Pornhub Doesn't Care - Verily

Over the last few weeks COVID-19 has raced around our country and the world, claiming lives and leaving billions of people in isolation and fear. But even in the darkness, we’ve seen little rays of light. Individuals and organizations who have stepped up to help. Even for-profit companies are pitching in. The shoe company New Balance has stepped up to create face masks out of excess shoe materials. The aerospace and building technology company Honeywell has dedicated a plant to make N95 masks in Rhode Island. The uniform company for Major League Baseball, Fanatics, has pivoted to create masks and gowns in the fight against the novel coronavirus.

It is in this context that the most popular distributor of online porn, Pornhub, has thrown its hat in the ring, offering charitable donations to those affected by COVID-19.

As the New York Post reports, Pornhub is donating “50,000 surgical masks to New York City-area workers on the front lines of the pandemic while opening up its massive porn library for free.” The porn giant removed the $9.99/month fee for worldwide free access to its Premium service. “With nearly one billion people in lockdown across the world because of the coronavirus pandemic,” Pornhub vice president said in a statement, “it’s important that we lend a hand and provide them with an enjoyable way to pass the time.”

In addition to the masks for healthcare workers, and porn-access for quarantined folk, Pornhub also announced it will be giving more funds to its “models”—the term it uses for the people depicted in the pornography. During the month of April, the New York Post reports, “models will pocket 85 percent of their sales from Pornhub and its sister site Modelhub when they would typically keep just 65 percent. Pornhub says it’s also donating $25,000 to the Sex Workers Outreach Project, an advocacy group, to support relief funds for sex workers affected by COVID-19.”

In the whirlwind of coronavirus news content, these headlines are likely to meet with reader responses from humor to praise. “Hey, look. Pornhub is donating masks to those who need them in New York—everyone do your part!” Or, “Wow, that’s funny; offering porn to isolated people abstaining from the hookup culture.” It almost seems to have something of the insouciant charm of buying beer for a homeless person.

Pornhub’s donations are a part of “Pornhub Cares,” the “official philanthropic division of the world’s largest adult site,” according to their site. Among its causes are saving the bees, reducing ocean waste, and making porn more accessible to deaf and visually impaired people (how? I don’t even want to know).

But upon closer look, the work of Pornhub Cares is little more than a public relations campaign to distract from the abusive practices the company’s been accused of (which are rampant throughout the entire sex industry).

Take the “Sex Worker Outreach Project” as just one example. The very term “sex worker” is euphemistic. When you hear the term “sex worker,” it’s usually coming from the lips of a party that profits from looking the other way from the realities of sex trafficking. The fact is, most people are not running freely toward careers in “sex work”; instead the industry’s supply is fueled by the trafficking of vulnerable youth and others through the use of force, fraud, and coercion. The cover-up of these facts, along with the ease of online access, fuels the demand for porn: you don’t feel so bad clicking on the next video when you think it’s consensual sex between adults, rather than rape.

Beyond Pornhub’s connections to sex trafficking, it is also hurting the men and women on the receiving end of the screen. Research shows increased porn use hurts people, relationships, and society in insidious ways (so making porn completely free is just making it that much easier for viewers to hurt themselves).

So, before jumping to praise the company for a material donation, we should pause to consider what the public act is meant to be.

Deflection

With the headlines they’re making in the context of the coronavirus, Pornhub is hoping the general public hears these stories rather than, say, Senator Ben Sasse’s March 10 proposal for the Department of Justice to investigate them for showcasing illegal acts on camera such as “child sex abuse” (the technical term for child pornography, since any such imagery involving minors is de facto a depiction of child sex abuse), as well as imagery of adults produced via force, fraud, or coercion.

Redirecting public attention away from their crimes may be easier for Pornhub to do than, say, the average corrupt company or spokesperson. This is because so many people consume it, and to consume it is to play into the fantasy that it’s all just harmless fun. So, in a way, the best way for Pornhub to combat scrutiny is to offer more of its content to drug the masses. But, for those who aren’t drinking the Kool-aid, Pornhub’s move can look as ridiculous as if Harvey Weinstein donated unlimited streaming of the film Frida, in which he forced actress and director Salma Hayek to perform a topless lesbian scene against her will, and announced a fund to support female directors. Or if Jeffrey Epstein were alive and provided unlimited streaming to past Victoria Secret fashion shows, featuring models he was accused of sex-trafficking and announced a fund to support the careers of lingerie models. A clear-thinking observer would smell something fishy.

Why?

Because there is something fishy about it.

In pairing the attention-getting mask donation with language about giving money directly to its “models,” Pornhub is trying to link positive, humanitarian feelings to the exploitative nature of what it sells. It’s trying to employ the trick that emotion will always overpower reason, when push comes to shove. And it has the added benefit of knowing that the product it is offering for free is mind-altering content in itself. The more it’s consumed, the fewer people Pornhub needs to defend their case to.

Down the rabbit hole

Pornhub’s gambit is brilliantly timed. With masses of people in isolation, Pornhub can target its product more compellingly, since it’s most marketable to one lonely person behind a screen. In a way, this is their moment.

No matter the addiction or “fix,” we know moments alone are the worst for temptation. We may know (or be) the alcoholic who slips some vodka into a glass while no one’s looking; the person with binge-eating disorder who eats secretively. With porn, having a lack of positive human interaction and more isolation behind a screen, is a recipe for a porn binge. Pornhub almost provides their conflicted viewers with the answer to their internal debate: should you feel bad about that? No, I mean look, Pornhub is donating masks to help COVID patients! Cue an emotional wave of New York–strong positive vibes.

Abuse is Pornhub’s currency

It isn’t an exaggeration that Pornhub sells a product that comes from uncharitable, dangerous practices. Pornhub doesn’t care about exposing people in porn videos to dangerous situations, because it’s good for their business.

While companies like Amazon are having to reduce or prioritize the availability of their products during COVID-19, Pornhub is upping theirs. There’s even new porn with people in face masks already. There doesn’t seem to be a concern about running out of content—or about following CDC guidelines concerning social distancing. It’s digital, so spreading it farther doesn’t eat up too many physical resources. And the physical resources it does depend on—human beings to exploit—well, since in the pornified worldview humans are objects to consume, there isn’t as much of a concern. What’s infecting a few men and women in porn (and potentially their families) with COVID-19 when condomless forced sex is the staple?

In June 2019, 22 women sued a group called Girls Do Porn for manipulating them in porn production that produced videos made available on Pornhub. In October 2019, the owners of Girls Do Porn were arrested and charged with counts of federal sex trafficking, and Pornhub removed the Girls Do Porn partner page from its site. The PR trouble for Pornhub was far from over. In the same month, a 15-year-old girl who had been missing for a year was found to have been abused and raped in 58 videos on Pornhub. According to a South Florida Sun-Sentinel report, abuse videos were also found on Pornhub’s sister site Modelhub, Snapchat, and Periscope among other various sites. The next month, PayPal stopped doing business with Pornhub.

The reports of abuse led sex-trafficking opponent Laila Mickelwait, director of abolition at a group called Exodus Cry, to start a petition to shut down Pornhub, which has gained 734,492 signatures since February.

Other trafficking survivors have come forward since the news broke to talk about their exploitation shared on Pornhub. “Minors in pornography is not an issue separate from the adult porn industry,” a trafficking survivor named Jewell Baraka wrote in February. “There have always been teen girls and boys in the adult porn industry. I was one of those. I was 14 when I was trafficked in porn.”

In February of this year, the BBC gave voice to Rose Kalemba, a woman who was attacked and raped at 14 on a video later published on Pornhub. Despite her pleading, the site didn’t take it down for six months after her initial request, until she finally sent an email posing as a lawyer. “The titles of the videos were ‘teen crying and getting slapped around,’ ‘teen getting destroyed,’ ‘passed out teen.’ One had over 400,000 views,” Kalemba recalled. “The worst videos were the ones where I was passed out. Seeing myself being attacked where I wasn’t even conscious was the worst.”

Kalemba told the BBC that after she wrote a personal blog post about her Pornhub experience, she received emails from others saying the same thing happened to them. “Dozens of women and some men responded to her post, saying that videos showing them being sexually abused had also appeared on the site,” the BBC reports. “Women have told me that it is still happening, after they saw my blog,” Kalemba says. “And these are Western women with access to social media. Some coming forward include adult women who had consensual sex but didn’t know the other party was recording the event and loading it online. In all these cases, the women pictured try to flag the videos and have them taken down, which the porn giant ignores.

Some of the men consuming porn know something is up—some leave comments saying “that girl looks 12!” or that she looked truly passed out or in pain. But they’re surrounded by online peers cheering it on. Since I started covering the topic of the connections between porn and sex-trafficking in 2012 as a Robert Novak Journalism Fellow, I’ve received personal messages from porn users trying to report what looks like dangerous scenarios in videos they’ve watched. They’ll cite the timestamp at the moment the woman looks like she’s screaming in real pain, for instance, or, worse, unresponsive—hoping somehow that by telling me, the woman pictured could be flagged to get help. I feel sad for these guys, because, by going out of their way to alert a journalist, their actions expose the naive thinking that somehow the sex industry can be regulated and safe. It would make them feel a little better for participating in it.

Perhaps that is why the “flag” option is available to Pornhub users—not because the company actually listens or cares when abuse is reported, but because it wants to keep the illusion that it cares. That’s enough to appease the consciences of its consumers until, after logging enough hours, they don’t care anymore.

Which brings us back to Pornhub Cares. It was intentional of Pornhub to tie its charitable COVID donation to free porn access; the donation gives the illusion that they care, while the libraries of porn content will numb viewers’ empathic nerves with great efficiency.

This will help them keep streaming addictive content into peoples’ homes despite the knowledge that kids as young as 10 are among viewers; Pornhub looks the other way, knowing this demographic will become lifelong consumers. For adults, porn is changing sex and relationships, making them less capable of intimacy and less patient with real human beings.

If Pornhub’s contributions are one of the lights in the darkness during this time, it's a laser sight. It’s the menacing red dot from a sniper rifle aimed at millions of vulnerable people around the world experiencing unprecedented isolation, fear, and stress caused by COVID-19. The casualties are already high—the people hurt in its production—but now they’ve got in their sights on the whole world of people locked in their homes. Will we see it for what it is?