A woman posing as a talent agent allegedly lured a 19-year-old into prostitution and forced her to perform in pornographic films. The victim, identified in court records as Jane Doe, said the pornography companies profited from her online videos even after learning she was being trafficked.
Doe filed a federal anti-trafficking lawsuit on Sept. 24 against the woman, Cissy Steele, and several pornography companies she said participated in the scheme or ignored requests to remove online videos of her. The National Center on Sexual Exploitation said no trafficking survivor has brought such a lawsuit against pornography producers and websites before. But more victims are coming forward to shed light on the “unhinged and unchecked” online porn industry, said Lisa Haba, a Florida attorney representing the victim.
“Part of this lawsuit is to send a message to the world that it cannot turn a blind eye to human trafficking,” Haba said. “This is modern-day slavery. We need to live in a culture of zero tolerance.”
In the lawsuit, the victim said Steele claimed to be a modeling scout and gave her a business card, promising lucrative opportunities. From 2009 to 2011, Steele used “psychological manipulation, coercion, intimidation tactics, threats, and physical violence to control, dominate, and exploit” her, the lawsuit stated, increasingly luring her into commercial sex acts in California and Nevada.
The suit accuses Canadian fashion mogul Peter Nygard of paying Steele so he could have sex with the victim. More than 80 other women have come forward with similar accusations against Nygard, said Haba, who is involved in separate legal action against him. The victim also said Steele partnered with multiple pornography companies that knew about her trafficking scheme.
If proven true, the companies’ actions would violate the 2000 Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which Congress amended in 2008 to allow for civil lawsuits against anyone who financially benefitted from trafficking about which they “knew or should have known.”
Federal law requires pornography companies to maintain documentation—including age and consent verifications—of anyone in their videos. But the companies and websites repeatedly break these rules, said Dani Pinter, senior counsel for the National Center on Sexual Exploitation.
“We hope this lawsuit brings to light the complete lack of regulation that is leading to widespread exploitation of adults and minors,” Pinter said. “We also hope that those who have suffered begin to see legal recourse as a viable option.”
Separately, victims have filed dozens of lawsuits in the past year against major hotel chains—including Hilton, Marriott, and Wyndham hotels—for ignoring sex trafficking operations taking place on their properties. The organization Exodus Cry’s TraffickingHub campaign recently garnered 2 million signatures on a petition calling on the government to shut down PornHub. It has exposed numerous cases of child sexual abuse, adult trafficking, rape, and assault—all monetized on the website.
Laila Mickelwait of Exodus Cry called the new lawsuit “an important step” in holding porn companies accountable: “This is just the beginning. … Those who care about the protection of women and children from criminal exploitation are demanding PornHub and companies like it be shut down for the irreversible damage they have done to their victims.”