Opinion

Pornhub: Pornography or Exploitation?

(**TW: mention of sexual assault, rape, child sexual abuse, and abusive relationships**)

Pornography is something that many people enjoy. That makes it sound much less insidious than it is often presented. But pornography is not problematic. Like many things, it is human involvement that generates the problems.

A key issue is that those who produce and those who access pornography do not distinguish between it and exploitation. One of the starkest examples of the failure – or even refusal – to distinguish between pornography and exploitation is Pornhub. This could be resolved with the regulation of content uploaded and therefore accessed. But, by the very nature of its free production and access to pornography, Pornhub’s current model makes preventing exploitation impossible.

It is this lack of regulation that has led Pornhub to be populated by every kind of pornography, even that which is socially, morally, and legally wrong. It gives its users the gift of anonymity and therefore the freedom to upload and access material regardless of what that material is. On Pornhub and elsewhere on the web, there is an abundance of revenge, rape, non-consensual, and child pornography. Thanks to their anonymity on the site, the users concerned also have no qualms about uploading, leaving comments encouraging abuse, downloading, and distributing this abusive pornography across the web. This means that not only have the victims been abused already, but they are highly likely to be inflicted with lifelong humiliation – for they are notified every time materials pertaining to them are dealt with by the law, and those materials may very well have permeated throughout their community and family and made even offline daily life impossible.

In the UK, the threat of sharing intimate images of a partner in an abusive relationship is not currently a crime. To compound the issue, once such materials have been distributed, they’re effectively out of the victim’s hands forever, no matter how many instances of access the police deal with. If there is no regulation of intimate images resulting from abuse, then what chance is there for the large-scale regulation of abusive pornographic material? A similar problem in South Korea is currently circulating in the media: one concerning the blackmail of young women into producing abusive pornography via Telegram, with the perpetrators receiving minimal sentences. The focus for the survivors of this abuse has been counselling, which while beneficial does nothing to change the long-term ramifications of the distribution of the materials or the leniency of the law. 

Pornhub takes every opportunity to engage in and publicise its philanthropic efforts. This is much to the frustration of the many, many victims of the abusive pornography that it freely permits. In a quintessentially Jekyll and Hyde situation, when Pornhub is notified of such materials, it refuses to even respond to the complaints, never mind remove anything. The comments left by consumers of such material show that the users of the site can not be trusted to self-regulate, which is itself exacerbated by the fact that it can be difficult or impossible for a casual observer to identify whether or not pornography involves rape, and therefore all sites which allow access to pornography need to regulate it before it gets to the users. Otherwise, the current exploitative cycle of production and consumption will not stop.

Perhaps, instead of the impetus coming from such sites, it could come from the consumer: Business is all about supply and demand, after all. If the demand for exploitative pornography were not there, there would be no point in Pornhub allowing it and education could be the answer. If only that were the case. The prevalence of sex education in schools has done nothing to discourage underage sexual activity or reduce the spread of STIs or occurrences of teenage pregnancy, suggesting that while it is a necessary part of education it is ineffective in its current form. In fact, at the age at which we are bombarded with sex education, we are more likely to want to engage with it because attention has now been drawn to it. Moreover, children are freely accessing pornography even before the age of consent, which results in not only a warped understanding of sex and relationships, but also in sexual assaults and rapes by children upon other children. As a result, the onus needs to come from the production rather than the consumption of pornography, so sites like Pornhub must lead by example.

A possible solution might be to ban pornography altogether. However, that would likely further drive the existing production of exploitative and abusive pornography underground and make it even harder to deal with than it already is. It would also disadvantage those who produce pornography without exploitation. If anything, the rewards for those producers need to be increased along with the penalties for those who produce exploitative material.

A migration of consumers from sites like Pornhub to ones like MyFans may be the answer, involving a paid subscription to individual producers (not necessarily of pornography in the case of MyFans), but with the payment going directly to those producers and therefore providing them with safety and independence, particularly women. Not that MyFans is perfect. Currently, it is possible for consumers to distribute materials once the paywall has been passed. So, while it is a positive step forward, it still needs to do more to protect its producers and stop itself from becoming yet another form of exploitation. 

We need a new attitude to pornography: that it is not the issue, but that the behaviour of producers and consumers is. If people are going to engage with pornography, then it needs to be managed responsibly. While that would be a huge step forward for women’s rights, it would also benefit children and men. Members of every group of society, while to differing extents, are all exploited and abused in the production of pornography, particularly in the uploading without reprimand of illegal and morally abhorrent material online. And not only that, but they are further victimised and humiliated by the very sites that allow it, like Pornhub. Therefore, the current model on Pornhub needs to be changed to protect against exploitation and lead to the penalisation of those who produce and access such material.

Chloé Agar

Chloé (she/her) is an Egyptologist who, when not studying obscure ancient languages, writes fantasy and sci-fi fiction and non-fiction articles on education and the arts for The Oxford Blue, The Oxford Student, and Coronavirus Tutoring Initiative.