Last week, a porn performer had Child Protective Services show up unannounced at her front door after an anonymous caller falsely claimed she was throwing “swinger parties” in front of her children. The caller lacked the kind of intimate knowledge one would expect of someone who personally knew the performer, who uses a stage name. But they did have one crucial bit of information: her legal name.
The performer can’t know for sure who made the call, or why, but she guesses that it was someone who, as she put it, “disagreed with my line of work.” Similarly, she can’t know for sure where they got her legal name, allowing them to make the report, but she has a strong guess: Wikipedia. “They used that information to try to remove my children from my home,” she told me, speaking on condition of anonymity, out of fear that others might get the idea to make similar CPS calls.
This woman is just one of dozens of porn performers who have had their legal names published on Wikipedia, right alongside their stage names. The site isn’t alone: IMDb, that cataloger of mainstream Hollywood acting credits, also houses legal names.
Porn performers take stage names to protect themselves, from quote-quote “fans” and anti-porn zealots, whose purported moral oppositions to the industry can manifest into personal acts of aggression. For a performer, publication of a legal name can lead to anything from menacing phone calls to being unsafe at home. It can out performers to loved ones, put their family members at risk, and shut down job prospects outside of porn. It can mean having their children interviewed for four hours by CPS, as happened with the anonymous performer above.
Whether careless or knowing, Wikipedia and IMDb put performers at risk of abuse, harassment, stalking, and violence. They do so while hiding behind the shields of company policy, user generated content, and public information. That is to say: These sites dispassionately prize the integrity and consistency of their databases at the expense of the privacy and safety of human beings.
It used to be that Wikipedia and IMDb were far from the worst offenders on this front. For years, a site by the name Porn WikiLeaks doxxed more than 15,000 porn performers, publishing not only their legal names, but also, in some cases, sensitive information like home addresses and the names of relatives. (Many of the legal names were reportedly obtained via a leak from an adult industry medical database.) In August, the site was purchased by the porn company Bang Bros, which took over the domain and shared a video of its effort to destroy Porn WikiLeaks’ store of sensitive information. In a P.O.V. clip someone sprayed lighter fluid on a pile of hard drives, before flicking open a lighter and tossing it on top. The ensuing flames seemed an accurate representation of the degree of anger directed at the site—and the desire to see it finally disappear.
Still, shuttering the site was not a cure-all, even Bang Bros admitted as much, writing in a statement that the closure “doesn’t purge the internet of all possible ties to real names.” Indeed, I first became aware of the issue when performer Sinnamon Love pointed out in a tweet at the time of Bang Bros’ announcement, “@Wikipedia enabled doxing of porn performers by allowing biographies to be updated with real names.” When I started looking into the Wikipedia issue, Alana Evans, president of the Adult Performers Actors Guild (APAG), a porn industry union, mentioned the problem was rife on IMDb as well.
This isn’t to suggest that Wikipedia or IMDb are remotely comparable to PornWikiLeaks in scope: When checking against a list of roughly 50 performers, I found a couple dozen examples of purported legal names listed on Wikipedia and IMDb—a far cry from PornWikiLeaks’ several thousands. The same can be said of degree: PornWikiLeaks had directly linked to Love’s children’s Facebook profiles, enabling horrific, heart-breaking harassment. (Wikipedia and IMDB’s entries only features performers’ legal names.) On the individual level, though, the effects of making these names public can be devastating.
When Kayden Kross, a porn director and performer, first saw her legal name appear on Wikipedia, she says, “My gut just sank.” She explains, “Stage names are the first line of defense against a world that often treats sex workers as disposable, deserving of abuse, and complicit in the violence done against them.” As a result of her legal name being made public, says Kross, she’s had to file numerous police reports for stalking and harassment. In one case, a stalker has used her legal name to document Kross’s “entire family tree,” complete with “where each person resides and odd details about them.” Although she can’t be certain where the information originates, Wikipedia, which until very recently published her legal name alongside her stage name, is one of the first hits on a Google search for “Kayden Kross.” Additionally, Kross says, people have used her legal name to create social media accounts and attempt to interact with family members and friends. “I couldn’t quantify the damage it’s done,” she says.
Kross says she tried on multiple occasions to get her legal name removed from Wikipedia, even paying people purporting to be experts, to no avail. (A Wikipedia spokesperson says that people can email firstname.lastname@example.org with concerns about published legal names.) Only last month, seemingly out of the blue, did an editor delete it.
The nonprofit that operates Wikipedia acts as if there is little it can do, because the site is crowdsourced. A spokesperson from the Wikimedia Foundation told me that “as part of our role, we don’t write, edit, or otherwise determine what content is included on Wikipedia or how that content is maintained.” Instead, she emphasized, those decisions are made by Wikipedia’s hundreds of thousands of volunteer editors, who are supposed to follow volunteer-created policies around such things as disclosing legal names. Wikipedia’s relevant policy reads, “When the name of a private individual has not been widely disseminated or has been intentionally concealed, such as in certain court cases or occupations, it is often preferable to omit it, especially when doing so does not result in a significant loss of context.”
However, in the majority of Wikipedia cases I found, performers’ listed legal names are not at all widely disseminated, a side effect, in part, of the imperfect democracy of the site’s volunteer editing system. The editing system creates a frustrating lack of accountability, allowing parties to diffuse the blame when things do go wrong. Additionally, I found several instances of volunteer editors arguing in the background over the inclusion of porn performers’ legal names—not on the grounds of privacy or safety, but rather accuracy and sourcing.
A page created by a group of Wikipedia editors, interested in developing better guidelines for the site’s entries on pornography, emphasizes the importance of birth names being “sourced from reliable sources.” It also notes, however, “Even when reliably sourced, editorial judgment must be exercised before deciding to add a pornographic performer’s birth name to an article which also uses their stage name.” Editorial judgment, however, leaves a lot of room for error—and real world damage.
While Wikipedia editors argue over sourcing, a performer’s legal name can spread like wildfire. Kross says her legal name was first posted to Wikipedia before it began to appear elsewhere online. (Ultimately, it was removed from Wikipedia due to poor sourcing, but only after living on the site for years.) Performer Jessica Drake has seen her legal name pop up on Wikipedia, along with other names falsely identified as such. “Stalkers use this information to track down performers to further harass them,” says Drake, speaking from personal experience. She’s had “fans” frequently call her on her private, unlisted phone number and even show up at her front door, in one case trying to force it open as she braced her body against it. Even when fans use her legal name at public events, it feels like an unnerving “power play,” an example of “assumed privilege,” and just plain creepy, says Drake.
In some ways, IMDb, an Amazon-owned company, appears to be much worse on this front than Wikipedia. IMDb restricts adult-related searches, so search results bearing porn performers’ legal names only show up under certain circumstances, but the scope appears to be greater. Evans, president of APAG, says that she became concerned about the issue a couple years ago and went searching for performers’ legal names on IMDb and easily found 40 instances. She estimates that roughly eight times out of ten, when she went searching for a performer, she turned up their legal name. The union, she says, has strongly considered taking legal action against IMDb. Evans herself has attempted many times, without success, to get her own name removed from the site. “They don’t give a rat’s ass about us as porn stars, because to many of these people we’re less than human, we’re disposable—and, to me, this is just more proof of that,” said Evans.
Similar to Wikipedia, IMDb employs user generated content to fill out its massive databases and advertises the ease with which visitors can contribute: “Adding information (we call it ‘data’) to IMDb is a very simple process, just follow the instructions below and you’ll be updating the site in no time.” When asked for comment, an IMDb spokesperson told Jezebel:
IMDb permits the removal of birth names from a person’s biographical details if the birth name is not broadly publicly known (i.e. it’s not already widely recognized and available elsewhere through sources such as major reference sites or publications) and if the person no longer voluntarily uses it (i.e. only uses their birth name when compelled to do so by government/legal requirements, but not in other aspects of their daily or professional life).
These rules, of course, represent an impossible scenario for performers’ privacy. Wikipedia itself is a major reference site, creating a feedback loop among other such sites once a performer’s legal name is published. What’s more, the second standard for removal—a name no longer being voluntarily used—seems to negate the possibility of a performer, in porn or otherwise, ever having any expectation of privacy. The spokesperson’s statement goes on to clarify that a legal name can be removed “if you no longer voluntarily use the birth name... in a public or private capacity,” emphasis mine. IMDb does not allow performers a private self, which seems an embodiment of the general public’s sense of entitlement to the personal information of celebrities of all stripes. That entitlement does not discriminate based on a celebrity’s potential for targeting, or their access to a gated Hollywood mansion and full-time security team.
IMDB is currently facing scrutiny around privacy on multiple fronts: It’s at the center of a debate over whether cataloging actors’ ages amounts to age discrimination. And this summer, IMDb limitedly revised its policies after LGBTQ activists pushed back on the publication of trans actors’ birth names, arguing that it violated privacy and exposed people to discrimination. While allowing for the possibility of some birth name removals, the site nevertheless insisted on continuing to list birth names in the case of previous professional credits. A spokesperson argued this was necessary to preserve “the factual historical record by accurately reflecting what is listed on-screen.” At the time, Gabrielle Carteris, president of the Screen Actors Guild‐American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, called the policy change a “half-measure” adding, “IMDb can make no principled distinction to justify its arbitrary choices about when to invade the privacy of performers.”
The same is true when it comes to the porn industry, of course. Performer Karla Lane’s legal name has been posted to IMDb for several years now. She tried a few years ago to have it removed, but says an IMDb customer service agent declined—the reason being that her legal name is listed once in her filmography, the result of a paperwork mishap on the adult production company’s part. Mostly, she says, the publication of her legal name has resulted in uncomfortable interactions with fans who insist on using it when they run into her in person. But it’s also pushed her to use her husband’s last name—although she did not take it legally—whenever doing work outside of the adult industry, because she’s afraid of a deleterious connection being made to her work in porn.
One former porn performer, whose legal name appears on both Wikipedia and IMDb and who spoke with Jezebel on the condition of anonymity, said that she has had to actually change her legal name just “so I could have anonymity and a fair opportunity to gain employment outside the adult industry as well as not having my personal info available for stalkers to have access to private information.” Similarly, another performer whose legal name appeared on Wikipedia, and who spoke on condition of anonymity, said she is planning to change her legal name because people can easily find out where she lives and because she wants to protect her future children. “I don’t like guns and had to purchase them due to stalkers,” she said.
It’s unclear to many performers how to proceed: raise noise in the hopes that public outrage might bring about change, or keep silent in hopes of not drawing attention to the information. Either way, it’s likely those who are most determined to find performers’ legal names are those who pose the greatest threat—and the information could scarcely be easier to find. Wikipedia is one of the top-ten most popular websites and IMDb is owned by the most valuable public corporation in the world. These are not shadowy platforms in the style of Porn WikiLeaks, but rather massively influential operations that host dangerous information. They get away with it, too, because speaking out carries risk for porn performers. The question, for those who have spoken out, is whether the public outrage will ever be loud enough to get these companies’ attention and justify having taken that risk.