Nicholas Kristof, The New York Times
Published: 2021-04-17 12:34:45 BdST
“I’ve no problem with consensual adults making porn,” says a Canadian student. “Who cares?”
The problem is that many people in pornographic videos weren’t consenting adults. Like her.
Just after she turned 14, a man enticed her to engage in sexual play over Skype. He secretly recorded her. A clip, along with her full name, ended up on XVideos, the world’s most-visited pornography site. Google searches helped direct people to this illegal footage of child sexual abuse.
In a video accompanying this column online, she recounts how she begged XVideos to remove the clip. Instead, she says, XVideos hosted two more copies, so hundreds of thousands of people could leer at this most mortifying moment of her life, preserved forever as if in amber.
That happens all over the world: Women and girls, and men and boys, are sexually assaulted or secretly filmed, and then video is posted on a major website like XVideos that draws traffic through search engines. While the initial video assault may be brief, the attack on dignity becomes interminable.
“The shame I felt was overwhelming,” the Canadian student says.
I wrote in December about Pornhub, a Montreal-based website that pioneered access to free porn uploaded by anyone — so-called tube sites that are like YouTube for nudity and sex. Since that article, credit card companies have stopped working with Pornhub, the site has removed more than 9 million videos, and the Canadian and United States governments have been cracking down on the company’s practices.
But as I noted at the time, the exploitation is rooted not in a single company but in an industry that operates with impunity, and punishing one corporation may simply benefit its rivals. That’s happening here. When Pornhub deleted videos, millions of outraged customers fled to its nemesis, XVideos, which has even fewer scruples.
Pierre Woodman, a veteran European pornographer, told me that while I may have damaged Pornhub financially, for XVideos “you are Santa Claus.”
That’s not a comfortable feeling, and it’s why we need to work to rein in an entire rogue industry — and for now, the behemoth is XVideos, bolstered by Google and other search engines.
“We are the biggest adult tube in the industry, with an average of 2 billion daily impressions worldwide,” boasts XVideos, which SimilarWeb ranks as the seventh-most-visited website in the world. Two slots behind is a sister website with almost exactly the same content, XNXX.com. Each gets more visitors than Yahoo, Amazon or Netflix.
XVideos and XNXX appear to be owned by mysterious French twins and based in a nondescript office building in Prague not far from Wenceslas Square. This building is the hub of a porn empire that gets 6 billion impressions a day and inflicts anguish all around the world — which raises a question:
Why do we let companies get away with this?
Heather Legarde, a young woman in Alberta, felt the world crashing down on her in August. She had discovered that her ex-husband had posted intimate videos of her online, she told me, and people around the world were gazing at her naked body.
“I’m all over the internet,” she told me sadly. “Not what I wanted to be famous for.”
Worst of all, in one video her former husband sexually assaulted her as she lay unconscious in their bed. Legarde has no recollection of the assault and no idea how the video was made. One clue: It was tagged “sleeping pills.”
Some 200,000 people had watched her being assaulted while she was drugged and unconscious. So on that day in August, mortified and dizzied by her discovery of the betrayal, Legarde prepared to tie a noose.
“I was standing in my garage under a beam, holding a rope,” she recalled. But finally, she changed her mind: “I said to myself, ‘If this is your solution, he’ll do this to someone else tomorrow.’”
So Legarde resolved to own her story and fight back, “so it doesn’t have to happen to other girls.”
That’s why she agreed to be quoted by name in this column. But her path through life is now paved with daily humiliations. She regularly searches for naked videos of herself and begs websites, sometimes successfully, to remove them.
“How do you get your head around 200,000 guys masturbating as you’re being assaulted?” she mused.
A great majority of videos on XVideos and other tube sites are not of children or of unconscious women. Most of the bodies are writhing by choice.
But it’s easy to find videos where the posting or the activity wasn’t consensual. A major study published in The British Journal of Criminology this year found that 1 in 8 videos on three major tube sites — XVideos, Pornhub and XHamster — depicted sexual violence or nonconsensual conduct. Some show intoxicated or unconscious women or girls being raped. Others are from spy cams in locker rooms or beach changing rooms and show unsuspecting women or girls (and, less often, men and boys) undressing or showering. Racist epithets and humiliation are on display, as are misogynistic videos of supposed feminists being degraded or tortured. Many videos depict rapists, real or fake, forcing sex on children or adults who are trying to fight back. One on XVideos is captioned with a girl’s protest: “This is not right, Daddy, stop, please.”
XVideos guides viewers to videos that purport to show children: Search for “young,” and it helpfully suggests also searching for “tiny,” “girl,” “boy,” “jovencita” and “youth porn.” Many of those on the screen will be young-looking adults, but some will be minors whose lives have been badly damaged.
“I think about suicide,” a Thai girl told me sombrely. She asked to be identified only by her nickname, Jenny, and she explained that when she was in the eighth grade, a man reached out to her on Facebook and suggested that she could make money modelling. He advised her to send videos of herself, including naked videos to give a sense of her body; these would be kept strictly confidential, she was assured.
Jenny sent him the videos. She was never paid as promised, and she forgot about the episode — until a friend alerted her that naked videos of her were on XVideos, Pornhub and at least one other site.
“I just wanted to die,” Jenny recalled. “I didn’t want my parents to know.”
Jenny is smart and well educated (she spoke to me in English) and is a beautiful singer, and she had hoped to become a music star in Thailand. “I don’t think that’s possible now,” she said. “My dreams are going to end because I have naked pictures on the internet.”
The Hug Project, a nonprofit in Thailand that works with trafficking victims, got XVideos to remove Jenny’s videos. But Jenny quit school because she couldn’t bear the humiliation, and every day she gets messages from strange men, sometimes with photos of their genitals.
Jenny is furious with herself for sending the videos. “I had the potential to do something great, but now I can’t,” she said. She agreed to be quoted, despite her shame, because she wanted other kids to understand that in the internet age, some mistakes are forever.
The abuses aren’t limited to obscure pornographic websites. Twitter, Facebook, Reddit and other sites are all sprinkled with child sexual abuse imagery.
One woman I interviewed, Adriane from Illinois, had been trafficked, and her pimp had posted naked video clips of her that had been sitting on Twitter for six years; she said Twitter had ignored her pleas to remove them. I asked Twitter, and they were removed within hours. But relying on newspaper columnists to get nonconsensual nudity removed is not a scalable solution.
Meanwhile, I found four videos of Adriane still on XVideos, despite her efforts to have them removed. They collectively have 108,000 views.
“The trafficking was one thing,” Adriane told me, “but I feel I’m being exploited all over again.”
Google is a pillar of this sleazy ecosystem, for roughly half the traffic reaching XVideos and XNXX appears to come from Google searches. “The porn tube sites are obsessed with their Google rankings because Google is their lifeline,” said Laila Mickelwait, president of the Justice Defense Fund, which fights sexual exploitation online. “Google is the primary means by which they drive traffic to their sites.”
A recent search with the words rape unconscious girl using Google’s video tab directed people to scores of videos celebrating just that, including one in which a woman first appears to be strangled to death (presumably she is acting) and then her “corpse” violated.
A Google search for schoolgirl sex turned up video results of teenagers having sex of all kinds (on a bus, with a “stepbrother,” etc.) on XVideos and XNXX. Most of the people in the videos are probably 18 or over, but who knows?
I reached out to Google to understand its reasons for complicity with companies that monetise child sexual abuse, but I didn’t receive satisfactory answers.
Google does have limits. I tried searching “How do I poison my husband,” and the results were literary or humorous, not how-to instructions. The top responses to “How do I commit suicide” were for a suicide hotline. So, Google, why not demonstrate the same responsibility when it comes to searches for rape videos?
In a statement, XVideos said it “does not tolerate or allow illegal content on its sites.” It also said, “We take such matters very seriously and have security and privacy protocols in place to address them.”
XVideos and XNXX appear to be owned by the twins Stéphane and Malorie Deborah Pacaud (sometimes rendered as Deborah Malorie Pacaud). The Pacauds, 42, avoid the media and didn’t respond to my inquiries, but others in the industry said that Stéphane Pacaud began the business in about 2001 by copying images from pornographic magazines and putting them on a simple website that became XNXX.
Fabian Thylmann, who helped build what became the Pornhub empire before selling it, described Stéphane Pacaud as a loner who devoted himself to his websites and other solitary pursuits.
“Even when in Vegas for conventions, he was often just in his hotel room working,” Thylmann said. In 2012, Thylmann offered to buy XVideos for $120 million, but Pacaud cut off the discussion and said he had to get back to playing a video game.
“I’m busy,” Pacaud scoffed, as Thylmann remembers the conversation. “I’ve no time to discuss this now. I’m playing Diablo II.”
The Pacauds’ empire became WGCZ Holdings, a company that appears to have been recently renamed WebGroup Czech Republic. It controls at least 60 companies worldwide, including some in the United States. Many of us were inspired by Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution in 1989; is it too much to ask that the heirs of that revolution not inflict rape videos on the world?
Czech police and prosecutors say that they are investigating XVideos and its affiliated sites, and the Czech press is publishing exposés about WebGroup’s practices. Under pressure, XVideos has removed some pedophile search terms in the last few months, but the cleanup doesn’t go very far. A search for “twelve” on XVideos suggested “related searches” of “training bra,” “7th grader” and “elementary.”
I know this is hard to read. But it’s nothing compared with what children in the videos endure.
What can be done?
A starting point is to recognise that the issue is not pornography but child abuse and exploitation. We can be sex positive and exploitation negative.
It’s a fair objection that cracking down on illegal pornography is sometimes a game of whack-a-mole. But while oversight won’t eliminate problems on the internet, it can reduce them.
For example, copyright protection is a priority for the US government, so mainstream porn companies mostly have learned not to steal content; when they do, they get sued and lose. If the United States and other Group of 7 countries cared as much about abused children as about video piracy, we could make XVideos equally vigilant about rape videos.
While there are no simple solutions, here are three steps that would help:
First, credit card companies should stop working with companies that promote illegal videos. PayPal had propped up XVideos because it was being used to pay for ads, but after this article was published online, the company announced that effective immediately it could no longer be used to purchase advertising on XVideos and related sites.
Mastercard took an important step a few days ago by announcing that it can be used by porn websites only if they verify age and consent of each person in sex videos; other card companies should do the same.
Second, search engines like Google, Yahoo and Bing should stop leading people to rape videos and stop directing people to websites with a long record of distributing them.
Third, we should create accountability in criminal and civil law, for that’s the best way to incentivise companies to clean up their act. In March a girl who was trafficked at 14 and forced to appear in sexual videos filed a lawsuit against XVideos, but such suits face difficulties under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Bipartisan legislation before the House and the Senate would make these suits easier to pursue, which could be a game changer by harnessing capitalism to induce better corporate behaviour.
“There’s always some enterprising lawyer waiting to pounce,” noted Marc Randazza, a lawyer who has represented XVideos and also victims of nonconsensual porn. “If you put civil remedies in, you would have a platoon of lawyers fighting to help you if you were a victim of nonconsensual porn.”
Facing this privatised accountability, companies like XVideos would themselves rush to remove nonconsensual imagery. We would have aligned the interests of porn kingpins and their 14-year-old victims.
Some worry that a crackdown would financially harm sex workers who sell videos of themselves. But these three steps would not kill the porn industry. People in the adult content industry say that companies like XVideos have a perfectly good business model with just consensual adult content.
Without accountability, corporations are tempted to avert their eyes, the most exploitative companies profit the most, and this creates a race to the bottom. The cost is borne by unsuspecting children and adults.
A 16-year-old in Perth, Australia, a good student and popular in school, took a naked photo of herself in front of a bathroom mirror. She sent it via Snapchat, so that it would automatically disappear in seconds, to her 17-year-old boyfriend, with the words: “I love you. I trust you.”
The boyfriend took a screenshot before it disappeared and shared it with five friends. They shared it with 47 of their friends. Within a few days, more than 200 people in the school had a copy. Someone uploaded it to a porn site, naming the girl and her school; over three months, with the help of online searches directing people to the site, the photo was downloaded 7,000 times. The family moved to a different city, but students there found the image as well, so the family fled to a different state in Australia.
Paul Litherland, a former Australian police officer who worked on the case, told me that the photo was posted on sites all over the world, so the girl felt she could never escape. She refused to attend school. She self-medicated with drugs. And then, at the age of 21, she took her life.
Those are the stakes. Do we side with her, or with XVideos?
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