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Is a Porn Site’s Mental Health Campaign Really the Release We Need?

YouPorn pivots to crying it out with a new, confessional-style category about the horrors of 2020. Is it helpful, or just a gimmick?

We’re over halfway through 2020, and the skies are red. The West Coast is on fire, there are riots in the streets, and despite a worldwide dash to produce a vaccine, the pandemic remains in full force. People are their losing jobs, their loved ones and their homes on an unprecedented scale. If your mental health is struggling, you’re not alone: In fact, you’re probably in the majority.

But thankfully, YouPorn is here for you (yes, I said “YouPorn”). The tube site is launching a new “confessional-style” category this week — simply titled “2020” — which will allow users to upload and share their experiences of the year so far. They don’t necessarily have to be about porn or sex: They’re simply about telling your story.

Although it’s in the early stages, the category is now live and browsable. So far, there are confessional entries from YouPorn ambassadors Jada Kai, Ricky Johnson and Heather Harmon, who, in a series of two-to-three minute clips, talk fairly openly about their lockdown experiences (Johnson, for example, uses the opportunity to share his musings on loneliness and promote his new dildo). 

The category also features a surreal confession from virtual avatar Jedy Vales, as well as some clips of a man lifting weights, and a small bird eating a dry cracker

“But why?” you ask. “Why is this happening? A thousand times, why?” 

Well, it’s for a good cause. The ultimate goal is to support mental health-care accessibility, with YouPorn teaming up with free online counseling site BuddyHelp for the project (the latter will receive $100 for every 1,000 views). And in some tangential way, the collaboration does make sense: YouPorn is a place where people go to physically ease tension, so why not encourage — as the site says — “a new kind of release”?

For BuddyHelp CEO David Braun, the collaboration was a no-brainer — particularly given the site’s predominantly male (75 percent) userbase. If it encourages them to divulge their anxieties and speak freely, he says, it can only be a good thing. “Men are far less likely than women to seek professional support, and are also less likely to disclose a mental-health problem to friends and family,” Braun tells me. “This is an excellent opportunity to raise awareness for the resources that are available.”

Other porn performers seem to be encouraging of the idea, too. When asked if she would record a confessional, actress Misha Mayfair tells me she would, saying that this kind of storytelling is a great way to “build empathy” between different communities. The same thought is echoed by performer Persephone Pink, who points out that these kinds of projects could help clear some of the stigma surrounding porn. “Being able to ‘confess’ personal things could help humanize people in the adult industry,” she says. “Because sadly, a lot of the general public still see us as less than human.”

In addition, if the confessional format actually takes off, Pink says that it could prove to be a vital tool to help performers who are estranged from, or misunderstood by, their friends and family: “YouPorn giving us an outlet where we can reveal things to our fans they might not know, or simply let out all the pain we have to keep to ourselves as we can’t tell people in real life, could be a real help.”

The question is how many people are actually going to use it. Because, although it’s a nice idea, watching someone pour their heart out next to some eye-wateringly explicit ads for new porn releases and hot local MILFs is a little distracting. For example, if you click on Jada Kai’s confession — in which she talks openly and emotionally about the horrors of COVID — you get all the same ads that you would for any porn video. Despite the sensitive subject matter, hardcore sex continues to pop up intrusively before, after and alongside the clip. The comical juxtaposition of hardcore fisting vids and soul-baring confessional also makes it feel gimmicky — like a hurried attempt by YouPorn to incorporate the global mental health crisis into their yearly marketing strategy. It’s also a reminder that, ultimately, someone’s still profiting from people’s most vulnerable moments.

It’s also important to note that, when it comes to mental health, sex workers have been one of the hardest hit by this pandemic, with many seeing their incomes disappear overnight. YouPorn — and its gargantuan parent company, MindGeek, which owns both Pornhub and RedTube — has already drawn criticism for making huge profits off the backs of independent creators, and for not taking firm enough action over stolen and non-consensually posted pornography. For this reason, both Mayfair and Pink remain somewhat skeptical about YouPorn’s new mental health-focused project — once again, she says, it doesn’t really do much for sex workers. 

Mayfair, although generally encouraging of the project, adds that YouPorn should aim to shift their focus more to sex worker-focused charities in the future. “It’s always good to discuss mental health,” she says. “However, what would improve things hugely would be a regular commitment to contributing to organizations that directly help sex workers. More support for the legal rights of sex workers would be a positive step, and I think more support from big websites that millions use every day would really help to change things.”

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