Porn and Human Trafficking: The Facts You Need to Know

Posted by Taylor Tennis on June 9, 2020

Teen girl gazes out of the window.


My name is Chloe.* My mother has always taken care of me and my brother. My father left when I was still little. I see how hard my mother works. I see her struggle and my brother works to help, too. I wanted to do something for my family, and this man - he told me I would make enough money to feed my family and more, that we could have a different life. But I never saw any money... I didn’t know then what I would have to do. He said it was a modeling job, but I did not think it was this kind. Other girls were there, too. I wanted to leave, but he said he would show the pictures everywhere if we did not make more. I did not want that. I did not want to hurt my family. 

 

When it comes to sex trafficking, its most familiar context is within the prostitution industry. Sex trafficking happens in brothels and hotels, where “johns” (people who pay for sex) can purchase time with a survivor of trafficking and exploit that individual at will. 

 

But there are other forms of sex trafficking, outside of forced prostitution. The commercial sex industry is vastly diverse and human trafficking occurs in each sector, especially within the pornography industry

 

How are porn and human trafficking related?

 

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime defines human trafficking as any situation in which “force, coercion, abduction, fraud, deception, abuse of power or vulnerability, or giving payments or benefits to a person in control” are used to exploit another person. If any of these qualifiers are present, it’s human trafficking. 

 

In the porn industry, human trafficking takes place on multiple fronts; however, due to the nature of how porn is produced and distributed, it can be extremely difficult to identify the presence of trafficking along with its source. 

 

Oftentimes, survivors of sex trafficking are subjected to more than one form of exploitation. As a means of control, some traffickers will take pornographic photos of victims and threaten to shame them by exposing these photos to their families back home. Traffickers will then sell the content, uploading it to mainstream porn sites, in addition to exploiting the victims through prostitution. 

 

In other cases, survivors are exploited solely for the purpose of producing pornography. At The Exodus Road, our investigative teams take this very seriously as they scan for evidence of human trafficking. In a recent rescue, Operation SCOPE, our investigators encountered this type of trafficking first-hand, providing police with evidence of pornographic content being sold by the trafficker of four teenage victims. The trafficker was arrested and is now facing charges. Today these young girls are free and have been reconciled to their families. 

 

A man's face lighted by a smartphone in a dark room

 

So, how common is human trafficking within the porn industry?

 

Data from Webroot Cybersecurity estimates that 28,258 users are watching pornography every second and 35 percent “of all Internet downloads are related to pornography.” 

 

High rates of consumption fuel high demand. With this in mind, it’s important to pay attention to the type of content being consumed. 

 

Data aggregated from 400 million web searches in one study revealed that the most popular term related to sexual searches was “youth.” Additionally, one of the most-searched terms on Pornhub, a popular porn website, is “teen;” this term has remained in the top ten for six years.  

 

If a minor is involved in commercial sexual activity, it is classified as human trafficking without question and without exception. This includes exploitation through child pornography. With the popularity of child porn consumption among users, the demand for producing this type of content is also high. Internet Watch Foundation, a nonprofit based in the UK, works on a global scale to identify, remove, and disrupt child sexual abuse material online. Internet Watch Foundation receives and processes data from reporting portals hosted across four continents and 50 nations worldwide. In 2019, 132,676 URL’s were assessed and confirmed as containing or offering access to child sexual abuse imagery. In one of Internet Watch Foundation’s assessments, child sexual abuse was displayed on a particular webpage every four minutes. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), serving as the “clearinghouse for child pornography reports” in the US, receives an average of one million reports each month.

 

In the last several years, Internet Watch Foundation’s research has also revealed a trend in the creation of “self-generated child sexual abuse content.” These cases involve “children [who] are groomed, deceived, or extorted into producing and sharing a sexual image or video of themselves,” which is then uploaded and distributed across pornography sites. In 2019, approximately 29 percent of 132,676 webpages analyzed by Internet Watch Foundation contained this type of “self-generated” content. Though it appears self-made by the victim, at its essence, this is human trafficking. As porn is distributed, companies behind the porn websites profit off of the sexual abuse of these children. 

 

But this is not only true for children. Adults can be groomed, deceived, coerced, or manipulated into producing “self-generated” content as well. While data behind child porn consumption provides a narrow glimpse into how widespread human trafficking is within the porn industry as a whole, it is certainly not a complete picture. The expectation placed on porn actresses and actors to appear consensual constitutes difficulty in determining consent versus coercion within adult content. Any time pornography is produced and distributed at the expense of an individual against his/her will, human trafficking has occurred. An example of this in Asia was highlighted in the 2019 Trafficking in Persons Report from The U.S. Department of State. The report revealed that some traffickers pose as model or actor agencies, using “fraudulent recruitment techniques to coerce Japanese men, women, and girls into signing vague contracts and then threaten[ing] them with legal action or the release of compromising photographs to force them to participate in pornographic films.”

 

Even among the mainstream porn entertainment industry, recruitment and employment of actors and actresses can involve deception, threats, and drug use. Off set, it's not unheard of for porn producers to act as pimps who sell their performers as escorts.

 

Just this year, Derek Hay, owner of LA Direct Models, a porn entertainment agency, was one of several defendants “charged with pandering” in accounts of “unlawfully [procuring people] for the purpose of prostitution.” Porn actresses attested to being pressured by Hay into prostitution through a partnering business, and threatened with repercussions upon refusal. The four women who filed initial complaints remained unidentified for fear of facing “retaliatory physical or mental harm and the ruin of their careers by a powerful industry insider.” These actresses are now survivors of human trafficking. Though LA Direct Models operated with such practices for years, this was only recently addressed and is just one example of potentially thousands among the commercial porn industry.

 

A tablet partially covered by blankets reveals porn search

 

What about PORN content on free websites?

 

According to Internet Watch Foundation’s research, 95 percent of the nearly 133,000 URL’s assessed were hosted on platforms where it is free to create an account and upload porn. 

 

If pornography of a trafficking survivor (including minors and/or adults) is uploaded to a website, the trafficker and the website will both profit from the abuse of this victim, even if the content is available for free. Approximately “90 percent of free porn websites and nearly 100 percent of pay porn websites buy their material” from an outside source. Additionally, even if users are able to upload pornography for free, website owners will profit from the traffic flow generated to the website content.

 

This is where the lines between legal pornography and human trafficking become particularly messy. Several of the world’s most popular porn sites have been found to feature illegal content, such as trafficking survivors, alongside their legal content.

 

An example of this can be seen in a recent campaign launched against Pornhub, arguably the largest porn website in the world. In response to the extensive bank of illegal material hosted on Pornhub, thousands of voices have joined a movement advocating for the website to be shut down. Types of content Pornhub profits from include cases of human trafficking and the rape of a 14-year-old girl, with over 100 confirmed cases displaying child sexual abuse according to an Internet Watch Foundation investigation. 

 

Who can access this? Anyone can upload, download, or access content on Pornhub, requiring only an email. With approximately 42 billion visits annually, Pornhub profits millions each year off of this content.

 

Porn is a Global Issue.

 

Globally, porn is a 97 billion dollar industry, and the US accounts for 12 billion of it. In 2017, the International Association of Internet Hotlines (INHOPE) “traced online child sexual abuse material to over 70 countries,” and more than 60 countries in 2018. Top porn entertainment companies, like Pornhub, advertise to and receive content from countries all over the world. Each year, Pornhub releases a report showcasing statistics from their “top 20 countries.” The 2019 list of top 20 spans across several continents. Human trafficking in the porn industry cannot be isolated to one location or one population. With the majority of porn accessible online, pornography of a trafficking survivor living overseas is just a search away.  

 

Though human trafficking looks different in the porn industry than in the prostitution industry, we know that it happens. The reality and extent of human trafficking can seem daunting at times, but at The Exodus Road, we know every rescue, every arrest is a tremendous victory and a step in the right direction. Our team and our operatives will continue to press on, for the sake of the four young girls rescued from a life of exploitation in Operation Scope, and for the sake of the many survivors enduring abuse whose freedom is still worth fighting for. 

 

*The story of Chloe is a fictional story created to illustrate how human trafficking can occur within the pornography industry.

Related Reading:

Ten Tools to Keep Your Kids Safe Online 

Human Trafficking May Be Closer Than You Think

Human Trafficking vs. Prostitution

Anna and Sophia: Trafficked from Europe