The religious lobby is killing porn
On Tuesday, December 8th, porn-hosting giant Pornhub removed 10 million videos from its platform. The reason for the massive scrub was the result of the company's recognition that sex traffickers had used the site to post videos of rape, sexual assault, and child abuse. On December 14th, Pornhub released a statement, which said, "Last week, we enacted the most comprehensive safeguards in user-generated platform history. We banned unverified uploaders from posting new content, eliminated downloads, and partnered with dozens of non-profit organizations…As part of our policy to ban unverified uploaders, we have now also suspended all previously uploaded content that was not created by content partners or members of the Model Program."
They should have said: Under pressure from the porn abolitionist movement that operates under the guise of thwarting sex trafficking, we are going to compromise the economic lives of hundreds of thousands of performers—during a pandemic, no less. I respect and commend those writing and speaking for people who have been trafficked and teenagers whose abusers post revenge porn on Pornhub or other sites. However, who is speaking for the hundreds of thousands of pornographers whose economic livelihoods have been served upon an altar for penance?
Certainly, sex trafficking is a scourge. But censorship is not the answer. As a Pornhub user put it, "The internet is becoming more and more sanitized every day because of people taking extreme measures to make us 'safer.' It's censorship masquerading as public safety."
In Pornhub's statement, the industry leader noted that the social media giant Facebook reported 84 million cases of flagged items involving sexual abuse on the platform over the past three years. At the same time, the Internet Watchdog Foundation found only 118 such cases on Pornhub. Thus, as Pornhub wrote in their announcement, "it is clear that Pornhub is being targeted not because of our policies and how we compare to our peers, but because we are an adult content platform."
Let me frame this differently: 0.0008 percent of videos on Pornhub featured sexual abuse. As a result, Pornhub elected to purge over 10 million videos and users whose accounts had already been verified. This is a far cry from the site Nicholas Kristof decried as being "infested with rape videos." Yes, as Kristof says, we can agree that "promoting assaults on children or anyone without consent is unconscionable." However, Pornhub nor any other mainstream porn site is invested in such promotion.
Now, in this watershed moment, let us hope nobody falls asleep at the wheel. Sleight of the hand can be hard to catch. The organizations behind the curtain advocating for the purge, such as the National Center on Exploitation and Trafficking Hub, have an end game that is not merely about trafficking or the abuse of children. These are abolitionist groups that see all porn as a public health crisis and that seek to abolish all porn as we know it.
Not only does the porn abolitionists' momentum raise serious concerns regarding free speech and the First Amendment, but puts people's livelihoods at risk. "Pornhub should have also stood up for sex workers," said Akynos, a sex worker and founder of the Black Sex Workers Collective.
When Pornhub hit the panic button, they did not merely delete the accounts posting illegal content. They removed videos from even their verified users. The only content remaining was from people in their model program. Many online pornographers believe that the end result was that Pornhub became a subscription site only and not public. "No viewers means no money," one Pornhub content producer said regarding the purge.
Compounding pornographers' expected loss of wages, Mastercard and Visa announced, immediately following the Pornhub purge, that they would no longer process payments from Pornhub, effectively blocking revenue from the site. The move was a reaction to Kristof's Times article about the platform hosting videos depicting child abuse.
"What bothers me is that Visa and Mastercard are major card companies that have now pulled back from allowing sex workers to make a living because of this one company's giant misstep," Akynos told me. "It won't just be Pornhub that they aren't messing with, it will be everyone else… So, now we have to figure out new ways in order to make money, and this is what sex workers have to do…we are constantly getting trampled on, and then we have to figure out how we can reinvent ourselves and go around and jump through these hoops just so we can make a living."
Something similar happened several years ago following Congress' passage of FOSTA/SESTA, two related bills whose acronyms stand for "Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act" and "Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act" respectively. Though ostensibly a bill designed to halt sex trafficking, it had the ancillary effect of squelching the incomes of millions of sex workers by suppressing or censoring the online platforms where they find clients. Indeed, after FOSTA/SESTA's passage, companies such as Payoneer, PayPal, and American Express stopped taking payments from sexual enterprises. In many cases, this meant that sex workers now had to find new sources of income in more dangerous locales in real life.
Beyond Pornhub, the anti-porn lobby is calling for all credit card companies to stop taking payments from all porn sites. Jessie Sage, sex worker and co-founder of the Peepshow Podcast, and I discussed the effects of this crisis on laborers—a subject she unpacks with sex workers on her newest episode. Jessie told me, "I believe that this will have ripple effects on our industry that extend far beyond Pornhub. Mindgeek [Pornhub's parent company] is the largest company in the industry, and if Visa/Mastercard is willing to pull its financial services from them, the smaller companies are not far behind."
Further, Jessie went on to talk about the financial harms of censorship and the continuing knee-jerk moves from payment processors. "Right now, 100% of my income comes from the sex industry. About 30% comes from advertising on the podcast (which by the way, our advertisers are all pornographers), and the rest comes from phone sex, video sales, and Onlyfans. So, if clip sites are no longer allowed to process payments, if the bank accounts of performers get shut down, if I can't sell my content to my customers, this will impact both my sex work revenue stream and my multi-media magazine (Peepshow) because it is all funded from the same sources."
This moment is a blip on the screen and part of a much longer history of the coalition between the anti-porn and religious lobbies to rid our society of the so-called "filth" that nets billions in profits yearly, providing an honest living for so many.
Pornhub's new policy and the ricochet it caused did far more harm to content producers than it did to sex traffickers or pedophiles. The purge caused irrevocable damage to pornographers, and compounds the precarity they and other sex workers have faced under the pandemic. Indeed, Pornhub's new policies will have the most devastating effects on marginalized pornographers. People of color and trans performers, for example, have found spaces for individual entrepreneurship online, in an industry that historically would rarely hire them. We must recognize that Pornhub's censorship and the move to restrict payment processing for all sex workers will have the most devastating effects on the most marginalized.
Many content producers are scared, dismayed, concerned about the online porn industry's future, and livelihoods. I spoke with Trip Richards, a successful online model, who described this situation's stakes in detail. Trip explained:
When I first heard of the decision by Visa and Mastercard to stop processing payments to verified adult models on Pornhub, I was dismayed. I knew immediately that the decision would do nothing to address concerns of illegal or objectionable content on the site (or anywhere else on the net) but rather that it would remove the income that tens of thousands of verified models, including myself, rely upon… Losing this income in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic and national economic crisis is especially devastating. During the pandemic, record numbers of adults have turned to online sex work—sharing their personal videos on platforms like Pornhub, Onlyfans, and Justforfans to make ends meet and joyfully share their own self-expression. The decision by the credit card companies to fundamentally shut down Pornhub disproportionately impacted minorities, including people of color, trans people, and people with disabilities—as they are the folks most likely to participate consensually in sex work due to its autonomy, scheduling flexibility, and inclusiveness of diverse bodies. They also represent the groups who are most economically vulnerable, especially during this pandemic when so many low-wage, gig-economy, and service-industry jobs have evaporated…But snatching away income from verified models who had already complied with all the legal requirements was not the right way to ensure a safe online space. In fact, the long-term consequences of such a move are invariably to push objectionable content deeper underground—where it is harder to discover, remove, and prosecute—while simultaneously forcing people currently involved in consensual online sex work, like myself, toward more risky ventures where we have less autonomy and less financial stability. Speaking personally, as a transgender man who has been a model since 2014, sharing my work on online platforms has offered me financial freedom and personal happiness I never thought possible, and has allowed me to stay safe while pursuing my own goals as an artist, educator, and activist. Losing this stability now is absolutely devastating.
We must listen to the voices of adult content producers. Saving, protecting, and supporting sex trafficking and sexual abuse survivors do not have to come at the expense of other marginalized people. This is not a zero-sum game, even if the politically savvy master illusionists in the anti-porn lobby want you to believe it is.
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