All of these Black women for sale. I thought about slavery in that porn shop. I thought about the stories my Grandmother told me about her mother’s life under slavery … seeing these Black women shackled, spread-eagle, or hog-tied made it seem as though this part of history — the history of my foremothers’ enslavement — was repeating itself.
Vednita Carter, sex trade survivor; founder of Breaking Free
A number of states, including Utah and Arkansas, have declared pornography a public health crisis. With 88% of porn videos depicting physical aggression, many fear that the proliferation and unhooked accessibility of pornography online is normalizing violence against women and sexual abuse of children.
Research has found that “mirror neurons” that fire and wire the brain make us feel one another’s pleasures and pains. According to scientists, mirror neurons are powerfully activated by pornography. Highly frequent porn users share traits with drug and opioid abusers, often leading to failing relationships, destroyed marriages, and health issues, including erectile dysfunction.
In the midst of this growing research on the pervasive social and medical harms of pornography, irrespective of one’s views on morality, up pops Pornhub, posing as an innocuous temporary retail store in one of the priciest neighborhoods of Manhattan.
Almost hidden on a quaint cobblestone street in fashionable SoHo, one could easily walk by the storefront without a second glance. But people are flocking to the porn shop thanks to glowing reviews from an enthusiastic media. The New York Times described it as an antidote to the “dearth of smut” in the city and Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office brushed it off as “not that interesting.” Lines of eager or curious visitors snaked the block the day Pornhub’s pop up opened; the owners plan to repeat this across the city next year and they launched one in Milan.
Through the glass door, Pornhub’s space is airy with a sleek understated design reminiscent of Scandinavian minimalism. The handful of scattered sex toys and clothing in the polished loft are an afterthought to the fare Pornhub is really selling. This isn’t Babeland. Pornhub isn’t peddling fun sex or erotica. It is masterfully marketing itself in a corporate push to increase viewership on one of the vilest porn sites on the Internet. In 2016, Pornhub had 64 million visitors to its site every day — that’s 44,000 hits every minute.
Pornography literally translates from Ancient Greek (porne + graphos) as the depiction of female slaves in prostitution or as poet and feminist theorist Robin Morgan once said: “pornography is the theory and rape is the practice.”
“As long as porn is seen as synonymous with sex, people will defend it, but in fact, pornography is about power, not sex, just as sexual harassment is about power,” says Gloria Steinem, a woman who knows a thing or two about the millennia-long resistance to achieving women’s equality. “Mutually chosen sexual pleasure is not pornography or harassment. We need to make the difference clear to save the lives and shared humanity of both men and women."
Self-described as the “#1 free sex community on the net,” Pornhub’s website page shows a grid of about fifty screens on which you can click for a fuller viewing. Titles include “Picking up a Schoolgirl for a Quick Drive Home,” “Jap Maid Serves the House Guest,” “Hot Innocent Teen Gives Grandpa a Blowjob.” Viewers pick the women by race or categories, like “stepdaughter” or “barely legal.” Without an additional click, Pornhub visitors watch middle-aged men penetrating “actresses” resembling barely pubescent girls in pigtails and school uniforms.
When porn establishments polluted New York’s Times Square in the gritty 1970s, only a tiny percentage of the world’s population wandered into the triple X neighborhood. Today, boys as young as eight stumble onto Pornhub online with a simple age-appropriate search of the word “butt.” High school girls seeking college scholarships quickly land on Pornhub’s invitation to win free tuition in exchange for surfing what profound misogyny looks like.
“Pornography shapes how we think about sexuality, intimacy, sexual violence and gender equality,” says Sonia Ossorio, president of NOW-NYC. “When New York glorifies a chic storefront that promotes, in the most mainstream way, sexual crimes on its bomber jackets, including gang bangs, incest and child rape, we have a problem.”
Studies have found that the consumption of pornography is associated with the perpetuation of male physical and psychological violence against women and rape myths. From the White House to every work environment and beyond, the #MeToo accusers report how their aggressors treated them as sex dolls created to quench the perpetrators’ darkest fantasies. The victims’ fear or lack of consent was irrelevant.
Comedian Louis C.K.’s masturbation in front of his stunned female colleagues is straight out of porn (he actually admitted to watching porn since he was 12 years old). Harvey Weinstein inviting actress Cara Delavingne to his hotel room to kiss a stranger in the hopes he could join the two women in sexual acts is also straight out of porn. So is television anchor Matt Lauer’s secret button under his office desk that allowed him to lock in his unsuspecting prey to sexually assault them.
Pornhub is part and parcel of the multi-billion dollar sex industry, which profits from exploitation, the selling of dehumanization, and the sex trafficking of the most marginalized people on the planet. Don’t be fooled by this long-fanged wolf in sheep’s clothing; Pornhub’s business model is in essence sexual violence and it richly profits only if the brutal sex trade continues to flourish.
“Many survivors of the sex trade will tell you that their pimps or traffickers bring cameras into the room at least once to get their rapes on film,” says Melanie Thompson, 21, who was trafficked in Queens at the age of 12. “It didn’t matter that you felt humiliated and degraded. You had to deal with it. You had to smile and submit, or face the consequences from your buyer and your pimp — whatever that was.”
If you are already attached to Pornhub or similar sites, then act like a responsible consumer. People are now rightly concerned if their chocolate or t-shirts are produced with forced labor or as a result of child trafficking. Do the same with Pornhub and sexual exploitation. Find out who winds up with the lush earnings. Educate yourself about the lives of these very young women, mostly of color, portrayed as enjoying bondage in chains and being whipped. Who supplies this endless flow of women for their videos — organized criminal trafficking networks or local pimps? Ask them how old these women were when first sold into the sex trade — 16? 14? Or like Melanie, 12? No one graduates from being a sex trafficked child into an empowered porn star.
That our leaders in cities across the country allow brazen profit making off “depictions of female slaves” inhibits any effort toward achieving equality. The sloppy argument of protection of free speech blinds us from seeing the plain-sighted links between sexual violence and harassment, and the sex trade, including prostitution and pornography. Unless we make these connections, colleges will continue to struggle with rampant sexual assaults on campus and women will still wonder when they will be valued as human beings. Pornhub teaches our sons that sex is a vehicle to control women's bodies and wires our girls to absorb degradation and sexualized male dominance as the price of being female.
That Pornhub broadcasts its grotesque fare on the Internet is for us to address as a global community. For it to hang a shingle on charming cobblestoned streets to groom the next generation of sexual predators is something New Yorkers must fight.