The war on porn does not help children

The most potent weapon that sex work prohibitionists wield in their war on porn is the false narrative that pornography cannot be separated from child sexual abuse. But in fact porn websites are just a convenient scapegoat for the problem of child sexual abuse material online, just as sex workers have become scapegoats for child sex trafficking. While image-based abuse is a real problem, a “war on porn” is not the solution. Using child protection as the pretext for this war is dishonest, and it harms sex workers, survivors, and children themselves.

We can acknowledge all this without minimizing the failures of major porn sites such as Pornhub to proactively safeguard their platforms against misuse. Pornhub’s announcements this month that it would be limiting uploads to verified users, preventing downloads, strengthening abuse detection technologies, and pruning its catalogue of unverified older material, are overdue safeguards that sex workers themselves have long advocated for. To Pornhub’s shame, it took an unprecedented and coordinated barrage of attacks from prohibitionist groups, the media, politicians, and financial intermediaries to make these changes happen. And as we will explain, they don’t yet go far enough.

Safeguarding children is not the goal of these extremist groups; their goal is to use the stigma of child sexual abuse to eliminate pornography altogether. 

Even so, since these safeguards now do make Pornhub more secure against misuse for child sexual abuse than other major platforms that allow adult content, such as Twitter, you might expect campaigners against Pornhub to be celebrating and moving their attention elsewhere. Instead, they are escalating their claims to include the censorship of consensual 18+ content, and even the prosecution of Pornhub executives for crimes against humanity. That’s because safeguarding children is not the goal of these extremist groups; their goal is to use the stigma of child sexual abuse to eliminate pornography altogether. 

How the war on porn harms sex workers

One of the most important shifts in public understanding of the problem of image-based abuse over the past five years has been the shift in terminology from “child pornography” to “child sexual abuse material.” Although neither of those terms are perfect, a key reason to avoid the use of the phrase “child pornography” (unless referring to its legal definition) is that pornography is a form of entertainment created by and for consenting adults. It is inappropriate to use the same term to describe the abuse of a child through the distribution of their sexual images or videos. Child abuse content is just as out of place on Pornhub as it would be on Facebook.

Child abuse content is just as out of place on Pornhub as it would be on Facebook.

Anti-porn campaigners would have us forget that lesson. By exaggerating the prevalence of child abuse content on porn websites, by falsely insinuating that these platforms and their users tolerate or even welcome child abuse content, and by blurring the lines between consensual fetish content and real abuse, those behind the war on porn aim to associate all pornography with abuse in the public’s mind. By doing so, they stigmatize everyone who is involved in the production of consumption of lawful adult content—most notably sex workers.

The fact is that far from being complicit in child sexual abuse, sex workers play an essential role in eliminating abuse and exploitation within their industry—a role that neither law enforcement nor prohibitionist groups can replace. It was sex workers who came to the rescue when FOSTA pushed workers off the Internet, and back out onto the streets where minors are most vulnerable. Sex workers have been providing mutual aid and mental health support to each other in an unprecedented period of hardship. The adult industry even established the first reporting hotline for child abuse material, two years ahead of the government’s official CyberTipline hotline. And it was sex workers who first held PornHub to account, long before anti-porn groups erased and co-opted their efforts.

Many adult content creators have experienced child sexual abuse themselves, and many others are parents themselves. The anti-porn movement insults, infantalizes, and harms them by suggesting that they are being complicit in further abuse, simply by making porn with other consenting adults, and sharing it online.

How the war on porn exploits survivors

There are two common narratives for anti-porn activists: one is the use of pseudoscientific claims how porn harms those who use it (the more complicated truth is that viewing porn can have a mixture of negative or positive effects depending on the individual). But the other, which is favored by prohibitionist groups, is to stress that those featured in pornographic content are being sexually abused.

In some cases, those claims are literally true; the Internet Watch Foundation has documented 118 cases in which child sexual abuse material really was found on Pornhub before it was removed. Although this is a small number compared with other platforms, the damage done to even these few survivors from being revictimized through the sharing of abuse images is real, and incalculable.

Even so, the problem with anti-porn activists leaning so heavily on these relatively few cases to promote their broader anti-porn advocacy agenda is that there is a fine line between serving abuse survivors, and exploiting their stories to generate clicks and donations. Consistently, anti-porn campaigners have fallen on the wrong side of this line by treating survivors with careless disregard, and exploiting their stories for shock value.

The process by which survivors attribute blame for their abuse is part of the process of managing their trauma, and it is absolutely valid for someone whose abuse video was shared on a porn website to hold it complicit and accountable. But prohibitionist groups who ride on the backs of these survivors to promote an anti-porn agenda have no interest in their healing; their sole value lies in perpetuating their victimhood. Rather than merely amplifying these survivors’ stories, anti-porn campaigners are twisting them to support a narrative of censorship and hate. As soon as a survivor disassociates themselves from this message, they can expect to be shown no more interest or support by the anti-porn movement.*

How the war on porn harms children

Even after Pornhub’s latest reforms, there are still valid concerns about the online porn industry. We recommend that PornHub, Twitter, and other major Internet companies that distribute porn should be doing more to prevent minors from entering adult areas, such as by tagging adult content and hiding it from minors by default. The uncensored fan social media platform Fanexus, now in private pre-release, has worked with us to embody these principles by design, resulting in a much safer experience for both creators and users than on more major platforms.

We support sensible reforms such as these. But the anti-porn movement doesn’t want porn sites fixed, it wants them shut down. And that means censoring a lot of legal content from everyone, not just from children.

The anti-porn movement doesn’t want porn sites fixed, it wants them shut down.

Already the anti-Pornhub activists are unmasking the next phase of their censorious agenda. No longer satisfied with the removal of actual abuse content, they are next targeting fetish content categories such as ageplay, consensual non-consent, and faux-incest, describing the latter as “promoting fictionalised child abuse” and identifying it a gateway drug for real abuse. (These are categories, incidentally, whose viewership tilts heavily female. But then, the war on porn was always predominantly aimed at women.)

The fruits of this campaign are already being seen, as porn websites narrow the categories they allow to avoid even the faintest implication of taboo scenarios, or include baffling and very specific limitations such as “no cuddly toys in foreground.” This continues the whittling down of permissible porn categories that has already seen platforms, under pressure from payment processors, banning everything from erotic hypnosis to—we’re not making this up—furry porn that matches bipedal with non-bipedal furries.

We get it: taboo (or as some prohibitionists say “extreme”) categories of porn are challenging and triggering, and so there is a natural tendency to assume that they are gateways to abuse. But just as in the real war on drugs, these slippery slope arguments have no empirical support, because they are derived from stigma. In fact, far from supporting pro-offending attitudes, there is some evidence suggesting that having a fantasy outlet for taboo sexual thoughts could result in less real-world sexual offending.

Determining the link between taboo fantasies and abuse with more certainty ought to be an important research priority, if protecting children is really our objective. But because it is at odds with the oversimplified narrative of “porn as harmful,” those who support the war on porn actually oppose such research, while also opposing the availability of confidential therapy for people who do struggle to explore their taboos in a legal and consensual manner.

How we end the war on porn

Too often, the child protection movement allows itself to be pulled in a proxy war against sex workers, that has nothing to do with protecting children at all. This recurring problem happens to be the exact reason why Prostasia Foundation was formed in the first place. Not because we necessarily had the solutions to stopping child sexual abuse. But because we knew enough to recognize that most of what governments and their allied child protection agencies were peddling as solutions, weren’t it.

Essentially, Prostasia’s dual mission is calling out sex-negativity that is dressed up as child protection, while helping to promote prevention interventions that experts say our society should be focusing on instead. Where we can actually add something to that mission, through our own work, we do. This includes defending war on porn lawsuits, raising money for research on the effects of taboo fantasies, hosting a prevention-focused support forum, and supporting the passage of primary prevention laws

The war on porn and sex work may be dressed up as child protection, but it is nothing of the sort. And ultimately, it is based on a lie: it is possible to separate pornography from child sexual abuse, and it’s important that we do so. Lumping them together results in over-censorship of sexual expression, including educational content and prevention resources. It feeds harassment cults in fan communities. It harms sex workers, exploits survivors, and ultimately fails and harms children.


* Update December 21, 2020: Prostasia Foundation’s policy is that survivors of child sexual abuse should be believed by default. After all, a large majority of all child sexual abuse allegations are true. However since publishing this article, strong evidence has come to our attention that “Avri Sapir”, one of the key anti-porn activists who identified as a child sexual abuse survivor in the campaign against Pornhub, had fabricated her horrific story (sources supplied on request). At the bottom of the section “How the war on porn exploits survivors” above we included a link to a tweet from “Avri” which is now unavailable, since that account was taken private once her deception became public. Our reference to her as a survivor above is therefore now believed to be inaccurate. However, we have left our story in its original form.

Notable Replies

  1. This reminds me a group named “Porn Harms”. Even if they may not be the major part of this porn elimination movement, it seems that we underestimated the threat. I heard that the cults’ next target is XVideos, and I don’t know how long XVideos can stand.

  2. Avatar for Jigsy Jigsy says:

    If I remember correctly, Porn Harms became Morality in Media who became National Center on Sexual Exploitation.

    I only remember the second one (MIM) because one of their employees literally harrassed someone on a plane saying he was watching CP (because it featured Asian women).

  3. Avatar for Chie Chie says:

    MIM has backing from high profile conservatives in the Republican Party who’ve adopted a Catherine McKinnon-style level of fervor among contemporary leftists figures.

    This will be interesting, and horrifying.

  4. Avatar for Chie Chie says:

    Ah yes, Kristoff himself.

    This is quickly becoming an issue, I see. XVideos and its sister sites actually do a decent job policing CSAM from their site.

    After reading the comments of his Twitter post, I can see he’s awoken a moralistic beast in his audience that cannot and will not see reason. The NYT has never been friendly to pornography or the free speech rights of others, in essence, parroting the rhetoric of social conservatives and anti-sex feminists.

    I do agree, better content moderation could be beneficial, but erecting a walled garden of curated content is NOT the right way to go for this.

    How do we make people see reason and not follow this disgusting and harmful rhetoric being parroted by Kristoff?

  5. This is true if the only worry is with the legal aspect of pornography. But what happened to pornhub is an effect of the pressure put from the public, onto the payment processing companies, that threatened the pornhub to end their cooperation, making a lot of peoples lives harder. Pornhub didn’t have much choice than to take such action, because otherwise, they would be left without the ability to make transactions. This is the problem with the groups like that.

    And it was simply an unnecessary move, since the result that most people claim they want: which is for the platforms to take better care filtering their content, could be achieved without taking such drastic actions, even more effectively.

    Maybe on the legal front, not much they can achieve, but that is exactly the reason why they use other methods, like instigating public outrage to create pressure. Of course, in the process, they create a monster. Now the public knows, that if they scream strong enough, payment processors can cut ties with any company. So it’s only a matter of time before we will see those companies refusing to process payments to for example weapon sellers.

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