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Courtesy Netflix

How Pornhub became the front line of the war on sex work

We speak to director Suzanne Hillinger and porn performer Cherie DeVille about the new Netflix documentary, Money Shot: A Pornhub Story

The internet has made it incredibly easy to jerk off. Type ‘porn’ into any web browser, and you’ll have immediate access to millions of free videos on Google’s top result, Pornhub. Whether you want to watch a geriatric gang bang, or big tits are more your thing, ask and the platform shall provide.

But beyond its tongue-in-cheek exterior lies a murkier reality. In December 2020, a New York Times op-ed exposed how non-consensual content and child pornography had been uploaded to the site, and Pornhub wasn’t taking it down quickly enough. Pornhub was hit with lawsuits, as American groups like Exodus Cry and the National Centre On Sexual Exploitation (which both have right-wing, evangelical Christian roots) led the charge.

But where does this leave the porn performers who earn their living on these platforms? In Money Shot: The Pornhub Story, director Suzanne Hillinger finds out. She reveals that porn performers have been asking for better moderation for years, and have always stressed that consent is an essential part of pornography. To find out more, we sat down with Hillinger and pornographic film actress Cherie DeVille to chat about the story of Pornhub, the site’s future, and the censorship of sex workers all across the internet.

Hi Suzanne. First of all, why did you want to make this film? What was it about the story of Pornhub that you wanted to tell?

Suzanne Hillinger: I was reading about the allegations coming out against Pornhub when I realised that nobody was talking to the sex workers who make a living on that platform. I knew that was where the emotional heart of the story was. When you put people who make porn for a living on camera, the audience is forced to pay attention and question their preconceived notions.

Is it fair that Pornhub is at the centre of these debates surrounding consent and censorship? 

Cherie DeVille: Pornhub is not even in the top 1,000 most egregious sites on the Internet. The fact that they’re honing in on Pornhub makes it exquisitely clear to me that […] they are using people who have been through horrendous crimes to gaslight the public into believing all adult film is somehow on the same plane. How can you even conflate the two? It’s obscene. The only purpose is to shut down sex work in all forms. And [Exodus Cry] are aware of that.

I think the only reason the public can’t see it is because we’re so unbelievably stigmatised and they already think so very little of us.

The documentary explores how the Traffickinghub campaign led to MasterCard revoking its partnership with Pornhub, and how overworked and undertrained moderators caused child pornography to slip. These are worker’s rights issues. Was discussing this struggle key for you, Suzanne, when the conversation is so often moralising rather than based on economic conditions?

Suzanne Hillinger: It was a conversation I had early on with Noelle Perdue [a former employee of MindGeek, the company that owns Pornhub]. She was like, ‘this is a labour rights issue’. And I was like, ‘oh, it is!’ and it stuck with me. When you get caught up in the moral wars of, ‘is porn good or bad or dangerous?’, whatever, it’s just this spiral of conversation that doesn't go anywhere.

Cherie DeVille: We need the public to know what’s going on because nobody is going to speak out for us. Without credit card processing, we have nothing.

“The war is not on sex trafficking, the war is on sex work. Sex work has been around longer than any job I can think of. Our industry won’t die. It will just be pushed underground, which will create danger for all of us” – Cherie DeVille

As you touched on, Cherie, anti-trafficking campaigns very much lay the blame at the feet of Pornhub. How true is this?

Cherie DeVille: The people committing these crimes should be in jail, right? I think everyone can agree on that. What the world can’t agree on is other types of culpability. So if a criminal uploads something terrible, is the moderator more at fault, or the website?

Suzanne Hillinger: There’s a real responsibility for online platforms to recognise that if they’re going to profit from user-generated content, there’s an obligation to make sure that the users are being platformed safely. 

Listening to sex workers cuts to the truth of that. There needs to be smart moderation, where highly skilled workers are trained. Pornhub’s moderators were left to try to make their own decisions, like ‘do I think this kid is a kid or an adult?’, just by looking at them. There should be mandatory [age] verification on all of these tube sites – but that doesn’t mean just censoring everything, either.

Who do you think suffers because of the war on porn, and who is winning this war?

Cherie DeVille: The war is not on sex trafficking, the war is on sex work. Sex work has been around longer than any job I can think of. Our industry won’t die. It will just be pushed underground, which will create danger for all of us.

What do you think about the landscape now?

Cherie DeVille: The real danger we’re all facing now is social media discrimination. A lot of people assume, ‘well, you’re breaking the rules, you should get deleted’, but we’re not breaking the rules. No one would follow a list of rules better than people whose entire business depended on following those rules.

Even if I wear a turtleneck, I’m going to get deleted. Somehow our society has decided because I do sex work, I am not allowed to exist on any platform, even if I’m not doing sex work.

Suzanne, you said you hoped the documentary could start conversations about sex and consent. Could you elaborate on that?

Suzanne Hillinger: I think that there is so much that we can learn from sex workers about consent. The more that people understand how pornography is made and who’s making it, there’s this possibility to understand that even if somebody is acting out some kind of fantasy, it’s a fantasy and there is consent. It is a produced piece of entertainment.

It is just entertainment at the end of the day, isn’t it?

Cherie DeVille: The crazy shit that we [porn performers] do, we’re doing it for fun and for show [...] Porn is a beautiful release. The hole it shouldn’t fill is sex education. You’re not watching The Fast and the Furious for driver’s ed.

What is your message to anyone watching the documentary?

Cherie DeVille: I hope that they see Wolf’s gorgeous scene at the end. And I hope that it can change a few minds. We are regular people, with a variety of opinions, doing a job. If people can just see us as human… sadly, that’s my bar, but that might be enough.

That scene with Wolf reminds me of Oloni’s ‘consent is sexy’ campaign. Do you see this kind of rebranding of consent not only as integral to porn but also as a turn on, in the future of porn?

Suzanne Hillinger: The director of the production company Adult Time, which we filmed that last scene with, has a whole series about consent being a part of the foreplay. As more individual content makers make their own work, there are opportunities for that kind of creativity.

What does the future hold for Pornhub?

Suzanne Hillinger: [Pornhub] has an opportunity as one of the biggest players in the industry to set the tone. But they still make money every day off of the ads that are on the site, and people still go to Pornhub every day. So how much incentive do they have to change? I’m not sure.

Cherie DeVille: Our social media has become more important than any of these brands. If OnlyFans and Pornhub and whoever else go down, there will be a blip for all of us. But then we’ll all just start driving our traffic somewhere else.

Money Shot: The Pornhub Story is available to stream on Netflix now.