One major criticism of Pornhub is the lack of regulation as to what content is allowed to appear on the site. IMAGE CREDIT: FLICKR, MARCO VERCH

Content Note: This article contains detailed discussion of sexual violence and racism.

Pornhub isn’t fit for purpose and in many instances has proved itself to be outright dangerous. The website has been exposed for profiting off sexual violence, enabled by the fact that there’s no regulatory body that monitors its content. Such was the case for Rose Kalemba, who was raped at 14, with the video subsequently being uploaded to Pornhub. Kalemba begged Pornhub to take the videos down, saying that she was a minor, but they were only removed after she set up an email address posing as a lawyer and emailed threatening legal action. When asked on this, Pornhub said that they allow all forms of 'sexual expression.' 

 "... what is Pornhub not telling teenagers about sex?"

In addition to this permissiviness towards sexual violence, Pornhub’s categorisation of videos endorses racial festishisation. Pornhub’s 2016 annual report revealed that terms more frequently searched on the website in the US included ‘Latina’ and ‘Black.’ Homi K. Bhabha considers racial fetishisation a form of racial stereotyping, the goal of which is to define people using fixed stereotypes, such as ‘all Latina women are hypersexual.’ It’s easy to see the parallels between this and, say, Trump’s America, as when Trump said of Mexicans ‘they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists.’ But fetishism is also a form of oppression. As Denton Callander has said, the way in which disempowered racial groups are treated in the context of sex is “a lot about power, colonialism, and control” and reinforces the structural hierarchies that many Western countries are built upon. Pornhub fetishizing people along racial or ethnic boundaries doesn’t happen in some kind of vacuum.

It's worth noting that Pornhub is free and easily accessible for anyone with internet access, including children and teenagers. Couple this with an outdated curriculum on sex education, it’s no surprise that many adolescents turn to pornography as their primary source of information about sex. The UK curriculum tends to focus on sexual health and reproduction. Teenagers are taught that sex ends with the man ejaculating, and if you want to avoid pregnancy and STIs, you should use a condom. There’s no discussion of masturbation, women’s pleasure or problems like erectile dysfunction. And these are only the ways the curriculum is lacking for cis, heterosexual people! As a queer person myself, I turned to porn because there was no lesson in school on how women have sex. This heteronormativity is dangerous. 

Obviously 65% of a sample of 15- to 16-year-olds reported having seen pornography - where else can they turn to learn about sex? But what is Pornhub in particular telling teenagers about sex? Or, a more pertinent question, what is Pornhub not telling teenagers about sex? A brief look at some of the website’s uploads will show that Pornhub fails to offer content that depicts express consent, vocalised discussions about parties’ preferences and personal kinks or practice of safe sex.

 "... arguing for a blanket prohibition of porn is unrealistic and unhelpful."

It’s clear that Pornhub needs reform. However, arguing for a blanket prohibition of porn is unrealistic and unhelpful. In 2019 there was an average of 115 million visits to Pornhub per day. If the site was removed, no doubt 5 more would crop up in its place. And arguably, prohibition only makes the prohibited item more tempting to engage with: consider the fact that the number of teenagers smoking marijuana in Colorado decreased after it was legalised in 2014. Besides, the censorship approach fails to discern between porn as an industry and porn as an artform which constitutes people’s livelihood. Porn – understood as sexually explicit material that’s intended to arouse – isn’t inherently unethical. It’s the industry of porn, with Pornhub at the helm, which has turned adult entertainment into an exploitative, capitalist marketplace. Pornhub profits off of videos of people’s abuse, racial fetishisation and inculcating harmful ideas in impressionable viewers. We should therefore strive to make ethical porn the mainstream. But what makes this porn ethical? And where is it?

It only takes a quick trip to Google to find a whole host of self-proclaimed ethical porn websites. Take Erika Lust, who, like most ethical pornographers, upholds a set of values throughout the entire process of porn production. Her four core values are: women’s pleasure matters; adult cinema has cinematic values (which means music and props acquire an importance they don’t in mainstream porn); we need diverse races, body types, ages (without fetishizing these) and the production process has to be ethical. The last is the difference between directors telling performers what they’re going to do and performers negotiating positions and preferences amongst themselves. By respecting their boundaries, ethical porn transfers some of the director’s control to the performers. This is critical for sex work to be fair and potentially liberating. The simple fact that performers have a proper say in the process means vocalised consent (such as ‘should I carry on?’), practice of safe sex and a wider variety of body types are natural by-products of ethical porn. These by-products give ethical porn the potential to be educational, as well as an artform. Lust summarises the spirit of ethical porn superbly: “Adult content has... the power to arouse. But also, to educate and to inspire. I believe that it’s our generation’s responsibility to rethink pornography. Don’t get me wrong, eh? The sex can stay dirty, but the values have to be clean”. All this isn't to say that there are no ethically produced videos on Pornhub. But without a proper regulatory system, Pornhub doesn’t consistently uphold values which ensure its porn is ethical.


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But transferring all responsibility to the consumer to change the demand raises problems of accessibility. ‘Free ethical porn’ is somewhat of an oxymoron because paying performers properly is a huge part of ethical porn being ethical. Lust’s store sells videos (ranging from $7 to $210) and subscriptions for $5.95/month for 24 months. This won’t be financially viable for many people. If ethical porn platforms hope to compete with Pornhub, they must endeavour to make their services more accessible. In sum, we need alternatives to Pornhub, which strive to make porn an accessible, safe, educational and exciting medium. 

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