Don’t expect Pornhub to save Tumblr or sex workers

Jason Reed/The Daily Dot

Even if PornHub did buy Tumblr, it could devastate queer adult performers.

Tumblr, you could say, has experienced quite a few spills and turns in recent years. And the latest news about the platform isn’t doing much to make people feel secure about it again.

Last week, Pornhub announced that the company is “extremely interested” in purchasing Tumblr after the Wall Street Journal reported that Verizon is looking for someone to buy the microblogging platform. Tumblr’s traffic is waning, a drop that ironically began after Verizon Media—formerly known as Oath—reportedly pushed for Tumblr’s infamous NSFW ban to attract advertisers turned off by the site’s adult content. Now, it seems Verizon thinks Tumblr is a lost cause, and Pornhub wants to be its savior.

“Tumblr was a safe haven for those who wanted to explore and express their sexuality, adult entertainment aficionados included,” Pornhub Vice President Corey Price explained to BuzzFeed News. “We’ve long been dismayed that such measures were taken to eradicate erotic communities on the platform, leaving many individuals without an asylum through which they could comfortably peruse adult content.”

When reached for comment by the Daily Dot, Price said, “Our team is currently evaluating the merits and viability of an acquisition of the platform. We see great synergies and potential.”

The idea makes a lot of sense. As Price told BuzzFeed, Pornhub and Tumblr have “obvious synergies,” including their reputation for bottomless free porn. But there’s another story playing out behind the scenes. Pornhub’s parent company, MindGeek, is to porn what Amazon is to e-commerce. And like Tumblr, piracy runs rampant on its video sites.

MindGeek describes itself as a “leader in web design, IT, web development and SEO.” In reality, MindGeek runs what Slate calls a “porn monopoly.” The company simultaneously owns such major studios as Brazzers, Digital Playground, and Reality Kings alongside “tube” sites like YouPorn, XTube, and RedTube. These “tube” sites get most of their free porn from hosting paid porn for free at its creators’ expense.

MindGeek also developed “AgeID,” a third-party age confirmation access system set to roll out for the U.K.’s upcoming, mandatory 18+ age verification system. MindGeek doesn’t just own porn creators, but also the sites where their paid adult content is pirated and the access system thousands of U.K. residents will use when they inevitably visit Pornhub after July 15. It’s the textbook definition of a vertical monopoly.

When reached for comment, MindGeek spokesperson Robert Cassady sent a lengthy rebuttal, arguing Slate had “misidentified the company in their article.” He went on to say MindGeek “is not a monopoly, nor is it the biggest pornography company in the world,” but rather “a technology company that owns a large portfolio of adult sites.”

“We don’t dispute that MindGeek properties drive considerable traffic, but to say it drives a disproportionate volume of traffic is not accurate. There are multiple major players in this space, many who have products that are much more successful in their niches,” Cassady said to the Daily Dot. “There are others who are much larger in traffic, size, and scope. It’s simply one among others that generate a lot of traffic.”

Cookie Cyboid Cookie Cyboid/Twitter

Yet not unlike a vertical monopoly, MindGeek’s hold on the adult content industry inevitably hurts its workers. Cookie Cyboid (who uses they/them and she/her pronouns) is a trans adult porn performer who has vocally criticized Pornhub since well before the Tumblr NSFW ban. She believes Mindgeek “gives a big song and dance about protecting performers” but only looks out for “verified models,” or those who create and confirm their own account with the site to earn money.

“People are firstly unaware that the vast majority of MindGeek’s content is stolen. I actually would have far less of a problem with them if they verified users before they could upload,” Cyboid told the Daily Dot. “[Visitors] assume anyone in the video is getting paid off the video getting watched. Or they assume we get paid for the scene. And a lot of us don’t. Very few make their money that way, especially trans performers. I don’t wanna go work for Slurs McKenzie at [trans porn site] Grooby.”

When clips are inevitably stolen and reuploaded on Pornhub, Cyboid says there’s “no realistic way for [performers] to fight it unless [they] sign up with a MindGeek site” as a verified model. And because MindGeek has cornered a huge chunk of the adult content industry, it inevitably forces performers to use its services. This isn’t necessarily to their benefit, either. Pornhub’s Model Payment Program pays verified models based on views, which ends up hurting performers with niche adult communities, like indie queer and trans creators.

Cassady argued MindGeek’s properties are “diverse” and “in no way dependent on pirated content,” calling its tube sites “a viable platform for content providers to monetize their digital content.” He instead told the Daily Dot that video uploads result from three sources: licensing deals for publishing rights to videos, strategic content partnerships with producers, and user-generated uploads. Among those three groups, Cassady said strategic content partnerships made up “30 to 50 percent” of MindGeek’s content, whereas user uploads constituted “roughly 15 to 25 percent of the content uploaded.”

Meanwhile, Price clarified that the Pornhub Model Program’s partners receive “free DMCA protection service,” including takedowns on models’ behalf for pirated content on other tube sites.

“Every video uploaded to Pornhub is scanned and verified against a third party database of fingerprinted content and, if there is a match, it is removed. Anyone can fingerprint their content for free or send DMCA takedown requests, not just models in our Model Program,” Price told the Daily Dot.

He also addressed Cyboid, claiming that Pornhub “attempted to reach out and discuss her misconceptions” but said she “blocked our Pornhub Model Help account on Twitter and has since gone on to make several public death threats.” Price then linked to three tweets which, while strongly worded, aren’t necessarily death threats. They read “death to MindGeek,” “[burn] down MindGeek,” and “down with/death to MindGeek.”

BoringKate BoringKate/Twitter

Trans adult performer BoringKate doesn’t just stress Pornhub’s piracy issues are a problem; she claims it harms independent clip girls who rely on every single sale to get by. In her case, she’s forced to do business with Pornhub’s clip store ModelHub in order to make a living, calling it just “another part of MindGeeks’ somewhat worryingly growing monopoly.”

“[Pornhub has] started to pay verified models a share of the ad revenue from views on scenes they upload, but the overwhelming majority of the content on Pornhub is still pirated,” BoringKate told the Daily Dot. “And on top of that, the number of views a verified model would need to get for that share of the ad revenue to add up to what they’d make putting the same scene on a clip site is absurd.”

MindGeek’s tube sites are built off pure convenience for viewers who treat stars as nothing more than “naked fucking women,” as one Adult Entertainment Expo attendee told the Daily Dot in 2015. These users simultaneously devalue workers’ labor and fuel a growing cultural expectation that online porn should be free. This works in Pornhub’s favor for ads and clicks while robbing the independent adult content creators that inadvertently fuel their site.

“I don’t think most consumers know or care too much about porno economics or monopolies though,” BoringKate said. “I’ve somehow managed to build a following of people that do occasionally buy their porn, but people who watch porn (which is most people) aren’t just uninterested in paying for the corporate studio porn. They aren’t interested in paying for any kind of porn. The idea is laughable to a lot of people.”

Price told the Daily Dot the company’s Model Program features over 100,000 independent models, of which creators upload content “for a share of the ad revenue and gain exposure to promote their online activities, be it cam shows, etc.” Price also claimed Pornhub’s model payment program “boasts some of the highest payouts for ad revenue across the industry, paying out nearly all of the ad revenue earned to the model content creators.” He also said models can sell their content on Pornhub and ModelHub, earn tips, create custom videos, or use Fan Clubs for monthly subscriptions.

“There are models of various gender identities and sexual orientations who do quite well on the platform, trans/non-binary included,” Price told the Daily Dot. “It’s important to note that in order to get views, performers have to put in work to promote themselves and create compelling content, just like YouTubers and other social media influencers. That said, here at Pornhub we have an internal team dedicated to model success who regularly reach out to and consult with models on how to make the most of the platform and who also regularly publish tips and resources about this as well.”

But Pornhub’s tips, guides, and outreach programs don’t resolve one issue haunting the website’s success: piracy. Models repeatedly allege their clips are reuploaded without their permission on the site, and that problem would only grow if Pornhub purchased Tumblr. With MindGeek’s extremely lax policy on removing pirated adult content, Tumblr would be a playground for free stolen porn.

Sure, there’s a nuance to piracy; it’s an incredibly complicated ethical dilemma. But there’s a major difference between torrenting 1972’s Deep Throat and stealing BoringKate or Cookie Cyboid’s videos. One has no real long-term effects. The other affects their ability to pay the bills, doubly so in a world where adult content’s online existence is under threat from the U.S. government.

“If [Pornhub] really [wants] to help us, they can use their money to start lobbying against SESTA-FOSTA. That’s the reason this whole Tumblr mess started to begin with,” trans performer Kite Angel (who uses they/them and she/her pronouns) told the Daily Dot. “This doesn’t feel like they want to help. It feels like they want to look like they want to help.”

Asked to comment on whether MindGeek or Pornhub is open to challenging SESTA-FOSTA, Price said, “Yes, we are very open to it and are in the process of closely studying the application of the law as it stands.” But the company’s response only reinforces Angel’s suggestion that Pornhub wants to look like it’s helping without doing the work.

The company jokingly offered to buy Vine from Twitter in 2016, which made for a few news headlines and not much else. The year before, the company hosted an Indiegogo campaign for its ambitious Sexploration porn film, which promised to create “the first sex tape in space.” The campaign closed with just 6 percent of its $3.4 million goal.

Then there’s Pornhub’s official record label, “Pornhub Records.” The label made for a nice publicity wave, but very little music has come out of the adult content giant. Nor has any of its content been well received. Pornhub Records’ latest release, 2019’s Pornhub Valentine’s Day Album, was called “not great” by Nylon for featuring both misogynistic lyrics and rapper Tekashi 6ix9ine, who pleaded guilty to the “use of a child in a sexual performance.”

https://twitter.com/strangeauthor/status/1124082022413160448

https://twitter.com/Metmarfil/status/1124126838442348544

Cyboid believes these marketing hijinks are all on purpose; Pornhub’s viral fame masks the problems under the company’s surface. It’s totally plausible that Pornhub has no plans to buy Tumblr at all and simply wants to position itself as the corporate savior for millennials who grew up on queer Tumblr porn. But in reality, the company’s practices undervalue the most important members of the adult content industry: the performers themselves.

“Honestly, the only way I see [viewers] making a difference is to stop buying MindGeeks’ nonsense and stop using their sites,” Cyboid told the Daily Dot. “When they start doing the false woke thing on social media, ask them about being a monopoly, or how they’re built on stealing sex workers’ content. At the very least, only watch videos on Pornhub with the blue verified tick. And most importantly, buy clips from indie performers.”

Update 11:25am CT, May 8: After this article’s publication, Pornhub told the Daily Dot that any performer can fingerprint their content with Vobile, and the platform will “block it from being uploaded.” The service is available for anyone who uploads to the site.

When the Daily Dot reached out to Cyboid for a follow-up comment, she criticized Pornhub’s approach to Vobile and fingerprinting, saying that they “just admitted they only fight content piracy for their own models.” She also defended herself against Price’s accusations, denying that she personally wishes physical harm on MindGeek’s employees.

“I’d like to add that obviously, I don’t wish death upon any of them, and I think it’s disingenuous [to] ignore the contexts of my tweets to claim that I am,” Cyboid told the Daily Dot. “Unless any of them happen to be named ‘John Mindgeek,’ corporations are not people, but I do apologize if any of their staff felt threatened by my choice of words.”

Update 5:05pm CT, May 8: In an email sent to the Daily Dot, Pornhub clarified that Vobile’s fingerprinting feature is available for free “to any content owners that wants their content blocked from appearing on Pornhub (and other sites that scan uploads against Vobile’s database).”

“Non-Pornhub models such as Cyboid are encouraged to fingerprint their content on Vobile for free to protect it,” Pornhub’s statement read. “Every upload on Pornhub is scanned against Vobile’s fingerprint database, if there is a match the video is taken down. They can sign up and start fingerprinting on Vobile here without joining Pornhub’s Model Program.”

Pornhub also offers a “free-DMCA protection service for models who do join Pornhub’s Model Program on all their free and paid content,” which scans “the top 50 tube sites” and will “issue takedowns on their behalf.”

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Ana Valens

Ana Valens

Ana Valens is a reporter specializing in online queer communities, marginalized identities, and adult content creation. She is Daily Dot's Trans/Sex columnist. Her work has appeared at Vice, Vox, Truthout, Bitch Media, Kill Screen, Rolling Stone, and the Toast. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, and spends her free time developing queer adult games.