QotD: “Pornhub partners with child abuse charities to intercept illegal activity”
There are 175,000 searches for sexual images on Pornhub that trigger child-abuse checks every month in the UK alone, according to data provided by a groundbreaking new chatbot designed to intercept illegal activity on the adult site.
The startling figures are revealed as the chatbot is rolled out on Pornhub, the world’s biggest pornography site, after a trial that began in March.
When someone visiting the Pornhub site uses one of 28,000 words that are linked to the abuse of children – including codewords – it will prompt a pop-up message informing them that no results exist and that they are searching for potentially abusive and illegal imagery.
The user will then be directed into a conversation about their behaviour and encouraged to get help from Stop It Now!, a helpline aimed at supporting offenders and preventing people watching online child abuse.
Tech experts at the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) – a UK-based organisation that removes images of child abuse from the internet – have spent more than two years designing the chatbot, using research gathered from offenders by a child protection charity, the Lucy Faithfull Foundation. The project has been funded by Safe Online – End Violence Against Children. Pornhub agreed to host the technology.
This is the first time a chatbot has been used to target potential abusers and the charities say they were pleased when Pornhub’s owner, MindGeek, allowed them to use it on its site. Pornhub is visited by 15 million people a month in the UK alone, a larger audience than many mainstream TV channels.
Susie Hargreaves, the chief executive of the IWF, says moving into prevention is vital. “The courts can’t keep up with this crime,” she says.
“In 2021, we removed a quarter of a million webpages containing child sexual abuse material from the internet – an increase of 64% on 2020. In the first month of the UK lockdown there were eight million attempts to access just three of the websites on our block list. These are really scary numbers.
“Prevention is key and it is to MindGeek’s credit that they stepped up to help. We needed a site with a lot of traffic, which MindGeek have provided, and I should stress that this year we have removed 169,000 pages so far with illegal content from the internet, and only one of them was on Pornhub.”
Child abuse charities are aware that working with MindGeek will be seen as a divisive move. The company has faced a string of serious allegations in recent years related to allegations of nonconsensual videos, films of children and extreme content on its sites.
In 2020 MindGeek announced it would be banning unverified video uploads after allegations by the New York Times that it had been hosting child abuse videos. MindGeek came under huge pressure to make reforms to its operating model – including losing the business of Mastercard and Visa. An investigation in the New Yorker this year reported that nonconsensual and underage videos – including those with children – have ended up on Pornhub.
The investigation follows a 2021 lawsuit that alleged MindGeek violated US sex trafficking and child pornography laws by allowing, and profiting from, its users to post pornographic videos featuring people under the age of 18. MindGeek has denied the allegations.
MindGeek’s chief executive, Feras Antoon, and its chief operating officer, David Tassillo, resigned in June, though MindGeek rejected claims the resignations were linked to the allegations.
Donald Findlater is the director of Stop It Now! and the Lucy Faithfull Foundation. He acknowledges the very serious criticisms of MindGeek in recent years but said working with them has helped reach many offenders at the beginning of their journey.
“We thought very long and hard about a collaboration with Pornhub. But this is pragmatic. We know from speaking to people who contact our helpline or who are arrested that their route to watching the abuse of children often involves accessing legal porn and then searching from there.
“To be clear, that is not the journey all offenders make, but it is the journey for some and we need to serve warnings to them – that children were harmed to make these images and are further harmed by continual viewing.”
The numbers involved in the online child abuse crisis are huge and growing all the time. About 850 people, virtually all of them men, are arrested each month in England and Wales for downloading indecent images or grooming children online. In 2010 there were only 407 arrests across the entire year – a 25-fold rise.
Dan Sexton is the chief technology officer at the IWF. “Our job is to eliminate child sexual abuse so we need to go where we can do that – that would apply to many websites,” he says. “If we can reach people earlier, reduce the number of people who search for children, then it will reduce demand.”
The Guardian has previously reported on concerns around pornography that fetishises child abuse, rape, incest and “revenge porn”.
Hargreaves did not want to comment on wider criticisms that the porn industry promotes fantasies of sex with minors through films acted by adults. “The issue is so huge, we have to focus on real children who are being sexually abused.”
A spokesperson for Pornhub said: “Pornhub has zero tolerance for child sexual abuse material, and we are honoured to partner with leading organisations like IWF and Stop It Now! to deploy this groundbreaking technology that will help deter bad actors before they commit a crime. While Pornhub utilises deterrence messaging worldwide, the chatbot serves as an additional layer of social intervention being piloted in the UK.
“We encourage other tech platforms to implement tools like the chatbot as part of a strategy of deterrence.”
Findlater is optimistic that despite the huge scale of the challenge, the chatbot is just the beginning. He says: “UK law enforcement and tech experts are really at the forefront globally of tackling the online child-abuse crisis and I think this chatbot can continue to grow and develop and eventually protect children from abuse which is what we all want to achieve.”
QotD: “Soma Sara: Extreme porn is rewiring boys’ brains to sanction rape culture”
The testimonials are devastating, yet they keep coming — 50,000 teenagers have posted on Everyone’s Invited since it was launched two summers ago.
Thirteen-year-old girls forced to smile as they are choked by a line of boys in the school lavatories, 15-year-olds watching nude pictures of themselves being shared at parties and projected on the walls, desperate tales of children too terrified to tell adults about the culture of harassment, assault and sexual humiliation that they are enduring in the playground. The authors remain anonymous but the sense of pain is overwhelming. The most recent starts: “I was 12 when I was raped. I had forgotten my homework . . .”
Soma Sara, 23, set up Everyone’s Invited after facing years of humiliation and degradation at the hands of boys while a schoolgirl and student in London. She has now written a book of the same name to make sense of the “torrent of tears” she has witnessed since her Instagram campaign highlighting sexual abuse went viral and schools were forced to conduct inquiries. The quietly spoken, poised graduate is not an obvious Generation Z influencer: she disappeared for months from the news after I interviewed her last year, tries to avoid social media in favour of novels and prefers cafés to clubs.
I meet her in Notting Hill, west London, reeling from her Everyone’s Invited book launch the night before when her old English teacher came to congratulate her. Sara writes beautifully about porn, pick-up culture and surviving the abuse that permeated her childhood and thrived in dark corners as adults obsessed about exam results and bedtimes.
“It’s been harrowing reading the testimonies,” she admits. “It’s psychological, it’s physical, like a friend telling you every few minutes about being raped. I underestimated how much of a toll it would take on my life. I was getting burnt out but it was so moving and emotional to see young people having the strength to share something so intimate and to be so heartbreakingly honest that I felt I had to keep going. I never imagined it would explode on this scale.”
What Sara did not expect was the backlash from mothers of sons, worried that their boys were being stigmatised and might be wrongly challenged over their actions. “I had to learn how to be empathetic enough to understand their fear. The instinctive thing to do is to try and absolve responsibility and protect their children. My book tries to explain that we are all responsible for this rape culture and need to work together to change it. I want to bridge the generational gap and help parents and teachers understand the modern sexual landscape, the rise of social media and online pornography and how it has dramatically changed the way the young live.”
The second of three sisters, Sara was raised by a single father, an American who works in sustainable energy. Her Chinese mother is a writer. The impetus for Everyone’s Invited partly came from Sara’s realisation that she did not want her much younger sister to face the same problems she had as a teenager. “I see even now with my little sister how society has got its tentacles wrapped round her so young. She is told she is pretty and pink and perfect, there is an expectation of behaviour because she is a girl.”
Meanwhile boys, she says, are increasingly being manipulated by toxic alpha-male influencers, promoting a masculinity “that is about domination and suppression and hurting and belittling women and competing and winning”. She is referring to men such as Andrew Tate, recently banned from Facebook and TikTok for his glorification of rape culture and abuse of women. “The older generation have no idea how toxic he is.”
Parents and teachers, she warns, should be worried. “We are in a moment when we need to be really reaching out and helping boys because they are vulnerable to radicalisation, essentially. This is hateful, anti-feminist ideology and boys deserve better, they should be able to talk openly about their mental health, to be emotional and share their vulnerability.
“The masculinity now being promoted is all very aggressive and febrile and about making money and taming women. You have to be this rock of a man who is dominating and objectifying and oppressing women rather than befriending them.” The gap between the generations, she feels, is wider than for years. “Young people genuinely are online all day. They’ll spend eight hours scrolling, it’s such a different way to live from their parents. Their on- and offline personas have become entangled.”
But it is porn that worries her most. “It’s the biggest mountain we have to tackle. Porn is the wallpaper that framed our lives.” One young author recently wrote about how when she was 12 she saw a woman being involved in a sex act with a frozen fish online. Sara says, “It’s far more extreme now, it’s about suppression and objectification and much of the time lacks consent. All young people have seen online porn. It’s transforming and rewiring boys’ brains to normalise sexual violence and sanction rape culture. How can a 30-minute PHSE class challenge that?” Her friends, now in their twenties, are questioning why they were allowed access to such extreme content. “It’s harmed many relationships and the distribution of power. A 14-year-old boy shouldn’t think it’s normal for a girl to cry when she’s having sex.”
Why can’t girls just say “no” when their male peers try to coerce them into abusive behaviour? “Boys would say you’re being a prude or selfish or frigid if you don’t do this. Girls don’t want to get a reputation for being boring or vanilla and adults weren’t telling us what was normal and acceptable. It would have been transformative for my age group if the older generation of women had said, ‘You deserve to prioritise your sexual pleasure too, you should be able to explore your sexuality in a safe way’.”
Instead, she says, talk about sex has remained taboo. “When you are very young and someone asks you to have anal sex it’s too awkward to ask an adult if that’s right, you probably haven’t even spoken to your parents or teachers about kissing. My generation felt so isolated with no one to talk to about these issues. It was peer-on-peer normalisation setting the standards and no adult said — that’s not OK, that’s not what we are doing in real life.”
Casual sex, she says, was the default. “Of course, there were some teens having normal long-term relationships but there was this huge pick-up thing and casual sex was normal.” Sara worries about the blurring between consensual and non-consensual sex. “Our testimonies show that boys will jump to do abusive stuff without asking because they think it is normal.’’
In her book, Soma examines the myriad pressures on her generation of women. “Social media has added another male gaze online with TikTok and Instagram and unrealistic standards of beauty, women getting Botox and liposuction. When you are young you want to feel admired. Getting likes feels empowering but it hasn’t given us any more control.”
Digital sex is real sex, Sara says, for a generation living online. “If you judge and shame young girls for sending nude pics you are creating an even more isolating system, the world is seen as hostile rather than helpful.
“We had so many testimonies of 11-year-olds being forced by older boys to share nudes and then suspended when the boys have shared them round. The abuse was seen as the girls’ fault, they were the sluts. But they are children and need protecting, not punishing.” Sara adds that as a teenager she also faced racism. “It’s like another layer of dehumanisation. Look at the porn categories: Latina, ebony, Asian babe. It’s fetishising racism.”
Sometimes parents and teachers say to boys: “Imagine if it’s your sister or mother, you wouldn’t behave that way, would you?” Sara particularly dislikes this form of explanation in sex lessons. “You shouldn’t need to say that girls are human beings — they don’t belong to anyone.”
Politicians, Sara feels, must take children’s concerns seriously. “They are more interested in what is woke among the young rather than what is actually affecting them and they aren’t acting as role models. Having 56 MPs in parliament who have been accused of assault and another who was done for watching porn at work sends out a message to my generation that this kind of behaviour is OK even when you reach the top.”
Her generation, she says, is not weak or “weirdly woke”. “Generation Z are facing huge stress and insecurity: house prices, a looming recession, inflation and then climate change, whether to have children, it feels quite bleak. The issues that are prioritised aren’t ones that matter most to us. When I go round schools, I see 16-year-olds who are so thoughtful and interesting about abuse online and power imbalances, yet the adults aren’t discussing it with them. Sex education should be as important as maths lessons.”
Sara says the pressure has eased slightly now she is in her twenties. “I think the death of Sarah Everard last year showed my generation that you aren’t safe at any age. It’s second nature for my girlfriends and me now to put our keys between our knuckles, walk fast down a street late at night, check our drinks, and say ‘Text me when you get home’. There is implied violence in all that. But I get less hassle now then as a teenager in school uniform.”
There must be a way of the sexes co-existing harmoniously in the 21st century. “I think we need to help boys and men and communicate with them and let them know how we feel and what reaction they are provoking.
“That’s why I have written Everyone’s Invited, to help men as well as women, boys and girls and parents, we all need to have this sex conversation together.”