The Pornhub
case: profit from
denied consent

Sara Simon
Current Events

In La Livella’s last article dealing thoroughly with Revenge Porn in Italy, that focused on its victims and the criminal protection which – thanks to the recent legislative advancements – made it possible to provide cases of violence of this nature. Aiming to give continuity to this topic in order to understand how dangerous the digital world can be if used by dishonourable people and how this possibility requires that we work for the protection of victims, an additional topic that follows a parallel pattern is worth investigating. It is another locus where not only porn revenge is carried out, but also violence on minors and legalised rape.

One of the venues in question is Pornhub, the porn platform that has made voluntary uploading of its users’ content its very own business model. In recent weeks, this website has been brought under the world’s spotlight thanks to Nicholas Kristof’s article “The children of Pornhub” for the New York Times. The article is about various stories, especially about young women whose private videos were uploaded on Pornhub without their consent. These videos also often remained online for years despite several attempts to have them removed. In many cases, the videos were not about sexual acts, but about abuse, violence and rape. In doing so, Nicholas Kristof exposed the dark side of the porn site for the first time, the very same one that plenty knew about but preferred avoiding talking about.

The positive outcome should not prevent us from asking ourselves what would have happened, or would continue to happen, if a diligent journalist had not decided to cover the issue in an international publication?

Even though chaos did not break out by the media until the end of 2020, the prerequisites that allowed Pandora’s box to open can be traced back to 2018, when a 15-year-old girl in Florida disappeared. The girl, who had left home after an argument with her mother, vanished for a year. Later on, her mother was contacted by people who had found the missing 15-year-old girl on a series of adult websites. It was alleged that the girl had been approached and swindled by Christopher Jhonson, a man in his thirties who made money from posting on various adult entertainment platforms the content of videos of him and others having sex with the girl. What additionally emerged was the girl’s pregnancy and the fact that Jhonson had taken her to a clinic and forced her to have an abortion.
What is worth noticing about this American case is that there were noticeable repercussions for Jhonson and the others who had abused the girl, but there were no consequences for the sites that shared these videos and profited from the violent content on the underage girl.

It is Nicholas Kristof who first reported this issue in an important newspaper like the New York Times, and he is credited for having brought to global attention a crucial issue that until now had required solutions only from weak and isolated individuals. Individuals whose voices were too weak to be heard or perhaps, given what has emerged from the above-mentioned investigation, we might dare add wanted to be heard? One wonders why the problem did not arise back in 2018, when an underage girl plagiarised by a 30-year-old man appeared in sex tapes on a public platform had initially emerged? Probably because in that case the judgmental community had already found its scapegoat in Christopher Jhonson, and that was enough for the common man to feel that justice had been served.

And this is exactly what “The children of Pornhub” tries to prove: while people guilty of uploading illegal content are occasionally found and punished, websites have always managed to avoid any kind of involvement.
The New York Times article, however, does not concern the site’s industrial strategies, but rather the proliferation of child pornography and the abuse content it contains. Kristof explains that the site monetises child rape, revenge porn, hidden camera videos of women showering, racist and misogynistic content and videos of women suffocating with plastic bags.
These contents represent a minority of the total number of videos uploaded, but they are still a large number and have their own loyal niche audience. To add to the complexity of the picture, especially with regard to child pornography, it is often difficult to distinguish whether the person being filmed is 14 or 18 years old. Moreover, whether the videos depict real violence or are rather a film made by consenting actors, so even Pornhub does not exactly know which and how much of its content is illegal.
In addition, although searches such as ‘rape’ or ‘underage’ are prevented by the internal search engine, there are alternative keywords that allow one to reach the illegal content showing the underage person being sexually abused or at least claiming to show it – in many cases, in fact, actors of legal age are acting consensually while faking the abuse.
On closer inspection, however, although faking abuse is legal, it cannot be denied that it contributes to normalising violence, especially among adolescents who increasingly entrust their sexual education to pornographic sites. This should be an additional important topic for reflection for those who have made porn their own business, beyond profit and beyond the boundary between what is legal and what is not.

In this case, Pornhub initially called the article irresponsible and totally fake, accusing the New York Times of fabricating a case and stating further just how diligent the site’s operators are in removing illegal content. Notwithstanding the claims made by Pornhub’s management, there is one important fact to be considered regarding the site’s moderators, not only do they seem to be very few in number compared to those employed on other social platforms, 80 to be exact (considering, for example, that Facebook has 15 thousand), but according to an interviewed moderator, they have been instructed to approve as much content as possible. According to the interviewee, this is not because Pornhub’s managers are evil people, but because they are only focused on maximising profits.
The publication of the article, however, also forced Mastercard and Visa, the main platforms that allow digital economic transactions also on the site in question, to take a stand on what happened. The companies have started investigations to see whether Mindgeek, the Canadian porn company that also owns Pornhub as well as Youporn and Redtube, is committing illegal activities and have threatened to take away their service.
At this point, given that Pornhub might face a possible suspension of transactions through the two most popular credit card circuits in the world, leading to a financial catastrophe for the company, the website has decided to radically change its functioning. It has therefore declared a series of very important changes: first of all, only those with a verified profile will now be able to upload videos on their portals; secondly, videos will no longer be easily downloadable as they usually were, additionally a control and moderation team called the red team will be set up.

The positive outcome should not prevent us from asking ourselves what would have happened, or would continue to happen, if a diligent journalist had not decided to cover the issue in an international publication? In this case, as in others in the past – let us take the Spotlight case, as an example, that shed light on the reality of paedophile priests in Boston in 2002. The role of investigative journalism appears essential to direct the public’s attention to specific and apparently submerged issues in order to serve justice more swiftly where it would probably take longer to be served on its own.

[1] Nicholas Kristof, The children of Pornhub, in  New York Times,

[2] Un articolo del New York Times ha stravolto Pornhub, in Il Post,

[3] I grandi cambiamenti di Pornhub spiegati: cosa succede?”, Breaking Italy,

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