Fight The New Drug
Mon, 13 Sep 2021
It was 21 days after "Jane Doe's" 22nd birthday when she boarded a flight to San Diego that, unbeknownst to her, would change her life forever. That day, she would become one of hundreds of young women who had been filmed for GirlsDoPorn, a wildly popular porn production company which garnered well over a billion views,1 ranking around the 20th most popular channel on Pornhub,2 and reportedly generating an estimated $17 million dollars in revenue.3 But what most of GirlsDoPorn's millions of viewers did not realize was that Jane - and many other women involved with GirlsDoPorn - was actually a victim of sex trafficking.
See, Jane never agreed to do porn at all.4 She had flown to San Diego to participate in what she was told would be a fitness modeling job. But when she arrived, she was met by several men who took her phone, intimidated her into signing a contract she wasn't allowed to read, plied her with drugs and alcohol, and trapped her in a hotel room where they told her she would be filmed for a porn video. Even after she tried to run away, the men physically forced her to comply. With no way out, Jane was violently raped on camera for over 6 hours.
The nearly hour-long video of her abuse was then released on the GirlsDoPorn website and published on nearly every major porn site,5 even using her full legal name in the title.6 When Jane first learned that videos of her rape had been published, she ran to the bathroom and was violently sick.
Now, you might be thinking something along the lines of, Wow, that's a really tragic story, but luckily I don't watch porn that shows violence or nonconsensual activity, so I'm good. But let's not forget that GirlsDoPorn was a popular and well-recognized name in the porn world, and the victims were often forced to smile and pretend they were enjoying themselves. Although the GirlsDoPorn owners were eventually charged with sex trafficking, they had millions of viewers and operated unchecked for 11 years, despite numerous victims' desperate pleadings to have the content removed.7 As Jane put it in our interview with her about her experience, "I didn't know if they were going to kill me. Watching the video now, I can see it in my eyes. The quivering of my lips and my voice, I know exactly how I was feeling in that moment. But to anyone else who sees it, they see what they want and they think I was complicit."8
The fact of the matter is that sex trafficking in porn is a much bigger issue than most people realize. According to cases reported to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, pornography was the 3rd-most common form of sex trafficking, after escort services and elicit massage businesses.9
So, is there a truly viable way for a consumer to guarantee that the porn they're watching is consensual and abuse-free? How can a consumer verify consent in the production of porn? What happens when performers are coerced to lie about a sex act being consensual when it actually wasn't?
Sex trafficking is, by nature, an underground issue, which means that accurate statistics are difficult to come by. If anything, the numbers reflecting sex trafficking's pervasiveness are likely higher than reports indicate. But regardless of the exact numbers, it's important to remember that one person trafficked is one too many.
Obviously, sex trafficking is not new, and it's not the only form of trafficking. For the sake of this article, let's focus on sex trafficking and its connection to porn based on existing research and accounts from survivors. Let's start with the basics.
What, exactly, is sex trafficking?
The legal definition gets technical, but sex trafficking is a type of human trafficking, and human trafficking is exactly what it sounds like: buying or selling humans. It's the purest form of objectification - the literal commoditization of a human being. The vast majority of human trafficking victims come from vulnerable populations, and of the approximately 24.9 million victims of forced labor, an estimated 4.8 million - about 19% - are trafficked for sex. Even more disturbingly, more than 1 in 5 sex trafficking victims - an estimated 21% - are children.10According to one report, of the domestic minor trafficking victims who had been forced into porn production, the average age they began being filmed was 12.8 years old.11
Now, this is the part where most people start visualizing the Hollywood version of sex trafficking: young people being kidnapped while traveling in some faraway country, kept in chains and forced into selling sex. And yes, those stories do exist - they're not only real, but they can be closer to home than you might imagine - but the "kidnapped victims" narrative does not reflect the reality of most victims' experiences. Sex trafficking often involves psychological manipulation and often exploits the most vulnerable populations. In fact, according to a report of prosecuted sex trafficking cases in the U.S., 59% of coercive tactics used by traffickers were non-physical, compared to 41% of tactics involving physical coercion.12
So while sex trafficking can happen to anyone from any background, those who are most vulnerable to trafficking include those living in poverty, those experiencing substance dependency, racial minorities, those who have experienced abuse or trauma prior to being trafficked, and runaway, homeless, or LGBTQ youth.13,14,15
One survivor named Jose explained to us that when his family kicked him out of the house at age 16 after learning he is gay, the vulnerability of having no home or social support made him susceptible to the manipulation of traffickers and abusers who offered to take care of him. Coupled with the trauma he experienced from physical and sexual abuse during his childhood, Jose was so psychologically manipulated by his traffickers, he was not even aware he was being trafficked until long after the fact.16 As Jose put it, "for a long time I felt like, well, if my story isn't like the movie Taken, then maybe I wasn't trafficked. It took a long time for me to realize that what had happened to me was actually sex trafficking."17
Unfortunately, some people listen to stories of victims being sex trafficked through the use of coercion and ask, "why didn't she just leave?" or "why didn't he just say no?" Firstly, it's important to remember that trafficking is never the fault of the victim, and blaming the victim only adds to their trauma. Secondly, the fact of the matter is that the psychological manipulation used by traffickers can often be just as powerful - if not more powerful - as physical force.18
In fact, like Jose, many victims are trafficked by their families, romantic partners, or other trusted individuals.19,20 Victims of child sexual abuse material (sometimes referred to as "child pornography") are particularly likely to be victimized by parental figures.21
So if the "Hollywood" version is all you know about sex trafficking, then you're only seeing one part of a much more complex picture. To understand that picture, you have to understand the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA).
The Trafficking Victims Protection Act
In the year 2000, in response to reports of international human trafficking, one of the broadest bipartisan coalitions in history came together to pass the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, or TVPA.22 The landmark legislation identified "severe forms" of human trafficking, imposed harsh criminal penalties for offenders, and provided support systems for the victims.
Amended and reauthorized most recently in 2017, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act defines sex trafficking as a situation in which "a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age."23, 24
If any one piece of that definition is present in a commercial sex act - force, fraud, coercion, or the participation of a minor - it's automatically sex trafficking. While most instances of sex trafficking involve more than one aspect of manipulation, let's break down that TVPA definition, piece by piece.
When porn is sex trafficking
Commercial sex act
First off, let's define "commercial sex act." According to the TVPA, a "commercial sex act" refers to a situation in which anything of value is exchanged for sexual services. Usually, that means money is exchanged, but "anything of value" can also refer to groceries, rent, or even drugs.
Victims who are under the age of 18
If anyone under the age of 18 is involved in a commercial sex act, it automatically qualifies as sex trafficking according to the TVPA. If they're younger than 18, they are not legally capable of giving meaningful consent, which means that if they're participating in a commercial sex act, it's trafficking, period.
For example, in October 2019, a 15-year-old girl who had been reported missing nearly a year earlier was spotted in an estimated 58 online pornographic videos posted online, including to one of the world's most popular porn sites. It's impossible to know how many people watched those videos, not knowing she was a minor and a victim of sex trafficking. Fortunately, she was found and her trafficker has since been arrested.25
Sex trafficking through force
If someone is physically overpowered, drugged, or otherwise made to participate in a commercial sex act against their will or without their consent, they have been sex trafficked by force. Remember the example we used earlier about Jane Doe and GirlsDoPorn? Because the producers physically trapped her when she tried to run away, that automatically qualifies as sex trafficking by force.
In another case of sex trafficking by force, two men - one a former Miami police officer - lured women to Florida to audition for modeling jobs. When the women arrived, however, the men drugged them, filmed them being raped, and then sold the footage as porn online and to stores across the U.S.26 Some victims - not fully aware of what had happened to them - later woke up in their cars, covered in vomit. Other victims had absolutely no recollection of what happened before being made aware of the videos.27 This went on for five years, before the men were finally convicted.28 Because these women were drugged and raped while unconscious, that qualifies as sex trafficking by force.
In another example, around 100 women were recruited to participate in what they were told would be a "sleep study." When they arrived at the "study's" location, they were drugged, raped, and filmed by a man who then sold the footage to porn sites, making an estimated $100,000.29 Again, sex trafficking by force.
It's also important to note that there are many trafficking victims who are already being sold for sex, whose assaults are then filmed and distributed as pornography. One survivor named Jessa - who was trafficked by her family as a young child and into her adulthood - told us in an interview, "[I had] guns pointed at me and people telling me that if I didn't keep doing what they told me to do that I would be shot. I was being raped, but I had a smile on my face. I had to act like I enjoyed it."30
Jessa had already been forced into sex trafficking, and was then filmed by her traffickers and abusers. Sexual abuse and sex trafficking are incredibly traumatic events to begin with, but when that trauma is filmed and distributed as pornography, the victims are re-traumatized over and over.
How many of these videos were viewed by individuals who would never dream of contributing to human trafficking? Individuals who assumed they were watching the work of consenting performers? The unfortunate truth is that it's incredibly difficult to guarantee that performers are truly participating consensually. In fact, sex trafficking in porn still happens, even when people aren't physically forced into it, which brings us to sex trafficking by fraud.
Sex trafficking by fraud
Compelling someone to participate in a commercial sex act by lying or tricking them qualifies as sex trafficking by fraud.
For example, the producers of GirlsDoPorn intentionally misrepresented themselves as agents looking for young models, used fraudulent contracts as leverage to force the girls into performing in porn, and lied that the footage would never be published online.31 That qualifies as sex trafficking by fraud.
Similarly, it was recently uncovered that the Czech Casting porn production company - which is run by the largest producer of pornography in the Czech Republic - had been trafficking young women into porn production by luring them with the promise of a high-paying modeling job.32,33 Similar to Jane Doe's story, when the women arrived on set for their "modeling" gigs, they were tricked into signing contracts they weren't given time to read or understand.34 Those contracts were then used as leverage to induce the women into being filmed for porn.35
Unfortunately, these aren't isolated incidents. There are countless examples of victims being tricked into porn including; when a man in Florida secretly filmed men he had sex with and sold the videos to porn sites;36 the growing number of women tricked into participating in Japan's multi-billion-dollar porn industry;37 or the long list of vulnerable teens and young people who are recruited to be "models" then coerced into porn. All of which brings us to sex trafficking by coercion.38
Sex trafficking through coercion
If someone is made to participate in a commercial sex act through the use of threats, manipulation, or intimidation, that is sex trafficking by coercion.
This means that a commercial sex act can be sex trafficking, even if no one was physically assaulted, and even if no one was tricked or defrauded. All it takes is coercion. The moment a victim is coerced, manipulated, or intimidated into participating in a commercial sex act, sex trafficking has occurred even if the victim receives a paycheck when it's over.
For example, in the GirlsDoPorn case, the producers threatened to cancel the girls' flights home if they didn't comply,39 and threatened to sue the girls for breaking their contracts if they refused to participate.40 All of that is coercion.
The factor of coercion in trafficking situations is one of the more misunderstood elements, even though it's likely the most common form of trafficking in porn, so here are a few extra examples: A boyfriend bullies his girlfriend into selling sex to pay for rent - trafficking by coercion.41 A man posts videos of his girlfriend on a pornographic subscription site, then threatens to show her family and friends if she doesn't do it again - trafficking by coercion. 42 A porn performer shows up on set to discover that the scene is much more brutal than she had been told, yet the producer threatens to blacklist her if she doesn't go through with it - again: trafficking by coercion.43
Consent in porn: A "yes" is only valid if "no" is a legitimate option
Now maybe you're thinking, If a performer agrees to it, then it's all good, right? Well, "consent" is a slippery word in the world of porn.
When it comes to consent, a "yes" is only valid if "no" is a legitimate option. Of all the ways pornography and sex trafficking overlap, one of the most surprising elements of all might be this: even in the production of mainstream porn with popular performers, sex trafficking can still occur - and it happens more regularly than you might think. Remember, sex trafficking doesn't require kidnapping or threats of violence - all it requires is force, fraud, or coercion.
For example, one common way trafficking occurs in the porn industry is through the coercion used by agents and producers, and even directors on set. Many performers enter the porn industry out of financial desperation, some deal with substance addictions, and others already in the industry stay out of fear that their history in porn will make it impossible to find another job. While these scenarios are not necessarily the case with all performers, it's important to recognize that agents and producers often exploit these vulnerabilities in order to coerce performers into producing more - and more hardcore - content. Producers may lie or withhold information about what is expected of the performer. Agents may threaten to blacklist the performer if they don't go through with what they're pressuring them to do. Regardless, this type of coercion is commonplace in the porn industry, and legally speaking, it's trafficking. One performer described her experience of being coerced into a scene she had not fully consented to, saying,
"I was in California and I had a blowjob scene... I go there and he's like, 'Oh yeah, it's a forced blowjob, And I'm like, 'What?' Just one guy, one little camera on a tripod... I was scared. I was terrified. I didn't know what to do. I didn't know if I could tell him no. Or the fact that we already recorded 15 minutes of it, if I could just f - ing leave. Then what? That's when I understood that's how rape victims feel. Like, they feel bad about themselves."44
Here are a few more quotes from former and current porn performers that show what coercion looks like in context. Keep in mind that some of these performers were, or are, popular and well-known in the porn community:
"I was threatened that if I did not do the scene I was going to get sued for lots of money."45
"I tried to stop the scene but [the director] told me I was ruining the flow and to just put my head back in the frame."46
"He told me that I had to do it and if I can't, he would charge me and I would lose any other bookings I had because I would make his agency look bad."47
"To be perfectly honest, I was afraid... I didn't know what could happen to me. I was in a warehouse, it was nighttime, there were multiple men on set, it was just me, I didn't have a car."48
"I just remembered being so scared and so uncomfortable, and in so much pain. But again the only thing that ran through my head was that he was either going to hurt me if I tried to walk off set or that I was going to be blacklisted, or that I wasn't going to be paid. I was also in shock."49
None of these quotes is from someone who was chained in a room. None of these quotes are from victims who were beaten into submission or held at gunpoint in some run-down brothel. Each of these performers went home at the end of the shoot and collected a paycheck. But does it really sound like enthusiastic consent? Or does it sound more like coercion?
This aspect of the porn world is so common, current porn performers tell the same stories. It speaks volumes about the culture and expectations of the porn industry that often, when you hear these same complaints from people still inside the business, they frame them in terms of an "unprofessional" agent, director, or actor.
Unfortunately, because the culture of the porn industry is so blasé about abuse, cases are often never brought forward. In fact, when performers do speak out about the abuse they've experienced, they're often ostracized, blacklisted, or even threatened by people in the industry.50,51 As a legal matter, under the TVPA, these aren't just people being bad at their jobs; these are potential sex trafficking crimes, punishable by up to twenty years in prison. According to the United Nations definition of human trafficking, it doesn't even matter whether the victim said no: "the consent of the trafficked person becomes irrelevant whenever any of the 'means' of trafficking [coercion, fraud, threat of force, etc.] are used."52
Many pro-porn advocates who recognize the harms and damages of the mainstream porn industry and mainstream sites now advocate for porn consumers to get their content from alternative sites that put more control in content creators' hands. Yet while sites like OnlyFans may take more precautions than more mainstream sites, they are still not exempt from these issues. Despite being advertised as an ethical alternative to porn tube sites, OnlyFans has also been found to host child sexual abuse material and nonconsensual content.53 OnlyFans claims to have a robust system for preventing sex trafficking and abusive content, including systems to verify content creators' ages, yet an investigation by the BBC reveals that OnlyFans' age verification process has not been able to efficiently prevent child pornography from being uploaded to the site.54 Many underage creators have been found to use fake identification to create an account on OnlyFans, with one 14-year-old even using her grandmother's passport.55And regardless, OnlyFans does not require uploaders to verify the age or consent of all participants - only the account owner - which means that nonconsensual content can be easily uploaded to the platform.56
If you're not convinced content on mainstream sites isn't all consensual, read this viral New York Times story, this BBC report, this Jezebel.com story, another story from the New York Times, this story on Daily Beast, this story on Complex.com, this Rolling Stone story, this Bustle.com story, this story on CNN, this News.com.au story, this Buzzfeed News profile, or this UK Independent story for further evidence that the mainstream porn industry features nonconsensual content and videos of trafficked individuals. Unfortunately there are many, many more stories like these. And again, this is happening on virtually every mainstream porn site.
Of course, we are not claiming that all porn is nonconsensual, rather, we're raising awareness on the unfortunate reality of the porn industry - that there is often no way to tell whether the porn a consumer views is completely consensual or if it was produced with coercion.
How else is porn connected to trafficking?
There are all kinds of connections between pornography, sexual exploitation, and sex trafficking. Often, they're one and the same. But pornography and sex trafficking are connected in more ways than just one.
For example, traffickers and abusers often use pornography to groom victims and "train" them on what is expected of them.57 Reports show that many sexual predators show their victims pornography during the grooming process in order to lower their victims' inhibitions, desensitize them to sexual advances, and normalize the sexual abuse they will experience.58,59
Because pornography can so effectively normalize sexual violence, it can then set the stage for victims' abuse, especially when consumers' viewing habits and fantasies involve violence or other fetishes.60 Elizabeth Smart, who was kidnapped from her home at age 14, was regularly shown pornography by her captor before he would rape her. She explains, "He'd look at me and he'd be like, 'Now we're gonna do this...' The things that these women were being photographed doing were things that I was being forced to do, and it was almost like they were setting the bar, setting the standard of what my captor was going to force me to do next... It almost felt like this pornography was my sentencing."61
In fact, many survivors who have been sold for sex report being shown pornography by their traffickers or buyers to illustrate what is expected of them. As one survivor named Lexie who was sex trafficked as a child explained, "Right before any time a customer was brought into the room, I would be shown pornography. And being that young, I think it translated for me as an overall thing, as a woman - this is what men expect from you, and this is what people want from you."62
Not only can porn normalize abuse for victims, but it can also normalize sexual abuse in the minds of pornography consumers. Research suggests that when someone is consuming pornography, they're participating in objectification.63,64And when consumers develop a pattern of objectification and dehumanization - viewing others as objects to be used rather than complex beings with individual agency - it can also become easier to commit violence against them.65In fact, research has shown that porn consumers are more likely to express an intent to rape,66 less likely to intervene during a sexual assault,67,68 more likely to victim-blame survivors of sexual assault,6970 more likely to support violence against women,71,72 more likely to forward sexts without consent,73 and more likely to commit actual acts of sexual violence.74,75,76 In fact, some evidence suggests that this desensitization toward sexual violence through the consumption of porn can then manifest in more willingness to buy sex, which increases the demand for individuals being trafficked for sex.77,78,79
By now you might be thinking, wow, I had no idea sex trafficking was so linked with the porn industry. I guess I'll just stay away from any porn that looks like someone might have been abused. But again, there is actually no viable way to guarantee that any given pornographic content is consensually or ethically made.
As long as there's a demand for porn - especially porn that is extreme, abusive, or degrading - the porn industry will continue to exploit vulnerable people to meet that demand.
A trafficking victim in a porn video is not likely going to turn to the camera and announce they are being trafficked. In fact, even if the victim does register their distress, it's still virtually impossible to distinguish, because rape and abuse-themed porn are so mainstream,80 and producers can edit content any way they choose.
Remember that quote from Jane, at the beginning of the article?
"I didn't know if they were going to kill me. Watching the video now, I can see it in my eyes. The quivering of my lips and my voice, I know exactly how I was feeling in that moment. But to anyone else who sees it, they see what they want and they think I was complicit."81
As we discussed, modern sex trafficking shares a variety of symbiotic connections to pornography:
- Sex trafficking victims can be forced, tricked, or coerced into pornography production
- Porn performers can be trafficked into acts they didn't consent to
- Porn can be used to groom trafficking victims and "train" them on what is expected of them
- Porn can normalize sexual violence and objectification to the extent that in some cases, the desensitization of consumers can manifest in more willingness to buy sex, thus increasing the demand for sexual exploitation and sex trafficking
When considering these issues, it's also important to remember that most young people are exposed to porn before they have a healthy understanding of sex, let alone an understanding of how porn can fuel sex trafficking.82 If you are struggling with a porn habit, please know that this does not make you a bad person. There are resources available to help you get to a healthier space.
You can hate something. You can be outraged by it. But if you continue to sustain and engage with an industry that helps give it life, what is your outrage worth? Make it count - be a voice against sexual exploitation and help stop the demand for sex trafficking by refusing to consume pornography.
For those reading this who feel they are struggling with pornography, you are not alone. Check out Fortify, a science-based recovery platform dedicated to helping you find lasting freedom from pornography. Fortify now offers a free experience for both teens and adults. Connect with others, learn about your unwanted porn habit, and track your recovery journey. There is hope - sign up today.
Comment: Fight the New Drug has a wealth of information on their website and medium page that is well worth checking out.
While some countries move towards controlling access to porn, and card companies like MasterCard announced new rules for banks processing credit card payments to pornography websites, Fight the New Drug argues that bans "tend to add fuel to the flame by making the illegal substance or activity illicitly attractive. A much more effective way to decrease the demand for pornography is to make people aware of its unfortunate reality."
They summed up their thoughts on banning porn below:
Bottom line: we aren't here to bully lawmakers into outlawing porn, we're here to get to the deeper source of the issue and educate people on the very real harms of porn, and then let them decide for themselves. Because someone deciding against something freely is much more effective than forcing someone to do something they don't agree with.
Fight the New Drug believes that if people truly understood how pornography can negatively affect the consumer, relationships, and society, and understood the often exploitative ways the industry operates, they would choose for themselves not to support or engage with porn.