Lawsuit Sheds Light on Dehumanizing Porn Industry

Pornography presents and promotes a distorted view of human sexuality, in which the person portrayed, man or woman, is treated as merely a means of pleasure.… Their dignity is abused as they are used for others’ pleasure and profit.… It rejects the equal dignity and complementarity between man and woman and strikes at the heart of God’s plan for communion between persons by substituting an image of the viewer’s own lustful desires – which is ultimately illusory – for the reality of a true relationship with another human being.

Create in Me a Clean Heart: A Pastoral Response to Pornography

A small, but potentially important, victory in a court case is drawing attention to the dark and violent side of the porn industry, and potentially preparing the legal framework to protect countless victims from being exploited.

A few days ago, a judge in California allowed a lawsuit to proceed against MindGeek (the owner of Pornhub, and numerous other popular porn websites) as well as Visa. The lawsuit accuses MindGeek and Visa of profiting off child pornography.

In response to the judge’s decision, Visa and Mastercard promptly announced that they would temporarily suspend processing payments for advertising purchases on Pornhub, the world’s largest pornography website, thus removing one of MindGeek’s most-significant sources of income.

 

The Devastating Story of Serena Fleites

The court lawsuit against MindGeek was filed by a young woman named Serena Fleites, as well as thirty-three other, unnamed women who were exploited by the porn company.

Fleites was only thirteen years old when her boyfriend uploaded a pornographic video of her to Pornhub. At the time Pornhub allowed anyone and everyone to upload videos, while making only the most token efforts to screen out videos that might depict non-consensual, underage, or otherwise abusive content. According to the suit, despite the millions of videos being uploaded on a regular basis, at one point the site only employed six content moderators, who were given bonuses based upon the number of videos that they approved.

Fleites’ boyfriend didn’t even attempt to disguise the fact that the video he was uploading was flagrantly illegal, titling it, “13 year-old brunette shows off for the camera.” Despite the obviously problematic title, Pornhub approved the video, making it available to anyone who wanted to view and download it. The site, which is heavily ad-supported, also profited from the video, running ads alongside it.

After the video began circulating among Fleites’ classmates, she contacted the company, pretending to be her mother. The company responded saying that they would remove the video. However, it took them weeks to get around to doing so. By that time, the video had been viewed 400,000 times, and numerous users had already downloaded copies of it, which they then reuploaded to the site and other sites associated with MindGeek, using different titles.

One copy of the video amassed 2.7 million views. At this point, Fleites was left playing a macabre game of whack-a-mole, contacting Pornhub to remove various iterations of the video. Each time the company demanded that Fleites send photographic evidence that she was the underage person depicted in the video. As the judge notes in his decision, MindGeek often used stalling tactics to avoid removing illegal videos, and even targeted whistleblowers with campaigns to discredit them.

There are no words to describe the callousness described in the lawsuit filed by Fleites and other women, all of whom say that MindGeek profited off of videos taken and uploaded to their site without their consent, often when they were underage.

It is hard to imagine how any thirteen-year-old, so cruelly taken advantage of by a boyfriend and then a faceless global pornographic corporation that repeatedly refused to do the bare minimum to protect her, could have coped. Unsurprisingly, Fleites’ life quickly spiraled out of control. Her classmates harassed and bullied her to the point that she started skipping school. She ultimately attempted suicide multiple times. On one such occasion her younger sister and her mother’s boyfriend found her hanging and “removed the power cord from her neck.”

After moving out of her mother’s house, Fleites was introduced to heroin, and then taken advantage of by an older man, who convinced her to make further pornographic videos in order to pay for the drugs, even though she was still a minor. The video also ended up on Pornhub. At the time that Fleites and the other women filed their lawsuit, some of the videos depicting an underage Fleites were still available on Pornhub.

The shadow of a sad woman sitting on balcony alone

 

Holding Pornhub and Visa Accountable

Fleites’ destroyed childhood can never be returned to her. The videos of her can never be completely eradicated from the Internet. Having been downloaded by countless users by this point, they will circulate widely, alongside untold millions of other videos depicting child abuse that are traded among users.

Yet, the gigantic, wealthy corporations that facilitated and profited from the destruction of her innocence can still be held accountable. And that is what Fleites and the other unnamed women who signed onto the lawsuit, are attempting to make happen.

As the lawsuit notes, “in just a few clicks, in just a few minutes, users (and investigators and journalists) could find seemingly unlimited pages and videos depicting . . . child sexual assault or exploitation” on Pornhub and other sites owned by MindGeek.

Importantly, Fleites isn’t only targeting MindGeek. She is also targeting Visa, which she alleges enabled MindGeek to rake in hundreds of millions of dollars in profit by processing the company’s credit card transactions.

There is some important back story here.

In December of 2020, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote a short, but profoundly influential column on MindGeek’s misdeeds, including Fleites’ story. The column went viral. One result of which was that Visa and Mastercard temporarily halted payment processing for the site.

Faced with impending financial disaster, MindGeek suddenly discovered that it had the ability and willpower to do something to address cases like Fleites’. Pornhub immediately suspended uploads by “unverified” users and deleted any content uploaded by such users, with the result that the site wiped out 80% of its content.

This fact alone just goes to show how utterly corrupt Pornhub’s business practices were and are, and how utterly baseless its prior claims that it took reports of abusive content “seriously.” In reality, the company was allowing anybody and everybody to upload any video, without anything even approaching a robust process for ensuring that the videos were being published with the consent of their participants, and that the participants were not underage.

As David French notes, in a recent column about this case:

If someone wanted to create a system that was designed to facilitate the distribution of child pornography, videos of rape and other kinds of abuse, or revenge porn, it would be hard to construct a more efficient system than MindGeek’s. And the sheer amount of MindGeek’s traffic and the volume of the downloads demonstrates that Pornhub and other sites are injecting poison into American life at an industrial scale.

Only when faced with dire consequences did MindGeek do anything meaningful to protect the untold number of victims like Fleites.

 

The Unfathomable Horrors of the Porn Industry

Sometimes in reading about the state of the porn industry, one simply begins to wonder how it is possible that we, as a society, have allowed ourselves to reach this point. How is it possible that so many people have accepted the idea that access to streaming, on-demand, high-definition pornography, an enormous amount of which depicts outright abusive acts, and all of which dehumanizes its participants and viewers, is both “normal” and a legal “right”?

Our forefathers knew better. They knew that public obscenity was a thing to be controlled. That once we remove all normative fetters on the use and expression of sexuality, it would rapidly become a devouring beast that would undermine fundamental societal norms and ultimately destroy lives.

The judge in Fleites’ case is clearly horrified by Pornhub’s business practices. Pointing out that 50% of MindGeek’s revenue comes from selling ads, the judge noted, “To reach their intended audience, advertisers can build campaigns around keywords like ‘13yearoldteen’ and ‘not18’; indeed, they can even target ads to people searching the term ‘child rape’ in Japanese.”

He then goes on to ask the sorts of questions that any sane-minded person should be asking:

Why would MindGeek allow Plaintiff’s first video to be posted despite its title clearly indicating Plaintiff was well below 18 years old? Why would MindGeek stall before removing the video, which Plaintiff alleges had advertisements running alongside it? Why would MindGeek take the video and upload it to its other porn websites? Why, after being alerted by Plaintiff that the video was child porn, would it allow the video to be reuploaded, whereafter advertisements were again featured alongside the reuploaded videos? And why did Plaintiff have to fight for years to have her videos removed from MindGeek’s sites? Plaintiff claims that MindGeek did these things for money, and Visa knowingly offered up its payment network so that MindGeek could satisfy that goal.

In other words, MindGeek (and by proxy, Visa) openly facilitated and encouraged the monetization of the most perverse forms of pornographic exploitation. And for this, they have been rewarded by becoming one of the most-visited sites on the Internet, making their owners fabulously wealthy.

All of this has been meticulously documented by anti-porn researchers like Gail Dines and Gary Wilson. In her 2010 book Pornland (which is so explicit that it cannot be recommended to most readers), Dines exposed how the porn industry deliberately and systematically seeks out underage-looking models, and markets them to users looking for illegal content, which in turn desensitizes those users towards and leads them to look for content featuring truly underage victims.

Whereas the porn industry has spent untold sums of money convincing people that hardcore pornography is simply “natural” and that participation in porn is always “consensual” and even a glamorous career, these researchers have warned that the porn industry is a meatgrinder that chews up an unending cycle of vulnerable girls (and boys), and that pornography is rapidly warping our sexual standards towards the violent and grotesque.

Pornography desensitizes, teaching us to treat other persons as mere objects to be used and abused for sexual exploits and pleasure – to pursue self-gratification at all costs. Whether violent or nonviolent, coercive or noncoercive, exposure to pornography allows the viewer to become conditioned to these types of sexual acts, as an integral part of human behavior. It does grave harm to men, women, and children, and it also has a devastating impact on society, including its relationship to sex-trafficking, child exploitation, promiscuity, divorce, and even abortion. We must vigorously work toward shutting down this corrosive and dehumanizing industry that treats human persons of incomparable value, deserving of respect, as commodities.

Please God that this lawsuit results in a huge and crippling financial penalty against MindGeek, forcing them to shut down and go the way of the dodo bird. It’s the least that can be done to repay Fleites for the loss of her innocence and her childhood.



About Fr. Shenan J. Boquet

Father Shenan J. Boquet was ordained in 1993 and is a priest of the Houma-Thibodaux Roman Catholic Diocese in Louisiana, his home state, where he served before joining HLI in August 2011. Father Boquet earned a BA from Saint Joseph Seminary College, a Master of Divinity (MDiv) from Notre Dame Seminary Graduate School of Theology, a Certification Program in Health Care Ethics from the National Catholic Bioethics Center, and a Master of Science in Bioethics (MSBe) from the University of Mary in Bismarck. In 2018, Father Boquet was awarded an honorary visiting professorship by the Benedict XVI Catholic University in Trujillo, Peru. He is available for interviews and bookings on behalf of HLI by emailing hli@hli.org.

5 Comments

  1. Mary-Anne Delaney on August 15, 2022 at 2:52 PM

    I am so happy that finally there is hope of pornography forever gone. I’m praying for these young ladies and their brave actions to file suit. Just as scandalous is why a 13 year old girl even knows what sex is at that age. Parents need to constantly communicate with their children. They should put trackers on their phones and go through their child’s phone twice a day. Some kids are not going to listen to their parents, but the parents have to be extra vigilant these days. I will add all parents to my prayers too.

  2. Sharon Conklin on August 15, 2022 at 11:18 PM

    Thank you Father Boquet for your faithful, strong voice!

  3. Joan Howard on August 16, 2022 at 12:23 AM

    Thank you, Father, for relaying this important information!

  4. Pietro Marchitelli on August 16, 2022 at 3:19 PM

    Educate the conscience of the youngest by making them to understand clearly what happened in the so called “garden of Eden” How premature and unprincipled sexuality played a major role in the fall of the human soul.

  5. Barbara on August 17, 2022 at 11:31 AM

    This story moved me to tears. I will pray for everyone involved.

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