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This Is Actually Happening with Laila Mickelwait

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In this week’s episode we are joined by Laila Mickelwait, the Director of Abolition for Exodus Cry and the President and Founder of New Reality International. Laila has dedicated much of her career to raising awareness of human trafficking and sexual exploitation, and founded the #Traffickinghub campaign to hold Pornhub accountable for profiting off of illegal videos on their site. We discuss the misconceptions of human trafficking in the porn industry, and what we can do to fight it.

The Key Terms

You’ve probably heard of the term ‘human trafficking’. It’s become a popular plot device in many Hollywood movies (remember Liam Neeson in Taken?)– but because of this, its true definition is often misrepresented. Contrary to popular belief, sex trafficking does not have to involve movement across a border, and for this reason it is a lot more common in the US than people might think. There is no official number of victims, but it is estimated to be in the tens of thousands. Since a high number of human trafficking goes unreported, the real number could be much higher.

Laila states that the defining aspect of human trafficking and commercial sex exploitation is not the physical movement, but the abuse of vulnerable people by an individual or group in a position of power. This means that trafficking can even take place in the home–and sadly often does so.

The Key Players

Pornhub is pretty much a household name nowadays, but have you heard of its parent company, MindGeek? 

Their website looks completely unassuming, but MindGeek basically is the porn industry. With many millions of dollars of income earned across the numerous porn tube sites and production studios they own, they’ve totally monopolized the business. They even own TrafficJunky, the service that hosts all the ads played across their network. Not quite the run-of-the-mill IT company they market themselves as. 

“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.”

Trafficking in the Porn Industry

Trafficking still exists within the ‘traditional’ porn industry (that is, porn manufactured by professional studios), but it is the recent rise of the internet that has really seen it boom. Popular porn tube sites such as Pornhub allow any user to upload content with little to no verification. This has led to the prominence of non-consensual and/or underaged material–but because of the mainstream popularity of these sites, those who watch might mistakenly believe such content is legal, and made with all willing participants. 

“It’s common sense that there would 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.”

The Endless Battle

Rose Kalemba was kidnapped and raped at the age of 14. Videos of her attack ended up on Pornhub, which she found out only after they went viral and her classmates discovered them. She sent a series of emails to Pornhub over a period of six months, but the videos were only taken down after threatening legal action. 

Rose’s struggle has been echoed by many others. For victims, the battle doesn’t even end once the website has removed the videos: who knows how many could have downloaded them while they were still live? Laila has seen cases where women have to spend hours every week scouring the internet for videos of their abuse that have been reuploaded– there is no way to erase them completely.

Many videos may exist on porn tube sites without the victim’s consent. Perhaps they were filmed without knowing, either by someone they know or by a stranger in a public place, such as a bathroom. ‘Revenge porn’ has also become a recent trend, where an ex uploads personal videos to the site without the victim’s knowledge.

Porn in a Digital Age

The average age for a boy to start watching porn is 11, and one study suggests as much as 10% of visitors to porn sites are under the age of 10. Just let that sink in for a moment–that means children in elementary school are regularly exposed to this highly explicit material, often before any kind of healthy sex education. 

Whether or not these kids are intentionally searching for it, porn is incredibly easy to access. There is little to no age verification, and on many sites–Pornhub included–videos will play automatically as your cursor passes over them. Worse still, some of this material might also feature extreme violence.

A Different Kind of Exploitation

We are only beginning to truly assess the effects of early exposure to porn, but there is reason to believe it is indeed very damaging. Research suggests it can normalize sexual aggression, set incorrect expectations of sex and relationships, and lead to addiction.

Laila believes children fall victim to the easy availability of porn at the most vulnerable stage of their development. Just as the industry exploits those on camera, it too can exploit those who watch them.

A New Hope

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by all this–particularly considering it is so much closer to home than you might have thought. However, Laila believes it is this relatability that gives people a unique motivation to fight it. The Traffickinghub petition has already reached 1 million signatures: she hopes that with this continued momentum, the world will finally begin to hold MindGeek and other porn sites accountable for their content.

“Having been in this fight for 10 years, it’s something the energy and the activism behind this in such a short time is something I have never seen–and I think it’s because there is that element that it does affect all of us in some way.”

Laila’s Recommended Reading

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