Porn vs Pulitzer: How Nicholas Kristof and the New York Times Became Mouthpieces for Religious Conservative Propaganda

“Every time we engage in licentious sexual activity, we come into agreement with Satan…” — Exodus Cry, the self-described anti-sex trafficking organization that caught the ear of Nicholas Kristof

Last week, a writer at the New York Times used his powerful, global platform in a manner that damaged the livelihoods — and could threaten the safety, depending on how events unfold — of countless sex workers already suffering deeply due to the coronavirus pandemic and the consequences of FOSTA/SESTA.

With one stroke of his Pulitzer-powered pen, Nicholas Kristof overwrote the voices of tens of thousands of people engaged in professional, consensual sex work. We must acknowledge that Mr. Kristof has spent a lifetime illuminating grotesque abuses against women around the world and is, in this respect, a journalistic hero. But as an adult content producer who works regularly with the people Kristof ignored, I am alarmed by how his cause has chomped on its own tail. He has traded journalism for propaganda to force an outcome on a major pornographic Website — an outcome whose net benefits even to the people he seeks to help are disputable at best. People in my industry suffer from relentless social stigma and harassment, often leaving us to remain quiet in the face of such events. But this one is too troubling to ignore.

As Karen Coates summarizes in “Somaly Man, Nick Kristof, and journalism’s hero problem,” Kristof has succumbed to falsehood in the past. After telling the story of a trafficking victim who was revealed to be a fraud, Kristof regretted his work. Sadly, damage has been done again, and we must now examine how Mr. Kristof’s emotional storytelling has misled his readers at the New York Times. Then we must expose the propaganda that appears to have been used by others to manipulate him so that they could hijack his podium for their own, less credentialed cause.

Kristof’s work begins with a December 4 piece, “The Children of Pornhub,” in the Times. In this piece, he described the harrowing plight of juvenile rape victims who had videos of their assaults published on Pornhub. He painted a picture of villainy in which inhumane executives at Pornhub turned a blind eye to these videos in order to profit from them. He then went on to offer action steps Pornhub and legislators could take to clean up the website. Pornhub responded four days later, on December 8, by implementing a set of changes similar to his suggestions, but by that time Mastercard and VISA had already begun an investigation. On December 10, the two card companies announced they were suspending payment processing for the Website.

Many adult production companies and independent content creators have long been critical of Pornhub’s business practices, especially the manner in which it handles piracy of copyrighted content. Some producers who have been in business since the mid-2000s or earlier, when tube sites had not yet taken over a large part of the adult industry, have even expressed delight in the possibility that Pornhub could be gravely impacted by the card companies’ action. However, regardless of one’s overall feelings about Pornhub, Mr. Kristof’s characterization of the website as a greed-driven facilitator of sexual violence is profoundly wrong.

First, the prevalence of nonconsensual sexual activity on Pornhub is far lower than on many mainstream media outlets, including ones that Kristof himself supports through his participation. According to Kristof’s own reporting, “Facebook removed 12.4 million images related to child exploitation in a three-month period this year. Twitter closed 264,000 accounts in six months last year for engaging in sexual exploitation of children.” He goes on to note that the Internet Watch Foundation, a child abuse watch group, reported only 118 instances of child sexual abuse imagery on Pornhub in an almost three-year period. But Kristof argues that there is far more of such material on Pornhub, because visitors to the site are simply ignoring the material and that “if you know what to look for,” you can find hundreds of such videos “in 30 minutes.” Here he makes a double leap based on an assumption and a dubious personal experience. The assumption is unsupported, and the experience can’t be replicated.

As a content producer with years of experience uploading videos to Pornhub, among many other outlets, I know from my work that people report anything and everything on the website. I’ve had a video with a stuffed animal in the background taken down for “bestiality.” I’ve had videos with rougher fantasies played out by long-established models taken down for “violence” based on the presence of activities couples enjoy for fun every day. I’ve had numerous colleagues speak of their own content being reported and taken down for reasons that were trivial or inscrutable. The reality that we live as content producers uploading material to Pornhub every day is that both the users and staff at the Website, far from being negligent, are consistently overbroad in their identification and deletion of material.

Moreover, when I attempted to replicate Kristof’s “30 minutes” by searching for rape and teen sex videos on Pornhub, an actual examination of the material in every case that I could find revealed the hallmarks of staged fantasy, not crime. As a professional producer, one such hallmark confronts me constantly: the act of playing to the camera. It’s difficult for an observer to see penetration when two people are having sex. To see penetration, cameras must be placed at certain angles, and the actors must cooperate with each other to turn their bodies toward the lenses. You can see the actors doing this in almost every video with rape fantasies that I can find on Pornhub. Another hallmark, especially applicable to rape fantasy videos, is what could be described as fantasy-driven roughness. This is when a slap across the face lands perfectly on the cheek so as not to cause injury. It’s when someone is pushed against a wall, but a hand is placed there first to cushion their head. More obvious hallmarks are the change in actors’ tone when they share visual cues with each other, as well as clothing that reflects not what people actually wear but a language of performative cliches.

Have there been real, violent crimes lurking in the mix somewhere? Of course. A number of women have shared heartbreaking accounts about finding videos of the crimes against them on Pornhub. Some of these accounts describe repeated delays by Pornhub in taking the material down. These delays should not have occurred and should absolutely be addressed through improvements to Pornhub’s content moderation process. It’s also certainly possible that more than those 118 instances slipped through the cracks. In 2019, Pornhub reported 42 billion visits to the site and 6.83 million new videos uploaded to it. Over the course of 42 billion visits to your local church’s bake sale, you’re certain to stumble upon some horrific crimes.

In fact, this transition to church is more than a joke. It’s a critical context check. In an independent 2004 report commissioned by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 11,000 allegations of sexual abuse had been made against 4,392 priests in the United States alone. We know from media reports that sexual abuse happens at school too. It happens, perhaps most horribly of all, within families. As mentioned earlier, it even gets shared on Twitter, a site that Kristof helps empower with his own video uploads. The statistics show that these crimes are a vast plague across every facet of civilization. According to a report by the International Labor office, forced sexual exploitation victimized 3.8 million adults and 1.0 million children in 2016 alone. This is why we must do more as a civilization to identify and stop these crimes. And this is why Kristof’s past work, such as his 2009 book Half the Sky, in which he illuminated the plight of sexual violence victims around the world, is so important. But this is also why his singling out of Pornhub as a uniquely callous contributor to sexual violence is terribly misleading and suggestive of ulterior motivations at play.

The question becomes, what led to Kristof’s lapse in reporting? We will never know, from a distance, how all the factors came together. But one big clue lies in a Dec 9 post on Exoduscry.com titled “Our Traffickinghub Founder Exposes Pornhub on Fox News.” The post was written by Daniel Garcia, the spokesman for Exodus Cry, which bills itself as an organization fighting sex trafficking. Garcia states, “Laila [as in Laila Mickelwait, founder of anti-Pornhub group Traffickinghub, which is part of Exodus Cry] spent the last few months in communication with Nicholas Kristof, the New York Times article’s author, to share her knowledge on the ways in which Pornhub is both enabling and profiting from mass sexual crime. In fact, it was the success petition and viral Traffickinghub video that initially made Nicholas aware of the issue.”

In other words, Mr. Kristoff appears to have been, at least in large part, used by Exodus Cry to attack Pornhub, a Website they’d been unsuccessful in attacking themselves. So what, we might ask? Organizations harness journalists all the time. The so what here is that Exodus Cry seems to have a larger, less popular agenda that deceptively masquerades as an agenda most reasonable people would support.

As Melissa Grant notes in her article, “Nick Kristof and the Holy War on Pornhub,” published on December 10 in The New Republic, Exodus Cry was founded by Benjamin Nolot, who wrote a book published in 2009 by an evangelical ministry in Kansas City. In this book, as reported by Ms. Grant, Mr. Nolot reveals his mission as a religious quest to counter “the birth of the next world empire: harlot Babylon.” Grant notes numerous ways in which Exodus Cry is fundamentally intertwined with a conservative Christian outlook that scorns homosexuality, Jews, and sex outside marriage and that places especial value on the role of women as child birthers.

A deeper dive into the roots of Exodus Cry and Traffickinghub can be found in a July 14 article by Justine Halley, “The Siren Song of Exodus Cry.” Halley provides numerous links to materials that illuminate the true origins of Exodus Cry, as well as how the group has obscured its most conservative religious drivers. In one still-active link, the group opposes all prostitution, consensual or otherwise, saying women “are not a sexual buffet for the gratuitous appetites of men; they are image bearers of God and the crown of His creation.” Hidden behind statements like this are other, far more conservative positions that Halley and others have unearthed. For example, Halley shows screenshots of an Exodus Cry questionnaire that asks about sinful homosexual thoughts, as well as the group’s Purity Covenant. A passage in the latter reads, “Every time we engage in licentious sexual activity we come into agreement with Satan and give him legal access into our lives.”

Got that? According to their own words, Exodus Cry is battling Satan.

In the 1980s, groups like Exodus Cry would be upfront about their holy crusades when attacking porn. After all, that was the era of the Satanic Panic, when the devil was still enthroned in many people’s fears. But now that we’ve moved on to other concerns and have also become more accepting of porn, it would seem that Exodus Cry has downplayed its underlying agenda to focus on a goal that more people are sure to find sympathetic: stamping out sex trafficking. The problem is not the stated goal. The problem is the underlying goal of eliminating porn at any cost and turning back the clock on sexual freedom to install, through deception and coercion, a conservative Christian value system across society, regardless of whether people want that. To help accomplish this goal, Exodus Cry conflates consensual porn with sex trafficking. If we took their rationale for what makes Pornhub evil and applied this rationale to society at large, churches would be child rape dens, Twitter would be a sex trafficking warehouse, all of us who tweet would be complicit in sex trafficking, the American school system would be teaching abuse, and the basic family unit of Western culture would be the root of child rape and torture. The logic is absurd, but Exodus Cry doesn’t seem to care about what’s rational, only what’s religiously expedient. For this organization, both logic and celebrated journalists appear to be tools to its ends.

Kristoff makes a smart target for Exodus Cry — a journalist whose past work is vaguely anti-porn if you read between the lines, yet not blatantly puritanical. We can see a pattern in his work starting with his publication thirty-four years ago, on October 5, 1986, of a piece in the Times titled “X-Rated Industry in a Slump.” In this piece, Kristoff describes various factors causing sales of adult materials to suffer. His own point of view seems to be withheld from the reader as he describes pressures created by phenomena such as the AIDs crisis, the federal government’s anti-porn Meese report, public shaming, and picketing. But perhaps the clue to his point of view lies in the accumulation of statements such as these:

“. . . an unlikely combination of conservatives and feminists who feel that pornography degrades women”

“’. . . As people feel freer to act out their sexual fantasies,’ she added, ‘they feel less need to indulge in pornography.’”

“. . . overdeveloped young people in positions never found in Grey’s Anatomy”

While young Kristoff offers no patent condemnation of pornography in this piece, his selection of observations and quotes creates a picture of an industry that is suffering not just financially but also in terms of its value-proposition within society. Here we see a man with nothing positive to say about pornography and yet with a neutral enough record to be prime pickings for a group that wishes to tone down their true slant for a contemporary, porn-watching audience.

Sixteen years later, on October 25, 2002 Kristoff wrote yet another piece in the Times titled “Saudis in Bikinis.” In this piece, he ridicules Saudi culture when he refers to the abayas women wear as “tents.” What’s interesting about this writing is that he advocates in it for women to have the power of choice at the same time that he dismisses the point of view some women have shared with him in favor of their style of dress. By this time in Kristof’s journalistic history, we see him taking a more patently judgmental stance. To free women from patriarchy and give them their choices, he is more than willing to laugh at their own perspectives and imply in the same breath that he knows what they should or would choose. Such parentalism would seem to contribute only further to Kristof’s willingness to do what he did on December 4: ignore what thousands of women (and men and trans persons) want and need.

Like any porn site, Pornhub makes for an easy target. We watch pornography mostly in secret, often while masturbating to dirty and embarrassing fantasies. It’s not something many people discuss at the dinner table or around the water cooler at the office (or, these days, during virtual happy hour). Bob and Sally down the street are unlikely to share a petition at the next community gathering to save Pornhub. Even my fellow producers — who might have kids in school, parents in a nursing home, or friends at church — often cannot risk the attention that comes with publicly marching for porn. Such risk only rises when your opponent doesn’t just disagree with you but views you as an agent of hell. So porn’s defense is defined by absence — the non-participation of the silent majority in the minority’s attacks against it.

But the bullseye has been misplaced; Pornhub is not a trafficking hub. It’s an outlet for people who upload porn, including studios and independent content creators. As one of the largest adult tube sites on the Internet, Pornhub is a major income source for many content producers, including enough women to fill a city. These are women who get up in the morning, go to work making videos, and collect pay checks for their labor. They sell their bodies in a way, just as many people sell their minds in other ways on Wall Street, Madison Avenue, to legal and public relations clients, and to international corporations with factories hiring laborers for low pay in third-world countries. What these sex workers on Pornhub choose is no worse than what many others choose. These women provide a fantasy, a release. And these women have helped radically change the realm of pornography from a furtive world of trenchcoated men in back-alley bookstores to a place of mutual participation and increased understanding. Women in sex work have helped sexual life progress to a condition marked by less shame, more knowledge, and more opportunity to find people with similar orientations and interests. Some people are harmed by porn, just as some are harmed by driving, high school football, and excessive cheeseburger consumption. But the net effect of these women’s work has been healthy and liberating. We should be thanking them and paying them, not taking away their outlet’s credit card processing.

To confuse consensual sex or porn with rape and trafficking does no service to society. Consenting sex work has nothing more to do with rape than a karate match has to do with a street mugging. Organizations like Exodus Cry re-imagine the overwhelmingly consenting and adult population of sex workers on sites like Pornhub as a sea of victims to further a twisted campaign designed to reverse sexual progress, no matter the impact on truth, individual liberty, or these women’s income. Moreover, confusing the world of consensual sex work and pornography with rape and child abuse only muddies the difference between help and harm, obfuscating the latter and tossing actual victims into a hall of smoke and mirrors. It’s not unreasonable to do more to close the cracks through which rapists disseminate videos of their rapes, but unless we are prepared to shut down the entire Internet, we must balance such efforts with more action to stop such criminals from acting in the first place.

After the implementation of FOSTA/SESTA, which shut down many websites where sex workers could screen clients, many women found themselves in a more dangerous predicament. Some have lost income or experienced physical violence. Now, during the coronavirus pandemic, many more sex workers have lost even more income as protocols have limited physical contact. Many young women I know who were barely scraping by have been relying on uploads of material produced at home to sites like Pornhub to pay their bills. Pornhub overlaps with Modelhub, and over 50,000 models have (as of December 13) lost their ability to sell content on the site. All the work — tens, hundreds, or thousands of hours — performed by these models, mostly young women, to build their personal pages on Modelhub has now been neutralized. The videos sit on the pages, suddenly earning no money, without anyone knowing if the situation will be permanent.

It is also unknown whether or not these actions by Mastercard and VISA could ripple out to other sites owned by Mindgeek, the parent company of Pornhub and one of the biggest companies in the adult industry, or to other tube sites or porn sites. What is clear is that sex workers, predominantly women living on modest incomes, now have one more threat to worry about at a time of great anxiety. From my vantage point in the industry, I’ve watched first-hand as many sex workers have struggled agonizingly through this pandemic. Just as he cherrypicked Pornhub’s content, Kristof cherrypicked what sex workers had to say. One popular performer who maintains an active presence across various content outlets, shared with me the practical concerns that models have:

“For years, performers have been asking Pornhub to uphold stricter policies and only allow verified uploaders who have provided identification. Now that the pressure is on from the banks, they finally did what we have been asking for, but it’s too late. Now, how are people going to pay their bills and feed their families? This is going to do exactly what SESTA/FOSTA and the removal of sites like backpage did: move abuse and sex trafficking further underground and make victims harder to find.”

Many more sex workers, especially those who use Modelhub, have expressed dismay on Twitter:

“So essentially people will be blocked from utilizing the only part of the site where they could be decent and actually support us.” @KarlaKush420

“Those videos were uploaded by free users, and gained money through ads right? So VISA blocking pornhub mostly hurts independent models selling content through the modelhub part of the site, and does nothing in regards to free videos making money…” @TheFaeLove

“Modelhub = paid content with verified creators. And now content creators that have shown government ID (!!!!) to verify their identities are losing their income when the problem was nonconsensual porn posted by unverified accounts.” @thatbitchfierce

In the midst of this pandemic, more and more models have shifted their work online. With a major online outlet now cut off overnight and anxiety looming about additional outlets to follow, Kristof has not just robbed thousands of people, mostly young women, of income; he has also created what could possibly become a hazardous situation in which some of them resort to further exposing themselves to coronavirus to close gaps in income. It is not an exaggeration to forecast potential health consequences as a result of Kristof’s action.

As a society, we must continue to support Mr. Kristof’s work in so far as it illuminates the enormity of sexual violence around the world. But we must also confront him when he blurs sexual violence with consent and helping women with harming them. We must also illuminate the manipulative agenda that has found its way into journalism as our society wrestles with competing forces of religious conservatism, sexual freedom, and sex worker rights. We should praise Mr. Kristof for his extraordinary lifetime contributions to sexual justice; but we must at the same time fight back against destructive propaganda, which can be so powerful as to sometimes ensnare even the best of minds.

Adult Video Producer