How amateur porn hurts women

REBECCA HISCOTT
Last updated 11:03 23/01/2014
Cindy Gallop
Getty Images

ATTEMPTING CHANGE: Cindy Gallop, the found of Make Love, Not Porn.

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When Theresa split from her partner of several years, they began the painful process of separating their lives, notifying friends as they divided the dishes and furniture. They confronted the dozens of Facebook vacation photos, the Instagrams of Sunday morning brunch, the tweets and text messages that professed their undying love.

Finally, they had to figure out what to do with their handful of amateur porn videos.

"I never wanted those videos online in the first place," Theresa (real name withheld) tells me. "My partner put them up without asking me."

Amateur pornography exists in many forms, beyond the videos shared publicly on porn sites like YouPorn and RedTube. It lives in the private sexts, Snapchats and videos that couples create for each other, never imagining they may eventually be used to harm, manipulate or humiliate one of the participants in the midst of an argument or after a divorce. The phenomenon has spawned an entire cottage industry of "revenge porn."

As the tools and distribution platforms for creating and sharing amateur porn increase, so does the possibility for abuse. Yet many of the sites that host this content are blind to the harm it can cause, or simply don't care. Even platforms built to chaperone responsible amateur porn practices aren't privy to the emotional nuances of romantic relationships, for example, when one partner pressures his counterpart to consent.

MakeLoveNotPorn.tv occupies a unique space in the world of Internet pornography. For starters, MakeLoveNotPorn doesn't consider itself part of the traditional porn industry. It aims to showcase "real-world sex" and all its complicated nuances.

"We're not simply masturbating material, although obviously we are that too," the site's founder Cindy Gallop tells me. "We are a fascinating glimpse into the real, raw, intimate sex lives of real people."

The sphere that hosts the overwhelming majority of amateur pornography - via sites like RedTube, PornHub and YouPorn - hasn't evolved much over the years. In contrast with MakeLoveNotPorn.tv's clean, modest web design, every spare pixel on a traditional amateur porn site is given over to graphic images of women being slapped, ejaculated on and tag-teamed.

Gallop's hope was that MakeLoveNotPorn would grow into a supportive, sex-positive community, eliminating the sexual misconceptions that mainstream pornography breeds in a porn-saturated society.

But in the end, MakeLoveNotPorn.tv joined the lineup that unwittingly harbored the evidence of Theresa's abuse.


The trouble for MakeLoveNotPorn.tv lies in its core tenet: that real couples like Theresa and her partner are contributing the content. The site is therefore subject to all of the ups and downs of the real relationships it is built around, and can host the same kinds of abuses that crop up on other social networking sites. Just as Facebook has been co-opted as a tool for cyberbullying, so do these platforms fall prey to abusive relationship practices the site does not have the manpower to police.

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Before contacting Theresa, I spoke with several "MakeLoveNotPornstars" who had posted their videos willingly, with positive outcomes. Many couples found it empowering to share their most intimate moments online.

Theresa told me a different story. In her case, the explicit photographs and videos were shared without her consent by an abusive partner who coerced her into making them in the first place. In a pattern of sexual abuse and manipulation that characterized much of their long relationship, he had used a number of amateur porn sites (and even Tumblr) to disseminate the videos before finding MakeLoveNotPorn.tv. He kept all of the money the content had generated and he trolled message boards for threesomes, asking Theresa to engage with other sexual partners.

When she finally summoned the courage to leave him, he created social media accounts to stalk and harass her, she says.

Even so, the breakup was a relief. She and her partner (whom we'll call Nicholas) emailed the moderators of MakeLoveNotPorn.tv and explained they had split up and wanted their videos taken down. The clips were removed within hours; MakeLoveNotPorn's curator sent a note to the site's members explaining that the couple had broken up. Fellow users wished the former couple all the best.

Then, when Theresa took Nicholas back a month later - which is not uncommon in cases of long-term abuse - he sent a second message asking that these sites reinstate the digital record of their sex lives. Theresa gave him her reluctant blessing.

Abusers have always been "creative and opportunistic" in appropriating new technologies as instruments of abuse, according to Liz Roberts, a domestic abuse counselor and chief program officer with Safe Horizon. This goes back much further than the world wide web.

"When cellphones with locating technology first became available, we started hearing from survivors whose batterers had given them phones with that technology so that they could always know where she was," she says. As the Internet empowered users to communicate and connect in a million different ways, it also gave abusers new methods by which to stalk, manipulate and humiliate their partners.

In 2010, a Centers for Disease Control survey found that approximately 1 in 10 women in the United States reported rape by an intimate partner, and 1 in 6 reported some form of sexual violence other than rape. The same survey also found that 1 in 12 men reported sexual violence other than rape by an intimate partner.

"When folks hear the term 'sexual abuse,' what they think of is forced sex," Roberts says. "But it's much more complicated and broader than that."

Indeed, sexual abuse can be as simple as one partner coercing the other into performing sex acts she is not comfortable with, taking racy or lewd photos against her will, or even shaming her about her sexuality.

Theresa was convinced Nicholas would leave her, or sleep with someone else, if she didn't let him post their intimate photos online.

"Getting the victim to tell an outside party, 'Yes, I am on board,' or 'Yes, I agree to this,'" is consistent with the patterns of domestic abuse in the digital age, Roberts confirms. Those manipulations make it that much more difficult for the victims to publicly announce they have been coerced.

"Of course [the site] is a wonderful thing if everybody is equally informed and equally participating," Mary Anne Franks, a law professor at the University of Miami specializing in cyberlaw, tells me. "The problem is that a good thing can't exist for more than two seconds before someone comes along and makes it a horrible thing."

In many cases, abuse looks like love. Although amateur porn sites can claim their videos were filmed by consenting adults, there is simply no way to adequately police for sexual manipulation and abuse.

After Theresa took Nicholas back, she considered contacting Gallop to take the videos down again, but she felt sure Nicholas "would make my life a living hell" if she confronted him or went behind his back to have the videos removed. Besides, many of the other porn sites where their videos lived would be far less amenable to taking them down. What was the point?

This was the first time Gallop had been alerted to possible abuse. Since MakeLoveNotPorn's launch in 2012, only one other couple had separated and asked to take their videos down - which the site did, promptly and without incident. Prior to launch, Gallop and her team had devised a rigorous submissions process to ensure the consent of both parties in all video contributions, and she was shocked to discover that their precautions may have failed.

"The submissions process includes [both participants] confirming that they've read and agreed to our terms of service," Gallop says. They must each also submit two forms of identification every time they submit a video. "We go to great pains to build really good relationships with our MakeLoveNotPorn stars so that they can share anything with us," she adds. "The issue here is that [Theresa] did give her permission."

Cynthia Domingo-Foraste, a legal advisor at Safe Horizon, explained that, legally speaking, "once consent is given, it's given." In court, a victim could potentially argue that the consent was given under duress, but it's unlikely this would result in material like Theresa's videos being removed.

I was not able to watch Theresa and Nicholas's videos for myself. After I alerted MakeLoveNotPorn to Theresa's situation, the content was once again removed from the site.

Theresa's story differs from traditional revenge porn, which is defined as explicit sexual content distributed online without the subject's consent. Theresa did technically consent to making and sharing these videos. In fact, all available evidence on social media suggests she is a woman very much in love. And perhaps she still is.

Over time, she stopped resisting her partner's sexual demands altogether.

"In our culture, there seems to be this prizing of the idea that you can get your girlfriend to do certain things that make her uncomfortable," Franks tells me. "There are a lot of women that are doing things that they're not necessarily all that happy about. They might be consenting in some technical sense, but they actually feel pressured into doing it."

Gallop's mission with MakeLoveNotPorn.tv has been to showcase and discuss pleasurable, consensual sex in its many forms, beyond topless selfies and sadomasochism. That Theresa's partner was able to dupe a carefully constructed enterprise and engage in sustained sexual manipulation is, sadly, a testament to the failure of the Internet to protect against malicious intent, and to the reality that social media can, in fact, exacerbate domestic violence.

Creating a sex-sharing site without the exploitation and abusive language of mainstream pornography is noble, and much needed, but perhaps it simply isn't possible.

In the digital age, says Franks, "not only do we have all the everyday threats and coercions that can happen between two people, now one of them has a video."

- Mashable

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