SEX

How Porn Giants Are Fighting To Shed Their Sketchy Reputations

Pornhub and xHamster are using viewer data and charitable stunts to move out of the margins

SEX
Illustration: Diana Quach
Aug 22, 2016 at 1:53 PM ET

The porn site xHamster is in the midst of a PR onslaught. In the past several months, the company protested an anti-trans bathroom bill by interrupting access to its site in North Carolina, restricted rape-related searches in response to the Brock Turner rape case, and sent pizzas to the Dallas Police Department following the murder of several officers. When the Cincinnati Zoo killed the now meme-famous gorilla Harambe after a child fell into its enclosure, the company offered to pay for the relocation costs of the remaining animals. Walmart controversially fired a greeter with cerebral palsy and xHamster offered him a job. The overturned conviction for “Making a Murderer’s” Brendan Dassey led the company to extend a $10,000 porn contract, and a free ticket to Wrestlemania, to the 26-year-old.

“Obviously, we do do these, I don’t want to call them stunts, but we make these moves that put us in a spotlight,” said Mike Kulich, CEO of Stunner PR, which handles publicity for xHamster. “For me, my job is to kind of watch the news, I wake up at four in the morning and I watch the news and see, you know, how can we insert ourselves into this story?”

The humanitarian impact here is negligible—only the former Walmart employee and some hungry police officers took xHamster up on its offers, and access is no longer blocked in North Carolina—but it’s been a boon for the company, which has the 70th most popular website in the world, according to the Alexa Internet, a commercial web traffic analytics company. These charitable ploys, along with frequent releases of viewer data pegged to everything from the Republican National Convention to anti-LGBT laws throughout the country, has courted widespread attention, including in the New York Times and The Washington Post (not to mention repeatedly in this very publication).

These are things that its competitor Pornhub, the 39th most trafficked site globally, has been doing industriously, and with great success, for a few years now. But xHamster’s recent entry into the mainstream has underscored how dramatically tube sites’ public image is being transformed. Unlike typical adult pay sites, where the content is entirely owned or licensed by the website’s owner, free tube sites let users upload X-rated videos, some of which are pirated from porn producers.

Just a few years ago, they were largely seen as shadowy, faceless operations that spread pirated content, exposed visitors to malware and suspiciously operated out of tax havens. Many still do those things, of course, but these leading tube sites are no longer shadowy or faceless. These companies are stepping onto the public stage with an aggressive PR strategy: charity drives that present them as more than just porn, and data on viewership that underscore the ubiquity of porn. The reasons why have everything to do with how the internet has completely upended the adult industry, the public’s relationship to pornography, and the way that publicity spreads.

“In the beginning, whether it was internet porn or tubes sites, there was a very large untapped market,” said Mike Stabile, a spokesperson for Kink.com and the creator of an upcoming documentary on porn legend Chuck Holmes. “You had a lot of different people who were coming online who were discovering that they could find adult content on the internet. They were willing to bring their credit cards. Everybody thrived for a while.”

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But as online porn proliferated, so did free content and, eventually, tube sites, which offered seemingly endless pages of streaming video. In those early days, competition was slim and, according to Kulich, PR seemed unnecessary. “Everyone was kind of flocking to it, so there wasn’t really a need for it, and there were only a few tube sites out there,” he said. “But now there’s so many, I think it’s important to build the brand name so people really know where they want to go.” This competition remains despite the fact that MindGeek, the Luxembourg-based company that owns Pornhub, has bought up most of the world’s biggest tube sites—perhaps because it doesn’t own the two properties bookending it on the Alexa rankings: XVideos and xHamster.

One way to fight for viewers in this competitive climate is to get mainstream media coverage—but that requires delivering something that is both newsworthy and relatively SFW. That’s why Kulich constantly scours the news for potential ins, and it’s why Pornhub routinely partners with publications like Buzzfeed, Mic and, yes, Vocativ to release analysis of its users’ viewing habits. Media outlets are happy to agree to these partnerships, because they bring big traffic. One week it’s Super Bowl-related porn searches, the next it’s Valentine’s Day-related data. “While we certainly can’t feature our primary product in mainstream publications, we can certainly talk about how people consume it,” said Corey Price, Pornhub’s vice president of marketing.

Another way is through charitable campaigns, although Price says that this arises out of a desire to “give back to our fans and provide for those in need.” Just as the Rio Olympics kicked off, Pornhub announced that it would be handing out “Zika protection kits” consisting of tissues, lube, and site memberships, to encourage masturbation and supposedly reduce sexually transmitted Zika infections. This year they also launched a “described videos” series for the visually impaired, and campaigned around domestic violence, saving the whales (with specific mentions of the sperm and humpback variety), and, in partnership with PETA, spaying and neutering pets (tagline: “too much sex can be a bad thing”). They have previously been a little more risqué, what with their tree-planting drive, “Pornhub Gives America Wood,” in which donations were made based on views in the “Big Dick” category, and “Save The Boobs” and “Save The Balls” cancer-awareness campaigns.

It’s also the case that tube sites, along with the rest of the online universe, realize the importance of inbound links from reputable sources, especially when it comes to search engine rankings, says Stabile. Put simply, the more reputable the sources linking to a site are, the more reputable a search engine believes the site to be and the higher it will appear in future search results, giving it an edge over similar competition. What better way for a deeply NSFW tube site to get links from reputable outlets than to take a news-making stand on North Carolina’s bathroom bill that gets tons of pickup. “With what we did with North Carolina, tons of people related to it,” said Kulich. “That’s why the story went viral.”

Which raises the importance of social media and Facebook in particular. Someone might share a data-driven story about Republicans’ hypocritical porn viewership with their Facebook followers, but, as Kulich puts it, they are less likely to post a link to an xHamster video with the message, “I just watched this stepmom get banged!” He explained, “My goal is always to get mainstream stories because those are much more shareable on social media.”

Another part of what’s happening with the tube site PR onslaught is that companies like xHamster are encountering less mainstream resistance, from readers and publications alike. “It’s at the point where porn is pretty much free and everyone watches it and people are more comfortable talking about it now,” said Kulich. Of course, data stories about the millions of people around the world watching porn only serve to further mainstream it.

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Stabile points out that tube sites, and internet porn more generally, have given people an up close and personal look at the wide range of sexual interests that are out there. “There’s something about tube sites that allows you to encounter fetishes that are not segregated, they’re not hidden in a corner, they get mixed into the mainstream,” he said. “Ten years ago, twenty years ago, people may have been aware of something like a foot fetish.” Now, he argues, “we’re just in general more comfortable talking about sexual variances”—and maybe also with reading bright, cheery infographics that breakdown the popularity of everything from gangbang to giantess porn.

When it comes to getting write-ups in influential publications, though, Price says it’s “been a process of acquiescing.” Many were hesitant at first, he says, “but as time went on and we started getting more coverage, publications opened themselves up to us and were far more receptive to our content. Over the years the hesitation has dissolved considerably, almost to the point where it is nonexistent.”

Some take a more skeptical view of the function served by these stunts, though. “Wherein many people would not pirate Hollywood films, society at large doesn’t feel bad about pirating adult content because at some psychological level, they’ve already dismissed it from ethics or art,” said Adella Curry, owner of Fine Ass Marketing, which represents many adult industry insiders, in an email. “I believe that the charity and data PR approaches are both perceived as added value/ethical/good karma, and serve as a way to further validate a user’s rationale for downloading illegally sourced content.”

It’s worth noting that, due to the insane popularity of tube sites, many major adult studios have partnered with places like Pornhub to provide snippets of their own content—so that they can then get a cut of the site’s ad revenue and also hope to attract viewers to their paid sites.

Nate Glass of the anti-piracy organization Takedown Piracy says these publicity stunts hide the darker side of tube sites. “Notice that what you never see included in these data dumps is how many of the site’s visitors are under the age of 18,” he said in an email. “Nor will you see data on how much malware their sites have spread. Nor will you see them release data about how harmful the fake Viagra pills are that they’re shilling next to stolen videos.”

These PR campaigns have also ventured into deeply offensive and politically incorrect territory. When Pornhub launched a service where users could text a number with an emoji and receive back a link to a porn clip, they linked the taco emoji to “Latina” content. Kat Stoeffel of New York Magazine said of the “Save The Boobs” campaign, “Because even when women face life-threatening illnesses, they’re still foremost an animated assemblage of sex toys.”

When xHamster claimed to lock out North Carolinians, a Twitter user within the state pointed out that it was still possible to view the content and that a popup on the site was highlighting just how much “shemale” porn viewers in the state were watching. As Vocativ wrote in June, leading sex experts saw xHamster’s ban on rape-related content as a major misstep that misunderstood the nature of sexual fantasy. And xHamster certainly hasn’t entirely eschewed the more traditional porn PR tactic of offering large sums of money to celebrities—most often women—to star in a sex tape. Just a few weeks ago, it was a $50,000 offer to former Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

Kulich, who until very recently was a Donald Trump supporter, has represented Martin Shkreli, the pharmaceutical executive who infamously hiked the price on a lifesaving prescription drug and has been referred to as the “most hated man in America.” This contradictory mix of pseudo LGBT activism alongside repping a man known for gouging AIDS patients seems particular to Kulich, who has carved out a niche of unrepentant outrageousness, even in acts of purported social good.

But, looking more broadly at tubes sites’ aggressive, and sometimes fumbling, attempts at getting coverage, there is the plain reality of operating a business that is at once on the margins and in the mainstream. “There’s always this struggle between being an outsider and being accepted,” said Stabile. “It’s one of the central tensions of the sex industry. You like being a rebel, you like poking people a bit, but you also at a certain point, and at a certain income level, want to be part of the establishment.”