Girl On The Net | Contributing Writer | Thursday, 22 June 2017

How did PornHub become synonymous with porn?

How Did PornHub Become Synonymous With Porn?

The Debrief: Each month more people search for 'Pornhub' than they search for 'porn' or even 'sex.' But how should we feel about Pornhub's dominance of the porn industry?

PornHub so large that its name is now almost synonymous with porn itself. According to Keywords Tool, we can see that threre are more UK monthly searches for PornHub on Google – 20.4 million - than on just the term 'porn' (13.6 million). The search volume for 'sex' languishes far below either of these, at around 1 million monthly searches. In the early days of the porn industry, when dirty videos were rented, bought, or passed from sticky hand to sticky hand, some of the bigger industry names were production studios like Vivid Video – the people who made the porn. Now, large tube sites which primarily act as platforms rather than creators, dominate.

How did this happen? According to a PornHub spokesperson, it's partly due to the changes in the way people search: 'People will often search the website on Google instead of typing the URL directly in the browser address bar. "Sex" is no longer a common query because Google returns health related results instead of adult content.' But in order to get those searches, a lot of work went in to bringing porn out of the shadows. So in a society that is simultaneously titillated by and terrified of porn, how did an adult brand become such a massive household name?

Certainly part of the answer is marketing – PornHub has an impressive press and marketing strategy, which has helped it to drag porn out of the shadows. Those who would be unwilling to share their favourite gang bang video might instead be tempted to share one of the intriguing tidbits from PornHub's Insights blog – where it analyses data to answer water-cooler-worthy questions. How many of PornHub's viewers are women? (about a quarter) Did the Women's March have an impact on the porn people were searching for? (Yes) It also allows them to ride the waves of current trends - explaining how many people search for fidget-spinner porn, for instance, or what horny Star Wars fans were searching for on May the 4th

We've included the links there because... well, because they're interesting. And that's another piece of the puzzle: as well as interest from consumers, PornHubgets coverage from the media too, because they run initiatives that show they're more than just a porn site. Just as individuals are more willing to talk about PornHub on a 'meta' level – citing some of the intriguing insights from their blog – so mainstream media are more likely to write stories about the brand if they can be linked to data rather than hardcore content. Or clever viral stunts, like their April 1st prank that told users their videos had been automatically shared to Facebook, or their heartwarmingly cheeky Christmas advert that saw a grandfather give his grandson a PornHub Premium subscription. Continuing its playful theme, one ofPornHub's latest hashtag competitions invited users to contribute what PornHub has taught them: '#PHTaughtMe that spanking the monkey 5 times a day is socially acceptable.' 'That no matter what your interests are, there's always someone else that loves it like you do' and other masturbation-friendly messages. The brand's genius is in dragging porn out of a murky secret world and making it easier for us to talk about.

This branding works well within our changing dialogue around sex and masturbation. In recent years the sex positive movement has done a lot to demystify porn and masturbation, encouraging people to open up about their sexual desires and challenging the idea that masturbation is an inherently shameful activity. We've recently finished celebrating Masturbation Month in May (don't worry, if you missed it you can still celebrate Masturbation Month in June – no one will know you were late), an initiative founded in honour of Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders, who was controversially fired by President Bill Clinton for suggesting that the sex education curriculum should include masturbation. In light of how recently young people were lectured on how badmasturbation was, the move towards a more positive outlook on self-pleasure is surely in part a very good thing.

But is PornHub just a plucky, sex-positive company helping to change the conversation around porn? The full story is much more complicated than that.

Sex educators and ethical pornographers have raised concerns that as PornHub becomes synonymous with 'porn' itself, people – particularly young people – are getting the wrong messages around sex and relationships. That they are feeling pressured to perform 'porny' acts like facials and anal sex because so many of their friends see it as 'par for the course' thanks to hardcore. Last year the government issued a policy note which stated that young people were having 'too much' anal sex as a result of easily available porn on free tube sites like PornHub. Although the conclusion was met with justified criticism, many agreed that there was a need to educate young people about the difference between porn and sex. Many charities and sex educators provide resources that do this exact thing.

But PornHub had its own answer to this conundrum: the Pornhub Sexual Wellness Center. It was launched to much fanfare back in February this year, with PornHub VP Corey Price explaining to Mashable that 'Our goal is to provide our visitors with a site that has credible and insightful information, rather than have them scouring the internet.' In practice it's a fairly sparse blog with some Q+As and a little sex advice – it was met with criticism by sex journalists at the time for being simply a PR stunt, questioning why the company didn't simply link to or promote sex educators who were already doing great work in this area. But whether you're a fan of this solution or not, the fact remains that wherever we're discussing the impact of porn, PornHub ensures that it is always at the centre of the discussion. 

So much of our porn conversation now revolves around PornHub that you'd be forgiven for thinking criticism of the brand equates to a general dislike of porn. But there are plenty of other producers and performers who are leery of the influence that PornHub has, and the 'free porn' business model. In 2015, performer Jiz Lee expressed frustration that consumers often ask for more ethical porn production, yet still log on to the 'free' tube sites. They explained that you can't just ask for more ethical porn on sites like PornHub, ethical porn consumption starts when you pay for it:

'Without a credit card processor overlooking distribution, there’s no way to know for sure if basic labor rights took place. There is no 2257 Affidavit to prove performers were of legal age, no STI test results, no W9 or 1099-Misc IRS Forms, and there’s certainly no Model Release Form to ensure the people on film consented to have their image shared online. Unless it features a major star, most pirated content doesn’t even include performers’ names, let alone Custodian of Records addresses. There’s a mountain of paperwork missing. Paperwork that, for better or worse, is designed to protect performers’ rights and safety.' 

Last year we interviewed Stoya – perhaps one of the most recognised porn performers in the industry. Her mission is focused on creating brilliantporn, she pulls no punches when discussing the influence of large sites like PornHub:

'They have this hegemonic dominance of what your average user sees when they type 'porn' into Google browser. So much of what comes up is owned by them. So the style of what a casual browser thinks 'porn' is, is controlled by them. And as a worker, too, they have a monopoly. If it were any other industry and the US government had its shit together, there would be anti-trust investigations.'

 If that seems a little extreme to you, consider that many of the sites you may imagine are competing with PornHub, are in fact part of the same company. MindGeek is PornHub's parent company, and it owns a number of other large tube sites and production studios as well. At the top of each MindGeek-owned site you'll see links to others within the network: YouPorn, Tube8, RedTube, Xtube, Xtube Gay, RedTube Gay, as well as the adult search engine Porn MD. The network has been built over a number of years, as MindGeek has merged with or bought out other porn sites. In 2014 a journalist writing for Slate raised the uncomfortable issue of monopoly, and since then many have questioned whether the power held by this one company should be reined in.

The PornHub spokesperson we spoke to was 'perplexed' by the idea that MindGeek is anything close to a monopoly: “Mindgeek is certainly the most vertically integrated in the adult industry but our main competitor gets much more traffic than us. There are also hundreds, if not thousands of porn websites that are all over Google’s search results for adult content.' Notable competitors include other large tube sites with similar models, like Xvideos or Xhamster, but it's fair to say that MindGeek is a very significant player in the industry, and PornHub is perhaps the most recognised – and talked about - brand. To our original question: how did PornHub become synonymous with 'porn' itself? The answer is multi-layered. It's partly their intelligent and well-funded marketing and press strategies. Partly because they are constantly expanding the network, buying up new sites and production companies, or exploring new ways to bring performers and studios on board.

'We work with hundreds of porn studios and companies who make cutting edge content and showcase their clips on Pornhub for traffic to their sites. There are also thousands of independent models we work with in our model program who are constantly innovating, and creating significant shifts in the way that porn gets consumed, as well as helping to diversify the kind of content that gets widely viewed,' their spokesperson explained.

But it's partly down to the way consumers and commentators have embraced it, buying into the idea that what's on the site represents all of us. Just last week, The Cut published an article by Maureen O'Connor which referred to PornHub as “the Kinsey Report of our time” - explaining that the sheer amount of data that PornHub collects and analyses gives us a privileged window into people's sexual desires. PornHub, O'Connor explained, “is a sexual-sociological gold mine.”

“MindGeek’s understanding of its users’ autoerotic habits is almost terrifyingly precise. Like Facebook, Google, Netflix, and every other major player online, Pornhub collects and analyzes a staggering amount of user data — some of which it uses, like those other companies, to help curate content and determine what a user sees.”

She's right in a limited sense – PornHub has a huge amount of data that can certainly teach us some things. But the curation of content and data is far more than just a side-note: it is itself a significant action, and one which means we should be extremely sceptical of treating PornHub as a research tool comparable to Kinsey. While the Kinsey Report had its flaws, PornHub is in an entirely different league: a website run for profit, not research. PornHub – even taken together with other MindGeek sites such as YouPorn, GayPorn, etcetera – should never be seen as a representative sample of human sexuality, for the simple reason that there is some porn you will never see on PornHub. Most notably porn made by studios and performers who have fundamental concerns about PornHub's business model. 

We spoke to Cindy Gallop, founder of Make Love Not Porn, about the impact that larger tube sites have on her business. Make Love Not Porn is a social sex site on which users can share their own sexy videos with each other. How do you build traffic when PornHub is so dominant in press and search?

'The only way the ubiquity of the big sites affects us is discovery. As a tiny bootstrapping startup fighting a huge battle to survive and to find the funding we desperately need, we have no money for paid-for targeted marketing. Our growth is entirely organic, and driven by media coverage and search. When we began building, I said to my team that our marketing strategy was one thing and one thing only, but a very hard thing to achieve - one day, we want to be result one on page one of every Google search for the word 'porn', which is currently the top search term that sends people to us. We have no money for SEO so have done none - our position fluctuates depending on what's in the news but right now we're result 46 on page 5. (Not bad for a tiny bootstrapping startup with no money that does zero SEO.)'

As someone with a strong voice in – and huge ambitions for – the sex industry, we were curious as to how she would go about tackling the dominance of a brand like PornHub, and the power of its parent company Mindgeek:

'Given we will never see any kind of anti-trust intervention in this one industry that government and big business like to pretend does not exist, the only way Mindgeek's monopoly will be disrupted is by the one thing that has disrupted monopolies in every other industry - individual creative vision. The porn visionaries of the future creating the innovative, disruptive, creative porn of the future, with, importantly, access to funding, infrastructure, mentorship, business expertise, coaching and exposure, could absolutely disrupt this monopoly in the same way Airbnb has disrupted the hospitality business and Uber the taxi business.'

Cindy is fighting hard for a sex industry that isn't just centred on this tube site model – she wants to radically disrupt the porn we're used to seeing in search results, and challenge the idea that this kind of porn is all there is. But the main thing lacking in this space at the moment is funding: all the while PornHub and other large tube sites get all the traffic, the struggle to fund more ethical porn is an uphill battle.

'The key word there is funding. There are already many porn visionaries out there doing innovative creative work - especially female/queer pornographers - who don't have the resources and capital to operate at the kind of scale needed to reach the audiences we would like to see them reach. Right now my focus is on sextech, my own category, and on raising the world's first and only sextech fund, AllTheSky Holdings, but if I can make that work I would love to follow it with a fund, incubator and accelerator for radically innovative porn startups.'

'There is one other means of intervention that I would love to see someone make happen. We all watch porn, we don't talk about it, and so porn exists in a parallel universe, and therefore lacks a number of the tools that we use in other parts of our lives to improve them. There is no Yelp of porn - one all-encompassing, socially accepted, freely discussed, universal go-to destination that can guide you to the kind of porn that you specifically want to view, and can surface the innovative porn that is being created in many pockets of the industry way beyond the big tube sites.'

Disrupting the porn industry seems like a huge challenge, especially when consumers currently seem so happy with the status quo. Just as Amazon's dominance has spread so that it becomes the path of least resistance when buying a book, so PornHub has become the obvious option for people who are looking to get off. It's a testament to the intelligence and power at the heart of PornHub's marketing strategy, but it's also a reflection of how little consumers will question, when we're presented with something convenient.

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Tags: Sex, Porn