Pornhub continues its ethics-washing with a Valentine's Day pop-up

Today on Adage there's an article with the headline "Inside Pornhub's unexpectedly buttoned-up Valentine's Day pop-up."

For two days (it ends today) the porn giant is taking a different tactic to convince people that it means more than just porn.

The writer explains it thusly:

"...the experience, which is open until 9 p.m. on Valentine's Day, is more, dare I say, classy? If not classy, then at least tasteful. The space is decorated with soft, feminine touches coupled with classic Valentine’s themes—baby pink balloons fill the windows, blush-pink curtains hang around the room and red rose bouquets sit on countertops. A neon pink sign reading “Love at first site” is positioned above a suede couch, also pink, ready for Instagram-worthy selfies. Sensual sayings like “I’m heels behind head in love” and “Porn is in the air” embellish the walls.

They go on to list all the PG-ish items Pornhub offers in an effort to gladly take your money. T-shirts and Mugs and cards. And of course, everyone who uh, comes, will receive a free month of Pornhub Premium which is their ad-free tier. There will also be porn stars there, because of course. And of course, their premium service is free today, because nothing is more romantic than collecting data and getting emails.

What jumped out at me was a quote from co-founder and ECD of Officer And Gentlemen, an agency in Madrid. Alex Katz, describes the thinking behind this tactic. "We don’t have to have everything be about sex. It can be about love. It helps to build the brand. We want people to see the safe-for-work aspect of the brand, too.”

Love is not the word I think of when I think of Pornhub. Exploitation, rape, and sex trafficking of women, some who are underage, are more apropos words we should be using. Especially because recently Pornhub has come under fire for featuring such videos, with their 120 million daily visitors. And, of course, profiting off of them either through ads or people who pay to go ad-free.


Anti-sex trafficking activist Laila Mickelwait learned that there is zero effort on Pornhub's part to verify any videos being uploaded. It's similar to non-porn tech giant YouTube allowing rampant copyright infringement and then absolving themselves of all culpability because they are "too big to police."  That shady excuse might work for that Billie Eilish track you uploaded, but it's a whole other story when it involves a missing fifteen-year old girl.

According to a Profile on Mickelwait in First Things

As Mickelwait discovered for herself, all you need to upload a video is an email address. That’s it: no government-ID requirement, no reliable age- or consent-verification hurdle. To become a blue-checkmarked Pornhub user on the site, the uploader must simply share a photo of herself holding a piece of paper with her username written on it—something any trafficker could coerce a victim into doing. In the case of the Floridian girl, Pornhub’s Twitter team briefly admitted to verifying the account before quickly deleting the tweet, presumably upon realizing the implication.

Another story which came out in the BBC on February 10th profiles a girl (not woman) named Rose Kalemba, who in 2009 was raped over a period of 12 hours when she was 14. 

A few months later, Rose was browsing MySpace when she found several people from her school sharing a link. She was tagged. Clicking on it, Rose was directed to the pornography-sharing site, Pornhub. She felt a wave of nausea as she saw several videos of the attack on her.

"The titles of the videos were 'teen crying and getting slapped around', 'teen getting destroyed', 'passed out teen'. One had over 400,000 views," Rose recounts.

"The worst videos were the ones where I was passed out. Seeing myself being attacked where I wasn't even conscious was the worst."

The article goes on to say that Rose emailed Pornhub multiple times over a six-month span in 2009 to ask for the videos to be removed She never received an answer when she wrote as herself. When she set up another email and posed as a lawyer, only then were the videos removed.

Pornhub released a statement denying culpability of course, because it happened before they were acquired by their new owners (Mindgeek, who basically have a monopoly on every porn site out there, and are of course gathering as much data on you as possible in the process) and that their verification practices are state of the art.

It's hard to rectify that statement with the fact that it is still ongoing. As well as the above-mentioned case of the fifteen-year-old girl, last year Pornhub also removed a channel Girls Do Porn when twenty-two women sued the production company of the same name "for coercing them to have sex on video and lying to them about how the videos would be distributed..." according to Vice. The owner, Michael Pratt, is currently a wanted fugitive whose whereabouts are unknown. Back in October of 2019, he was charged with federal sex trafficking crimes. 

The videos are still easily found on Pornhub despite its so-called video fingerprinting. According to Vice however "...a Motherboard investigation found that this system can be easily and quickly circumvented with minor editing. Pornhub's current method for removing Girls Do Porn videos and other forms of non-consensual porn not only puts the onus of finding and flagging videos almost entirely on potentially-traumatized victims—those victims can't even rely on the system to work."

More importantly, just as YouTube profits off of infringing material, so does Pornhub.

As Dr. Ann Olivarius, founder of McAllister Olivarius, said, 

“The core problem is that image-based abuse videos (so-called revenge porn), and coerced videos such as Girls Do Porn, are a significant part of Pornhub and other sites’ business models. They are massively popular with users and with site owners, and either free or incredibly cheap to produce. What, exactly, is the incentive for a site like Pornhub to remove one of their most popular products?”"

So while the ad world does Pornhubs bidding for them, we might do well to question in the era of #MeToo, why they are allowed to get away with ethics washing, and for that matter, why we are duped into believing their self-policing actually works when it clearly doesn't. Remember, these videos are duplicated thousands of times, and destroy untold lives. Not only the women who are victims and have to relive their moments, but the men who have become so desensitized they are using those search words in the first place.

While I'm thinking about it, the ad world is also championing ad-exec Cindy Gallop's own porn site, "Make Love Not Porn." Back in 2016, in Cannes, an Adweek headline read "Cindy Gallop Wants Everyone at Cannes to Film Themselves Having Sex This Year." Add to this TED Talks, Forbes write-ups and 3% conference appearances, and Make Love Not Porn is seen as a different brand.

It's an alternative to Pornhub. Gallop, who likes to share she's the only person who has ever said "Come on my face" six times at a TED Talk, describes Make Love Not Porn's difference in their FAQ. "Porn is performative, manufactured entertainment. If porn is the Hollywood blockbuster movie, MLNP is the documentary." 

I think it's more accurate to describe porn, or at least Pornhub, as an exploitation film. And if Make Love Not Porn is described as being "pro-sex and pro-porn, pro-knowing-the-difference," let's hope Gallop doesn't run into the same problems in determining the difference between the users who pay to watch consensual sex on their site, and someone who might be coerced or raped.

To Make Love Not Porn's credit, it actually requires ID verification. Unlike Pornhub. Perhaps that's why it's not the juggernaut that Pornhub is. 

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