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The problem with Pornhub: and how they get away with it

Mia Sorenti explores how the company's business model makes it incompatible with ethical practice, and how you can help to effect change in the industry.

CW: mentions of sexual assault and rape

In many ways, PornHub has become synonymous with porn in the public eye, and with its daily traffic of 100 million users, it is easy to see why. MindGeek, the corporate behemoth which owns companies including PornHub, YouPorn and RedTube, has a significant presence in the commercial porn industry. In providing practically infinite free adult content, such ‘tube’ sites have single-handedly transformed the industry, generating billions in revenue per year. Over the past few months, PornHub has faced public outcry after a campaign exposed a series of cases where exploitative sexual content (videos of underage participants, rape, revenge porn and coercion) was platformed on the website. 

Although demands for repercussions have only recently become widespread, some of these cases date back to 2009 (CW: rape). The fact that such material has been surfacing for decades demands a closer look into the issues deeply rooted in the foundations of PornHub, and ‘tube’ sites in general. Whilst pornography in itself does not have to be inherently exploitative, the unique business model which ensures the corporation’s dominance in the field is the very reason its platforming of abuse content is inevitable.

At the time of writing, the ‘TraffickingHub’ petition, which demands that PornHub is shut down and that its executives are held accountable for “enabling, hosting, and profiting from videos of child rape, sex trafficking, and other forms of non-consensual content exploiting women and minors”, has over 1.5 million signatures. Pornhub has firmly refuted these claims of its complicity, citing its “steadfast commitment to eradicating and fighting any and all illegal content on the internet, including non-consensual content and child sexual abuse material.” On the surface, these defensive statements seem to ring true – PornHub’s strict community guidelines contain policies on child sexual abuse material and non-consensual content, facilitated by a coherent flagging system and enforced by teams of human moderators and automated detection technologies such as Microsoft’s PhotoDNA and Vobile, designed to find, remove and report illegal and inappropriate content.

Yet these post-publication checks ultimately prove inadequate, as abuse content continues to slip through the net. In order to prevent exploitative content of this nature being published and platformed, pre-publication checks are essential. But it is here that the deeply ingrained issues of PornHub come to light, as whilst these measures are integral to ensuring this platform is abuse-free, they are incompatible with the business model upon which PornHub has built its success.

A brief look into the specific legislation for the adult industry proves revealing; 18 U.S.C. 2257 is a law which requires all producers of sexually explicit material to obtain proof of age for every model they shoot, and retain those records. A statement demonstrating compliance with this law can be found in the footnotes of all porn sites. However, along with its sister sites under the MindGeek umbrella, Pornhub is classed as a ‘tube’ site: anyone can upload content, and users can browse and watch anything uploaded for free. This model provides them with a legal loophole to skirt responsibility for the content they publish. They are able to effectively wash their hands of the issue; as a publisher, rather than a producer of adult content, they claim it would be impossible for them to keep records on whether the performers involved in this content are of age and consenting. Here we can see a dangerous grey area: PornHub insists on operating and being regulated as a content publisher similar to YouTube, in spite of its sexually explicit content which ultimately demands compliance to a different legal framework. An analogy by ‘Girl on the Net’ clearly expresses how PornHub can implement all the post-upload checks it wants, but by its very nature as a ‘free porn’ platform which allows user uploads without pre-publishing checks, it will always be open to abuse content. 

It would certainly be possible for tube sites to alter their framework in light of this scandal. New measures, such as only publishing content from verified producers – including amateur ones – would make it far easier for them to comply with the 2257 regulations, thus safeguarding against the publication of abuse content. Yet these changes would significantly impact the amount of the content which can be uploaded to the site – last year 6.83 million new videos were uploaded to PornHub. Currently estimated to be worth $2,747,500,000, the corporation has little incentive to tweak their system in such a way which would impact their revenue and therefore their dominance in the market. The tube model enables maximum content, thus maximum traffic, thus maximum revenue. 

The bottom line is that abuse content is inevitable on a porn site which fails to demand pre-publication checks. But when did this business model become accepted in public consciousness, and popularised to the extent it eclipses all other porn producers who are accountable to the law? In many ways this conversation demands an examination of the broader cultural issue of how we engage with porn as consumers. Tube sites like PornHub have conditioned us to expect that porn should always be free; but as demonstrated above, this convenience has a cost. 

So what can we do on an individual level? A good place to start is to source your porn directly from its producers, instead of via tube sites. This ensures the content you are consuming is produced within the legal framework, as these companies are required to comply with the 2257 regulations and readily keep records attaining to the age and consent of their performers.

Most significantly though, we need to reframe porn as a form of work that deserves to be paid for. The fact that porn is free and readily available via the likes of PornHub means that paying for it is seen as a radical step. However, supporting those creators and businesses committed to ethical practice is key. When you pay for porn from these companies, you pay for production with more professional and legal guidelines, which ensure everyone involved is a consenting adult. No matter what you’re into, there will be people out there making it – you might just have to shop around a little (see here and here to start). The bonus is that these companies often produce porn which is more diverse and ‘authentic’ than the stuff presented by PornHub’s ranking algorithms. PornHub’s dominance in the industry means they are unlikely to change anytime soon, but paying for the practice you want to see off and on camera ensures those porn producers who do prioritise ethical practices aren’t eclipsed by those who cut corners.

This article has been amended to clarify phrasing with regards to MindGeek’s presence in the porn industry

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