It is with deep regret that I insist we talk about porn again.
February 22nd was National Human Trafficking Awareness Day and too many people, mostly men, wrapped up that otherwise ordinary Monday night with a visit to, let’s say PornHub, which is the largest pornography website in the world.
Maybe because it isn’t immediately obvious that human sex trafficking and porn are intimately intertwined. Maybe it’s obvious but not relevant to some people.
Maybe some of the work feminists have done trying to destigmatize our own bodies and make better protections for women involved in the sex trade have been turned against all women under the guise of feminist progress.
For those reading who haven’t accessed porn in a decade or more, please do not ever re-enter that fray, because it is not the world you left when you went on to in-person pastures. This is not written from a prudish, pearl-clutching position. In its current (and horrifically escalating) iteration, porn is no less than apocalyptic.
And for many women and children, apocalyptic is not a metaphor nor is it hyperbole. For many who have been trafficked, it is the end of their lives. This is, and no mistake, a murderous industry.
Sex trafficking and porn cannot be disentangled. They are two of the many snarling, snapping heads of patriarchy.
How many rape victims know their rape was recorded and disseminated? How many suspect or fear that? Because every phone is a recording device, rape, particularly gang rape, is frequently recorded. Despite this, the repercussions of these crimes, evidence and all, is so minimal as to not dissuade this behaviour in the slightest.
Although PornHub claims to have a human previewing every video before it gets posted, there have been repeated cases of rape, violence including murder (cartoonishly known as ‘snuff’), and the sexual abuse of children broadcast globally. Including, according to the testimony before the Canadian Parliamentary Ethics Commission by the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, the rape of a six-year-old girl on February 22nd. On Human Trafficking Awareness Day.
Not only did PornHub host this video, but the nature of their business is such that they profited from it.
Are you with me? Because this isn’t a leap. PornHub is a human trafficking organization.
A quick aside to demolish the idea of feminist porn, an oxymoron right out the gate. Feminism isn’t just ‘have as many women as men in positions of questionable and exploitative power’ and it isn’t ‘anything a woman does is feminist if she wants it to be because choice is the highest good’.
Feminism is a movement for women’s liberation from all patriarchal institutions, public and private, and the rampaging spectre of male violence.
It’s a lot of work. And it’s a bummer. But the alternative? We are living it.
And for those who celebrate ‘classic porn’, you know, the sexy drawings on the walls in Pompeii, let me quote Gail Dines, who will ruin your day if you let her: “There has always been pornography, but there has not always been a porn industry.”
The porn industry doesn’t need JQ Public from Huntsville, Ontario to defend it. Globally, porn is a $97-billion industry.
Who do you think is holding that money? The sex worker who ‘consented’ to having intercourse recorded for an extra $50?
Then why do up to 95 per cent of sex workers want to leave the industry? There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that this industry would collapse without women, but they are not the primary income earners and often aren’t paid at all, can’t leave when they want to, are blackmailed and coerced, plied with drugs, have no ownership of the images of them, and are lied to every step of the way. That’s true in porn, prostitution, and trafficking, the lines between which are blurred at best.
The women are the product; access to their bodies is what is being purchased. Yes, all labour under capitalism is exploitative but being paid to assemble submarine sandwiches is the not the same as being violently penetrated in every orifice for multiple hours while the camera zooms in on the pain in your face because more it hurts you, the more money your boss makes.
And to the johns who think they are supporting ‘local business’ by going to sex trade workers, or that without them the women would go hungry, I’ll let Rachel Moran, exited prostitute, handle you: “When a woman is poor and hungry, the humane thing to do is put food in her mouth, not your ****.”
When you traffic in drugs, you have to pay for your product and you can sell your product only once. Someone snorts it, it’s gone.
But when you abduct a human, you can sell access to them over and over. Sometimes more than 43,000 times. How many of Karla’s rapists filmed her? When it gets uploaded, who can possibly determine consent from a video? Especially when men can pay extra or threaten to have women act like they want it.
We know not all rape involves saying no, fighting, resisting. Sometimes the force is not in the hands holding her down, but in the ones turning the lock on the hotel room door.
What comes to your mind when you think of sex trafficking?
I used to think: small-town abduction, blonde schoolgirls, someone who knows that what’s being done to her is wrong and terrible?
Like Elizabeth Smart? Kidnapped in 2002. Here’s her take on porn:
“My captor was really excited and really kind of amped up about something, and he said, ‘Oh, you know, I have something and I’m going to show it to you, and you have to look at it.'” The rapist then pulled out a “magazine full of hard-core pornography.”
“It just led to him raping me more, more than he already did—which was a lot… I can’t say that he would not have gone out and kidnapped me had he not looked at pornography. All I know is that pornography made my living hell worse.”
A magazine. Just a magazine.
But my understanding of human trafficking, particularly sex trafficking, has developed a lot over time.
A new scenario:
Ali is an Indigenous girl, one of the only non-white students in her school. She loves her foster family but doesn’t feel like they trust her after she had a few experiences with drugs the previous year. Older boys always seemed to like her, and when she meets Michael at a house party, she isn’t surprised when he asks her out, but she is excited. He seems sweet and pays attention to her in a way no one else has. He even buys her gifts and pays for her to have her hair done as a treat. He does drugs sometimes, but she declines and he doesn’t push, at first.
She spends a lot of time at his place where lots of people seem to come and go. She stops telling her foster parents where she is, and they worry desperately but feel helpless and have no idea of the worst that could happen. A rebellious teen with a shady boyfriend—they’d seen it all in their time as foster parents.
In time, Michael becomes her entire world, her only friend. His attitude around her saying no to the drugs becomes pressuring, then he won’t accept no for an answer—to anything. She doesn’t want to lose him.
The control becomes a part of her daily life. Under the guise of caring, he controls her movement, her communication, even at times telling her what she can and can’t eat. The only thing he is liberal with is the drugs. It makes the hard times easier, anyway.
And then comes the night when his friends come over. She can’t make it stop.
And then she finds out he won’t let her go home.
Our society has so devalued human life, women and girls, Indigenous people, that some men see those bodies as avenues for money and not for the humanity inherent in us all. What does it say about our everyday world, the underpinnings of which, like porn, are hiding in plain sight, that vulnerable girls can just disappear into a short, terrifying life of torture?
And men will pay for it? Over and over and over.
We do not live in the same world anymore.
What can we do?
We all need to familiarize ourselves with what human trafficking actually looks like. We have to be prepared to ask hard questions and communicate wholeheartedly with at-risk segments of our population, especially teenaged girls.
But that’s the response to the issue. That’s damage control.
Human trafficking will not end until the demand ends. Everyone who watches porn is contributing to the demand. It is not possible to protect the girls in your community if you sit down and watch the potential rape of girls from other communities.
PornHub is the bowl of Smarties. Delicious, right? Well, there are three poisoned Smarties in the bowl. But just three. You have no idea which ones, and it’s rather a large bowl.
Eat the Smarties, right?
No. Do not eat the Smarties because some are poison and you could die. When you watch porn, the odds are even higher that you are witnessing a rape or a video that has been nonconsensually posted (‘revenge porn’) and profited from.
How could that possibly ever be worth it?
We cannot look at these issues as disjointed happenstance. Patriarchy is based on male desire for access to women’s bodies and labour—sexual, reproductive, and otherwise. Women are more than just a supply, and I daresay men are more than just demand. Time to prove it.
And we can’t wait for the government to understand the enormity of the harm caused to vulnerable people without using blanket censorship as non-answer, and we certainly can’t expect corporations to do the right thing, though to my eternal surprise Mastercard and Visa no longer allow their cards to be used on the Montreal-based website PornHub (which is owned by Mindgeek if you want a scary rabbit hole).
The tide is shifting but only after so many have drowned.
For Karla, Elizabeth, Rachel, and all the others uncountable but absolutely irreplaceable, we have to do more. We have to demand this world be safe for all citizens, always—for the first time ever.
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Kathleen May is a writer, speaker, and activist. Her column, She Speaks, has appeared in the Huntsville Doppler since 2018. Her work in our community includes co-founding the long-running Huntsville Women’s Group, volunteering with Muskoka Parry Sound Sexual Assault Services, and her role as a front-line counsellor at the women’s shelter. Kathleen is a 2018 Woman of Distinction for Social Activism and Community Development. She was longlisted for the 2020 CBC Short Story Prize, short-listed for the 2019 CBC Nonfiction Prize, and received the Best Author award for her 2018 submission at the Muskoka Novel Marathon, a fundraiser for literacy services. When she isn’t writing, she’s designing a tiny house which she intends to be the impetus for a sustainable women’s land co-operative in Muskoka.