How the NYT pushed Canada to confront one of its biggest tech companies

A sex-worker advocate puts the Pornhub "hysteria" in context

Canada is a global hub for the porn industry. And MindGeek — the Montreal-based parent company of Pornhub, RedTube, YouPorn, Xtube, and Brazzers — is one of the biggest tech companies in the world. But before last December, the name of its CEO, Feras Antoon, hadn’t once appeared in The Globe and Mail.

That month, The New York Times ran an incendiary piece by Nicholas Kristof headlined “The Children of Pornhub: Why does Canada allow this company to profit off videos of exploitation and assault?” Telling horrific stories of young women who had not only suffered abuse, but whose moments of trauma lived on forever on Pornhub, Kristof described the site as a business that monetizes child pornography and footage of sexual assaults.

Within days, Pornhub announced they would ban all unverified users from uploading content, resulting in the deletion of millions of videos. Visa and Mastercard declared they would no longer process payments from the site. And the Commons committee on Access to Information, Privacy, and Ethics invited MindGeek’s leadership to appear before it, “to explain the company’s failure to prohibit rape videos and other illegal content.”

The committee’s study gradually expanded, and among those it heard from was the founder of the “Traffickinghub Movement,” which Kristof’s article had seen fit to mention — albeit without the crucial context that it was a campaign by far-right American Evangelicals who seek to abolish pornography and sex work altogether.

This week’s episode of CANADALAND looks at the war on Pornhub, attempting to untangle legitimate concerns from anti-sex-work sensationalism:

Last month, the committee released its report, with 14 recommendations — including ones that call for Canada to explore ways to hold online platforms liable for child sexual abuse or any non-consensual content, as well as to mandate that these sites require affirmations from everyone depicted in their content that they are 18 or older and consent to its distribution.

Sex workers, and the groups that advocate for them, were reluctantly given a forum at the committee, where they were met with open hostility and dismissiveness from some MPs. Sandra Wesley, the executive director of Montreal’s Stella, said that she first had her request to speak rejected, and when she was finally invited, her time was cut short.

So we invited her on the show to elaborate on how recent developments and proposals have put sex workers at greater risk, and to place the sudden “panic” in a larger context.

The following is a condensed and edited transcript of Jesse Brown’s conversation with Wesley.

You told Parliament that they were harming sex workers and that “any further repressive measures against sex workers will absolutely kill many of us.” Can you explain that?

The current hysteria around pornography — which is related to other panics around human trafficking and sexual exploitation of minors — comes from the same anti-sex-work movement that involves conservative, religious extremists who ultimately want to ban all sex outside of a Christian heterosexual marriage, and have found that targeting the sex industry is an effective way to get the public on board with some of the actions they want to take. And the other half of that movement is an offshoot of the feminist movement which has a desire to use criminal laws and police repression to eradicate sex work.

What they’re proposing now are all things that aim to eradicate the sex industry altogether. For one, we’d become poor. We’d become more precarious in our living and working conditions, and that creates a lot of opportunities for people to exploit us and to have bad working conditions, to experience various types of violence. Every violent person out there hears loud and clear the message from the government, which is “We hate sex workers, too, and we want to get rid of them.” And that gives them permission to target us and gives them a sense of impunity. It’s pretty rare that, when the government tries to take away our jobs, we just stop doing sex work. We just end up doing sex work in unsafe or bad working conditions.

The war against porn and efforts against sex work have been going on for many decades, but this most recent chapter began with an article in The New York Times by Nicholas Kristof…

In order to frame that article, we need to go back to the 60s and 70s, when a group of religious extremists in the United States founded an organization called Morality in Media. They were the people boycotting Disney, boycotting Madonna, boycotting everything that had any sort of sexual content. About five years ago, they rebranded to become the “National Center on Sexual Exploitation.” They realized by just looking at the media landscape that no one wants to hear about banning sexual education, but everyone wants to hear about horror stories that involve sex work.

Nicholas Kristof is a journalist with a history of exploiting sexual violence and of telling false stories of human trafficking.

“People who hate sex workers would like to see us all gone, and their objectives are not our safety.”

When it comes to this Pornhub story, we’re hearing stories of horrific violence that have very little to do with online pornography or even with Pornhub, specifically. We’re told stories of rape, of people being filmed without their consent, of revenge porn, of gang rapes, of all those things. And then we’re focusing on the fact that somehow that video landed on Pornhub, instead of focusing on the fact that a woman experienced all this violence.

In terms of the specific concern, though, what is your position on what should happen when someone has a video on one of these websites and they’re having trouble getting it taken down?

Obviously, all websites that have any sort of user-generated content need to do a lot better at responding to inquiries from people that are using those websites. That means taking down videos that are uploaded without consent. It also means, for things like Facebook, when content is taken down, having someone to talk to to get it reinstated. There’s a big problem with these massive websites, that have huge amounts of data being uploaded by users, not having the customer-service capacity to respond quickly to all inquiries. And so we need that to be improved. I do not think that this is an improvement through legislation.

And if there is a need for legislation, it cannot be targeted to porn websites. This is an issue with every single platform that has any type of user-generated content. And the solutions being proposed are not solutions that would lead to that. They’re actually preemptive control of sex workers, in order to make it essentially impossible for sex workers to produce content and to perform in content without having our full names and addresses put out into the public record or having to jump through some other hoops that are impossible for smaller companies to jump through.

Very quickly after the NYT piece, Pornhub moved to eliminate easy access for anyone to upload a video, limiting that to verified accounts. And if I understand your point correctly, a verified account has to be registered to a person under their legal name. That’s easy for a big porn company to do. But for a sex worker who is working pseudonymously, that would require them to expose their name in order to be a verified content provider to Pornhub. And I have to imagine that thousands of them were wiped out in that purge of accounts.

Yes. A lot of videos were deleted, and a lot of people lost their source of income, lost videos that were not necessarily saved elsewhere. And at the same time, when Visa and MasterCard suspended use of their cards on Pornhub, a lot of women simply lost their income overnight. Having workers who usually have no other labour protections, no access to unemployment benefits or anything of the sort, lose all of their income overnight is very catastrophic. It forces people to do other things that they don’t necessarily want to do. It pushes people into homelessness, into poverty.

But the changes that are being proposed by a lot of the people who testified in front of that parliamentary committee and by other people, including politicians, include things such as, whenever anyone films or produces porn, that they have to put everyone’s name and consent into a registry which might be handled by the government. And we know that while there are big companies like Pornhub, there are a lot of very small companies. A lot of women that we work with produce porn in their own bedrooms with just their own webcams. They don’t have the money and the lawyers required to maintain a registry. And when there’s a requirement, for example, for the producers of a porn company to have their name and address in a registry, well, then that means that if she’s an independent person working out of her home, then her legal name and her address become public. We have stories of sex workers who have ended up in situations where things like that have happened, and they’ve had stalkers show up to their houses, they’ve had break-ins, they’ve had violence inflicted on them by people who found their identity and where they live.

I think that there is no chance of anything positive ever coming out of a desire to eradicate the sex industry. People who hate sex workers would like to see us all gone, and their objectives are not our safety.

Top screencap of Sandra Wesley from her committee testimony on April 19.

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