The five videos showed women showering and changing their clothes in a locker room at South Carolina’s Limestone College. Apparently, a camera had been hidden in a sink to secretly capture athletes from visiting schools. The clips, running between 90 seconds and three minutes in length, were uploaded to Pornhub, one of the world’s largest porn sites, where a “concerned parent” discovered them and alerted an impacted university. Soon, Pornhub removed the videos—but not before authorities got involved. It took a police detective reaching out to the site.
This case has gotten national media attention, but it raises a broader question about how tube sites, which allow easy user uploads, prevent the spread of nonconsensual undercover videos. That question seems especially tricky given that hidden camera porn is a popular and widespread genre.
A search for “hidden camera” turns up well over 100 pages of results on Pornhub, including videos shot in locker rooms, dressing rooms, and bedrooms. Some of these videos feel obviously staged: the lighting and picture are high-quality, and sometimes the women on-screen are turned toward the camera as they get undressed. Some videos, however, have the appearance of authenticity: a grainy picture, poor lighting, awkward angles. Videos can be staged to seem authentic, making it difficult to tell the difference between actual non-consent and the illusion of non-consent. That is especially so when it comes to content uploaded to Pornhub by JoeSchmo12345, as opposed to films made by established, professional porn companies.
Blake White, vice president of Pornhub, told Jezebel that the company uses “a dedicated team of human reviewers to review content uploaded” to the site to ensure that it meets “content compliance rules.” The site’s terms of service ban clips that “violate any law” and require “necessary licenses, rights, consents, and permissions to publish” videos. Technically, this would prohibit true undercover videos, but White did not specify how reviewers could determine the authenticity of hidden camera clips. It appears that flagging is the site’s main defense: “Our community is a key component in identifying content that might violate our terms,” he said. “Content flagged by our community as inappropriate is promptly reviewed and removed if necessary.”
In this case, the identification of a true hidden camera video would, for the most part, require one of two circumstances: 1.) A victim comes across or is alerted to the video, or 2.) Someone recognizes a person or location in the video. Remember, it was only by sheer luck that the Limestone College videos were removed. It certainly wasn’t the doing of Pornhub’s “dedicated team of human reviewers.” Instead, it was the happenstance of a “concerned parent” stumbling across it.
The reliance on community flagging is not only fallible when it comes to keeping nonconsensual porn off the site, bu also liable to false positives. “We constantly receive inbound requests from people who come across videos that they interpret to be nonconsensual, like hidden camera footage, when in fact they are actually staged fantasies that the individuals depicted in the videos have consented to,” said White. “Sometimes people tend to skip ahead in a video and only view a certain part of it and do not come across any of the disclaimers at the beginning or end explicitly stating all individuals have consented and instead think it’s nonconsensual.”
Both the problem of missed and false positives are compounded by the popularity of the genre. Alex Hawkins, vice president of the tube site xHamster, one of Pornhub’s competitors, tells Jezebel that “secret camera fantasies have always been a popular category of adult film.” He notes that there “are whole websites that focus only on recreating realistic amateur looking locker room, toilet or public sex videos, but are in fact real productions and have model releases for each model.” There are also “amateur couples who record themselves on security cams or consensually film each other using spycams,” he says. Similar to Pornhub, when xHamster removes these kinds of videos, it is often after they are flagged by users.
In recent years, the subject of “revenge porn”—a term typically applied to cases where an ex vindictively spreads a sex tape—has made countless attention-getting headlines, while other forms of nonconsensual porn, including authentic hidden camera videos, have gotten significantly less attention. Forty-six states have passed laws prohibiting nonconsensual porn, and Pornhub in 2015 introduced a form for visitors to request the takedown of content posted without their consent, which Slate accurately described at the time as but “one small step” toward fighting revenge porn. Despite the laws, and despite Pornhub’s “one small step,” the problem persists because, as in the case of the Limestone College locker room videos, a nonconsensual clip might not be recognized as such until the right person sees it.
Critics argue that the policies and fundamental architecture of sites like Pornhub make the publication of nonconsensual porn inevitable. “It is truly horrific that the issue with Limestone College occurred, but we would be delusional to believe it was a one-time occurrence,” said Nate Glass, president of Takedown Piracy, a company offering copyright infringement services. He argues that any time “a platform allows ‘users’ to upload content, they run the risk of this type of video being uploaded.” That is especially true, he says, when sites rely on flagging. Glass argues that successfully tackling the issue of nonconsensual porn on tube sites requires considering how the “best technology solutions can be paired with human content moderation to help legitimate sites avoid situations like these.”
The Limestone College incident follows another high-profile case that raised questions about Pornhub’s moderation policies. Girls Do Porn, a production company that allegedly tricked and coerced women into doing porn, and whose owners and employees were recently charged with sex trafficking, had an official channel on the site. For months, “Pornhub allowed Girls Do Porn to host dozens of videos on its platform—even after 22 women who appeared in the Girls Do Porn videos sued the production company for fraud, emotional distress damages, and misappropriation of their likeness,” as Motherboard reported. Only recently, did Pornhub finally take down the company’s official page and videos.
Mary Anne Franks, a law professor at University of Miami School of Law, and an expert on legal issues around revenge porn, tells Jezebel, “Any porn site that does not take reasonable measures to verify that pornographic material is consensual in all respects—consensual in the sexual act or nudity displayed, consensual in the creation of the image or video, and consensual in the distribution—before displaying cannot claim to be taking the problem of nonconsensual pornography seriously.” Reasonable measures, says Franks, would include asking uploaders to check a box verifying that every person depicted in a given video has consented “to the sexual act or nudity,” “to the recording of the sexual act or nudity,” and “to the distribution of the recording.” That is not the case when uploading content to Pornhub: The site asks you to check any number of boxes to describe the video’s content, with categories ranging from “anal” to “babysitter,” but it does not ask for confirmation around consent.
Franks argues that “sites like Pornhub facilitate and profit from the spread of nonconsensual pornography.” Similarly, Carrie Goldberg, a lawyer who specializes in revenge porn cases, and author of the recent book Nobody’s Victim: Fighting Psychos, Stalkers, Pervs, & Trolls, says that “unlawful surveillance and non-consensual pornography are a form of violence and a scourge on society,” and says that for sites like Pornhub “there is almost zero incentive for them to ‘do the decent thing’ when they are making huge profits from exploiting people.” Danielle Citron, a law professor at Boston University, says she has encountered people “who have been secretly taped in bedrooms and bathrooms and the videos have shown up on Pornhub with their names embedded in metadata.” The site sometimes removes these videos in response to a complaint “in a timely fashion,” she says, “but not always.”
In short, unless tube sites are willing to make compromises around the ease of uploading videos, it’s questionable how effective they will be at preventing the proliferation of nonconsensual porn.