'I will always be someone's porn': One woman's struggle to remove all traces of her videotaped sexual assault

Published April 3, 2021 9:00 a.m. ET

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WARNING: Some readers may find the content of this story disturbing.

TORONTO -- In August, Rachel, whose identity W5 is protecting, dug out an old hard drive from her Alberta home to back up her computer.

It was a hard drive that belonged to her ex-husband. When she opened it up, Rachel saw a folder she didn’t recognize. Rachel was about to open the darkest chapter of her life.

Inside the folder, Rachel found photographs of herself. Naked images. Sexual images. Some were photos that she had reluctantly allowed her husband to take and she had assumed were for his eyes only. Others were not photos of her at all, but pictures of someone else’s naked body. The photographs had been organized into folders, cropped and manipulated.

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She searched the internet for “How to do a reverse image search” and discovered something terrifying: the photos had been posted onto two different porn sites. She clicked on the username to see who had uploaded it. Rachel says a photo of her ex-husband appeared.

But the worst was yet to come.

Rachel searched for the username that her husband had used. It led to a video uploaded to the world’s biggest porn site, Pornhub. In that video, it shows her, in her own bed, obviously unconscious. She says her husband’s hands can be seen reaching in to move her, touch her and sexually assault her. The video titles include “while sleeping” and “sleeping pills.”

“I'm not even conscious. I don’t move,” she tells W5. “You can tell that there was no consent in the video.” Rachel looked at the date of the upload. It was from 2017. That means it had been online for three years before she discovered it. That also meant that when it was posted, Rachel was still married to her ex.

The next morning, Rachel called the RCMP. She says the Mounties told her not to attempt to remove the photos while they began their investigation. But for the next two weeks, she searched for the video’s title and was horrified by what she found. It seems that other people had downloaded the video and uploaded it to other porn sites. Rachel says when video views tallied 200,000, she stopped counting.

Pornhub is an internet titan. Every day, the site averages about 115-million visits. That’s more than Netflix or Amazon. Users can watch millions of videos for free. However, the site rakes in millions of dollars from advertising and selling premium memberships.

Pornhub’s parent company, MindGeek, is now the target of at least five lawsuits, including an international class-action suit in Canada, which has not yet been certified.

The suits allege that the company profited from non-consensual and child abuse content, even though it had a responsibility to ensure all its content was legal.

For Rachel, one of the worst parts was knowing it was her own husband who posted the video.

“I was just totally shocked that the person you should be able to trust most in the world would put these photos and images out there on these porn sites. It was such a violation.”

Days after Rachel told the RCMP about the video, it disappeared from Pornhub. Many other porn sites also removed the content over the next few months. However, when she searched for the name of the video on Google in January, it still returned 1,900 results.

It seems that although Pornhub had removed the video, it still kept thumbnails of the naked images. Because those thumbnails still existed, a Google search would find – and display - those naked images. She realized the only way to eliminate those was to get Pornhub to remove all traces of the thumbnail images.

That was no easy task.

She sent Pornhub a “content removal request,” with many more messages to follow that she’s shared with W5, demanding they remove all traces of the video.

“Can you scrub this video completely from all your sites please? I appreciate that it’s no longer playable, but still appears in several pages of Google results,” she wrote. “Google won’t process a removal request because they say the content still exists. Several other websites have links to this content on your site… I did not consent to this video being made, nor to it being uploaded to Pornhub.”

Instead of taking down the images, “Marios,” a Pornhub representative, told Rachel that she will have to contact the individual sites that linked to the Pornhub images and ask them herself.

Later that day, another Pornhub representative, “Kevin,” sent her a note that told her it was also her responsibility to contact Google to take down anything on its search engine.

Rachel was apoplectic. Pornhub was telling her that the images associated with the non-consenting video were now her responsibility to track down and remove. She sent them another message, with a decidedly more aggressive tone.

“You guys decided to host a non-consensually uploaded video of my assault on your site for three years. I want every trace of this video removed. Not just from Google; from the actual internet… From your site specifically and from your affiliated sites, such as Thumbzilla. The thumbnail - that you created and distributed - is literally my naked body… Like, dudes – you’ve even been contacted by the police in regards to my video and you still have a picture of my boobs on your site. WTF?”

Kevin responded again, insisting that Pornhub “can NOT” remove content from other sites. However, that doesn’t seem to be completely accurate. Pornhub offers something called its “exclusive model program,” which promises that it will send takedown notices to any website to “help protect your content from being uploaded to other websites.”

It offers this “protection” to clients who pay a fee for this exclusive service. The point being that Pornhub has certainly requested content to be removed from other sites.

“It is interesting how capable and diligent you are when it comes to your monetized ‘exclusive’ content, while caring absolutely nothing about the non-consensual content you (illegally) choose to host,” Rachel wrote to Pornhub. “If further letters are required on this subject, they will be from my lawyer.”

In February, a month after her original request and many messages later, Pornhub told her they’d finally removed all traces of her content. But to this day, Rachel says if you search for her video by name, it still returns images of her naked body and from time to time, she still finds her video on other sites, where it is still playable.

She suspects that many people have the original video on their own hard drives because they were once able to download it from Pornhub’s site. Pornhub has recently removed that download button.

Rachel says that Pornhub has never offered her an apology.

“It’s devastating. I mean, this is something that is going to haunt me for the rest of my life,” she says. “I will always be someone's porn.”

On Friday, Pornhub released its first-ever Transparency Report outlining content moderation practices and safety policies from reported content last year.

Click here to read MindGeek's statements to W5

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