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Pornhub video purge
Illustration Callum Abbott

How Pornhub’s video purge is hurting sex workers

Following the seismic exposure of Pornhub for hosting non-consensual and abusive content, credit card companies have cut ties with the adult site – but creators who rely on the platform have been left in the lurch

TextBrit DawsonIllustrationCallum Abbott

Earlier this month, The New York Times published an investigation into the prevalence of non-consensual content and child abuse on Pornhub. The exposé highlights a number of cases in which videos of underage girls were uploaded to the adult site without their consent. It also reveals the ubiquity of sexual violence videos on the site, which depict real instances of abuse, and often feature trafficking victims.

In response, Pornhub announced sweeping changes to its moderation policies, including banning uploads from non-verified users and stopping downloads. The site also purged millions of existing unverified clips, reducing its video count from 13.5 million to 2.9 million. In a statement, Pornhub said it will review its guidelines in the new year, when an updated verification process will begin.

The crackdown on non-consensual content on Pornhub is an urgent and necessary action, but professional sex workers have been criticising the rapid, capricious way it’s being handled. Multiple sex workers tell Dazed that their videos are being incorrectly flagged, potentially costing them money and jeopardising their careers. “Pornhub’s ban on unverified videos seems great at first glance, sex worker @loserlexxx tells Dazed, “but the moderators they’ve hired to comb through the site are removing consensual content by verified users as well.”

“I’ve personally lost over 20 million views on videos that are perfectly compliant with the Terms of Service,” she continues. “When I email Pornhub about this, they put my videos back up, but they’re eventually flagged and disabled again, and the cycle repeats.”

@loserlexxx says she and other creators have been urging Pornhub to update its moderation policies for years, but believes that this rushed approach is causing more harm than good. “If they invested in more staff members to moderate the site instead of having volunteer non-profit groups do the sorting for them, it could make a huge difference.”

Dazed questioned Pornhub on why verified users’ videos were being removed, but the site did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Since the NYT exposé and subsequent moderation changes, a number of credit card companies, including Mastercard, Visa, and Discover, have cut ties with Pornhub, blocking their customers from making purchases on the website. Pornhub called the action “exceptionally disappointing”, asserting that it’s “crushing for the hundreds of thousands of models who rely on our platform for their livelihoods”.

“I’ve personally lost over 20 million views on videos that are perfectly compliant with the Terms of Service” – @loserlexxx

Sex workers say the move threatens their only source of income. @loserlexxx says blocking payments “does nothing to help victims, it only hurts legal sex workers”, explaining that “unverified users are already unable to charge for content or make ad revenue”.

“Pornhub has disabled all sales from Modelhub, the video sales section of the site, which requires you to have a verified identity to have a profile on,” she continues. “Many sex workers I know only post to the Modelhub section, meaning they now have no way to make Pornhub earnings at all.”

LA-based sex worker Mary Moody has been particularly vocal about the impact this decision will have on professional content creators. “I personally stand to lose thousands,” she tells Dazed, “but I want to spotlight the many workers who will be losing $300-$1,000, maybe more. They rely on that income for survival, especially during the pandemic.”

Last week (December 18), Moody shared a video of herself on Twitter, in which she discussed how detrimental the payment block is, and encouraged other sex workers to do the same. A quick scroll through her timeline reveals the extent of those hurt by the move. One sex worker, Emilia Song, opens her video by saying she’s “exhausted” by the constant battle “to keep our right to create and show our content as consenting adults”.

Another creator, Charlotte Cross, said: “Pornhub makes up about one fourth of my income. I’m kind of freaking out, because with one fourth of my income gone, I might not be able to pay my rent, I might not be able to put food on my table, to pay for my law school study materials. I hope that Visa and Mastercard will take this time to listen to the stories of people who consensually engage in online sex work, and understand that we are just trying to make a living, legally.”

Many sex workers have compared the credit card ban to the 2018 FOSTA-SESTA bill, which intended to curb trafficking, but has instead resulted in the overpolicing of nudity, and the endangering of sex workers, who are kicked out of online spaces and forced into less safe methods of working.

Moody tells Dazed that “instead of a call for censorship”, credit card companies “could have partnered with the industry to address their concerns”. Instead, she insists, they “folded to religious anti-porn rhetoric”. 

“At its root, (the New York Times article) is a religious anti-porn group’s propaganda. It’s dishonest and misleading because it’s not about sex trafficking, it’s about enforcing their narrow views of morality” – Mary Moody

Moody is referencing the Traffickinghub campaign, which was started by Laila Mickelwait, the founder of a Christian organisation called Exodus Cry. On its website, Exodus Cry refers to the sex industry as the “sexual exploitation industry”, and suggests that everyone who works in it is being exploited, including those who are “seduced by the deceptive ‘empowerment’ narrative in our culture”. Mickelwait was a primary source for journalist Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times exposé.

“At its root, (the New York Times article) is a religious anti-porn group’s propaganda,” asserts Moody. “It’s dishonest and misleading because it’s not about sex trafficking, it’s about enforcing their narrow views of morality. It uses salacious anecdotes to tickle the puritanical subconscious of the nation with the ultimate goal of censoring porn.”

As reported by Rolling Stone, Kristof has a history of misrepresenting issues related to sex work and sex trafficking. The journalist has previously been accused of citing misleading statistics and conflating consensual and non-consensual sex work.

“The scant data in the piece supports the fact that the issue isn’t porn sites,” continues Moody. “But shocking anecdotes drown out data. The little data (Kristof) does share explains that pornography sites are an extremely small share of the 70 million pieces of child sexual exploitation online. He goes on to compare Pornhub’s 80 moderators to Facebook’s 15,000, but neglects to mention that Facebook has, at minimum, 20,000 times the content Pornhub does.”

As well as sharing allegedly deceitful stats and platforming an anti-porn organisation, Kristof furthers dangerous stereotypes by not correctly differentiating between legal sex work and trafficking.

“Most people have a hard time separating non-consensual content with legal content made by sex workers who love their jobs,” says @loserlexxx. “When people think of sex workers, they tend to think of people who go into this line of work because they have no other options, making their job inherently non-consensual. If people just listened to sex workers, they’d have a much better understanding of the difference.”

Moody says this is particularly dangerous right now. “(This rhetoric) harms consensual sex workers who rely on income from these sites to survive during the pandemic, undermining what is, for many, a means for survival during these unprecedented and challenging times.”

Although she recognises the need to tackle non-consensual content in the sex industry, @loserlexxx believes the only real way to do this is to speak to sex workers themselves, as opposed to buying into media propaganda. “I just hope they can listen to their content creators on what is and isn’t working,” she concludes, “and keep improving the site for both sex workers and victims.”