Pornhub, Exploitation, and the Casualties of an Anti-Sex Crusade

Netflix's Money Shot: The Pornhub Story is about so much more than the changing face of a tube site.

Pornhub, Exploitation, and the Casualties of an Anti-Sex Crusade
Siri Dahl (center) in Money Shot: The Pornhub Story Image:Netflix

The beginning of the end for Pornhub, at least as far as many of its users knew it, came in the form of an op-ed. Nicholas Kristof’s “The Children of Pornhub” piece ran in the New York Times in December 2020 and detailed multiple examples of child sex abuse material hosted on one of the Top 10 most-visited websites on the internet. Kristof’s sources’ stories were harrowing, and they signaled a very big problem. The piece included the account of Serena K. Fleites, who sent a crush nude videos of herself that she shot at age 14. The clips ended up on Pornhub and, as a result, proved virtually impossible to scrub from the internet. “They’re making money off the worst moment in my life, off my body,” a Colombian teenager told Kristof regarding a video of herself having sex at 16 that was uploaded to the site.

In a documentary that hits Netflix on Wednesday, Money Shot: The Pornhub Story, Kristof recounts his initial skepticism when he received word that Pornhub was hosting illegal footage of rape and child sex abuse material, only to be convinced as his research intensified. His reporting led him to three suggestions for cleaning things up:

1.) Allow only verified users to post videos. 2.) Prohibit downloads. 3.) Increase moderation.

He then quoted Siri Dahl, a porn performer whose income came in part from Pornhub’s Modelhub arm (similar to OnlyFans), reacting to his proposals as “insanely reasonable.” Dahl, one of the principle sources in Money Shot, does not dispute Kristof’s 2020 guidelines—verification and moderation, in particular, were long vocal causes of the sex work community, which has a vested interest in keeping things legit, as well as fighting against piracy that affects its bottom line. But in Money Shot, Dahl adds crucial context to her comment to Kristof: “If he would have said, ‘Do you think it’s reasonable that Pornhub would lose their ability to process payments?’ I would have been like, ‘No.’” Because just one paragraph before his proposal, Kristof had made another suggestion: that credit cards suspend their cooperation with Pornhub.

“And call me a prude, but I don’t see why search engines, banks, or credit card companies should bolster a company that monetizes sexual assaults on children or unconscious women,” he reasoned.

The backlash to Pornhub after the op-ed changed the website for good. It scrubbed millions of unverified videos from its archive, and Visa and Mastercard stopped working with the site. The ensuing drop in traffic and end of a relied-upon payment method undoubtedly affected those depending on Pornhub for their living.

“Sex work and sex trafficking are two different things,” explains performer Asa Akira in Money Shot. Yet, such broad measures to prevent the latter trickled down to the sex workers who were creating perfectly legal and legitimate content on the site. This distinction is what director Suzanne Hillinger is most interested in exploring in Money Shot, and she allows her subjects—roughly 10 porn content creators, as well as industry advocates like Mike Stabile—the space to articulate how their livelihoods have been undermined.

Through them, Money Shot does as great job of also illustrating how a legitimate anti-exploitation cause is, in turn, exploited by anti-sex operatives. At minimum, bad actors are apathetic about the casualties in the wake of their advocacy. But many sex workers interviewed suspect, with good reason, that the casualties are part of a greater point. “It’s pushing this far-right Christian mandate under this guise of liberal save-the-women/save-the-children language, and it’s been very effective,” says Noelle Perdue, a porn-industry professional who had a stint at Pornhub, where she, among things, scouted for new talent.

Perdue is referring to the efforts of the likes of Lalia Mickelwait, who launched the viral #Traffickinghub campaign that in part inspired Kristof’s reporting, and the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE). Mickelwait hails from Exodus Cry, a nonprofit with Christian right ties (and anti-LGBTQ+/anti-abortion agenda), at which her position, according to the doc, was the director of abolition—that’s of all porn. Similarly, the official-sounding NCOSE is a rebrand of the anti-porn right-wing organization Morality in Media. NCOSE lawyer Dani Pinter provides a lot of talking-head work in the doc, and it’s not until well into the last half that her organization’s agenda is explicated—on its website, NCOSE states, “We view the commodification of people for sex as inherently harmful.” While the bait-and-switch of introducing Pinter as informed source only to reveal the politics of her organization is narratively compelling, it somewhat confuses the message.

Granted, there is sideways satisfaction to be derived from Pinter’s mealy-mouthed concern-trolling in response to the sex workers whose livelihoods her organization threatens in its fraudulent virtue. “I wish they knew I care about them, that I think they’ve been exploited, and that of course I think they’re real people and I don’t want them to be hurt and I have absolutely no hard feelings for them,” says Pinter, who can’t even disguise the actual agenda at the root of her organization’s anti-trafficking endeavor. But as Dahl explains, their crusade represents nothing less than an attack on women’s sexuality, an attack on queer sexuality, and an “attack on people being able to express themselves.”

Money Shot does not let Pornhub off the hook, either; the site’s grossly inadequate monitoring of its material is explored. “We were scrubbing through videos as fast as we could,” explains a former moderator, who had a quota of reviewing at least 700 videos a day. They were effectively tasked with eyeballing videos to determine whether its participants were of age—virtually impossible in many contexts. Perdue likewise recalls her anger when her bosses at the Montreal-headquartered Mindgeek, Pornhub’s parent company, weren’t aware of the existence of FOSTA-SESTA, the 2018 anti-trafficking acts that resulted in the closure of Craigslist personals. She describes this as “infuriating given that they made their fortunes off sex workers.”

Noelle Perdue in Money Shot: The Pornhub Story Image:Netflix

The doc also explores how credit card companies’ power has threatened sex work on OnlyFans, which announced a ban on porn in 2021 only to quickly reverse that position. Dahl takes us through a host of terms that are banned from the OnlyFans, some of which refer to illegal activity, but others, like “fisting,” are apparently just too kinky. “Pegging is not allowed,” she says. “It’s just because some executive at Mastercard has a fear of things in his butt?” She then describes the shadowbanning on non-porn platforms like Instagram that people in her line of work face, too.

Meanwhile, children are still abused and child sex abuse material proliferates online. Porn performer Allie Knox says that the changes at Craigslist forced sex workers into dangerous, abusive situations and that “it made child traffickers harder to find.” As a representative from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children—an actually official organization with no apparent conservative agenda—explains in the documentary, exploitation is an internet problem, not just a Pornhub problem.

You can see how it would be easy for an outsider to overhear the commotion rustled up by the likes of Mickelwait and NCOSE and support their cause. Who wouldn’t support ending illegal exploitation of the vulnerable? But that’s exactly why these endeavors are so insidious, and Money Shot excels at teasing out the nuances of this arm of the culture wars.

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