What is ‘porn’, according to MindGeek

Image by the brilliant Stuart F Taylor

As a fan of porn, one of the hardest things to explain to someone who hates it is that it doesn’t all look like the stuff you see on PornHub. Frequently, when I’m debating porn, or reading articles by other people about the damage it can do to society, I come across one or both of these assumptions:

Porn is for men/inherently degrading to women.

I think that this belief is largely shaped and influenced by one particular company. What’s more, I think people who hold this belief tend to be unaware just how influential that company is. Let me tell you a bit about MindGeek.

Media shapes our views, it doesn’t just report them

Last Wednesday, I talked about ‘sexy’ as defined by Google. While on the surface it appears that Google’s algorithms merely reflect what we as a society think, they also help to shape our narrative. Any influential media (newspapers, TV, search engines, content aggregators) will do a combination of reflecting our world, and reinforcing our beliefs about it. It’s why if you switch someone’s Daily Express for the Guardian for a spell, by and large they’ll be less angry about immigrants by the end of your experiment. It’s also why we have legitimate concerns about young people growing up with warped ideas of what they ‘should’ look like, thanks to photoshopped pictures in magazines.

People who think porn is bad often mention this exact problem: using examples such as young people who think that adults shouldn’t have pubic hair, because the adults they see on PornHub tend not to.

So: media both reflects a certain worldview and also helps to reinforce or shape it. That much is pretty obvious. If you search for the word ‘sexy’ on Google images, what comes up is a page full of mostly slim, white, semi-naked women. That’s not, of course, what ‘sexy’ means, it’s just that when you take a consensus view on a subjective question, you’ll get a homogenous, simplistic, not-even-wrong answer.

What happens, then, when we ask content aggregators to show us ‘porn’?

What porn looks like

It’s hard for me to argue against someone who says ‘porn is degrading to women’ when their primary experience of porn comes from major tube sites. Sites like PornHub, for instance, or YouPorn, or RedTube. If you go to the homepage of any of those sites right now (please don’t, we’re talking here) you’ll see a collection of videos in which the focus is ‘women getting fucked.’ There’s variation, of course: some more fetishy ones, others where the woman is the one doing the fucking, but by and large on the homepage you’ll see stills and clips from videos which focus almost entirely on women’s bodies, and what’s being done to them.

The front pages of these sites reflect, in general, what straight guys want to see from porn.

Or … umm … do they? They reflect what site owners and content producers think straight guys want from porn, but in reality straight guys are as diverse a bunch as any other group of people. In fact what they’re doing is similar to what Google does when it picks ‘sexy’ images, or what FHM does when it collects the 100 sexiest women: they’re using algorithms and consensus to reach a shorthand answer that will appeal to as many of their target users as possible.

So far, so obvious. Major porn sites surface the content that they think people will like.

Slightly less obvious: the content that is surfaced will in turn influence the kind of porn people seek out. Like Google telling us what it thinks we find sexy, porn sites are offering people an interpretation of what it thinks they’ll get off to, which in turn will influence what they click on. Because it’s hard to click on something that isn’t there – if more diverse content is never surfaced, it’ll naturally get fewer views.

On top of that, the fact that these huge sites have such dominance in search results and in media references to porn means they will also influences what we think porn should look like.

What is ‘porn’?

If you’d asked someone in the 19th century what pornography was, they might have pointed you to some pretty explicit texts, or a crude line-drawing of a vulva. I find old porn utterly fascinating – and if you do too, there’s an amazing exhibit on porn through the ages at the New York Museum of Sex which I wrote about here, and the incredible Twitter account @WhoresofYore frequently posts incredible old-school sexiness. The brilliant thing about historical porn is that you can see quite a lot of variety. What’s more, the things you see in old-school porn (big cheesy grins, people wearing socks and doing handstands etc) all seems remarkably quaint.

Personally, I think the reason historical porn looks more varied is because in fact we’re seeing a broader cross-section of it. If you wanted to, you could potentially store all of the porn created before, say, 1900 on a single hard drive – so spotting variety in content isn’t going to be that hard, because there’s far less to choose from. But consider how many hard drives you’d need to store all of the porn on RedTube. If you want breadth and variety, you need to specifically search for it.

And so we come to large porn sites.

Porn according to tube sites

Hopefully by now you’re with me on one thing: what tube sites show you when you search for ‘porn’ is likely to be a combination of representation and interpretation. They’re assuming a certain type of user (male), and assuming that he has certain preferences. They then filter and sort what he sees, based on what they think he’ll enjoy. Where there are categories, they are incredibly blunt categories based on their own specific view of the world.

For instance: if I asked you to split all porn into two or three categories, which categories would you choose? It’s hard, because there’s a lot of porn out there. Maybe you’d go for something like:

  • Amateur/Professional
  • Women/Men/Both
  • Softcore/Hardcore
  • Solo/Couple/Group

In fact, PornMD (a search engine run by the PornHub network) goes for the obnoxious and transphobic “Straight/Gay/Shemale.” The point I’m making with this isn’t that there’s a right way to categorise porn, just to demonstrate that when you’re displaying porn – as with any other media – editorial decisions are made. At every stage. The algorithm, homepage, ‘most visited’ pages – none of these is ever truly a neutral thing, because at some point someone had to make a decision. And PornMD chose those categories.

It’s really important to be aware of this, because wherever there is an organisation that holds a lot of power to influence (as well as reflect) our desires, we need to understand what that organisation’s biases are. Just as we’d want to know, if Murdoch owned half of our press, what Murdoch’s biases were.

Porn and MindGeek

So let’s come to MindGeek. MindGeek (formerly known as Manwin) owns – and has a stake in – a lot of porn sites and production companies. And I mean a lot.

PornHub, YouPorn, RedTube, Xtube, Brazzers, PornMD, SexTube, GayTube, Webcams.com, Digital Playground, Reality Kings, FakeTaxi, Babes.com… I could go on. MindGeek isn’t a porn site itself – it’s a media company. MindGeek owns 7 of the ‘free’ tube sites which most people will be familiar with, four of which are in the top 10 most visited (PornHub, Youporn, Redtube, Tube8). I added a correction to this article on 11th October – it originally said that 8 of the top 10 tube sites were MindGeek. While MindGeek own many of the sites that you may be familiar with, notable exceptions like Xhamster and Xvideos aren’t really genuine porn alternatives – they follow the exact same model: lots of free content, plus an ad network to make money. They also all have the same target market. They also all have the money and resources to turn up at the top of our search results.

So when people say that porn is X, Y or Z, what they usually mean is that the porn they see in search results is X, Y or Z. Which, of course, doesn’t diminish their argument that this particular video or that particular set of results might be obnoxious or degrading, but it’s important to remember that these results are shaped and defined by companies like MindGeek. That ‘porn’ as defined by them is a very narrow interpretation of what porn actually is, or can be.

It is made for men. It is quick-win. It is free. It is geared towards making money via an advertising network.

These are all decisions which have been made at some point down the line. They could have been made the other way. That’s not to say that MindGeek shouldn’t try to make money, as I wouldn’t say the Daily Mail should actively avoid rapid traffic growth. What I’m saying is that we need to be aware of it, in the same way we recognise articles that are written as pure clickbait. We need to truly grasp that our understanding of ‘porn’ is heavily influenced by a few companies. And we need to realise that these companies are by no means neutral or unbiased.

Why does MindGeek matter?

On its website, MindGeek explains that “With over 1000 employees worldwide, MindGeek continues its expansion with the acquisition and licensing of some of the most iconic brands in entertainment media.”

This is a problem, of course, in the same way it is a problem if Murdoch decides to continue his expansion with the acquisition and licensing of more media outlets. Moreover like Murdoch, MindGeek does not sit idly by and work out how best to reflect the world in which it exists – it actively seeks to change it.

MindGeek sits on the committee of the Adult Provider Network, the primary lobbying group for adult content providers in the UK. The UK government is currently trying to implement a Bill which will force all adult content providers to collect/check personal details from users before they show them adult content.

If I were MindGeek, I’d see two possible options in the face of this legislation:

  1. Fight the legislation, because it will absolutely hammer our traffic, and therefore user base, and therefore revenue.
  2. Accept that the legislation is probably going to happen, and swiftly go about building an age-verification solution which we can sell to other porn companies. That way all adult sites are in trouble, but I have one absolutely killer move: I can potentially sell subscriptions to my own age-verification solution to every other site that operates out of the UK. 

Option 1 is quite hard work. Option 2 is an absolutely genius move: it means all those sites which previously were my competitors suddenly become my customers, and I get to dip my fingers into far more pies. What’s more, it means that I get to continue my expansion, and maintain my dominance over not just which porn people watch, but what people think porn should be.

Of course they’re picking option 2:

“MindGeek – the biggest multinational corporation in the adult industry, which owns PornHube, RedTube and most of the major tube sites, as well as Brazzers and many other production companies – has been developing an age verification system that would provide this solution. Their system is called AgeID, and it would take advantage of the vast traffic received by sites like PornHub to age verify people when they first seek out free porn on tube sites.”

How do you solve a problem like MindGeek?

It would be weird of me to argue that MindGeek – a company – should be driven by the same ethical questions that drive individuals like you or I. I’m arguing that anyone who watches porn (or discusses it, in fact) must be aware of the company’s influence and bias, because you can be damn sure we would be if it were any other genre of ‘entertainment media.’

One of the problems when talking about influence and bias in porn is that any discussion is so often met with ‘but porn is bad anyway!’ – the same assumption we started with at the beginning. In this way, those who get to decide what porn we see also get to frame the debate we have about it. In the UK, they even get to create the problem, and then offer the government an out-of-the-box solution. And our government – as far as I can tell – doesn’t seem to be asking why. Why the company which dominates the adult industry is so quick to accept a piece of legislation which will be kryptonite to so many of their competitors.

We debate the pros and cons of porn all the time – arguing that it’s degrading, immoral, empowering or feminist depending on our leanings. But when it comes to the power that porn companies have to shape the way we see the world, we go weirdly quiet. Our government goes quiet. Because it’s far easier for them to say that ‘porn is bad’ than to tackle the legitimate problems that arise from letting a small handful of people shape the industry.

It’s no longer enough to debate whether ‘porn‘ is a good or bad thing. It’s no longer enough to wave a flag for the occasional independent producer, or virtuously declare that we don’t watch PornHub. We need to start scrutinising porn the way we would any other genre of media. We need to question the motivations of powerful ‘entertainment media’ companies like MindGeek, in the same way we’d scrutinise news outlets and influential aggregators like Google. These companies do more than just reflect society’s tastes: they shape them.

So: empowering, degrading, feminist, obscene, whatever – I’m happy to debate whether the picture these sites paint of porn is a good or a bad one, as long as we recognise that there is a painter at work.

And he is not an unbiased observer.

19 Comments

  • kjsisco says:

    I think you forgot to take into account the simple fact that people are (unless they are just clicking around a porn site) searching for what they want to see. I fail to see how personal choice is manipulated. We all know what we like and we know how to find it.

    • Ay None says:

      You can only search for things you know exist. If you’re a teenager, looking at a porn site for the first time, do you know what you like? Are you going to try searching for things, or are you going to watch what’s served up to you? How can you know what you like before you’ve found it?

    • LuigiFan says:

      I think the thing is, there are a very large number of people who just type the word “porn” into google. I don’t think this article is wrong in suggesting that the top results of that search shape people’s expectations.

      • Girl on the net says:

        This to a certain extent, but actually it’s more than that – search “anal porn” or “lesbian porn” on Google and your results will be skewed towards tube sites. Search “anal” on pornhub and you’ll never get a diverse, representative cross section. Obviously: nothing is neutral.

    • Girl on the net says:

      No mate – people are searching via Google or Pornhub, which in turn influence results. The only way your point stands is if they are searching without a middle man.

  • Robert says:

    A lot of the points you make above specifically about porn, are also made, but more generally, by Cathy O’Neil in her book “Weapons of Math Destruction” where she talks about how poorly understood algorithms can have a big impact on our lives. There is a podcast discussion with her on the book here: http://www.econtalk.org/archives/2016/10/cathy_oneil_on_1.html

  • Kriss Angel says:

    Or we could – y’know – leave porn alone and let it be it’s own thing. Let market demand drive what gets made, from what i’ve read in articles regular production porn is starting to become less popular vs custom made porn via Cammers. This suggests a natural transition from one style of porn to another driven by horny people voting with their wallets. Radical concept I know – but you know what they say – you’ve just been Mind Geeked!

    • Girl on the net says:

      This would be a genuinely helpful comment if at any point I’d asserted that we should intervene in MindGeek’s business. I haven’t though, so thanks for playing.

      • Kriss Angel says:

        You’re right, you never asserted that we should intervene in MindGeek’s business, but you’re using the language of ideological colonization when you say things like “We need to start scrutinizing porn like any other sort of media”.

        It’s the same bullshit 3rd wave intersectionals use to justify poking their nose into every facet of culture. They put on their intersectional-ly tinted lenses to look for problems that don’t actually exist – in the same inquisitorial way that has been used for centuries. So when the wearer of said lenses identifies what they perceive to be a problem (whether it’s a forgettable ad like the McVities one, or porn search engines), they use ‘Call out culture’ to scream about it, to denounce it and anyone who uses it, or things well of it.

        MindGeek isn’t a problem, porn doesn’t need to be scrutinized and this whole thing is just tedious. Most of us just want to watch the porn we like without having to deal with people screaming about politics and ideology in the background.

        • Girl on the net says:

          You lost me at ‘3rd wave intersectionals’

        • sarah says:

          so we shouldn’t analyse, consider or think about the things we do and enjoy at any point, just mindlessly consume them? how do you grow and develop as a person if you never question yourself or any of the things that you do or that anyone else does? genuinely quite scared and confused about your head-in-the-sand approach to life

          • Girl on the net says:

            It also, ironically, means that Kriss probably shouldn’t comment on blogs they disagree with, because it’s all just the general noise backdrop of ‘things in life you either like or dislike, none of which should be examined.’

        • N says:

          To never scrutinise the puppet master, to never acknowledge the man behind the curtain, is a dangerous thing.
          What you don’t know, can hurt you. You’ll not be getting your free porn, Chris, if the government decides you’re under age unless you give a credit card!

  • > when it comes to the power that porn companies have to shape the way we see the world, we go weirdly quiet. Our government goes quiet. Because it’s far easier for them to say that ‘porn is bad’ than to tackle the legitimate problems that arise from letting a small handful of people shape the industry.

    I think, rather, the government finds it nicely convenient that one of the “Big Players” is effectively collaborating with their anti-porn agenda and they’re happy to go along with the implication that “it’s got to be good if *they* agree with it”.

    Of course what this means is that the Tories get to claim that they’re “doing something” and “thinking of the children” and Mindgeek gets a hammerlock on age verification systems in the UK (whilst still coining it in all over the rest of the world).

    So, from both of their viewpoints, they win, meanwhile, it’s the small niche producers and sites who lose since they won’t be able to pay the PornGeld and, of course, it reduces Mindgeek’s competition.

    Politics, as they say, makes strange bedfellows…

  • Mia More says:

    Excellent piece, GOTN. Would love to see further exposés on the business of sex. And on the flipside, a series on ethical porn/ the Slow/ Real Sex/ MLNP style movement for those who are tired of the majority of porn peddled online.
    In the meantime, keep up the good work, Chick. Loving your work :-)

    • Girl on the net says:

      Thank yoooou! And yes, I should do a bit more on alt porn – I will try and come up with something that’s worthy of posting, rather than just me rambling on =)

  • Nina says:

    Sounds like another money making spin for the big fish whilst the peeps show off political correctness at the expense of the minority.. Will certainly read a lot more into this..

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