There was a growing tide of survivors being willing to speak out.” She cited Rose Kalemba, who spoke to the BBC in February about how she was raped at the age of 14 and the video was uploaded to Pornhub. She was bullied in school over the video and begged the website to take it down. The site’s operators only did so after she emailed them posing as a lawyer and threatened legal action.

Nealon added that the harms of the industry extend beyond the victims of sex trafficking to other “porn performers.” 

“It’s not only harming those whose images are uploaded, who have not consented and don’t even know that their filmed trauma is available to be viewed,” she said, “but those so-called porn performers also often suffer extreme psychological duress and are often coming from situations of vulnerability.” 

Many of those who have left the industry have told stories of being forced into violent scenes and coping with severe depression through drug use.

On Tuesday, 40 victims of a sex-trafficking operation called “GirlsDoPorn” filed a lawsuit against Pornhub over its failure to take down videos of them obtained by false assurances that the videos would not appear online. GirlsDoPorn was indicted in October 2019 by the FBI on counts of sex trafficking. The site’s owner, Michael Pratt, is on the FBI’s “Most Wanted” list. 

Pornhub did not take down the GirlsDoPorn channel until just after the FBI pressed charges in 2019. 

According to the complaint, “as early as 2009, and definitely by fall of 2016, MindGeek knew GirlsDoPorn was trafficking its victims using fraud, coercion, and intimidation as part of its customary business practices to get the women to film the videos. Despite this knowledge, MindGeek continued to partner with GirlsDoPorn, never bothering to investigate or question its business partner regarding the mounting evidence of sex trafficking that MindGeek received.” As of Dec.12, the complaint noted, MindGeek still hosts victims’ videos on its websites.

“GirlsDoPorn (and MindGeek) knew the unconsented publication of victim’s sex video would upend the victim’s life,” the complaint said. “The victims were ostracized by friends and family, many lost their jobs, and some were expelled from college. The relentless harassment caused all victims to become suicidal and some even attempted such.” 

 

A Skewed View of Sexuality

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that pornography “does grave injury to the dignity of its participants (actors, vendors, the public), since each one becomes an object of base pleasure and illicit profit for others. It immerses all who are involved in the illusion of a fantasy world. It is a grave offense. Civil authorities should prevent the production and distribution of pornographic materials” (2354). 

Peter Kleponis, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical therapist based in Pennsylvania and a co-founder of Integrity Restored, a Catholic group that aims to “help restore the integrity of individuals, spouses and families that have been affected by pornography and pornography addiction.” 

Kleponis told the Register that the prevalence of violent pornography that involves sex trafficking and rape “definitely changes the way men view women and the way they view sexuality. It really skews their view of sexuality, which can then lead to more rape and other sex crimes out there; basically, it leads men to feel that it’s okay to use women for their own sexual pleasure. It leads to more exploitation.”

Kleponis hopes that with this Pornhub scandal, “our government will start regulating the porn industry a little bit more,” saying, “if these companies are going to be showing this type of pornography, they need to be designated reporters, where they need to screen every single pornographic video they put on the internet; and if there’s even the slightest question that there may be human trafficking or child abuse or rape, they have to report it to the government.” He added that Pornhub should “face consequences” for the rape and trafficking videos it has circulated.

Both Kleponis and Nealon likened pornography to smoking, hoping that this moment may be a significant step toward pushing the industry outside of the mainstream. Kleponis said that, with smoking, “doctors knew it would kill you, but no one could say anything because everybody smoked. … It took 50 years of intensive education to make people realize how dangerous smoking is, and now, wherever you go, it’s all smoke-free.”

“Because we educated everybody, we changed the cultural view of smoking, which then lowered the number of smokers out there, which lowered the demand for tobacco, which then lowered the supply,” he added. “That’s what we have to do: We have to educate people about the dangers of pornography so we can become a porn-free society, lower the demand for it, and then lower the supply.” 

 

Accountability 

NCOSE and others are pushing for accountability for the pornography industry’s profiting off of the trauma of sexual-abuse victims. They are calling on the U.S. Department of Justice and state attorneys general to investigate MindGeek. 

Laila Mickelwait, the founder of Traffickinghub, a “non-religious, non-partisan effort to hold the largest porn website in the world accountable for enabling and profiting off of the mass sex-trafficking and exploitation of women and minors,” told the Register via email that “seeing these financial institutions block Pornhub purchases so quickly after announcing an investigation only three days prior should be alarming to any corporation allowing them to use their platform or services to conduct business.” 

In her work, she said, she has “witnessed the horrific criminal violence on Pornhub and other porn sites for over 8 years now. Since these financial institutions have blocked them, and they are under the global spotlight, they have begun attempting to clean the crime scene at the rate of deleting 10 million videos.” 

“The Department of Justice has the tools to immediately hold Pornhub/MindGeek criminally responsible,” Mickelwait said. “Justice must be served for survivors of Pornhub to the full extent of the law, and legislation must be put into place so this cannot continue on any other porn site ever again.”

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., and a bipartisan group of senators recently introduced the “Survivors of Human Trafficking Fight Back Act,” which would “create a private cause of action allowing victims of rape and sex trafficking, as well as individuals whose intimate images are distributed without their consent, to sue pornographic websites.”

Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., wrote to the DOJ in March that “in several notable incidents over the past year, Pornhub made content available worldwide showing women and girls that were victims of trafficking being raped and exploited.” He requested “that the Department open an investigation into Pornhub and its parent entity, MindGeek Holding SARL, for their involvement in this disturbing pipeline of exploiting children and other victims and survivors of sex trafficking.”

As Pornhub is based in Montreal, the Canadian Parliament has recently requested that Feras Antoon and David Tassillo, the CEOs of MindGeek, testify before an ethics committee. 

"I would ... like to ask them how they expect to remedy the harm caused to individuals who never provided their consent for images and videos to be shared," Toronto Liberal parliamentarian Nathaniel Erskine-Smith commented to CTV News. He said that he expects to “discuss whether additional public rules ought to be necessary." 

Christine Raino, senior director of public policy at Shared Hope International, a Christian nonprofit that fights sex trafficking, told the Register via email that “survivors of sex trafficking who have had videos of their exploitation and abuse uploaded to Pornhub experience the pain of that rape over and over again. Deleting that content from Pornhub will stop the downloading of those videos from that site, but it does nothing to stop the repeated viewing and sharing of the videos that were already downloaded. Sadly, Pornhub’s longtime resistance to take responsibility means many survivors of sex trafficking will continue to suffer the indignity of their exploitation.”

Raino said it is “fundamentally important that children whose abuse has been shared online have the ability to require platforms to remove images of their abuse and “equally important that online platforms that allow images to circulate knowing they depict a child, and are allowing that child to be harmed over and over again — every time those images are viewed, there needs to be liability for those platforms for their role in perpetuating that harm.”