On Tuesday, December 15th, 40 women identified as “Jane Doe” filed a lawsuit against Mindgeek, porn site giant Pornhub’s parent company, for allegedly knowingly profiting from images and videos of their sex trafficking nightmares and failing to properly moderate Mindgeek-owned sites for the abusive videos. The suit, which was filed in the Southern District of California, seeks punitive and compensatory damages of more than $80 million.
In total, the lawsuit is demanding more than $40 million in damages—at least $1 million per plaintiff—as well as the money Mindgeek earned from hosting and promoting their videos and legal fees, Vice reports.
These women were reportedly trafficked by the amateur porn production company, “GirlsDoPorn,” many of whom were outright tricked, forced, and coerced into shooting sex on tape and then lied to about where the footage would end up. Shortly after being filmed, in each of these women’s cases, the footage ended up on major porn sites accompanied by their real names and personal information. In many cases, these videos ended up on Pornhub.
“As a proximate result of MindGeek’s knowing financial benefit and participation in GirlsDoPorn’s sex trafficking venture, Plaintiffs have suffered damages, including, but not limited to, severe emotional distress, significant trauma, attempted suicide, and social and familial ostracization,” the complaint states. “Further, MindGeek has received ill-gotten gains by selling, marketing and exploiting videos featuring the Plaintiffs’ likenesses.”
This lawsuit builds off of a lawsuit that went to trial last year on behalf of 22 Jane Does against GirlsDoPorn. It is unclear whether all or some of these 22 Jane Does have joined this newest lawsuit against Mindgeek.
It’s worth noting that Ruben Andre Garcia, 31, the male performer in GirlsDoPorn videos, changed his plea in early December from not guilty to guilty of “conspiracy to commit sex trafficking” and “sex trafficking by force, fraud, and coercion.”
Wait, what is “GirlsDoPorn,” again?
If you haven’t heard of the “GirlsDoPorn” case before or need a refresher, let’s back up and fill you in.
A few years ago, in 2015 and earlier, hundreds of women were allegedly lured to San Diego for what many of them didn’t know were actually film shoots for GirlsDoPorn. They were fed alcohol and drugs, coerced into signing dense contracts with incomprehensible legal jargon, and pushed into performing sex on camera—for 7 painful hours, in some cases.
A short time later, that footage was posted on GirlsDoPorn’s website and uploaded to other popular free porn tube sites, including Pornhub, despite the promise that the footage would only be distributed via DVDs on the other side of the world. Many of the women said viewers found and published their full names online, resulting in severe harassment and suicidal thoughts, for some of them.
Read our exclusive interview with one Jane Doe who told us exactly what happened and how it has affected her for years.
Starting in 2016, nearly two dozen of the sexually exploited women took a risk and banded together to sue the GirlsDoPorn site owners, Michael Pratt, 36, and Matthew Wolfe, 37, as well as actor and recruiter Andre Garcia. After a years-long legal battle, a California judge in January 2020 not only ordered GirlsDoPorn to pay the 22 women $12.7 million in damages, but took a rare and unprecedented step: he granted them ownership rights to the content.
“It’s an extraordinarily unique and incredibly valuable decision,” Ben Bull, vice president and general counsel at the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, told BuzzFeed News at the time of the January 2020 decision. “It will blaze a trail for other law firms and victims to come behind them and essentially do the same thing.”
Here’s what San Diego Superior Court Judge Kevin Enright wrote in his decision:
“Defendants’ tactics have caused the videos to become common knowledge in plaintiffs’ communities and among their relations and peers—the very thing that plaintiffs feared and that defendants expressly assured them would not happen. As a result, plaintiffs have suffered and continue to suffer far-reaching and often tragic consequences.”
Enright also called the operation a “fraudulent scheme” that targeted young women who “are mostly students with careers ahead of them who have only even considered Defendants’ solicitations to film a pornographic video due to some immediate and pressing financial need.”
He ordered GirlsDoPorn’s founder Pratt, his business partner Wolfe, and porn actor Garcia to hand over all images, videos, likenesses, and copyrights and to take “active steps” to remove them from circulation. Even still, porn consumers all over the internet who had the videos downloaded have continually uploaded and re-uploaded these GirlsDoPorn images and videos to multiple different porn sites over the last few years, even after the decision was handed down in January 2020.
Hopefully Pornhub’s recent decision to stop users from being able to download videos on the site and prohibit the upload of videos from unverified users will help to stop the spread of the GirlsDoPorn videos, though the videos have been shared to other porn tube sites.
Site owner still at large and criminally charged with sex trafficking
Buzzfeed News reports that the men behind GirlsDoPorn still face federal charges of sex trafficking and producing child porn, since some of the exploited individuals were 17 at the time of filming. Wolfe and Garcia are in custody. Pratt fled the US and is now a fugitive, likely in his home country of New Zealand, and a $10,000 reward is being offered by the FBI for tips that lead to his capture.
Attorneys for the men could not immediately be reached, but in a statement to Courthouse News Service, they said their clients “are focused on defending themselves against the criminal charges.”
“The government’s burden of proof in the criminal case is ‘beyond a reasonable doubt,’ which is a much higher standard than in this civil lawsuit where the burden of proof is a mere preponderance of the evidence,” the attorneys added. “The findings of fact in the civil case do not carry over to the criminal case where the government will have to prove the facts under a much more stringent standard.”
“It’s vindication for the brave women who came forward after being manipulated and lied to by GirlsDoPorn,” Ed Chapin, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, told BuzzFeed News. “They were young and inexperienced, and their lives were changed because they were sucked in by this disgusting, fraudulent scheme.”
A genre of entitlement
Of course, not every porn company tricks, forces, or coerces performers to have sex on camera. Even so, unfortunately, it happens way too often—we’ve heard too many stories of the porn industry’s sketchy dealings, and this GirlsDoPorn story is just one more added to the list.
Courtney Trouble, a performer, had this to say about working in porn:
“As a vice industry, [porn] can attract people who just want to be part of the fantasy lifestyle of partying and sex. Stigma against porn…is what makes men like this think they can get away with exploiting struggling women or established professionals.”
But even if the stigma against porn and its performers didn’t exist, there would still be sex trafficking and exploitation.
In the case of GirlsDoPorn, the company’s scheme is not only harmful to many women but it also feeds an entitled porn fantasy of young women who normally would never be in a porn film resorting to performing to pay for student loans but need some convincing (read: coercion) to play along.
In writing about this case, Samantha Cole described the genre as “a fantasy that plays on coercion, and a real-life version of the ‘casting couch’ porn trope, which blurs the line between reality and fiction”—and sex trafficking, we may add.
There is little or no thought of how a young woman feels in that situation—and worse, to consumers, it is more exciting because of how tricked, betrayed, and violated she feels afterward. It remains to be seen whether Mindgeek will be held responsible for all of the damage their business practices has inflicted on these exploited women.