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Women Lured By Modeling Gigs, Coerced Into Porn, Win $13M In Lawsuit

One by one, amateur models came across the Craigslist ad that promised to help launch their careers. And one by one, those women learned they were expected to do more than just pose for pictures.

A California judge has ruled that the owners of a San Diego-based pornographic website has to pay $13 million in damages after they defrauded 22 women in order to get them to perform in explicit videos. The women were told the videos would never be posted to the Internet. They were told no one would ever find out their true identity. According to San Diego Superior Court Judge Kevin Enright, those were lies.

"Defendants take considerable, calculated steps to falsely assure prospective models that their videos will never be posted online, come to light in the United States, or be seen by anyone who might know them," Enright wrote.

In the scheme, the website GirlsDoPorn and other affiliated sites would offer thousands of dollars to women to participate in a pornographic video. They would fly a woman to San Diego, take her to a hotel room, and pressure her to sign a contract quickly without reading it. Sometimes they would ply her with alcohol and marijuana.

The women were told that the videos would only be shipped on DVDs to customers overseas. If the women were unsure about participating, they would be connected with so-called "reference models" to reassure them. Those models were paid to lie about where the videos would be released.

Despite those promises, the court said, GirlsDoPorn did exactly the opposite — publishing the videos on their paid subscription websites and posting some to popular free pornographic websites. Models' names and numbers were posted to a site called PornWikiLeaks. Online trolls would spread that information to the women's social circles, including friends, family and employers.

"Defendants immediately benefitted from doxxing of their models," the judge said. "Publication and dissemination of the models' names and personal information increased views and traffic to Defendants' tube channels, increased name ID for their brand, and boosted subscription sales."

"As a result, Plaintiffs have suffered and continue to suffer far-reaching and often tragic consequences," Enright wrote. "They have experienced severe harassment, emotional and psychological trauma, and reputational harm; lost jobs, academic and professional opportunities, and family and personal relationships; and had their lives derailed and uprooted. They have become pariahs in their communities. Several Plaintiffs have become suicidal."

The online leaks actually helped build the case against the websites, said attorney Brian Holm, one of the attorneys for the women. Holm told NPR that they contacted the women whose names appeared on PornWikiLeaks, and kept hearing the same stories. The lawsuit was initially filed on behalf of four women; after some initial media attention, Holm and the attorneys were flooded with calls. Ultimately 22 women were part of the lawsuit against the sites.

GirlsDoPorn had argued that each model signed legally binding documents releasing all rights to the videos and consenting to publication online. But the judge said those weren't enforceable contracts because they "contain vague, incomprehensible language," and because the women's signatures were obtained through "fraud, intimidation, and coercion."

"When a Plaintiff asked for time to read the documents or inquired about their contents, Defendants became ill-tempered and told them that there was no time," Enright wrote.

"It is outrageous. Reprehensible. Every polite phrase that you can use to describe conduct," said attorney Ed Chapin, managing partner of Sanford Heisler Sharp, LLP, which worked on the case. Chapin told NPR that in addition to offering financial compensation, the websites also have to take down the Internet postings and let the women know that "friends and loved ones may see it — so if you want to be paid money, then you've got to understand what the potential problems are."

The defendants include website owners Michael James Pratt and Matthew Isaac Wolfe, as well as porn actor Ruben Andre Garcia. While the trial was going on, the men were charged with sex trafficking crimes by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of California. Wolfe and Garcia were taken into custody in October; Pratt disappeared before he could be arrested. According to Holm, he is still a fugitive.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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