This petition is right, the online porn industry needs to recognise the role it plays in hosting sex trafficking content

This is not just a case of moralising on the boundaries of free speech, it’s a concern rooted in the reality of how it drives global sexual exploitation

Tom Farr
Monday 02 March 2020 17:05 GMT
22 Women win $12.7 million lawsuit against porn website that lied to them

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Louise Thomas

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Laila Mickelwait, director of abolition at US-based anti-sexual exploitation charity Exodus Cry, recently started a petition to demand accountability from porn executives for what she claims is their alleged complicity in human trafficking and sexual exploitation, which as of 2 March has more than 344,000 signatures supporting the pushback against the world's largest porn sites.

As a human rights-law researcher for CEASE UK (Centre to End All Sexual Exploitation), much of my work focuses on examining the links between different forms of sexual exploitation, notably porn, the sex trade, child sexual exploitation and sex trafficking. A common thread in my work is just how central the porn industry is in driving the global sex trade.

As I see it, porn has become the acceptable face of exploitation. One major porn site in particular receives over 40 billion visits in 2019 alone. Online advertisers use these sites and none of them seem to be concerned with the fact that some are major donors to the "Free Speech Coalition", the same conglomerate that waged a legislative war that resulted in obligations pertaining to performer age checks being overturned. In other words, it removed any legal onus incumbent upon these websites to ensure porn performers are actually over the age of 18, and to keep a record of any so-called age checks that do take place.

This is not just a case of moralising on the boundaries of free speech and individual choice, but a concern rooted in the reality of how the porn industry functions and drives global sexual exploitation. As Mickelwait claims in the petition, the websites profit directly from videos of trafficked women, including the horrific example of a 15-year old girl who had been missing for over a year, and was found because 58 videos of her rape and sexual abuse were discovered on porn sites. Further, CEASE recently spoke with a rape survivor who had discovered videos on a porn site of her assault, kidnapping and rape at the age of 14. Shamefully, her requests for them to be removed were systematically ignored by the site until she posed as a lawyer and threatened legal action.

There is often a subsequent distinction made by the pro-pornography lobby that the above cases are not indicative how the porn industry actually functions, but rather, just "a few bad apples". They are quick to point out that these are actually examples of criminality, and they are not part of the porn industry. The question has to be asked, what is hosting and profiting from videos of filmed child sexual abuse and human trafficking if not "criminal"?

The exploitation doesn't stop there – the Internet Watch Foundation recently reported that in 2019 there was a 26 per cent increase in image and video-based child sexual abuse reports compared to 2018. Apart from the fact that porn sites have directly hosted this content, the industry itself is a driving factor in the production of it in the first instance. With the combination of porn culture becoming more prevalent, porn use directly impacting the sexual "tastes" of those who watch it, and the horrific growth of filmed child sexual abuse ("child porn") as a market within the commercial trade, it does not require great feats of imagination to understand why the long-standing porn genre of "teen" is as popular as ever.

But that's not the end of the story. Research also shows that consumers may subsequently go on to act on these newly-developing desires in "real life". Looking for a moment at the broader global sex-trade, the porn industry at large has normalised violence and coercion in otherwise consensual relationships, and it drives consumers to act out abusive fantasies that have developed from their porn use on women within the system of prostitution.

Research shows that men who pay for sex are twice as likely to have watched porn in the past year compared to the general population. In another study of over 850 women in the sex trade across nine different countries, 49 per cent stated that porn had been made without their consent while working and 47 per cent had been physically harmed by men who had forced them to act out things they had seen and learned from porn. And what in part drives aspects of the sex trade? Human trafficking. The same issue that drives a portion of one website's 40 billion visits per year.

As before with pornography, the pro-sex trade lobby is quick to argue that trafficking should be considered a wholly separate issue, but research shows that wherever the sex trade is legal, human trafficking increases. Even with decriminalisation in New Zealand, which is hailed by some within the sex trade as the best legislative model, the country has a dark underbelly of trafficking. Similarly, the New Zealand government only recognised the concept of domestic trafficking 12 years after decriminalisation was implemented. It's easy to say that trafficking does not flow from decriminalisation when the law doesn't even recognise it in the first place.

These numerous forms of sexual exploitation and harrowing human rights abuses and violations are all closely linked. I don't believe "ethical porn" can really exist. In my view, the porn industry is fundamentally predicated on commodifying the most vulnerable in society, and selling their abuse as sexual liberation. To me, there is nothing "sex-positive" about supporting hyper-capitalist, unregulated, shadowy global conglomerates that care not about the human dignity of girls, boys, men and women across the world.

It is no good proclaiming that we should all work towards eradicating the most horrific aspects of society – rape, male violence against women, child abuse and human trafficking – while still supporting an industry that seems hell-bent on turning a blind eye to them.

Tom Farr is a human rights law researcher at CEASE (the

Centre to End All Sexual Exploitation​


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