OPINION | Pornography and the Myth of the Concerned User

Recently, PornHub made mainstream news by announcing they have purged the website of most content from unverified users in an attempt to eliminate videos such as CSAM (child sexual abuse material). PornHub portrays itself as a hip working place: it creates end-of-year graphics which take the mick off of users and the platform itself, publicly donates to charities and seems to fight injustice one day at a time by making sex available to anyone, anywhere, mostly free of charge – and yet it has become more and more clear that for a long while, they have been anything but. They are known as one of the foremost enablers of sharing abuse videos: Rose Kalemba spoke about how hard it was to take down the videos of her 12-hour long rape when she was 14 from the website; or how the website took too long to sever ties with Girls Do Porn, a production company whose owners and employees were charged with sex trafficking. While big porn platforms taking steps to manage the abuse problem is fantastic news, we also need to discuss why their PR teams get away with portraying themselves as service providers who can be absolved of guilt for perpetuating abuse and categorizing themselves as victims of performative morality. 

There is an understanding across all societies that pornography is taboo – and yet it is widely consumed. The gap between ethical and unethical porn consumption is huge, as is between the respective users. There are very few of the former and very few of the latter (such is the case with any extremes on a spectrum), and many more of those who are simply nudged into watching abuse by the status quo – they are nudged into unethical consumption by design. In this context, it is widely enshrined that supply creates its own demand, but it is also true that demand builds the space for supply. One of the biggest problems with PornHub (and other internet pornography platforms like them) is that they play a massive part in upholding the myth of the concerned porn user. I argue that upholding this myth as it currently stands without developing it into reality is detrimental to society’s acceptance of adult content and companies like PornHub have a moral responsibility to change the status quo in a proactive, rather than reactive way.

What is the myth of the concerned porn user?

The myth of the concerned porn user states that individuals are logical, sane beings who will be able to discern what is right from what is wrong and that a vast majority will always choose to watch the videos which do not contain any element of abuse. The onus of responsibility is placed on the viewer, who will have to trawl through the homepage or category pages of porn websites and search for the most inconspicuous titles coupled with the most innocent thumbnails. In theory, that sounds good – in practice that is impossible. If you happen to have a preference for teenage girls and go to that category, you will be shown the most recently featured or the most viewed videos first, irrespective of the genre or style of porn they fall into. Website traffic directly influences which videos show up and thus influences the kinds of videos someone is likely to click onto due to a need to pick quickly, inability to tell the bad companies/producers apart, lack of education with regards to which categories tend to bring up more abusive videos quicker, knowledge about forced consent, desensitization and so on. 

Companies like PornHub have created online environments which rely on abuse in order to drive engagement up; they rely on shady and shadowy public knowledge of how their videos are produced/sourced/made and  on uneducated, disinterested, disengaged users. Under the current business model, their biggest nightmare is a society of concerned porn users – and yet that is exactly what they claim people are when they are suddenly forced to act because big credit card companies start blocking payments to their website. 

Why should pornography providers shoulder responsibility? 

Add into the mix the fact that pornography is being accessed by very young people at high rates and you have a nightmare on your hands. In 2019, the British Board Film Classification (BBFC) commissioned a study on use of porn among teenagers and found that 62% of 11-13 year olds first saw pornography by mistake (either in ad pop-ups or by being given a link); at the same time, 45% of teenagers who watched porn intentionally did so in order to “learn about sex” because sex education in school is severely lacking. This same study found out that the most popular website to access pornography on is PornHub. These websites are not hard to access and are used as replacements for sex education by progressively younger individuals due to the failure of society to address the issue formally. Pornography becomes a “critical service” simply because the normal human behaviour it concerns itself with has been driven underground; taboos serve only in creating shame and shame ensures wide swathes of the population remain silent when bad things happen, even if they happen right in front of their eyes. It is thus that this platform was riddled with abusive content which could be found during the (on average) 115 million visits per day that PornHub gets. 

There is something deeply immoral in providing clientele with abusive pornography and then not taking concrete action to combat abuse for years upon years. Providing a “critical service” does not absolve you of the guilt of mismanaging your power and influence, whether that service is urban water management or sex work. The money made from exploiting this loophole directly fuels the charity work that PornHub does on behalf of social justice. Platforms like this get to uphold people’s right to choose without taking into account what a user’s right to choose does to the young girl who is trying to take down her unconscious rape videos, to the children who are trafficked from their homes, or to the Asian teenagers who are abused by white men in a power dynamic which is anything but consensual and ethical. If you are the owner of a well, it does you little service to act as if you have no responsibility with regards to how clean the water is or if anyone in the community gets sick after drinking from it while you obstinately refuse to clean it. 

Why does shifting perception matter? 

Genuinely ethical porn consumption has the potential to become the norm only if the wider society starts asking and answering the right questions, coupled with an aggressive (proactive) response from adult content platforms. Pornography is neither new nor inherently wrong or sinful; what constantly changes is our attitude to and treatment of it. You can educate people on how to use pornography ethically (paid subscriptions to independent/ethical producers, searching for feminist pornography, paying the porn actors directly) and you can educate them on sexually healthy behaviours. You can raise the standards of entry for what videos you publish on the website: vet producers and actors, ensure safety measures were respected and legally binding contracts were signed, and bring in independent auditors who can double and triple check the work you have put in. In the meantime, believing that the onus of responsibility is on the viewer does more harm than good. It blinds us to how widespread abuse is and it gives free pass to business models which thrive off of it at the expense of individuals whose victimhood is re-established every time someone watched a video of them. There is a long way to go to get to the point where PornHub can claim it has truly “done its part” to protect victims and users alike, and it sure does not start with performative ally-ship and reactive decisions meant to safeguard their income. It should not be acceptable to demand individual responsibility in others by upholding the myth of the concerned porn user, while not shouldering it yourself. 

The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the author, and do not reflect the views of Conversationally Speaking Magazine.
Ana Vlădescu
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Ana is a graduate of the University of Glasgow with an MSc in Global Security and has a BA from Bangor University, Joint Honours in Criminology & Criminal Justice and Psychology. She is passionate about human rights and comparative warfare, and her main academic focus is the study of asymmetric wars, particularly the behaviour of weak actors towards non-combatants in asymmetric dyads, as well as use of ideology during armed conflict. Ana has been working for American Councils Romania since May of 2019, coordinating Youth Programs focused on genocide, civic education and democracy. She is also an avid reader and immersed into pop and internet culture and is interested in subjects such as history, mental health awareness and sex education. 

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