By Sheelah Kolhatkar

One night in 2017, a fifteen-year-old girl named Rachel received a WhatsApp message from a number she didn’t recognize. Rachel lived with her mother, stepfather, and siblings in a midsize town in the United Kingdom. She had just returned home from a party and was in her bedroom. “I had a really unstable home life, and I didn’t have good support around me,” Rachel told me recently, while sitting on her bed in a fluffy white bathrobe. “I was a complete mess, I didn’t trust anyone, I was in complete self-destruct mode.”

The man who sent the text forwarded a nude photograph of her, the source of which she couldn’t figure out. Then he sent a link to her mother’s Facebook account and the names of other family members and school friends, threatening to forward the picture to them if she didn’t follow his instructions. Immediately, she recalled an episode from a few years earlier, when classmates passed around a photo of her in her underwear, which precipitated months of bullying and a bout of depression. Panicked, she complied with his requests. He first instructed her to brighten the lighting in her room, and to take photos of herself in her underwear. He then had her take more photos, this time naked, and take videos of herself stripping and masturbating. The videos became progressively more explicit, Rachel told me, until the man asked her to do something so revolting that she refused. She cut off the correspondence and sat on her bed “in a state of shock,” she said. Later, her mother came in to say good night. Rachel pretended that everything was fine.

The next day, Rachel (a pseudonym) checked her social-media accounts every hour, waiting for the pictures and videos to surface. Months went by and nothing happened. Then one day she was in a taxi when a boy who lived near her sent a message asking if she was all right. He included a link to a Tumblr page that contained dozens of folders of pictures and videos of several girls, all in similar poses, many of them crying. One of the girls was Rachel. She asked the boy to report the account to Tumblr. Rachel told me that she thought about going to another city and killing herself. “I actually ended up getting on a train, but my friends stopped me,” she said.

The pictures and videos soon spread to Pornhub, one of the largest pornography sites on the Internet. At one point, Pornhub hosted some fourteen million videos, including studio-produced adult films and user-generated content, and it is one of the most visited Web sites in the world. Many of the videos of Rachel included her real name, and comments contained links to her social-media accounts and to those of her family members. A snippet from one of the videos was posted to Snapchat and Instagram. Someone sent a video to her father, and a stalker showed up at her house, texting her photos from outside while she was babysitting her younger brother. Rachel filed a complaint with the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Command, a division of the U.K.’s National Crime Agency, but the organization was of little help, she said.

Rachel stopped sleeping, and spent her days and nights searching for the videos and filling out dozens of removal-request forms. “Hi, I’m underage and had many videos and photos posted of me on here,” she wrote to Pornhub in December, 2018. “They keep getting reuploaded onto this site and I am only 15 in them and I don’t have the links. I don’t know what to do because every time I get them removed you keep allowing them to be uploaded its ruining my life.” In response, Pornhub asked for a link to each video, the username of the account used to upload it, the title of the file, or screenshots of the page. Rachel sent the information when she had it, but the videos were often uploaded in tiny clips that she found impossible to track. Each time one was taken down, more appeared. Finally, she gave up. “I was spending all my time reporting videos,” she said. “It was taking a lot out of me.”

Rachel stopped leaving the house and eventually went on public assistance. In February, 2020, she saw an Instagram post about the work of an American anti-sex-trafficking activist named Laila Mickelwait. She messaged Mickelwait, who referred her to services that could help with the takedown requests, and connected her with lawyers from Brown Rudnick, a firm that was assembling a lawsuit against MindGeek, the company that owns Pornhub, on behalf of people who’d allegedly had videos of themselves posted to the site without their consent. After lawyers sent a cease-and-desist letter to MindGeek, the company quickly removed videos of Rachel; it then blocked them from being uploaded again. “Laila was so helpful,” Rachel told me. “She did more for me than any police or anyone in the U.K. ever did.”

At the time, Mickelwait was working for an organization called Exodus Cry, a faith-based group that seeks to “abolish commercial sexual exploitation,” along with the underlying conditions that the group sees as enabling it. Mickelwait, who is thirty-nine, had worked at Exodus Cry since 2012, and her focus was on trying to prevent adults and children from becoming victims of coerced prostitution and other forms of sexual abuse. “I always felt a specific passion for prevention,” she told me. “It’s wonderful when you can take someone out of exploitation, but it would be better if they were never there in the first place.”