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Pornhub wishes you a happy Valentine’s Day. To celebrate the Hallmark holiday, the online-smut giant is opening its premium service to all—a move that last year drew more than 3 million users to the normally pay-walled section (the free section attracts 120 million daily). New Yorkers, meanwhile, can head down to the Lower East Side to browse Pornhub’s pop-up store, featuring “Brand Ambassador” Asa Akira as well as Pornhub-branded chachkies.

As a jokey Forbes write-up noted, “if you ever wanted to get your sweetheart a Pornhub-branded mug and some flowers, now’s your chance.” Every buyer also gets a “gift card for one month of free Pornhub Premium, again solidifying the fact that all this marketing is just a sales funnel.”

To anti-sex trafficking activist Laila Mickelwait, however, there is nothing funny about the gimmick. “Pornhub cashes in by the millions on the exploitation, rape, and trafficking of women and girls,” she told me. “Pornhub has nothing to do with love—nothing to do with making love. It has everything to do with hate. It promotes and profits from making hate to women.”

The 37-year-old is director of abolition at Exodus Cry, a Sacramento-based group that seeks to abolish sex trafficking worldwide. In recent months, she has also emerged as a forceful opponent of Big Porn, a multibillion-dollar industry peddling a highly addictive product yet receiving none of the scrutiny faced by, say, Big Tobacco.

For Mickelwait, the battle is foremost about the dignity of women and girls. In college, the Golden State native’s heart bled for a range of causes: the poor, the homeless. “But the one that really gripped me was sex trafficking, at a time when it wasn’t popular to be focused on it.” She wanted to “understand why it’s growing,” and not just to rescue the trapped woman or child but to “prevent her from finding herself in that situation in the first place.”

In 2011, she joined Exodus Cry. The organization’s theory of the sex trafficking crisis, now supported by a mountain of empirical evidence, is that trafficking flourishes in thriving commercial-sex markets driven by men’s demand. “Sex trafficking happens in the prostitution industry,” Mickelwait says. “It happens in pornography. You can’t separate these things, and they are all fueled by demand.” In other words, putting an end to sex trafficking requires shutting down commercial sexual exploitation in all its forms.

Initially, her focus was on prostitution. As a 2013 European Journal of Law and Economics study found, sex trafficking is “most prevalent in countries where prostitution is legalized.” Consider Germany, which in 2002 legalized the prostitution industry and where today roughly 400,000 women daily service a million men in more than 3,500 brothels. In 2018, a German court found the owner of the country’s largest brothel guilty of abetting trafficking.

Meanwhile, the same study found, there exists “a causal link from harsher prostitution laws to reduced trafficking.” That’s the lesson of the so-called Nordic model, in which johns and pimps face criminal prosecution while women caught in the trade receive social support. Sweden pioneered it in 1999 (hence the name), and today the country has the lowest sex trafficking rates in the European Union. Mickelwait has promoted the Nordic model worldwide, including in the United States, where she helped develop and introduce the Sex Trafficking Demand Reduction Act, a bill in the current Congress that would codify Nordic-model principles at the federal level.

Beyond the trafficking aspect, there is the sheer brutality meted out to women sold for sex. The prostituted woman’s life is “multitraumatic,” according to a multi-country study of nearly 900 prostitutes published in 2003 in the Journal of Trauma Practice. Seven in 10 women had been physically assaulted; 6 in 10 had been raped; 9 in 10 wanted to escape the trade. A study of nearly 2,000 female prostitutes, published in 2004 in the American Journal of Epidemiology, concluded that “no population of women studied previously had a . . . percentage of deaths due to murder even approximating those observed in our cohort.”

Yet the pimp lobby seeks to hide these realities behind euphemisms like “sex work” and the narrative, increasingly amplified by liberal feminists, that prostitution is “empowering for women, that it’s a form of liberation, that it’s a job like another.”

The explosive popularity and normalization of online porn have only made it harder to combat that narrative. Our culture as a whole is now accustomed to the idea that donning platform heels and selling their bodies is just another thing women do. But porn is as violent an enterprise as prostitution. Indeed, as Mickelwait notes, “the only difference between pornography and prostitution is that there is a camera turned on.” Therefore, all the cruelties associated with “real-world” prostitution are also present in porn production.

Karen Countryman-Roswurm of Wichita State University’s Center for Combating Human Trafficking has interviewed numerous victims. In many cases, she found, traffickers use porn shoots to “desensitize [victims] to the sexual acts they would experience” and to “advertise” victims to clients. The ordinary porn user browsing the infinite scroll of pornographic images has no way of knowing that any particular “performer” isn’t, in fact, coerced or trafficked.

Think that’s overstating it? Consider the recent case of a missing South Florida 15-year-old, who was only found because 58 videos of her rape and sexual abuse were circulated on Pornhub.

As Mickelwait discovered for herself, all you need to upload a video is an email address. That’s it: no government-ID requirement, no reliable age- or consent-verification hurdle. To become a blue-checkmarked Pornhub user on the site, the uploader must simply share a photo of herself holding a piece of paper with her username written on it—something any trafficker could coerce a victim into doing. In the case of the Floridian girl, Pornhub’s Twitter team briefly admitted to verifying the account before quickly deleting the tweet, presumably upon realizing the implication.

The only realistic way to shut down the trafficking-porn nexus is by shutting down porn, starting with the largest site, Pornhub. Mickelwait’s Change.org petition calling for just that has garnered nearly 76,000 signatures as of this writing.

Yet Mickelwait isn’t without her enemies, many of them high-profile prostitutes and porn performers who advocate for the industry. Porn, prostitution, “camgirl” work and the like, they insist, are things they enjoy doing. But Mickelwait knows many are coerced into it (because they need a paycheck from pimps and pornographers). Others speak from an experience that is far from representative of what most women and girls go through.

“My advocacy is informed by voices of survivors,” Mickelwait told me. “They’re the ones who come out of it, reflect on it, then tell the truth. When I speak to survivors, they have a very different narrative.”

Of the 42 million women working in prostitution globally, the vast majority come from impoverished, marginalized, and abusive backgrounds: “You see a small handful of these vocal advocates who have the time, freedom, and means to be on social media in the first place, and those are the voices that are often listened to—when behind them are millions of women around the world who don’t even have the freedom to get on the Internet.”

By touting the pimps’ mantras of autonomy and choice, liberal feminism compounds the marginalization of the majority. “I subscribe to the values of radical feminism,” Mickelwait says, “which is different from liberal feminism. Radical feminism is about the liberation of all women as a class, and you’ll never liberate women from the oppression we have faced historically as long as there is a subgroup of women who are being bought and sold in prostitution and pornography.”

She adds: “The goal is for us to thrive together as a society, but we can’t do that when you’re holding one group of women down in pornography and prostitution.”

Sohrab Ahmari is the op-ed editor of the New York Post. He is finishing a book exploring 12 questions our culture doesn’t ask.

Photo by Exodus Cry and Nefarious LLC via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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