You know, while I really detest the way Christianity insists that we adopt their pre-determined moral code I have to admit: developing your own can be a tedious and often exhausting process. On the one hand, you want to do what's right. On the other, there are many, many voices and opinions trying to steer us in one direction or another. And better still, there aren't always concrete answers to what's right and what's wrong. Sometimes you have to do some digging, consider all possible points of view, and make some decsions about how we, as individuals, are going to appraoch certain concepts. And tonight's topic is one of them. I'm Spider...
… and tonight we're going to talk about the many questions that arise on the subject of porn. We're not going to try to sway your opinion about whether it's right or wrong to engage with that kind of content. That's not our job. Our job is to present the big picture and help you make your own decisions. It's not as much about personal ethics as it is about personal responsibility and that is going to be the focus of the conversation this week. But before we get into that...
Two separate attacks on personal liberty make up our CBB segment tonight, one that shows evangelicalism's true colors on multiple levels and one that shows what the consequences SHOULD be for attempting to indoctrinate the young. It's CBB: Ready, Aim, Ire edition...
More and more, Christian nationalists are saying the parts they used to keep quiet out loud. A prime example of this is former republican lawmaker and candidate for governor of Mississippi, Robert Foster. He recently tweeted out to the entire Tweeting public that he thinks people who stand up for trans rights should be shot.
The tweet reads:
Some of y’all still want to try and find political compromise with those that want to groom our school aged children and pretend men are women, etc.
I think they need to be lined up against wall before a firing squad to be sent to an early judgment.
When the Mississippi Free Press asked for comment, he doubled down on his opinions:
“I said what I said,” he wrote, adding to what he had tweeted. “The law should be changed so that anyone trying to sexually groom children and/or advocating to put men pretending to be women in locker rooms and bathrooms with young women should receive the death penalty by firing squad.”
Of course those things aren't true: people who support trans people only want those people to be able to have all the same rights as everyone else, and to make sure they're able to be who they need to be in safety. Why are we discussing this guy?
Maybe this kind of rhetoric could simply be ignored if Foster was a random online troll, but he’s not. He served two terms in the Mississippi State House(from 2017 to 2020) and ran for governor in 2019. Even though he placed third in the Republican primary that year, he was able to snag up over 67,000 votes. He may well run again for higher office in the future.
His old campaign site enthusiastically relates how he's consistently pushed for a Christian nationalist agenda. This is in addition to all the lies about COVID he's spread and his complaining about how the 2020 election was stolen. The sort of guy who thinks the republican governor of Mississippi isn't republican ENOUGH. His desire to have his political enemies murdered is right on-brand for this guy.
Secondly tonight, some good news. American Athiests have helped a Texas teenager win a settlement against a teacher who bullied her for not saying the Pledge of Allegiance. The Texas Association of School Boards will have to pay $90,000 to end the case before it ever goes to trial, a decision that suggests they knew how this would play out and wanted to avoid a future, further catastrophe.
In 2017, when then original lawsuit was filed, then-17-year-old Mari Leigh Oliverwas a student at Klein Oak High School in Texas. She didn’t want to stand during the Pledge of Allegiance for personal reasons. Specifically, she doesn’t believeour nation is truly one with “liberty and justice for all” and she didn’t want to pretend like it was. Her teachers and principals, completely ignoring the law that allows students to sit out while the Pledge is recited, constantly punished her for her decision.
The allegations in the lawsuit are definitely worrying. As a freshman Oliver was written up for not saying the Pledge. Even when she talked with the principal about it, he took the teacher's side, and said he could write her up because of his military service, as if that defended anything.
Over the next two years, things did not get any better. She was constantly written up, and not one administrator ever took her side.
When Oliver was a junior, her protest resulted in a classmate standing up and calling her a “bitch.” That same student later posted pictures on Snapchat, including one with the caption, “Like if you don’t respect [our] country then get the fuck out of it[.]” Despite a forced apology in front of the principal, that same student later told another classmate (within earshot of Oliver), “There’s the bitch that sits for the Pledge.”
Eventually Oliver's mother withdrew her from school in order to homeschool her, at an expense of over ten thousand dollars.
Things didn’t improve during her senior year. Oliver came back to Klein Oak and was back in that sociology teacher’s classroom. The bully (presumably passing the class the year before) wasn’t there, but the teacher, Benjie Arnold, decided to step into that same role.
According to the lawsuit, Arnold told students “that sitting for the Pledge was a privilege, not a right, and that people who sit for the Pledge are unappreciative and disrespectful, stating that all they do is take from society.” He also, on another occasion, “compared people who refuse to say the Pledge to Soviet communists, members of the Islamic faith seeking to impose Sharia law, and those who condone pedophilia.” He told students to transcribe the words of the Pledge as an assignment and gave Oliver a failing grade when she refused to play along. (More on that in a moment.)
At one point, Arnold played Christian music in the classroom and “stared at Oliver continuously as the song played.”
This, finally was the impetus for the lawsuit that Oliver and her mother filed with the help of American Atheists. While many of the defendants named in the lawsuit were dismissed, the one against her sociology teacher, Benjie Arnold, stood.
Arnold’s defense was that he was immune. He said that, under Texas law, Oliver was required to say the Pledge (barring a written exemption from her mother, which is in dispute) and that forcing students to write the Pledge on paper was a general assignment and not a form of retaliation. In other words, he didn’t violate her constitutional rights, much less do so in such an egregious way so as to put himself at risk.
Last June, the (traditionally conservative) Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the case could indeed move forward — dismissing Arnold’s attempt to have the whole thing tossed out. American Atheists hailed the step forward, with the student’s lawyer saying “Mr. Arnold should have been teaching students about American freedom, not American intolerance.”
The case was heading for what would have been a highly embarrassing trial when the defendant's legal team decided to settle.
“Nonreligious students often face bullying or harassment for expressing their deeply held convictions,” said Nick Fish, president of American Atheists. “No one should have to endure the years of harassment, disrespect, and bullying our client faced.The fact that this happened in a public school and at the hands of staff who should know better is particularly appalling. After nearly five years of litigation, the defendant finally made the only smart decision and agreed to settle this case.”
Promo – TBD
So if you consume porn, regardless of your religion or lack thereof, you're in good company. Porn is a HUGE industry and has been for decades. Centuries if you want to get really technical. But for the purposes of this conversation we're going to look exclusively at the most modern examples. There has been a significant shift over the past couple decades in how porn is delivered and how it's marketed.
In years past, it existed in a couple specific forms, usually print content and film. In the good ol' days, porn producers made their money the old fashioned way. They had a physical product to sell, they marketed it to their target audience, and people bought it. The concept of “sex sells” is not at all new and porn has always been a popular commodity.
The Internet changed literally everything about porn. All of a sudden, there was a ton of free content out there, much of it involving a few sample images or 30-second video clips that existed for the purpose of selling the rest of the content in a gallery or on a website. But it did take a while for the Internet to have a significant affect on traditional media. After all, it took forever to download anything on a dialup connection and streaming video didn't happen until much later.
Currently, the global porn industry is worth nearly 100 BILLION DOLLARS. And they manage to rake that in with an amount of free content that would literally take centuries to watch if you streamed every pornographic video in existence back to back. So how do they do it? Where does all that money come from?
Well, it comes from the same place it always has. It starts with paid ads on related sites and then there are various ways the money is made and usually more than one person or entity makes money on the ad. Money is generated via impressions, click-throughs, and conversions. And at each of those steps, money is changing hands.
An impression refers to the number of times an ad is seen. The number of impressions relates directly to the amount of money the advertiser pays the site on which they're advertising. Larger production companies can dwarf smaller ones by always out-bidding them for ad impressions. Click-throughs make even more money for the host site because that means someone not only saw the ad but was interested enough in the content to click or tap to learn more. The big money is in conversions. That means that someone saw an ad, clicked through, and made a purchase.
This model works with virtually all Internet marketing types. Ads have been the lifeblood of a lot of most entertainment mediums since the advent of advertising and the cost of producing ads has gone down considerably over time. That means that even smaller content producers can create ads and have enough money left over to be able to generate enough impressions to turn a profit even on huge sites like Pornhub.
Bookmark all of that as we continue the conversation.
Let's understand this before we continue: there is porn that is made ethically and porn that is not. One of the key factors that blurs those lines considerably is this: were you able to access it for free? In that instance it is difficult to determine whether or not what you're watching or viewing was made or distributed with consent. And consent is important. If you wouldn't want strangers watching you have sex, then you need to respect other people's privacy. Pure and simple. Sadly, that aspect of it is just the tip of the iceberg.
As late as the early 2000s, the vast majority of porn was sold through traditional sources and Internet content was almost exclusively subscriber-based. Then several things happened. First, Internet connections started getting faster. Cable modem was a thing in the late 90s and people oohed and ahhhed over being able to download a huge ten megabyte file in under a minute. The problem was, though, that video content files were usually much larger and hard drives didn't have a fraction of the storage space modern computers or even phones do. For a long time, most online porn existed in the form of pictures. Not a lot of video. A lot of times the pictures were put out there to sell DVDs or to sell subscriptions to the site that hosted the thumbnail gallery you were looking at at that moment.
But as technology improved, computers got faster and more powerful, and Internet speeds just kept getting faster and faster, streaming video became a thing. On Feb. 14, 2005, the world was introduced to a website called YouTube. In the early days, it was nothing but a bunch of low-resolution, super short videos that people uploaded to the site. It wasn't great (and that's putting it lightly).
But over time, streaming technology also improved. It took advantage of ever-increasing Internet speeds and it afforded sites like YouTube the ability to host videos in higher resolution with fewer playback errors. Netflix started streaming content as a companion to their postal mail-based DVD rental business and that was kinda shitty at the beginning, too. That started in '07.
As time went on, the tube site concept got the attention of the porn industry. Only one problem – tube content is generally free with ads. Now all these companies who were making money on image gallery sites and selling physical media felt the push to go digital. And while a lot of these sites popped up around 2008 or 2009, many of them didn't last long. Most of the issue was that whenever someone decided to start a tube-style site that was porn based, they completely underestimated the bandwidth it would take to sustain it.
So only a few companies came out on top. Sites like RedTube, Xhamster and a little site called Pornhub were three that made the cut. These days it comes down to just a small handful of companies running the biggest and most successful porn sites, the biggest of which is a company called MindGeek. Here's just a small list of properties this company owns:
First, they own three of the biggest tube sites out there: RedTube, YouPorn and Pornhub. They also have a network of production companies that include:
…and so on. Why this is significant is that having the power of some of the biggest tube sites out there and a laundry list of production companies so extensive that you're more likely to be consuming content owned and distributed by Mindgeek than not, Mindgeek has the power to distribute a ton of premium content that they don't have to purchase ad space to sell. Produce, upload, and make the content premium and it's all done in-house with the only overhead being the production costs for the content.
In the meantime there's an endless ocean of user-uploaded free content, not a small amount of which is bootlegged from a bunch of Mindgeek properties and all of it basically becomes promotional content. Users see the watermark on a 60-second clip and they go looking for the rest of the video. I'm reasonably convinced that it's Mindgeek doing a lot of the uploading of their own free content themselves just to generate more clickthroughs and get conversions on the full-length versions of the videos.
But the real lifeblood of tube sites is user uploaded content and here is where we start running into trouble. When you see a Twisty's watermark on a video, you know that it's content that was produced through a studio using performers who have given consent for their images to appear in videos. The performers usually have to start each shoot by stating on that they are agreeing to have sex on camera and that they understand that the content is being produced for distribution.
The stuff that clearly isn't professionally produced, has no watermarks, and isn't posted under a studio's channel or other entity can originate anywhere, is not subject to age verification like professional studios and you never know if everyone in the video even has a clue that the content has been uploaded to a global porn network accessible by anyone who taps a button that says “I'm over 21.”
Pornhub in particular has had multiple problems since its inception revolving around two key (and very dark) areas in user produced porn: revenge porn and child porn and non-consensual content that includes things like revenge porn, spycams, and other forms of content wherein the participants are unaware that their images are being distributed and often monetized. And yes, there has been plenty of both of these niches represented on all of Mindgeek's sites. Pornhub being the biggest tube site property, they have found themselves in the crosshairs more than once... and with good reason. There's a ton of user-uploaded content on their sites that has no business being there.
At one point, Pornhub deleted a scorching 80% of all user uploaded content because the insane amount of content out there had become impossible to moderate and was all subsequently deemed outside the bounds of their rules and regulations for user-uploaded content. There was so much user-uploaded content they would never have been able to review it all and flag the stuff that was questionable and/or illegal.
Rape videos, hidden camera videos, and videos that feature underaged performers (many of whom are victims of human trafficking) still find their way onto tube sites at alarming rates. Even with an arsenal of safeguards and moderation efforts in place, the simple fact of the matter is that you never know how much of the content that is uploaded without specific branding is ethically produced or distributed and you might be consuming content that is illegal.
On December 4, 2020 The New York Times released a scathing investigation, alleging that using simple search terms, anyone could uncover a long list of “child rape, revenge porn, spycam shower videos, racist and misogynist content, and other forms of degradation and, in some cases, serious bodily harm. They estimated that Pornhub was hosting over 100,000 videos involving people not of legal age, some depicting assault. All of the above are hosted and monetized by pornhub and continues to be despite their supposed efforts to curtail it.
The report noted similarities between Pornhub and YouTube. In both cases, literally anyone can upload content to the site as long as they have an account. In the case of Pornhub, anyone could download site content whenever they wanted with just a basic free account. They have since changed this policy and several others in an effort to appear concerned. They're not and their safety measures are a joke.
And tons of damage has already been done. So they removed the download feature. Great. But what about all the content that was already out there and being shared around to multiple sites before any of this?
Along with the download ban (which is easy to work around – their security, with all due respect, sucks), Pornhub rolled out updated to its moderation features. Now only verified users can upload content which is a little better but really not much. The actual verification process is still a bit of a joke. They also established a ‘Red Team’ of self-auditors whose entire job is to monitor and moderate content and flag material that is potentially illegal. They also work with independent non-profit partners who are also there to moderate and flag questionable content. They also established a partnership with the NCMEC to do an audit of the site's content and determine just how much child porn has made its way onto the site over time.
In the now iconic article that almost singlehandedly turned the porn tube industry on its ear (not hard to do when one company owns almost everything), the New York Times had this to say in an opinion piece titled “The Children of Pornhub” by Nicholas Kristof, Published Dec. 4, 2020:
That supposedly “wholesome Pornhub” attracts 3.5 billion visits a month, more than Netflix, Yahoo or Amazon. Pornhub rakes in money from almost three billion ad impressions a day. One ranking lists Pornhub as the 10th-most-visited website in the world.
And then there's this VERY disturbing bit...
After a 15-year-old girl went missing in Florida, her mother found her on Pornhub — in 58 sex videos. Sexual assaults on a 14-year-old California girl were posted on Pornhub and were reported to the authorities not by the company but by a classmate who saw the videos. In each case, offenders were arrested for the assaults, but Pornhub escaped responsibility for sharing the videos and profiting from them.
And if that isn't infuriating enough, search terms like “young tiny teen,” “extra small petite teen,” “tiny Asian teen” or just “young girl” net a sea of results. The search term “young asian” resulted in an offering of 26,000 videos at the time the article dropped.
Kristof goes on to say, Pornhub profited [in Fall of 2020] from a video of a naked woman being tortured by a gang of men in China. It is monetizing video compilations with titles like “Screaming Teen,” “Degraded Teen” and “Extreme Choking.” Look at a choking video and it may suggest also searching for “She Can’t Breathe.”
And, ok... I know we all have our likes, our interests, our fetishes, and our kinks. Here's the thing: find an actual person or group of people to explore them with. Don't go on a tube site and participate in the victimization of people just so you can get off. Sorry to be so blunt but it's not the subject matter or the content that I take issue with. It's the potential harm that could and often does come to people who find themselves starring in these videos with no way for the viewer to know if that person did what they did in the video consensually. Was that person of legal age? Was that person consenting? Was that person compensated for their participation? Obviously there are no answers to that question in most cases of user uploaded content and, let's be real here: the vast majority of people out there don't care. And that's a problem. And it's why this remains a problem.
And, by the way... “teen” is the #1 searched term in pornography. Why then, would a company like mindgeek whose revenues are fueled by the type of content an alarming number of users are there to see do anything to curtail content that might be illegal or non-consensual... until someone calls them out?
And just so we're clear that this is not just a problem with one site or one company, some of the bigger names in social media and even search giant Google have a degree of complicity with this.
Depictions of child abuse also appear on mainstream sites like Twitter, Reddit and Facebook. And Google supports the business models of companies that thrive on child molestation.
Google returns 920 million videos on a search for “young porn.” Top hits include a video of a naked “very young teen” engaging in sex acts on XVideo along with a video on Pornhub whose title is unprintable here.
And this is a problem that is just getting worse over time.
In 2015 the NCMEC received reports of 6.5 million videos or other files out there for public consumption. In 2017 that number was 20.6 million. In 2019 it was 69.2 million. Houston, we have a problem.
Now, here's the real question: do you think Mindgeek cares at all about any of this? Of course they don't. But they also know that there could be consequences ranging from revenue loss to criminal charges if they don't at least demonstrate an aggressive effort to curtail non-ethical and illegal content on their sites. There is still a ton of content out there that exists in an ethical and legal grey area. Pornhub will tell you they're deleting anything that looks remotely questionable but first, I don't think they're doing as much as they claim and, second, the criteria they work with is so broad (and left largely up to the moderators' interpretation), one person could look at a video and green light it, another could look at it and flag it. Who's right? Who's wrong? The short answer is nobody really knows so that's where a little thing called personal responsibility kicks in.
But are there problems even when everyone involved is consenting? Oh, most definitely...
In preparation for this week's episode, I rewatched the Netflix documentary Hot Girls Wanted. And it starts out with these facts:
More people visit Porn sites each month than Netflix, Amazon, and Twitter COMBINED
More and more of the content consumed is “pro-am” porn – videos featuring paid amateurs
“Every day another girl turns 18 and every day a new girl wants to do porn.” - most women find their way into the industry through “talent agents” who are basically glorified pimps that get a cut of their work. And that cut nets them some huge rewards.
“We're gonna be stars someday” - it's a common perception and goal of women who get into the industry. They're promised a lot and some of them get it... but at a very hefty price. Most don't last long at all.
Here's a big problem: I'm all for free speech and free expression, but according to HGW, Twitter is the biggest social media outlet for new porn talent because it doesn't censor most pornographic content. The problem with that: you can get a Twitter account at age thirteen. What that means is that it can be accessed by underage people without so much as an age verification check and, let's be real – those age verification checks are pointless. You just tap the button that says you're over 18 or 21 and with no attempt at verification whatsoever, you're in. This is true of sites that sell or market alcohol and it's true of every marijuana dispensary website I've ever seen, too.
Most girls have careers in porn with a shelf life of just a few months. A year is considered a long career. Now, I know from experience that many do last MUCH longer but they are in different niches.
The entire documentary shows the kinds of things that people, mostly young women of course, go through in their efforts to make money in porn. And there is some very questionable content out there. One performer who specializes in niches like degradation and forced blowjobs says she does it because it satisfies a certain kind of guy's urges. If he can watch it happen to a girl on a screen he might not go out and try to victimize someone. The lust is satiated, he gets off, and that's that.
Of course, that's not always the case, especially in the case of younger consumers. Young boys in particular get lots of bad information about what sex is from porn. An older adult is far more likely to understand that what they're seeing is a caricature of sexuality but what about the 15 year old who happens upon a forced blowjob video? Remember... lots of free shit out there and all you have to do is tap and say you're 21 to access it. 30 years in and site security hasn't matured a day. It's really shameful.
But let's bring the conversation back full circle now and let's address the audience of this show. We have lots of evangelicals and former evangelicals who either never dipped a toe in this pool or have been taught to fear porn for the evil thing that it is.
So let's answer the original question in this conversation: is porn ethical. And the frustrating answer to that question is, “it depends...”
As a consumer, I don't think there's much out there that would be considered unethical to consume. Non-consensual porn, child porn, and content that falls under those blankets are clearly unethical but even extreme niches like degradation aren't necessarily bad. What it boils down to is this:
1. Where are you getting your content?
2. Are you sure you're watching people who want to be watched?
3. Is what you're consuming clouding your view of sex or the role of other people in your sex life?
4. Do you understand that most porn does not realistically portray what sex is or even what a naked body looks like?
5. Is consuming pornography part of your balanced existence or does it take up disproportionate amounts of your time?
Let's chat about each of these points in turn just a little bit... [ad lib]
In conclusion, I really like this line from the NYT article: “It should be possible to be sex positive and Pornhub negative.” And I agree. I choose the content I consume carefully. I steer clear of content I can't verify to be legal or consensual, and I do my best not to contribute to people being exploited or abused.
And no, it isn't always easy to determine that, but it's far easier when you adopt a traditional model for obtaining and consuming porn. Well... what does that entail? For me, it means two things primarily:
1. Obtaining paid subscriptions to established sites with established brands
2. Verifying the site has an 18 U.S.C. 2257 RECORD-KEEPING REQUIREMENTS COMPLIANCE STATEMENT that says the following or words to their effect:
All of the models were at least 18 years old at the time of the photography. In compliance with the Federal Labeling and Record-Keeping Law, (also known as 18 U.S.C. § 2257 and associated regulations), all models' proof of age is held by the custodian of records, which is listed below.
Now let's bring this whole thing around to the individual. Let's be real. There is no fool-proof way to determine that every performer or model on every site you visit was treated humanely through the process of producing content. There is no way to know with certainty that there are things going on behind the scenes that shouldn't. But there are plenty of red flags that we CAN steer clear of when deciding whether or not we're going to consume specific pieces of content.
If you're using a paid, subscriber service that is part of a legal, functional, professional production company, chances are you're not participating in sex trafficking, monetizing rape, or contributing to anything immoral, unethical, or illegal. Before you click on a clip or a scene that is clearly not professionally produced, understand the possibility that the person or people involved might not have consented to you doing so. If you wouldn't want someone watching you in those intimate moments, then extend the respect to others you would want extended to you. Choose wisely what you consume. It's not like there isn't a treasure trove of content out there to choose from.
And if you're a former evangelical, also understand this: your perception of what sex is has been skewed from the time you could understand. Be careful what messages you send yourself about it. There's nothing wrong with having specific kinks, but do understand the difference between actors playing roles and what should happen between you and an intimate partner in a real life situation. Don't teach yourself to think like an abuser and don't teach yourself to think of women as objects who exist to cater to any and all male fantasies including rape or other forms of victimization and degradation. Because there are plenty of evangelical men – and women – who think this way. And whether it comes in the form of “the transformed wife” or degradation porn, the messaging about women is the same and that messaging is almost always toxic.
Lastly, there is nothing shameful about liking porn. You don't have a problem if you consume porn. You aren't sinning when you consume that kind of content. Just be sure that you are considering the big picture when you're deciding how to gratify those urges. There are ways that contribute to people's livelihoods and there are ways that contribute to abuse. Know the difference between the two. Make good choices. Do what you can to protect the privacy and well-being of people who are participating in porn without their knowledge or consent. The easiest way to do that is to not give questionable content the clicks it needs to propagate and make money. If more people start consuming porn with a slant toward ethics, it WILL reduce instances of victimization and force content creators to do things in a way that is ethically based and above-board.
It doesn't matter if it isn't someone you know or love. Approach your decisions about what you consume like it is. Would you be ok with a stranger watching your daughter or your wife or your romantic partner in those contexts? Then don't do it to someone else's child, spouse, or partner. It's do right for right's sake 101. And thinking like that – doing what's right because it's right – will keep you on a path of personal integrity and help you keep refining your own moral code. Better still, it will keep you on a path to getting and staying unbound.