Business as Usual

A new Netflix documentary, “Money Shot: The Story of Pornhub” has a scattershot, “preaching to the choir” infotainment quality.

A documentary called “Money Shot: The Story of Pornhub” is going to court expectations of a naughty night at the movies. Perhaps sexual taboos, of the sort that hamstring our society with hypocrisies and condemnations, will be aired. Or perhaps we will get the skinny on the behind-the-scenes action of a website that nearly everyone’s heard of by 2023. That’s closer to the mark but not in the way you’re thinking. This title is quite literal, as Suzanne Hillinger’s film is a story of business.

Fifteen years ago, Pornhub revolutionized porn consumption by offering a virtual food court of easily-found pornography. One can search videos by star, fetish, and so forth, and, thanks to canny marketing, the site is mainstream in a way that suggests the bored middle class’s flirtation with porn in the 1970s.

Pornhub is a master of branding—you can probably picture its logo as I type this—and it had the effrontery to advertise in places like billboards on Times Square. There was an initial upside for sex workers in these developments. As the line between professional and amateur blurred, the stars of these films gained profound power in terms of revenue and presentation of their bodies. They could make and upload their films from home for next to nothing, freed from the dangers of physical and financial exploitation by filmmakers, distributors, and backers.

“Money Shot” offers this context, primarily by allowing sex workers to discuss their own lives. I could’ve used more of their testimonials, as they are shrewd, charismatic, and empathetic, refuting the cliches of sex workers as strung-out cautionary tales. You are probably sensing a “but” coming up soon, and you’re right. Like every other major company or trend that initially appears to democratize a business, actually realizing the notion of free enterprise, Pornhub found a way to screw over the working class.

Remove the provocative product and what you’ve got with Pornhub is another data harvesting tech company that floods the market with clickbait to foster enormous amounts of ad revenue. We like to think of sites like Pornhub as being cult-minded, but it commands billions of clicks a month, dwarfing the number of eyeballs captured by companies like Amazon and Netflix.

Like Facebook, which talks a big game about accountability while allowing fake news to proliferate on its pages, Pornhub doesn’t care what’s on its site, which has led to monstrousness: the profiting from sex crimes that have been posted online by unregulated users. There are many heartbreaking cases of women and children who have been raped and have struggled to suppress the posting of those crimes on Pornhub for the delectation of the sick. The internet is still in some ways the wild west, virtually impossible to manage in part because no one is trying. The lack of legislation regarding the protection of personal privacy online is flabbergasting.

“Money Shot” is not the story of victims of sexual abuse who have been exploited by Pornhub, which will probably rub some audiences the wrong way. That story has been told, as a war is being waged to shut the company down by activists such as Laila Mickelwait, who shares Pornhub’s genius for branding, and New York Times writer Nicholas Kristof, who penned an incendiary op-ed piece called “The Children of Pornhub.” In that piece, Kristof suggests sensible measures such as regulating all posters on the site, which the sex workers interviewed here agree with. Kristof seems to be an actual idealist, while people like Mickelwait appear to operate from a larger agenda.

Since we as a society are incapable of sensibility, and since we favor corporations over individuals, the protests against the exploitation of Pornhub have led to a punishment of sex workers. American Express and other credit card companies have pulled their association with such sites, hobbling the ability of sex workers to sell their products, and regulations have been introduced to limit visibility of their various platforms. The professionals have been bundled together with the sickos and punished accordingly, while Pornhub still enjoys vast ad revenue. In the name of decency, we have encouraged a monopoly, and enabled a secret right-wing quest to destroy pornography. As Hillinger illustrates, activists have cannily appropriated progressive talking points about abuse and exploitation to attack a business in the name of religious causes. Underneath the elaborate machinations of corporate online warfare is a prototypical quest of the church to ban smut.

Hillinger is sympathetic to the sex workers, as am I, and the hypocrisy of their condemnation is important to understand. It’s important even if you aren’t sympathetic to pornography. This is another story of how corporations are given a free ride while individuals are utilized as sacrificial lambs for symbolic quests. Porn is never going away, but nailing the right of individuals to make money might make some of us feel superficially better about the unpunished actions of unrelated sex criminals. This trend is another example of how our allergy to nuance allows those in power to turn us against ourselves.

Mickelwait isn’t interviewed, which is a shame but unsurprising, as she has the sense to understand that Hillinger isn’t sympathetic to her cause. Kristof does appear, and his earnestness is moving—his concerns about the undeniably evil potentiality of online porn appear to be in good faith. Sex workers such Siri Dahl, Gwen Adora, and Cheri Deville provide “Money Shot” with its most effective jolts of personality though. A memorable scene, in which Dahl sells her evaluations of the penises of her customers, underscores the need for validation, and the sexual insecurity, that drives modern online porn. Sex is everywhere and branded endlessly, yet we, blinded by stereotypes and cliches and illusions and pressures, are often left wondering if we measure up in the sexual dimension. Keeping sex underground only intensifies these insecurities, which is to say that Dahl and her compatriots offer a very valuable service. Moments with Adora, a “BBW” performer who is unashamed of her large body, have a similar poignancy.

These moments arise at random, however, popping up in the middle of passages outlining corporate intrigue and warfare over public opinion. One understands why Hillinger includes the character scenes, as they are easily the film’s best and help to get through the important but rather dry discussions of meta data and corporate harvesting as well as dissections of what company owns what. The rivalry between sex workers and the puritans who target them under the guise of feminism could’ve been drawn in starker and more visceral terms. I was left wanting more of everything: more personal moments, more corporate intrigue, more scenes that last longer than 45 seconds or so.

“Money Shot” has a scattershot, “preaching to the choir” infotainment quality. For a more intimate and equally empathetic exploration of the lives of sex workers, try a fictional film from last year, Ninja Thyberg’s “Pleasure.” For a film that fatally lances corporate entitlement, and illustrates the censorious evasions of the far right and, increasingly, the far left, well, that film as far I know doesn’t quite exist … yet. We are not only addicted to porn, but to documentaries that bear a greater resemblance to Wikipedia than cinema.

“Money Shot: The Story of Pornhub” is now available on Netflix.


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