By Benjamin Bull | I’ve always liked John Lennon’s 1971 anti-war song “Imagine.” A stirring melody, easy to hum. “Nothing to kill or die for….A brotherhood of man.” Now let’s fast forward 52 years to the world of today and play Lennon’s imagine challenge.
…you’re in the shower feeling completely safe. But you’re being secretly videotaped by a stranger with bad intent.
… learning about the videotape only after your friends have told you that it’s been uploaded to an internet porn site, where hundreds of thousands of voyeurs and creeps are watching it.
…the videotape will likely remain on the internet somewhere forever.
…your anger, rage, and humiliation.
…you reach out to the website. Surely, they will pull it down once they learn it was secretly recorded by a creep and uploaded without my consent.
… that the porn site completely blows you off. No response.
… this is not an imaginary dream but a living nightmare.
…it’s about you.
As you may have guessed by now, this is not a crazy dream or a bad Netflix production. The story is quite real. It happened to nine of my clients who were members of a college girls field hockey team. They were secretly videotaped in the shower and locker-room at a South Carolina university where they had just competed in a match. The surreptitious videotape was in fact uploaded to Pornhub and Xhamster and watched by hundreds of thousands of viewers.
What happened to these nine young women is a violation of federal anti-sex trafficking law. But federal law enforcement has remained on the sideline so far, and only civil litigation can hold these bad actors accountable. The ugly reality is that online pornography sites monetize such non-consensual videos and split the profits with the uploaders. There is no age verification or consent form required. Any person with any motive can upload them and reap the profits.
The online sexual exploitation industry is a monster of gigantic proportions.
The National Center on Sexual Exploitation Law Center is co-counsel on a federal lawsuit filed on behalf of the field hockey players against these online platforms who have profited from their abuse. I wish this case was an aberration, but it is not. This is not the first time we have faced Pornhub.
We filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of all children sex trafficked on MindGeek, the parent company of Pornhub, in the Northern District of Alabama. We have two representative plaintiffs in that case. One of our clients was drugged and raped at just 15 years of age. The rapist videotaped the sexual assault and promptly uploaded it to Pornhub for profit. Another client was sex trafficked starting at 14 years old. Among other abuses, her trafficker forced her to participate in pornography videos which were later uploaded to Pornhub. Both clients are now adults but, sadly, as we know, what goes up on the internet, seems to circulate somewhere forever.
Perhaps the most disturbing part of that case is that MindGeek tried to have the case dismissed claiming it hadimmunity. Immunity for child sex trafficking, rape, and child sexual abuse material (CSAM), also known as child pornography – which it knew its website facilitated, promoted, distributed, and profited.
How can this be you ask? The short answer is, welcome to the age of the internet, where right is wrong and wrong is right. And where, until very recently, the federal government did everything in its power to protect these platforms, granting them almost absolute immunity from any sort of meaningful liability.
The tide is beginning to turn however. We defeated MindGeek’s motion to dismiss and in a landmark decision, the federal judge held that MindGeek has no immunity for child sex trafficking and child porn, not only because they contributed to the creation of the content, but because no one, not even a website, can claim immunity for knowing possession of child porn.
This kind of sexual abuse and online exploitation is hardly limited to websites infamous for being porn sites. Mainstream websites such as Twitter, Reddit, Meta, Craigslist, and Omegle, are well known today as the marketplace to buy, sell, and trade child pornography online and otherwise sex traffic children. Indeed, each of these platforms are currently defending lawsuits filed against them for allowing child sex trafficking and doing little or nothing about it.
Virtually all of this violates United States laws, the laws of every country where it happens, and numerous international conventions and treaties. Why aren’t these laws being enforced? There is a great human tragedy playing out and no amount of buck passing can explain it away. Where is the Department of Justice? How can rape and child abuse occur before our very eyes with no consequences?
So, what would the late John Lennon want to Imagine today if he were to recompose his famous song in the year 2022? Might it be living in a world of peace where children can love and live without fear, without exploitation from pedophiles, and free from sex traffickers? I think maybe he would. That’s what I imagine.
“Imagine all the people living life in peace…. I hope someday you’ll join us and the world will be as one.” Thank you, John.
Benjamin Bull is the general counsel of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, the leading national non-partisan organization exposing the links between all forms of sexual exploitation such as child sexual abuse, prostitution, sex trafficking and the public health harms of pornography.