The New War on Porn: How Moral Crusaders, Mainstream Media and Politicians Are Gunning for XXX

[This is the cover story for the January 2021 issue of XBIZ World] In…

[This is the cover story for the January 2021 issue of XBIZ World]

In early December 2020, the world entered the 12th month of an unprecedented pandemic, COVID-related financial losses to individuals and businesses ravaged the economy, Congress bickered over relief measures and the President of the United States continued in his historic refusal to acknowledge the results of a presidential election.

The New York Times, The Guardian, several prominent U.S. Senators and both major credit card companies, however, wanted to talk about something else.

Online pornography. Specifically, “the scourge of online pornography.”

Adult content was now routinely described, in article after article and editorial after editorial, by both sensationalistic tabloids and supposedly liberal establishment papers as “a scourge” (an outdated scolding word generally reserved for the discredited, ineffective “War on Drugs”), “a danger,” “harmful,” “exploitation,” and “infestation.”

Newspapers and TV news segments fed this rhetoric to politicians around the world — both conservative and progressive — who happily regurgitated exaggerations, deliberate obfuscations and outright cant such as “porn is a form of human trafficking,” “no person can consent to be a sex worker,” “all sex workers are victims” and “the only paradigm for sex work is an exploited young cis woman at the mercy of pimps and Johns.”

Porn, they declared, is not free expression protected by the First Amendment in the U.S. and by long-standing traditions of freedom of speech in other lands. It is “a public health crisis,” “a drug” and “slavery.”

This language and these notions are, of course, not new. They have been brewing for years — in some cases decades — in well-funded, religiously-motivated think tanks and lobbies. These groups literally have an agenda: to shut down, by whatever means necessary, online porn.

Their reasoning is morally and religiously inspired. However, most Americans, even if they may say otherwise in public, do not condone state and church intervention in their private lives.

As the religious lobbies realized in the late 1990s when they called for the impeachment of Bill Clinton, what are perceived as private sexual matters do not rally the troops as much as they might expect: while the House of Representatives impeached Clinton on the grounds of perjury to a grand jury and obstruction of justice, he was ultimately acquitted by the Senate, served out the rest of his term and his popularity numbers never dipped to the level the moralists had expected would be enough to topple him.

For the last 20 years, the moral/religious crusaders have been engaged in a costly — and quite effective — process of rebranding. Morality in Media, the most powerful and influential religious anti-porn lobby, renamed itself NCOSE (National Center on Sexual Exploitation) and scrubbed (most) mentions of their religious background to deceive on-a-deadline journalists unfamiliar with their agenda.

Their new name seems to have been chosen to borrow legitimacy from the unrelated, but soundalike, National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), a respected, secular organization with no anti-porn agenda.

The ploy has worked: while mentions of Morality in Media often highlighted their religious background and their connection to the Moral Majority movement of the 1970s and 1980s, the same organization under the NCOSE disguise is now routinely quoted by mainstream journalists without disclosing their origins, agenda or extremist views about what constitutes “hardcore pornography” (in their view: Sports Illustrated, Cosmopolitan).

How then did the fringe notions of religiously motivated War on Porn crusaders manage to enter the mainstream news cycle and then end up on the desks of supposedly liberal politicians like Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley?

Welcome to the New War on Porn.

Meet the Crusaders

There are four main groups currently agitating against all porn with slightly divergent, though often complementary strategies. One of them has a lengthy history of fighting what they consider obscene, while the other three are products of the new century and its communication tools like the internet, TED Talks, podcasts and online marketing.

The legacy brand of War on Porn crusading is the aforementioned NCOSE (formerly known as Morality in Media), which has gone under different names since its founding by East Coast religious leaders in 1962. The group was originally known as Operation Yorkville and its avowed mission from its inception was “to protect children from pornography.”

Operation Yorkville’s first target, in 1963, was not anything produced by contemporary pornographers. It wasn’t even a picture. The pro-censorship group went after a classic work of literature: John Cleland’s “Fanny Hill,” a frank novel about sex work written and published around 1748.

The way they went about manufacturing a public scandal about this supposed work of “pornography” defined the standard modus operandi for this crusading group: they exploited a 16-year-old girl by sending her to a New York bookstore to pose as an adult and purchase the book. Operation Yorkville’s secretary, a Jesuit priest, then helped the girl’s mother file charges to generate a headline-ready lawsuit, which was then fed to friendly editorialists and newspaper editors and publishers to stoke up public outrage. The ultimate goal was to get politicians and judges to take the bait and “do something” (i.e., unleash the power of the state) against pornography.

Operation Yorkville’s first stunt paid off: the mayor of New York, powerful city planner Robert Moses (who was involved in one of the establishment’s routine campaigns to “clean up” — or socially engineer — urban life), even more powerful Catholic Cardinal Francis Spellman, and influential pastor Norman Vincent “The Power of Positive Thinking” Peale got involved. One of Operation Yorkville’s newsletters was even read into the Congressional Record.

So, did they succeed? Not really. One can go to Amazon right now and order any number of editions of “Fanny Hill.” But in other ways, Operation Yorkville was effective. The crusaders got politicians to pay attention to their religiously motivated notions, eroding the fundamental separation of Church and State. They tied up public debate with hot-button issues of sex and morality. And they figured out that “fighting pornography” was as good a fundraising prompt as any.

Operation Yorkville had also placed one of their fringe ideas — that any work concerning sex is “pornography” and should be the subject of state censorship — within the ballpark of actual legislation. That was enough — state legislatures and the U.S. congress often pass bills that are struck down by diverse courts as unconstitutional. But the lengthy, costly process allows professional moralists to take center stage for the duration — which earns them prime visibility come donation time.

This pattern of behavior has remained consistent with War on Porn groups in general and Operation Yorkville in particular, even if this initially local group has changed names for marketing purposes and grown into a well-funded national (and increasingly international) entity.

Religiously inspired groups generate the messaging of the New War on Porn

In 1968, as the American Right developed the notion of a silent “Moral Majority” that supposedly opposed, and was going to undo, many of the social changes brought forth by the Sixties, Operation Yorkville changed its name to Morality in Media and sought a national platform.

Now led by Father Morton Hill — the same Jesuit who had helped engineer the group’s inaugural “Fanny Hill” stunt — the group protested the 1970 conclusions of the Johnson-Nixon’s President’s Commission on Obscenity, which called for the repeal of obscenity laws.

From then on, Morality in Media grew into the most influential anti-porn crusading group, leading the charge with repeated interventions and scandals seeking sensational headlines and editorials that were then repackaged into lobbying materials for politicians and judges to cite.

Morality in Media’s highest point of influence was their 1983 meeting with Ronald Reagan that fed into the Meese Commission and the most serious attempt by the federal government to outlaw all sexual expression as “pornography.”

Eventually, this all fizzled out: the commission’s slanted conclusions against porn were only taken seriously by biased groups like Morality in Media, which had originated them. Its namesake, Reagan’s attorney general Edwin Meese, resigned in disgrace in 1988, embroiled in a corruption scandal. Last year Donald Trump presented the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, to Meese, calling this most notorious anti-porn crusader “an absolute titan of American law and a heroic defender of the American Constitution.”

NCOSE’s mission has not changed in their almost six decades of existence: to have the government classify all sexual expression as pornographic and to establish that the intent behind it is always “prurient,” an imprecise, obscure word that means “appealing to unhealthy sexual interests,” and which was key to a landmark 1973 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court.

On the NCOSE website, their Morality in Media era is described as having been “the beacon of hope and light for those concerned about the insidious trend toward normalization of sexual exploitation in American culture.”

This era ended in 2015, when Morality in Media rebranded itself as the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, claiming the new name “better [describes] our scope and mission to expose the seamless connection between all forms of sexual exploitation.”

But that vague reason is not the full story. As XBIZ reported earlier this year, journalists crediting quotes by Morality in Media without any qualifiers before 2015 worked for conservative Christian publications like Lifesite News and The Christian Post, and also websites like Breitbart.com. Their messaging, in the odd occasions it made its way into the New York Times and other mainstream publications, was accurately flagged as coming from an “anti-pornography advocacy group.”

Morality in Media’s 2015 rebrand — which also led them to change their domain name to the call-to-action-friendly “EndSexualExploitation.org” — was immediately successful. NCOSE reps began to be cited as experts and authorities in a multitude of disparate sex-related articles such as an ESPN story on a supposed “human trafficking” trend during the Super Bowl, a “child sex robot legislation” piece by the conservative Washington Times, a USA Today story about Walmart removing Cosmopolitan magazine (which NCOSE considers “hardcore pornography”) from its checkout lines, a CNET story about FOSTA-SESTA, a Huffington Post column about sex education, a Salt Lake Tribune column about the “Fifty Shades of Grey” movie franchise and a Washington Post story probing assault incidents in the adult industry.

In addition to feeding quotes to anti-porn publications and to clueless journalists who apparently believe they are talking to a non-religious activist group purely committed to fighting “human trafficking” and saving “the exploited” (among whom they count all consenting adults involved in sex work), NCOSE runs a yearly conference for anti-porn activists.

Populated by members of various religious groups and organizations with social intervention agendas, the NCOSE conferences offer seminars and workshops on how to tailor their message to reach the widest possible audience. The strategies taught by NCOSE remain consistent with their rebranding. They discourage disclosure of their faith-based backgrounds, recommending that activists respond to inquiries about their underlying motivations with an endless repetition of appeals to science and secularism, the “human trafficking” mantra, demonstrably false comparisons of porn to drug addiction and slavery, and claims of it being the ultimate cause of an entirely made-up “public health crisis.”

NCOSE also encourages the public to lobby corporations that they feel are not doing enough to combat “human trafficking” and “pornography,” and each year they release a list called “The Dirty Dozen” identifying 12 businesses for their rank-and-file to target.

Their 2016 list, for example, included Amazon, the American Library Association, Amnesty International, the U.S. Department of Justice, HBO, Snapchat, Starwood Hotels & Resorts (for failure to hire NCOSE to “train staff” to spy on guests, like undercover vice cops), Verizon and YouTube.

NCOSE’s Dirty Dozen list for 2020 includes Google, Netflix, gaming platform Steam, TikTok, Visa and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the entire state of Nevada.

But although NCOSE — by history, reputation and funding — operates as a kind of ringleader of the New War on Porn, more recent organizations that share their core aim of redefining all sexual expression as “pornography” have now jumped to the forefront of the current crusades.

Chief among these is Exodus Cry, an offshoot of a controversial Midwestern Christian ministry called The International House of Prayer (shortened to IHOP, like the pancake house, which has sued them for trademark infringement).

Exodus Cry is led by Benjamin Nolot, a minister who calls himself “a filmmaker” on the strength of a few propaganda “documentaries” concerning current social issues (namely, sex and pornography), some of which he managed to land on Netflix.

Nolot is the co-author, with another IHOP minister, of a bizarre 2009 novel/manifesto called “Babylon,” which sees “human trafficking” — under which they consider all sex work — as part of a nefarious “globalist” conspiracy.

“The weakening of the U.S. financial system is leading to calls for a global currency,” reads the back-of-book description. “National sovereignty is under attack. The force of globalization has united the world like never before. Human trafficking is on the rise. Influential celebrities are awakening to a universal, spiritual consciousness, while prominent religious leaders are encouraging interfaith cooperation. These trends are evidence of historic transition. But what will the world look like on the other side?”

Exodus Cry relocated to Sacramento, California and the organization — now focused on “abolitionist” efforts regarding sex work, which the group considers “modern-day slavery” — started gaining visibility through the efforts of media-friendly mouthpiece Laila Mickelwait. It is worth noting that Nolot has recently lowered his profile significantly, after clearly homophobic statements were unearthed among his blog and social media pronouncements.

Mickelwait — who sometimes appears in legal documents under her maiden name, Laila Haddad — is a Christian Palestinian-American from Southern California who married dentist and Christian missionary Joel Mickelwait in 2007. The Mickelwaits became involved in evangelical trips to third-world countries and disaster zones (like Haiti) where Joel offered free dentistry services to the locals, bundled with evangelical indoctrination.

At some point, though, Laila Mickelwait changed her focus of interest from these missionary trips to “modern day slavery” (aka, any kind of sex work, including consenting adults who choose to appear in adult videos) and began campaigning in earnest against online pornography, becoming involved with Benjamin Nolot and his Exodus Cry operation.

Like Nolot, Mickelwait has implied that pornography is part of a “globalist” conspiracy, and in a 2019 tweet claimed that efforts against her campaign targeting Pornhub, were bankrolled by financier (and boogeyman of internet conspiracy theorists) George Soros.

Although her formal education or training on issues of sex work is at best dubious, Mickelwait is now quoted by mainstream journalists as an expert on the subject, without any disclosure of the religious origins of her ministry, or her avowed mission to shut down online pornography.

Over the last year, Mickelwait has focused her efforts on Traffickinghub, Exodus Cry’s social-media-optimized campaign that directly targeted Pornhub over content moderation issues that are common to all online platforms, mainstream and adult.

Mickelwait has been conducting her campaign on a scorched-earth basis, and every one of her positions and talking points were adopted by New York Times writer Nicholas Kristof for his December 4 piece “The Children of Pornhub.”

The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof

Kristof’s article, which has become the focal point of the New War on Porn, praised “an organization called Traffickinghub, led by an activist named Laila Mickelwait” for documenting “abuses and calls for the site to be shut down,” without mentioning the religious background.

Mickelwait and Exodus Cry, in turn, boasted on Twitter of having been the source and origin of Kristof’s piece, which was cited days later by Senators Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) as the inspiration behind their proposed “Stop Internet Sexual Exploitation Act” (SISEA) bill.

As mainstream media uncritically embraced Traffickinghub, Exodus Cry has now become the most visible of the three newer, 21st Century anti-porn entities, taking the place — and the lucrative access to funding by evangelical and socially conservative donors — of Fight the New Drug.

Fight the New Drug bills itself “a non-religious and non-legislative organization that exists to provide individuals the opportunity to make an informed decision regarding pornography by raising awareness on its harmful effects using only science, facts and personal accounts.”

This mission statement is the very first thing one finds on their website, which also features pictures of happy youths peddling their signature “Porn Kills Love” T-shirts. It appears Fight the New Drug doth protest too much — far from being “non-religious,” it acts in tandem with a network of Utah-based organizations and campaigns connected to the Mormon Church. The “Porn Kills Love” campaign is a staple of Utah high schools and colleges, where the state’s peculiar comingling of politics, family life and church membership makes for lines that go from blurred to non-existent.

Fight the New Drug was founded by young Mormon marketing experts, and the overall look of the website, the imagery and the lingo all point to a “How Do You Do Fellow Kids” ethos.

The organization routinely cross-platforms the messaging of the other War on Porn heavy-hitters. Groups and activists featured on their site have included those in the “porn is slavery” camp (Exodus Cry), public speakers preaching the outdated message that all pornography is by definition “anti-feminist” (especially, UK-based Sex-Worker- and Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists, aka SWERFs and TERFs), anyone who believes that viewing porn is very much like ingesting a drug that leads to addiction.

Fight the New Drug was an active campaigner for the main flavor of the War on Porn between 2016 and 2020: the absurd claim that pornography consumption constitutes a public health crisis — on the level of, say, a global pandemic — which was initially developed by NCOSE and placed, in copycat versions, in front of over 15 state legislatures with varying degrees of success.

The campaign started in Utah in 2016, where Governor Gary Herbert first signed a model resolution that was then replicated by NCOSE lobbyists, word-by-scientifically-dodgy-word in other states, via a network of evangelical and Catholic state legislators.

From that initial resolution until March 2020, between 17-19 U.S. states (depending how one counts them) wasted valuable legislative time discussing the “porn is a public health crisis” bills, with several states being ordered to earmark precious public health funds to bankroll “education programs” about this invented crisis.

These funds would presumably end up in the hands of NCOSE, Exodus Cry and similar organizations connecting doctors, hospitals and public health bureaucrats with a network of “scientists” and “educators” willing to create PowerPoint presentations about the supposed harms of porn watching.

This charade ended, logically, around March 2020, when the world had to face a very real and pressing public health crisis.

A remarkable silence followed from the War on Porn groups and their politician mouthpieces spearheading these efforts to inoculate the general populace from certain impending “Fappageddon,” which until the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic had been foregrounded by them as a pressing matter.

The last group that plays a big role in the New War on Porn is a peculiar outfit known as Your Brain on Porn (YBOP), an offshoot of a 2015 book by best-selling nonfiction author Gary Wilson, who runs a website of the same name.

Wilson’s book has been an unbeatable Amazon bestseller in the “Pornography Studies” category since publication and has spawned an entire cottage industry of audio-books, an animated series, a revised 2018 edition and other lucrative spinoffs.

The money has gone to bankroll Wilson’s activism as the leading proponent of an allegedly scientific approach to the study of the supposed effects on the human brain of watching images of people having sex.

Wilson is also adamant about defending himself and his work against scientists who study sexuality and have questioned Wilson’s research, methods and conclusions. Controversy has followed Wilson from his earliest brush with online fame as an anti-porn crusader who has based his ideas on what he describes as “neuroscientific claims.”

The public first heard of Wilson from what some journalists have lazily referred to as “a TED Talk” he gave in Glasgow in 2012 titled “The Great Porn Experiment.” The presentation was actually a TEDx Talk, a satellite project loosely attached to the far more rigorously vetted TED Talks brand of educational and inspirational videos.

Wilson’s presentation on brain chemistry has been persuasively questioned by experts to the extent that the YouTube video of his talk carries the following disclaimer by the organizers: “Note from TED: This talk contains several assertions that are not supported by academically respected studies in medicine and psychology. While some viewers might find advice provided in this talk to be helpful, please do not look to this talk for medical advice.”

As of late 2020, the video of Wilson’s talk — for which TED has disabled commenting — has generated over 13 million views.

The popularity of Wilson’s notions has grown over the years thanks to the emergence of the grassroots #NoFap movement, a Reddit-based phenomenon where people (largely cis men) encourage each other on the shared goal of avoiding all ejaculation, particularly solitary masturbation, specifically while watching porn.

A subproduct of the pack-mentality subcultures of online masculinist subreddits, #NoFap peddles the notion that retaining all the semen produced by the prostate gland and the seminal vesicles has a magical effect on enhanced focus, partner-attraction or “mojo.”

This has been widely debunked by study after study. On the contrary, it increases irritability, either physically or psychologically.

The male superstition that semen retention is related to magical masculine powers has a long history, including the Victorian belief in “sexual hygiene,” medieval “humors” theory and other discredited notions.

Gary Wilson’s “Your Brain on Porn” and the Mormon-led Fight the New Drug are ideal bed-fellows for #NoFappers, and it’s not surprising that Wilson’s TEDx Talk and his grassroot multimedia enterprises continue to thrive among this online subculture.

Enter the Mouthpieces

The anti-porn zeal of NCOSE, Exodus Cry, Fight the New Drug and Your Brain on Porn is something to be expected in a society that, at least outside the privacy of their homes, still professes substantial religiosity around sexual topics.

Since 1962, religious moralists have been actively agitating for a non-facts-based approach to sex-related communication and education. Over the years, they have again and again challenged any development that would lead to a better understanding of human sexuality: from landmark studies like the Kinsey report and the research of Masters & Johnson, to the development of the adult entertainment industry in the sexually liberated 1970s, to the videos people started enjoying in the privacy of their own home with the Betamax and VHS revolution, to the emergence of the online adult entertainment industry and the increasing visibility of sex worker and LGBTQ+ issues.

Morality in Media has tried to meddle in the debate about freedom of speech in works of art ever since Father Morton Hill entrapped a bookseller by sending a teenage girl to buy a copy of “Fanny Hill.” They were behind the campaign to shame cultural institutions into not showing the groundbreaking photography of Robert Mapplethorpe by calling his explorations of eroticism “obscene” in an attempt to shut down state funding for the arts in the U.S.

(It didn’t help that Mapplethorpe was a gay artist, as there is a notorious correlation between religiously inspired anti-porn groups and anti-LGBTQ campaigns and legislation.)

As long as there are people freely exercising their right to sexual expression, there will be people attempting to challenge that right. But the balance between these positions can be easily tipped.

If the mainstream press decides to “two-side” an issue by creating a false equivalence between meritless and substantiated claims, or even “one-side” it by ignoring voices of sex workers, the media can become unwitting — or witting? — allies of the forces calling for censorship of sexual expression.

The December 4, 2020 New York Times article by Nicholas Kristof is a particularly egregious example of this tipping of the balance.

The opinion piece “New York Times Fights Pornhub With Emotional Pornography,” penned by this writer and published on XBIZ the same day as a response to Kristof, contains a detailed explanation of how he manipulated his editorial to platform the fringe ideas of Exodus Cry and NCOSE into something politicians, judges and financial institutions could leverage to effectively cripple Pornhub.

Kristof’s “The Children of Pornhub” is a sensationalistic call for state censorship and financial strangulation of the MindGeek site, packaged around gut-punching testimonials from young victims of sexual exploitation.

Kristof’s editorial, when read carefully, actually includes several facts about moderation issues plaguing all platforms that rely on third-party content, including YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and — yes — Pornhub.

But instead of writing an unbiased report about this internet-wide issue, Kristof and his editors turned the article into a manipulative attempt to insert themselves into the complex debates around Section 230 — the so-called First Amendment of the internet — as well as free speech online and sexual expression among consenting adults, including pornography.

“The Children of Pornhub” is deliberately crafted to be exploitative, an adjective that has followed Kristof throughout his career, be it as a foreign crisis reporter or as a self-appointed savior and one-man philanthropy crusade. From the testimonials, to the absolutely misguided photo essay taking advantage of a homeless teen to drive home a point and affect policy, Kristof’s article seeks to compel the New York Times’ influential readership to clamor for government intervention and corporate punishment.

Immediately after publication, Kristof tweeted the victim’s photo at public officials in the U.S. and Canada to manipulate them into doing something about Pornhub.

The choice of the teen’s photo was not casual: Kristof has gone on record about the power of images beyond his writing and, in a choice many would find revolting, he callously personalized a complex tech and free speech issue with the inarguable power of personal testimony and visceral imagery.

This is a go-to tactic for Kristof. Readers of his opinion pieces know that he has never found a victim of a sexual crime that he cannot “humanize” by going through their ordeal in exploitative detail. Two years ago, he harangued Instagram and Facebook for challenging a topless photo of a starving 12-year-old Yemeni girl that he insisted was essential to compel U.S. intervention in a foreign war.

Kristof’s centerpiece testimony is that of a 19-year-old homeless woman from the Bay Area who, by the writer’s own account, was clearly in a precarious position in her life, both economically and emotionally, at the time he interviewed her. The woman is identified by name, and her likeness has been carefully selected and staged by Kristof to turn her into a poster person for his expansive notion of human trafficking on a medium — the so-called “paper of record” — which will long outlive any tube site.

Crucial to the article’s attempt to bypass reason through a time-tested appeal to emotion is a questionable photo essay commissioned by his editors. The top image — which then became the avatar of the tweets that Kristof and Exodus Cry persistently pushed to politicians and corporate accounts — is that at-risk woman, still in her teens, in a skintight shirt. They are, in fact, essentially deploying the same “barely legal” approach that the article ostensibly condemns.

Six days after Kristof’s piece and his relentless online tubthumping, Visa, Mastercard and Discover announced they had frozen payment processing for Pornhub.

A week after that, Senators Sasse and Merkley introduced their “Stop Internet Sexual Exploitation Act” (SISEA) bill, seeking to create a new category of “pornographic website” for the state to police.

The fringe Exodus Cry and NCOSE notions, much like Operation Yorkville’s 1963 call for book censorship, had now been transported to the floor of the Senate, courtesy of the New York Times and Kristof.

One would think that the New War on Porn would find its most effective media mouthpieces in the right-wing media — especially the many properties controlled by Rupert Murdoch, from the expectedly pornsploitative U.K. tabloids to the Wall Street Journal and Fox News — but that’s not the case.

In fact, the rebranded NCOSE and Exodus Cry make much more frequent use of supposedly liberal platforms like the New York Times and The Guardian.

As an XBIZ report detailed in March 2020, The Guardian has been engaged in the little-noticed practice of publishing distinctly anti-sex-work content that is not generated by their editorial team, but is funded funded by a shadowy American non-profit with a “social change” agenda.

The Guardian’s sponsored content (only noticeable if you catch the disclosure in the small print) regularly platforms people who conflate all sex work with “human trafficking” and claim that all pornography is a form of abuse.

The paper, based in London and New York and billing itself as “the world’s leading liberal voice,” presents these articles like the rest of The Guardian’s online content, with the same font, design, artwork, layout and out-links to other stories produced by the news source of choice for liberals in the English-speaking world and around the globe.

But far from embracing liberal views such as freedom of speech, these sponsored articles call for online censorship, quoting Members of Parliament that proclaim that “we have to get control over [the porn] industry.” They also offer a platform to the likes of Laila Mickelwait to conflate consensual and non-consensual adult content.

This messaging often seeps into the proper, non-sponsored Guardian articles. Even a theater review for the paper made the following statement in passing: the “variety of sexual experience available online has produced an insatiable demand. Next comes addiction and sexual dysfunction.”

“You could call it a secret pandemic,” added the reviewer.

Almost all of The Guardian’s War on Porn articles, once one notices the small print, are revealed to be part of something called the “Exploitation in Focus” series, produced “under the sponsorship of Humanity United.” The small print describes Humanity United as a “U.S.-based foundation dedicated to bringing new approaches to global problems that have long been considered intractable.” According to the same disclaimer, Humanity United’s content “is editorially independent and covers modern-day slavery.”

By categorizing legal, consensual pornography in their “modern-day slavery” section, however, The Guardian conflates legitimate adult entertainment content with “human trafficking.”

The end result diverts the attention of readers who rely on The Guardian as a go-to news source (including a large part of the U.S. Democratic Party and U.K. Labour Party establishments and donor base) away from labor-related human trafficking (e.g., migrant workers, the agricultural industry, the garment and restaurant industries) and towards sensationalized headlines about “sex trafficking.”

And this is all done by The Guardian under the auspices (and funding) of two publicity-averse nonprofits with vague names and missions, Humanity United and its parent organization the Omidyar Group, which describe themselves as “a diverse collection of organizations, each guided by its own approach, but united by a common desire to catalyze social impact.”

The Omidyar Group is the philanthropic arm of billionaires Pierre and Pam Omidyar. Pierre, who founded eBay and wrote the proprietary code that underlies it, has himself been embroiled in a human trafficking scandal in Hawaii, over the treatment and transportation of Asian laborers.

The Guardian’s reporting on sex work and adult entertainment is therefore not reporting at all, but a forum to platform just about anyone who happens to agree with the preconceived notions of the Omidyar Group — including Mickelwait, discredited SWERF crusader Gail Dines, and Julie Bindel, NCOSE’s favorite anti-decriminalization of sex work advocate.

The Omidyars are not the only ones funding “social change” content for outlets that should have a pretty clear-cut separation between reporting and opinion editorial when it comes to sex work and the adult industry.

Much reporting on those topics that local papers generally credit to “Reuters” is, on closer notice, actually produced by a side-organization called the Thomson Reuters Foundation, a non-profit news gathering initiative with, again, a declared socio-political agenda. Thomson Reuters content is often indistinguishable from content produced by Reuters proper.

Although the Thomas Reuters Foundation’s journalists claim to “cover the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly,” their articles, like those of the Omidyar-funded NGOs, stigmatize sex workers and often conflate the legal adult industry with totally unrelated issues of human trafficking.

And Then There’s Section 230

Up until Kristof’s article, the main attempts to effect state censorship over adult material were part of a broader political attack on Section 230, the so-called “First Amendment of the internet.”

Content moderation is an internet-wide issue

“REPEAL SECTION 230” Donald Trump tweeted repeatedly in all-caps during the 2020 election campaign and its messy aftermath, to all of his Twitter followers, who may or may not keep up with the complicated technical and legal minutiae of platform moderation and third-party content liability.

By October, as an unprecedentedly chaotic and fractious presidential campaign headed into its final stretch, a flurry of new proposals by members of both major parties targeting Section 230 joined a crowded debate about the controversial legislation.

An onslaught of proposals identified by unpronounceable acronyms have added fuel to a general consensus that something needs to be done about the provision in the federal telecommunications act — added in 1996 as part of the Communications Decency Act.

The Section 230 issue could be seen as bipartisan — in that people of both parties (including both presidential candidates) support Section 230 repeal or reform — but it is also true that Republicans and Democrats want it gone or changed for very different, sometimes opposite, reasons.

What they all agree on is that they want to suspend, limit or abolish longstanding liability protections for internet platforms and services.

The main drive to get Section 230 repealed before the end of 2020 has come from Trump himself, irked by an ongoing feud with several social media platforms over labels attached to his tweets and those of his supporters. Other GOP voices supporting his effort have included (now former) Attorney General William Barr’s Department of Justice, Congressional GOP leaders like Lindsey Graham and Ted Cruz, and ambitious leadership hopefuls like Ben Sasse and Josh Hawley.

The Section 230 reform proposals are all different, and all of them prioritize the specific interests of their sponsors, from Graham’s insistence on creating a new government bureaucracy to make decisions about what deserves protection from liability and what does not, to the folksy cluelessness of Senator John Kennedy’s bizarre obsession with social media mind control and behavior manipulation. The more nuanced, bipartisan PACT Act is considered by many observers the adults-in-the-room option among this colorful carnival of election-year legislative ingenuity.

On December 10, after presiding over what Section 230 experts called a “largely performative debate,” Graham withdrew one of his bills – the Online Content Policy Modernization Act – from consideration and said he had achieved his goal, which was merely to have a debate on reforming or repealing the legislation.

Graham’s abandoned bill had explicitly sought to undermine the First Amendment based on a new notion of “objectively reasonable belief,” carving out “material that the provider or user has an objectively reasonable belief is obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing or promoting self-harm, promoting terrorism or unlawful, whether or not such material is constitutionally protected.”

But that was not the only attempt by Graham to reform or revoke Section 230 protection. A previous Graham sponsored bill, the EARN IT Act, also aimed at Section 230, is also making its way through the Senate, as are a few other proposals that Graham has praised.

In an email replying to questions from a member of the public about his support for these bills, and for Sasse and Merkley’s SISEA, Graham spelled out that his ultimate goal was state censorship of adult content.

“I have concerns about our children’s ability to access pornographic material through the internet and email,” he wrote. “While I whole-heartedly support the First Amendment, I do not believe exposing young people to pornography is an acceptable exercise of freedom of speech. I appreciate your support on this issue, and I will continue to work with my colleagues in Congress to limit society’s exposure to inappropriate material.”

In one short paragraph, Graham transitions from “children’s ability to access pornographic material” to “exposing young people to pornography” to “limit society’s exposure to inappropriate material.”

This rhetorical slippage — going from something few people disagree with (limiting children’s access to adult content) to something most people condemn (establishing state censorship of free sexual expression) in the span of only a few words— is consistent with the demands of all the religiously motivated War on Porn groups.

While Trump issued a confusingly worded Executive Order in May mandating that federal agencies under the executive branch find ways to challenge Section 230 protections, according to the U.S. Constitution only Congress has the power to alter or repeal them.

An incoming Biden administration might not reverse course regarding Section 230. The day before Kristof’s New York Times editorial targeting Pornhub, the closest advisor on tech matters to presumptive President-elect Joe Biden, Bruce Reed, doubled down on weakening Section 230 protections, saying that “it’s long past time to hold the social media companies accountable for what’s published on their platforms.”

FOSTA-SESTA, which received overwhelming bipartisan support and continues to be counted by the Vice President-elect among her achievements, was actually a Section 230 revision, canceling liability protections for platforms whenever the state alleges instances of “human trafficking.” FOSTA-SESTA is now being invoked by religious and political leaders as a blueprint for going after Pornhub.

Any legislation targeting the liability of what Senators Sasse and Merkley called “pornographic websites” would necessarily intersect with the ongoing campaign to revise or repeal Section 230.

Last Stop: The Politicians

Once the messaging of War on Porn activists is whitewashed by journalists like Kristof and one-step-removed from their agenda-driven groups and foundations, these ideas get much closer to being made into law, or considered by the judges whose job is to interpret those laws.

These fundamental allies in the New War on Porn come in two forms. One is expected: U.S. congresspeople and state legislators who are playing to their religious base, regardless of whether they share their motives or convictions. These tend to be Republican and describe themselves as conservative.

The other is less intuitive: War on Porn messaging is now commonly spouted by fellow travelers from the other side of the aisle who lend bipartisan support to these measures. These tend to be Democrats who describe themselves as liberal or even progressive on most social issues, yet routinely make an exception when it comes to sex worker rights and free sexual expression.

This SWEL (Sex Worker Exclusionary Liberal) position is also now widespread among the intelligentsia and the commentariat adjacent to the corridors of power.

Nicholas Kristof, for example, considers himself a liberal. He also professes to be “a Christian, for I admire Jesus’ teachings, but I doubt the virgin birth, Resurrection and other miracles.” He makes much in his press material about being “an Oregon farm boy,” even though he attended Harvard, was a Rhodes scholar and has lived in New York for decades.

Immediately after publishing “The Children of Pornhub,” the Oregon farm boy tweeted at his home state legislator, Senator Jeff Merkley, who extravagantly praised the article. A few days later, Merkley partnered up with Nebraska Republican Senator Ben Sasse, with whom the liberal Oregonian does not seem to agree on much regarding social policy, to introduce the SISEA bill that calls for state intervention in online adult content.

End result: Kristof convinced a Northwestern liberal politician to make common cause with a conservative with a religious base to push an agenda essentially drafted by evangelical Midwesterners of Exodus Cry/IHOP.

A similar thing happened during 2016-2018 surrounding the passage of “anti-trafficking” bill FOSTA-SESTA, which the public imagination links almost exclusively to Vice President-elect Kamala Harris due to her outspoken support for the bill, which she framed in the context of her prosecution of adult classifieds website Backpage.com.

But Harris did not originate the legislation — she made herself into the public face of a proposal that conflated all sex work with human trafficking, which had originated with religious Midwesterner politicians and organizations.

FOSTA, the shortened acronym for Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, was a bill first introduced by far-right-of-center congresswoman and prominent anti-choice activist Ann Wagner (R-Mo.). By the time it was signed into law by President Donald Trump in April 2018, largely thanks to Harris’ efforts to make it into a bipartisan crusade, it had received overwhelming support from members of congress from both parties in the House and the Senate.

Since 2016, when Harris rode the Backpage.com case into national politics, eventually landing on Joe Biden’s presidential ticket, she has been repeating the same story about Backpage.

She has never stopped justifying the shuttering of the classifieds site, which was useful to many sex workers for safely screening clients, and even to law enforcement for monitoring actual pimping and trafficking.

Harris regularly refers to Backpage as “an online brothel,” implying without any evidence that the “sale of children” was part of its business model. The government, however, eventually cited only 50 ads and six specific instances of “facilitating the prostitution of a minor” among the staggering volume of ads posted on Backpage by third-party sex providers over a period of several years. A clear-cut faulty moderation issue was rhetorically transformed by Harris into a core part of a supposed business model.

Throughout the case, Harris teamed up with socially conservative Republicans, who were at the same time trying to push for restrictive legislation to police the internet, under a “fighting human trafficking” agenda.

If this sounds familiar, it is because it is exactly the blueprint for the current campaign to shut down Pornhub: claiming that their moderation issues are different from those of non-adult platforms, and that, in the preferred word of Kristof and Traffickinghub, they “monetize” illegal content as a core part of their business model.

This has been an Exodus Cry talking point throughout, and “monetize” is what Kristof purposedly repeated amidst his signature ghastly description of sexual abuse and calls for censorship and financial boycott.

Incidentally, in 2006, Kristof was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for opinion writing and the committee singled out a column he called “A Policy of Rape,” where he used the same strategy — visceral description of criminal incidents to cause a deeply emotional reaction in order to justify U.S. military intervention in Darfur.

Kristof was also one of the main voices selling the Christian conservative campaign against Backpage.com, and all sex work, to his liberal readers and politician contacts.

Operation Choke Point 2.0

Religious anti-porn organizations like NCOSE and Exodus Cry have always encouraged a two-pronged approach to shutting down online porn: either by using the power of the state, or else by financial asphyxiation.

In fact, the Obama Administration was responsible for a particularly harmful version of the latter, when the Department of Justice under Eric Holder implemented “Operation Choke Point” between 2013 and 2017.

The initiative focused on investigating payment processing for a number of online and offline categories variously declared by the Justice Department as being “high-risk” for money laundering.

Another goal of the New War on Porn: Financial Strangulation

Operation Choke Point listed a hodgepodge of categories including ammunition sales, cable box descramblers, dating services, drug paraphernalia, escort services, fireworks sales, home-based charities, money transfer networks, online gambling, racist materials, telemarketing and tobacco sales.

It also included “Pornography” among these “high-risk” businesses, which once again — like the SISEA proposal — made politicians and bureaucrats the potential arbiters of what should and shouldn’t be considered pornographic.

Fast forward to 2020, and Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times article has acted as megaphone for NCOSE’s longstanding demand that financial companies cut off services to adult websites.

“More pressure and less impunity would help,” Kristof wrote. “We’re already seeing that limiting Section 230 immunity leads to better self-policing,” he added, in a veiled reference to the role of his columns in pushing for FOSTA-SESTA, which sex workers have almost universally condemned as harmful to their lives.

“And call me a prude,” Kristof added, “but I don’t see why search engines, banks or credit card companies should bolster a company that monetizes sexual assaults on children or unconscious women. If PayPal can suspend cooperation with Pornhub, so can American Express, Mastercard and Visa.”

Immediately after his article was published, Kristof began tweeting at Visa and Mastercard to cut off ties with Pornhub, which was followed by both credit card companies releasing statements of acquiescence.

“Our investigation over the past several days has confirmed violations of our standards prohibiting unlawful content on their site,” Mastercard said in the statement. “We instructed the financial institutions that connect the site to our network to terminate acceptance.”

“Given the allegations of illegal activity,” their main competitor announced, “Visa is suspending Pornhub’s acceptance privileges pending the completion of our ongoing investigation. We are instructing the financial institutions who serve MindGeek to suspend processing of payments through the Visa network.”

The move came a day after Pornhub, also in reaction to Kristof’s editorial, had announced they had instituted new policies and ended unverified third-party uploads and video downloads.

Pornhub described in a statement the Visa and Mastercard suspension of service as “exceptionally disappointing, as they come just two days after Pornhub instituted the most far-reaching safeguards in user-generated platform history.”

“Unverified users are now banned from uploading content,” Pornhub continued, describing it as “a policy no other platform has put in place, including Facebook, which reported 84 million instances of child sexual abuse material over the last three years. In comparison, the Internet Watch Foundation reported 118 incidents on Pornhub over the last three years.”

MindGeek also pointed out that Kristof’s campaign actually mostly affected the sex workers who used its content monetization platform Modelhub.

“This news is crushing for the hundreds of thousands of models who rely on our platform for their livelihoods,” Pornhub wrote, stressing their commitment to “eliminating illegal content and ridding the internet of child sexual abuse material.”

On December 23, a Reuters reporter in India wrote that he had been told by Visa that they had “allowed usage of its cards on MindGeek’s platforms that host professionally generated content,” although it continues the suspension of card use on Pornhub “until pending investigations are complete.”

NCOSE immediately shot back, underscoring that for them the New War on Porn is an all-or-nothing proposition — nothing but total destruction of all sexual content, particularly material involving consenting adults, would quench their thirst for moral supremacy.

“The dark truth of Visa’s rosy announcement is that the company prioritizes profits from incest, racist, violent and teen-themed pornography, the most common themes in professionally-produced hardcore pornography,” NCOSE’s Senior VP Dawn Hawkins wrote, once again moving the goalposts.

“The majority of content produced by ‘mainstream’ pornography producers is illegal under federal obscenity law” she added, making her beliefs about total criminalization of the adult industry crystal clear.

“If Big Porn doesn’t want their finances touched[,] maybe they should stop knowingly trafficking women and children to increase revenue,” tweeted Laila Mickelwait, referring to Pornhub as “the mega pimp perpetrator.”

On December 29, Mickelwait demanded “to see the executives of Pornhub in orange jumpsuits and shackles.”

The Traffickinghub campaign mastermind has also now taken full credit for Kristof’s article and the Sasse/Merkley bill. Mickelwait gloated that the requirements imposed by the bill were the core demands “from Day One” of her initiative.

As we usher in the new year, the crusade that started in 1963 with Operation Yorkville’s campaign to stamp out “Fanny Hill” — one of the first works of social realism trying to give a voice to the realities of sex work — is feeling triumphant.

The adult industry has witnessed similar times in the past — the anti-porn forces felt particularly optimistic about their odds during the mid-1980s and the Meese Commission, during the passage of the Communications Decency Act a decade later, and during Attorney General John Ashcroft’s tenure in the early 2000s.

But today, what is different is that there are many within and outside of adult who are ready to fight for Free Speech and freedom of sexual expression, joined by those who stand for digital rights, LGBTQ+ rights and sex worker rights, among others.

The stakes are high: this is the decades-old fight for the right to communicate openly about sex and celebrate and normalize sexuality.