Date: 2022-07-04 Page is: DBtxt003.php txt00021555
XXX-Files: Who Torched the Pornhub Palace?
When the CEO of Pornhub’s mega-mansion mysteriously burned to the ground, there was no
shortage of possible suspects. Now, for the first time, the site’s shadowy founders tell their story.
Feras Antoon built his mansion right along Montreal’s so-called Mafia Row, once home to godfathers and dons.BY STÉPHANE GRÉGOIRE/RADIO-CANADA.
Original article: https://www.vanityfair.com/style/2022/01/xxx-files-who-torched-the-pornhub-palace
My involvement with digital technology goes back a long way ... and analog technology before that. Not too surprisingly various parts of the underworld got to explore and exploit technology as soon as it became available. Many of the URLs referenced in this article had their origins in the very early days of the Internet and the disemination of digital images. Back then there was a huge demand for this material and there seems to be a continuing demand and all sorts of ways to make the service produce revenues.
I am reminded that many of the major financial institutions recruited tech staff from the porn industry because of their real world expertise in running websites and doing everything else to have a secure digital system. I think this was more than 30 years ago. I have been surprised at how much of what is described in this article seemed so similar to what I recall from a very long time ago.
XXX-Files: Who Torched the Pornhub Palace?
When the CEO of Pornhub’s mega-mansion mysteriously burned to the ground, there was no shortage of possible suspects. Now, for the first time, the site’s shadowy founders tell their story.
BY ADAM GOLLNER
JANUARY 18, 2022 ... FROM THE MAGAZINE for FEBRUARY 2022
Shortly before midnight on Sunday, April 25, 2021, Pornhub co-owner Feras Antoon lay in bed sleeping when his cell phone started blowing up. The ringer, on silent, didn’t wake him.
How, in fact, did he sleep at night, knowing that Pornhub had negatively affected so many people’s lives? He’d been asked that very question two months earlier, while being harangued at a Canadian parliamentary hearing. His response was hardly contrite: “We are very sorry if this has caused any impact on victims.” He went on to say, with an evidently clear conscience, how proud he was “that we built a product that gets 170 million people visiting a day.”
Pornhub, with its undulating ocean of explicit content, is often ranked among the 10 most viewed websites in the world. More Americans use it than use Twitter, Netflix, or Instagram. As a result, in his hometown of Montreal, Antoon is known as “le Roi de la porno”—the King of Porn. And the king’s castle, it turned out, was the cause of those frantic late-night calls.
At the time, Antoon had been finalizing construction on a 21-room mega-mansion: 11 bathrooms, nine-car garage, 6,000-square-foot ballroom and sports wing. “I was building the house of my dreams,” the notoriously press-averse Antoon told me in his first interview in more than a decade. “And everything was going great.” Or so it seemed. With people housebound by the pandemic in early 2020, Pornhub saw a surge in smut-surfing numbers: U.S. traffic increased by up to 41.5 percent in the first month of the lockdown. The brand became ubiquitous in popular culture, appearing in gags on late-night comedy shows and the business pages. (Quoth Fortune: “Should Pornhub Buy Tumblr?”)
But then, starting in December, a series of legal and P.R. scandals slammed the company. First, a New York Times exposé accused the firm of knowingly hosting child sex abuse materials (CSAM). Antoon denied the charges: “Any suggestion that we allow or encourage illegal content is completely untrue and defies rational reason, from both a moral and business standpoint,” he told me. Still, Canadian senators and MPs called for a criminal investigation. In the uproar, credit card processors suspended payments on the site. Lawsuits proceeded on several fronts. An internal memo Antoon wrote about the company missing its year-end financial goals was leaked. Suddenly, attention shifted to his big-ass man cave. “As his dream home gets close to completion,” noted the Daily Mail, Antoon “faces a money crunch nightmare. His empire is in danger of crumbling.” On April 22, he placed his château on the market for nearly $16 million.
Three days later, a security guard monitoring surveillance footage at Pornhub parent company MindGeek’s office in Montreal noticed something unusual. The CCTV feed from Antoon’s uninhabited, nearly completed house showed two trespassers on the premises. Adding to the intrigue, the estate was situated right along so-called Mafia Row, a secluded road where at least a few local Cosa Nostra bosses had resided. Why there? “It’s a quiet street with few cars,” he told me; plus, the place was within walking distance from where he grew up. Surely he realized that the strip had ties to organized crime? He declined to answer. He did concede, however, that he now wishes he could erase the mansion from his memory: “I want it forgotten.”
That said, he can’t help recounting how he lay in bed that night, powerless, two miles from the still-unfinished building, asleep at home with his wife and children, as the company’s security officer alerted 911. By the time police showed up, the Pornhub Palace was in flames.
Antoon finally woke up when his brother got through on the landline. Driving over, he told me, he kept hoping it would turn out to be something small—maybe just some teenagers messing around. In reality, it took up to 80 firefighters to battle the blaze. Flames soared 150 feet skyward. Neighbors were being evacuated in their pajamas. Arriving at the scene, he recalled, “I was devastated.” The conflagration raged all night. “It took a while to control because it was a big place,” explained Caroline Chèvrefils, a police officer on-site that evening. As her shift ended around 6:30 a.m., the fire department was still extinguishing flare-ups.
Whoever set the fire was a professional: Nobody was injured, the surrounding homes were barely damaged. Antoon’s entire crib, however, was pyro’d. All that remained was charred concrete, twisted metal, and a rusty two-story archway where the front door would have been. To this day, it protrudes from the rubble like a headstone—or some telltale sex toy.
Did Antoon have any idea who was responsible? “I don’t want to accuse anyone until I know the facts,” he told me. Police insist the case is ongoing. Did they have any hard leads? “There are no more details to reveal,” Chèvrefils told me after confirming that two unidentified suspects were seen breaking and entering.
Everyone had a theory. Some suggested Antoon had set it up to collect the insurance money—an allegation he dismissed. Others were persuaded that the livid father of an underage victim had the place burned down as revenge for homemade MPEGs uploaded onto Pornhub. Still another faction pointed to Q-minded anti-pornography crusaders. Or, given the precision of the firebombing, wasn’t it a signature mob job? Months later, Montreal police issued a bulletin about a citywide arson spree, though there was no mention of the Pornhub blaze.
Whatever the cause, Antoon’s inferno was searingly symbolic. It represented not just bad juju befalling the XXX site, but an overheated, inflammatory political climate in the ongoing war against online porn.
Before the internet, portrayals of sex acts were the purview of adult magazines and movies. Today, hard-core sex is instantly accessible on mobile devices, social media feeds, and VR headsets. This shift in carnal consumption has had far-reaching effects, transforming sexual norms, implicating underage viewers—and victims—and creating new forms of cyber-capitalist sex work. Beyond the masses watching porn, many at home also make it—and they make money doing so, through sites like Antoon’s. As society grapples with the implications, Pornhub has found itself at the center of a vitriolic global conversation.
Forty years ago, debates about porn focused on the idea that the sex industry was inherently dehumanizing and rife with abuse. Activist Andrea Dworkin famously argued that porn was detrimental to women, full stop. But not all second-wave feminists agreed. A vocal faction argued for an erotic-positive approach to rejecting sexual repression. The phrase “pornography is violence against women,” wrote Ellen Willis, an influential pro-sex feminist, “was code for the neo-Victorian idea that men want sex and women endure it.”
The argument remains as contentious as it is unresolved. This fall, the Times published an op-ed by Michelle Goldberg—“Why Sex-Positive Feminism Is Falling Out of Fashion”—citing a TikTok-based “Cancel Porn” movement. Then again, Cosmo contended that “As we all know, women enjoy porn just as much as guys do.” In fact, an estimated one third of Pornhub’s users are women. And the current feminist perspective on the porn debate might best be summarized by Oxford philosopher Amia Srinivasan in her new book, The Right to Sex: Feminism in the 21st Century: “If a woman says she enjoys working in porn, or being paid to have sex with men, or engaging in rape fantasies, or wearing stilettos—and even that she doesn’t just enjoy these things but finds them emancipatory, part of her feminist praxis—then we are required, many feminists think, to trust her. This is not merely an epistemic claim: that a woman’s saying something about her own experience gives us strong, if not indefeasible, reason to think it true.” And questions of belief and consent—especially those involving abuse—are where Pornhub’s current troubles began.
The site, founded in 2007, became notorious for allegedly hosting revenge porn, in which nonconsensual intimate material is uploaded by former lovers, almost always men. For years, Pornhub didn’t seem to do much to help victims remove unwanted clips. Take the case of British soccer player Leigh Nicol, who is suing Pornhub over a sex video it shared of her, without permission, stolen by an iCloud hacker. “It ruined my life, it killed my personality, it zapped the happiness out of me,” Nicol stated. “I still bear those scars.”
Survivors like Nicol have now been ensnared in a partisan minefield, many of them inadvertently. She and the 33 other plaintiffs in her class-action lawsuit are being represented by Michael Bowe, former counsel to Donald Trump, who also represented a disgraced Jerry Falwell Jr. in his recent sex scandal. Bowe’s complaint accused Pornhub of being “one of the largest human trafficking ventures in the world.” The company responded by calling him “a soldier of the ultra-right-wing effort to shut down the adult content industry.” It isn’t only the right that has taken up this fight; many prominent liberal voices have chimed in too. But the left, as usual, is divided: Centrists want regulatory oversight; many progressives insist on the importance of heeding the needs of sex workers; they are opposed by, among others, those with sex-worker exclusionary radical politics.
“I can’t even count how many comments I saw from people saying to BURN THE COMPANY OR MY HOUSE DOWN. For a while, it was easy to dismiss the tweets as just people on the internet talking. Then my house burned down.”Still, the most vehement anti-porn—and anti-Pornhub—voices are those on the fundamentalist fringe. During the lead-up to the torching of Antoon’s mansion, extremists began doxing Pornhub employees and issuing violent threats online. Shepherding this movement was an outfit called Traffickinghub, an offshoot of the evangelical Christian organization Exodus Cry, which has well-documented anti-LGBTQ+ and antiabortion origins. Both groups have dedicated themselves to abolishing Pornhub, whipping their supporters into a punitive frenzy. “Burn them to the ground!” read a tweet shared on the Traffickinghub founder’s profile four days before the arson attack. Under an image of Antoon’s new house, another follower wrote, “I fucking wish that whole mansion will burn to re-create the hell they must burn in.”
Some sex workers deemed the arson a hate crime. Alana Evans, president of the Adult Performance Artists Guild, classified it—without providing evidence—as “a terrorist attack against our industry” by “anti-porn super-religious people.” A longtime erotic industry advocate, Evans told me she’d been receiving messages from zealots warning that “they were gonna burn my house down like Pornhub.” She maintained that the fire “was the first time we saw such an extreme act of real violence against our community since the days of [Hustler founder] Larry Flynt being shot” by a white supremacist in 1978.
“I can’t even count how many comments I saw from people saying to burn the company or my house down,” Antoon said. “For a while, it was easy to dismiss the tweets as just people on the internet talking. Then my house burned down.”
Antoon, a brawny tech exec with a trim gray beard, is the Syrian-Canadian CEO of Pornhub’s parent company, MindGeek, which also runs YouPorn, Digital Playground, and numerous other masturbation-oriented brands. MindGeek racked up an estimated $500 million in net revenue in 2020 through ad sales, affiliate marketing, and premium subscriptions; its digital marketing network, TrafficJunky, gets 4.6 billion impressions per day.
Pornhub features DIY sex tapes, glossily produced skin flicks, and everything in between. Much of the content intentionally blurs the line between reality and illusion. Is it an amateur video—or made to look amateur? Are those legal adults “pretending” to be teenage cheerleaders—or not? The real-world ramifications of conflating fake and fantasy aren’t MindGeek’s biggest concern, though. Most of its executives’ troubles stem from the fact that until late 2020, unverified users could upload content—as they can on typical social media sites.
Yet Pornhub isn’t just any social media site. It’s a vertically integrated multichannel jack stack: endless interconnected web pages showing grids of clickable pornos, searchable by theme, along with links to private “cams” and ways to connect with models, escorts, or like-minded partners. Many other websites have also hosted revenge porn and nonconsensual material, but unlike most of those outlets, whether on or off the dark web, Pornhub has brand-name recognition. The site is free and open to virtually anyone, regardless of age.
One might assume that the portal would stringently ensure that its wares involve consenting, grown-up actors and amateurs. Moreover, the site peddles an almost unimaginable diversity of freaky sex, including acts involving cross-eyed elves, nose worshippers giving nasolingus, and furry cosplayers. (No kink-shaming, please.) But it isn’t all innocuous. Some taglines feature keywords like “demolished” and “annihilate” in conjunction with various orifices. Harsher videos involve performative—or what can appear to be actual—violence.
Over the past year, the company began implementing changes to facilitate content removal—and to prevent illegal material from making it onto the site. In a widely reported purge, the site also restricted access to millions of unverified videos. MindGeek partnered with 40 nonprofits, including the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, so that suspect content could be instantly disabled if a trusted designee deemed it unsafe. Additionally, anyone searching for CSAM on the site started receiving deterrence notifications.
None of that absolved the owners for prior actions or inactions. In fact, according to a lawsuit that was just settled under terms that are confidential, for a number of years the company disseminated a series of videos by a U.S. firm (that MindGeek apparently verified) that depicted criminal assaults and rape. The original purveyor of the videos is now a fugitive; one associate is serving 20 years for conspiracy and sex trafficking.
An online petition to “shut down super-predator site Pornhub and hold the executives behind it accountable” has received more than 2.2 million signatures. It’s clear, though, that even if Pornhub were to go belly-up, revenge porn and CSAM wouldn’t simply vanish. After all, compared to Pornhub’s 13,229 CSAM infractions in 2020, significantly more child porn makes its way to Facebook (an estimated 20.3 million incidents in 2020), Google (546,704 incidents), and Snapchat (144,095 incidents).
Pornhub’s origin story is virtually unknown. But it began at Montreal’s Concordia University, which also happens to be my alma mater. Without ever crossing paths with the founders, I completed my undergrad degree in 2004, the same year that Antoon’s brother-in-law Stephane Manos and his business partner Ouissam Youssef graduated from the Faculty of Engineering and Computer Science. While still at school, Manos and Youssef created an online porn company called Brazzers, which focused on high-production-value photos and videos of well-endowed women in, as Antoon later called it, the “MILF niche.”
“Since 2004, Brazzers has been the number one name in original adult entertainment, period,” explains the site, now operated by MindGeek. Current COO David Tassillo, another Concordia engineering grad, told me that the company founders got the name from one of their cousins who had such a heavy Middle Eastern accent that when he’d say brothers, it sounded like brazzers.
Manos and Youssef dubbed their holding company Mansef, a portmanteau of their last names. They set up an office with Matt Keezer, a fellow student who specialized in search engine optimization. Keezer, who ran a company called Interhub, reportedly bought the Pornhub.com domain name for $2,750 at a Playboy Mansion party. In 2007, the three cohorts launched Pornhub, a site with an immodest assortment of free, browsable sex clips, some pirated, some from Brazzers. Keezer, Youssef, and Manos have since left the company; attempts to reach them for comment went unanswered. But back in 2007, the founders shared several core qualities. They were entrepreneurially minded. They were IT hustlers. And they were members of an unlikely real-world community: They played on the competitive foosball circuit.
BY STÉPHANE GRÉGOIRE/RADIO-CANADA.
Foosball isn’t just a popular barroom game; it’s also a sport with leagues and rankings. Keezer was a founder of the Quebec Table Soccer Federation. He and Pornhub’s cofounders “met during some kind of foosball tournament,” Tassillo told me, acknowledging that table soccer “is highly, highly part of the story.”
Soon after its launch, Pornhub expanded to such a degree that it needed some sales management. Onto the payroll came Antoon and Tassillo.
Traffic skyrocketed—but things also went south. In 2009, U.S. Secret Service agents seized $6.4 million that Mansef had wired to its American bank accounts. Court documents claimed the funds were potentially connected to money laundering. Though Mansef denied the charges, a judge forced it to forfeit $2.2 million. The owners raised further suspicion when local media observed a “mysterious private security detail”—tinted-window SUVs—keeping 24/7 watch over their homes.
By 2010, Mansef was sold to a German programmer named Fabian Thylmann for a reported $140 million. Thylmann started buying up competitors such as xTube, Reality Kings, and Webcams.com until 2012, when he was charged with tax evasion. By then, with Keezer, Youssef, and Manos gone, Tassillo and Antoon were running the company. They engineered a management buyout and created MindGeek by joining forces with Bernd Bergmair, a reclusive, tight-lipped Keyser Söze–like flesh magnate believed to hail from the Austrian foothills. Little was publicly known about Bergmair beyond the fact that he owned a popular porn site called RedTube and lived in London with his wife, a Brazilian model. (The ultimate silent partner, Bergmair has never spoken out publicly.)
As the majority owner of MindGeek, Bergmair stayed in the background, effectively shrouding the company in secrecy. MindGeek became “a lot more hidden,” Thylmann said in 2017. “They just went completely under the radar.”
Pornhub and MindGeek, though physically based in Montreal, are actually headquartered in the hoary tax haven of Luxembourg, with offices in Cyprus, Romania, London, and L.A. The company’s valuation isn’t clear, but Antoon has been seen driving red-hot Ferraris and banana-yellow Lambos with vanity plates like MRCEO and YALA. “Yala in Arabic means let’s go,” Antoon clarified, “indicating getting to work on something quickly, with little patience. Which is me.”
These days it is Pornhub’s detractors who have little patience. The most seismic attack on the company came a year ago—in the form of a Nicholas Kristof New York Times op-ed stating that Pornhub was “infested with rape videos. It monetizes child rapes, revenge pornography” and “children being assaulted.” The article featured a young woman named Serena Fleites who’d gone to extraordinary lengths to have footage of herself—recorded when she was 14—taken down from the website.
Soon, a merry-go-round of lawsuits started being filed on behalf of underage or nonconsenting victims: an Alabama case invoked the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act; a California complaint sought $1 million each for 40 plaintiffs; a Canadian firm demanded $600 million in damages. One suit characterized MindGeek as “a classic criminal enterprise run…just like the Sopranos,” an assertion the company dismissed in a statement as “utterly absurd, completely reckless, and categorically false.” When Pornhub released an app last summer directing museumgoers to classic nude paintings, legal action was threatened by the Louvre and the Uffizi. As one Montreal source put it: “They’re in trouble all over the world.”
Stoking the ire was the ostentation of the CEO’s Mafia Row domain. “It attracted too much attention,” Antoon admitted. “I felt a very negative karma about it. It was supposed to bring joy and I felt it was only bringing negativity, so we decided to sell it.”
The day after the arson, the anti-porn organization Traffickinghub tweeted a photo of Antoon’s castle next to a portrait of Fleites, then living in her car. On top of it all, Canada’s government forced Antoon and Tassillo to testify at an ethics committee hearing.
Laila Mickelwait, the head of Traffickinghub, was also invited to give remarks. She told me, via email: “Feras and David…wrote a personally signed letter to the parliamentary committee attempting to deplatform and silence me, but their sinister tactics didn’t work.” That letter echoes sentiments reflected in another letter sent to the committee by members of the Adult Industry Laborers and Artists Association. “Please stop platforming extremist religious propaganda that harms sex workers,” it requested, calling out Mickelwait, Traffickinghub, and the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (formerly Morality in Media). “Their goal is not to end child sexual assault, or to stop nonconsensual content uploaders, but only to enforce their religious moral beliefs surrounding pornography.” The official hearing, at times, seemed like a circular firing squad.
While the internet continues its Wild West resistance to law and order, PORN KEEPS GETTING EVER MORE MAINSTREAM. When Facebook and Instagram went down one day last fall, Pornhub saw a 10.5 percent traffic spike.In front of the panel, Mickelwait focused on Antoon and Tassillo. “What the CEO and the COO do,” she declared, “is try to attack…[and] silence advocates who are telling the truth about their site.” She said she’d been “gaslighted” by MindGeek, the same verb some sex workers use to describe her Traffickinghub campaign. “The public is so easily gaslighted by these evangelical groups that want to get rid of porn,” Cherie DeVille told me. A board member of the Adult Performer Advocacy Committee, DeVille ran for the U.S. presidency in 2020 (with Coolio on the ticket) to raise awareness for issues affecting sex workers. In our discussion, she seemed incredulous that Traffickinghub was being granted legitimacy—and that few questioned their stated position as “nonreligious and nonpartisan.”
Traffickinghub and Exodus Cry, to put it plainly, are abolitionist endeavors related to a Kansas City church called the International House of Prayer—a point Melissa Gira Grant explored in her 2020 New Republic investigation into the “Holy War on Pornhub.” Grant methodically outlined connections between Mickelwait, Exodus Cry, and IHOP, exposing how the organizations downplayed their larger aims through a covert “strategy to reframe conservative ideas of sexual purity.”
The new crusaders aim to outlaw the commercial sex industry altogether, regardless of how that might affect sex workers, already a marginalized group. The main outcome of credit card bans on Pornhub—which Mickelwait considers an important victory—was that content creators stopped getting paid. The fallout extended to OnlyFans, the booming subscription-based platform that connects users directly with content creators. In August, OnlyFans threatened to remove all “sexually explicit” content, which would have had a chilling effect on free speech, open expression, and private digital commerce. Under pressure, the company reversed that decision.
At that time, a trafficking survivor named Rose Kalemba, whose underage videos had been previously posted on Pornhub, spoke out about her experiences with Traffickinghub, which she claimed was profiting off victims and treating them as badly as Pornhub did. She called out Mickelwait as being “just one more person who exploited me,” saying that Traffickinghub’s approach made her feel “violated, exploited, used, then discarded.” (Mickelwait told me, “I never directed or tried to influence [Kalemba’s] decisions but rather supported her choices and always responded to her requests for assistance.” )
Adult-industry leaders I interviewed insisted that campaigns such as Traffickinghub’s aren’t simply disingenuous but dangerous. “Faith-based anti-trafficking groups, in their zeal to eradicate pornography, have created a climate where violence against sex workers is encouraged,” explained an adult film star and advocate named Ruby. “There are people in this country that would be very happy for it to be a theocracy—and to see me swinging from the end of a rope.”
Antoon saw a direct link between fundamentalists’ exhortations and the fire at his home. “Could the extreme religious groups have incited and encouraged someone to do this? Absolutely,” he argued. “When you use extremist language and QAnon sentiment toward child trafficking, your words are going to attract and mobilize some of the darkest corners of the internet.”
“It brings back memories,” said my companion, Pietro Poletti, a retired lieutenant detective with the organized crime unit of the Montreal police force. We’d just turned onto Mafia Row, where Poletti—who spent his career tracking mob-related criminality—used to carry out undercover operations. When I’d contacted him to inquire about how law enforcement might go about investigating the arson case, he agreed to scope out the crime scene with me.
Poletti sported a black Adidas tracksuit and spoke in a low, raspy, Don Corleone voice. He’d become familiar with this neighborhood, he explained, while “following Vito Rizzuto for months.” Rizzuto was the godfather of a Sicilian Canadian syndicate known as the Sixth Family, closely tied to New York’s five families. In a secret NYPD operation, Poletti arrested Rizzuto in 2004 for his role in the 1981 assassination of three made men for the Bonanno family—a slaying reenacted in the film Donnie Brasco.
Behind the wheel of his Jeep Cherokee, Poletti pointed out how Rizzuto’s backyard was directly connected to Antoon’s. And, as Poletti recounted, it was in that forested area right behind Mafia Row that a hit man aimed a rifle at Rizzuto’s 86-year-old father, Nicolo, and assassinated him in his kitchen.
We came to the ruins. Lacy motes of ash floated over the debris. “No question this was intentional,” he said. “Whoever did it knew what the hell they were doing.” Poletti doubted that Pornhub’s foes—or Antoon himself—arranged the blaze. Instead, he argued, it might well have been a message sent by one or more of Antoon’s neighbors. As Poletti spoke, he couldn’t help noticing how much bigger Antoon’s house was than those around it, how much it encroached on them. He’d built his mansion so close to one particular property that the neighbor “could turn the steak over on Antoon’s barbecue.”
Poletti drove around the corner to observe the half dozen homes on either side of Mafia Row. Antoon’s property dwarfed them all. Poletti then stopped in front of the stately Tudor-style manor that had been Vito Rizzuto’s before his death in 2013. Next door was the kingpin’s sister’s former place; next, the assassinated father’s digs; across the street, a home that had belonged to a capo. Their consigliere had also lived on the block—until he was kidnapped. “They never found the body,” Poletti muttered. The remains of another neighbor were found: Rizzuto’s right-hand man, Giuseppe “Big Joe” LoPresti, wrapped in plastic and left near some train tracks. His son Lorenzo LoPresti (motto: “Money is everything”) was also shot dead. “They’re all cousins,” Poletti said, coming to a magnificent estate at the head of the street, its topiaried courtyard decorated with sculptures of cavorting giraffes, horses, and elephants.
That said, the proximity of Antoon’s property to those of mafiosi did not prove guilt by association. And neither Poletti nor his contacts had evidence of Pornhub’s owners being mob-connected. Tassillo, for his part, told me that the company had never had any dealings, or difficulties, with underworld elements.
Iinterviewed Tassillo at MindGeek’s six-story office building in Montreal, which overlooks an abandoned horse racing track and an orange julep joint. Tassillo, in his mid-40s, emerged wearing a hoodie and jeans, with a five-o’clock shadow. It was noon. His dark hair, slicked back, was just starting to thin out. He had a calm, world-weary demeanor.
Almost none of the company’s 1,000 or so staff members were in the hushed offices; everyone was working from home. Many employees are engineers; others work on editing or moderating content. No video production, he noted, was done in-house. “People expect a super-erotic vibe, but it’s like walking into a bank,” Tassillo said. Indeed, the only indication that the complex housed Pornhub was a scrawl on a chalkboard describing a new MindGeek website: Squirted.com.
Tassillo had never done an interview with a reporter. Antoon said they’d agreed to cooperate after so many years of silence because continuing to avoid the press “could come off as wanting to be dodgy. Now we’re at a place where it’s important to be transparent. I think when you don’t hear people speak on behalf of the company, it’s easy to assume that we’re just ‘shadowy porn guys.’ And that couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Why hadn’t they spoken out before? “We [just] always felt the brand, and what people saw on the site, would speak for itself,” Tassillo replied.
Gangbangs and throatpie compilations speaking for themselves? Odd as it seems, that’s part of what had landed them in this mess. A hands-off management approach had allowed users to post whatever they wanted, which inevitably led to a rise in problematic videos—which spoke for themselves. Now, after the ethics hearings, the Canadian government insists it will create a watchdog position to monitor platforms like Pornhub. And ongoing court cases still seek to determine whether the company’s pre-2021 procedures amounted to criminal negligence.
Were Pornhub’s executives preoccupied by the litigation? “As a business owner, obviously it’s on your mind,” Tassillo said. “But as something that is going to destroy the business? No, I’m not worried about that…. I’m not going anywhere. We’ll keep striving toward that goal of becoming even more of that brand.” And how did he define that brand? “The new Playboy,” he said. “A responsible brand working in the adult space.” Antoon echoed this view, saying he wanted to create “a household name that destigmatized porn…an adult-entertainment company that operates with equal parts irreverence and professionalism.”
Why had it taken so long to take down and guard against illegal material? Tassillo bristled at my phrasing before insisting, “We felt the need to expedite it based on what was being said,” contending that, even before the Times piece, MindGeek had spent $10 million on “software, human moderators, legal opinions, how to block it, how to stop it.” Today, no one can upload without having their verified identification on file. He said the company wanted to work with regulators and “with anyone looking to make the industry safer and better, anyone that has the same goal as us to eliminate all of this from the internet and outside of the internet—because that’s where it all starts, right?”
Regarding accusations that the company had profited from CSAM, Tassillo and Antoon were adamant that they had always done everything possible to combat it. “There’s zero value” in having it on the site, Tassillo told me. “If my goal is to become that household name that represents adult content and I allow this stuff to be on—I’m shooting myself in the foot. SNL would never feel comfortable making a skit about us.”
Kristof, who wrote the Times’s Pornhub takedown, left the paper in October and announced an Oregon gubernatorial run. One nagging detail, though, that many of those interviewed for this story brought up, is that in his column he’d neglected to disclose the extremist beliefs of those trying to silence Pornhub. Grant, in The New Republic, characterized this lack of transparency as “journalistic malpractice.” Porn activist DeVille, for her part, questioned how it was possible that the Times had quoted a “hate group”—meaning Traffickinghub—without acknowledging its wider views. (Kristof declined to comment.)
Even so, one undeniable outcome of the Kristof article—and Mickelwait’s campaign, for that matter—is that Pornhub now has improved safeguards and other sites are also reconsidering long-standing practices. In hindsight, it seems astonishing that an industry dealing with such volatile content hadn’t implemented tighter security earlier.
While the internet continues its Wild West resistance to law and order, porn keeps getting ever more mainstream. (When Facebook and Instagram both went down one day last fall, for instance, Pornhub saw a 10.5 percent traffic spike.) Meanwhile, making porn has become America’s “side hustle,” Ruby told me, describing an expanding movement of makers selling their sexuality online. “People figured out that they could just document that part of their lives and earn an extra two or three thousand dollars a month and feed their families.” Pornhub, OnlyFans, and other digital portals played an integral part in that phenomenon.
Toward the end of our meeting, I asked Tassillo what he thought PornHub’s impact has been on the world’s erotic life. “I honestly think it’s been a positive one,” he answered. “We created a platform that allows any content creator to create whatever matters to them. Through that, people [can] experiment and see things they might not even know they might be into. I think it’s actually allowed people to be a little more honest about themselves.”
The porn prohibitionists certainly wouldn’t agree. Nor would legislators who continue to draft anti-porn laws. (The porn industry retaliated several months ago by hiring lobbyists in Washington, for the first time ever, to advocate on its behalf.) It won’t be easy to curb content that exploits the underaged, exposes the nonconsenting, or disseminates acts of sexual violence. But perhaps porn purveyors are starting to realize that part of the cost of doing business should involve recognizing their social responsibilities.
How do sex workers themselves see it? “Pornography is a depiction of human sexuality meant to arouse,” Ruby told me. “It’s a mirror of human sexuality. We’re a barometer. When humans get more violent, their porn gets more violent. And when humans get more peaceful, porn does the same. It’s human nature, and it’s a human drive—and it has been since we could paint it on cave walls.”
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