This Q&A of our third episode [of four] in our series exploring culture, the media, and sexual exploitation in the U.S. We learn of shocking stories behind the porn mogul PornHub, misconceptions of human trafficking in the porn industry, and what we can do to change the system. Our guest, Laila Mickelwait, has started a petition with over 1.5 million signers hoping to hold Pornhub accountable for profiting off of illegal videos on their site. She has dedicated much of her career to raising awareness of human trafficking and is the Director of Abolition for Exodus Cry, founder of the #Traffickinghub campaign, and President and Founder of New Reality International.
What interested you in the movement you’re currently working in?
I got interested in this issue a little over a decade ago. My father was somebody that was always very focused on human rights and justice issues, and he made sure that from a very young age we were aware of what was going on in the world. I began to explore different human rights issues when I was doing my studies, from homelessness to poverty to other injustices. One thing that really gripped me was this issue of human trafficking. It was at a time when it wasn’t a very popular term–I don’t think most people knew what it was. I read this book by Kevin Bales called Invisible People and it truly opened my eyes to the issue of sex slavery and sex trafficking in particular, and that just sent me on a trajectory to focus on that and to work in that area and to research in that area. I ended up with the organization Exodus Cry, which I’ve been with now for a number of years.
I’d love to just clarify some of these terms. What’s the true definition of ‘human trafficking’?
I think it can be confusing to a lot of people who might watch a Hollywood film that focuses on sexual slavery and human trafficking and have one idea of what it means, which may represent a part of what it means, but not the whole picture. It’s really important for us to be clear on what we’re talking about when we talk about human trafficking, sex trafficking, sex slavery, and commercial sexual exploitation, because there’s a lot of overlap in what these are and what they mean. To start out with, sex trafficking is not just “the underage girl and who’s being abused and forced into prostitution in Thailand, or maybe in Cambodia, or even in the United States.” It’s also not just where somebody is kidnapped and taken going across the border and then exploited somewhere else. I think that the term ‘trafficking’ itself can be misleading because it makes it seem like there has to be some kind of movement, and that’s what’s often represented in Hollywood movies. Although that does take place, and that is part of human trafficking and sex trafficking, it’s not the majority of how trafficking happens. A lot of what’s happening in trafficking situations is done by family members, where a person would never even leave their house.
I think that one of the best ways to understand what sex trafficking is, is as an abuse of a position of vulnerability in order to induce a commercial sex act. Human trafficking, sex trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation all have a commercial element, which means victims have been used in a commercial sex act by means of any kind of coercion or deceit. We also see an immense amount of commercial sexual exploitation of minors in pornography, which we refer to as child sexual abuse material. That too would be classified as sex trafficking because, according to the international definition, anyone who’s under the age of 18 and used in a commercial sex act is a victim of sex trafficking–regardless of whether you can prove there was any kind of force or coercion involved, whether that took place at their home, or whether they were moved across a border.
Extreme and violent pornography seems to be growing in popularity. Why do you think this is?
When you consume pornography, your brain gets a dopamine hit–that’s what makes it so addictive. In order to continue to keep getting aroused and keep getting that dopamine hit in the brain you need different kinds of pornography. You don’t necessarily just need more, you need different and you need more extreme in order to kind of get that same dopamine hit. I think that’s where a lot of people end up at these different kinds of genres that can be extremely violent, or featuring very young looking girls and things like that.
How easy is it to access that kind of material?
It’s important for us to realize that most pornography consumers in this digital age are starting their consumption as children. And in that sense, I feel like they’re also victims of exploitation, because a lot of the time the type of content that they’re viewing, it’s a traumatic experience at first. A 10-year-old boy or girl who might stumble upon pornography, or maybe out of curiously types ‘porn’ into their search engine, or sees it on a friend’s smartphone.
These days children as young as six have their own smartphones, and are two clicks away from Pornhub, two clicks away from these porn tube sites where there’s free pornography. When you end up on that site, you don’t even have to click on the thumbnails they’ll autoplay for you and expose you to the most extreme forms of pornography out there.
What kind of effect can it have on children?
It is becoming the sex education of our youth to watch this content that’s on the porn tube sites. The frontal lobe of the brain–the area where you’re able to reason, think critically, and ask questions about what you see–isn’t even developed until the mid 20s. Children enter into these sites with a completely vulnerable state of mind, where they’re completely impressionable.They also don’t have a history of sexual experience to bounce what they’re seeing off of and compare it to. They might see a woman being choked and gagged and crying and appearing to be distressed, they just think, ‘Okay, well, this is sex. I guess this is what women want. I guess this is what men want from women. I guess this is what I’m supposed to do.’ I even heard from a mother who signed the petition that I started: she said that her 12-year-old was looking for a PlayStation game or something like that, and he ended up on Pornhub, and he saw what he thought to be the real rape of women on the site. It’s been months and she says he hasn’t been the same. Like he’s a different child, because he went through that experience. That’s not an uncommon thing to happen.
It could set false expectations for adults, too…
I think that it’s important for adults also to realize that when they’re looking at these sites for sexual information–about what’s expected of them or what they should be doing–they’re going to these sites that are run for profit, they’re run as an industry. I kind of compare it to the McDonald’s of sexuality. We know there’s healthy food, right? And then there’s McDonald’s. It’s fast food, it’s bad for your health, and it has a lot of different implications. If you’re against fast food and what it does to your health, that doesn’t mean you’re against food, you’re just against unhealthy food and bad food and want a healthy diet for yourself. In a similar way, these industries, these porn tube sites that are dishing up this kind of sexuality–that’s a prefabricated sexuality based on algorithms that make the most money. What kind of content is featured is based on these algorithms, that are again based on monetization. That’s really a dangerous way to shape your ideas about sexuality.
How does this content end up on Pornhub?
I think what’s also important is that most people who are going on to these sites have this perception that those who are in those videos are consenting adults–regardless of whether they look distressed, if they’re crying, they look uncomfortable, if they look young. They’re under a deception, really. We need to realize that no, they are not all consenting adults, and we have evidence that they’re not all consenting adults. People need to understand just how pornography ends up on these sites. Anybody can do it: you can upload pornography to Pornhub with only an email address, anonymously. So you can go to Google, you can register on Google or whatever email platform you want, get your email address, and in less than 10 minutes, upload content to that Pornhub, and it will go live.
Not only that, but you can get verified with a blue checkmark by your name. In this social media culture we assume it means that you’ve been vetted somehow. But on Pornhub, you can get verified with only a piece of paper scribbled with your username, not your real name, your username scribbled on a piece of paper, or written on your body with a picture of your face. No government issued ID to prove that you’re over 18, no consent form to prove that you actually wanted to be in that video that is uploaded to the site. Then you will get a blue checkmark and you will be placed on the site as a verified member. If you have a Pornhub premium account, you can even toggle privacy settings on and off so that actually you don’t even have to show your username. That is one of many ways that this site is set up for exploitation.
What other kinds of violations are uploaded to these websites?
We should not minimize revenge porn. Victims, most often women, have their personal videos uploaded by predators or angry ex-partners. It is devastating. These women have their private videos uploaded to the site where there’s a download button. Literally thousands, if not millions of people can download those videos, and they have no idea who in the world owns them, or at what moment they’re going to be re-uploaded to the internet. I talked to a girl who actually fled the country, and she said, ‘Maybe in the next life, I can achieve my dreams. Maybe in the next life, I can be successful. But in this life, I know that if I am successful, that there’s going to be a moment where somebody’s going to re-upload those videos to the internet.’ She spends her time scouring the internet to try to find videos of herself. That’s revenge porn.
There’s also spycam porn where, like you said, there’s hidden cameras in public toilets that are recording women when they go to the bathroom and recorded filmed prostitution, where you have vulnerable women who are engaged in prostitution in different countries and they’re actually filming them–sometimes they know they’re being filmed and sometimes they don’t. And then there’s real rapes. There’s many videos of drunk women who are at college parties, for example, that are passed out or otherwise incapacitated could definitely can’t consent to being uploaded to the world’s largest porn website, where their video could be downloaded by thousands of people. So a spectrum of violations happening on these sites. There’s no way you could go in with confidence and say, I’m watching a consenting adult. It’s just not possible for you to do.
There are lots of recorded Snapchat videos on Pornhub. So there are girls that believe that they’re sending nude videos, and that because it’s a Snapchat, it’s going to disappear. They have this confidence when they’re sending this video to a friend or boyfriend, who are actually screen recording on their phone and they upload it to Pornhub. Then that gets downloaded by however many people, and the victim will never escape it–if they even know it exists. They might not even find out it’s there.
How would you even find out you’re on there?
Sometimes they’ll find out it’s there because classmates will say hey, look, here’s the link to your video on Pornhub. There was a woman from Italy who had a private video uploaded to her Pornhub, and she was so humiliated by this that she actually killed herself. Her videos were still up there as of a few weeks ago, in a private folder tagged as if it was her video. It just gets me so angry because it’s such an injustice that is happening. I feel like if most people heard about this, they would be as outraged.
You said these videos are monetized. Who is it making the money?
The ones that are making the big money are not uploaders. It’s MindGeek, it’s Pornhub, who monetize these videos with ads. Most people have never heard of MindGeek. I mean, everybody’s heard of Pornhub, whether or not you’ve actually visited the site. Pornhub is the flagship website of MindGeek, who owns a large portion of the internet’s most popular tube sites, production companies, cam sites. They even have their own VPN service so you can access Pornhub and cover your tracks by hiding your IP address with this VPN they provide. They kind of market themselves quietly as a tech company. They don’t do a lot of marketing for themselves at all, yet they have offices all around the world. They have really gotten a monopoly on the internet porn industry, all under this one company. People often think that the porn industry is very fragmented, impossible to pin down all over the internet kind of situation, when really, it’s not.
They even own TrafficJunky, the company that actually puts the ads up on those websites. And then they also monetize user data. So when you go on to the site, they’re mining your data, including your IP address and behaviors on the site, which are monetized, to serve up different kinds of ads and different kinds of videos. They also sell premium memberships so that you can have a better experience on their site. So they’re really monetizing this content that, like I said, it’s often exploited, trafficked women and children on this site. And it’s not the dark web. That’s the thing. It’s not the dark web. It’s not some seedy brothel across the world. This is on your smartphone two clicks away. You see pop culture, embracing Pornhub blindly without knowing what’s really going on.
Is there any sort of regulation?
Regulation over the porn industry has been very minimal, as far as production goes. Even before the emergence of the tube site, when porn was mostly made out of production studios in places like Los Angeles and the Valley, it was very poorly regulated. So in this environment of user generated porn, there’s no repercussions for these companies that are profiting off illegal material. It’s common sense that at a minimum there should be a requirement for third party independent age and consent verification for every single person that’s uploaded to a porn website, including user generated content. It’s unbelievable that it hasn’t been implemented. But I think on the heels of this campaign, with the momentum that we have, we can make big changes into the way the industry operates.
What are the most impactful cases that you’ve come across in your research?
Recently there was the case of Girls Do Porn. Girls Do Porn was one of the most popular partner channels on Pornhub. They even featured Girls Do Porn in much of their advertising and marketing material for premium membership in Pornhub as well. 22 of the women that were involved with Girls Do Porn were trafficked. They actually won a $13 million lawsuit against the company, and then subsequently the Feds issued an indictment for the ringleaders of this sex trafficking operation for not only the trafficking of adults, but of minors as well. It wasn’t until well after this all came to light in the media that Pornhub finally took down the channel.
We had the case of Rose Kalemba. She was 14 years old when she was taken at knifepoint and raped for 12 hours— videos of her torture were uploaded to Pornhub. She says that she begged Pornhub to remove the videos for months, and it wasn’t until she posed as a lawyer and threatened legal action that they finally removed her videos. You have the case of the 15 year old girl from Florida who was missing for a year, and she was found in 58 videos on the site, being raped and abused. Her trafficker was finally apprehended by matching that surveillance footage to his face. And then you have a 14 year old girl from Palo Alto, California, who was raped by a relative and her videos were uploaded to Pornhub. And even the case of a woman from New York, who as an adult was abused by her boyfriend and tortured. She actually killed him in self defense, and she was actually sentenced to life in prison— but videos of him assaulting her were uploaded to Pornhub according to media reports. We have Justin Lee, who’s a notorious playboy and I believe has gone to prison for life as well, for raping over 22 women, but 14 of the women that he assaulted had videos of their abuse uploaded to Pornhub. There’s a lot of evidence out there that this is taking place. These are just the stories that have come out in the media. They don’t check age, they don’t check consent to upload material, and they have 11 million videos on the site–you can do the math and think about just how much exploitation is actually taking place.
Your petition to hold Pornhub executives accountable recently reached 1 million signatures. That’s a huge achievement.
I think that this industry has a great amount of influence on all of our lives and various ways, and because of that people have a unique motivation to address it. Having been in this fight for 10 years, the energy and the activism behind this in such a short time is something I have never seen. I think it’s because it does affect all of us in some way. Whether it’s your children, your own relationships, your own feelings of addiction to this material– there’s a very wide spectrum of ways that we’re all in touch with online pornography, because it’s such a part of our culture now in this digital age. It makes me feel like we can actually make a dent in this and hold the perpetrators accountable, hold the mega corporations that are profiting off of this mass injustice, and make big changes in the way the industry operates to protect the vulnerable. Although this is a very dark and daunting topic, there’s so much hope that I feel in a way that I haven’t felt before. I look forward to the day when we look back on Pornhub, and the way that the distribution of pornography and the production of pornography is happening and say, ‘Wow, I can’t imagine that that actually existed.’
This is a very dark topic. How do you cope with what your work requires of you?
If I were going into this feeling there’s anything I can do about it, it would be really hard. But I feel a sense of empowerment, I feel that there is something that we can do about that collectively. I see it happening. I’ve seen progress. I think being in contact with those who have been victims and who are surviving this kind of exploitation also just keeps me motivated to continue. And not to say that those who don’t have children can’t feel this passion, but I think it’s definitely added to my passion that I have my own kids and I’m thinking about their futures— that gives me just an extra boost of motivation personally. I also have my faith and I think that really has helped me a lot. It just kind of keeps me grounded with a sense of hope. At the end of the day, I just stay hopeful. I really think that it’s because of us raising awareness and standing up and raising our voices and trying to make a difference in this that we will make progress. I encourage everybody who’s listening to get on that bandwagon with me. Don’t be afraid to take on the giant, don’t be afraid to go against the wheels of injustice that are turning in this industry and be able to push back against it. I encourage you to go to the website, go to traffickinghub.com, and read, get educated, sign the petition, share the petition. If you want to donate to the cause, if you have the means to do, so it’s definitely appreciated.