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The Horrifying Reason Women Are Searching for Their Own Cities on Pornhub

It’s not because they want local smut — it’s because they’re chasing down revenge porn that the tube site is unable to curb

When Pornhub released data regarding women’s most popular searches last year, it didn’t realize it was publishing potential evidence of its most paranoid search terms. The results revealed that women in Michigan were 39 percent more likely to search “Detroit”; women of Maryland were 66 percent more likely to search “Baltimore”; and women of Pennsylvania were 309 percent more likely to search “Philly.” “Boston,” “Las Vegas” and “Milwaukee” experienced similar increases. 

The thing is, women aren’t searching their locations because they want hyper-local pornography. Many are tracking something far more sinister: revenge porn.

Rose Kalemba, a 25-year-old writer based in Ohio, was kidnapped and raped at knifepoint at the age of 14 by two men and found out her attackers had filmed the brutal assault and published multiple videos on Pornhub after her classmates started sharing clips on Myspace in 2009. Kalemba repeatedly contacted Pornhub, telling them she was a minor who had been raped and begged the porn company to take the videos down. Six months passed without a response, and the videos remained up. It wasn’t until she made a fake email address posing as a lawyer that they were removed.

By then, though, the video had been downloaded, pirated and posted many more times across Pornhub and multiple smaller tube sites. To track all of this, like many victims of revenge porn whose sexual images and videos are released publicly without consent, Kalemba was left to search the internet day and night, hunting down every remaining post of the video herself to try and get them removed. 

“There were comments mentioning where I was from, and I remember typing that into Pornhub, along with the video titles, and my state, trying to make sure they weren’t put back up,” says Kalemba, who preferred not to disclose her hometown. “I was never able to find my videos again after they were taken down, but I spent years of my life searching because I was paranoid they’d be uploaded again when they thought I wasn’t looking.”

Pornhub Vice President Blake White offered a more innocent explanation via email: “Although we can’t say why women are searching for these cities on the site, we’ve found that top searches are often influenced by pop culture, mainstream media and other popular worldwide events.”

Lawyer Dennis Sawan, however, highly doubts that women are searching their cities on Pornhub for pleasure. “I find it hard to believe that the nature of that search is out of some sort of specific preference for localized pornographic material, like pornography in Detroit,” he tells me. Because after representing revenge-porn victims, he’s learned firsthand that discovering this type of content is notoriously difficult. “Anxiety is feeding this, and it’s consistent with what we hear from victims of revenge porn more generally. It’s often the fear of the unknown that’s the biggest anxiety-provoking factor.” 

Approximately one in 25 people in the U.S. has had a sexual image or video of themselves shared on the internet without their consent — about 90 percent of them being women. More women, too, could be at risk of revenge porn without realizing it, as up to 88 percent of adults admit to sexting, and as many as one third of couples have filmed themselves having sex. When these relationships end, of course, such photos and videos live on the cloud for hackers and at the fingertips of burned exes. In some cases, names, schools, social media profiles, addresses and even social security numbers have been posted alongside the porn as part of the harassment. 

The punishment for revenge porn varies state-by-state, from a misdemeanor, to a felony, to no crime at all (Massachusetts, Mississippi, South Carolina and Wyoming currently have no such laws in place). The most comprehensive laws are modeled after the U.K.’s 2015 anti-revenge-porn law, which punishes offenders with a maximum two-year prison sentence. But most perpetrators face lesser punishments as lawyers have to prove malicious intent — namely, that the defendants meant to hurt their victim instead of simply making them a porn star. 

In her particular case, Kalemba’s attackers weren’t charged with rape, but “contributions toward the delinquency of a minor,” a misdemeanor, punishable by only a maximum of a year in county jail, a fine that could reach $2,500 and up to five years’ probation. They ultimately received a suspended sentence. “They didn’t serve a single day in jail of the 30 suspended days, and they were fined $400 each,” she says. 

It’s not just Kalemba either. Last October, a Florida mother reportedly found her 15-year-old daughter’s videos on Pornhub a year after she’d disappeared. More recently, Jewell Baraka came forward about being trafficked into sex work and porn, and that they were featured on Pornhub from ages 14 to 17. Like Kalemba, they weren’t legally or developmentally capable of consenting to sex, let alone the publication of porn generated from it. And yet, their videos remained live for months, sometimes years, and they’ll never really know if the content is completely out of circulation. 

When Kate Isaacs’ friend was victimized, she also was underage. Her pictures and videos ended up on Pornhub after her iCloud was hacked. She attempted to get them removed from Pornhub, but it was already too late — they kept popping up over and over again, with seemingly no way to completely eradicate them from the platform.

Since starting the advocacy organization Not Your Porn in 2012, Isaacs has spoken to thousands of victims all over the world who, like her friend, have never been able to catch up with Pornhub’s system that allows anyone to upload content without verifying the consent or age of the performers. According to Pornhub’s terms and conditions, the only time uploaders have to provide any official identification is for paywalled content. Free videos are fair game, which Pornhub also allows users to download, edit and redistribute for as long as they’re live on the site. Nor is there a screening process before videos go live. Moreover, Pornhub, a multibillion-dollar corporation that hosts an estimated 115 million visitors a day and 1,200 searches per second, only employs six content moderators worldwide, according to Isaacs, who says she was told this in a meeting with the company that she recorded. (For comparison, Facebook contracts 15,000 moderators.)

Many girls like Isaacs’ friend and Kalemba will attempt suicide, and the ones who survive lose years of their lives to the never-ending terror of their trauma being repeated over and over again in the digital world. All the while, they have to wage their own search-and-destroy missions. “I know one woman who would stay up all night. She eventually married, and her husband would have to carry her up to bed because she wouldn’t stop trying to find her videos,” Isaacs tells me. “It becomes an obsession with victims where they’re so desperate to get this off the internet — and sometimes you can’t search your name.”

Pornhub hasn’t denied Kalemba’s claims, but it hasn’t taken much responsibility either. “These horrific allegations date back to 2009, several years prior to Pornhub being acquired by its current owners, so we do not have information on how it was handled at that time,” the company recently told the BBC. 

It is true that in 2010 Pornhub was acquired by MindGeek, a privately held Canadian company that owns about 80 percent of the porn industry, Isaacs estimates (from RedTube and YouPorn, to a number of adult production companies). Obviously, such a monopoly over the entire porn industry only makes matters worse, since, essentially, MindGeek is policing itself. 

When I press White about the connection of city searches to revenge porn, he explains, “That theory has never been brought to our attention and isn’t a concern we’ve faced. That said, we strongly condemn nonconsensual content, including revenge porn. Content that’s uploaded to Pornhub that directly violates our Terms of Service is removed as soon as we’re made aware of it, and this includes nonconsensual content.”

Next, he points to what Pornhub has cited as the most progressive anti-revenge-porn policy in the industry since 2015: a portal for victims to report nonconsensual pornography and request to have it removed. Additionally, Porhub has introduced digital fingerprinting software from a third-party company, theoretically to help women find revenge porn that’s proliferated across the internet. The problem is, in order to use it, they have to upload the videos they’re worried about and rarely have in their personal possession. “Most people who find their revenge porn just want it to go away,” Isaacs says. “They’re not going to download it, save it and then reupload it to another server.” 

Not to mention, all of the protections in place require victims to find their videos first. When victims don’t get doxxed directly or blackmailed by their former sex partners, they’re typically alerted via acquaintances, friends, family members or even fans who think the video is consensual and seek them out on social media. In an attempt to prevent as much humiliation as possible, women will try anything to locate their revenge porn before someone else does. So searching “Philly,” “Baltimore,” “Detroit” or wherever they’re from (or had sex) makes a disturbing amount of sense. 

Typing these cities in Pornhub’s search bar yields results that only strengthen the link to revenge-porn paranoia. Virtually every video is labeled as “amateur” or “homemade,” categories that help perpetrators disguise revenge porn so that it can stay in circulation longer unreported, because no one can tell the difference between the girl next door who’s a pornstar and the girl next door who’s a victim. And while plenty of amateur porn is made between two consenting adults, the very existence of the category can cloak revenge-porn crimes, as a 2015 study published in the Journal of Sex Research found. 

Further, “Philly,” “Baltimore,” “Milwaukee,” and “Detroit” also featured the related search term “exposing thots,” an explicit revenge porn category. The top six cities searched, including “Las Vegas” and “Boston,” were closely related as well to queries for sex workers like “Philly backpage” or “Milwaukee escorts,” who are even less protected by already limited revenge porn laws because they’re not seen as victims. They are, however, frequently victimized by it. So much so that last month, a post on r/SexWorkers outlined a pretty industrious hack to the problem — you can create a Pornhub account, get it verified (a simple process that requires no proof of age or consent), contact Pornhub to report the content as stolen (as opposed to nonconsensual), have the video transferred to your account, absorb the revenue and then remove it yourself. 

In fairness, not everyone is convinced that these local searches are the result of revenge-porn paranoia. Private investigator Darrin Giglio suspects it may have more to do with women’s concerns about their boyfriends or husbands cheating on them. “A concerned spouse is more likely to search than someone concerned they’re the victim of revenge porn based on my experience, which may be skewed,” he says. He also acknowledges that many men and women are likely searching their cities to see if they know anyone in the videos — not to alert acquaintances, but to get off to them. “I do know some people do it out of morbid curiosity hoping to see if neighbors, coworkers or spouses appear in any local porn,” Giglio says.

Tony Anderson, who runs the adult content review site Pleasure Seeker, uses search optimization tools like Ahrefs and SEMrush, which identify the search volume for different keywords and provide additional data on keyword competition, to analyze porn trends. Given that information, he believes women could be searching for porn in their cities because they connect to it more. “If you’re in Philly, watching porn of people dirty-talking with a Philly accent might really do it for you,” he says, noting that locales like Portland and Minnesota have search volumes comparable to Milwaukee and Philly, even though they didn’t make Pornhub’s map. “People also might be curious about how kinky their town is, which is perhaps why we see lots of small cities having porn search volume.”

He similarly points to the search volume for “how to find revenge porn,” which is very low. “If a lot of people were searching for revenge porn by Googling ‘philly blonde,’ I feel like searches for how to find it would be way higher,” Anderson explains. 

Still, the search volume for “revenge porn” by itself is quite high. Admittedly, though, this is complicated by the fact that revenge porn has turned into its own fetish and parody genre. And so, searches for “revenge porn” may still turn up brazen nonconsensual porn, but they’re now just as likely to uncover paid actors pretending to be exes simulating abuse (which, honestly, only gives more credence to city-specific searches being attempts to find the real thing).

Either way, part of the impulse to minimize what city searches mean may come from an inflated illusion of what companies like Pornhub are doing to combat revenge porn. Like Pornhub itself, Giglio and Anderson both cited the site’s content removal reporting system as a viable solution. Others, though, think the only thing that will really solve the problem is for Pornhub to remove its download button, which currently makes it virtually impossible for victims to fully scrub the internet of their violated bodies, while rewarding content thieves. 

“I’m not sure why the download feature exists,” Isaacs says. “They make money from the ads on the site, which are seen regardless of downloading it. So I don’t think they get anything out of it.” Pornhub could also require ID and some form of written or verbal consent from any performer featured on its platforms. But until there’s a legal or financial motivation to do so, it’s highly unlikely that Pornhub would ever enact such measures (even as victims and advocates call to shut it down).

Pornhub, too, is just part of the problem. In 2016, Carrie Goldberg, a New York-based lawyer advocating against revenge porn, asked Google’s Legal Removals team to help 15 women she represented, ages 18 to 22. Her clients had answered a deceptive modeling ad and were raped before and during the photo shoots. But when Goldberg sent affidavits to Google asking them to remove the videos from search engine results, she found that Google will only removed content if it’s child pornography, copyright-infringement or synthetic pornography. “Think deepfakes where AI is used to superimpose a person’s face into a porn video,” Goldberg explains. 

Tech companies aren’t legally required to cooperate with the removal of revenge porn and victims cannot sue Google or Pornhub over it because of Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which gives tech companies immunity for any content created by a third party. (In other words, the only ones criminally responsible are the individuals doing the uploading.) At the moment, the sole way lawyers like Goldberg can get around this is if revenge porn is a “selfie,” meaning the victim was the photographer, which can be argued as intellectual property, or if victims copyright their sex tapes and nudes ahead of time — an impossibility when women are assaulted or filmed without their knowledge. 

Based on the lack of options for victims, Goldberg doesn’t doubt that cities have become women’s top porn search terms because they have no other recourse. “I totally agree that these searches are from women looking for nonconsensual photos of themselves, especially if the city is combined with their own name,” Goldberg says. 

It’s common, natural and self-protective for most women to think that this could never happen to them — either because they’d never have sex on camera or never have sex with the kind of person who would secretly film them. But the reality is, no one is 100-percent safe from revenge porn, and there’s no such thing as safe sex in a post-Pornhub world. “A lot of people are like, ‘Well, I’m not stupid enough to let that happen.’ But you have no idea,” Isaacs warns. “You could have been recorded without your consent in the first place.” 

That’s what happened to Amanda, a 30-year-old banker in Portland. “My ex filmed me without my knowledge or permission,” she tells me. “He told me about it. I went through his phone and it did seem like he deleted it, but I have no way of knowing if there’s another copy.”

After they broke up, Amanda searched Pornhub, Reddit and Instagram daily for signs of herself, using keywords like “crazy ex-girlfriend,” physical features such as hair color and sexual acts performed in the video. Amanda never found the video, but she’ll never be completely certain it’s not out there. “I didn’t search my city, but I looked for other identifiers,” she says.

As for Kalemba, she’s now a wife, pitbull mom and many other things than a victim — e.g., an advocate for other girls and women who’ve had their lives changed by revenge porn. When she went public and shared her story with the BBC, she’d gone years without searching for her videos — until after the article was published and searches for her name and the titles of her videos started to trend on Pornhub.

One of the thousands of reasons why I will never again be silent about this part of my story: the fact that almost…

Posted by Rose Kalemba on Thursday, March 5, 2020

“I didn’t find my videos, but I did drive myself crazy for a few hours scrolling, scared they were put back up,” Kalemba says. Eventually, though, it dawned on her that she was giving Pornhub the very thing it wants more than anything else — clicks. So while she might uncover another horrifying video of herself to report, she’d also undeniably be making a company complicit in her pain that much more money, which is ultimately why she stopped the search and walked away from her laptop. 

“My advice to other women would be to stop supporting them indirectly in this way, because it will only drive you crazy and hurt you even more,” she tells me. “It’s only giving Pornhub what they want by giving them the attention that lines their pockets.”