The War On Porn Is a War On Sex Workers

If you’re reading this, you probably watch porn.

It’s likely you get that porn from major tube sites like Pornhub, YouPorn, GayTube, Redtube or XTube. You might understand the immediate implications of “what are you doing step-bro?”, have a rigid set of go-to scenes, or follow specific productions like Brazzers, Reality Kings, Digital Playground, etc. Whatever gets you off, it’s impossible to get away from the network of 150+ sites owned by MindGeek — the Montreal-based company that has silently monopolized the production and distribution of our porn.

MindGeek is one of the largest adult entertainment operators globally, reporting more than 115 million daily visitors on Pornhub alone. Online porn is such a significant piece of the virtual experience that MindGeek‘s platforms consume as much bandwidth on the web as Netflix and Youtube, beating out Twitter, Facebook and Amazon. If you consume porn, you’re likely consuming that material through one of MindGeek’s 150+ production companies and tube sites. If you work in porn, your career likely intersects with some aspect of MindGeek’s expansive network through their production or dissemination process — from working on sets or productions run by MindGeek affiliates, to relying on their model programs and partnerships to distribute content, and seeing your videos streamed (often pirated) across their expansive network of tube sites.

MindGeek’s platforms run numbers. Pornhub sees more than 115 million daily visits on average, generating more traffic on a daily basis than the population of Canada, Australia, Poland and the Netherlands combined. In 2019 there were 42 billion visits to the site — up from 33 billion in 2018, 28 billion in 2017 and 23 billion in 2016.

The platform has nearly doubled their web traffic in the last four years alone and as the COVID-19 pandemic has seen virtual platforms like Zoom and Only Fans take off as people are confined to their homes through lengthy lockdown periods, it’s likely these numbers will see a much more significant leap in 2020/2021.

Now more than ever the world is consuming porn. We are seeking out porn at greater rates than ever before, clocking longer visits to these sites each year and increasingly seeing the influence adult content creators have in more mainstream contexts — from music, to style and pop culture. The issue is that sex workers creating this content are facing an onslaught of attacks across digital platforms looking to censor and remove them.

Whether you choose to acknowledge erotic labour as a legitimate form of work, it is. When you watch porn, you’re benefitting directly from the labour of sex workers — porn performers, cam models and adult entertainers putting their time, energy and labour into the content you’re consuming. That labour looks like a wide-range of things: the physical work of having sex and performing on camera; the cutting, editing, re-shooting and retouching involved in developing adult content online; the pre-work, physical preparation and set-up that goes into selecting a location and developing a concept for a specific piece of content; or the marketing and communications strategies sex workers and their networks engage in to promote and sell their work. What you see is a finished product and because you benefit from the labour of sex workers, how they’re treated by your favourite porn companies and digital platforms is relevant to you.

Visa & Mastercard stop processing payments on Pornhub — devastating sex workers.

Last week two of the largest credit card companies in the world, Visa and Mastercard followed PayPal’s lead and stopped processing payments to Pornhub and other MindGeek affiliates. Hundreds of thousands of sex workers rely on the income generated from adult content creation and consumption online. When PayPal pulled out of Pornhub in 2019, more than 100,000 individual content creators were impacted by the decision. These numbers have dramatically increased as the pandemic has reduced in-person services, shutting down strip clubs and massage parlours, and leading many sex workers (even civvies) to pursue adult content creation on platforms like Pornhub and OnlyFans.

Adult content creators are directly impacted by the decision to stop processing payments on Pornhub and rely on income from the verified Amateur Program, Modelhub and ad revenue among other sources. The decision marks an immediate loss of income that will devastate sex workers. This is the difference between eating, making rent, paying tuition, medical bills, etc. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to leave many on lockdown, shutting down workplaces and bringing many other areas of sex work to a grinding halt, online content creation has become a steady source of income for sex workers who have largely been excluded from government aid.

Platforms like Pornhub generate revenue on performer/subscription fees and ad buys that they won’t lose anytime soon with the sheer volume of web traffic they generate — more than 3 billion ad impressions across MindGeek‘s combined platforms. When major credit cards and cashapps refuse to do business with adult content sites, content creators are the ones who suffer the immediate consequences. The move can’t be separated from the increasingly hostile climate sex workers encounter online:

The anti-porn movement looks to abolish sex work under the guise of saviourship.

Despite the fact that sex workers have advocated for changes on Pornhub for a long time — petitioning the site to adjust uploading/downloading privileges, tackle widespread piracy and remove ripped content, the decision from Visa and Mastercard to stop processing online payments on Pornhub and MindGeek affiliates is a direct response to inflammatory anti-trafficking campaigns calling for the abolition of sex work and pornography.

Notably, a petition signed by over two million people and a recent New York Times piece from Nicholas Kristof unpacking deeply traumatic narratives of sexual exploitation on tube sites. He highlights the work of Exodus Cry- the faith-based organization behind the TraffickingHub campaign calling for the abolition of “prostitution” and pornography by:

  • criminalizing sex work and all aspects of buying, communicating and exchanging sexual services.
  • characterizing sex workers as victims of abuse in an inherently exploitative industry.
  • advocating for the dismantling of online platforms like Pornhub and backpage.com (Kristof himself penned a separate NYT piece denouncing Backpage- the platform sex workers relied on to advertise services before it was shut down by the FBI.)

It’s an important re-brand of the anti-porn movements goals, pivoting from the language of sexual purity and conservatism to the language of saviourship that resonates with many liberal feminists. The campaign appropriates language from struggles against sexual and gender-based violence to make a case for the abolition of sex work in ways that appeal to liberal audiences and erase the decades of activism sex workers have engaged in demanding rights not rescue from external campaigns. When anti-trafficking advocates conflate sex work and human trafficking they erase an entire workforce that has spent decades advocating for human rights, dignity, safety and labour protections on the job.

Sexual exploitation and sex work are not the same thing, nor is sexual exploitation inherent to sex work. Criminalizing and stigmatizing sex work creates conditions for exploitation. This distinction matters for an entire workforce demanding labour rights and recognition. Erotic labour is not only a real and legitimate form of work, it’s valuable work that can be fulfilling, mundane, stressful or exhausting in the same way many forms of work are.

Campaigns celebrating the decision from Visa and Mastercard to pull out of Pornhub, calling on them to widely apply this decision across all adult content sites, celebrate at the expense of hundreds of thousands of sex workers directly impacted and devastated by the decision.

Monica Forrester of Trans Pride Toronto and Maggie’s Toronto Sex Workers Action Project speaks to City TV about the search for Alloura Wells at the 2018 Trans Pride March.

Sex workers are leaders in the fight against exploitation online — we need to listen to them.

Sex workers have often been the first to call out MindGeek’s monopoly on porn, both in terms of how it impacts sex workers who are shortchanged on content and in terms of inappropriate content hosted online. Sex workers who rely on adult content sites like Pornhub are deeply invested in those platforms meaningfully addressing issues of sexual exploitation. For sex workers, this is an issue of consent, ethical content creation and workplace health and safety. The mechanisms that allow for inappropriate content to thrive on adult content platforms have always been challenged by adult content creators. From piracy and ripped content to revenge porn- sex workers have historically resisted these practices without calling for the elimination of their entire workforce.

Instead many are crystal clear about the supports, protections and controls needed to create safer platforms:

  • fair compensation and protections for content creators.
  • swift and decisive content moderation.
  • creative control over content including adjustments to protocols on content distribution (e.g. who can upload/download videos from the site.)
  • larger calls to challenge MindGeek’s monopoly on porn production and distribution.

The fraught relationship between content creators and MindGeek is an important struggle for labour rights and workplace protections. The fact that MindGeek controls the production and dissemination of so much of the world’s online porn means they often have a hand in producing videos that are then ripped and cross-posted to their 150+ sites, generating web traffic, boosting ad revenue, driving membership/subscription fees, and ultimately benefitting MindGeek and their affiliates at the expense of individual content creators. Challenging the structures that keep this power dynamic in tact is an important step both for content creators and in the fight for safer platforms.

When sex workers advocate for labour rights, fair and transparent compensation, creative control over content and reliable moderation processes, they are directly challenging conditions that facilitate sexual exploitation and abuse online. We call for an end to sexual exploitation across digital platforms by supporting sex workers in their struggle for labour rights, not by erasing them.

Let’s talk about sexual exploitation where it really happens — social media and content sharing sites.

If we want to talk about sexual exploitation and the circulation of content without consent, we need to be real about the fact that all platforms that rely on user-generated content and allow their users to freely upload, download and share content confront issues of sexual exploitation online. This implicates adult content sites like Pornhub and other MindGeek affiliates in the same way it does other major social media platforms that facilitate most of our online communication.

Let’s talk about the role major platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and WhatsApp play in housing and disseminating revenge porn, and the barriers to removing this content across platforms. In the last three years Facebook self-reported 84 million cases involving the sexual exploitation of children. In that period of time Internet Watch Foundation flagged 118 cases on Pornhub. Let’s talk about Twitter, where users have to battle the site to act on their reports of inappropriate content only to see weak controls barely phase those sharing exploitative content. Victims of revenge porn routinely struggle to get their photos and videos removed from Instagram and Twitter, battling through lengthy reporting and appeals processes. Yet none of these major platforms have been met with the same degree of scrutiny as adult content sites and sex workers.

We need to be able to talk openly about how sexual harassment and exploitation thrive on social media and content sharing platforms, as well as the responsibility each of these platforms has to introduce rigorous content moderation. Rigorous content moderation does not look like targeting and sanctioning adult content creators — not only is this misguided, it’s a waste of resources. It’s key that we’re able to differentiate between explicit content and exploitative content. If platforms refuse to differentiate between sex workers creating, disseminating and monetizing adult content and cases of sexual violence and abuse online, they’re not able to direct attention to specific cases that need it most. Policing nipples, plus-size models, strippers and other sex workers (while still managing to leave unsolicited dick pics untouched?) takes time, energy and resources away from addressing actual issues of sexual exploitation.

Criminalizing sex workers prevents providers from accessing key supports and security networks.

Sex workers have been very clear about this: when anti-trafficking initiatives take the position that (1) all forms of sex work are inherently exploitative, (2) all sex workers are victims in need of saving and (3) the way to “rescue” sex workers is to shut down + criminalize the platforms and networks they rely on these campaigns create conditions for exploitation by driving sex work into unreglated areas and pushing legal frameworks that disempower (even actively target) sex workers. When providers can’t access virtual platforms, screen clients, or work with a wide range of support networks they are prevented from accessing tools that help increase safety on the job.

In Canada we’ve seen the impact of Bill C-36 (“The Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act”) which conflates sex work and sexual exploitation, specifically targeting buyers, support networks and digital platforms with the ultimate goal of eliminating sex work in Canada. Sex workers are openly targeted by law enforcement, denied basic labour rights and protections, left out of vital government aid and emergency supports, discriminated against in a wide-range of social and community-based environments (e.g. securing housing, encounters with child protective services or stigma in school and workplace settings) and ultimately at greater risk when criminalized.

The only way to challenge the inflammatory narrative anti-trafficking organizations put forward is to invest directly in sex worker led organizing. In the context of an economic downturn that has completely destabilized adult entertainment, this also looks like paying sex workers directly, subscribing to their services, investing in their organizations and mutual aid funds.

The most recent wave of attacks on sex workers across digital platforms is a terrifying preview of what is to come. Visa and Mastercard pulling out of one of the most well-known adult sites on the web gives other companies a green light to discriminate against sex workers active on digital platforms. It also encourages platforms to continue expanding efforts to shadowban and remove sex workers entirely under the guise of “saving” sex workers and “protecting” community standards. Sex workers deserve rights, not misguided, voyeuristic “rescue” attempts that are often just as degrading and dehumanizing as the violence they decry.

Donate to our COVID-19 Black Sex Worker Survival Fund through Maggie’s Toronto Sex Workers Action Project.