National Post (National Edition)
Sex workers suffer fallout in MindGeek controversies
Prior to the purge, Amber Haze's workday often began and ended on Pornhub. Her workday typically started at 8 p.m. in front of her webcam, a stream from which was available for purchase through a Pornhub portal, along with her custom videos. The snippets she posted on the site have been viewed more than 150,000 times — advertising, essentially, for the 27-year-old dominatrix's burgeoning small business.
Then Dec. 10 happened. On that day, both Visa and MasterCard ceased providing payment services to Pornhub, the crown jewel of the many sites owned by Montreal-founded pornography behemoth MindGeek. The reason, as Mastercard put it, was the proliferation of “unlawful content” on the site. The decision followed a New York Times column that said Pornhub was “infested with rape videos,” among other filmed atrocities.
Pornhub loudly protested, though it nonetheless banned downloads, restricted unverified uploads and pulled at least 10 million videos from the platform. Its critics rejoiced, saying the platform was for too long the redoubt of rapists, racists, misogynists and child pornographers.
Stuck in the middle are people like Haze, who, despite being none of the above — and whose content is both lawful and very popular — can no longer count on credit-card purchases on Pornhub. “We're not the ones at fault. We've been warning Pornhub for years about some of the content on the site, and they never listened. And now we are suffering for it,” she told me.
Haze and the myriad “cammers” like her rely on digital platforms to make a living. In a way, they are both sex workers and denizens of the gig economy, whose income is often dependent on the whims and indulgences of large, faceless, arguably amoral tech companies. Uber has a captive audience of 3.9 million drivers as of December 2018 who use its technology to ferry clients, as DoorDash does with the more than 200,000 who deliver food. And while it doesn't quite have the ubiquity of its venture-backed cousins, Pornhub nonetheless looms large over sex workers.
Pornhub's success contained the seeds of its recent tumble. Its business model of allowing relatively unfettered uploads and downloads, then selling ads and harvesting data, was a recipe for copyright abuse, not to mention for abusive (and often illegal) content. A simple Google search delivered scads of violations of Pornhub's own terms of service, making the company's contention that it employed enough moderators “to manually review every single upload,” as a Pornhub representative told me in October, a gaslit statement for the ages.
Yet the sheer volume of content it collected, combined with Pornhub's sheen of respectability, has attracted billions of eyeballs to the site. For content producers big and small, it became the industry's Goliath: distrusted, even hated, but utterly unavoidable. “I don't agree with a ton of Pornhub's practices, but traffic has to come from somewhere, and it's the largest name out there, so you have to use it,” Haze told me. “It's unfortunate Pornhub didn't listen to performers sooner.”
Pornhub leveraged all those eyeballs to create another revenue stream. Launched in 2018, Modelhub “harnesses the growing traffic of the Pornhub Network to empower content creators to monetize their original content,” according to Pornhub's spiel. For its owner MindG eek, Modelhub was a retort to sites like OnlyFans, the London-based platform that, unlike MindGeek's many free sites, sells its customers access to (mostly) adult performers.
Modelhub's pitch — access to the largest adult platform in the world, multiple revenue streams including ad revenue, video sales and tips — was enticing. While Modelhub takes anywhere from a 20- to 35-per-cent cut of the model's income, it can also work like hell, it seems. “It's a great platform for us to get discovered,” said Eve, a Montreal-based model who often performs with her boyfriend, and who credits her exposure on Pornhub for her steady income, despite only being in the industry for six months.
But many were wary of partnering with a company that traded in stolen content — and then allowed it to be stolen, again and again, by way of downloads. “I could have made a ton of money on Modelhub, but I just didn't like the way they did their business,” said Ariel Rebel, a Montreal performer who's lost track of the number of takedown requests she's sent to Pornhub over her 17-year career. “They banned downloads, but they did it out of desperation and a decade too late. It's just an unethical company overall.”
The issues many sex workers have with Pornhub underscore a cliché-exploding fact about the industry. A recent University of Victoria paper on the subject showed that 79 per cent of Canadian sex workers said they were satisfied with their line of work, citing relatively good pay, the ability to make one's own hours and the luxury of not having to toil in the “care economy” for longer hours for lower pay. The study doesn't include cammers, who have the added advantage of being able to work from home, alone, behind a locked door.
The problem is everything else: economic precarity, as well as the broad (and baldly hypocritical) shade thrown at sex workers, have forced many to rely on fundamentally unreliable actors like Pornhub.
“Many sex workers have issues with Pornhub, but that doesn't mean that some of us don't rely on Pornhub to make a living. The criminalization and stigmatization of the sex-working community means that we do not have access to same tools as our non-sex-working peers, and are stuck using platforms like Pornhub that take anywhere from 20 to 35 per cent of your earnings,” said Danielle Blunt, a community organizer and a founding member of the New York-based sex workers' advocacy collective Hacking//Hustling.
Haze counts herself lucky. Unlike some of her peers, her content is available on other platforms and she is still streaming, though on another site. She's still getting paid, in other words. Soon, she's going to file her taxes. It's been a long year.