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Down to Give? – The Shady Ethics of Porn Philanthropy

It sounds good paper, but the truth is that porn philanthropy is a topic far more controversial than one would expect.

This article discusses themes of sexual assault, child abuse, and rape. If you or someone you know are affected by the following story, you are not alone. To speak to someone, you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14, or 1800 RESPECT on 1800 737 732.

 The video starts with porn star Abella Danger walking towards the camera on an American farm, in front of an American barn, fondling a cornucopia of American vegetables (whose symbolism you can figure out for yourself). Abella is dressed in a Daisy Duke combo of cut-off denim shorts and a white shirt, tied artfully around the midriff. She’s here to talk about bees. “My friends and I think everyone should be having great sex, especially when that sex is so crucial to saving the planet,” she says, leaning casually on a hay bale. “Beesexual is a whole new genre of porn. We turn short videos of foraging bees into what they really are: funny, kinky, nature-porn.”

This is the launch video for Beesexual, a bee health awareness campaign that Pornhub ran in April 2019, and which really does feature close-up footage of wild bees in various states of cross-pollination. Beesexual videos have titles like ‘Mature Natural Gets Plowed By Worker Bee’ (127K views), ‘Interracial Gay Pollen Heist Gets Rough’ (82.4K views) and ‘Striped Mistress Spanks Naughty Sun Rose’ (159K views). Each clip is voiced — Attenborough-style — by a cast of well-known Pornhub personalities, who provide a kind of running internal bee-monologue. See: Brett Rosi (“Oh my! His pistils are hung like a tree!”) or Dante Cole (in a cartoon pan-Nordic accent: “’Ello, my name is Lars, vould you like a Swedish massage?”).

Whatever else you think of Pornhub — and there are people out there who think a whole lot of things — this is genius marketing. For every ‘view’ on a Beesexual video, Pornhub donates money to “notable bee-saving organisations”, such as Operation Honey Bee and The Centre for Honeybee Research. How much money exactly is unclear, but considering the probable funding of the average bee research institute, you’d guess it’s significant.

“With over 110 million daily visitors, we thought our users could come together to lend a helping hand and help conserve this precious species. It’s our duty to ensure bees continue to fornicate and pollinate,” Pornhub VP Corey Price said in Beesexual’s official press release.

Bee ecology and environmental activism might seem like an odd move for one of the world’s largest porn websites, kind of like Rio Tinto releasing its own range of organic kombucha or something, but Beesexual is just one of many, many campaigns from Pornhub’s dedicated philanthropic division, Pornhub Cares.

Before bees there was a $25,000 scholarship fund for American high-school students; a ‘Panda Style’ save-the-pandas campaign, which encouraged Pornhub users to “slip into” panda costumes, have sex, and upload the results; an ocean clean-up initiative to raise awareness about single-use plastics; a fundraiser for World Whale Day; an Arbor Day reforestation effort called ‘Pornhub Gives America Wood’ (15,473 trees planted, and counting); even a co-branded campaign with animal rights group PETA, to try and get pet owners to neuter or spay their cat/dogs/snakes/what have you. 

Most of these campaigns promise to donate “1 cent for every 2,000 video views” to various not-for-profits and environmental groups, which, to be frank, doesn’t sound like much. But the whale-saving campaign, for example, has apparently clocked up 5.7 billion views, which equals roughly $28,800. I’m not sure how much money is technically required to save all whales, everywhere, but $28,000 is still $28,000.

The big and obvious question when it comes to Pornhub Cares is: does it though? The second and potentially more interesting question is: who cares if Pornhub cares?

“The big and obvious question when it comes to Pornhub Cares is: does it though? The second and potentially more interesting question is: who cares if Pornhub cares?”

To answer your question about if it’s simply a marketing exercise, ‘No’ is the very simple answer,” says a spokesman from Pornhub. “But yeah, there are still difficulties. We try and give and give, and some people are going to be accepting, and some are not. I’d be lying if I said it was simple to give away our money.”

The consistent problem that Pornhub runs into is that, although they’re keen to give, the world is not always happy to receive. In 2012, The Susan G Komen Breast Cancer Foundation declined $75,000 from Pornhub, with a rather prickly press statement: “Susan G Komen for the Cure is not a partner of pornhub.com. We will not accept donations from this organisation and have asked them to stop using our name.” Some groups have accepted donations on the grounds of anonymity (meaning Pornhub can’t generate any tangible media benefit). The National Centre on Sexual Education (NCOSE) actually campaigned to end Pornhub’s $25,000 scholarship for vulnerable teens. “This company is built upon a legacy of exploitation, and it is no more charitable in mind than a tobacco company that offers a scholarship to whichever teen can smoke the most of its brand-name cigarettes,” said Dawn Hawkins, Executive Director of NCOSE.

“This company is built upon a legacy of exploitation, and it is no more charitable in mind than a tobacco company that offers a scholarship to whichever teen can smoke the most of its brand-name cigarettes.”

This PR roadblock even cropped up during the COVID-19 pandemic, when you’d think organisations would be less rigid when it comes to stuff like moral rectitude. “In the last few months, we purchased a lot of personal protective equipment, and we tried to donate it to a number of organisations and hospitals and first responders. But it took some time to find people who were actually willing to accept it,” Pornhub tells Rolling Stone. “The general response is, when you’re speaking to a hospital, ‘Okay let us talk about it’, and then they go away and come back and say, ‘We can’t take this from a porn company’.”

When the pandemic struck in March 2020 Pornhub pledged 50,000 surgical masks to first responders in New York, along with €50,000 to various European organisations and $25,000 to the Sex Worker Outreach Project, which doled out relief funds for sex industry workers impacted by the COVID-19 lockdowns. But they also made their premium website content free for everyone for 30 days.

Is that charity or opportunism? Since pornography can be addictive (more addictive than crack cocaine, according to some experts), and Pornhub’s entire business model is based on repeat visits and establishing patterns of browsing behaviour, it seems disingenuous not to toss around the idea that, by making premium content free for everyone, Pornhub stood to gain potentially millions of new users, and by extension more ad revenue.

These things swing both ways, so to speak. And if a hospital hypothetically rejects Pornhub’s generous offer of face masks and shields and other PPE, and their staff become sick or even die as a direct result of equipment shortages, where does the responsibility lie? What good is moral rectitude then? You can see how fraught and delicate and ethically murky all this stuff gets.

Abella Danger and Kira Noir

Abella Danger and Kira Noir: The adult entertainment stars were the face of Pornhub’s SFW Beesexual philanthropic awareness campaign. (Photo: Pornhub)

Question: does this sort of porn philanthropy bother you? Do you care either way? Should a company be unable to profit, even incidentally, from charitable good deeds?

“The first question is simply: are the company’s actions legal,” says Sarah Davies, former CEO of Philanthropy Australia. “If the answer is no, then obviously you wouldn’t accept their donation. But the next set of questions are, okay, what are the ethical frames of that activity. While it may be legal, do we think it’s a valuable part of the community?”

Let’s try and break these two arguments down. Pornography, in and of itself, isn’t illegal. But child sex abuse is illegal. Revenge porn is illegal. Sex trafficking is illegal. Broadcasting coerced sex and rape is illegal. And Pornhub has, over the last few years, and despite sincere and extensive monitoring efforts, hosted many of these forms of content, which is why so many not-for-profits politely refuse their money.

Facts: in June 2019, 22 women sued a production company called Girls Do Porn for manipulating them into appearing in pornographic videos, many of which ended up on Pornhub. Despite public outcry, Pornhub didn’t remove Girls Do Porn as an official site partner, or take the videos down until October, when the production company owners were arrested and charged with federal counts of sex trafficking. Then there was the Florida teen missing for over 12 months, who was only found after she was identified in 58 videos of rape and abuse, shared (and by extension monetised) on sites like Pornhub. The Internet Watch Association confirmed 118 separate instances of child sexual abuse on Pornhub over the last three years, while a Sunday Times investigation uncovered dozens more victims. 

In December 2020, following a New York Times investigation that uncovered multiple examples of child sex abuse on Pornhub, Visa and Mastercard cut ties with the platform, and Pornhub basically took its PR department to DEFCON 1, deleting most of its online content (roughly 10 million videos) and completely overhauling its upload protocols; now only verified Pornhub users can actually upload content to Pornhub. “Every piece of Pornhub content is from verified uploaders, a requirement that platforms like Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, Snapchat, and Twitter have yet to institute,” the company said in a statement.

It’s worth pointing out that Pornhub in no way endorses these numbers or makes excuses for them or tries to wish them away, but the company does want to put them in some kind of statistical context. “When you stack it up against literally any other user generated platform, we’re doing well,” Pornhub tells Rolling Stone. “I will never defend 118 videos, we don’t ‘only’ have 118 over a three year stretch. To say that is unfair. By no means will I ever defend 118. The goal is zero. One is too many. But this is a huge issue facing not just the adult content industry but the tech industry as a whole.”

This is worth talking about, if you can stomach it. While the Internet Watch Foundation did uncover 118 videos of child sexual abuse on Pornhub over a three year periodm Facebook removed 11.6 million pieces of similar content over three months in 2019. Between January and June 2019, Twitter suspended 244,188 accounts for violations involving child sexual exploitation. “I know there are going to be bad stories, because of the nature of the work we do,” Pornhub says. “But we do look for fairness, and there has been a lot of unfair reporting when people don’t contextualise.”

“I know there are going to be bad stories, because of the nature of the work we do,” Pornhub says. “But we do look for fairness, and there has been a lot of unfair reporting when people don’t contextualise.”

In the interest of fairness, here are some other contextual points to consider. A 2019 study found that 35% of porn clips online showed coercive behaviour, while 46% had incestual themes. Only 2-3% showed safe sex practices, like condom use. Nearly half of children in Australia between nine and 16 experience “regular exposure to sexual images”. (There have even been cases of child sexual assaults on

Pornhub being reported, not by authorities, but by the victim’s own classmates who happened to watch the footage). And although Pornhub does employ a team of human moderators — who, let’s face it, might have the most soul-fucking job in the universe — reports have put the team size at about 80. Facebook, by comparison, employs 15,000 moderators.

Research also suggests that porn may normalise sexual violence and violence against women. This is another reason why Pornhub’s COVID-19 premium content marketing blitz was sort of problematic. It’s akin to a cigarette company running ‘Free Pack Fridays’. For all the talk of free expression and healthy sexual curiosity and the slippery slope of puritanism, it takes some serious mental gymnastics to think of porn — at least the mainstream Pornhub variety of porn — as a net force of good in the world.

“One of the most alarming things is that porn can blur the lines of consent, making sexual assault sometimes unrecognisable to those who commit it, but also undermining capacity for consensual, fun, fantastic sexuality, which is what we want young people to freely grow into,” says Maree Crabbe, Director of porn education site, It’s Time We Talked

Maree Crabb, Director of porn education site, It’s Time We Talked. (Photo: Supplied)

Crabbe says porn philanthropy comes down to a simple equation: does the good they do outweigh the bad? “[Pornhub] might plant some trees, and that’s great. But it distracts us from some of the key areas in which porn might be creating harm, and enables them to present as a business that is socially responsible. Porn has always been a profit-driven industry.”

It’s a fair point. Pornhub’s estimated worth is $2.8 billion. The site attracts 3.5 billion visits per month,

which is more than Amazon and Netflix. And most of Pornhub Care’s campaigns are environmental ones, which you can either interpret as a sincere concern for our fragile global ecosystem, or (let’s face it) a not-so-subtle attempt to deflect from actual industry problems, like sex trafficking, child sex abuse, and declining wages (author Shira Tarrant estimates that a female performer filming three anal scenes a month earns about $40,000 per year). Honestly, is anyone actually against clean oceans, tree-planting and increased rates of panda sex? In PR terms, Pornhub’s chosen causes are the closest thing you can get to risk-free, slam-dunk publicity. It’s also hard to believe that if all of Pornhub’s donations were made anonymously, under the good-old Matthew 6:1 do-good-in-secret clause, there would even be a Pornhub Cares.

“I don’t buy that something is just fantasy and you can’t critique it. ‘Don’t yuck my yum’, you know,” says Crabbe. “On some level I can agree with that, but the reality is it’s not just something going on in someone’s room, it’s an industry. I did a post recently with some example videos titled ‘Scared Teens Cry While Fucked’ and ‘Meth Whore Cries While Gagged’. There are huge ethical questions about someone’s sexual gratification coming from the exploitation of human beings.”

This raises another interesting question: do we consume violent, misogynistic, potentially exploitative porn because we want to, or because that’s the only porn we get to see? It’s the same argument media organisations sometimes wheel-out to defend the publication of violent news and click-bait: we wouldn’t report this stuff if you lot didn’t enjoy reading it so much. Which comes first, the porn or the fetish?

This is complicated by the fact that no-one except Mindgeek (Pornhub’s Luxembourg-based parent company) knows exactly how Pornhub’s suggestion algorithm works. “This is a concern,” says Giulia from online transparency project, Pornhub Tracking Exposed. “If an algorithm’s platform suggests more often a specific sex-fetish, this particular sex-fetish will become normalised and prevalent. This will have consequences outside of screens — in relationships, in society, and in the sexuality of the individual.” In other words, the more violent porn we watch, the more violent porn the algorithm recommends, the more normal all this stuff starts to seem.

One thing we do know is that Pornhub’s content algorithm is unique in that it wants to, ah, get you off quickly. Unlike YouTube or Netflix, Pornhub’s AI isn’t trying to increase your time on site, but rather decrease it, to make the journey from search to orgasm more speedy and efficient. Of course, this isn’t always the case, and there are almost certainly people who enjoy browsing Pornhub for hours without release, indulging in some kind of (presumably quite frustrating) tantric foreplay, but they’re probably the exception.

“In the last decade porn has been datified and data has been pornified,” says Giulia. “A pornographic video now has no value — or at least the same value as every other digital artifact — if it isn’t associated with views and viewer data.”

Given all this, and everything we know about the modern porn industry, is it ‘right’ for them to carry out philanthropic efforts and reap the not-insubstantial PR benefit? Is Pornhub more concerned with doing good or just looking good? Is that even a relevant question? Surely it’s better for morally dubious industries to have some sort of corporate responsibility or charitable program, rather than nothing at all? If you were a deforested wasteland in North America, wouldn’t you want Pornhub there with a shovel, ready to help?

Sarah Davies, former CEO of Philanthropy Australia (Photo: Supplied)

Philanthropy Australia’s Sarah Davies says it comes back to the nature of charity. Despite appearances, philanthropy is a two-way street. Ironically, it requires both an informed giver and a consensual receiver, and both parties need to agree upon certain values and boundaries for the gift to work. “If you’re a charity, and you’re looking for donations and money to fulfill your purpose, it’s on you to develop your own guidelines and standards and processes around who you will and won’t accept help from, and why.”

“If you’re a charity, and you’re looking for donations and money to fulfill your purpose, it’s on you to develop your own guidelines and standards and processes around who you will and won’t accept help from, and why.”

“It might be because the leaders of Pornhub are environmentalists,” she says. “It could be that they haven’t even thought about it — they just took a poll and chucked some money over there. It could be that they’re deliberately avoiding the core problems and incompetencies of their industry. It could be anything really. It’s on the recipients to vet that and make up their own mind.”