PornHub has vigorously denied that a rape 'loophole' allows users to upload videos of sexual assaults as long as no faces are shown.

But a recent video interview with a company manager might scuttle their remaining hopes of plausible deniability.

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PornHub is among the most frequently-visited websites on the planet—currently #13, right after Amazon. Its owners, MindGeek (now Aylo), operate a number of similar pornography-based websites that enjoy their own good traffic. But PornHub has been through a lot of scandals in recent years regarding the content it allows and monetizes. In the past, those scandals concerned child porn and videos featuring sex-trafficking victims.

Their latest involves a potential rape ‘loophole’ on the site: As long as nobody’s face is revealed, users can upload just about anything—including sexual assaults. If real, this loophole represents another roadblock keeping sex work from being safe, legal, monitored, and fully consensual.

PornHub’s origin story

PornHub is a huge website that operates similarly to YouTube. (The two sites are not connected in any way. In fact, YouTube canceled PornHub’s channel on their site in December.)

Registered PornHub users upload videos for other users to watch. These videos are technically free to watch, with the site supporting itself through advertisements playing on each page and video. Also like YouTube, if the site allows an uploader to monetize their videos, then the uploader can make money alongside the site.

The (surprisingly young) guy who created this advertising model started a company called “Manwin.” In 2010, Manwin acquired the already-profitable PornHub—along with Brazzers, a more alternative porn site. When Manwin’s owner got into legal trouble in 2012, he sold the company to two other guys, Feras Antoon and David Tassillo. They then renamed the company “MindGeek.” MindGeek became a leader in free-with-ads porn sites, and they soon owned other similar ones like YouPorn, RedTube, and Xtube.

In March this year, Ethical Capital Partners bought MindGeek. According to their website, this new company likes to “seek out investment and advisory opportunities in industries that require principled ethical leadership.”

Then, in August this year, MindGeek’s owners changed the company’s name again. Now they are “Aylo.” The owners said they were making this change to get “a fresh start” and wrote a post regarding the name change:

The new name, Aylo, symbolizes a fresh beginning, reflecting our dedication to being a global leading tech platform that empowers hundreds of thousands of creators to earn a living, that employs innovative employees, and that provides hundreds of millions of users worldwide with safe content. This rebrand not only marks a pivotal moment for our company but also emphasizes our commitment to our employees, the content creator community, and the millions of adult users who visit our sites every day.

MindGeek rebrands,” Aylo Newsroom

Sounds like MindGeek/Aylo really cares a lot about the safety and ethics at all levels of its sites, right? Like they’re being super-careful to ensure that only legal, ethically-sourced and -made videos end up on PornHub, right?

Think again.

PornHub’s true colors

Despite all that corporate blahblah, PornHub has faced a number of scandals related to the videos uploaded to its site.

Before the company was even called MindGeek, and before it even bought PornHub, Manwin had serious moderation problems regarding uploaded content. Here’s how one of their earliest moderators describes his take on moderation:

I’d been told that when a request to remove a video came in, I had to watch part of the clip to make sure it actually violated the terms of service (which I never actually read but were summarized to me as: no underage performers, serious violence, visible alcohol, nor animals) before taking it down. I grasped immediately the implications of the task — that I would be seeing disturbing or illegal content — and decided I would quietly remove whatever video people asked me to without bothering to watch.

Inside PornHub,” The Verge, February 2022

But he soon ran afoul of his managers, who were furious when he removed a celebrity sex video that was pulling in millions of views. When he actually watched the videos, though, he began to find their content more and more disturbing. This content included potentially-exploited sex workers having sex with their pimps, revenge porn, and other such legally-iffy or unpleasant videos. Eventually, he got himself fired in 2012 for being generally unprofessional.

That ex-employee’s story is hair-raising for a number of reasons. If his story is true, then even in PornHub’s earliest years, its managers and owners had already decided that when it comes down to their clicks–> views–> money model and basic ethicality and legality, they’d go for the money every time.

And then the greasy scandals began rocking PornHub

The chickens really started coming home to roost for PornHub in 2019. One of PornHub’s most popular channels and partners at the time was GirlsDoPorn. This independent company started around 2009. They distributed their videos to a number of channels which included PornHub. GirlsDoPorn’s owners clearly wanted it to look like a woman-friendly, sex-positive company.

But in 2019, a bunch of its female performers accused GirlsDoPorn of trafficking them through “fraud, coercion, and intimidation.” These women accused the company of physically forcing them to perform and preventing them from leaving sets.

Soon enough, GirlsDoPorn faced federal charges of sex trafficking. One of the accused offenders in the case, Ruben Andre Garcia, was sentenced to 20 years in prison for his part in that coercion. Several other employees have also faced justice. (Though the main offender, Michael Pratt, fled the country to avoid that justice, he was arrested last December in Madrid.)

After GirlsDoPorn employees got those federal charges leveled at them, PornHub finally took down the GirlsDoPorn channel and removed its videos (for whatever that’s worth, since the site still allows Premium subscribers to download videos to their own computers).

This entire case matters enormously to PornHub because of the close working relationship the site had with GirlsDoPorn. The GirlsDoPorn channel was a significant part of PornHub’s business. And GirlsDoPorn performers have accused PornHub of being fully aware of the company’s trafficking—and of having known about it since at least 2016. Forty GirlsDoPorn performers sued PornHub for millions in 2020 for hosting these videos despite knowing that the women in them were not there consensually. (In 2021, that lawsuit was settled. By then, it had fifty plaintiffs.)

Also in 2020, the New York Times ran an explosive expose they titled “The Children of PornHub.” As the title suggests, the story reveals that PornHub allowed users to upload sex videos featuring children. In the wake of that story, PornHub also lost Visa and MasterCard as payment processors.

Though PornHub denied the Times’ allegations, they put on a show of banning uploads from “unidentified users” or allowing such users to download videos. But in 2021, a woman initiated a class-action lawsuit against the site because they’d allowed the upload of a video of someone raping her when she was ten years old.

This past March, eagle-eyed observers caught PornHub asking users not to report child sex abuse materials (CSAM) to authorities. Instead, their Community Manager asked users to report the videos internally, in case they’re legal after all.

A wild PornHub executive interview appears, along with a shadowy nonprofit

I’ve noticed that PornHub is very cagey about talking on the record about their practices. For years, their front-facing managers and executives seem to have freely obscured their identities and exact working titles. They say that they do this because they work in a very controversial field.

Be that as it may, a recent video interview might have scuttled their remaining hopes of plausible deniability.

YouTube video
Pornhub Exec: Rapists, Traffickers Using Pornhub “Loophole” to “Make a Lot of Money.” Uploaded September 13, 2023.

A brand-new nonprofit organization called Sound Investigations recorded this video. Their extremely bare-bones website exists, apparently, to promote this one video. I’ve got no idea who runs or sponsors this company; they’ve even covered their tracks with the old-school identification tricks I use like WHOIS.

But I have a strong suspicion that the organization’s backers are evangelical Christians. A few days ago, a journalist named Arden Young identified herself as working for or with Sound Investigations during her appearance on an evangelical podcast. The host of that podcast calls Young “the woman fighting to end” PornHub’s “loophole.” So I suspect that Young herself is this nonprofit.

The story about this video has also been making the rounds on almost exclusively right-wing news sites, which almost all have a significant overlap with evangelicalism.

A ‘loophole’ that allows site users to upload illegal videos

Last week, Arden uploaded a video of herself interviewing Mike Farley, a high-level employee of the company that owns PornHub. During this interview, Farley discussed the existence of a “loophole” in how PornHub operates.

The interview is devastating. While chowing down, Mike Farley discusses PornHub’s business practices. Farley says he was one of PornHub’s earliest employees. He’s worked his way up to the position of Technical Product Manager. The person uploading the video to YouTube has thoughtfully featured Farley’s LinkedIn profile, which includes his name and title.

Oddly, that profile says he works at MindGeek. If this video was recorded any time recently, it should say Aylo. Someone’s already scrubbed his account from LinkedIn, but the Google search summary still has the details. So at least Farley’s credentials seem solid, even if I can’t find anything else testifying to his employment.

What I got when I searched for [“mike farley” work for “aylo”]

Assuming this interview is legit, PornHub only cares if a rape or trafficking video shows anyone’s face. If the video doesn’t reveal any faces, it can contain just about anything and be perfectly fine for PornHub to host. Someone can commit rape, take a video of the assault, then upload it and get tons of money from monetizing it—as long as that video does not show the rapist’s or victim’s face.

The same loophole protects and monetizes uploaders bringing videos to PornHub that feature sex trafficking victims. It does the same for uploaders bringing copyright-protected material to the site.

In the video, Farley claims that the upper C-suite management of PornHub is well aware of this loophole and deliberately chooses not to close it because such videos get a lot of views, and accordingly make PornHub a lot of money.

Of note, however, PornHub has pushed back against both Farley’s entire interview and that specific accusation. They say in turn that Farley is not involved at all with content moderation or legal compliance practices, so he’s unlikely to really know what’s happening on that score. Further, they claim that the no-faces rule has nothing to do with allowing rape or trafficking videos on the site; rather, this policy is apparently just something nice they allow performers to choose for themselves.

The problem with big-money sex industries

Perhaps one detail reveals the true depth of the sex industry’s problems better than any other.

Remember when I mentioned that the person who started Manwin was surprisingly young?

That person, Fabian Thylmann, was actually a teenager.

Back in the 1990s, this teenager created a piece of software that kept track of what users visiting a browser page clicked on. That software cleared the way for advertisers to pay sites for clicks. Thylmann knew exactly what he was doing with it, too. Once it was operational, he began buying up porn sites and seeding them with paid advertisements. As it happens, a lot of people are fine with advertisements on a page if there’s also a free sex video on it.

Eventually, that little company became MindGeek/Aylo, although Thylmann had to sell it in 2012 after his country came after him for tax evasion.

Where this story leaves us as a society

Coming back to this loophole story, PornHub’s pushback sounds somewhat plausible. It’s entirely possible that right-wing folks are just getting overexcited about fake testimonies about tribal enemies again. However, knowing about PornHub’s previous ethical and legal woes, Farley’s story sounds plausible too. When I found out that Farley did at one point have a LinkedIn profile listing Aylo as an employer, that sure gave me pause.

This would be far from the first time an employee has accused PornHub’s masters of caring more about money than laws or ethics. The balance of evidence points doesn’t exactly point in PornHub’s favor here.

And that leaves us in a difficult situation, culturally.

Sex work should operate just like any other work: do the job, get the pay and benefits, use it to afford the life one wants. It should allow its workers to do their jobs in safety and with dignity.

Unfortunately, that’s not the world we have now. Because most sex work is illegal and/or severely stigmatized, it can quickly become a cesspit of abuse, trafficking, coercion, and more. The consumers of any porn products have very few ways of knowing for sure that all the participants were there consensually and treated humanely. PornHub’s nonstop bad publicity only highlights these truths.

I reckon that most of us want to be sex-positive people and to be on the right side of issues like this one. If ethically-made porn is something you want as well, various sites have put out lists of places to find it. Other sites have suggested ways to try to be more certain of what you’re consuming.

I can’t 100% vouch for any of these, alas. Again, since porn is a shadowy industry with little oversight, it’s very much a buyer-beware environment. And it’ll likely remain so for a very long time.

ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...

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