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Pornhub deleted millions of videos. And then what happened?

Welcome to Porn Week, Mashable’s annual close up on the business and pleasure of porn.


If you live in America and have spent any meaningful amount of time on Pornhub this year, you may have noticed that its video search results for popular terms — like anal, blowjob, teen, or variations thereof — look significantly different than they did in prior years. Most notably, and universally across these categories, there are far fewer clips pulled from scenes shot by major, and predominantly American studios, either presented as is or collected into fan-made compilations like the infamous Cock Hero masturbation control challenge videos. Instead, many of these results pages feature far more content produced and uploaded by independent creator-performers, most of whom are what Porbhub refers to as “verified amateurs.”

And if you’ve watched a meaningful number of these uploads, you may have noticed that you hear a bit less English dialogue and background chatter than in the past — and more foreign accents and languages, especially from Central or Eastern Europe. Or you may catch other telltale signs of such a setting, either in the background of a shot, the title or description of a video, or the bio information of a creator.

“That international content is fun to watch,” says the Australian creator-performer Charlie Forde. “I’m a sucker for accents, even if I can’t understand what’s being said.”

These apparent trends don’t reflect big, sudden shake-ups in the demographics of porn creators, what they make, or their approaches to putting content on Pornhub. And they aren’t ubiquitous across every category or tag on the site. Some users may not even notice them, given how aggressively the interplay between platform algorithms and search histories can affect what each individual sees on Pornhub.

Rather, these shifts are just a few notable apparent after-effects of Pornhub’s decision to delete millions of videos back in December. This was not a Thanos-style, across-the-board cull; it targeted specific types of uploaders, and its effects on content volume and diversity varied wildly from one pornographic category to the next. But as Maggie MacDonald, a University of Toronto Ph.D. student who studies digital pornography platforms, points out, the net effect was a serious flattening and narrowing of Pornhub’s offerings, which has drawn underlying trends in porn production into sharp focus.

That includes potentially providing greater visibility for many creator-performers from beyond the Western world, long active but obscured within what MacDonald calls Pornhub’s “relentless, bottomless pit of anything you wanted to see.”

The Clipocalypse

Pornhub built its bottomless, diverse pit of content in part by allowing any and all users to make accounts and upload whatever they wanted to the site from the moment it launched in 2007. This free-for-all system generated over 6.8 million uploads in 2019 alone. Much of this content was always ephemeral, as accounts were regularly abandoned, and countless videos were pruned after a few days or weeks in response to copyright infringement complaints, or any number of other content moderation flags. But by December 2020, Pornhub hosted about 13.8 million videos.

However, early that month a New York Times opinion piece put a spotlight on the presence of child sexual abuse, and other forms of non-consensually filmed or shared, materials on the site. The article drew heavy criticism from many sex workers and industry observers. While it spoke to legitimate and longstanding concerns about Pornhub’s upload and moderation policies, it drew primarily on the dubious and distortionary findings and arguments of one anti-sex work conservative group, failed to meaningfully contextualize its findings, and generally seemed designed primarily to stoke a cultural panic about the site, and porn in general. But regardless of its validity, the article kicked up such a shit storm, notably prompting MasterCard and Visa to stop servicing the site and thus fundamentally threatening its viability, that Pornhub took drastic action.

It removed every video uploaded by an unverified account. It withdrew verification from every blue checkmark account that wasn’t owned by one of its studio content partners, or by someone in its Model Program, which gives individuals a share of the ad revenue generated by their uploads and access to tools for further content monetization. And it put a pause on new account verifications until it was able, towards the start of this year, to develop and implement a more rigorous protocol.

Several performers also claim that, although their verified accounts were left intact, Pornhub removed some of their potentially controversial clips. “Like consensual non-consent or daddy dom-little girl roleplay, and more hardcore or rough content,” explains Suzanne Ferrari, the creator and director behind the studio, and Pornhub content partner, SlutInspection.com.

Although it’s hard to get exact numbers, at one point there were just under 3 million videos left on the site. That number bounced back up significantly over the next few days. Pornhub did not reply to a request for comment.

However, MacDonald stressed that “the scale and speed of the purge was unprecedented. It was certainly not done with a great deal of care towards its users.” Even Tumblr gave people two weeks to prepare for its ban. Meanwhile, Pornhub gave no public notice.

This swiftly eliminated most of the pirated and dubious content — clips that uploaders pulled or compilations that they created from professionally produced content without permission; grainy amateur footage with no clear attribution or provenance — that had long defined the platform for many users. Pornhub has spent years ostensibly fighting piracy, but its limited approaches to the sorun allowed the issue to persist.

“I used to have to spend a whole work day every month searching… pegging and other keywords for content I’ve created, looking for pirated content to get taken down,” says Lucy Hart, a prominent studio operator and performer. “I’d always find shit. It was endless.”

“I did that for the first two months following these changes, and never found anything again.”

This has led numerous professional content producers and performers to applaud Pornhub’s purge. “As a content creator, I see it as more of a cleanse than a purge,” says Ferrari.

Many have noted that they’d actually been calling for more stringent verification standards for uploaders for years, both to fight revenue-sapping piracy and limit abusive materials from slipping onto the site — and that, if anything, they’re upset Pornhub only made these changes in response to a moral panic, as opposed to ample informed insider advocacy.

However, Brandon Arroyo, a porn researcher and host of the podcast Porno Cultures, argues that Pornhub’s promise of anonymity fostered not just rampant piracy, but also vibrant communities of real amateurs, as well as semi-professional content creators serving highly niche and often marginalized sexual groups.

“Users that were just posting their sex acts out of passion, and not for monetary value, have perhaps been hurt most by the purge,” he says. In recent months, he added, he also believes that the site has lost a vital “sense of wonder and excitement that came with exploring mystery, watching people take risks because they knew they could maintain their anonymity.”

In the weeks following the purge, Vice’s Samantha Cole thoroughly documented how animated, audio erotica, and furry content on Pornhub largely collapsed, as much of it had been produced by people who didn’t want to reveal their identities to the site. Forde adds that some of the biggest accounts creating content for “fetish niches that mainstream companies don’t cater to as much,” like giantess and shoe porn, also vanished, decimating their genres.

Although some new verified accounts have emerged to fill these content gaps, Arroyo and others stress that the end of anonymity has taken a serious toll on the number and extent of Pornhub’s fetish rabbit holes. While they were niche, these warrens had notable followings — and MacDonald notes that it was entirely possible for users to stumble upon them, disappearing into worlds of diverse discovery.

“That’s a big loss,” Arroyo lamented.

The European Connection

But how could the decline of amateur, niche, or pirated content lead to the increased visibility of independent creator-performers — and audibility of some languages — in key porn categories?


After America, Hungary and the Czech Republic had the most porn stars of any nation — far more than the U.S. per capita.

Well, the answer is surprisingly simple: There’s been an incredibly vibrant adult content creation scene in Central and Eastern Europe for decades now. Even before the democratization of content creation hit full steam, an analysis of the bios of 10,000 professional porn stars active across the globe between 1981 and 2013, pulled from the authoritative Internet Adult Film Database, found that, after America, Hungary and the Czech Republic had the most porn stars of any nation — far more than the U.S. per capita. The Czech Republic became an especially notable porn hub, rivaling California and drawing in performers from neighboring countries, in large part because of its cheap labor and operating costs, the high returns offered by selling porn to international audiences, and the nation’s liberal sexual attitudes and permissive legal framework. Prague is currently home to WGCZ Holdings, the owner of major Pornhub competitor xVideos, as well as numerous porn studios and ancillary service providers.

Over the last decade especially, the number of adult performers and content creators not just in these nations, but also in Romania and Russia seemingly exploded. These nations have long histories of relatively high youth unemployment and underemployment. And in recent years, they have rapidly gained access to cheap and robust telecoms infrastructure — at the same time as Pornhub and other platforms have made it easier than ever to produce adult content, put it in eyeshot of consumers in higher-income markets, and profit, all from behind closed doors. This has drawn in some members of these nations’ already sizable populations of sex workers, many of whom may appreciate the added safety of not having to meet with strangers IRL, as well as tons of young folks just eager to make a buck, and often not as hung up about sex work as previous generations. A 2019 analysis found that Russia has actually surpassed the Czech Republic in absolute number of porn performers, although it still trails behind the U.S. — and the Czechs still dominate in per capita terms. Recent estimates also suggest that there are about 100,000 sexual cammers in Romania.

As one of the most visible platforms in the West, uploading content to Pornhub was always a good avenue for independent creator-performers from these nations to build up fanbases in high potential markets, make some decent ad revenue and initial sales, then drive followers to other sites for more engagement and monetization. Although the rankings constantly change, any time you dig into the 100 most popular “verified amateur” content creator-performers on Pornhub, you’ll usually find that a sizable chunk of them either started out, or are still based, in Central or Eastern Europe.

Notably, a major adult industry trade publication recently profiled Eva Elfie, a Moscow-based indie creator-performer whose homemade content performed so well on Pornhub that the site unilaterally bumped her from its verified amateur to its professional porn star rankings. (She currently sits in third place sitewide.) The feature explains in detail how Elfie and a number of other Russian indie darlings consciously deconstruct content that performs well with Western audiences, then build clips that they believe will earn them a solid spot in the results for popular search terms (although seemingly not any of those that might run them afoul of Russia’s notoriously homophobic authorities) — often minimizing dialogue or adopting accents to hide their ethnicities.

As Susanna Paasonen, a professor at Finland’s University of Turku who studies porn sites, points out, the abundance of pirated content, usually from scenes made by U.S. studios, historically amplified the visibility of a few American faces — or gave them functional dominance over key content categories. Arroyo and MacDonald add that Pornhub’s algorithms seem to perpetuate aggressive feedback loops, giving the most ubiquitous and popular creators and performers ever more visibility, while making it exceptionally difficult for new or long sidelined faces to break through.

So, Paasonen says, now that Pornhub is no longer overrun with pirated content that artificially boosts a few faces into extra-heavy rotation it makes sense that “U.S. commercial studio content may currently have less relative visibility.” It also makes sense, she adds, that indie creators would benefit the most from this shift. Put those two developments together, and you have an environment that finally gives a little more visibility to a preexisting and vibrant pool of content creators from across the globe — and especially from the best-developed non-American markets.

“Because I’ve done a large number of mainstream studio scenes, when the stolen versions I’d been tagged in got removed in December, my ranking on Pornhub went down, despite my having a large collection of my own independent content available on the site,” says British performer Adreena Winters, who has worked with American and European studios.

The decline of niche videos has left Pornhub with a lot of "hot, thin, white couples having very boring... sex," says Maggie MacDonald, a doctoral scholar studying Pornhub.

The decline of niche videos has left Pornhub with a lot of “hot, thin, white couples having very boring… sex,” says Maggie MacDonald, a doctoral scholar studying Pornhub.
Credit: BOB AL-Greene / Mashable

However, this is hardly the only trend to arise from the numerous and multifaceted shifts created by Pornhub’s content purge. Alan X, a producer-director, points out that the sudden drop in real amateur content on the site has given greater visibility to studios that shoot “amateur or reality style content.” Lilly Sparks, the founder of xoafterglow, a studio that bills itself as a source of “high quality porn by women,” suggests that Pornhub’s increased demands of documentation proving the age and consent of everyone in a scene will nudge small, indie creator-performers towards “more solo content in the short-term, because it’s easier to meet the new guidelines” when you’re just shooting yourself. MacDonald suggests that the decline of niche and amateur videos has given more space to the “lowest common denominator” content that pros tend to veer towards, because it performs well with a wide, traditional paying audience: “Hot, thin, white couples having very boring, kind of mechanical sex, in a very performative and posed way.”

There are likely many more trends as well which only affect niche corners of Pornhub, narrow user bases, or have yet to become clear. The December purge’s reconfiguration of Pornhub’s library was so fundamental it may take years for content creators to fully figure out how they fit into this rapidly shattered and reconfigured ecosystem — and for a new normal to stabilize.

Indie Performers Still Get Screwed

Even if the dust of Pornhub’s content shakeup is still settling, you might expect the space created on a flattened and narrowed Pornhub for independent creator-performers from across the globe to shine would translate into clear and notable gains. However, while a few independent creator-performers, like Serene Siren, say they have enjoyed “much more attention,” many like the Russophone model MollyRedWolf says that she and other performers she knows have actually seen declines of at least 50 percent in their typical video view counts since December. Most creator-performers say that, even if and when their visibility has gone up, their profits have plummeted. “My income post cull is approximately one fifth of what it was prior,” says Forde.


It’s entirely possible for indie creator-performers to gain relative visibility within a porn category yet see their absolute view counts plummet in this peculiar post-purge Pornhub ecosystem.

This apparent paradox — more visibility, less success — likely reflects several more knock-on effects of Pornhub’s disastrous December. Notably, initial analyses suggest that Pornhub took a major hit to its overall traffic right after its purge, although it’s not clear how much of that has to do with concerns about its reputation, displeasure with its altered content pool, declining SEO due to a massive loss of content, or something else. If these traffic declines are not uniform across user demographics, they would explain wildly varied traffic drops from one category, performer, or video to the next. Or, if arcane algorithmic calculations led a performer’s niche or content tags to lose out against others in Pornhub’s overall content-and-consumer reshuffle, that would likely compound their traffic losses relative to overall site dips as well. So, it’s entirely possible for indie creator-performers to gain relative visibility within a porn category yet see their absolute view counts plummet in this peculiar post-purge Pornhub ecosystem.

Performers also say that Pornhub’s ad revenues have seemingly dropped significantly in the wake of its December crises. It still doesn’t have the ability to process credit card payments. And while elements of the site are set up to take cryptocurrency, few consumers seem willing to learn to use what is still for many a new and complex payment system, and performers can’t use crypto to receive fan tips or sell paid clips — key former revenue sources. So, blows to the site’s reputation and payment processing systems have largely decoupled improved visibility from increased profitability.

MollyRedWolf and a few other performers seem to believe that, on top of all of this, Pornhub is trying to sabotage them as well. She and Sweetie Fox, another Russophone performer, point out that the site’s main page seems to mainly promote its studio partners’ content, rather than that of independent creators. They also accuse the site of depressing some amateur models’ visibility; MollyRedWolf believes Pornhub is specifically suppressing Russian performers’ content because, she asserts, they want to focus on performers and keywords that earn them the most ad revenue for the site, a trend that she argues favors American creator-performers above all others.

Pornhub, MollyRedWolf acknowledged in a recent YouTube video on this topic, has denied these claims. And Hart points out that the mechanisms on the site that dictate visibility, payouts, and the relationship between the two are so opaque and complicated that it’s all but impossible for performers to draw such conclusions firmly. But the very existence of these doubts speak to the erosion of performer trust in, and willingness to deal with the ups and downs of, a seemingly battered and volatile Pornhub. MollyRedWolf openly stresses that she, like several other models, has started to wind down her commitment to putting content up on Pornhub, refocusing on other platforms.

“I don’t think performers will leave Pornhub that quickly,” says MacDonald. But it is possible that Pornhub will experience a slow bleed that continues to shake and shift its content equations.

Given continued anti-porn crusades against the site, even after it moved heaven and earth to allay fears about abuse on and off its platform, it’s possible that some other external shock could upset the site’s new, emerging balance as well. “I honestly believe Pornhub is doing everything in its power to avoid disruptive shake-ups like this again,” says creator-performer Bea York. “But I do worry about the anti-porn movement moving the goalpost and creating new soruns.”

It’s unclear what such future shocks, slow burn or rapid, could do to the visibility of independent creator-performers, American or otherwise — or what other unexpected trends they could create or reveal on the site. Save to say that they’ll likely be equally surprising and complex to outside observers, and even more painful for every creator and performer who has to live with them.

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