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Episode 49

This is the 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.

Sasza Lohrey 

Thanks so much for joining us today Laila. I would love to get started by just having you give us a brief summary in background of how it is that you came to be working in the movement that you are today. 

Laila Micklewait  

Sure, I got interested in this issue a bit over a decade ago when I kind of backed up by my years growing up. 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 around us and different trials and injustices that different people around the world were facing. And I remember even sitting with him watching CNN or other news stories about different International Programs about things that are going around the world and I think that is what originally sparked in my heart the desire to pursue a career in this kind of realm of fighting for human rights. And so I began to explore different human rights issues when I was doing my studies, from homelessness to poverty to other injustices. And one thing that really gripped me was this issue of human trafficking. And it was at a time when it wasn’t a very popular term. I don’t think most people knew what it was. It was before this kind of global awareness movement to focus on human trafficking. And I read this book by Kevin bales called invisible people. And it just truly opened my eyes to the issue of sex slavery and sex trafficking in particular, and was kind of at that time when I just decided to focus all of my energy and just funnel it into this one issue of sex trafficking and sexual slavery and sexual commercial sexual exploitation. And that just sent me on a trajectory to focus on that and to work in that area and to research in that area. And I have several different jobs that gave me different experiences in life. And I ended up with Exodus cry, which I’ve been with now for a number of years. And during that time focusing on the issue of human trafficking, I think one thing that really inspired me was this concept of prevention. Because, you know, it was wonderful and amazing when you can see girls and women being rescued out of these situations and unable to get out of situations of exploitation and trafficking. But if you could prevent them from ever getting in that position of vulnerability and exploitation in the first place, that to me seemed like the greatest victory. And so I really focused my attention on prevention, focusing on legislative reform for policies that would focus on demand and demand is a key to eliminating trafficking because if there’s no demand, then there’s no supply.

Laila Micklewait 

And so focusing on that also brought me to the issue of pornography and what role does pornography play in this issue of demand for the commercial sex, trade, prostitution and trafficking. And as I began to research this issue of pornography, I began to realize that no, it wasn’t only that viewing pornography played a role in inspiring buyers to go out and purchase women in prostitution and trafficking that way, but that actually trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation was taking place with in the pornography industry in the same way that it’s taking place in the prostitution industry. And I began to research and investigate the pornography industry itself. And I’ve been doing that for the last eight years. And anybody that’s researching pornography is going to end up on the tube sites. These are porn tube sites and Pornhub being the biggest and most popular.

Laila Micklewait 

And so you know, the campaign that I’m involved with now which I think we’ll talk about later, was inspired by my investigation into this distribution of pornography through the tube sites and what’s taking place on those sites. 

Sasza Lohrey 

That’s extremely helpful. And there are already some interesting things to dive into within that short summary that you gave us. To start out, I’d love to just clarify some of the terms. So when we talk about human trafficking versus sexual slavery or sexual exploitation, I think even I myself when I started diving into this topic, I think even in my head, I had a strict definition of human trafficking, but didn’t really encompass the broader, much more. I want to use the word casual, undetected existence of that behavior and industry. And so I’d love to just clarify a bit about that. 

Laila Micklewait

Yeah, 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. And so I think that at the outset, it’s really important for us to be clear on what we’re talking about. When we talk about human trafficking, we talk about sex trafficking, sex slavery, and commercial sexual exploitation, because there’s a lot of overlap in what these are and what they mean. And just understanding I think, is really important foundation. So I guess to start out with sex trafficking is not only the underage girl and who’s being abused and forced into prostitution in Thailand, or in Cambodia, or even in the United States. It’s not just when you cross borders where somebody is kidnapped and taken going across the border or taken across a state border and then exploited somewhere else. I think that the term trafficking itself can be misleading because it makes it seem like there’s some kind of movement that’s necessary to constitute trafficking where you’re moving from point A to B in order to be exploited, and that there’s an element of kidnapping involved with that. And that’s what’s often represented in Hollywood movies. And although that is true, that 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, and where a person or woman or child would never leave and leave their house. And when we get down to the definition of what constitutes sex trafficking, really, there’s some elements that are important to be present, and that is that there’s an element of force of fraud, of coercion of deceit or an abuse. Have a position of vulnerability or a position of power. And so, you know, I think that one of the best ways to understand what constitutes sex trafficking is an abuse of a position of vulnerability in order to induce a commercial sex act. And that’s where commercial sexual exploitation comes into play. Because really human trafficking, sex trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation is about the fact that is commercial. So there’s an element of monetization or getting something of value for inducing these sex acts. So it’s important to point out that so we see an immense amount of commercial sexual exploitation of minors in pornography and what we call that today. We don’t call that child pornography anymore. It’s not really the accepted term anymore to say that although that’s what most people understand it as it’s called, child sexual abuse material and what’s important to know that much of that would be classified as sex trafficking because also, according to our national international definition, anyone who’s under the age of 18, and they’re 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. It’s just a black and white situation, if they’re a minor, and they were using a commercial sex act, whether that took place at their home, or whether they were moved across a border, that is sex trafficking, and then any adult who is used in a commercial sex act that happened by means of abuse of position of vulnerability of any kind of coercion or deceit, or fraud or force, that person is considered a victim of sex trafficking. And so in the larger scope, we kind of zoom back and we call commercial sexual exploitation, something that happens in any of the sex industry expressions, whether that’s pornography or prostitution. ripping or escorting any of that if there’s these elements of exploitation, we call that commercial sexual exploitation. So I hope that was kind of helpful in breaking some of that down.

Sasza Lohrey  

I think that was helpful. And I just wanted to add, how I think that there’s also this presumed element of force versus, quote unquote, freewill. And particularly with certain labels that are used such as sex workers that are meant to imply agency and choice, but really diving deeper behind it and realizing that there are also this blurred line between force versus influence versus choice and free will. And that when the child in Thailand or whatever country is, in a way, choosing to participate in these activities, a very very underaged young child because the family has basically brainwashed them to think this is how they can help their family. This is just what you do. This is how the system works there, or even on a much more subtle scale in the US when people think about sex work and choice and agency, when you find out that 95% of women who are sex workers in the United States were sexually abused before getting into the industry, it really makes you question that line and where influence and choice freewill versus force or coercion coincide.

Laila Micklewait 

Yeah, I think that’s really, really important. And I think that we have to think more deeply about what compels women and men to does impact men as well to a much lesser degree than women buy a vast amount, but what compels them to make these calls unquote, choices. And what are the circumstances that are present that are coercive circumstances that kind of push and pull women into this industry. And I think that I’m not denying that there are a small, very small percentage of women out there who have the ability, the freedom, the economic situation, to make an actual informed, empowered choice to go into this, I feel like they probably would represent maybe a 1% or less of those who are in the industry globally. But most of those who are ending up in these situations from the research and from actually speaking to those who are in the industry and who’ve left the industry do so out of positions of vulnerability, do so because of coercive factors that are exist like you’re saying prior history of sexual abuse being in a situation of desperate poverty, needing money desperately, they are often from marginalized communities or ethnic groups or castes, for example, in India or in situations of homelessness or foster care situations where there’s neglect, and there’s abuse. And there’s all these kinds of different factors, like I said, that push and pull women and girls into these situations that are really beyond their control. 

Laila Micklewait 

And so when you’re making the choice, that is a result of the lack of choice, is that really a choice? And I think that’s a question that we have to ask instead of kind of blindly accepting the narrative that everybody that’s in this industry, who hasn’t been trafficked in a classic sense of literally being kidnapped and moved across the border is there for it’s making an empowered choice. I also think that we need to be critical about that. We call it a cover narrative of how the industry those who have financial motivation want to present the industry and cover over a lot of the violence, the exploitation going on behind the scenes and also to know that a significant amount of those who end up in the sex industry as women entered when they were under age entered when they were children. And they were lucky enough to live long enough to become women. They’re not two separate people, one who was an exploited child and two, who’s an empowered adult. They’re the same people at different times in their life. And I think that’s also important for us to understand in context of the commercial sex industry and those who are in it.

Sasza Lohrey  

Yeah, so from the perspective of a consumer and just what compels somebody whose choice to watch porn, where they watch porn, what type of porn is porn that portrays violence or severe violence against women or certain types of people, you know whether or not they realize that, as we’ll learn later, some of that violence could be completely forced. And again, that whole paradox of you know, what is choice? What is force is so much bigger than I think a lot of us realize. But what compels those choices as consumers? And then what? What compels the choices as suppliers? You know, what compels somebody to sell another person’s body as a commodity or as an object? Is it this website telling me Well, this is popular, and who knows what that’s based on. But if they’re telling you Well, this is popular, that means a lot of people watch it or do it, that must mean it’s normal, that must mean that people are okay with it, etc, etc. So really understanding where that cycle begins and how easily it can be perpetuated beyond control out of control. 

Laila Micklewait  

That’s a great question. And I think with regard to pornography consumption, 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 as well, because a lot of time the type of content that they’re viewing it’s a traumatic experience at first and I say this, you know, from actually talking to those who have gone through this and so it 10 year old boy, that or girl who stumbles upon pornography or Mele, curiously types porn into their search engine, because their friends at school are talking about it, or sees it on a friend’s smartphone and kind of goes down that road, starting as a child. And what we know is that consumers of pornography in order to continue to keep getting aroused and kind of keep getting that dopamine hit in the brain that happens when you consume pornography that makes it so addictive, that you need different kinds of pornography, don’t necessarily just need more pornography you need different and you need more extreme in order to kind of get that same dopamine hit.

Laila Micklewait 

So there’s this process of going to more and more extreme forms of pornography to get that same hit. And 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. So I think that it’s important to know and, and for those who are currently consuming pornography, many of them who started as children and realizing that you were a victim to and not to feel the shame of this you didn’t intend to set out on that path as a 10 year old boy or girl. I feel like that’s a more empowering position instead of feeling the shame and the guilt and all of that that can go along with where you’re at right now, in this day and age when six year olds are having their own smartphones, and two clicks away from Pornhub. two clicks away from these porn tube sites where there’s free pornography, that 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. And so I just think that that’s an important foundational perspective for us to understand when we talk about pornography consumption. 

Sasza Lohrey 

Yeah. And again, that choice versus that much stronger, subconscious influence that shapes us in means we don’t even realize. And you mentioned 10 year olds, and you have a very a lot of people may think, oh, rabbits so young, who does that? And I think the study was from a few years ago already where the average boy was 11 years old when he was first exposed to porn. So I’m not sure if that could have lowered by now. I would not be surprised, but to think not only of how young and innocent and susceptible to influence a boy of that ages, or a girl of that age, and then you know, as we’re getting later to realize there are girls of that age who are portrayed in many, many videos that are illegal but are available there and are not being taken down or being taken down and put up again, or in, you know, videos taken against people’s will, etc, etc, but to understand it through that lens and as you mentioned the thumbnails autoplay, but I believe there’s not even a button you need to press that confirms your age of any kind as if you know we’re going to a website that sells alcohol or cigarettes, you don’t have to confirm your age in any way. There’s no screening process. Even as simple as a green button. That clearly means if you can’t even read you would be able to click through versus a red button. 

Laila Micklewait 

So right. I mean, a three year old could navigate through that button. I mean, it’s kind of a ridiculous button anyway, to say are you 18 click through that doesn’t even exist on these sites like on Pornhub, the most popular largest website for pornography in the world, but I think also it’s important to know with regards to children’s access to this content that there is a socialising factor to it. And it is becoming the sex education of our youth to watch this content that’s on the porn tube sites. And there’s also this idea that the frontal lobe of the brain isn’t even developed until the mid 20s. And that’s the area of the brain where you’re able to reason you’re able to do critical thinking and to look at things objectively and analyze them and ask questions about them. And that’s not developed, it’s very underdeveloped in children. And so they enter into these sites with a completely vulnerable state of mind, where they’re completely impressionable. their experiences are based on their emotions and their experience in that porn site. There’s not that layer of protection of that frontal lobe reasoning center of the brain being developed, it’s not there. They also don’t have a history of sexual experience to bounce what they’re seeing off of and compare it to so when they see a woman being choked and gagged and crying and appearing to be distressed and young and all of these things are very common right now in mainstream pornography is this extreme violence they don’t have any experiences they actually that’s not what my experience was like. I don’t think a women actually love being choked and love being pounded and, and all of this. They don’t 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. 

Laila Micklewait 

And I think that’s also taking advantage of that vulnerability of children in the way that they go into these sites and are extremely impressionable and just vulnerable to what they see. And, you know, I even heard from a mother who signed the petition that I started that maybe we’ll talk about later, almost 1 million signatures now to shut down Pornhub and hold its executives accountable for enabling and profiting from the sex trafficking and rape of women and children. But she’s signed the petition and she made a comment. And she said that her 12 year old accidentally ended up she 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. And 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. And that’s not an uncommon thing to happen. So anyway, in regard to kids access, I think that is just it’s an important point for us to realize.

Sasza Lohrey 

When you said if a kid Google’s foreign or something, even if and I’m sure a lot of children who are googling porn, maybe they are looking for actual cornered find out what it is, maybe they’re not sure. But it’s not the same as the word of Google. Anything else? And the first thing that would come up with the Wikipedia would be the definition would be Merriam Webster. I can’t even imagine the Wikipedia definition of form is within the first I don’t even know how many pages in terms of what you’d be exposed to, even if you were looking from a curiosity or academic or without wanting to be exposed to any digital media format of that. And so that’s one thing. And then, as we’re talking about algorithms, and again, I really want to reiterate how this isn’t just about children either, because I think whether it’s a child who comes across mobile later talk about our actual scenes of real life rape cases that are on these websites, I would imagine, even for adults to understand or to ask themselves for Could this be a real case of rape or how much of this is acting, how much is not and so to be able to draw those lines, you mentioned it being sex education, and I think even for older people, than as well for people from more conservative cultures if you don’t have access to conversations to trusted people in your life, to information about this don’t go to the internet. And you might want to know, what is a relationship? What is a sexual relationship? What is sex? What does it look like feel like? And because there is this gap in void of information out there, and this is part of the reason why BBs sex, you know was created is to fill that gap because if you’re looking for what is sexuality, or what is a healthy sexually fulfilled relationship or experience look like, that’s not really out there in terms of legitimate information applicable to real life information. You might have Cosmo, or you might have really strict educational scientific information, and then you’ll have porn. Unfortunately, that’s all that is out there. And again, even as an adult, or whatever age, it might be very confusing.

Laila Micklewait  

Yeah, absolutely. And I think that it’s important for adults also to realize their looking at these sites, like the porn tube sites for sexual information about what’s expected of them or what they should be doing, or just like, actual real life information about sex, and they’re going to these sites that are run for profit, they’re run as an industry. I mean, I kind of compare it to the McDonald’s of sexuality. It’s like, we know there’s healthy food, right? And then there’s like McDonald’s. It’s like fast food, you know, it’s like bad for your health. And it has a lot of different kinds of implication. And 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 kind of in a similar way, are these industries is porn industries, these porn tube sites that are dishing up this kind of sexuality. That’s a pre fabricated sexuality based on algorithms that make the most money. And what kind of content is featured is based on these algorithms, again that are based on monetization. And that’s really a dangerous way to get your ideas and shape your ideas about sexuality.

Sasza Lohrey  

I in regards to your comment about fast food, I was reading an interview with Shira to rent is an associate professor of women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies at house at university Long Beach and she similarly equated it to fast food in the sense of its purpose is to get in to get out to be quick, easy, cheap, to make a big profit on the back end, not necessarily to be healthy, or to be nutritious, not feeding your body very well, let alone your soul. but to also think then about how with the question of Okay, can there be ethical porn? Can there be different kinds of porn than just the McDonald’s that exists? And that as kind of a more niche, but just as organic food used to be very small and niche and people didn’t understand what the difference was between things that had GMOs or chemicals and then an interesting parallel to food. 

I think what’s important also is to go back to what you said in your previous comment is that most people, and adults who are going on to these sites have this perception that those who are in those videos are quote, unquote, consenting adults. And regardless of whether they look distressed, if they’re crying, they look uncomfortable. If they look young, they’re under a deception, really, that because they’re on this most popular website in the world, you know, some of the mainstream brand name porn websites, they think, Okay, well, if I’m on this site, they must be consenting adults. And I think that is something that we all need to pull the veil off of that deception to realize that No, they are not all consenting adults. And we have evidence that they’re not all consenting adults. In fact, a large portion of them are not consenting adults. And I think to back up that what people need to understand is the way that pornography ends up on these sites, where this is the primary way that people are accessing pornography through. I tried it myself, anybody can do this. 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. And you can pretend that you’re a 14 year old, you can be whatever, get your email address, in less than 10 minutes, go over to Pornhub, create an account, upload content to that site, and it will go live.

Laila Micklewait 

And not only that, but you can get verified with a blue checkmark, by your name that we all know in the social media culture, what a checkmark by your name means. It means that you’ve been vetted somehow that you feel like a sense of confidence. When you’re on that person’s account, they’ve been verified. But on Pornhub, you can get verified with only a piece of paper scribbled with your username, not like 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. And then you will get a blue checkmark and you will be placed on the site as a verified member. That is one of many ways that this site is set up for exploitation. And that when consumers realize that you go into the site with this huge question mark over your experience, because you have no idea if that girl that you’re watching actually wanted to be in that video, is of age is a traffic victim is actually being raped. You have no idea and neither does Pornhub. This content is on the site. It’s being consumed by the millions. It’s being monetized with ads around the videos inside the videos. But people need to realize that this is actually the facts of how this content gets on the site. And people need to proceed with extreme caution. Because what we’re finding out is in many cases, these are actual rape victims, these are actually trafficking victims. These are actually minors. And I think that’s it’s really critical for people to understand that.

Sasza Lohrey  

You mentioned the person who gets a verified checkmark, etc, and the taking a photo of their username, but that doesn’t even need to be the person in the video just to clarify, correct, it can be just the person who’s uploading it, the person who’s in the video might not even know the video exists. So if some young child put a camera in the bathroom, whether it was a girl or a boy, I think in one of your interviews, you mentioned that there are these videos from public bathrooms and stuff in the album, let alone people pass out at parties and all kinds of other things but they don’t know the video exists. They don’t need to be verified in any way. It’s just actly. Any person, any username, any piece of paper. 

Laila Micklewait  

Right. That’s if you want to get verified. Yeah. And if you don’t even want to be verified in the video can still exist and is up there and everything Oh yeah. And you can upload anything anonymously. And then if you have a Pornhub premium account, you can toggle privacy settings on and off so that actually you don’t even have to show your username. You don’t even have to have your real name or government issued ID or any of that. So it’s completely an anonymous experience for people who can upload and predators and angry boyfriends who want to upload revenge porn. And we should not minimize revenge porn. I’ve talked to victims of revenge porn. It is devastating. It’s a form of terrorism against women. These women have their private videos uploaded to the site where there’s a download button for 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 left the house that she had just bought, literally left her studies. 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. And she spends her time scouring the internet to try to find videos of herself and that’s revenge porn, but 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. And sometimes they know they’re being filmed and sometimes they don’t. 

Laila Micklewait  

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 in other wise 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 violation happening on these sites. And so 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. 

Sasza Lohrey  

So then there’s the theme of not only is it very rarely, I would assume, whereas the person who is featured in the film is the person uploading it who again, as we talked about, can be completely anonymous, with no screen or nothing. And then from there, that is also the person who would be monetizing this video and making money off of it. The person who is allowing other anonymous people to download it for free around the world and then if when the person ever does find out that it’s up there, when they ever can get ahold of Pornhub, which, as we’ll get into later, we’ve discovered is extremely difficult to even get ahold of them. Get them to hear your story, get them to take down the video, and even when men or women comment on videos and say this person looks extremely enraged or are concerned about the person in the video, those are often not responded to have no effect. So even when the video can get taken down, it can simply be re uploaded, if not in its full original version that can simply be a bit in a different way and re uploaded. Essentially, making it impossible to ever have it eliminated from one website, let alone however many others there are out there. I mean, when you mentioned that or a woman spends her weeks four days her life, obsessing over trying to get this video taken down and that’s a video that was taken by her boyfriend and very easily could have been a video she knew was taken it was consensual, and then was used in a completely different way out of her control, let alone if that’s a video she didn’t know was taken was taken without her consent. Obviously, you know, situations are comparable and are complex in very different ways, but it just is unimaginable the perpetuation and cycle of trauma that somebody would have to undergo. And again, it’s not only that people are uploading that person who is violating their human rights is not only able to do so, so easily so openly so disrespectfully but they are making money off of that violation of their human rights. And then let alone there is an entire system and industry making tons and tons of money off of circumstances like this.

Laila Micklewait 

Yeah, and the ones that are making the big money are not uploaders. It’s mine geek, it’s Pornhub, who monetizes these videos with ads. Like I said, they even own the company traffic junkie is kind of part of the mind geek network, the guy actually puts the ads up. So there’s kind of this whole ecosystem they monetize. 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 they monetize, to serve up different kinds of ads and different kinds of videos to keep you in the consumer mode on their site, but they also sell premium memberships so that you can have a better experience on their site to watch real rape and trafficking and abuse of women and children ad free or with more privacy. And so they’re really monetizing this content that, like I said, it’s often of 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 Saturday Night Live just did a commercial for Pornhub two weeks ago because they were joking about the fact that Pornhub made premium membership free for the world during Coronavirus, because they were trying to appear as like some charity for the world. And at the same time, they’re like monetizing user data of all these new people that have access their site because they’re alone at home because of Coronavirus and they’re getting free premium. And so you just see like pop culture, embracing Pornhub blindly, not even hardly under the surface. You don’t have to dig in 30 seconds, I can find videos that to me are clearly illegal. Clearly women who did not consent to having themselves be violated like that. It’s just out there. Everybody is praising the site even and I think it’s important for us to be aware and it’s not just this site because this site is just an example of the way that most pornography is being dished up today on these tube sites that operate all the same way. I was just watching so many videos the other day on Pornhub of snapchats that are being recorded. So there’s girls that are believing that they’re sending nude videos, and that Snapchat is going to disappear. So they have this confidence that they’re sending this video to a friend or boyfriend who are screen recording on their phone like you can see them go ahead and press screen record, they screen, record the Snapchat and they upload it to Pornhub. And then that gets downloaded by how many people and then is in it forever traumatized, that person will never escape it. If they even find artists. They might not even find out it’s there. 

Laila Micklewait 

And sometimes they’ll find out it’s there because classmates will say hey, look, here’s the link to your video on Pornhub and some women commit suicide there was a woman from Italy this happened to her where she had a private video uploaded to her porn hub. And she was so humiliated by this that she actually killed herself. And even as a weeks ago, I searched her name on Pornhub. And I found a video in a private folder that was tagged as if it was her video, like with her name on it, it just gets me so angry because it’s such an injustice that is happening. And I feel like if most people heard about this, they would be as outraged and they would be as scared for the generation coming next and us now existing in this digital age going through this experience and this danger and this exploitation of some of the most vulnerable women and children out there. 

Sasza Lohrey  

I wanted to take a step back and give a bit more background information. Because you mentioned mine geek, which I think a lot of people listening to probably don’t know about whether or not they interact with it. So to give a bit more context, all of this and I’d love to just shine a little bit more light on the industries on these key players really understanding how this system works, and above all, who is involved in it. So you mentioned mind geek, which is one of the largest companies out there, but is really just the parent company of all of these tube sites, etc. Porn have been one of them, but mine geek bones and runs, you know, hundreds, hundreds of these sites, several of which are the top sites on the internet. But not only is it that they are a monopoly not only of the supplying of the content itself, but as you know, we’ve talked about you mentioned, they also are the ones who supplied the ads who, in a way profit from the ads from user data, this industry has managed to be monopolized on a level that no other industry really has been able to and that I would just referring to supplying content is one thing.

Laila Micklewait 

Yeah, so most people have never heard of mine geek. I mean, everybody’s heard of Pornhub. whether or not you’ve actually visited the site, I’m sure most people have heard about Pornhub, the flagship tube site of the company mind geek, who owns a large portion of the internet’s most popular tube sites, but also production companies, Cam sites, as well as even Playboy’s digital distribution, credit card processing, ad companies have their own VPN service that is a Pornhub VPN that you can access Pornhub and cover your tracks by hiding your IP address with this VPN they provide. So they kind of market themselves quietly as a tech company. They don’t do a lot of marketing for themselves at all. And they’re spread around the world that different offices around the world their biggest offices in Montreal. They have over thousand employees there. They’re registered for tax purposes and Luxembourg. So they’re definitely an international presence. And they are the puppet master behind all of this and they have rolled up the porn industry really gotten a monopoly on the internet porn industry. Under this one company. It’s really an interesting thing that’s happened. 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.

Sasza Lohrey 

At this really interesting factor of the communications decency act, and the argument of the First Amendment. So when porn was first coming into its own, kind of in the digital age in 1997, there was this heated debate about the censoring of the internet and the United States Supreme Court actually struck down the communications decency act, citing a violation against the first amendment and that’s kind of has basically protected this medium from government regulation. But because it’s stigmatized, it’s not only protected, but people just don’t bother getting into it in the first place. So there’s just this hodgepodge wild wild west of the internet that has no regulation on any level within it. 

Laila Micklewait  

Regulation over the porn industry. I mean, it’s been, it’s been very minimal, as far as production goes even before the emergence of the tube site, even before that, when there was mostly made out of production studios in places like Los Angeles in the valley. It was very poorly regulated from that time, but much more. So in this environment like we described of user generated porn where you can take a camera and go into a hotel room or into your garage or into and wherever your bedroom and record or without people even knowing in a public bathroom, and upload that as pornography being consumed by the world. And with no, so far, no repercussions for these companies that are profiting off of that material. And I think that’s the key is that they’re profiting off of it. But we want to change that we need to see at a minimum, 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. And it’s unbelievable that it hasn’t been implemented, and that companies like mine geek have been able to get away with this for so long. 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, and see a huge shift in the way that it’s allowed to profit from mass exploitation. 

Sasza Lohrey 

So I’d love to have you share a few of the findings that you’ve come across? In your research, the internet watch foundation found and confirmed 118 instances of child sexual abuse and child rape videos on Pornhub. And half of them are classified as Category A those kinds of abuse. And that was in a very brief amount of time is kind of a preliminary test just to say, oh, there are people saying there’s child abuse, is that true? And just boom, oh, well, here’s a quick search and at least 118, let alone out of the millions of videos, how many more there must be let alone adult abuse. So I’d love for you to just talk about a few of the studies or findings on grand scale. And then perhaps some of the more specific cases that have been most impactful or perhaps some of the biggest struggles in terms of trying to get them resolved.

Laila Micklewait 

So as far as research goes, and this study needs to be updated it was a few years ago, I think it was done in 2010. And things have definitely changed and industry since then. However, it was a study done by Anna bridges at all. And they studied 300 of the top and mainstream porn videos, looking for elements of violence and aggression. And they found that it was over 80% of believers 82% of mainstream porn videos featured violence, including hitting, biting, gagging, choking things of that nature, as well as a verbal aggression. They also found that in the videos, in many instances, the women in the videos were induced to have no reaction or you know, have a smile reaction when those things were happening to them. And so if you take that study, and then you kind of place it alongside the context of knowing that on these sites, they’re not verifying the consent or the age of those who are in the videos. So there hasn’t been a study where you’ve actually been able to take 11 million videos. I mean, that’s how many videos are on Pornhub right now, and investigate to find out how many of those are actual victims. I mean, many times you don’t know who’s in the videos, and they don’t know they’re in the videos either. And so it’s very hard research to do. But based on that kind of information, and then the information that we have with individual cases, what we can do is we can begin to speculate as to the nature of the massive scale of exploitation going on the site, and I can give you some examples. So as far as adults go, we have recently the case of girls do porn. girls do porn was one of the most popular partner channels on Pornhub existed on the site for eight years. They even featured girls do porn and much of their advertising and marketing material for their premium in Pornhub as well. There are different partner channels and you could see girls do porn there. And actually 22 of those women that were involved with girls do porn, they were trafficked and the elements of trafficking were present in what they experienced. And they actually won a $13 million lawsuit against the company girls do porn. And then subsequently, the feds issued an indictment for the ringleaders of this sex trafficking operation for not only sex trafficking of adults, but of minors and child pornography as well. And even as of last week, or the week before you can find girls do porn videos still on Pornhub. It wasn’t until well after this all came to light in the media that Pornhub finally took down the channel. 

Laila Micklewait  

And so that’s just one example of women who are being trafficked on the site. We have many examples of revenge porn, like I said, and then you have the examples of kids being exploited. So we had the case of rose Columba that she was 14 years old taken at knifepoint and she was raped for 12 hours in videos of her torture and her rave were uploaded to Pornhub. And she says that she begged Pornhub to remove the videos for months. And it wasn’t until she poses a lawyer and threatened legal action that they finally removed her videos. And then you have the case of the 15 year old girl from Florida who was missing for a year she was found in 58 videos on the site, being raped and abused. And finally her trafficker was 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 Mickey out of mando out of New York who she was an adult, and she was abused by her boyfriend and tortured and she actually killed him in self defense, and she was actually sentenced to life in prison. And her videos of him assaulting her uploaded to Pornhub according to media reports, and we have Justin Lee, who’s notorious playboy and I believe was Taiwan and he had gone to prison for life as well for raping, he was over 22 women or more, but 14 of the women that he assaulted videos of those rapes are reported in the media to have been uploaded to Pornhub. So these are just some examples from stories that have come out in the media where we know that these assaults and these trafficking situations have been uploaded to the site. Also, the Sunday Times did an investigation at the end of last year, and within minutes, they found dozens of videos of children being raped and abused and exploited on the site. They said some as young as three years old. There’s a lot of evidence out there that this is taking place. And then when you put that evidence against the fact that they don’t check age, and they don’t check consent to upload material to the site, and they have 11 million videos on the site. So you can do the math and you can think about how much exploitation is actually taking place on the site. 

Sasza Lohrey 

You mentioned that he was identified from his face in the videos of the rank which were cross reference with videos at a 711. And so I just wanted to include that tied here not featured his own face in these videos of him vaping this world, I don’t know that they would have been able to find him because again, he doesn’t have any verification or ID or any information associated with his profile. 

Laila Micklewait 

Yeah, you know, when I’ve been doing my research on Pornhub there are many, many cases where the bodies are shown but the faces are not in user generated videos where the person who’s engaging in the apparent assault or sex act, whatever is going on, sometimes the victim’s head is cut off of the screen where you don’t see her face, you just see her body. And much of the time I wouldn’t say most because i don’t know i back up hadn’t actually quantified it but much of the time, you don’t see the male in the video his face either. And that’s a scary point to think about.

Sasza Lohrey  

I wanted to start to try and discuss this on a bigger picture in terms of how we can try and synthesize all of this information and start to understand how not only the sexual exploitation is tied to pornography, but how pornography is tied to our everyday lives. And not only is shaping the behavior of the consumers on the site itself, but the behavior of those consumers off the site in real life. And they go who might believe they have nothing to do with this, but are interacting with this behavior in these perpetuation, through language through conversations or through sexual acts with people who are consumers. And so how there’s this kind of trickle down effect in terms of the way that this in the end really begins to affect all of us whether or not we believe it has anything to do with us. 

Laila Micklewait

Yeah, there is definitely a trickle down effect. I think that this industry has a great amount of influence on all of our lives and various ways. I also think that because of that it has given people a unique motivation when they hear about this to address it now that we’re kind of making the link between trafficking and pornography. To me and my experience 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. Whether it’s your children, your own relationships, your own feelings of addiction to this material is 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, and I think that combined with people’s understanding now of the issue of human trafficking, and passion to fight human trafficking and exploitation. And when those two things come together, there’s that very personal motivation that people have because they have that connection with it. That combination has been very powerful and 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, hold them accountable, make big changes in the way the industry operates to protect the vulnerable. Although this is a very dark and daunting topic. And it’s very traumatizing sometimes to learn about and to hear about. There’s so much hope that I feel in a way that I haven’t felt before of making massive change and having massive impact. 

Sasza Lohrey 

Yeah, and I think with this petition that you started having almost 1 million signers in such a short amount of time really speaks to the fact that people are taking action because this is something closer to home. This is something that they are tied to in some way, whether it’s directly or indirectly whether they realize it or not. But it is very exciting to see people taking ownership of this and wanting to create change, because we have the capacity to influence the industry itself. 

Laila Micklewait  

Yeah, I look forward to the day when we look back on Pornhub. And the way that the distribution of pornography and production pornography is happening today and say, Wow, I can’t imagine that that actually existed. But I’m so glad that we revolted against that system, and that we are in a new way of living and thinking about sex and sexuality and what’s acceptable and what’s not. People don’t bat Nye when they go on Pornhub and they see a title that’s teen abused crying. It’s just a normal title on Pornhub. And the reason why some of these internet watchdogs are saying they don’t receive as many tips from porn sites as they do from sites like Facebook. Because when you’re surfing Facebook, and you come across a video that shows a teen looking girl being violently penetrated, or a woman with mascara running down her face, because she’s being violently penetrated and crying, you’re going to report that because it’s unusual, right? The people who are going on Facebook, for example, aren’t expecting to see that the consumer survey on Pornhub that’s what they expect to see. It’s not out of the ordinary. So we need to be living in a culture where that’s not the case. And we have a positive sexuality and healthy sexuality now malevolent sexuality or predatory sexuality that doesn’t take exception to things like that. And I think that we’re going to get there as awareness is raised about this because I know my hope is that people will understand that there’s just this kind of deception, like we mentioned earlier that this is just acting. They’re just actors. They’re really consenting adults, and they’re just pretending and I think that what people when they realize that’s not true, we need to rip that cover narrative right off of the industry and just say, Nope, actually, we have evidence in hand that that’s not true. And then when people realize that I think that we’re going to start to think differently about this issue, and I think we’re going to start to act differently. And I hope that one day in the near future, we will look back on a site like Pornhub and just be appalled that ever existed. 

Sasza Lohrey  

As my last question to you to ask, I think people will struggle enough listening to this interview. How do you cope with all of this what your work requires of you on an emotional level? And what is your hope? 

Laila Micklewait  

Yeah, I mean, a lot of people wonder, how do you cope with digging into this really dark issue, day in and day out? And I guess if you felt if I were going into this, just discovering all of this stuff that’s happening, but not really feeling there’s anything I can do about it. That would be really hard, but I feel a sense of empowerment, I feel that there is something that we can do about that collectively. And I see it happening. And I’ve seen progress. And I’ve talked to survivors, and I’ve seen change slowly happening, but happening, and in this case almost feels like it’s happening quickly. That really helps me keep going. 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. And that gives me just an extra boost of motivation personally, and 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. It just keeps me motivated by a sense of love. And it helps not to get jaded I think that there’s many out there who could face this kind of thing day in and day out and I see a lot of people get burned out and get jaded. I don’t want to say that that would never happen to me, but so far it hasn’t. And I really think that my faith has played a big part in that. And just to keep hope that at the end of the day, 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. And so I encourage everybody who’s listening to get on that bandwagon with me and not be afraid to take on the giant not be afraid to come against the wheels of injustice that are turning in this industry and be able to push back against it. And I encourage you to go to the website, go to trafficking hub.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 needed. I mean, we’re facing a multi million dollar if not billion dollar industry. 

Sasza Lohrey 

It’s $2 billion just for videos that are pirated. And that’s not even having anything to do with the ones that are used without the permission of the media companies that created them. huge. 

Laila Micklewait 

Massive, massive amounts of money being made off of this. And if we’re coming against it, we definitely need to be coming from a position of strength and not financial weakness, there’s a lot that we need to do. And a lot of it does cost money. So anyone who can contribute to the cause there’s a Donate button on the trafficking hub comm website. But also you can raise awareness on social media, and even the logo has been really powerful. We’ve taken the Pornhub logo and turned it into trafficking hub. And it just shocks people sometimes when they see it, but it speaks volumes and you kind of instantly know exactly what we’re talking about when we’re raising awareness about that using the image and you can download the image and use it in your social media profiles. There’s a Facebook frame that you can use on Facebook to raise awareness about it as well. And so we’ve even launched a campaign against the credit card companies who are doing business with Pornhub enabling members to get Premium memberships, a MasterCard, Visa and discover. If you go on my Twitter, you can find links there to the campaigns, it was campaign of freedom united, as well as the National Center on sexual exploitation. We’re doing a massive email campaign emailing major credit card companies and telling them to reject Pornhub for complicity in these crimes. And so that’s a major pressure point that everybody can participate in. Everybody should send out those emails. Those are things that you can do. And I’m just excited to get to 1 million signatures. We’re at 880,000. Right now believe are a little bit over that. I would appreciate everyone who’s listening to join in. 

Sasza Lohrey  

So thank you so much for the work you’ve done and for your time and for talking with us today. And I look forward to celebrating that first million and however many more to come. 

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

About the Expert

Laila Mickelwait

Activist, Abolitionist, Author

Laila Mickelwait is the Director of Abolition for Exodus Cry, Founder of the #Traffickinghub movement, and Founder of New Reality International. She received her Master of Public Diplomacy degree from the Annenberg School of Communications and the Dornsife School of International Relations at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles in conjunction with the U.S. Department of State. Laila has started a petition with over 1.5 million signers hoping to hold Pornhub accountable for profiting off of illegal videos on their site.

Episode Discussion

Home Forums Episode 49: “This Is Actually Happening” with Laila Mickelwait

  • Episode 49: “This Is Actually Happening” with Laila Mickelwait

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    November 6, 2020 at 2:40 am
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    • What did you learn about yourself?
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    • What was your favorite quote?
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    • What is one way you can enact what you learned in your own life?
    • How can we each help shift the culture and the conversation surrounding this topic?

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