Sex & Modern Slavery: All about Pornhub’s sex trafficking controversy and TraffickingHub’s appeal to close site

Questions have been raised about performers featured in pornography not appearing in the film under their own free will

                            Sex & Modern Slavery: All about Pornhub’s sex trafficking controversy and TraffickingHub’s appeal to close site
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Sex & Modern Slavery is a campaign focused on the issues of human trafficking within the sex industry in the US. Over the next few days, this column will feature stories on the aspects of the illicit business and the role of the society in mitigating the issue.

In the digital age, the internet has eased access for use of pornography. Internet porn is a vast and widespread domain, more than anything else that can be found online. The average viewer gets exposed to or becomes a frequent porn user by their mid-teens. Consumption numbers of internet porn as high as billions, but what many people fail to understand is how the industry works and what goes into each pornographic image or video. They may also not understand how or why an adult performer came to be involved with porn. In recent years, there have been multiple controversies that accuse porn sites of endorsing sex trafficking, which raise questions about performers in pornography not appearing in the films under their own free will.

For instance, popular adult entertainment site Pornhub has repeatedly come under fire for allegedly hosting content that promotes sex trafficking and child sexual abuse. In the past year, several women have made public statements that videos of them being sexually assaulted and abused have surfaced on the website. In response to the revelation, Laila Mickelwait, an activist and the director of abolition at Exodus Cry, an international nonprofit that works to eradicate sex trafficking, started a petition to shut down the website for good. The petition is part of a grassroots movement 'TraffickingHub' that is powered by Exodus Cry and has gained momentum since its inception.

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Does Pornhub promote sex trafficking?

Pornhub amasses an astonishing average of 42 billion visits and six million video uploads annually. The porn giant also has a flair for philanthropy, and through its initiative, Pornhub Cares supports artistic endeavors, provides scholarships, promotes sex education, and is an active participant in the fight to preserve oceans. However, putting a blemish on its record of charitable activities is a slew of incidents where the website, and its parent company, MindGeek, have been accused of 'profiting over the violation of human rights'. MindGeek owns 10 of the 15 most well-known porn sites on the internet. The headquarters based in Luxembourg has offices in Canada, Cyprus, the UK and the US.

The company has maintained that it is working towards tackling illicit content. "Pornhub has a steadfast commitment to eradicating and fighting any and all illegal content on the internet, including non-consensual content and under-age material. Any suggestion otherwise is categorically and factually inaccurate," a spokesman for Pornhub told MEA WorldWide (MEAWW). "Our content moderation goes above and beyond the recently announced, internationally recognized Voluntary Principles to Counter Online Child Sexual Exploitation and Abuse," he added. Although the site has ascertained that it is dedicated to removing all illicit content, hundreds of similar videos allegedly remain on the platform and allegedly the process of removal has been rather slow. 

Accusations against Pornhub

Pornhub and MindGeek have faced severe backlash for failing to regulate the content that is uploaded onto its websites. There have been videos of alleged non-consensual sex and abuse of women, mostly trafficked underage girls. A 15-year-old girl, for instance, who had gone missing in Florida, in 2018, was found a year later because police identified her and her kidnapper from several videos and images uploaded onto Pornhub. This also pointed fingers at the site's pretty easy verification process (just send in a picture of you holding your username written on a piece of paper). In October 2019, the site was at the center of another scandal when 22 women sued the owner of GirlsDoPorn for being coerced into filming content. The channel was removed the owner Michael Pratt was charged with committing multiple sex trafficking crimes and raping a minor.

In February 2020, a BBC report highlighted the mortifying story of a 14-year-old Ohioan, Rose Kalemba, who had been taken at knife-point, raped for 12 hours, and the videos from the incident were uploaded to Pornhub. Kalemba allegedly pleaded with the site for months to take down the videos but in vain. She then used an alternative method, posing as a lawyer and threatening legal action until Pornhub finally took them all down.

The Internet Watch Foundation, in 2019, confirmed that it had found 118 cases of child rape and sexual abuse on Pornhub. Similarly, the Sunday Times' probe into Pornhub reportedly found "dozens" of illegal videos within "minutes", including images of children as young as three years old being abused. Some of the videos that the publication investigated "had 350,000 views and had been on the platform for more than three years." It also said, "three of the worst clips still remained on the site 24 hours later."

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Pornhub's response and efforts

Since the accusations emerged, Pornhub has been approached by various news agencies and media companies, where it has consistently maintained that it doesn't condone these violent acts on camera, nor does it promote such content on its site. It has a robust system in place to regulate its content and incorporates cutting edge technology as well as human moderators. It is also worth noting that Pornhub is mostly a user-driven platform with the same sort of issues as your everyday mainstream platforms.

Pornhub told MEAWW: "Pornhub has actively worked to put in place state-of-the-art, comprehensive safeguards across its platform to combat and remove all unauthorized content that breaches the platform's policies. This includes employing an extensive team of human moderators dedicated to manually reviewing every single upload." It went on to say, "This allows us to take proactive action against illegal content, a step beyond all other major user-generated platforms. In addition, we have a robust system for flagging, reviewing and removing all illegal material, and age-verification tools". 

Pornhub has gone on record several times to clarify that it maintains in its community guidelines that content depicting violence, minors, or non-consent is absolutely prohibited. "The platform utilizes a variety of automated detection technologies such as CSAI Match, YouTube’s proprietary technology for combating Child Sexual Abuse Imagery content online, Content Safety API, Google’s cutting-edge artificial intelligence tool that helps detect illegal imagery, PhotoDNA, Microsoft’s technology that aids in finding and removing known images of child exploitation, and Vobile, state-of-the-art fingerprinting software that scans any new uploads for potential matches to unauthorized materials to protect against any banned video being re-uploaded to the platform," the spokesperson for the porn site asserted.

TraffickingHub and its mission

TraffickingHub is a campaign founded by Mickelwait in an effort to end online sex trafficking. Mickelwait has been fighting sex trafficking for over a decade both online and offline, strictly focusing on the intersection between the pornography industry and sex trafficking. She wrote an op-ed for the Washington Examiner in February with credible evidence calling for Pornhub to be shut down and the public responded passionately to the call for justice. They urged her to start a petition which she did the very next day. She noted that there was a significant amount of real rape, real sex trafficking perpetrated by pedophiles and traffickers, that is going on right now on Pornhub.

The campaign is powered by Exodus Cry and has a coalition with 300 organizations ranging from anti-trafficking non-profit organizations and child protection agencies to women's rights organizations and agencies combating domestic violence. It is 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", the campaign's official website reads.

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Shutdown Pornhub petition

Mickelwait's petition to shut down Pornhub has amassed over 1.6 million signatories from 192 countries. In many cases, Mickelwait said, she found that the young women featured in several videos uploaded onto the site are not consenting adults or sex workers. Instead, they are allegedly victims of assault, rape, and trafficking.  "Pornhub is a sex trafficking crime scene and arguably the largest public collection of sexual violence evidence in existence", Mickaelwait told MEAWW. "When a user gets on Pornhub, there is no way for them to know with any bit of confidence that what they are masturbating to is not a child being raped or a woman being assaulted because Pornhub does not reliably verify the age or the consent of those used in the videos it profits from."

She laid a clear distinction between sex work and sex trafficking, saying that the issue is not about sex work vs sex trafficking. But she did underline the issue of clear cut exploitation of those who never signed up to be sex workers. "Pornhub is set up for mass sexual exploitation and that is exactly what is happening on the site," she stated. "It clearly has happened in many cases that those who were performers ended up being raped, trafficked and exploited," she added and also alluded to the 22 victims of GirlsDoPorn who won a $13 million dollar. "The owners of the company have a federal indictment against them for sex trafficking. Pornhub also must be held accountable for knowingly profiting from the exploitation of these women for years," she added. 

"A slap on the wrist tells these victims that their trauma wasn't worth a strong response, and they are worth it," said Mickelwait on why the site needs to be banned. "We also need to hold them accountable because it sends an important message and sets an important precedent that we won't tolerate the mass sexual exploitation of the most vulnerable in our society especially when it is being done in plain sight with impunity." Mickelwait plans to keep the petition open for as long as possible until the goal is accomplished. She hopes to get at least 10 million signatures.

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The petition has influenced protests, and empowered several victims to come forward and reach out to her campaign for assistance. In addition, she and everyone else involved in the campaign are taking steps towards their directed goal. They are meeting government officials and those in positions of power and influence to get them to take action. "So we're actually trying to inspire criminal investigation through government advocacy to help adopt laws that will help prevent this from continuing," Mickelwait told MEAWW. The US and Canada have reportedly called for federal investigations of MindGeek and Pornhub for the complicity of sex trafficking. She is also trying to raise awareness about the 'fact' that when they participate in the website, they are allegedly complicit to the abuse of women and children by creating the demand for the content. 

If you or someone you know may be a victim of trafficking, call the national human trafficking hotline at 888-373-7888 or text "HELP" to 233-733.

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