Culture

The porn site that wants to plow you

Literally. PornHub wants to plow your driveway.

Culture

The porn site that wants to plow you

Literally. PornHub wants to plow your driveway.
Culture

The porn site that wants to plow you

Literally. PornHub wants to plow your driveway.

In mid March, as a kinda-sorta blizzard pounded the Northeast, canceling schools, closing subways and trapping people indoors, an internet porn site came to their rescue, and not just by giving them something to keep their hands busy.

PornHub is the internet’s highest-trafficked porn site, with 23 billion visits — about 64 million per day — in 2016. Never one to opt for subtlety, the company put its logo on snowplows in Boston and New Jersey and offered to clear driveways for free during the storm. The Montreal-based company set up a special email address and said it fielded hundreds of requests to, uh, plow them, daddy. The company told me its fleet of plows was busy all day, though Boston magazine couldn’t find any actual evidence of plowings taking place (PornHub did not respond to a request for additional comment).

Play Dirty

See More

If you have been following the actions of PornHub, or maybe just catching the occasional news item when you Google the site in your browser’s incognito mode, you know the snowjobs were just the latest of the increasingly brazen and public-facing goodwill campaigns the site has embraced over the past few years. In February, it launched one of its biggest efforts: an entire Sexual Wellness Center subsite with basic (sometimes very basic) info about STDs and testicular cancer and more nuanced discussions of consent and ways to make period sex more appealing.

The site’s “PornHub Cares” arm, which was established in 2015, awarded a $25,000 women in tech scholarship later that year, gave money to the Movember Foundation and held a campaign called “Save the Boobs,” in which it donated money to breast cancer charities for every video watched in the “Big Tits” or “Small Tits” categories. It’s raised money to save sperm whales and is currently running a promotion to encourage users to dress up like pandas while having sex to make videos that could be used to help get notoriously low-libido pandas in the mood (as of this reporting, nine videos have been submitted, Corey Price, PornHub’s vice president, told me).

The snowjobs were just the latest of the increasingly brazen and public-facing goodwill campaigns the site has embraced over the past few years.

The site is clearly striving for legitimacy that reaches for what some say is a long-overdue destigmatizing of pornography and its actors, producers,and consumers. Whether it’s through philanthropy or PR, or just an effort to get the site’s name out beyond Google’s “SafeSearch” filter (in fact, I had to turn off the SafeSearch just to find the company’s press contact info), these efforts by PornHub show that it’s clearly trying to be the first name-brand porn website to step out of the shadows of incognito mode and into the mainstream. The question is if it’ll succeed.

Price — who, according to a 2014 Reddit AMA prefers “TITS” over ass — is optimistic. “Ultimately, we’d like to become a go-to resource that people of all ages, genders and orientations can utilize whenever they need reliable information pertaining to their sexual health,” he said. The company casts its sex education site as an alternative to the often lackluster curricula taught in public schools; only 20 states have laws that require education to be “medically, factually or technically accurate.” But PornHub’s wellness center doesn’t exactly jump out to a casual visitor of the website: The link to it is buried at the very bottom of the homepage under a cascade of videos with titles like “Fuck my Russian Teen Secretary in POV till Creampie.”

PornHub is the biggest player in free internet porn and it’s likely to stay that way. Most millennials probably have never touched a pornography DVD and can’t name a Playboy centerfold, but they know they can fire up a laptop and have access to an unending, free stream of tube sites like PornHub and its sister sites Redtube, Youporn, or Gaytube (all of which are owned by the same company, MindGeek). Pornhub is the 38th-most popular site on the entire internet according to Alexa’s rankings, five places above Bing and only seven spots down from Netflix.

Not everyone thinks PornHub has anything more noble than its own money shots in mind. Chauntelle Tibbals, a sociologist and author of Exposure: A Sociologist Explores Sex, Society, and Adult Entertainment, called PornHub “one of the most egregious piracy-based tube sites.” PornHub and its clones are “referred to as ‘free porn sites’ as if porn is just this thing that is being given away,” she told me. PornHub does have a subscription option for $7.99 a month, but people are often scared to pay for something out of fear of what will show up on their credit card info. Tibbals sees PornHub as helping to dehumanize adult entertainment; in her research, she has seen a spike in people not caring about how workers in the field are treated that coincides with free tube sites.

Not paying for the videos means viewers are opting out of considering the realities of the industry — everything from compensation and benefits for producers and actors to concerns about sexual violence, sexism, and racist depictions in the industry, she said.

“It’s all stunt PR. It’s all a trick to distract us,” Tibbals said of PornHub’s offerings. “No, I don’t believe they’re destigmatizing anything. I think they’re destigmatizing themselves. We’re falling for it.”

Others haven’t been receptive to PornHub’s foray into philanthropy. The Susan G. Komen Foundation rejected a donation from the Save the Boobs campaign in 2012 because it did not want to be affiliated with the site. Price said the $75,000 was instead donated to the Eileen Stein Jacoby Fund and Cancer Sucks Inc.

But PornHub got a big boost to its corporate image in 2015 when it made it easier for people to report revenge porn (videos uploaded without the subject’s consent). Carrie Goldberg, crusading anti-revenge porn lawyer who was the subject of a December New Yorker profile, praised the company’s efforts to address non-consensual content on the site, which can often spread incredibly quickly due to the site’s popularity. She told me the company responds to her takedown requests faster than Google or Facebook.

“We were really heartened last year when PornHub created a ban on revenge porn,” she said. “I’ve had excellent results every time I’ve reported revenge porn on their platform. The other [internet] companies are good too but it’s [down] within a minute.”

She’d like to see them take it even further and implement image-scanning software that can spot revenge porn as soon as it reappears, something she said Facebook is working on now.

Others haven’t been receptive to PornHub’s foray into philanthropy.

On the industry side, at least, PornHub seems to be winning the hearts, minds, and genitalia of those who work in the field, which it has long sought — when the AVN Adult Entertainment Expo, the industry’s largest trade show held annually in Las Vegas, offered a space to PornHub a few years back, attendees acted like the organization had just invited a sidewalk DVD bootlegger to the Oscars.

“I think it's great to see a big company like that work to destigmatize our work, though many feel that PornHub's history of business practice has had detrimental effects on our industry,” Ela Darling, a performer and president of the Adult Performer Advocacy Committee, wrote me in an email. “Adult industry performers are marginalized people and any work done to increase acceptance of the work we do benefits everyone as a whole.” (Price said the company has no immediate plans to do a charity campaign to benefit industry workers directly, but “it’s something we’ve definitely been putting some thought to.”)

AVN CEO Tony Rios said he sees PornHub’s public campaigns as the right direction for business overall.

“I laugh whenever one of those things come across. They outdo themselves,” he said. “I think that’s great for the industry and I think it’s helping in destigmatizing.”

But the stigma is far from gone. Shira Tarrant, author of The Pornography Industry: What Everyone Needs to Know, told me that advocates of normalizing pornography cite a litany of benefits it creates, from providing outlets for people in long-term relationships and those with disabilities to educating isolated people about diverse sexualities and what they do and don’t like, which can help encourage conversations about consent and sexual assault.

Whether PornHub’s campaigns will turn it into a pillar of the internet or make porn as mundane to talk about as Google Doodles remains to be seen. But even if it’s an imperfect messenger, the conversation it’s generated is a big step to take before bashful legislators can even discuss laws that protect workers and piracy, Tarrant said.

“If we all wait around for the perfect kind of site, we could be waiting a long time,” Tarrant said. “It seems like a good start.”

Tim Donnelly is a freelance journalist.

Want something different?