The Exploitation Behind the Porn Industry

Ilana Quinn

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Rose Kalemba was just fourteen when she was raped. She had been out for an evening walk in her Ohio hometown when a man appeared from the shadows, forcing her into his car at knife point before assaulting her. Her attacker — who was joined by another man — then showed her videos of the rapes of other women.

As an Indigenous American, Kalemba recognized her assault at the hands of white perpetrators was the product of racial violence and a distinct power imbalance. Many of the women in the videos she was shown by her abusers were also people of colour. Kalemba promised not to reveal her abusers’ identities so they would release her, which they eventually did — leaving her badly bruised and injured on the side of the street.

After being released from hospital and receiving little help from authorities, Kalemba attempted suicide. Fortunately, her brother found her in time to treat her injuries. But as the trauma of that night persisted, she discovered multiple videos of the attack—including ones where she was unconscious — had been posted on the popular pornography site Pornhub, amassing hundreds of thousands of views.

Because the videos made Kalemba’s assault excruciatingly public, many of her classmates taunted her for what they said was her fault. Many family members also blamed her for what happened. Even though her assault had been made public in the worst way possible, she felt alone.

Kalemba petitioned Pornhub to remove the videos to no avail. Only when she posed as a lawyer threatening legal action did the massive streaming site owned by Montreal-based corporation MindGeek finally take the videos down.

What followed was a decade of recovery and healing, with Kalemba using her voice as a survivor of rape to encourage and advocate for other survivors. She is now in her mid-twenties and finds strength through her relationships with her boyfriend and her pitbull, Bella. She also writes on a blog discussing her advocacy, Christian faith and mental health. She dreams of marrying her boyfriend and becoming a mother.

However, the thought of someone having watched the video of her attack still puts her on edge, making simple everyday tasks like visiting the grocery store difficult.

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A picture of Rose KalembaBBC

Unfortunately, Kalemba’s experience is not at all uncommon. For years, Pornhub, as well as other pornography streaming sites, have been profiting from the large-scale exploitation of minors and rape survivors.

In June 2021, dozens of women filed a lawsuit against Pornhub and its parent company MindGeek, alleging the site’s distribution of videos depicting nonconsensual sexual activity, assault against children and human trafficking.

This comes after the explosive New York Times investigation accusing Pornhub of profiting from illegal child pornography. The article details another incident of an explicit video of a fourteen-year-old being distributed and subsequently monetized on the site, with moderators placing ads on the video without questioning the legality or morality of the posted video.

In the wake of the exposé, the decade-long crimes of the previously unscrutinized industry finally emerged in the public consciousness.

People were rightly outraged at the realization women and children like Kalemba were being exploited by one of the most popular websites on earth, their pleas ignored by its moderators and executives for years after their assaults. How could this have happened for so long with no safeguards?

Like any massive corporation at risk of losing millions of dollars in revenue, Pornhub swiftly purged the site of illegal content, removing 10 million videos from unverified users, in early December, 2020. In a blog post, the company claimed they had always been committed to curbing exploitation, stating:

Over the years, we have put in place robust measures to protect our platform from non-consensual content. We are constantly improving our trust and safety policy to better flag, remove, review and report illegal material. While leading non-profit and advocacy groups recognize that our efforts have been effective, we know there is more to do.

There was no apology to the victims of the large-scale abuse the corporation profited from, nor was there any mention of the specific names of non-profits that supposedly condoned Pornhub’s platform. No acknowledgement of Kalemba’s years-long torment and neglect by Pornhub moderators.

The sheer amount of videos removed by the platform may seem startling. Considering the fact Pornhub is one of the world’s most visited websites and hosts 170 million visitors per day, generating $460 million in annual revenue —the number is relatively small.

As the pleas of victims and survivors became more audible, the Canadian House of Commons Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics — often referred to simply as an ethics committee — began investigating MindGeek’s crimes.

David Tassillo and Feras Antoon, MindGeek’s CEOs, testified before the committee in February, 2021.

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A picture of MindGeek CEO, David TassilloWikimedia Commons

When one of the members of Parliament pressed Tassillo for information on Kalemba’s case, Tassillo sidestepped by stating they would have to comb through the site’s history to retrieve information about the video: something they should have already done in a criminal investigation. The MP also referenced the fact the footage of Kalemba’s rape had included the descriptor “teen,” meaning moderators would have been aware of the illegality of the video.

Among the major lies pervasive through the hearing was the notion that Pornhub’s business model is inherently incompatible with child pornography and other illegal content. This is untrue. The massive amount of content uploaded to the site every year overwhelms the ambiguous number of human moderators MindGeek claims to employ — the explosive New York Times article suggested only 80 — meaning the majority of videos will be posted without ever being screened.

In the case of Kalemba and many other victims, illegal, damaging videos have been marked by advertisements, evidencing the company actually profits from such content. A lack of safeguards combined with a troubling demand for such content and corporate greed allows for the success of exploitative and deeply harmful videos on Pornhub, among other lesser known pornography sites.

The testimonies of Tassillo and Antoon were no more compelling than Pornhub’s hollow blog post as both denied responsibility and promoted the documented myth of Pornhub’s innocence and well-meaning.

In mid-June, 2021, more victims spoke out against MindGeek, alleging the company’s distribution of child pornography, racketeering, negligence and violations of federal sex trafficking laws. The claim likened the corporation to the mafia family at the centre of the fictional Sopranos, with executives allegedly dubbing themselves the “Bro-Club,” and taking drastic measures to conceal the crimes of their wildly successful business.

Considering the magnitude of MindGeek and its succession of pornographic streaming sites, I have no doubt more victims will come forward with the next months and years.

Like the #MeToo movement that focussed on the sexual assault and harassment allegations of celebrities and public figures, the stories of those tormented and exploited by the porn industry must be listened to. Many of these victims are young and belong to underprivileged groups, such as Kalemba herself. The vast number of these victims is still undetermined, but as the porn industry continues to expand and corporations such as MindGeek note the troubling rise in demand for exploitative content, it will surely grow.

Though the unchecked exploitation of porn is well-documented, many of us ignore its harm. Perhaps this is because the consumption of pornography occurs in the private sphere — literally behind closed doors, making it seem as though the only person it impacts is the one watching.

Of course, when regular porn viewing escalates into addiction — watching or not watching becomes less a matter of choice and may require a therapy programme. The psychological effects of porn are extensive, and partially explain why the demand for porn — fuelling the production of exploitative content — remains astonishingly high.

Overall, as new allegations of systemic abuse surface, we must grapple with the inextricable connection between exploitation and internet porn. Though the porn industry remains mostly hidden away from polite public discourse, the stories of Rose Kalemba and other survivors must prompt us to curb demand and hold the giants of the porn industry responsible.

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PoliticsActivismCultureSocial MediaHuman Trafficking

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A student writing about faith, mental health, history, literature, politics and travel.

Los Angeles, CA
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