Nicholas Kristof: An uplifting update, on the terrible world of Pornhub

Young woman exploited by website has been rescued by donors’ support

(Rachel Bujalski | The New York Times) Serena Fleites, 19, in Bakersfield, Calif., Nov. 30, 2020. "Pornhub on Tuesday announced huge moves that could — if thoroughly put into effect — significantly curb future exploitation," writes New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. "I don’t trust Pornhub a bit, so officials will need to monitor this sector in a way they haven’t before."

We all need uplift this terrible year, so here’s inspiring news about some young heroes and the good they’ve achieved on a wrenching topic.

Young men and women who had been exploited by Pornhub as children shared their stories, their documentation and their mortification in hopes that this might prevent other children from being abused. And now, guardedly, there’s hope that they’ve brought about change.

Pornhub on Tuesday announced huge moves that could — if thoroughly put into effect — significantly curb future exploitation. I don’t trust Pornhub a bit, so officials will need to monitor this sector in a way they haven’t before.

And perhaps that will happen. Four senators, Josh Hawley, Maggie Hassan, Jonie Ernst and Thom Tillis, on Wednesday introduced bipartisan legislation to make it easier for rape victims to sue porn companies that profit from videos of their assaults. Another senator, Jeff Merkley, is separately drafting bipartisan legislation to regulate such companies more rigorously, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada (which is home to Pornhub) said Tuesday that his government was developing new regulations for these platforms as well.

Visa and Mastercard are reviewing their ties with Pornhub; there are calls for criminal prosecutions; activist groups like Traffickinghub are demanding action; and lawyers are circling with lawsuits.

All this may explain why Pornhub on Tuesday announced three steps that mirrored suggestions I made in a long investigative column over the weekend that quoted the young people who so bravely told their stories. 1.) It will allow videos to be uploaded only by people who have verified their identities. 2.) It will improve moderation. 3.) It will no longer allow video downloads, which allow illegal material to proliferate.

We should all be suitably skeptical. Fake IDs abound, and in September a Tuscaloosa, Alabama, man was charged with sexually assaulting a 16-year-old girl in videos that he posted on his verified Pornhub account. And even if there is no download button, it is still possible to download using other methods.

That said, this is a big deal, and it happened only because of young people who spoke up and forced difficult conversations that government leaders had dodged.

One woman I wrote about, Serena K. Fleites, 19, felt her life spiral out of control after naked videos of her were posted on Pornhub when she was 14; after two suicide attempts, she was homeless and living in a car in Bakersfield, California, with three dogs, dreaming of becoming a vet tech but having no idea how to get there.

I’m thrilled to report that Fleites has been deluged with offers of housing, jobs, education and counseling, and she and her dogs have moved into a long-stay hotel with help from a GoFundMe backed by readers. One benefactor has volunteered to pay for her education to become a vet tech.

When I texted her that offer, she texted back: “Omg that’s sooo awesome! I can’t wait to go back to school! I am ecstatic to hear this …. I really really want to go to school to become a vet tech. It’s just hard going to school while living in a car with 3 dogs.”

While it’s wonderful to see readers respond so warmly to an individual story, we also need structural changes to help others and to prevent the exploitation from happening in the first place. That means looking beyond Pornhub at rivals that have received less scrutiny, particularly XVideos and XNXX. All three are on lists of the 10 most visited websites worldwide, each of them attracting more visitors than Netflix.

A search for “less than 18” on XVideos, the most visited porn site in the world, returns thousands of videos plus these suggestions for additional searches: “training bra,” “really young,” “she s not adult,” “pre teens” and “11yo.” And a search for “middle school” leads to a suggestion that one also try “elementary school.”

Folks, this is disgusting.

Most of the results probably don’t involve children, but too many do, and the site is luring pedophiles who can then upload their own videos. This is Jeffrey Epstein on an industrial scale.

The issue isn’t pornography but rape. It is not prudishness to feel revulsion at global companies that monetize sexual assaults on children; it’s compassion.

We can also do much more to support children to make them less vulnerable to exploitation. That means fixing America’s dysfunctional foster care system and tackling our unconscionable levels of child poverty.

I don’t pretend that there are simple fixes. But some combination of civil liability, criminal prosecution, government regulation, sanctions by credit card companies and banks, and international cooperation to prevent companies from moving to less regulated countries, can induce better behavior. We may never eliminate child sexual abuse material online, but we can reduce the number of girls and boys who at 14 have their lives shattered by a wealthy corporation monetizing their most mortifying moment.

Thanks to readers for donating $4.8 million so far to my annual “gifts with meaning” initiative. The three nonprofits I recommend support girls’ education in sub-Saharan Africa, cataract surgery to repair blindness in Asia and Africa, and help for low-income students in the United States so they can complete high school and enter college. There are also volunteering options in the United States. More information at KristofImpact.org.

Nicholas D. Kristof

Contact Nicholas Kristof at Facebook.com/Kristof, Twitter.com/NickKristof or by mail at The New York Times, 620 Eighth Ave., New York, NY 10018.