The operators of the popular GirlsDoPorn website owe nearly $13 million to 22 young women who were tricked and coerced into shooting pornographic videos, a California judge ruled on Thursday. It took Judge Kevin Enright 187 pages to enumerate the many ways owner Michael Pratt and two co-conspirators mistreated the women.
“Plaintiffs have suffered and continue to suffer far-reaching and often tragic consequences,” the judge wrote. “Collectively, they have experienced severe harassment, emotional and psychological trauma, and reputational harm.” Damages include “lost jobs, academic and professional opportunities, and family and personal relationships.” Their lives were “derailed and uprooted,” with several plaintiffs contemplating suicide.
The group behind GirlsDoPorn recruited women by advertising clothed modeling gigs on Craigslist and elsewhere. When a woman responded to an ad, they were told that the job was actually shooting porn. However, the women were told that they could make $5,000—sometimes even more—in a single day of shooting. And these women were then assured that their videos would never appear on the Internet. Instead, footage would be burned to DVD and sold to private collectors in Australia and New Zealand. All of this turned out to be lies. Within weeks of shooting, the women’s videos appeared on GirlsDoPorn and various free pornographic “tube sites.”
The women were also promised that their confidentiality would be protected. Instead, their real-life identities quickly circulated online, causing them immense embarrassment with friends and family. Pratt himself owned PornWikiLeaks, a site dedicated to outing the women on sites like GirlsDoPorn, for several months. The judge found substantial circumstantial evidence that Pratt personally seeded the site with private information about GirlsDoPorn women.
The trial began last August and dragged on until November—largely because it took that long for the court to hear about the experiences of each of the 22 women. Lawyers for the women say they’ve talked to many others who had similar experiences. However, the others were unwilling to face the risk of retaliation from the defendants or the humiliation of publicly re-living their experiences.
As the trial was getting under way, Pratt was getting out of town. He departed the United States in the early weeks of the trial and his exact location isn’t known. He has also shifted assets overseas. The judge concluded that this was a calculated attempt to prevent the women from recovering damages in the case.
Lawyers for Pratt and the other defendants argued that the women weren’t victims at all. They had voluntarily boarded airplanes knowing they were going to shoot porn, they said. Once they arrived, the defendants argued, they signed binding contracts and then voluntarily went through with the porn shots. Lawyers for the defense argued that this was simply a case of seller’s remorse.
But Judge Enright decisively rejected that argument, pointing to numerous examples of fraud and coercion throughout the process of recruiting the models and shooting the videos.
Most obviously, the defendants were lying when they said that the videos wouldn’t show up online. To bolster this lie, the defendants paid other women to pose as former models and reassure recruits that they would have a positive experience and that their videos would remain private. Pratt and his colleagues were careful to make these promises over the phone, not in writing. But the consistent stories of the 22 women—as well as corroboration from some junior figures in the GirlsDoPorn empire—confirmed that the girls were lied to repeatedly.
Once a woman arrived in San Diego, the GirlsDoPorn crew’s tactics shifted from fraud to intimidation. Women were picked up at the airport by a GirlsDoPorn staffer and chaperoned throughout their visit. During shooting, they were alone with two or more men they didn’t know. The men would become agitated if the women didn’t cooperate; some women testified that they feared for their safety. Women testified that men stacked equipment in front of the door to prevent them from leaving the room.
The men waited until minutes before the scheduled start of shooting to present women with lengthy contracts. They were then pressured to skim the documents quickly and sign them so that the shooting could get under way.
Most of the women had flown to San Diego from out of town, and many lacked funds to rent a hotel or book a flight home. They were also loath to call for help, since they’d have to admit why they’d traveled to San Diego in the first place. As a result, several women felt they had little choice but to complete the shoot.
Judge Enright ruled that all of these factors made the women’s nominal consent meaningless. The contracts were unenforceable because the women were induced to sign them by fraud and coercion. The shooting of the videos was not truly voluntary because most of the women did not feel free to leave.
The judge awarded each woman $300,000 to $550,000 in compensatory damages and an additional $150,000 in punitive damages. In total, the defendants collectively owe the women $12.8 million.
A big question now is how much the women will actually be able to collect. As mentioned above, ringleader Pratt has fled the country and may not be easy to track down. The other two men, Andre Garcia and Matthew Wolfe, have been arrested in a related criminal case, however it’s not clear what assets they have. The judge awarded the damages jointly against all of the defendants, so the action has a good shot at bankrupting all three of them.
Remarkably, despite a high-profile lawsuit and a criminal prosecution, the GirlsDoPorn website is still online. At least one new woman’s video was posted online during last fall’s trial. The plaintiffs’ lawyers will have to figure out who currently owns the site—likely some kind of overseas shell company—and where they keep their funds.
If the defendants do try to continue operating GirlsDoPorn, the judge ordered them to stop lying about where the videos go. He ordered them to prominently disclose in contracts that women are shooting for GirlsDoPorn—and to send the contracts to prospective models before they set foot on an airplane. Of course, with the principals in jail or on the lam, it’s not clear how they’ll find time to try to recruit new models for the site.
Thanks for Courthouse News’s Bianca Bruno for posting a PDF of the ruling.