QotD: “This is a hard lesson society is still learning: sex offenders are husbands, dads, people holding down respectable jobs”
Rebecca Myers has dedicated her life to trying to change the most brutal of Britain’s serial rapists and abusers. When people hear that, they always want her to reveal the “worst” thing she has heard.
Go on, they say, as though it’s an episode of The Killing or CSI. Myers, who is a forensic psychologist working with deviant criminals, will give away a few things, such as the fact that she can’t look at a table knife casually left in the butter over breakfast after her prison housed a man who stabbed his girlfriend in the bath and left the knife behind, stuck in. Or that the theme tune to Coronation Street gives her chills. One of her first cases was a man who went on a three-year raping spree, breaking into the homes of single women while wearing an animal mask. On one occasion he hid behind the sofa of his next victim in his terrifying costume as she, oblivious and happy, watched her favourite soap opera.
The actual worst thing? She won’t tell me that — she is scared it will contaminate me too. “I have never told a soul, and never will.” That’s her job, to suffer so that others don’t, to save other women.
One of the worst things she has heard wasn’t exactly a crime. It was after a lifetime of getting into the heads of these men through a gruelling and expensive rehabilitation programme for sex offenders that thousands of male prisoners in this country undertook over a two-decade period, at a taxpayer cost of an estimated £100 million. She personally started working with the Sex Offender Treatment Programme (SOTP) when she was 22, soon after she joined one of Britain’s most notorious prisons, known for the number of inmates convicted for sexual or violent offences. She worked with them, including the mask-wearing rapist, out of idealism and trust.
Then, in 2017, after Myers had spent 16 years on the front line of the SOTP, the results of a national evaluation came in. The SOTP didn’t work. It was abruptly abandoned. She had spent so long attempting to change people who had done horrible things, and when they were released they went out and did them again at just the same rate as the men who hadn’t attempted any change.
I’ll spare you specific examples: we all know the kind of material under discussion in The Aesthetics of Degradation, a searching meditation on the brand of hardcore pornography whose erotic currency consists primarily in implausibly lurid spectacles of control and domination. “The array of humiliations evinced in pornography over the past two decades,” writes Adrian Nathan West, “seem less the result of individual perversions than the kind of systematic refinement commonly associated with competitive marketing and research and envelopment in hierarchically organized positivist societies.” At what point, then, does pornography cease to be eroticism and change into something else, something qualitatively different? We are in a discursive terrain of semantic ambiguity; a starting premise of West’s analysis is that extremely degrading pornography tends to marginalize sexual desire as such, “substituting predominately sensual fantasies of doing-with for predominately visual fantasies of doing-to [… with] a heightened emphasis on humiliation, violence, and visual impingements on female bodily integrity.” Taxonomically speaking, it might be more appropriate to place it in the category of sadistic entertainments occupied by snuff movies and the like, rather than the realm of erotica. This formulation invites a number of possible objections with regard to freedom and consent, each of which West examines in turn.
“Pornography,” writes West, “is a play of illusions constantly struggling to transcend its irreality.” It is perhaps for this reason that the depiction of abuse is so popular among its users. To put it simply and crudely: A woman having an orgasm on-screen may or may not be faking it, but a woman being urinated on on-screen is, genuinely and verifiably, being urinated on. So the oft-repeated moral defense that such abuse isn’t “real” because it is staged is manifestly disingenuous; the things being depicted have, self-evidently, actually happened. West gives similarly short shrift to another common argument, that the actors involved give their consent: “It is fallacious to suppose we possess a single subjectivity and are incapable of forcing ourselves into situations contrary to our will.” If this feels a bit like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut — casually panning out to an attack on freedom of contract, the entire basis of economic existence for the past three hundred years — it tells us something about why the debate around pornography is so compelling even to people who have no particular interest in the material: it contains, in concentrated form, many of the ethical dilemmas that underscore all our lives as workers and consumers.
West raises a more subtle and immediately pertinent point when he questions whether it is even possible to give informed, meaningful consent on behalf of one’s future self, when undertaking something one has never previously done, and which is likely to — indeed, appears designed to — cause psychological harm. If, as a society, we are sufficiently sophisticated about consent to understand that in certain circumstances it is vitiated — say, when a person is underage, or mentally infirm, or extremely intoxicated — then why can we not take proper account of the likelihood of psychological damage arising from certain forms of extreme ill-treatment? West also discusses the psychological phenomenon known as repetition compulsion, in which victims of abuse feel compelled to reenact a trauma. He speculates that a significant proportion of porn actresses may well suffer from this condition, in which case the profession would amount, in effect, to an industrial-scale abusive exploitation of a self-selecting group of vulnerable people.
West’s primary target is indeed an industry that is both exploitative and, in its fraudulent pretensions to moral propriety — its “cession of ethics to legalistic sophism” — borderline psychopathic. But a concern with the end user is never far from the surface; moving away, as it were, from the production side to the consumption side, the implications of such sadistic pastimes for gender relations at large are hugely significant. It is hard to quibble with West’s assertion that there is a direct link between the systematic subjection of an individual to humiliation or distress and that person’s “symbolic annihilation.” In this regard, it is worth noting that making computer-generated images of child abuse is, quite rightly, forbidden by law: because, even though there is no “victim” involved in their production, it is understood that the dissemination of such material is likely to fuel certain proclivities that will lead, in turn, to actual real-life abuse. That the same sophistication of insight is not extended to material that portrays the abuse of women — in a world rife with domestic violence — is an anomaly that warrants scrutiny.
The Aesthetics of Degradation is an idiosyncratic work, but its eccentricities do not significantly detract from its readability. One inevitably finds oneself wondering if West is holding something back in terms of his reasons for writing the book: a number of personal reminiscences, such as a recollection of feeling physically ill after seeing a gaping on-screen anus, have a certain melancholy candor, but the matter of the author’s own relationships with pornography and sexuality are kept, for the most part, tantalizingly off-stage. This is probably for the best, though: it would have meant a very different sort of book, and likely a less interesting one. What we have instead is a brief, punchy provocation, informed by a strong sense of human compassion — an incitement to readers to think deeply and honestly about a question of profound social importance.
Houman Barekat, LA Review of Books, 2016
Women in the UK are suffering injuries and other health problems as a result of the growing popularity of anal sex among straight couples, two NHS surgeons have warned.
The consequences include incontinence and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) as well as pain and bleeding because they have experienced bodily trauma while engaging in the practice, the doctors write in an article in the British Medical Journal.
Tabitha Gana and Lesley Hunt also argued that doctors’ reluctance to discuss the risks associated with anal sex was leading to women being harmed by the practice and letting down a generation of women who are not aware of the potential problems.
In the journal, they said “anal intercourse is considered a risky sexual behaviour because of its association with alcohol, drug use and multiple sex partners”.
However, “within popular culture it has moved from the world of pornography to mainstream media” and TV shows including Sex and the City and Fleabag may have contributed to the trend by making it seem “racy and daring”.
However, women who engage in anal sex are at greater risk from it than men. “Increased rates of faecal incontinence and anal sphincter injury have been reported in women who have anal intercourse,” the report said.
“Women are at a higher risk of incontinence than men because of their different anatomy and the effects of hormones, pregnancy and childbirth on the pelvic floor.
“Women have less robust anal sphincters and lower anal canal pressures than men, and damage caused by anal penetration is therefore more consequential.
“The pain and bleeding women report after anal sex is indicative of trauma, and risks may be increased if anal sex is coerced,” they said.
National Survey of Sexual Attitudes research undertaken in Britain has found that the proportion of 16- to 24-year-olds engaging in heterosexual anal intercourse has risen from 12.5% to 28.5% over recent decades. Similarly, in the US 30% to 45% of both sexes have experienced it.
“It is no longer considered an extreme behaviour but increasingly portrayed as a prized and pleasurable experience,” wrote Hunt, a surgeon in Sheffield, and Gana, a trainee colorectal surgeon in Yorkshire.
Many doctors, though, especially GPs and hospital doctors, are reluctant to talk to women about the risks involved, partly because they do not want to seem judgmental or homophobic, they add.
“However, with such a high proportion of young women now having anal sex, failure to discuss it when they present with anorectal symptoms exposes women to missed diagnoses, futile treatments and further harm arising from a lack of medical advice,” the surgeons said.
NHS patient information about the risks of anal sex is incomplete because it only cites STIs, and makes “no mention of anal trauma, incontinence or the psychological aftermath of the coercion young women report in relation to this activity”.
Health professionals’ disinclination to discuss the practice openly with patients “may be failing a generation of young women, who are unaware of the risks”.
Claudia Estcourt, a professor of sexual health and HIV and member of the British Association for Sexual Health and HIV (BASHH), backed the surgeons’ call for doctors to talk openly about anal sex.
“BASHH strongly supports the call for careful, non-judgmental inquiry about anal sex in the context of women with anal symptoms,” she said.
“Within sexual health services, women are routinely asked about the types of sex they have so that comprehensive assessment of likely cause of symptoms, investigations needed and management can be made.
“We find that by explaining why we are asking these questions, asking them in sensitive, non-judgmental ways and giving patients time to answer, are all key to providing the best care.
“We are highly skilled in assessment of women with possible sexually caused anal trauma, whether through consensual or non-consensual sex, and would encourage women with concerns to contact their local sexual health clinic or sexual assault service as appropriate.”
An abuse survivor can sue Visa over videos of her posted to Pornhub, a US court has ruled.
Serena Fleites was 13 in 2014 when, it is alleged, a boyfriend pressured her into making an explicit video which he posted to Pornhub.
Ms Fleites alleges that Visa, by processing revenue from ads, conspired with Pornhub’s parent firm MindGeek to make money from videos of her abuse.
Visa had sought to be removed from the case.
Ms Fleites’ story has featured in the New York Times article The Children of Pornhub – an article which prompted MindGeek to delete millions of videos and make significant changes to its policies and practice.
Her allegations are summarised in the pre-trial ruling of the Central District Court of California.
The initial explicit video, posted to Pornhub without her knowledge or consent, had 400,000 views by the time she discovered it, Ms Fleites says.
She alleges that after becoming aware of the video, she contacted Mindgeek pretending to be her mother “to inform it that the video qualified as child pornography”. A few weeks later it was removed
But the video was downloaded by users and re-uploaded several times, with one of the re-uploads viewed 2.7 million times, she argues.
MindGeek earned advertisement revenue from these re-uploads, it is alleged.
Ms Fleites says her life had “spiralled out of control” – there were several failed suicide attempts and family relationships deteriorated – then while living at a friend’s house, an older man introduced her to heroin.
To fund her addiction, while still a child, she created further explicit videos at this man’s behest, some of which were uploaded to Pornhub.
“While MindGeek profited from the child porn featuring Plaintiff, Plaintiff was intermittently homeless or living in her car, addicted to heroin, depressed and suicidal, and without the support of her family,” Judge Cormac J. Carney’s summary of her allegations says.
MindGeek told the BBC that at this point in the case, the court has not yet ruled on the truth of the allegations, and is required to assume all of the plaintiff’s allegations are true and accurate.
“When the court can actually consider the facts, we are confident the plaintiff’s claims will be dismissed for lack of merit,” the company said.
The Judge ruled that, at the current stage of proceedings, “the Court can infer a strong possibility that Visa’s network was involved in at least some advertisement transactions relating directly to Plaintiff’s videos”.
But Visa argued that the “allegation that Visa recognized MindGeek as an authorized merchant and processed payment to its websites does not suggest that Visa agreed to participate in sex trafficking of any kind”.
It also argued, according to the judge’s account of its position, that a commercial relationship alone does not establish a conspiracy.
But Judge Carney said that, again at this stage of proceedings, “the Court can comfortably infer that Visa intended to help MindGeek monetize child porn from the very fact that Visa continued to provide MindGeek the means to do so and knew MindGeek was indeed doing so.
“Put yet another way, Visa is not alleged to have simply created an incentive to commit a crime, it is alleged to have knowingly provided the tool used to complete a crime”.
A spokesperson for Visa told the BBC that it condemned sex trafficking, sexual exploitation and child sexual abuse material.
“This pre-trial ruling is disappointing and mischaracterizes Visa’s role and its policies and practices. Visa will not tolerate the use of our network for illegal activity. We continue to believe that Visa is an improper defendant in this case.”
Last month MindGeek’s chief executive officer and chief operating officer resigned.
The senior departures followed further negative press in an article in the magazine the New Yorker, examining among other things the company’s moderation policies.
Mindgeek told the BBC that it has:
- zero tolerance for the posting of illegal content on its platforms
- banned uploads from anyone who has not submitted government-issued ID that passes third-party verification
- eliminated the ability to download free content
- integrated several technological platform and content moderation tools
- instituted digital fingerprinting of all videos found to be in violation of our Non-Consensual Content and CSAM Policies to help protect against removed videos being reposted
- expanded its moderation workforce and processes
The company also said that any insinuation that it does not take the elimination of illegal material seriously is “categorically false”.