The most popular porn sites are bombarding users with sexually violent material depicting rape, upskirting and other abuse, according to a landmark study.
An analysis of 131,738 titles on the homepages of Pornhub, XHamster and XVideos found that one in eight showed non-consensual or incestuous acts, including where the subjects were described as drugged, unconscious or “very young”.
More than 8,000 titles referred to physical aggression or forced sexual activity, even when the researchers excluded representations of consensual bondage, discipline and sadomasochism (BDSM) practices.
The study, published today in the British Journal of Criminology, is one of the most in-depth analyses of online porn to date and draws on the largest sample of mainstream material yet collected. Swathes of material depicting degrading and extreme violence against women were widely available to view for free and with no age checks.
The findings will fuel calls for measures to force porn companies to tackle harmful content, which campaigners and charities have said normalises violence against women.
First-time visitors were shown the material by default even though much of it contravened the sites’ terms and conditions, researchers from Durham University’s law school found.
Many of the videos included references to forced sexual activity — “rape porn” — which is illegal to possess or distribute in the UK, whether real or acted, if it is realistic.
“It is not the case that criminal material is relegated to niche sites, hidden from all but a determined viewer, or only available on the dark web,” the authors of the study write.
The findings come as Britain is rocked by allegations of sexual abuse at schools and by the death of Sarah Everard, 33, who went missing while walking home in Clapham, south London.
In recent weeks thousands of people have spoken out about their experiences of sexual violence, with many women describing times they have felt afraid in day-to-day situations.
Over six months in 2017-18, the researchers took hourly snapshots of content on the home pages of the three most popular sites, including 72,326 titles from XHamster, 40,401 from Pornhub and 38,858 from XVideos.
After removing videos with no description of the content, they used keywords to categorise titles in line with the World Health Organisation’s definition of sexual violence. Each video was then reviewed and those that described consensual BDSM practices were excluded.
In total 2,966 titles on the homepages described criminal acts of image-based sexual abuse, including “Pharmacy store bathroom hidden cam”and “Upskirted in the train” and examples of so-called revenge porn.
A further 5,389 titles referred to physical aggression and 2,698 described coercion and exploitation.
Only one clip included the word “rape”, which is banned by the sites, but thousands described it in other terms, such as “Again and again forced” and “Boyfriend forced gf for sex”.
Common keywords included “grope” and “molest”, and many titles referred to women crying. Four included the word “chloroform”, a chemical used to incapacitate and kill. Another 5,785 titles described sexual activity between family members, making it the most common category of “sexually violent” material identified in the sample.
Previous research has shown young people turning to online porn as an educational tool. A recent survey by the British Board of Film Classification involving 16 and 17-year-olds found that most had viewed pornography that they found disturbing or overly aggressive, with many saying it influenced how they behaved in sexual encounters.
Clare McGlynn QC, a professor of law at Durham who co-authored the study, said: “It’s shocking that this is the material that the porn companies themselves are choosing to showcase to first-time users. Our findings raise serious questions about the extent of criminal material easily and freely available on mainstream porn websites and the efficacy of current regulatory mechanisms.”
She said it was common for descriptions of the most serious sexual offences to be characterised as ordinary or entertaining. “It’s no wonder that young women are sharing their stories of sexual harassment and abuse when this is normalised in the porn that is being offered to new users.”
Fiona Vera-Gray, a legal research fellow and co-author of the study, said sexually violent material “eroticised non-consent” and distorted “the boundary between sexual pleasure and sexual violence”.
The study has raised questions over the ability and willingness of sites to regulate themselves. Much of the material the researchers identified is likely to be in breach of the websites’ own terms and conditions.
In their policies, Pornhub and XVideos explicitly state that all content “depicting” child sexual abuse, rape, incest and forced sexual acts is prohibited, meaning simulations as well as real acts of violence are prohibited.
XHamster’s terms proscribe any material that is “unlawful, threatening, abusive, harassing … invasive of another person’s privacy” or “hateful”.
The researchers said their analysis, which was carried out with the porn sites’ written consent, showed a “large gulf between what the companies say they prohibit and what is actually available”, although they added that their findings focused on the titles of the videos, rather than the footage itself.
They urged the government to use the Online Harms Bill to hold porn companies to account.
Legislation that will make Ofcom the regulator of “online harms”, and give it the power to fine companies up to 10 percent of their turnover for failings relating to harmful content, is being prepared by the government, but the most intense scrutiny so far has been reserved for social media companies such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
Despite being less talked about, the porn sites — which allow users to upload their own content, like YouTube — command huge audiences. XVideos is the seventh-most visited website in the world while Pornhub, the UK’s top porn site, is 13th globally and XHamster 20th, according to rankings on SimilarWeb, making them more popular than eBay, PayPal and LinkedIn.
In addition to sexually violent material, much of the content on the website homepages fetishised sex with teenagers, including those who are underage. The most frequently occurring word overall was “teen”, which occurred in 7.7 per cent of video titles and 8.5 per cent of those found to describe sexual violence, while 26 videos included the words “very young”.
All the sites claim a zero-tolerance policy on child sexual abuse material and block searches for related keywords.
The research has added to concerns around porn websites’ moderation practices, which have long been criticised for being weak. Last October, an investigation by Vice News found that XHamster hired unpaid reviewers to moderate the site and instructed them: “Do not remove any content if you’re not 100 per cent sure that it’s illegal to be here.”
Since the Durham study began in 2017, Mindgeek, Pornhub’s parent company, claims to have cracked down on illegal content, removing millions of user-uploaded videos in December after Mastercard ended its relationship over further abuse claims.
Unilever and Heinz cut ties with Pornhub in 2019 after it was found to host content showing illegal acts, including secretly filmed “creepshots” of schoolgirls and clips of men performing sex acts in front of teenagers on buses.
Last week, in contravention of their own terms and conditions, content depicting rape, incest and other abuse remained widespread on all three sites.
Pornhub disputed the findings of the study and claimed all content on its website depicted “consensual kinks”. A spokesman said: “Consenting adults are entitled to their own sexual preferences, as long as they are legal and consensual, and all kinks that meet these criteria are welcome on Pornhub.”
The company said any suggestion it allowed illegal content was “categorically and factually inaccurate” and that it had instituted an “industry-leading” policy to identify and eradicate illegal material, as well as banning content from unverified users and expanding its moderation practices.
XVideos said: “We prohibit the uploading of illegal content, remove potentially illegal content when it is brought to our attention, and work with law enforcement in appropriate cases.”
Neither site commented on claims they had failed to remove content prohibited by their own terms and conditions.
XHamster did not respond to requests for comment.
Caroline Nokes, the MP who chairs the women and equalities committee, called for age certification of porn sites as promised by Theresa May’s government.
“Porn is part of the problem that underpins male violence against women and so must be addressed,” she said. “This is giving young people a very warped view of sex and relationships and even more worryingly is normalising this kind of behaviour.”