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‘The story is really complicated’: inside the controversial world of Pornhub | Documentary films

Money Shot: The Pornhub Story, a new Netflix documentary on the biggest porn website in the world, opens with a simple question: do you remember the first porn you ever saw? The film’s older subjects (read: late millennial and above), including several adult film performers, recall bespoke, analog porn, illicit and enticing – movies of Mother Goose fairy tales given a raunchy twist, a neighbor’s video tape of women using a giant ice dildo, Playgirl and Playboy spreads.

Noelle Perdue, an internet porn historian and multimedia artist, harkens a shift. She was 11 the first time she watched porn, noodling around on Pornhub looking to be surprised and finding an “eight-person geriatric gang bang” – a sight which “did kinda set the tone for how extreme things could be on the internet”, she laughs.

Such is the conundrum of Pornhub, the gateway to adult content for many young people, a website so popular it’s basically synonymous with online porn in general. And, as such, a place that encapsulates both the potential and the peril of the internet – private exploration amid furtive data collection, boundless opportunity and information warped toward extremity, the freedom to view and post tied to the ability to steal, harass and abuse. “This issue of nonconsensual material on the internet – it’s not a Pornhub problem. It’s an internet problem,” Money Shot’s director, Suzanne Hillinger, told the Guardian.

The film, produced by Alex Gibney’s Jigsaw Productions, begins as a brief explainer on Pornhub’s history as the pre-eminent digital disrupter of the porn industry. Owned by the Canadian company MindGeek, Pornhub originated as a tube site to view pirated or amateur erotic content for free – think the Pirate Bay for movies or LimeWire for music, but for porn. By the 2010s, Pornhub was the SEO-dominant destination for erotic content, making billions through advertisements and promotions though, as the film outlines, little of that profit went to adult performers and producers until the establishment of Modelhub in 2018, which allowed creators to tag and monetize their content on the site.

The majority of the 90-minute film, however, focuses on the scrutiny and backlash the site has faced in recent years, from the perspective of porn professionals and performers often lost in the tug of war between anti-porn activists and the platforms hosting adult content. Hillinger began work on the film shortly after the publication, in December 2020, of a New York Times op-ed by Nicholas Kristof titled The Children of Pornhub, which reported on real instances of rape and sexual abuse of teenagers posted to the website with little to no recourse. The article, coupled with a “#Traffickinghub” social media campaign orchestrated by US-based Exodus Cry, an Evangelical group with ties to the Christian right and Donald Trump, led MindGeek to ban all uploads from unverified users – a move many porn performers had been advocating for years to prevent piracy. It also prompted Mastercard and Visa to end payment processing with Pornhub which, as several performers attest, directly and abruptly imperiled their livelihoods while doing little to actually curb trafficking.

The film’s structure, interviewing many adult industry advocates and workers as well as those claiming to “clean up” the porn industry, grew out of what Hillinger saw as a hole in the Times op-ed. “I wasn’t interested in doing the WeWork version of the Pornhub story,” she said. The op-ed included just a few quotes from performers, “the people who actually provide the majority of the income for this company”.

“Pretty early on, I wanted to tell a story through the lens of sex workers,” she said, “because the New York Times wasn’t the only media outlet that was reporting on this from the outside instead of the other way around.

“The story is really complicated,” she added. “It’s really hard when there are people doing good work to try to curb trafficking and nonconsensual material from ending up on the internet. But there are also a lot of people doing it for other reasons, and that all kind of gets conflated, and there’s not a lot of conversation that has nuance to understand what those motives are.”

Those motives can range from genuine concern and specific focus to sweeping generalizations and condescension. Yiota Souras, a senior VP and general counsel for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), explains how the organization handles reports of nonconsensual material posted on Pornhub, as part of the organization’s mission to help minors remove exploitative content posted online. Reports of sexual assault posted to Pornhub have also gone through the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE), a rebrand of the Christian organization Morality in Media which claims to fight the “multibillion-dollar sexual exploitation industry” and views pornography as “inherently harmful”. In other words, a new iteration of a decades-old anti-porn argument associated with the conservative, so-called “Moral Majority”.

The film argues that victims of porn backlash are adult industry professionals whose careers are financially devalued. Photograph: Netflix

Which is not to say, as the film points out, that Pornhub is clear of responsibility for nonconsensual and exploitative material on its website; an anonymous former MindGeek employee recounts how moderators were instructed to peruse videos as fast as possible, with quotas of about 700 videos a day, necessitating the barest of skims. But the new campaigns are taking cyclical anti-porn rhetoric and “really Trojan-horsing it inside concern for legitimate instances of sex trafficking or child sexual abuse”, said Siri Dahl, a porn performer.

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“There are certain elements that are so consistent and never repackaged, and then there are certain elements that are presented completely differently,” said Perdue, the internet porn historian who once worked as a MindGeek employee for Modelhub. “It’s really interesting to me how frequently in white conservative Christian moral panic the victim is always is white women and children. If the villain is immigration, if the villain is queer, if the villain is transgender people, it’s always ‘think of the women, think of the children’, and now we’re just seeing this again, but the villain is pornography.”

The victims of the backlash, the film argues, are adult industry professionals whose careers are, increasingly, financially devalued. “Taking credit card payments off of Pornhub is not doing anything to prevent rape videos from getting recorded or uploaded somewhere else,” said Hillinger. Instead, as adult performers attest, it just makes the pressures of financial precarity more acute. Mastercard and Visa’s decision to end credit card processing on the platform was “a pretty big wake-up call in terms of how finite making money in this industry is”, said Gwen Adora, a one-woman content operation – performer, producer, editor and promoter – who made money through Modelhub. “It’s scary just to have that completely go away. It gave me a lot of anxiety for a long time.”

Porn, as numerous film participants point out, is less a sordid corner of our world than a mirror, a business as inflected by racism and misogyny as any other, with its own capacity for ethical or unethical behavior. And Pornhub, as the largest of all porn websites, spanned the gamut – a website that did not do enough to curb abuse on its platform, a private pastime for people on their phones, a scapegoat for a larger anti-sex and anti-porn movement, a complicated shorthand for an industry of performers and producers caught in the crosshairs.

“I would love if people left with a sense of responsibility for their own involvement in the industry instead of maybe saying, ‘Oh this company is bad,’ while secretly, likely, watching that company,” said Perdue of her hopes for the film. “I would love if people left wanting to actually engage with porn performers and actually engage with the adult industry beyond what they watch in private.”

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Photo by Xu Haiwei on Unsplash