Pornhub crackdown by credit card companies cuts off sex workers' livelihoods

After recent moves by payment platforms like Visa, Mastercard and Discover to cut off access to Pornhub, the world’s largest porn site, several sex workers said they fear an oncoming “war on porn” that prevents them from making money for their work.

Eight adult performers, four of whom sell content on Pornhub, told NBC News that the payment companies’ latest actions hurt them financially far more than they hurt Pornhub. It’s especially destructive, they said, at a time when they have few other financial options.

The payment companies blocked the use of their cards on the site last week after a New York Times investigation into Pornhub on Dec. 4 found that the site was “infested” with videos depicting child sexual abuse, rape and revenge porn.

Alana Evans, president of the Adult Performers Actors Guild, a union representing porn actors, and a veteran porn star who sells videos on Pornhub, said the companies’ actions were particularly distressing coming in the middle of a pandemic.

“Thousands of people have turned to this type of online sex work to feed their families, and this move is affecting those moms who just want to buy diapers and milk,” Evans said.

Pornhub, which was visited 42 billion times in 2019, is such a major player in the porn industry that sex workers say they have little choice but to work on it if they want to promote their business. Pornhub’s parent company, MindGeek, has consolidated enormous power within the adult entertainment industry through its network of YouTube-like sites that aggregate professional and amateur porn, known as “tube sites,” including YouPorn and RedTube, as well as production studios such as Reality Kings and Brazzers.

“It’s one of many companies in the adult space that is exploitative and problematic in a number of ways. But people have to use them to make money,” said an East Coast-based dominatrix who goes by the name of Bardot Smith, noting that Pornhub has essentially become the default search engine for adult content. “If you search for a porn star’s name, it’s more likely you’ll get results from Pornhub and other tube sites than their private sites. It creates a monopoly on search traffic to adult content. So people are left with no choice but to interact with them.”

Moneymakers

Sex workers and followers of Pornhub say that the company historically has made money by offering a vast free-to-access collection of videos uploaded by professional and amateur creators, as well as paid-for premium content. It also sells advertising on the site and subscriptions to a premium ad-free version of the site, as well as takes a cut from the sale of paid-to-view videos uploaded by verified creators.

A day after Mastercard and Visa cut ties with Pornhub and MindGeek, Discover followed suit on Friday, telling NBC News that it had “terminated Discover card acceptance at Pornhub.com.”

Sex workers make money from porn sites when customers pay for services with their credit cards. But since customers are currently not able to make any purchases on the site, adult performers say the companies’ moves have cut off a legal source of income.

“Suspending Visa and Mastercard payments only prevents consensual adult sex workers from earning money on the site,” said a California-based adult performer who goes by the name of Mary Moody. She said she has been making “$1,000 to $2,000 per month” selling videos as a high-ranking performer on Pornhub.

Visa did not respond to a request for comment on the impact of their decision on legal adult performers. But Mastercard stood by its policy change.

“Our decision was based on an internal investigation that confirmed violations of our standards prohibiting unlawful content on their site,” a company spokesperson, Seth Eisen, said in a statement. “As we noted last week, we continue to investigate potential illegal content on other websites that has been referred to us in order to take the appropriate action.”

Belated response

In a statement, Pornhub described the credit card networks’ crackdown as “exceptionally disappointing” since it came two days after the adult website instituted the “most far-reaching safeguards in user-generated platform history.”

After the Times’ investigation, Pornhub restricted video uploads to verified users and removed the site’s download function, which allows deleted content to easily resurface. The company said it was also expanding its content moderation team to identify potentially illegal material.

It also said that starting in the new year it would scrub out all videos that weren’t from official content partners who publish their video collections or members of its model program who can sell their individual videos. As of Monday, the site had removed about 10 million of its 13 million videos, pending “verification and review” beginning in 2021.

But professional sex workers on the site say they have requested these features for years because their paid content has been stolen and republished on the site.

“The biggest problem Pornhub has with nonconsensual content is stolen performer content,” said Ana Valens, a Brooklyn-based writer and sex worker. “This is content being posted without their permission. It’s another form of nonconsensual hosting.”

It also has not helped prevent the industry’s broader problems with child sexual abuse.

“Most child sexual abuse, trafficking and rape content is being distributed under the surface of the internet, in encrypted channels and Facebook Messenger,” Smith said. She builds her own websites to process payments for her work with Pornhub. “This is going to impact people legitimately creating content more than it will help anybody who is vulnerable to abuse.”

Porn crackdown

Performers who rely on Pornhub for income fear the latest moves by Pornhub are part of a broader crackdown on sex work and pornographic content that has been growing in recent years, backed by conservative religious groups, in the name of protecting children. They point to the passage of federal anti-trafficking legislation FOSTA/SESTA in 2018 that was supposed to curb child and human sex trafficking. It had the unintended result of endangering consensual sex workers by closing classified advertising networks like Backpage, which sex workers relied on for income and as a client vetting tool.

“The war on porn is picking up steam,” said Evans, of the porn actors guild. “The biggest fear is that this will lead to a waterfall of companies being financially affected.”

One of the leading campaigns calling to ban Pornhub for hosting and monetizing illegal content, TraffickingHub, was developed by Exodus Cry, a Christian group that believes that all commercial sex work is exploitation. More than 2.5 million people have signed TraffickingHub’s petition to shut down the porn site and hold its executives accountable.

“This is a crusade against the sex industry and the workers who comprise it,” said an adult performer and comedian who goes by the name of Allie Awesome and who sells videos on Pornhub and other platforms. She said she earns between “a few hundred to a thousand dollars” a month from making videos for Pornhub. But since the credit card companies stopped processing payments on Saturday, she has made only “pennies” from the advertising revenue share program.

“Attacking an industry that is largely comprised of people who occupy marginalized identities is always shameful,” she said. “But it’s particularly awful in the middle of a pandemic when a lot of people are turning to platforms like Pornhub in order to pay their bills.”

Laila Mickelwait, the founder of Traffickinghub, said that the campaign was not intended as an attack on legal pornography and that it has the backing of prominent adult performers including Jenna Jameson and Rebecca Lord, who believe that Pornhub’s consolidation of power and lack of safeguards has been bad for the industry.

“If Pornhub cares about sex workers, they should not have placed ads on their stolen and pirated content for the last 10 years,” Mickelwait said. “Pornhub should be apologizing to porn performers for bringing this upon themselves.”

Mickelwait added that large social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube also deserve scrutiny. But she said those companies dedicate more resources to finding and removing illegal material.

“People don’t criticize a breast cancer foundation for not going after kidney disease,” she said of her decision to focus on Pornhub. “If I tried to focus on every platform, we’d get nowhere.”

Ineffective changes

Sarah T. Roberts, a UCLA professor of who studies online content moderation, described the campaign targeting Pornhub as “strangely punitive and uniquely puritanical in an American way.”

She said that pressure from activists over “disgusting outlier videos” is driving companies like Visa, Mastercard and Discover to adopt sweeping “no-tolerance policies that aren’t equally applied to other platforms or bad actors,” pointing to hand-wringing from companies over whether to de-platform white supremacists.

The companies’ decision is “window dressing,” she said, driven by their susceptibility to negative publicity.

“I don’t see anything here that will address the production of child sexual exploitation material,” Roberts said. “How long have they been collecting fractional surcharges from pornography on the internet? Give me a break!”

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