During a pandemic, online sex is safe sex. So, naturally, porn giant PornHub reaped the benefits of our socially-distanced sex lives. The website saw an increase of 25% in worldwide traffic in late March of 2020 when lockdowns first began. It responded by making its premium content free, attracting even larger percentages of daily viewers than before. But what seemed like a successful year for the website ended in their biggest exposé to date, sparking conversations and investigations that changed the future of PornHub and online adult content at large. A year later, we look back to see what really changed.

Since its launch in 2007, PornHub was a platform without regulation, allowing for anyone to make an account and upload content. While most videos did consist of x-rated content, the site often found itself hosting memes, parodies, and even full-length pirated movies. However, besides memes, this overstep in safety precautions also made the website a friendly haven for revenge porn, underage exploitation, and sex-trafficking videos - a problem brought to the public December of last year.

On Dec. 4, 2020, exactly a year ago today, The New York Times published an opinion article by columnist Nicholas Kristof titled “The Children of Pornhub,” which detailed Kristof’s research into PornHub’s lack of regulation and the presence of sex trafficking and exploitation on the site. Kristof explains how PornHub positions itself as the cheeky, moral platform we know from social media, working with animal rights organizations and donating money to combat racial inequality.

What we don’t experience as casual porn consumers, is the dark side of PornHub which monetizes rape, spy cams, child molestation, and asphyxiation. Simple searches of these terms on PornHub produce thousands of video matches. Videos of unconscious and unresponsive women are circulated, coupled with titles including words like “degrading,” “violent,” and “choking.” In his article, Kristof specifically recounts the story of an underaged, missing girl who was found in 58 videos of sexual exploitation posted on the website.

Just days after the NYT opinion piece was published, on the evening of Dec. 13, 2020, PornHub responded with a purge, erasing all videos not uploaded through official content partners or verified users. What was once 13.5 million videos dropped to 4.7 million overnight.

“It affected quite a bit of my income, as a lot of my videos had over one million views, and they got removed,” said Shelby Paris, a performer and content creator. “It affects your model score, which makes it harder to be seen with the algorithms.” After the article, bipartisan legislation was introduced making it easier for rape victims to sue porn companies that profit off of their assault videos. Additionally, Visa and Mastercard suspended card payments on the site, once a major source of revenue. PornHub responded with a promise to change, from now on allowing only users with verified identities to upload content through their model program, banning video downloads, and expanding content moderation.

Not every response to the NYT article was positive. On February 16, 2021, The Daily Beast published a piece by Cherie DeVille titled “Stop Listening to The New York Times and Start Listening to Porn Stars.” In the article, DeVille uplifts how important abolishing sex trafficking content is but also explains the harm the NYT story caused pornstars and adult sex workers. “Unfortunately, Pornhub didn't listen to most creators when we said that verified users should only be able to upload,” said Paris.

The lack of responsibility from PornHub resulted in massive backlash, harming profits and jeopardizing the jobs of pornstars who follow a strict set of rules in order to create safe and lawful content.

“When I go to shoot porn, I am following pages and pages of state and federal laws. California determines how and when I use a condom. The Communications Decency Act forces me to make sure I can prove everyone involved on set is of legal age. If I break a rule on set, a co-worker can call OSHA,” DeVille recounts in the article. She worries the influence of radical feminists and religious conservatives can end the modern world of porn and sex work altogether.

Religious conservatives and sex workers are continuously in battle. What is often ignored is the role of conservative religious organizations in this latest anti-Porn(Hub) wave. Many of the organizations dedicated to abolishing content on PornHub are rooted in conservative, religious ideals and ultimately aim to ban sex work altogether.

In a statement following the purge, PornHub specifically mentions the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (formerly known as Morality in Media) and Exodus Cry/TraffickingHub. “These are organizations dedicated to abolishing pornography, banning material they claim is obscene, and shutting down commercial sex work,” the statement reads. “These are the same forces that have spent 50 years demonizing Playboy, the National Endowment for the Arts, sex education, LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, and even the American Library Association.”  

Yes, #TraffickingHub and related, faith-based” organization  Exodus Cry are ultimately focussed on ending any and all sex work. In this, they fail to differentiate between consensual pornography and sexual exploitation; in Exodus Cry’s definition of trafficking, all porn is exploitative and non-consensual.

This does not negate the fact that PornHub hosted videos of sexual exploitation and assault. Regarless of the long-term goals of TraffickingHub and ExodusCry, PornHub and its parent company MindGeek did profit of videos of sexual violence. Victims, who before were unable to force the porn provider to delete their videos, can now pssoibly take steps towards healing.

However, there is a middle ground to this regulation that doesn’t involve suspending payment and “abolishing porn”. “I am very happy that there are verified users on Pornhub now to limit the risk of illegal content being posted. I just wish they would have listened to our concerns sooner, so our money wasn't affected,” said Paris. “It was definitely a domino effect, as a lot of other sites followed suit with Pornhub, and the payment processors declined to work with some companies or made it so we had to upload even more proof.” Verified sex workers suddenly found themselves forced to reconsider their main source of incoming and were left with a fear of smaller entertainment platforms being affected by the backlash and potentially losing their livelihood.

Today, exactly a year following the exposé uproar, PornHub continues with its model program, only allowing fully verified users to upload videos to its site. Porn, similar to other types of sex work, won’t be eradicated simply because the need for porn can’t be eradicated; prostitution isn’t the oldest profession for nothing. Because of this, the questions around porn should shift from how to ban it, to how to foster safe, legal platforms where verified users are free to upload and profit off of their own content. While PornHub has taken steps to create this safer environment, the question remains: is it enough?