The government is insisting its amendments to the Online Safety Bill will keep children safe on the internet.
Powers to define legal but harmful content have been dropped – satisfying some free-speech advocates.
Safety groups say it’s too easy for children to access pornography online.
But ministers reject criticism that the legislation has been watered down, pointing to what they say is better age verification for children.
Research by regulator Ofcom indicates that one in three children currently have access to adult content on social media. They simply lie about their date of birth to get round age restrictions on websites.
As part of the bill, all sites that publish pornography will have to put in enhanced checks to ensure their users really are 18 or over.
This could include adults using secure age verification technology to prove that they possess a credit card and are over 18, or having a third-party service confirm their age against government data.
Sites that fail to act could be fined up to 10% of their global turnover by Ofcom, and bosses of these websites could also be held criminally liable if they fail to co-operate.
Children’s safety groups have long been calling for age verification on porn sites, over fears it is too easy for minors to access publicly available material online.
There were proposals to use what’s known as porn blockers – which would have forced commercial porn providers to verify users’ ages or face a UK ban – but they were dropped in 2019.
Will Gardner, CEO of Childnet International, told the BBC: “In the offline world we have robust systems to prevent children from accessing things which may harm them.
“People have to show ID before purchasing pornography, alcohol and cigarettes, or before watching an 18 film at the cinema. We want to carry these same protections into the online environment.”
There are widespread concerns that exposure to porn is affecting the way young people understand healthy relationships, sex and consent.
Experts who work with children say it puts them at risk from predators and could possibly stop them reporting abuse.
According to online safety group Internet Matters, more than half of mothers fear it gives their children a poor portrayal of women.
It will be up to companies to decide how best to comply with the new rules, but Ofcom may recommend the use of certain age verification technologies.
Already the UK’s largest site with adult content, OnlyFans, has adopted age verification for all new UK subscribers, using third-party tools provided by Yoti and Ondato.
Despite the widespread use of age verification technology in sectors such as online gambling, there are still fears it poses privacy risks. Campaigners have warned that a database of pornography users would be a huge hacking target for blackmailers.
Monica Horten, of the Open Rights Group, which campaigns to preserve digital rights and freedoms, said the bill created a “Hobson’s choice” about content for children.
She said platforms would have to “either lock them out entirely, or sanitise their platform to the level of the youngest child likely to access their service”.
Ms Horten added the only alternative would be to “guess the age” of users with AI systems using biometric data which she said “raised serious privacy concerns”.
But Iain Corby, executive director of the Age Verification Providers Association, said firms he represented had developed a wide range of methods to prove someone’s age online without disclosing their identity to the websites they visit.
“Just as someone on the door of a nightclub might guess your age by how old you look, for those who are well over a legal age artificial intelligence software can estimate your age based on a selfie or even a voice recording, and has been tested to prove it is generally far more accurate than the average bouncer.
“Where there is a stricter legal limit, more traditional forms of age verification may be needed, such as the use of a passport or driving licence.
“The essence of these methods is they allow you prove your age without giving away your identity, so you can remain anonymous online if you wish.”
Walking through the streets of Queens, New York, with her two best friends at the age of 12, Melanie Thompson was being assessed. Two boys from her neighbourhood – a few years older but familiar faces from middle school – made a calculation and invited the girls indoors.
“It was really innocent at first, we were just joking around. Then they gave us alcohol and I ended up blacking out,” Melanie recalled. “When I woke up, my two girlfriends were gone. I was being raped by one of the boys.”
Melanie tried to find her clothes and escape from the basement. But she was trapped; an older man entered. “He told me I wasn’t going anywhere,” she told The Telegraph, waiving her right to anonymity. “My trafficking had started.”
Human trafficking – including sex and child trafficking – has increased worldwide in recent years. In the United States, it is now the fastest growing organised criminal activity.
“We’re seeing a very high degree of an escalation in sexual violence, and a very high degree of human trafficking taking place in and around New York City and throughout the state,” warned Dorchen Leidholdt, director of the Center for Battered Women’s Legal Services at Sanctuary for Families, the largest legal services programme for domestic violence victims in the US.
Escape attempts through a window failed. As punishment, Melanie’s face was burnt with cigarettes, a gun held against her head and told that next time she would be killed. “I know where your sister goes to school,” her pimp threatened, “I know where she lives, where she hangs out.”
Melanie was taken to underground strip clubs and raped. “He would make me dance and then sleep with the men who would stand around watching me dance, this was all before the age of 13,” she says.
Between 6pm and 7am, Melanie would be forced to walk the “track” – roads in the US known for sex work. One evening, another girl on the track said: “I feel like I’ve seen your missing poster in the train stations”.
While Melanie was trafficked just over a decade ago, the pandemic has “absolutely” caused a spike in the number of people being trafficked, Ms Leidholdt said.
“It’s the deadly combination of people losing their jobs, increasing poverty, and many victims sheltering in their homes with abusers. We’ve seen a spike in homicide of domestic violence victims,” Ms Leidholdt said.
During April 1 and Sept 30 2020 – a period in which New York experienced state-wide Covid-19 restrictions – the number of situations in which people needed immediate emergency shelter nearly doubled, compared to the same period in the previous year, according to trafficking helpline Polaris.
One New York Police Department officer confirmed Ms Leidholdt’s statements, telling The Telegraph that human trafficking cases and homicides have skyrocketed since Covid-19 lockdowns and are a “major problem” across the state.
But while New York State has “very effective laws” addressing both sex trafficking – a Class B felony which carries a maximum sentence of 25 years imprisonment – the New York Police Department is failing to step up, Ms Leidholdt said.
“Unfortunately, we find that these laws are not being enforced by the police, or that many prosecutors are not enforcing them,” she said. “That has enabled the sex trafficking industry in our city to increase and flourish – especially during the pandemic, when there has been so much poverty, vulnerability, isolation and violence.”
Alexi Meyers, a former prosecutor in human trafficking cases in Brooklyn, said that the lack of police engagement has led to an increase in pimps trafficking children living from foster care homes.
“We’ve noticed an uptick in recruitment of children outside child welfare centres [foster care homes] – that’s due to a shift in policy where the NYPD aren’t arresting the sex buyers, and there’s an attitude of free markets, and like, open air sex markets – where it’s not even hidden anymore out on the street,” Mrs Meyers said.
“One detective told us last year that on Saturday nights the Brooklyn track looks like the Long Island Expressway – a traffic jam of men rolling through to buy sex,” she added.
Ms Leidholdt, who is also a co-founder of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, said communication between human trafficking advocates and the NYPD has deteriorated over the past two years.
“When the pandemic hit, there was so much backsliding in terms of our ability to engage with police. We’ve worked hard to reach the NYPD but we have our work cut out for us, let’s put it that way,” Ms Leidholdt added.
It comes as the NYPD’s crime statistics for August 2022 saw an overall increase by 26 per cent compared to the previous year. Five of the seven major crime categories saw a jump: a 38 per cent increase in robbery, a 34.7 per cent increase in grand larceny, and a 31.1 per cent rise in burglary.
Approached for comment, a spokesperson for the deputy commissioner of public information said the NYPD had shifted its policy in 2017, which has led to overall arrests of prostitution-related charges declining, from 2,682 in 2014 to 193 arrests in 2021. There have been fewer arrests of sex workers – which trafficking advocates support – however, arrests of pimps and buyers have also decreased.
“Arrests of buyers (johns) and promoters (pimps) of sex have also gone down,” the spokesperson said. They added that the NYPD is refocusing efforts to cases involving sex trafficking, indentured servitude and the exploitation of children.
When Melanie was found by the police 13 years ago, she was arrested under a warrant used for runaway children. While waiting for officials, Melanie said she was handcuffed to a metal bench.
“They were trying to intimidate me, saying ‘you’re being arrested for prostitution’. The cops were making jokes. They were saying: ‘How bad do you want to see your mum?’” she recalls. “They left me there for a while. I was banging on the chair that I was attached to and trying to get someone’s attention because I really had to use the bathroom.”
Melanie said she urinated over herself before she was allowed to see officials.
Activists say police have engaged in how to better support victims of trafficking over the past decade, since Melanie’s detention, but victim support and training is still greatly needed. The DCPI spokesperson said the NYPD coordinates with several social service agencies who work with sex workers to help connect them to prompt and supportive services.
Local girls and women account for the largest group who are sex trafficked in New York, according to Ms Leidholdt, particularly those living in vulnerable households or foster care, LGBTQ+ people who are made homeless, and those with histories of sexual abuse.
In Queens, there is also a high incidence of sex trafficking through brothels of Asian women, principally from China and Korea, most of whom are undocumented, Ms Leidholdt said.
“There is significant trafficking from Latin America, highly organised family-based trafficking, typically of young women. They promise vulnerable young women, who are usually in conditions of poverty and teenagers, romance, marriage and support. Then they slowly groom them into sex trafficking – scores of women,” she added.
Mrs Meyers added that “communities often traffic their own”. In 2020, 42 per cent of trafficking victims in New York were brought in by a member of their families, according to Polaris. Thirty-nine per cent were recruited through an intimate partner or marriage proposal.
Ms Thompson, Ms Leidholdt and Mrs Meyers are all calling for better engagement and support services from the NYPD.
“There’s a lot of talk around what we do to keep [victims] safe or get them out, but there’s nothing really that focuses or targets on rehabilitation, so that we do not relapse,” Melanie said.
“Stop the arrest of people who are in prostitution, but keep the criminal penalties against sex buyers and exploiters, including brothel owners,” said Mrs Meyers, adding: “Seeing a 12-year-old child pregnant with a child from an abuser, there’s nothing worse. You need to fight for these women.”
At least Liz Truss broke one of the last glass ceilings. I don’t mean as a female prime minister, of course, since she was merely the third. But Truss is the first woman I’ve seen reach the highest office propelled by gargantuan self-belief alone.
Until now, “winging it” has been regarded as a male preserve. Indeed, feminists witnessing a corporate bro flame-out or the career of Chris Grayling have been known to pray: “Lord, grant me the confidence of a mediocre man.”
I’ve often had to persuade brilliant, well qualified but hesitant women friends to go for big promotions. “Oh, but there’s probably someone better,” they say. Then they point out the one minor flaw in their otherwise golden CV. “What if I’m found out?”
Meanwhile, younger, less experienced men are lobbing in applications, to wing it on bluster and charm. So well done, Liz Truss. You went where your timid, try-hard sisters feared to tread: to the very top and down again. “At least I got to be prime minister,” you reportedly said, as people boggled at their mortgage bills.
The shameless, narcissistic, talent-free entitlement. Seldom seen in a woman — until now. You and Penny Mordaunt have forged a new path, so that future generations of rubbish but ruthless women may follow. To stand on the shoulders of idiots.
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.”
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.”
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”.
In a restaurant in Manchester last Wednesday my phone began to vibrate so often that I thought it was in meltdown. Minutes earlier I had posted a message on Twitter reacting to the findings of an inquiry into the grooming and abuse of young girls in Telford.
The message read: “Hard to understand why Telford scandal is not front of every paper. 1000 children.” It went viral and was eventually viewed two million times.
A three-year independent inquiry into child sexual exploitation in the Shropshire town had uncovered child abuse lasting decades. So why were the media not shouting about it in every newspaper, radio broadcast and TV bulletin? Was it apathy? Concern at media outlets over how to report on the culturally awkward subject of Asian men, largely of Pakistani heritage, abusing scores of children? Or are we so fascinated by the power struggles of Tory politicians that we don’t care about life in towns and villages far away from London?
Halfway through my starter, I asked my lunch partner, Nazir Afzal, the former chief prosecutor for northwest England who brought down the Rochdale child sex abuse ring, what he believed.
He blamed apathy. Fatigue. We’ve seen it all before. “At first everybody was reading about the Ukraine war and talking about it. But that has started to fall away. It’s the same with the child sex gangs,” he said.
The blitz of stories about grooming gangs has felt endless. Court cases. Council reviews. Police watchdog reports. Last month a report by the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC), called Operation Linden, found that South Yorkshire police let down 1,400 abuse victims in Rotherham — enough children to fill a decent-size secondary school.
The same month, Greater Manchester’s authorities published their own review of historical child sex abuse, which found children had been left exposed to sexual exploitation because of “serious failings” by the police and Oldham council. This included a council welfare officer convicted of 30 rapes.
Child sex gangs have been rooted out in Newcastle, Oxford, Halifax, Keighley, Derby, Peterborough, Bristol, Huddersfield, Manchester, Coventry, Middlesbrough, Burton-on-Trent, Bradford, Birmingham, Nottingham, Hull, Sheffield … I could go on, but you get the picture.
“They’re in the news for 24 hours, then it’s gone,” Afzal said. “It’s today’s newspaper, but not tomorrow’s.”
And after each scandal nothing seems to change. Like the police and social services, we move on, and lurch to the next scandal of mass rape in a post-industrial town. That’s the problem. But how do we fix it? Be more proactive, Afzal argues. He makes a good point.
Victims often feel criminalised and made to believe it is their fault — that they chose a certain lifestyle and are paying for it. These young girls are so traumatised by their abuse that they are rightly suspicious of the authorities.
They find it hard to trust social workers and detectives. Children like that are not going to easily approach such people, so you have to go out and find them.
Roughly a decade ago, there was a scheme in Greater Manchester in which social workers would go out at night and visit the staff and customers of the night-time economy – the takeaway shops, pool halls and taxi ranks. This is an economy that, for whatever reason, has a disproportionately high number of Asian men.
It is in the dimly lit streets and litter-strewn pavements of the night-time economy that the perpetrators meet their victims, luring them in with gifts of food, cigarettes, booze and free rides. A victim’s mother once told me her 14-year-old daughter was performing oral sex in exchange for a bag of chips or a box of chicken. She cried to me on the phone. The whole family is broken.
The 14-year-old met her abusers in a chicken shop. Local authorities, like all public services, are firefighting, with budget cuts due to austerity and holes in their finances due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Money is stretched thinly – and proactive work is always the first to go. But police and social services must recognise this repeating pattern and disrupt it. Set up teams of community police officers and social workers. Get out there and target the night-time economy. Find those victims and earn their trust. Break the cycle.