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Nick Kristof and the Holy War on Pornhub

Having declared victory in its war on Backpage and sex work, the liberal-conservative coalition has pivoted to porn.

Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images

Anyone who wants to know that Pornhub has engaged in abusive and exploitative behavior toward women need only listen to the women whose videos were posted to the free porn site without their consent. That includes the abuse of people like Rose Kalemba, who has written about how she had to impersonate a lawyer to get Pornhub to remove a video that recorded a man raping her more than a decade ago. That also includes the numerous porn performers who have spoken publicly about how Pornhub routinely allows videos they made to be pirated and posted to the site, where it profits off the performers’ work and leaves them with nothing. Journalists who cover the tech company critically and with an eye toward its human costs have all been on this beat for some time. Slate covered the monopolistic model behind Pornhub’s parent company, Mindgeek, more than eight years ago, citing, among others, reporting by ABC’s Nightline, which preceded it, with performers stating they felt they couldn’t speak out against the company for fear of retaliation.

A failure to engage with this history and wider context is a failure to capture the real stakes of the conflict with Pornhub, and that’s the fundamental limitation behind the picture of abuse related by the New York Times op-ed columnist Nick Kristof in the latest entry in his long oeuvre concerning abuse, women, and sex. When Kristof turns his notebook in the direction of women with stories of trauma, the resulting narratives most often fall somewhere between beneficent voyeurism and journalistic malpractice. (Kristof, writing about his coverage of refugees in 2006: “It’s often agonizing to try to figure out how far you can go in identifying a rape victim, for example, so that a column will come alive—without putting her at risk of revenge.”) He has yet to face any professional consequences for his role in advancing the Somaly Mam Foundation, the anti–sex trafficking organization that, thanks to him, was able to launder allegedly invented sex slave stories through the paper of record. (New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan, in 2014, after one of his key sources was exposed for lying about sex trafficking: “Nicholas Kristof Should Give Readers a Full Explanation About Somaly Mam.”) Kristof, meanwhile, became the mainstream writer most responsible for establishing the terms of the sex trafficking debate for liberals and conservatives alike. Now he has pivoted from websites like Backpage, which sex workers once relied on for advertising and which was later shuttered by federal law enforcement, to websites like Pornhub. Poised to get the Kristof bump this time is a campaign run by a religious right organization, Exodus Cry, founded by a member of a Christian dominionist ministry, which has advanced anti-gay, anti-abortion, and antisemitic views.

Kristof’s Pornhub story, which took up the full front page of the Times Sunday Review section, relies on the tropes that have defined his career. He gives graphic, detailed descriptions of “recordings of assaults on unconscious women and girls” and their associated search terms. Then, in a passing mention, he introduces the work of Exodus Cry—though he omits the group’s name. “An organization called Traffickinghub, led by an activist named Laila Mickelwait, documents abuses and calls for the site to be shut down,” Kristof notes. Kristof’s story now sits at the top of the campaign’s site, boasting an “as seen in” featuring the paper’s iconic masthead.

“This is a war with big porn,” Mickelwait states unequivocally in a November post on her influencer-chic Instagram account. Mickelwait’s current job title is director of abolition at Exodus Cry, “a faith-based organization modeled on the character of Jesus, as the group describes itself, which “fights sexual exploitation and the sex industry” and is the home of the Traffickinghub campaign. Exodus Cry uses “abolition” in the sense used by anti–sex work groups, meaning the abolition of the sex trade, including prostitution and porn, by means of the criminal law. If Mickelwait and her group were not working toward the wholesale eradication of a workforce, that workforce might be allies in the “war” to end the publication of sexual abuse material. But that’s not what the Traffickinghub campaign is about.

“In my work with Exodus Cry, I am daily confronted with the horrors of a world ravaged by the degradation of women and children,” writes the group’s founder Benjamin Nolot, in the foreword to a book called Babylon: The Resurgence of History’s Most Infamous City, published in 2009 by the evangelical ministry International House of Prayer Kansas City, or IHOPKC. “An unprecedented movement of slavery and sexual exploitation is rising in the vacuum of moral decay. As we examine the emergence of Babylon throughout history, it becomes clear that we must see the increase of human trafficking as the tip of a much larger historic iceberg.” For Nolot, human trafficking is a sign of the end times, “one of several troubling trends that will converge in the birth of the next world empire: harlot Babylon.” To fight those who aid and abet trafficking—as Exodus Cry claims that Pornhub does—is to wage holy war.

There is no question that Pornhub sits at the crux of two bad ideas: a race-to-the-bottom gig economy and a tech-determinist business model that values stickiness and seamlessness over content moderation. But the abuses that all this enables are not signs of the end times; to confront them with a religious crusade is not only useless but dangerous. Pornhub can continue business as usual so long as it can say its loudest critics are just pissed-off fundamentalists. Stuck in the predictable pushback to anti-porn “puritans,” the possibilities for challenging Pornhub’s business model—and the working conditions and the exploitation it enables—could be lost.

Kristof is exactly the kind of gatekeeper a group like Exodus Cry—seeking to establish its credentials, elevate its name, and attract liberals to its cause—wants on its side. His track record of using traumatic stories to draw readers in is a perfect fit. So, too, is his ability to sound authoritative to policymakers while also skirting any kind of historical or systemic context that might point the finger back at them. What made Kristof the perfect pitchman for the tent revival wing of the sex trafficking movement is now turned toward its new cause: porn.

Over the last two decades, as the anti-porn groups of the 1980s and 1990s proved to have failed, and as the Christian right sought to appeal to a younger generation, many such organizations have sought to redefine their sexual purity mission as one of social justice. Morality in the Media, an anti-porn group founded in the 1960s, has rebranded as the National Center on Sexual Exploitation. It is among the religious right groups that have added sex trafficking to their more traditional agendas targeting abortion and LGBTQ rights.

Some of these groups, like Shared Hope International, were founded by former lawmakers with explicit religious right agendas and now operate as national think tanks advising anti-trafficking policy. Other national groups, like Operation Underground Railroad, bill themselves as “modern-day abolitionists” and have strong ties with religious communities (in its case, with Mormons) and, recently, have gained support from QAnon, including one QAnon-linked congressional representative. There are smaller groups in this same space, like Sold No More, founded by an evangelical activist who previously supported crisis pregnancy centers and fought for abstinence-only sex education. These groups have been successful at building coalitions with liberals and progressives, passing anti-trafficking laws and policies that largely ignore labor abuses and instead target the sex industry. Kristof has been an effective message-amplifier for their model, which values the ideology of eradicating sex work over the lives of sex workers and so rejects worker-led organizing, along with public health and harm-reduction approaches to addressing labor and sexual abuse. Kristof encapsulated this well in 2007: “The hope had been that by cooperating with … a union of prostitutes, it would be possible to reduce forced prostitution and the spread of AIDS by encouraging harm reduction strategies such as condom usage. But in reality, I wrote, it didn’t seem to have helped much in Calcutta. In Bombay, on the other hand, a tougher approach had dramatically reduced the number of brothels there.” When these same anti–sex work groups also tried to make the website Backpage culpable for alleged sex trafficking ads, he was there again. Kristof, in 2012: “When Baby Face ran away from her pimp and desperately knocked on that apartment door in Brooklyn, she was also in effect pounding on the door of the executive suites of Backpage.”

As a result of their years spent building influence, “fighting trafficking” as defined by these groups has also led to policies to defund AIDS programs that worked with sex workers and instead support programs mandating abstinence over condoms. Catholic groups used fighting trafficking to block funding to anti-trafficking programs that offered referrals for birth control and abortion. Women’s rights groups teamed up with religious right groups to shut down Craigslist’s and Backpage’s ads for sex work. All this was accomplished by religious right groups marketing themselves as anti-trafficking groups who were invested in protecting women and children from abuse. Meanwhile, their approach led to police abuse of sex workers under the guise of anti-trafficking raids and “rescues,” while also dismantling sex workers’ efforts to work independently and protect themselves. This isn’t fighting human trafficking: In some senses, it has increased the likelihood of exploitation and violence.

Exodus Cry has followed a similar trajectory to such groups. It appears to have been incubated in IHOPKC, the Christian ministry led by pastor Mike Bickle, a dominionist, believing, as Political Research Associates describes it, that “God has called conservative Christians to exercise dominion over society by taking control of political and cultural institutions.” The group’s tax filings, as reported by OpenDemocracy, have Exodus Cry listed as a “related tax-exempt organization.”

IHOPKC is distinguished by its 24/7 services, running continuously from its founding in 1999, which can be viewed on YouTube, as well as its opposition to abortion and homosexuality. (It was also sued by the International House of Pancakes in a trademark dispute.) Bickle’s preachings are laced with demons and invocations of apocalypse: He has said that Trump’s critics are engaged in “a demonic attack coming against the Word of God,” that homosexuality “opens the door to the demonic realm.” Bickle has also preached that in the end times, God will “raise up a hunter” to kill Jews who reject Christian belief, “and the most famous hunter in recent history is a man named Adolf Hitler.” Though Bickle has advanced the idea that Supreme Court rulings in favor of abortion rights and marriage equality will invoke the wrath of God, IHOPKC has also claimed it is “not political” and “not involved in U.S. politics.”

Exodus Cry rejects any connection to anti-LGBTQ ideology and, in an October statement to The Daily Beast, denied an affiliation with IHOPKC. Nevertheless, Exodus Cry remains connected to IHOPKC: Last year, as reported by The Daily Beast, when Exodus Cry relocated some of its staff to Sacramento, California, IHOPKC held a goodbye prayer and, in a church bulletin, advised, “Part of the EC office and team will in remain in [sic] KC and continue to relate to IHOPKC.” As recently as this March, the two groups continued to partner on events.

Before Benjamin Nolot brought it to a prayer meeting, sex trafficking was not a major issue taken up by IHOPKC. In 2007, according to an “intercessory missionary” with the group, “Benji Nolot, one of our leaders, shared a burden the Lord had placed on his heart for human trafficking in a briefing before an intercession meeting.” Afterward, a woman in the group said she had a dream in which she believed she was forced into a brothel, and “she began to see the babies she would have to abort as a result of this lifestyle.” In the missionary’s telling, all this meant that “the Lord expanded our Justice Mandate at IHOP to include not only the issue of abortion but also Human Trafficking.”

Laila Mickelwait joined Exodus Cry around five years later, according to one online bio; she was herself an intercessory missionary at IHOPKC, from 2011 to 2014. An intercessory missionary is what IHOPKC says it refers to its full-time staff as, though it appears to be an unpaid job, in which “they raise their own support to work as full-time missionaries who reach out to others from a lifestyle of prayer and worship.” Nolot told The New Republic that he was still a member of IHOPKC when he founded Exodus Cry and that Mickelwait came to Exodus Cry in “2011/2012.” Micklewait separately confirmed to The New Republic that she was a member of IHOPKC. (She then told The New Republic that the online bio was “incorrect,” but did not respond when asked specifically what was in error.)

The same year Mickelwait appears to have joined Exodus Cry, an IHOPKC document stated that one of its “outreaches” was “Exodus Cry, helping victims of trafficking” and that it “plan[s] to provide homes and restoration programs for victims of human trafficking and domestic violence and for prostitutes who respond to the gospel.” Exodus Cry’s later “intervention” activities, as one staffer described them, were a “journey” with women in which “we came to see, once again, how vital it is that we minister to these girls from the place of prayer, connected to the Lord’s heart found in the truths of Scripture.” They found these women by messaging Backpage ads. The group’s 2013 report also celebrated two women in its “restoration” program who apparently left the sex trade. “Each woman gave birth to a beautiful baby.”

Today, Exodus Cry still does some “intervention” work, Nolot told me by email, including as part of the Traffickinghub campaign, through which it is “contracting professional trauma-informed therapy for survivors.” But much of what it does focuses on base-building and communications strategies: Exodus Cry charges $2,295 for five-day courses teaching people to “become a powerful force to help abolish commercial sexual exploitation.” Some of its films, like one billing itself as a look at hook-up culture called Liberated, have made it to Netflix. Another film is on the way in 2021, announced on Mickelwait’s website. It’s about porn.

The films are one part of a religious right media strategy to reframe conservative ideas of sexual purity as something progressive and fresh, connected to issues like sex and consent, ones young activists are already concerned with. It is a smokescreen. “The fundamental concern for these organizations isn’t healthy sexuality,” Cole Parke at Political Research Associates told a reporter in 2018, as the Exodus Cry film Liberated was gaining broader attention. It’s “control … adherence and obedience to a Christian fundamentalist worldview, which limits sexuality to the confines of married heterosexual unions.”

Mickelwait is the link between IHOPKC, Exodus Cry, and the Traffickinghub campaign. Yet Mickelwait and Traffickinghub still insist their work is nonreligious and nonpartisan, which is distinctly at odds with the campaign being part of Exodus Cry and with their long-standing connection with IHOPKC. And Micklewait doesn’t deny that she was a member of that church. “I formally participated in the inter-denominational prayer commitment program for a brief period of time when I first moved to Kansas City,” she wrote to The New Republic in an emailed statement. “It was many years ago but my best recollection is it was for about one year and then I continued to attend the church during my time living in Kansas City.”

Laila Mickelwait has said porn is a root cause of sex trafficking, which it isn’t. For years, porn performers have tried to draw attention to the exploitation at the heart of the tubesite business model—YouTube clones, which now dominate an online porn ecosystem that, not long ago and like much of online media, once offered independent creators more control over their work. Those days are all but over in porn, and the large companies behind websites like Pornhub have drained money out of independent porn, not just by pirating their work but by nearly monopolizing the business. Pornhub’s parent company owns porn-production companies, too, ones that some performers who might otherwise speak out also need to rely on for work. In turn, that has resulted in less work, lower wages, and less control for performers. In monopolies, particularly in industries that operate with little independent oversight and a nonunion labor force, abuse proliferates.

But Mickelwait doesn’t see Pornhub in that larger, real-world context, one in which the people whose labor these tubesites are reliant on are all but erased. Some of those performers may even be allies in working to keep sexual abuse material off the sites—which, theoretically, is the goal.

Kristof’s op-ed allots one porn performer and producer, Stoya, one sentence to cover the ways Pornhub has decimated the porn business. He doesn’t mention the work of performers to get Pornhub to stop hosting their videos without their consent, nor does he include the efforts of some survivors, like Rose Kalemba, to fight back against Pornhub by working together. On Twitter, after the Times story came out, Kalemba posted screenshots of her exchange with Kristof, who had approached her for an interview but ultimately did not include her or another survivor, Avri Sapir, who work together to try to hold Pornhub accountable. “[Sapir] & I are not only survivors, but also advocates, researchers,” she added on Twitter, dedicated to “fighting these problems because we have been let down every step of the way by the people who were supposed to help us.”

That’s the same reason people might want to support a campaign like Traffickinghub, or approvingly share the latest Kristof story. Yet as Kristof has framed the problem, and as he has aided, however unwittingly, in obscuring the religious and political backdrop to Exodus Cry’s intervention, readers won’t know what they are signing up for when they sign up to support Traffickinghub. Shortly before Kristof’s story appeared, Melissa McCarthy had to apologize and withdraw a donation she had pledged (in partnership with HBO Max) to Traffickinghub, when she found out they had links to anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ groups. Traffickinghub cried foul and again tried to spin the situation (“Exodus Cry Receives a Flood of Support after Melissa McCarthy Cancels Donation”).

Unsurprisingly, Kristof will be able to report some “impact” to his editors. The usual calls for Congress to intervene were swiftly heeded by Senator Josh Hawley, who said, on Wednesday, he will introduce legislation “allowing victims of fraud, coercion, and sex abuse to sue” Pornhub. What followed was the ‘‘Survivors of Human Trafficking Fight Back Act of 2020,” co-sponsored by Republican Senators Joni Ernst and Thom Tillis and Democrat Maggie Hassan. While Hawley has styled himself as a tough enforcer facing down unaccountable tech platforms, to him that means threatening to break up Google because YouTube announced it will remove misinformation, like content alleging (nonexistent) widespread fraud in the 2020 election. His grasp of trafficking is equally weak: He has claimed, as Missouri attorney general, that sex trafficking could be blamed in part on “the sexual revolution.” The problem for Hawley and his co-sponsors is that a law already exists that will allow people who have been trafficked to pursue legal action against platforms they say are responsible. After years of groups like Exodus Cry lobbying for such a law, with Kristof’s support, it passed in 2018. It’s called the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act and the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, or SESTA/FOSTA.

Meanwhile, Pornhub announced new policies Tuesday to immediately restrict users’ ability to upload videos without registering and bar downloading videos altogether. The news was greeted by some performers with something like cautious optimism. As Vex Ashley put it, “Whatever you think of them this is a pretty major change,” and yet, “It’s always fun to remember that the people who’ve been shouting about this forever who’s livelihoods have been pirated and incomes decimated for years get ignored but fucking [Nick Kristof] writes one shitty op-ed [and] the wall falls immediately just like that. Guess it was that easy.”

Exodus Cry’s Traffickinghub campaign is not unlike the rebranding efforts that anti-porn groups attempted by pivoting to “sex trafficking.” They know there’s no shortage of people, especially women, who are outraged and looking to get organized around fighting rape and abuse, who want to expose Pornhub’s business practices. But they are hoping those same people don’t pull back the same curtain on them.