Inside Exodus Cry: The Shady Evangelical Group With Trump Ties Waging War on Pornhub 1

At first glance, the small group assembled outside Pornhub’s L.A. office might have looked like employees. They surrounded the building in black T-shirts with white script, framed by the adult site’s signature orange box. Instead of the standard logo, however, the tees read “Traffickinghub.”

The sparse and socially distant protest, which happens every week, had been organized by the West Coast arm of Knock Out Abuse, the domestic violence nonprofit whose annual gala, once called a “designer bachelorette party” by the Washington Post, attracts a roster of D.C. insiders and corporate executives—including Hillary Clinton, Sen. Kristen Gillibrand, and Wolf Blitzer.

The protest’s mastermind, however, was not a member of KOA: a blonde woman named Laila Mickelwait. Mickelwait, who arrived in Traffickinghub attire, describes herself as someone who has been combating the issue of sex trafficking for about the last decade. Back in February, Mickelwait published an op-ed in The Washington Examiner titled “Time to shut Pornhub down.”

The piece laid out alleged instances of exploitation on the platform to argue that the adult tube site harbored “hundreds, if not thousands, of videos of underage sex-trafficking victims.” The alleged intention was raising awareness about exploitation and trafficking. But after some positive feedback, she turned it into a campaign. The first move was a petition, titled: “Shut Down Pornhub and Hold Its Executives Accountable for Aiding Trafficking.”

The petition appeared to go viral—as of publication, it claims to have 2,133,098 signatures, though the number is unverified. The petition is hosted on a private domain, meaning its display is subject to the whims of its owner. But as the QAnon-adjacent #SavetheChildren movement’s popularity surged over the summer, Mickelwait’s campaign did attract attention, spurring several anti-Pornhub protests around the United States and Canada.

Mickelwait’s case against Pornhub hinges on several real incidents of exploitation—most prominently, a class-action lawsuit against the amateur porn operation Girls Do Porn, which The Daily Beast covered extensively last year and which resulted in $12.8 million in damages being awarded to the victims. But the campaign’s claims about itself are less accurate. While Traffickinghub presents itself as “a non-religious, non-partisan effort,” the organizing force behind it is neither. Mickelwait’s employer—and the organization running the Traffickinghub campaign—is Exodus Cry, a far-right Evangelical group “prayed” into existence in a Missouri church, with the goal of abolishing the commercial sex industry entirely.

When Exodus Cry first emerged in 2007, it was little more than a weekly prayer group hosted by a man named Benjamin Nolot at the charismatic Christian enclave known, incredibly, as the International House of Prayer, or IHOP. At the time, the group met Monday nights to, as Nolot put it in a 2012 speech, “pray for trafficking.” Five years later, they opened their first “restoration” shelter for victims of human trafficking called the LightHouse. “We’re saying, give us those girls!” Nolot told the crowd in his dedication. “We want to put them in the right context.”

When Exodus Cry first emerged in 2007, it was little more than a weekly prayer group hosted by a man named Benjamin Nolot at the charismatic Christian enclave known, incredibly, as the International House of Prayer, or IHOP.

What came of the shelter is unclear. When asked directly about it, Nolot responded: “Since our inception Exodus Cry has been raising awareness about the injustice of sex trafficking, advocating for effective legislation, and assisting victims and survivors, and we continue this critical work to the present day.”

But in 2016, Nolot announced in his Annual Report that it was “time for a re-envisioning of what role Exodus Cry will play in restoration.” Sometime after 2018, when the LightHouse was included on a list of Missouri shelters, the website stopped working.

In recent years, the group has transitioned into a new form of advocacy: making documentaries. Their cinematic work has yielded Liberated: The New Sexual Revolution, a Netflix documentary about the dangers of youth hook-up culture; Seattle Bikini Baristas, about how “behind the intrigue of lingerie and java lurks a darker side”; and Existence, a six-minute “visual poem” starring Nolot’s family on a trip in the Virgin Islands.

Like Traffickinghub, Exodus Cry has gone to lengths to distance itself from religion. Motherboard’s Samantha Cole reported that in 2017, the organization altered its mission statement to remove all references to Jesus Christ and prayer. But the exorcism wasn’t especially thorough—their website still has a page titled: “Learn how to pray.” Their mission can be understood in part through the work of IHOP, the church where it emerged.

You may recognize IHOP (which was actually sued by the pancake chain in 2010 for trademark infringement; the case was later dropped), from such films as the 2013 documentary God Loves Uganda, which blamed the church for stoking the homophobia that led to Uganda’s notorious Anti-Homosexuality Act. IHOP later rejected the association, but the church’s founder, Mike Bickle, has shared similar sentiments. Bickle has claimed that gay people would face “flaming missiles of the Evil One,” that the “gay marriage agenda” is “rooted in the depths of Hell,” that Adolf Hitler was a “hunter” sent by God to punish the Jews, and that Oprah Winfrey is a footservant to the Antichrist.

When Trump was elected in 2016, Bickle numbered among the leaders of the “POTUS Shield,” the Pentecostal coalition who believed, per Right Wing Watch, that “Trump’s election has given the church in America an opportunity to spark a spiritual Great Awakening that will engulf the nation and world.”

In a statement to The Daily Beast, Exodus Cry CEO Benjamin Nolot denied any association with IHOP. “Since our inception Exodus Cry has been an independent 501c3 non-profit organization,” he wrote, “and is not in a formal partnership with any other organization.”

But in 2018, Open Democracy reported that Exodus Cry had been listed as a “related tax-exempt organization” on IHOP’s tax filings in their most recent returns, that both groups shared a director, and that Nolot was listed as a “prayer leader” until 2017.

Bickle numbered among the leaders of the “POTUS Shield,” the Pentecostal coalition who believed…that “Trump’s election has given the church in America an opportunity to spark a spiritual Great Awakening that will engulf the nation and world.”

When Exodus Cry relocated from Kansas City to Sacramento last July, IHOP held a goodbye prayer in their honor, according to church announcements dated June 9 and June 21 of 2019. “Part of the EC office and team will in remain in [sic] KC and continue to relate to IHOPKC,” the announcement reads (emphasis added). The two groups associated as recently as this year, church announcements show, when they partnered for a “Hope Bag” donation drive in March.

Exodus Cry also claims that the campaign against Pornhub is not “anti-sex worker,” and that it does not believe in the criminalization of sex work. But tax filings show that in 2018, the group amended their mission statement to include “abolishing sex trafficking and the commercial sex industry.”

“The porn laws need to be cleaned up to help prevent sex trafficking under the guise of porn,” said a business lawyer who has worked to reform adult-industry regulations, “but I don’t think going completely blitzkrieg on the porn industry is going to further that cause.”

Perhaps more telling: the campaign was co-sponsored by the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE), a non-profit formerly known as Morality in Media, which served as the “nation’s loudest voice against adult pornography” in the early 2000s. NCOSE’s CEO Patrick Trueman, described by ABA Journal as a “porn war veteran,” led the George H.W. Bush administration’s crusade against internet pornography as the head of the Dept. of Justice’s Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section. From 1988 to 1993, Trueman worked closely alongside Robert Mueller and William Barr to “aggressively purs[ue] obscenity cases” and put “seven of the nation’s largest pornography distributors out of business.”

Trueman’s wife, former health insurance lobbyist Laura Clay Trueman, moved through equally conservative circles—graduating from a gig at the Heritage Foundation to Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA)’s senior policy adviser, to a political appointee in Donald Trump’s Department of Health and Human Services.

In 2014, ThinkProgress published a piece titled “This is the Way the War on Pornography Ends,” detailing the dwindling donations to Trueman’s group, from $1.2 million in 2001 to less than $650,000 by 2011. Trueman’s support for #Traffickinghub suggests an attempt to reignite it, with at least some of the same players. The Washington Examiner, which ran Mickelwait’s initial op-ed, is owned by Philip Anschutz—billionaire petroleum heir, hard-right Christian, and one of Trueman’s largest funders.

And Taxpayers are even footing some of the bill—in April, NCOSE was approved for a PPP loan of between $150,000 and $300,000 under Trump’s coronavirus bailout program.

“Abolishing pornography is just never going to happen while we have a First Amendment,” said the aforementioned lawyer, before adding, “Well, I shouldn’t say that, since there’s Supreme Court hearings happening for someone who would not hesitate to redefine obscenity to include pornography.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the Traffickinghub petition was hosted ona private domain, not a third-party platform like Change.org.In fact, there is a second petition on Change.org, which has almost half as many signatures.