Pornhub – The Story of a Scandal

Pornhub is one of the most popular sex platforms, but it has come in for sharp criticism in recent years: due to a lack of safety measures, not only have videos of rape and child pornography been distributed, but the provider has also been earning money for doing so.

Nicholas Kristof’s article The Children of Pornhub: Why does Canada allow this company to profit off videos of exploitation and assault? appeared in the New York Times in December 2020.

Pornhub is part of MindGeek, a Canadian company which hosts the majority of porn platforms, including Redtube, Youporn, XTube, SpankWire, ExtremeTube,, My Dirty Hobby, Thumbzilla, PornMD, Brazzers and GayTube.

Founded in 2007, Pornhub became famous within a year for pirating in the porn industry, that is publishing stolen paid videos from other platforms or DVDs. Globally, Pornhub is currently the No.13 amongst the most-visited websites, ahead of the likes of TikTok, Netflix and Reddit. Ranked against porn sites alone, it is No. 2 in the world. In Austria, it is even the most popular sex site, and No. 12 when ranked against all internet sites.

The “problem” with Pornhub was that any user could upload videos, without having to verify themselves. This ranged from pay-per-view porn pages cut together to videos users had made of themselves. Many of these showed non-consensual sex.
During his research, Kristof stumbled across several rape videos – including some of children and minors, revenge porn (the unauthorised uploading of naked photos or videos as an act of revenge) and spy cam videos (films made using hidden cameras, in showers or on toilets, for example). According to the article, there were even videos of women with plastic bags over their heads, being suffocated. In some of the rape videos, the perpetrators even stuck their fingers into the victims’ eyes to prove they were “really” unconscious. All these videos were available to download by any viewer – meaning they could be uploaded to Pornhub again at any time, even after being deleted.

Pornhub earned the majority of its money from the advertising shown alongside the videos. According to the Netflix documentary, in which those responsible unwittingly revealed their financial business model, the company made a profit of 460 million dollars in 2019.

A girl from China who had been adopted into a family in the USA was forced to take part in child pornography by her new family, according to the New York Times piece. These videos could still be found on the platform, years after her ordeal. The mother of a missing 15-year-old girl found 58 sex videos of her daughter on Pornhub.

Serena K. Fleites is shown on the cover of the article. At the age of 14 , Serena fell in love with a fellow school student, and let herself be talked into making a naked video, soon followed by others. The boy then sent the videos to his friends, one of whom uploaded them onto Pornhub – one of the videos got as many as 400,000 hits. Serena was subsequently bullied, abused and blackmailed into sending more videos, with the perpetrators threatening to tell her mother everything.

After she had succeeded in making Pornhub remove her videos, they were simply uploaded all over again. Serena twice attempted to take her own life, even having to be revived. She began taking drugs, stopped going to school and eventually became homeless.

In order to earn money, and to punish herself, she sold naked photos and videos of herself, since everyone had already seen her body anyway. As well as this, she was scared she might be recognised if she took a job involving human contact. At the time the article was published, Serena was living in a car with her three dogs. Although traumatised, she was off drugs, and dreamt of studying to become a veterinary assistant.

At Kristof’s request, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reported demand for 69.2 million images and videos of a sexual nature in the year 2019. Facebook removed 1.4 million pages featuring similar content in 2020, and Twitter even closed 264,000 accounts in 2019 for using child pornography. At Pornhub, by contrast, just 118 such cases were reported over a period of three years, according to Internet Watch Foundation, a British non-profit organisation fighting child abuse on the internet. Why? The moderators may already have been numbed to the nature of the videos, it was explained. Pornhub even featured clearly-named playlists – such as “Under-age”“ and “Under 18”.

Moderators are the people who check internet pages for non-permissible content. According to a whistleblower, the Pornhub moderating team is very small, underpaid and overworked – up to 1,200 sex videos had to be checked per eight-hour shift, which is only possible to do by fast-tracking. It would often be no more than assumptions that decided who was being raped and who was having hardcore sex, or who was under-age and who wasn’t. In doubtful cases relating to child pornography, moderators would look to see whether or not they were wearing nail varnish – but under-age children can wear nail varnish too. Despite this, the whistleblower was able to hand over hundreds of suspicious videos to the authorities, including videos of a man anally raping homeless teenagers with the promise of a roof for the night.

Another Pornhub moderator said they had been instructed to allow as much content as possible, in order to earn more money. At the time the research was carried out by Kristof, there were approximately 80 moderators at MindGeek, according to an anonymous source. The company has not provided any information on this. For comparison: Facebook reported having c. 15,000 moderators. Pornhub rejected all the accusations, even saying the company was committed to fighting sexual abuse, and had introduced an industry-leading safety guideline.

In the Netflix documentary, however, Serena Fleites reports that her request for her videos to be deleted was only responded to after around two weeks, and it took around another two weeks for them to actually be removed. Only for them to immediately be uploaded again.

As well as this, only the videos were deleted, but not the respective page. That means all the comments, ads, keywords and recommendations for content similar to the videos remain viewable.

Until 2018, MindGeek believed it was protected, as the purely technical provider of the platform. Then, however, the correspondent law was changed. Pornhub began voluntarily reporting, and more quickly removing, illegal videos, and created a list of terms users could no longer use to search for content – “rape”, for example.  Some videos, however, seemed not to have been removed. By using changed search terms –“R*pe” rather than “Rape”, for example – it was still possible to access such content. Even indirect search requests on these subjects produced results.

At the time of writing, in November 2023, a search for the word “Teen” brought 200,000 hits. Not all those portrayed are really under 18, of course, but it’s safe to assume there are still some in there. And it shows, unfortunately, just how popular a search term it is.
A search for the word “Rape” now leads to a page showing a warning that the content being sought could be illegal, and that the filming and/or distributing thereof could be a criminal act. It neglects to mention that the rape itself is also a crime, however. There is a hotline link for victims to do that.

Laura Mickelwait also offers victims help, and is committed to ensuring those responsible are brought to justice. On Traffickinghub, the activist’s site, an online petition is also running – it currently has between 2.3 million and 2.5 million signatures pleading for the portal to be closed.

A short time after the New York Times article appeared, there was an update from Nicholas Kristof:

  • Visa and Mastercard want to examine their relations with Pornhub – furthermore, both credit card companies have ended their business relationships with the company due to illegal activities.
  • Due to new laws, it is now easier for victims of rape to sue porn companies that profit from videos of them being assaulted.
  • Canada, the home of MindGeek, also wants to work out new regulations.

As a result, Pornhub has also announced a number of changes: uploading videos is only to be possible for verified users, downloading has been outlawed, and its moderation improved.
Pornhub has now removed the majority of its non-verified user content, and by so doing, reduced the number of videos it features from 13.5 million to around 3 million. The official Pornhub accounts of Facebook, YouTube, TikTok and Instagram were closed in 2022.

Serena K. Fleites, who lived in a car with her three dogs, received numerous offers of support. With the money raised by a GoFundMe fund set up for her, she was able to purchase accommodation with her dogs, and her training to do her dream profession of veterinary assistant is being financed by a female benefactor.

MindGeek’s CEO Feras Antoon and COO David Tassillo have since resigned. The company has now also changed its name to Aylo, in order not to be associated with MindGeek’s history – for a “reset”. But will it really be that?

Translated by Tim Lywood

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