Courtroom Events Mark a Promising Week for Survivors of Sex Trafficking and Non-Consensual Videos/Images Posted on Web
The week that culminated with World Day Against Trafficking in Persons began with two legal wins—one win in a civil case against Visa and a second win in a criminal trial against GirlsDoPorn website operators—both signal accountability for sex trafficking claims, including claims based on non-consensual videos on the internet.
World Day Against Trafficking in Persons
On Saturday, July 30, the world paused for freedom. Nearly ten years ago, in 2013, the United Nations adopted a resolution designating July 30 as World Day Against Trafficking in Persons. The UN declaration included a statement that it was “necessary to raise awareness” and “promote the protection and rights of victims.” Fittingly, the legal wins this week show a marked improvement since 2013—with a criminal trial that protects and prevents further victims and a civil case that shows how far survivors can go when they exercise their rights.
Federal Judge Ruled it Was Reasonable to Conclude That Visa Facilitated Criminal Activity
On Friday, July 29, Visa suffered a major setback as a defendant in a case (Fleites v. MindGeek) where the company is allegedly liable for Pornhub’s distribution of child pornography. U.S. District Judge Cormac Carney of the U.S. District Court of the Central District of California denied Visa’s motion to dismiss the claim that by processing payments for child porn, the company had violated California’s Unfair Competition Law.
“Across the board, we are slowly lifting the veil of impunity,” said Carissa Phelps, attorney at Levin Papantonio Rafferty, a national law firm that is representing survivors of Human Trafficking, including those who suffered injuries as a result of Pornhub’s distribution of child sex abuse material (CSAM). “Courts and prosecutors are applying the law equally, finding that liability for sex trafficking and CSAM extends to third parties that support and benefit from these harmful acts,” Phelps said.
Phelps pointed out that for some businesses their role in sex trafficking may be more than a passive third-party beneficiary, adding that intending to take part or to support a trafficking venture for any reason may give rise to criminal liability.
“Profit,” Phelps said, “is one reason we see companies and individuals look the other way. The driver behind companies and individuals to exploit human beings or re-exploit videos and images is usually tied to one thing--money.”
Trafficking does not exist in a vacuum. Traffickers require other businesses for support, such as payment networks. It was in this vein that Judge Carney wrote the following words:
“When MindGeek decides to monetize child porn, and Visa decides to continue to allow its payment network to be used for that goal despite knowledge of MindGeek’s monetization of child porn, it is entirely foreseeable that victims of child porn like plaintiff will suffer the harms that plaintiff alleges.”
Prosecutors Charge GirlsDoPorn Operators on Basis of Lies, Fraud, and Coercion
Of equal significance for sex trafficking survivors, the recent criminal prosecution of adult website operators for GirlsDoPorn and GirlsDoToys offers a closer look at fraud and coercion in civil sex trafficking cases.
On July 26, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of California announced that adult website operator Matthew Isaac Wolfe had pleaded guilty to conspiring to fraudulently coerce young women to appear in sex videos on the GirlsDoPorn and GirlsDoToys websites. Specifically, Wolfe, the fourth defendant to plead guilty in connection with the case, pleaded guilty to Conspiracy to Commit Sex Trafficking by Force, Fraud and Coercion, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1594.
Phelps thinks these guilty pleas carry an important message for survivors of this and other sex trafficking cases who seek to recover damages from these types of websites.
“The coercion and fraud are what’s important for future civil and criminal cases,” Phelps said.
Understanding the Legal Term "Severe Form of Human Trafficking"
“The fact that they criminally prosecuted this case when they didn’t have women chained up and held in cages is important because it goes to show you could have chains on your mind that are forcing you to do things with your body. That’s the important part about this case,” Phelps said.
"Severe form of human trafficking" is the U.S. legal term used to describe the criminal offense of a commercial sex act being induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or when the victim is a minor. According to Phelps, evidence is readily available when there is physical force or the victims are minors, whereas fraud and coercion can be difficult to demonstrate, as the means are less visible, but often more corrupt.
Still, in the GirlsDoPorn and GirlsDoToys cases, Wolfe and the other defendants were prosecuted—for lies, fraud, and coercion.
“Criminal prosecutions for fraud and coercion are important to civil cases because they illustrate that chains on a victim’s mind can coerce them into sex acts. There are lies and threats that are creating reliance along with real fear. When this happens, victims are pressured to comply and will, unfortunately, suffer devastating consequences such as addictions, PTSD, further traumas, and even early death.” Phelps said.
Wolfe's Lies Tell a Story of Severe Human Trafficking
According to the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) press release, Wolfe filmed and uploaded videos, as well as oversaw the company’s financial books, and operated promotional aspects of the business. “Wolfe lied to and preyed on vulnerable young women, subjecting them to years of relentless harassment, fear, and mental anguish,” Stacey Moy, special agent in charge of the FBI San Diego Field Office, stated in the press release.
The company is accused of recruiting and targeting 18- to 20-year-old women with Craigslist advertisements seeking models, using fake websites and emails they advertised for clothed modeling jobs, but preyed upon multiple victims with the ads. Once the women showed up for their “modeling” jobs, they were lied to, told their videos would not be posted online or released in the U.S., and that nobody who knew the women would know about the videos. On the contrary, Wolfe knew the videos were exclusively marketed and distributed on the internet. He also knew that some women’s personal identifying information and social media accounts were posted on pornwikileaks.com, a site controlled by GirlsDoPorn owner Michael Pratt. As a result, these victims suffered severe harassment.
Where Liability Enters the Picture
Phelps explained that videos appearing on adult websites from production companies like GirlsDoPorn that are known to use threats, fraud, coercion, or fraudulent contracts written when people are lied to and/or intoxicated. “If companies profiting from the ventures and schemes knew or should have known that the videos were created using force, fraud or coercion, or the victims were minors, then they are liable to those victims and survivors who were harmed in the process,” Phelps said.
About the MindGeek-Pornhub Lawsuits
Phelps is part of a team at Levin Papantonio Rafferty and works alongside Emmie Paulos, Kathryn Avila, Kim Adams, Chris Tisi , and Hilary Wood. This group forms the firm’s Human Trafficking department, which is currently involved in civil litigation against MindGeek, the owner of Pornhub. The MindGeek-Pornhub lawsuits (Case 7:21-cv-00220-LSC) claim MindGeek and Pornhub benefit from sexually explicit images and videos of children posted to their websites. Often, these images and videos are later shared across additional platforms.
In February, an Alabama federal judge denied MindGeek’s Motion to Dismiss the complaint, which was brought on behalf of two sex trafficking survivors. Lawyers for the Plaintiffs are also seeking injunctive relief for the class members, which would implement measures to prevent the dissemination of CSAM and other harmful content on the website.
Levin Papantonio Rafferty Attorney Kim Adams stated in an LPR press release that she and co-counsel were “encouraged by the Court’s order.