For years, Rachel had no idea she had been sexually assaulted by her own husband as she lay unconscious.
She only made the grim discovery last August when she stumbled across a video of the attack that had been shared all over the internet.
“It was devastating,” the 38-year-old Canadian told AFP. “I mean, once it’s out there, it’s out there forever.”
Floored by the revelation, nauseated and frantic, Rachel noticed the footage had been freely available since her husband apparently posted it in 2017 on Pornhub — one of the world’s most popular adult video sites.
She called the police, setting in motion a frustrating battle to get all traces of the footage expunged. Yet nearly a year later, her attack is still being watched online.
Although Pornhub took the video down, it had already spread to countless other sites, the social work student from the western Canadian province of Alberta told AFP.
Rachel, whose real name is being withheld by AFP, says her nightmare began when she found photographs on a hard drive that led her to her husband’s Pornhub account and the video.
Rachel, who says she is teetotal, believes she was slipped pills that knocked her out as she has no memory of the assault.
The four minutes of footage was tagged with the search term “sleeping pills.”
– Devastated –
The video was seen more than 40,000 times on Pornhub, Rachel said, and spread to other sites, with the total views spiraling past 200,000.
“After that, I just quit counting because it just kind of went on forever,” she said, recalling that a Google search generated at least 10 pages of results.
The morning after her discovery, Rachel went to the police, and says the video disappeared from Pornhub days later.
It was eventually removed from other sites operated by Montreal-based MindGeek, the controversial adult entertainment empire that runs Pornhub.
But it can still be tracked down via a straightforward internet search.
A spokesman for MindGeek told AFP content providers were not allowed to use the term “sleeping pills” when tagging videos.
Pornhub was accused in December in a New York Times article of posting illegal content online, including child pornography and rape videos.
The site, which claims 130 million visitors a day, denied the allegations and announced a series of measures to combat illegal content.
Only users whose identity has been verified are able to upload content, Pornhub says in a press release on the site. But downloads are still allowed for paying customers when a verified content provider has given permission.
And neither the age nor the consent of the people filmed is verified, says Rachel. Pornhub did not respond to a request to comment on this specific issue.
In any case, the reforms would have changed “almost nothing,” says Rachel, noting that anyone can make a copy of a video without downloading it, simply by filming the computer screen as it plays.
“The fact that people were able to download it from Pornhub means that it’s on hard drives and it can just keep coming back. And it does,” she said.
– ‘So sick’ –
Rachel, who had split from her husband before finding the video, told AFP she has struggled with the emotional fallout from her ordeal.
“Watching the video that night, I just felt so sick and that feeling has never gone away,” she said, adding that she now suffers from an anxiety disorder.
“It’s been hard to sleep,” she told AFP, describing frequent disturbing dreams and regularly waking in a panic.
The stress and anxiety are with her “all the time,” causing nausea and other stomach problems, she said.
Her case and others like it led Canadian lawmakers in February to grill MindGeek executives about alleged abuses, while Mastercard and Visa suspended payments on Pornhub following a public outcry.
In May, Canada’s privacy commissioner announced an investigation into Pornhub over allegations that videos were posted without the consent of the people featured.
“We are working to ensure that platforms have a proactive duty to monitor and quickly remove illegal content, before it causes further harm,” a spokeswoman for Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault said.
Rachel says the police have arrested her husband and charged him with sexual assault and distributing intimate images without consent.
Meanwhile, she continues to scour the internet for copies of the video, spending a few days each month trying to get them taken down.
“You’re on your own for that. There is nobody to call, there’s nobody that helps you,” she said.
“You can look up who owns these little anonymous porn sites and kind of get the web administrator’s address, but you send these emails off… and nothing changes. There’s nothing you can do about that.”