On August 17th, a bomb was dropped on sex workers (SWers): OnlyFans is banning pornography! For many, it’s an income to make ends meet that has just disappeared. The whole thing is even more shocking considering that the platform enormously benefited from the shift to online sex work during the COVID-19 pandemic, with the number of subscribers increasing from 7.9 million to 85 million in one year of the pandemic.1 A few days after the announcement, the site eventually announced its suspension. Through the grapevine, we hear that the credit companies were behind the censorship of SWers on Onlyfans. In fact, changes to Mastercard’s adult sites conditions coincided with the date of OnlyFans’ terms of service.2
Behind closed doors, capital is buddy-buddy with the guardians of morality. Those who crusade against pornography would apparently be motivated by the fight against sex trafficking, “ revenge porn ”3 and child exploitation. You can’t be against virtue after all. The Traffickinghub campaign’s spokesperson, Laila Micklewait, even proclaims herself a feminist! Along with the National Center On Sexual Exploitation, these groups are leaders of this holy war on porn and have great credibility: they are invited to testify in parliament, or even in the New York Times, without anyone ever questioning their motives as they are so virtuous. Yet, hell is indeed paved with good intentions! Good intentions that could turn out to be particularly destructive for the working conditions of SWers!
It is sometimes difficult to understand why, as SWers, we always get kicked around from one website to another, even though we are an important source of income for these platforms and credit companies. We propose in this article to explain the genesis, certainly incomplete, of these anti-pornography groups, their struggles, victories and defeats, in order to understand the forces at work. Because after all, you need to understand your enemies in order to fight them!
The anti-pornography movement was born in the late 70s and crystallized in the 80s. At the time, a certain fringe of the feminist movement fought – rather ironically – alongside the Christian conservative right to ban sexually explicit content. While seemingly sharing similar goals, both movements fought through separate organizations, although they did collaborate on a few occasions. However, they oppose each other on other issues – think abortion – and fight pornography for different reasons. Nancy Witthier and Kelsey Burke, both experts on the relationship between religious and feminist anti-pornography movements, call them “ strange bedfellows ” or “ friennemies ”.
Like radical feminists, but for different reasons, groups organized around the American religious right seek to eradicate the sex industry. They see pornography as a threat to the traditional family. The group Morality in the Media, still active as the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE), campaigns not only against pornography, but also against a variety of visual material it considers as obscene, ranging from erotic novels to Walt Disney, alleging a crisis of values. Even in 2018, NCOSE was campaigning to have Cosmopolitan magazine removed from Walmart shelves. According to the organization’s website, the group was formed following an incident in which an unidentified individual placed pornographic material just a few meters from a school playground. Parents, distraught at the thought of their children being exposed to this material, turned to their local priests, and the organization was born. One of their first campaign was to put up stickers everywhere that said “ SAVEOURCHILDREN ” and a local phone number. Their concern is therefore more about exposure to pornography – by a very broad definition – and the supposed moral decay that follows than it is about sexual exploitation.
While Christian conservatives attempted legal battles at that time, radical feminists were relatively more successful in this domain. For them, pornography was seen not only as encouraging violence, but as a form of violence in itself that was against women’s rights. Several feminist groups dedicated to its abolition were formed in the late 70s and were active in the 80s in several American cities, such as Women Against Pornography, Women Against Violence in Pornography and Media, Women Against Violence Against Women and, Feminists Fighting Pornography. Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon are prominent figures of this movement. Together they signed the Anti-Pornography Ordinance, a legal proposal to make pornography a violation of women’s rights. This proposal was adopted in the cities of Minneapolis and Indianapolis, and then considered as being contrary to the right to freedom of expression by the federal Court.
Within the feminist movement, pornography, as well as sex work and sado-masochistic relationships, are breaking points between radical feminists and the so-called pro-sex feminists. This clash of values is often referred to as the feminist sex-war or the porn-war. Among those who defend the right of women to watch and make pornography are lesbian authors and activists Gayle Rubin and Pat Califa.
Thus, in the 80s and 90s, radical feminists succeeded where the Christian right failed: censoring pornography at the legal level, although these victories were short-lived. In Canada, the Supreme Court, in R. v. Butler, used MacKinnon’s legal analysis in its definition of obscenity. The latter allows pornography to be included in this legal category on the grounds that it would undermine gender equality and, thus, should be censored. Ironically, although it has had little impact on heterosexual pornography, this law led to the seizure of a significant number of gay and lesbian authors’ books at Canadian customs. The Little Sisters bookstore in Vancouver, which specializes in gay and lesbian literature, sued the Government of Canada following the seizure of several books on the ground of obscenity, and the Supreme Court recognized in 2000 that this was a breach of freedom of expression.
In the early 2000s, the anti-pornography feminist movement lost traction. Ironically, according to Nancy Witthier and Kelsey Burke, this decline enabled the revival of right-wing Christian groups who were, at this point, ” rebranding “. For example, the group Morality in the Media became the National Center On Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE) in 2015. Sex trafficking then became the focus of these groups’ campaigns, alongside the fight against LGBTQ+ rights and against abortion rights. Consequently, the decline of the anti-pornography movement allowed religious right groups to appropriate the discourse and strategies of the 1980s feminist movement.
Driven by Benjamin Nolot, the group Exodus Cry was formed in 2007 as a Christian prayer group affiliated with the International House of Prayer Kansas City (IHOPKC). It is now a major player in the fight against pornography. This group prayed for an end to sex trafficking and human trafficking. These Dominionist Christians are known for their homophobic and anti-abortion views, among other things. Behind these vain wishes, the real intentions of Exodus Cry are to abolish the commercial sex industry completely, including full service sex work and pornography, as written verbatim as their mission in their tax declaration. In their mind, helping human trafficking victims means saving all the allegedly exploited SWers. To achieve their aims, their methods are diverse and include: lobbying governments throughout North America to push legislations in line with their ideologies, rehabilitating SWers, establishing media campaigns – which are supposedly against human trafficking, producing seemingly progressive films that are actually tainted with religious propaganda and right-wing conservative ideologies, etc. Melissa Gira Grant, American journalist and author of Playing the Whore explains that the actions of these not-entirely-transparent religious groups are detrimental to the lives of the SWers they claim to save:
As a result of their years spent building influence, “ fighting trafficking ” as defined by these groups has also led to policies to defund AIDS programs that worked with sex workers and instead support programs mandating abstinence over condoms. Catholic groups used fighting trafficking to block funding to anti-trafficking programs that offered referrals for birth control and abortion.
To achieve their goals, these groups have gained notorious political influence over time and rally both conservative and liberal fringes of American politics. In order to build their credibility, Exodus Cry denies any affiliation with IHOPKC. However, as Gira-Grant reports, these two groups were still organizing partnered events as recently as March 2020.
It must be said that the rise of Internet has changed the face of the sex industry, from pornography to escort services, giving way to new moral panics. In 2018, Backpage, a site that published classified ads and famously hosted sexual service advertisements, was seized by federal authorities on the pretext of facilitating sex trafficking and exploitation of minors on its platform. The site’s founders now face charges of facilitating prostitution and money laundering, but there is no question of sex trafficking. In September 2021, the judge declared a mistrial because prosecutors alluded too much to the exploitation of minors on the platform, while the defendants were not facing such charges.21
Nevertheless, Backpage’s lawsuit is a first: the Communications Decency Act, passed in 1996, provides for platforms that primarily publish content created by third parties not to be responsible for what the latter publish.22 In other words, Backpage was not considered responsible for the content published by its users. A few days after Backpage was seized in 2018, the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) and Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) were passed by the U.S. Senate to correct this legal loophole. From now on, platforms that knowingly host content that facilitates prostitution will be held responsible.23 These laws, which are supposed to tackle sex trafficking, cast a much wider net: they criminalize any site hosting content associated with prostitution. It is therefore no surprise that several social media platforms, such as Tumblr and Instagram, have decided to change their standards to no longer accept SWer content on their platform.24 25
Since then, SESTA-FOSTA has had devastating effects on SWers. A survey conducted by the Hacking/Hustling Collective following the passage of the law shows that 72.45% of respondents attributed their economic instability to the closure of many ad sites and 33.8% of respondents observed an increase in violence from clients.26 This is because economic insecurity makes SWers more vulnerable to violence and, ironically, to sex trafficking. As pointed out by Caty Simon of Whose Corner is it Anyway, a group of low-income sex workers who experience residential instability, work on the street and/or use opiates and stimulants:
I think one of the many myths […] is this idea that there is a straight binary between trafficking and consensual sex work. It’s just like saying that because labor exploitation exists, all labor is somewhat coercitive, which it is […] under capitalism. There is a spectrum of choice and coercion in every single employment decision that everybody makes. But the problem is that you create an environment that rife trafficking whenever criminalization intensifies. […] [When] Backpage went down, what happened […] is that consensual sex worker became vulnerable of being trafficked. Cause if you don’t have those tools in order to be an independant sex worker […] you have people that had to find their parties.27
Thus, the closure of Backpage and SESTA-FOSTA acted as a catalyst for violence against sex workers. Yet for groups like NCOSE and Exodus Cry, these events paved the way for a new campaign to abolish pornography…
Would you sign a progressive, modern, and inclusive-sounding petition that presents several true stories of sex trafficking, human trafficking, and exploitation of minors that wants to hold Pornhub accountable for facilitating these criminal activities? I would, but it’s too good to be true.
The campaign against Pornhub, called Traffickinghub, was released in February 2020.28 Its spokesperson is none other than Laila Mickelwait, who was herself an employee of IHOPKC from 2011 to 2014.29 The words “Powered by Exodus Cry”, which were written at the bottom of Traffickinghub‘s website until mid-November 2021, tarnish this fine image of a supposed social justice advocate. The fact that this phrase is no longer displayed on the Traffickinghub website demonstrates, once again, the meticulous efforts implemented to seemingly distance themselves from these religious groups. However, It should not be forgotten that they are intertwined nonetheless.
Under its noble and authentic image, Exodus Cry is pushing for more than just reprisals against MindGeek, which owns several pornography sites like Pornhub, YouPorn and Redtube.30 Moreover, this kind of campaign is just a continuity of the war against sex work started by the same american conservative groups in the early 80s. Still, they have added a very effective weapon to their already powerful arsenal: mimicking their secularism and feminist concerns to rally as many people as possible to their noble struggle to save the sex trafficking victims. They know that by copying progressive rhetoric, they can rally more people to their cause and pursue their hidden agenda.
For its part, NCOSE runs a similar campaign, the Dirty Dozen, publishing on their platform each year twelve sites accused of promoting and profiting from sexual exploitation.31 The 2020 edition included sites used by SWers to advertise their services online or in person, such as Twitter, OnlyFans, Massage Envy, Reddit, and Seeking Arrangement but also sites accused of publishing representations of sexual acts like Netflix, or ones that are known for collaborating with Mindgeek like Wish and Visa.
Their popularization techniques are working quite well since the Traffickinghub campaign went viral; it has collected just over 2 million signatures and has caused quite a stir.32 Indeed, the article The Children of Pornhub by Nicholas Kristof, a columnist for the New York Times, shook many as it presented detailed stories of young victims of trafficking and sexual exploitation.33 This article mentioned the Traffickinghub petition, giving it more traction. This is just one of many examples where violence experienced by children, women and SWers is used against them. These so-called saviors end up establishing conditions and measures that further disadvantage the victims and/or workers. Samantha Cole, in her article on this subject, summarizes the phenomenon quite well: “ TraffickingHub’s arrival tapped into something sex workers have been talking about for some time, but has only recently reached mainstream conversations. ”34
Indeed, it is important to hold the porn industry giant accountable for its faults: SWers have been complaining about Pornhub’s moderation problems for several years, which allows stolen and non-consensual content to end up there. However, this is not a problem that belongs only to adult sites: it is also the case with all sites that allow third parties to import content. According to data from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), 95% of child sexual abuse content is found on Facebook, with 21,7 million incidents reported.35 By comparison, Mindgeek reported 13,229, which is less than Twitter, Google, Snapchat and TikTok and more than a 1,000 times less than Facebook.36
Undeniably, the concrete consequences of these campaigns fall on the workers of the porn industry and not on big companies. This kind of viral campaign caused Visa and Mastercard to stop supporting payments on Pornhub a few days after the New York Times article was published.37 This measure had no impact on the company, which makes the most of its revenues from advertising. On the other hand, verified creators suffered, as all programs allowing to monetize content on the platform have been abolished. It was also after these events that Mastercard decided to put more restrictions on adult websites, which was behind the OnlyFans fiasco.
These campaigns have also driven the Canadian government to take actions. The House of Commons’ Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics launched a commission of inquiry into MindGeek in the winter of 2021.38 Sandra Wesley, executive director of Stella, denounced the committee’s refusal to hear testimonies from SWers, saying that they were only interested in non-consensual videos. The committee did, however, allow Laila Micklewait to speak, despite her ties to the religious right.
The recommendations that may follow this parliamentary commission are likely to impact SWers, who may be asked for more and more information by sites that host their content. Such measures could be particularly disadvantageous for those who use adult content creation as a means of survival. After all, pornography is part of platform economy and the vast majority of porn production now consistutes of individuals or couples with a camera or smartphone. By asking them for more and more paperwork, they will force them to no longer be able to meet the ever-more-complicated terms of service. On the other hand, such policies would favor the return of the big studios in the industry who have the money to pay for lawyers.
Although still a speculation, the Conservatives are seizing the opportunity to achieve their goals: Senator Julie Miville Dechênes and Conservative MP Arnold Vierssen have both introduced Bills S-20339 and C-30240 in the House of Commons. These laws would make Internet providers and producers of pornography legally liable if minors are able to access sexually explicit content or even advertisement of such content. It should be noted that once again, the Conservatives are hiding behind progressive concerns: the purpose of Bill S-203 is to “ protect Canadians — in particular, young persons and women — from the harmful effects of the exposure of young persons to sexually explicit material, including demeaning material and material depicting sexual violence ”.41 The preamble to this bill states that “ the consumption of sexually explicit material by young persons is associated with a range of serious harms,including the development of pornography addiction, the reinforcement of gender stereotypes and the development of attitudes favourable to harassment and violence — including sexual harassment and sexual violence — particularly against women ”42, although these claims are contested by many researchers. While these proposals died before they could be passed into laws when the last federal election was called, there is no reason that they could not be brought back to the table.
This kind of legislation has precedent: in France, the Avia Law and the Law on Domestic Violence in 2020 both made porn sites responsible for verifying the age of users.43 The simple fact of checking that one is of age is not enough; it is now necessary to import files of proof of identity. The law authorizes the Conseil Supérieur de l’Audiovisuel to block sites in France that do not comply with it. These laws have been strongly denounced by the Syndicat du Travail Sexuel (STRASS), which argues that this law greatly penalizes SWers working on the Internet who do not have the resources necessary to implement these kinds of verifications. Once again, these laws are passed in the name of women’s rights! However, they betray the right-wing vision of sexuality: instead of investing in the sexual education of young people, they decide to blame the porn industry and repress SWers at the same time!
Far from achieving the utopia imagined by radical feminists in the 80s, they have instead encouraged the censorship of pornography that continues to unfairly target the working conditions of thousands of individuals, especially women and trans/queer people. The #AcceptanceMatters campaign, launched by adult content creators in response to the announcement of Mastercard’s intended changes, reminds, quite rightfully, that LGBTQ+ people are overrepresented in the porn industry because of the barriers to traditional employment, and that these changes will only make their living conditions worse.44 By making our lives more precarious, these campaigns are exposing us to more violence, not the other way around. Let’s remember that this repressive shift taken by credit companies like Mastercard is directly linked to the right-wing religious lobby. It is therefore not surprising that the attacks on pornography crack down on those whose sexuality is the most taboo, the ones that we try to hide behind the bedroom’s doors.
It may seem unusual that credit companies would allow the moral standards of the new religious right to disturb their profits. After all, they are not themselves known for their love of morality and the common good when it comes to making money. The analysis of intellectuals Silvia Federici and George Caffentzis on this subject is interesting:
Today, the institutionalization of repression and self-discipline along the line of the Moral Majority and the New Christian Right is required for both ends of the working-class spectrum: for those who are destined to temporary, part-time subsistence level of wages (accompanied by long hours of work or a perennial quest for jobs), as well as for those who are elected to a “meaningful wage,” working with the most sophisticated equipment capital’s technologists are now able to produce. […] From Wall Street to the Army, all of capital’s utopias are predicated on an infinitesimal micropolitics at the level of the body, curbing our animal spirits, and redefining the meaning of that famous Pursuit of Happiness that (so far at least) has been the biggest of all constitutional lies.45
Understood in this way, the morality of the radical Christian right-wing fits perfectly with capitalist ideology, which always seeks to further discipline and rationalize bodies, especially in regard to sexuality. This is why “ The dangers of sexuality are emblematic of the obstacles that capital encounters in the attempt to create a totally self-controlled being ”46. The repression of pornography is therefore necessary to create docile and disciplined workers and make sure that sexuality does not go beyond the restricted framework we assign to it in our lives: between four walls, preferably those of the bedroom, between two people, out of sight. To achieve this ideal of advanced capitalism, it is essential to make sex disappear from all public spaces, whether on the Internet or in our streets. Understood in this sense, fighting pornography cannot be a feminist or leftist project! On the contrary, it is well and truly a capitalist project, and SWers are “ deviant bodies ” that capital cannot allow. We are only the first victims, and our struggle goes hand in hand with those who, like us, fight against it.
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3. Sexually explicit content shared without consent. ↩
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13. Nancy Witthier, Kelsey Burke. (2021). “ Conservative Christians and anti-porn feminists want to shut down online pornography. That doesn’t make them allies ”, Washington Post, retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2021/10/04/conservative-christians-anti-porn-feminists-want-shut-down-online-porn-that-doesnt-make-them-allies/ ↩
14. Mélissa Gira Grant. (2020). “ Nick Kristof and the Holy War on Pornhub ”, The News Republic, Retrieved from https://newrepublic.com/article/160488/nick-kristof-holy-war-pornhub ↩
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16. Mélissa Gira Grant. (2020). “ Nick Kristof and the Holy War on Pornhub ”, The News Republic, Retrieved from https://newrepublic.com/article/160488/nick-kristof-holy-war-pornhub ↩
17. Tarpley Hitt. (2020). “ Inside Exodus Cry: The Shady Evangelical Group With Trump Ties Waging War on Pornhub ”. Daily Beast. Retrieved from https://www.thedailybeast.com/inside-exodus-cry-the-shady-evangelical-group-with-trump-ties-waging-war-on-pornhub ↩
18. Mélissa Gira Grant. (2020). “ Nick Kristof and the Holy War on Pornhub ”, The News Republic, Retrieved from https://newrepublic.com/article/160488/nick-kristof-holy-war-pornhub ↩
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20. IDEM ↩
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29. Mélissa Gira Grant. (2020). “ Nick Kristof and the Holy War on Pornhub ”, The News Republic, Retrieved from https://newrepublic.com/article/160488/nick-kristof-holy-war-pornhub ↩
30. Laurence Niosi. (2021). “ Une croisade chrétienne pour fermer Pornhub ”, Radio-Canada, Retrieved from https://ici.radio-canada.ca/nouvelle/1794490/chretien-pornhub-mindgeek ↩
31. NCOSE. (2020). Dirty Dozen. Retrieved from https://endsexualexploitation.org/dirtydozen-2020/ ↩
32. Samantha Cole. (2020). “ How a Petition to Shut Down Pornhub Got Two Million Signatures ”. Vice. Retrieved from https://www.vice.com/en/article/wxqy4z/petition-shut-down-pornhub-trafficking-hub-earn-it ↩
33. Mélissa Gira Grant. (2020). “ Nick Kristof and the Holy War on Pornhub ”, The News Republic, Retrieved from https://newrepublic.com/article/160488/nick-kristof-holy-war-pornhub ↩
34. Samantha Cole. (2020). “ How a Petition to Shut Down Pornhub Got Two Million Signatures ”. Vice. Retrieved from https://www.vice.com/en/article/wxqy4z/petition-shut-down-pornhub-trafficking-hub-earn-it ↩
35. Tarpley Hitt. (2021). “ Facebook a Hotbed of ‘Child Sexual Abuse Material’ With 20.3 Million Reports, Far More Than Pornhub ”, Daily Beast, retrieved from https://www.thedailybeast.com/facebook-a-hotbed-of-child-sexual-abuse-material-with-203-million-reports-far-more-than-pornhub ↩
36. IDEM ↩
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40. Arnold Viersen. (2021). Bill C-302: An Act to Amend the Criminal Code (pornographic material). Retrieved from https://parl.ca/DocumentViewer/en/43-2/bill/C-302/first-reading ↩
41. IDEM ↩
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44. Acceptance Matters. (2021). Sex Work Banking #AcceptanceMatters, retrieved from http://www.acceptancematters.org/ a title=”Retour à la note 44″ href=”#ref44″>↩
45. George Caffentzis, Silvia Federici. (2013). “ Mormons In Space ” in In Letter of Blood and Fire, Work, Machines and the Crisis of Capitalism, PM Press, p. 61 ↩