As efforts to loosen COVID-19’s grip on the U.S. and the world continue, researchers are also investigating the link between the outbreak and pornography use. For instance, a recent study explored pornography use patterns in six countries (China, Italy, Spain, France, Sweden, and the U.S.) across the five most popular pornography websites (Porn, PornHub, XNXX, xVideos, and xHamster), for the past 4 years globally. Overall, the results revealed an increased trend of interest in pornography website research on Google for ‘PornHub,’ ‘XNXX,’ and ‘Porn’ after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic.
Results from China, Italy, France, and Spain showed significant increases during the period January to March 2020. Interestingly, similar increases in keyword searches in the United States and Sweden, were not observed. The researchers suggested that this could be related to the less restrictive lockdown regulations in the United States and Sweden as opposed to the stricter ‘stay at home orders’ in other countries. Also explored in the study was Coronavirus-themed pornography searches since the lockdowns began, which showed a trend and an increase in virtually every keyword. ‘Hazmat suits,’ ‘sex with masks,’ and ‘surgical gloves’ were among the Coronavirus-themed pornography terms commonly searched.
In a second study exploring searches for Internet pornography during the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers performed a quantitative analysis through big data that was accessed on Pornhub Insights and Google Trends. Researchers used Google Trends data on searches for pornographic websites between 2019 and 2020, as well as data on the evolution of searches on Pornhub during the pandemic months from the United States, Spain, Italy, and the UK.
Internationally, a peak of 24.4% more searches for pornographic audiovisual material between March 1 and April 30, 2020, compared to the same dates in 2019, was observed. Italy peaked at 57% on March 12, and Spain at 61.3% on March 17. The UK reached a peak of 26.9% on March 25, and in the United States, a peak of 23.2% occurred on March 27. For the period 2019 to 2020, XNXX remained the most searched site on Google. Pornhub also grew noticeably during the 2020 pandemic comparable to the same months in previous years, while searches for XNXX and other prominent pornography websites declined. Both studies discussed here referenced Pornhub’s premium services which were offered in some countries during lockdown periods, as a considerable variable in escalated pornography consumption.
Not included in either of these studies was analysis of the types of content people may have accessed on these websites. Mounting evidence (see here, here, and here) reveals that mainstream pornography is rife with physical and sexual violence, as well as racist themes. An investigation by the Canadian Parliament into Pornhub, owned by the Canadian-based company MindGeek, revealed harrowing evidence of child sexual abuse material and non-consensual content on its site. The escalation in pornography consumption and the harm footprint embedded in the content, is concerning and calls for research into the numerous other pornography platforms that may point towards an ominous undercounting of both consumption prevalence and harm.
A case in point is ‘OnlyFans,’ the “latest kid on the block to be billed as a safe, consequence-free way of selling sex and home-grown porn that empowers women.” Content creators, including fitness instructors, musicians, celebrities, and persons in prostitution, upload and sell a variety of content (i.e., audiovisual, messages, articles) directly to fans who pay a subscription fee of between $5 and $50 a month. OnlyFans pockets a 20 percent cut of these dealings. In April 2021, OnlyFans reported a sevenfold increase in profits to £1.7bn and is now anticipating pre-tax proceeds of more than £300m. The COVID-19 pandemic has indeed been good to OnlyFans. Leonid Radvinsky, the majority owner who acquired the company in 2018, was the main recipient of £20m in dividends last year.
But who is Leonid Radvinsky? Simply put, Radvinsky is also the pornographer behind MyFreeCams and the person of interest flagged by banks for possible money laundering and providing platforms to “underage children, and other vulnerable individuals [who] might be forced to provide services.”
The case of OnlyFans represents a microcosm of what largely eludes quantitative desktop studies related to the COVID-19 pandemic: massive profits derived from countless anonymous sex buyers who not only fuel the entire industry, but also are responsible for a vortex of untold miseries.
Nobody really knows how many of the millions new videos posted on these pornography websites involve illegal content such as child abuse, nonconsensual distribution, and sexual violence. It would therefore be shortsighted not to consider the countless pornography users on a complicity spectrum where they wittingly or unwittingly enable the monetization of harm. Victimization rarely stops at the individual as it causes harm to many others, including their families, friends, and communities. Thus, numerous direct victims are likely to result in many indirect victims. If everyday users did not consume this harm, pornography websites would be incapable of aiding, abetting, or benefiting from it.
The COVID-19 isolation-induced harms will eventually dissipate. However, sideline spectatorships by international governments and the continued absence of prosecution-driven investigations into virtual harm dens such as Pornhub Inc. and affiliates, are inexcusable. Each uncontested click, search, upload, and view not only fuels the global pornography empire, but enables impunity and the multifaceted proliferation of harm.