Pornhub: New Changes Could Further Upend Sex-Work Industry - Rolling Stone
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Pornhub Upended the Porn Industry. Now New Changes Could Destroy Sex Workers’ Livelihoods

Among the changes are Visa and Mastercard cutting ties with the site, which will leave many already struggling porn producers scrambling for income

Man and woman recording video in bedroom pornhub

Kaspars Grinvalds/Adobe Stock

At the start of the pandemic, Alex and Cassie, a same-sex, nonbinary, multiracial couple based in Canada, were laid off from their full-time jobs. Scrambling for income, and unable to leave the house because of Alex’s preexisting conditions, Alex and Cassie, who asked to be identified only by their first names to protect their privacy, decided to start selling pornographic content through Pornhub.

On Thursday, credit card processors Visa and Mastercard made a shocking announcement: they would be terminating their relationships with Pornhub. It was part of a series of reforms surrounding the porn behemoth, following an exposé in the New York Times by journalist Nicholas Kristof regarding the presence of videos depicting rape and child sexual abuse on the website. Alex and Cassie reacted to the news with “complete horror and fear.” “There’s absolutely no work in our area and without paid content on these sites, we’ll lose more than 50 percent of our income,” they tell Rolling Stone. For the first time since the pandemic started, they wondered if they might become homeless. “No other industry cuts someone’s salary in half overnight,” they say. “And it feels terrible, because we have done nothing wrong.”

Among those in the adult industry, the reaction to the Visa and Mastercard decision, as well as a piece of proposed anti-trafficking legislation authored by Republican and anti-porn crusader Sen. Josh Hawley, has largely been marked by “panic,” says porn performer Siri Dahl. Although it is largely known as a free porn website, many sex workers use Pornhub to sell their content and depend on it for their income, and they were outraged and terrified by the news. “It’s a huge blow to us as sex workers and models. It will not hurt Pornhub as they have always made money off of stolen content,” says Dee Siren, a content creator and director. “This will only hurt models.”

It is not uncommon for payment processors to stop working with pornographic websites: last year, PayPal severed relations with Pornhub, a decision that reportedly impacted more than 100,000 sex workers; and individual sex workers often struggle with working with banks as well. But considering how many performers rely on Pornhub for their income, many in the sex industry see Visa and Mastercard’s decision as nothing short of punitive.

Alana Evans, president of the adult performer union APAG, sees it as “the tip of the iceberg in the war on porn,” in the same vein as anti-trafficking legislation like FOSTA/SESTA. The legislation was intended to curb trafficking on the internet but had the end result of endangering sex workers by shuttering networks like Backpage, which sex workers relied on for both income and as a vetting resource. Credit card processors severing their relationship with a giant tube site like Pornhub is “not keeping kids safe. This doesn’t stop kids from being molested, or stop people from shooting the content of people being raped and abused,” she says. “This is no different from shutting down Backpage.” She suggests that as a result of Visa and Mastercard cutting ties with Pornhub, many content creators will see their income dwindle. Some even may turn to street-based sex work during the pandemic.

Traditionally, sex workers have had a complicated relationship with Pornhub. Owned by the Canadian-based conglomerate Mindgeek, which also owns porn studios like Brazzers and Reality Kings, porn performers have spent years waging war against Pornhub in order to prevent their content from illegally being pirated and uploaded onto the site; at the same time, many performers have also been dependent on Mindgeek for employment, and on Pornhub for promoting their content. “Because I am a sex worker, I am not allowed to buy ads on Instagram or any other website,” says Dahl. “But I can upload two-, three-minute clips to Pornhub and get a ton of traffic to my OnlyFans.”

In recent years, Pornhub has attempted to salvage relations with content creators by starting programs like ModelHub, which allow verified performers like Alex and Cassie to sell their content on the website. Most of the performers Rolling Stone spoke with have acknowledged that Pornhub is also fairly responsive to DMCA takedown requests when they see their pirated content on the site. “I have complicated thoughts or feelings because Mindgeek still does hold a monopoloy over the adult industry but I acknowledge and appreciate that they’ve at least listened to the porn industry enough to change some things,” says Dahl.

Since its inception, Pornhub has allowed virtually anyone to upload content on the site, as well as downloads, effectively allowing users to upload videos again even if they’ve been taken off site. (The platform introduced fingerprinting technology to prevent nonconsensual porn from circulating, but as Vice has reported, it has been far from fail-proof.) For years, performers have actively lobbied Pornhub to improve its moderation policies by adding moderators and allowing only verified users to upload content or preventing downloads, both to curb piracy and to prevent content such as nonconsensual porn from circulating further. Such changes, say Siren, would “stop pirated content from being allowed and it will make sure people have to pay to download content from models rather than downloading content for free. We have been pushing to have this happen for over 10 years…[these steps] are incredibly important to legitimize our industry, so that our industry is no longer associated with the crimes of child porn or human trafficking.”

But it wasn’t until Kristof published his exposé in the New York Times that Pornhub actually agreed to adopt these measures. (Evans told Rolling Stone that based on her discussions with the platform, Pornhub had been planning to implement these policies since at least April, but Pornhub did not return a request for comment to verify this.)

As part of his in-depth investigation into the platform, Kristof spoke to trafficking and sexual abuse survivors who had found their content on Pornhub. The fact that Kristof was the byline on the piece was a red flag in itself: the columnist has a history of misrepresenting issues related to sex work and sex trafficking. In 2014, Somaly Mam, an anti-sex slavery activist he featured in his reporting, was revealed to have fabricated parts of her story, prompting media critics to question the legitimacy of Kristof’s reporting; he has also been accused of citing misleading statistics about underage trafficking in his reporting on Backpage, and of conflating the consensual sex industry with nonconsensual sex trafficking.

Kristof’s piece stood out to sex workers in part because, while it quoted performers like Stoya and Dahl, it also cited people like Laila Mickelwait, the founder of an organization called Traffickinghub, which last summer launched a petition for Pornhub to be shut down. The petition, which garnered more than 2 million signatures, was launched by Exodus Cry, an evangelical group with far-right ties that purports not to be anti-sex worker, but which summarized its mission statement in 2018 tax filings as “abolishing sex trafficking and the commercial sex industry.” Last month, actor Melissa McCarthy had to issue a public apology for supporting Exodus Cry after it was reported that the organization’s founder had once compared abortion to the Holocaust.

According to the Exodus Cry website, Mickelwait helped to shape the thrust of Kristof’s piece, stating that she “spent the last few months in communication with Nicholas Kristof, the New York Times article’s author, to share her insight and knowledge about the ways in which Pornhub is both enabling and profiting from mass sexual crime,” and that it was the Traffickinghub campaign “that initially made Nicholas aware of the issue.”

As Rolling Stone has previously reported, it is indeed not unheard of for content featuring minors to be uploaded to Pornhub, (though the company previously told Rolling Stone that it removes such content as soon as it is flagged). Vice also reported in 2019 that Pornhub was slow to remove content produced by Girls Do Porn, a production company accused of lying to women that their videos would not be distributed online, even after the company was charged with multiple sex trafficking counts. (Earlier this year, the 22 plaintiffs in the case were awarded damages of more than $12 million; Girls Do Porn owner Michael Pratt has evaded arrest by fleeing to New Zealand, and is currently wanted by the FBI.)

But those in the adult industry say that, while abusive, exploitative, or nonconsensual porn does indeed exist on Pornhub, its presence is overinflated by pundits like Kristof. Indeed, Kristof himself appears to suggest that in his piece, citing National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and Internet Watch Foundation data suggesting that the number of child sexual abuse images removed by Facebook and Twitter dwarfs that removed by Pornhub, though he attributes this low number to “people on Pornhub [being] inured to the material and unlikely to report it.” Pornhub’s moderation issues, sex workers suggest, are inherent to all giant social platforms, and are not specifically endemic to the tube site.

“This is a platform just like any other huge tech giant that thrives on user engagement and algorithms suggesting things you should watch next,” says Dahl. “The way it’s all structured is not making it easy for anyone to remove illegal content. So I think the system seems set up in a way it is potentially enabling abuse of that type.”

Like most of the sex workers I spoke with, Dahl applauded Pornhub’s policy changes, arguing that they were necessary, but expressed dismay that the Kristof piece appeared to have led to Visa and Mastercard making a decision that will severely negatively impact sex workers more than Pornhub itself. “Pornhub is not an evil demon that needs to be quashed,” she says. “It’s a platform that has a lot of problems but it does make a difference to porn performers.”

Now that transactions are disabled on Modelhub, sex workers are left with lots of questions. Their primary question, and their most pressing concern, is whether Visa and Mastercard, which stated that other websites would also be put under review, would extend this decision to other websites like OnlyFans, as well as smaller platforms like Clip4Sale. “This has major and damaging implications to smaller creators. It would be tantamount to Paypal losing Visa and Mastercard. The small businesses are the ones who will suffer,” says Amberly Rothfield, an adult content creator.

As an additional blow, Sen. Josh Hawley proposed a bipartisan bill on Wednesday in response to the Kristof piece that would enable victims of sex trafficking or sexual assault to sue Pornhub if their videos show up on the platform. While such a bill is clearly well-intentioned, and “providing economic incentives and relief for victims is always smart. I just worry about SESTA/FOSTA-like implications,” says Kaytlin Bailey, a sex worker rights activist and host of the Oldest Profession Podcast. “I would hate to see a reaction to this as just a blanket erasure or overreaction that makes it harder for sex workers to survive and protect themselves on the internet.”

Ultimately, sex workers believe that Visa and Mastercard severing ties with Pornhub may potentially signal just that. “The question a lot of us have is, what is the threshold here? What level of illegal content needs to be sold on a platform before the payment processors leave?,” says Siri. “How many people are we helping versus how many people’s livelihoods are we completely destroying?”

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