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How Social Crises Are Misused for Sexual Exploitation of Women

What do the war in Ukraine, the Covid-19 pandemic, racism in the USA, which lead to the establishment of the Black Lives Matter movement, migrant crises, human trafficking and other social crises have in common? The answer is the outstanding capability of the so-called sex industry to take advantage and make a profit from them.

The War in Ukraine

Let’s start from the most recent events. In recent weeks, the most searched terms on porn sites (those on so-called Trending lists) are “Ukrainian woman”, “Ukrainian girl”, “Ukrainian prostitute”. And that’s just the beginning. Even though they are no longer (readily) available, amateur videos of rapes and brutal sexual torture of Ukrainian women by Russian soldiers have been published on the world’s most visited porn site – PornHub. Sexual violence against women has always accompanied every war, but now it’s being broadcast on PornHub, an online platform registering more than a hundred million visits every day and thirty six billion visits every year from around the world – without any age limit!

At the same time, we are witnessing conversations between pimps and men who exploit women in prostitution on German online forums – a country where prostitution has been legal for more than 20 years. They talk about visiting train stations and watching young, “unused” women, and share comments on those women and girls fleeing war in Ukraine: “Finally, some fresh meat to f***”, “We’ve had enough of f***** Romanian and Bulgarian women!”, “I don’t care if she’s doing it willingly or not, all I care about is that I have a great time”, “Prices will surely plummet now”, and the like. The data pertaining to the link between legalization of prostitution and an increase of trafficked women and girls in Germany is frightful, and in recent years has led to Germany becoming known as the brothel of Europe. On German social networks, we can see men offering free housing to Ukrainian women fleeing the war, but only of a certain age, while sending photos before being housed is a requirement. Those same men also note that they will not accept “Arabs, Africans and other fake refugees under any circumstance”. In addition, organizations such as “TransSexWorks” from Berlin have already organized free counselling services for people from Ukraine “who need support to begin sex work in Germany” – in English, German and Ukrainian. Women and girls are preyed upon for sexual exploitation at every step of their escape from war.

High-ranking officials also take part in dehumanizing women – as is the case with Arthur Moledo do Val, a Brazilian politician who, during a humanitarian visit to the Ukrainian border, made comments, which were later leaked to the media. In that audio message he explains how women facing dangerous situations are “cheap because they are poor”, he ascertains the beauty of Ukrainian women, boasts how many of them are following him on Instagram, and describes vulgar sexual acts he would commit with some of them.

The so-called sex industry (even though a more honest phrase would be the sexual exploitation industry, which includes pornography and prostitution) is taking advantage of the war in Ukraine in numerous ways, but it represents only one example of how extreme social crisis are exploited for profit. Even though it hasn’t been talked about enough, it’s no secret that women in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo had suffered mass sex crimes during the wars in the nineties. What is even less talked about are the organized crime networks of traffickers who preyed upon women and girls for sexual exploitation then. It should be noted that some of those men were members of foreign humanitarian missions established here during or after the wars that took place in the nineties.

The Pandemic

In its yearly statistics for 2019, PornHub noted that the most popular search term was “quarantine”, while videos related to this term include titles (still available today) such as “He promised me Covid immunity if I swallow his sperm”, “I f****** my horny half-sister due to Covid-19 lockdown”. On other web sites that also belong to the same company which owns PornHub – Mindgeek from Canada – we can see titles such as: “My stepfather lets me ride his d*** for a roll of toilet paper” or “Grandpa, f*** me and be well”. As a reminder, in March of 2020 during the most difficult part of the pandemic and exploding numbers of Covid positive cases, PornHub allowed free access to premium content to accounts from Italy, Spain and France, guided by the logic that people (that is, men) will feel better in quarantine if they have access to unlimited porn. Later in April, this free option was provided to accounts around the world. PornHub acknowledged that visits to their web sites dramatically increased during the first months of the pandemic, first due to accounts registered in Europe and then other parts of the world as well. Seeing as research shows that up to 95% of porn contains some forms of violence against women, these statistics from PornHub may also offer an additional explanation as to why domestic violence against women surged during the pandemic.

The Migrant Crises and Racism

PornHub and other porn sites took advantage of migrant crises in a similar manner. For example, German porn sites in 2015 showed a striking increase in search terms such as “migrant women”, “hijab”, while some of the video titles produced at the time were: “I let her stay dressed only in her hijab”, “Migrant woman gets f***** up the ass for a piece of bread”, and the like.

For those who aren’t aware of this it should be noted that PornHub likes to play the role of a socially responsible company in other ways as well, not just by supposedly offering support to people in quarantine. At the height of the Black Lives Matter movement, at the end of March 2020, PornHub’s official Twitter account published that the company “stands in solidarity against racism and social injustice” and that they had donated 100 000 dollars to organizations fighting racism. They also called on others to follow their example. However, those who know better also know that on that same day the following video titles could be found on the first pages of PornHub: “Black female slave awaits her white master”, “Black girl brutalized”, “Black b****”, “Do you also have a black female slave?” (As a side note, we have not even selected the most problematic video titles for this occasion).

At that time, PornHub was already claiming that all videos and photos available on their platform are subjected to direct monitoring by a whole team of moderators who have the role of ensuring that all content aligns to their Terms of Use. However, that same team has not really done its job for years, and so among the 6.8 million new videos added just in 2019 alone, there were videos of actual rapes, of underage girls, as well as trafficked girls and women – and sometimes all of that together.

Trafficking of Women and Girls

A big scandal rocked PornHub in 2020 when two important cases came to light: a mother of a 15 year old girl who had gone missing in Florida found 58 videos of her daughter on their web site, all showing her being raped by a trafficker. Around the same time another video was uncovered showing the sexual abuse of a 14-year-old California girl. Not only had these two videos (but others as well) been approved by moderators, but were also made available for free downloading.

A global petition “Shut down PornHub” was started following these two incidences, and more than 2.2 million people have signed it so far. In time this petition grew into the Traffickinghub “which is a decentralized global movement of individuals, survivors, organizations and advocates from across a broad spectrum of political, faith and non-faith, economic, and ideological backgrounds, all uniting together for the single purpose of shutting down Pornhub and holding its executives accountable for enabling, distributing and profiting from rape, child abuse, sex trafficking and criminal image based sexual abuse”. On the tails of that story another article caught the public’s attention (especially in the West): “Children of PornHub: Why does Canada allow this company to profit from videos showing exploitation and abuse” published by The New York Times. In the fallout of this article MasterCard, Visa and PayPal stopped cooperation with PornHub and suspended payments to the site. In addition, dozens of lawsuits were filed against the company by victims. Most of these court proceedings are still ongoing.

The fact of the matter is that even if PornHub gets closed down, there are oceans of other porn sites online, and their content is just as problematic. Based on the needs of women who turn to us for support, two years ago the Autonomous Women’s Centre produced template letter for writing to porn sites to request they take down videos that have been published without the consent of the woman in the video. Many of these women don’t want to file formal lawsuits because they think they will only be met with ridicule and condemnation at the police and courts. The irony is that most of the web sites we had contacted in this regard have published statements on their sites noting that all of their content had gone through a verification process. Some of them, however, don’t even provide basic contact information, thus preventing us from contacting them.

An Industry Based on Misogyny and Racism

All of the above is just one face of this story. The other one – deserving of a separate article and long-term and dedicated engagement by society which would induce change – is how easily accessible porn is, and its influence on those who watch it. Research conducted in 2019 shows that in Serbia almost a third of all children and youth between the ages of 11 and 17 had accessed a porn site in the last year. These sites were most often accessed by youth between the ages of 15 and 17 (two thirds of male students and one fourth of female students, among which 43% of the boys and 6% of the girls access these sites daily). Aside from scenes of violence against women (sexual, physical, psychological…), a lot of research conducted worldwide show that these videos exhibit high levels of racism, perpetuate stereotypical male and female roles, and show unprotected sex… Therefore, it is not surprising that research also confirms that young men who watch porn regularly are not only more tolerant of sexual violence but also display violent sexual behaviour against young women and women. Furthermore, across the world it’s becoming evident that watching porn causes addiction and a constant need for increasingly brutal content, which in turn influences emotional and sexual relations. Porn is a threat to public health and to mental and physical health as well. This multi-billion dollar industry effects both girls and boys (for example, research has proven the correlation between frequent porn consumption and erectile dysfunction), but the highest price is paid by the girls and women who are reduced to objects intended to satisfy (violent) men’s needs – whether in porn or outside of it.

Sanja Pavlović

Translation to English: Nina Đurđević Filipović


Hughes, Donna M. (2022) "Ukrainian Women: Victims of Putin’s War and Sex Industry Predators," Dignity: A Journal of Analysis of Exploitation and Violence: Vol. 7: Iss. 2, Article 1. DOI: 10.23860/dignity.2022.07.02.01
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Bindel, Julie. (2022, March 8). How Ukrainian women will suffer. Unherd.

Perat Trotzmut, Nada. (2022, March 28). Album #not4sale – abolish prostitution. Facebook, Nada Perat Trotzmut.

TransSexWork (2022, March 21). Starting from this Thursday, you will be able to drop-in between 14:00-18:00 at Casa Kuà for peer-to-peer counselling, with volunteers from @transsexworks. Instagram, transsexworks.

Amnesty International. (2004). Document - Kosovo (Serbia and Montenegro): "So does it mean that we have the rights?" Protecting the human rights of women and girls trafficked for forced prostitution in Kosovo".

Iovine, Anna. (2020, March 24). Pornhub Premium is now free for everyone to encourage you to stay home. Mashable.

Lockett, Jon. (2020, January 14). Germans now ‘obsessed’ with refugee porn after country took in more than a million migrants. The Sun.

Talita. (2018). 10 Myths About Porn. Prostitution Research and Education.

Kuzmanović, D., Pavlović, Z., Popadić, D. and Milošević, T. (2019). Korišćenje interneta I digitalne tehnologije kod dece i mladih u Srbiji: rezultati istraživanja Deca Evrope na internetu. Beograd: Institut za psihologiju Filozofskog fakulteta u Beogradu.

TraffickingHub. (2020). Traffickinghub History and Evolution.

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