On Wednesday, Netflix released a new documentary looking at how Pornhub came to be and the controversies (and lawsuits) that ensued. Directed by Suzanne Hillinger, Money Shot: The Pornhub Story features interviews with both porn stars reliant on platforms like Pornhub and Onlyfans for income, as well as with the anti-trafficking activists who sought to stop the rampant exploitation, rape, and non-consensual imagery (including videos of minors) on the site.
The film begins with a cutesy complilation of porn stars sharing their first experiences with porn. A number of these stories are pre-internet, meaning they do sound quaint in comparison to what kids see now, at ever younger ages, online. We’re talking 80s Playboys and fairy tale-themed “erotic movies” on Cinemax. Even I found such things confusing and disturbing when I accidentally encountered them as a kid, but apparently people think this stuff is cute and kitschy nowadays — ah the fond childhood memories of adult sex. A young woman named Noelle Perdue, though, grew up in the internet age, and describes going onto Pornhub at 11 years old, where she discovered “an eight person geriatric gangbang” — more fitting of the modern day norm.
Perdue worked in the porn industry for a number of years — namely, she worked as a writer, producer, and talent acquirer at MindGeek. Despite this apparent conflict of interest, she served as a “consultant” on the Money Shot. Perdue appears not to be the only industry representative to have had input.
Though the documentary can claim to show “both sides,” the narrative is shaped by industry advocates disguised as “independent sex workers.” One interviewee, Asa Akira, is in fact Pornhub’s spokeperson and brand ambassador. The other porn performers interviewed may not literally have that job title, but are reliant on these kinds of sites for their income and are invested in ensuring their industry and the sites they profit from don’t get a bad rep or get shut down entirely.
While including industry voices in a documentary purporting to expose or at least delve into accusations of serious criminal activity and sexual exploitation is reasonable, allowing those invested in ensuring the industry is not shut down or that profit is not restricted in any way (say, by blocking consumers from using their credit cards on porn sites) to control the narrative is going to compromise the final result. No one working directly for Pornhub is going to admit the company and the industry as a whole profits from trafficking, exploitation, rape, and child porn.
Missing from the film are women who have left the porn industry, now free to tell the truth about their experiences; researchers who might offer data and insight into who goes into porn and why, mental health, STDs, and addiction in the industry; psychological or physical impacts on the women involved; and trafficking victims themselves. Even porn producers, as evidenced by Exodus Cry founder Benjamin Nolot’s series, Beyond Fantasy (in particular, the third episode in the series, “Hardcore,” which drops March 23), can offer insight into the manipulation, coercion, and sadism behind the scenes claimed as “consensual,” provided you ask the right questions. The producers could have asked the “consenting sex workers” featured about their pasts and experiences — how and why they ended up in porn, and what’s happened to them in the industry — but they chose not to.
The primary voices featured in the documentary who offer a critical view of the industry are connected to the anti-trafficking groups going after PornHub — namely Exodus Cry (founded by Nolot) and NCOSE — who are dismissed as Christian fundamentalists with ulterior motives.
Like many debates, the porn debate is treated as two-sided: there are the “sex workers” fighting for the right to sell sex legally, free from “censorship” (the little guy), and then there are the moralistic, anti-sex, religious conservatives who wish to repress sexuality and are campaigning against the little guy’s freedom.
We are offered “choice” or “no choice.” “Freedom” or “North Korea.” Pro-sex or anti-sex.
But this is not the story. It’s not even a story. In truth, porn is a multi billion dollar industry that uses a few “happy hookers” as politically convenient representatives to speak on their behalf, disguising the dark truth behind the sex trade.
There are many reasons to oppose the sex industry — including impact on users’ brains, mental health, and relationships, as well as impact on the women and girls in porn — yet most the critical are framed as “hating women’s bodies,” “trying to control women’s sexualities,” or “ being prudish/anti-sex.” Dismissing critics as religious extremists is always popular, as it scares off liberals and progressives from engaging with anti-porn arguments. Including voices like mine — a free speech and civil liberties advocate who comes from a leftist and feminist background and is far from “anti-sex” — complicates the narrative. Broadening context to include women’s stories about their pasts and experiences in the industry disrupts the simplified “consenting adult” narrative. Talking about men’s choices to consume abusive and dehumanizing pornography, or porn that sexualizes “teens” or childern is almost always left out of the conversation.
The “let adults do what they like” almost always applies to women, except when framed as “policing people’s sexualities,” which implies a form of thought policing, but conveniently excludes the fact that porn is not relegated to people’s imaginations.
Industry advocates are sure to restrict the discussion of disturbing categories like “teen” to one of “consenting adults” who are free to imagine whatever they like. Perdue claims the “teen” category “doesn’t necessarily refer to teenagers,” and that “it’s more in reference to a body type” — a rather genius defense, because it ignores the fact that sexualizing minors and encouraging men to masturbate to their degradation creates a market for actual teen porn and encourages men to view teen girls as sexual objects.
Siri Dahl, a porn performer featured extensively throughout the film, seems only to be concerned about categories like “teen,” in terms of finding “solutions to tagging” that don’t “police people’s sexualities, which they’re allowed to have because they’re a legal adult.” In other words, it’s not the content itself, it’s that the “teen” category doesn’t sound great on paper. Unfortunately, Pornhub’s customers love it, so what can you do, eh?
Just to hammer in the point, the producers include another performer, Cherie Deville (playing a creepily stepfordesque character), saying:
“We’re providing entertainment within the legal bounds for consenting adults, and within that buffet of pornographic content, that adult, if they choose to consume it, can choose… anything.”
It all felt incredibly rehearsed, as though Pornhub lawyers have fed lines to these women. By carefully presenting performers as “independent, empowered sex workers,” the film’s producers construct a conversation about “free choice,” and are able to avoid the fact porn sells abuse, objectification, and exploitation, regardless of “consent.” And that within that “consent” — those contracts signed, what happens on set involves a hell of a lot of coercion.
When we talk about porn, we aren’t talking about independents — we are talking about a massive, multi-billion dollar industry. Shoving “independent sex workers” to the forefront to pretend as though holding Pornhub execs to account is really an attack on these empowered women, just trying to get by so–please-be-nice-and-stop-talking-about-trafficking-it’s-awkward-for-us is gross.
I don’t know if the makers of Money Shot were simply naive, or if they had biased intentions from the get go, but they buy into the manufactured David and Goliath narrative full force.
The intent behind Money Shot is to argue that porn is a clean, happy industry full of enthusiastically consenting women, and that the “dark side” — child porn, trafficking, and nonconsensual content — is completely separate from that and only a tiny minority of the industry (in fact, they claim it’s not a part of the industry at all) — an accident led by bad actors who are dragging the industry’s reputation down unfairly.
This is not the case. The happy hooker fantasy has always only represented a tiny minority of women, and usually doesn’t tell their whole story anyway. The few stories of exploitation and abuse that make it into the mainstream represent only a sliver. Indeed, even the so-called “consenting” women tell horrific tales once they are free to do so and able to reflect back honestly.
The documentary does of course acknowledge that a few bad things went down on Pornhub.
MindGeek, the company that owns Pornhub, was sued by numerous plaintiffs who accused them of distributing and profiting from child pornography and nonconsensual sex videos. The company was undoubtedly aware that this content was displayed on Pornhub, as numerous women and teen girls had emailed them, desperate to have their images removed from the site, but the company was not pressed to do anything about it. Nonconsensual videos would stay up for months after complaints were filed, and when they were removed, they would immediately pop up again on the site.
MindGeek claimed it “instituted the most comprehensive safeguards in user-generated platform history,” but until the lawsuits had only 30 human moderators employed to monitor millions of videos on Pornhub and did not have any verification process in place for users uploading content. Even after a verification process was put into place (which women like DeVille and Perdue claimed “sex workers” were begging for, as it would resolve the problem of pesky rape videos popping up on the site), there was still no age or consent verification required for the women featured in the videos. Anyone with an ID could still upload what they liked.
In an article for Rolling Stone, a DeVille writes, “anti-sex-trafficking campaigns are anti-porn campaigns in disguise.” She complains that the “war on Pornhub is a proxy war to take down the entire legal sex work industry” and that “what they really want is to shut down Porn Valley.”
And honestly she’s right.
I don’t want to just stop child pornography or trafficking on Pornhub. I don’t want to just see Pornhub shut down on account of isolated incidences of rape and nonconsensual videos found on the site. I want to make it next to impossible to profit from pornography, because I want it to be next to impossible to profit from the exploitation, abuse, and dehumanization of women and girls. I don’t want to simply “take down” the “legal sex industry,” because of course much of what happens in the sex trade is not legal — I actually believe that the porn industry as a whole should be illegal. I do not think it should be legal to pay another person for sex or to profit by coercing another person to engage in sex acts.
Realistically, I don’t believe we can end porn or prostitution entirely. But we could make it impossible for companies like Pornhub to exist, make profiting from porn illegal, and ensure a porn set must comply with labour standards, including health and safety standards and laws against sexual harassment and assault, thereby rendering everything that happens on a porn set illegal.
One of the common threads throughout Money Shot was the one of the empowered independent performer, making her own content happily, from the comfort of her home, under attack by these attempts to go after trafficking and abuse in the industry. And while I feel very badly for women who feel dependent on porn for survival, I don’t feel bad for the women who could choose something else — who have the means, education, options, and privilege — but instead choose to shill for a vile industry responsible for the trauma of countless women and girls around the world. The idea that the horror of the industry should be accepted because one woman managed to buy a house with her earnings is not good enough for me.
Whether they intended to or not, the filmmakers did little more than produce propaganda for an industry that hardly needs a boost.
For further discussion of this film and the debate surrounding the industry, you can watch a conversation between Benji Nolot, Alix Aharon, and myself which aired live on YouTube Thursday, March 16th.