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The Men Who Watch Porn All Day for the British Government

With idiosyncratic obscenity laws comes a tedious new profession: porn monitor

After graduating from university, Matt spent nearly a year looking for any job that would allow him to pay his rent after he was rejected from every entry-level management consulting and business operations job he could find. But one day, in July 2014, he found an ad on an Xbox gaming forum that immediately sparked his curiosity. The job would last for as many hours as he wanted and would pay him anywhere between $15 to $20 per hour, far higher than anything else he’d seen. “I’m in, and I can start straight away,” he messaged the user who posted the ad.

The gig: Watching hours upon hours of porn, carefully monitoring the details of each scene for any material that might be considered illegal.

That same year, the British government introduced the Audiovisual Media Services Regulations Act, which introduced the country’s first set of restrictions on porn produced and broadcast in the U.K. It included acts like strangulation, face-sitting, fisting and bondage. While some of these restrictions were eventually reduced, the government’s appetite to restrict porn continues today. Earlier this year, for example, Wired reported that the British government wanted Internet Service Providers to force users to “opt in” to subscriptions that would allow access to porn sites. The government also expressed its interest in demanding porn sites implement age-verification systems — prompting some concerns by organizations like the Open Rights Group — that it would essentially create a database of people’s porn habits.

Due to a non-disclosure agreement Matt signed, he couldn’t tell me anything specific about the company he worked for — other than that it was U.S.-based. He did say, however, that he was never formally employed, working instead as a contractor, invoicing each day for the number of hours he worked.

In terms of the actual day-to-day, he’d provide a link of the videos he watched on an Excel spreadsheet, the time they’d been uploaded, their duration and a synopsis of their contents. “For example,” he tells me, “you could have a video of hardcore sex between a man and a woman, so you would write something like, ‘Hardcore. M+F, man tears off woman’s clothes, performs oral sex, penetration, anal, finish on face.’ Sometimes you’d need to write more detail, like what positions they carried out and whether it classified as violent or not.” The point, he says, was to look for scenes that might show sexual violence such as rape or hint at child or animal abuse.

He spent a majority of his time on the huge number of smaller porn aggregation sites (i.e., not PornHub) — a la XVideos, Xnxx and xHamster. “Sites like PornHub are professional,” he explains. “They get thousands of uploads every day, but they have enough money and resources to prioritize professionally shot films and methods of curation tailored toward their users. They also have their own in-house screeners — the ones who make sure that nothing illegal or nasty goes up. In contrast, the smaller sites — the ones that are usually based in Russia — don’t give a fuck. They rip and steal videos, and there’s like, one guy who might run the site, making money off of ads and clicks from third-party advertising software. He’s stealing porn from other sites to get people to come to his. At the same time, he’s allowing people to upload their own stuff there, too, but without checking it. That’s why you end up getting all the weird, nasty stuff on those sites.”

Essentially, Matt’s job was to ensure that the weird, nasty stuff didn’t make it to the larger pool of tube sites (i.e., yes, PornHub), and that if it was present, the administrators knew about it. If they didn’t remove it afterwards, they’d be penalized financially and/or receive a prison sentence.

Matt doesn’t know how many people he worked with, but he imagines there was probably a fairly high number, considering the amount of videos that get uploaded to xHamster et al. “It was an isolating job,” he says. “I spent hours in my room while my roommates were at work watching loads of porn. At first I thought it was great, but that lasted maybe 10 or 15 minutes. Then it was just kind of gross and desensitizing.”

“Two months in,” he continues, “I found I couldn’t masturbate. I also didn’t have the energy to have sex. So I stopped going on dates. I wouldn’t have known what to do if they came over anyway. It just would’ve been embarrassing.”

And so, he left the job in early 2016, deciding to use the money he made to further his education by going on a teacher training course. “I remember the day I decided to call it quits. I was given a list of videos I needed to monitor. One of them was titled, ‘Anal fisting + Gangbang.’ It just wasn’t something you’d want to watch at 9 a.m. Or at all. But definitely not at 9 a.m. It’s strange, I spent three years in university attempting to study history; it’s sad that I’ve now spent a much longer amount of time analyzing a single porn video.”

He laughs. “Maybe that’s why I barely scraped through school.”