The Pornification of War in Ukraine

The trending of #Ukraine on porn sites is only a recent development of an age-old misogyny, as old as warfare itself.

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Civilians fleeing the war in Ukraine arrive at Przemysl station, 20 kilometers from the Ukrainian border on March 30, in Medyka, Poland. Ukrainian women refugees are often traumatized and vulnerable—making them targets for traffickers. (Cem Tekkesinoglu / dia images via Getty Images)

There is no atrocity that the sex industry doesn’t commodify or monetize. War, like porn, preys on women’s bodies and intimate lives, which become the battlegrounds for male power, the sites on which men inscribe masculinity and the accompanying sexism.

While the world recoiled in horror last month after Russia unleashed its military might against a sovereign nation, #Ukraine was trending on Pornhub and similar sites with titles such as “We are bombed and we f**k, Kharkiv, Ukraine,” “Ukrainian soldier f***s Russian girl before going to war!” and “Porn action during war in Ukraine.” As past examples have shown us, the porn industry is nimble when it comes to monetizing misogyny, especially in times of catastrophic suffering.

The invasion of Ukraine is now the worst military conflict in Europe since the Second World War. More than 3.5 million Ukrainians have fled the bloodshed for other countries, almost all of them women and children. Another 6.5 million are displaced within Ukraine. But Putin and pornographers aren’t the only ones seeking to profit from this humanitarian disaster. 

The refugees from Ukraine are, as refugees are wont to be, penniless, hungry, drained and frightened. They’ve left behind everything—not just their jobs, schools, dreams and savings, but also their fathers, brothers, husbands and sons. They are traumatized, alone and vulnerable, and for this reason they are targets, but not from bombs and bullets. They are now hunted by traffickers.

The Council of Europe, a leading human rights organization, reports that men are trying to lure female refugees with false promises at the Romanian border. In Hungary, authorities warn the arrivals to keep their phones charged and to note the license plates of any cars they enter. In Poland, predatory characters promise shelter and money—but only if the refugees hand over their passports. These scenes play out again and again.

According to UNICEF, the more than 1.5 million children who fled Ukraine, many unaccompanied by adults, are in particular danger from trafficking. So are the 100,000 previous at-risk children who remain behind in orphanages, care homes and special schools

What Ukrainian women and children need is a haven from sexual exploitation, not more videos posted to Pornhub. 

Trafficked women from Ukraine are sent not just across Europe but also to Turkey, South Africa, China, Japan, Korea, Israel, Syria, the UAE and—no surprise—Russia. By some estimates, trafficking, also called modern slavery, enchains more than 40 million people worldwide. The annual monetary value of forced sexual exploitation in particular probably exceeds $100 billion

It is highly likely that some of the trafficked Ukrainian women and children will end up—drugged, beaten, coerced and raped—on the pages of ‘tube sites’ which, like Pornhub, allow users to upload videos without any authentication for age and consent. Today, a top porn site features the video, “Hot Ukrainian Girl F***ing her man on live stream against war.” 

The pornification of the Ukrainian war is only the latest crisis to befall women in the country. Before the Russian invasion, trafficking in Ukraine had spiked from the global COVID-19 shutdown, which resulted in a mass return of male workers back to the country, which was already reeling from a dramatic rise in unemployment. Facing this dire economic instability, many women felt that they had no choice but to agree to deceptive job offers, only to end up in the hands of traffickers.

Of course, COVID didn’t initiate trafficking in Ukraine. It was a long-standing problem, ensnaring hundreds of thousands, largely due to years of post-Soviet corruption, organized crime and joblessness. Traffickers baited victims with sham employment and travel agencies, fake ‘modeling’ services aimed at teen and preteen girls, deceptive offers of housing to homeless youth, and pretend missionaries who invited parents to send their children to religious schools. When all else failed, traffickers simply abducted kids. They also, of course, preyed on women driven by economic desperation into prostitution. These same ruses are now assailing the current refugees. 

What Ukrainian women and children need is a haven from sexual exploitation, not more videos posted to Pornhub. 

War-fuelled trafficking is not the only current threat to the vulnerable women of Ukraine. The country was a major worldwide hub for another form of sexual exploitation, “surrogate” motherhood, one of only a handful of nations that allow foreigners to enter into such “legal” agreements. The war has pushed these women into even more desperate situations since many now are living in impoverished refugee camps or bomb shelters, lacking the resources to feed their babies. 

Another scheme that entrapped destitute Ukrainian women long before the Russian invasion was the trade in “mail order brides.” These arrangements cater to men who are already committed to male dominance. Why should you marry a Ukrainian bride, asks one website? Because “Feminism isn’t an issue … [for] Ukraine mail order wives, so they . ..don’t look for much equality between men and women in a relationship” and they willingly “give all the power of reign in the man’s hands.” Ukrainian brides “want to be conquered,” says another website. She’ll “remember your needs all the time.”

The solution is not only the cessation of war. It is also to ensure that women are given equal economic opportunities so they need not depend on men to drop a few e-coins into the bin.

The war is not only coaxing many women into the global sex trade. It is also hurting women who were already being exploited in the sex industry. After the imposition of international sanctions, content creators from Russia and Belarus were unable to process payments to their accounts with OnlyFans, the popular subscription-based platform.

The payment system has been restored. But the interruption underscored the precarious financial state of women everywhere whose livelihood depends on selling their bodies. As one Russian ‘content producer’ reported, “Making content for OnlyFans is my main job. … Without it I can’t pay rent, food and all other necessary for life things.”

The solution, she implied, is not only the cessation of war. It is also to ensure that women are given equal economic opportunities so they need not depend on men to drop a few e-coins into the bin.

Research shows that habitual users of online porn seek ever more explicit and graphic images in order to sustain the same level of arousal. This partly explains the uptick in searches for pornographic videos of Ukrainian women after the invasion. It also accounts for the horrifying genres known as “refugee porn” and “war porn.” These videos link sex with desperation and violence. But not just any violence will do. The user is mainly interested in videos that feature the utter degradation of women and girls.

In this way, the trending of #Ukraine on porn sites is only a recent development of an age-old misogyny, as old as warfare itself. It was, sadly, only a matter of time before we saw the headlines, which just appeared the other day, that the invading soldiers are now raping women.

In Ukraine, as in all wars, women and children’s already desperate situation becomes even more eroticized by the sex industry, and is used as a marketing opportunity to increase profits. 

Wars are fought disproportionately by men, so not surprisingly, women and children are the collateral damage. What we see during wartime is not unprecedented. Misogyny is always present. It is only amplified and made more stark. 

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About and

Gail Dines, Ph.D., is a professor emerita of sociology, and president of Culture Reframed. Her latest book, Pornland: How Porn has Hijacked Our Sexuality, has been translated into five languages.
Eric Silverman, Ph.D., is a former professor of anthropology and is also affiliated with the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University.