The government of Bangladesh has started sending emergency food and aid to the tens of thousands of women working in the country’s commercial sex industry as brothels across the country close.
To try to contain the spread of the Covid-19 virus, the authorities have ordered the lockdown of the sex industry, closing the country’s biggest brothel in Goalanda in the Rajbari District of Dhaka until 5 April along with many others across the country.
The closures will leave many of the estimated 100,000 women working in brothels in Bangladesh with no way of supporting themselves or their children.
“We don’t earn much here, I make enough to survive day to day and most of us are in debt,” said one 26-year-old woman who has worked in a brothel in Goalanda for more than seven years. “What will happen if things don’t get better? Yesterday I needed to get some food but all my money is stuck in online banking apps and all the cashpoints are closed. I managed to borrow some from a friend, otherwise I would have been in big trouble.”
Local government official Rubayet Hayat, of the sub-district of Goalanda, said food and financial aid from the disaster management and relief ministry would start to be distributed by the end of this week.
“There are some 1,800 [prostituted women] in the brothels under our jurisdiction. We have asked for 30kgs of rice and 2,000 taka (£20) [for each of these women],” he said. “We have got the initial approval and are hoping the funds will be sanctioned by the end of this week.”
Healthcare workers at a charity hospital near to the brothel in Goalanda said more help would be needed to prevent an outbreak of Covid-19 in brothels and red light districts.
“The brothel area is very dirty and unhygienic. The rooms are inhumanly tiny. The house owners built the rooms strategically for more profit so that they can fit more rooms in a small area,” said Zulfekar Ali, the in-charge doctor at the Gonoshasthaya Kendra charity hospital. “In that same tiny room, the [prostituted women] live, work and often cook. Many share common toilets.”
He added that many women working in the brothels are often reluctant to access healthcare services because they fear being shamed and stigmatised. “We are using loud hailers to spread awareness in the brothels, telling the women who are there to wash their hands properly,” he said.
Prostitution is legal in Bangladesh and the government estimates that around 100,000 women are working in the sex industry. One study reports that less than 10% of those working in prostitution entered the sex trade voluntarily.
So many truths hidden in plain sight (I have ‘edited’ the use of the term ‘sex worker’ to more accurately reflect the reality of the situation), and waiting till the end of the article to mention that over 90% of the women in the sex industry are coerced, and not even bothering to mention that many of these ‘sex workers’ will actually be girls as young as 12! I have sent a complaint email to The Guardian, although they have never once replied, please feel free to copy or adapt the below:
I am writing to complain about the article “Bangladesh sends food aid to sex workers as industry goes into lockdown” (https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2020/apr/06/bangladesh-sends-food-aid-to-sex-workers-as-industry-goes-into-lockdown).
There is something incredibly dishonest about writing an article on ‘sex workers’ in Bangladesh, and only admitting in the final paragraph that over 90% of the women you are writing about are coerced, while the side-bar links to an article that reveals that many of these ‘workers’ will be girls as young as 12.
Under any other circumstances, coerced sex is called rape, but, somehow, if the rapist hands over money afterwards, this rape is relabelled ‘work’. ‘Sex work’ is a partisan, obfuscating term, it turns a sexual abuse issue into a mere labour issue, and disappears the abusers.
The Guardian is still asking for financial support, I will not give you a penny while you are still calling commercially raped women and children ‘workers’.
Amazingy, The Guardian has responded, and changed the article!
Thank you for your email.
We put your points to the relevant editor who replied:
Yes, in this instance I do agree that the headline was not what it should have been and the reader makes a fair point. We have changed the headline and moved the last paragraph up to near the top of the piece.
We take great care to distinguish between the terms prostitution, sex trafficking and sex work, and the only place that the term ‘sex workers’ was used in the body of this piece was in a direct quote from the Bangladeshi politician. At all other times we used “women working in brothels” as we have no way of knowing how many of the women receiving these aid packages are coerced or working in the brothels of their own free will.
Prostitute and sex worker are very politically charged terms and we usually use the words “women working in prostitution” when not referring to sex trafficking.
I hope this goes some way to addressing your concerns.
The current article is here (same url, changed headline):
An archived version of the original article can be found here:
I’m very angry today
Yesterday I went to the women’s march. It was great. It felt a little shallow, some people had signs with memes or fandom things in them. There was a guy with a sign that said “real men respect women” which lol.
But there were young women, a collective of old women who had knitted a whole sign out of yarn, a collective of romani women dennouncing discrimination and misogyny they face, little girls with their moms, there were marxist women, women fighting for education, there were some people with trans flags too, and also many signs making a symbol out of their female bodies and making chants referencing it, there were marxist women, there were women pro and anti hijab/forced modesty, and women pro and against prostitution. It was a very plural experience, and that felt good, to have us all screaming against sexual violence and sitting down in honor of the women murdered in 2019. It was a good reminder that we’re very plural, and that the people who would demand to control the narrative really don’t control all of what feminism is. Too much difference of opinion weakens a fight, but in such a time when any difference among feminism is severely punished, it’s important to realize that yes, different opinions can coexist. Because that’s the important thing, the march I attended was peaceful.
That was not the case in Madrid or Barcelona. In the later, they had “kill terfs” signs. In the former, a group of women who are prostitution and gender abolitionists had a really big sign demanding an end to sexual slavery and explotation and people tried to cover their sign, when that failed, they tried to cut it up, with A KNIFE, people took one of the signs down and tried to break it and stomp on it claiming it was “transphobic” (all the sign said was “stop misogynistic violence” but you know, it was made by a group that supports the abolition of prostitution so, they’re Satan) the feminists in question were pushed around violently, one was punched, someone tried to threaten an old woman and her dog. The people who did it? Some were part of THE MARCH ORGANIZING COMMITTEE, others were trans activists with pink bands on their arms meant to signify and “inclusive march”.
So I read that this morning, and I’m very very angry, but for once, that anger feels good. It feels righteous, like anger I can turn into something. Because I went on Twitter, and there were so many women talking about this, and not just random gender critical women, but women who have been historical figures of Spanish feminism for decades. Important activists. Journalists with a very big following. People who had no real clue what was going on but the violence didn’t sit right with them. A deputee of our Congress just casually rting gender critical articles. There has been a lot of talk on tv here over the last few days over the divisions among feminism especially when it comes to self-id and prostitution/pornography, and it is very clear whose side the mass media is on. But our perspectives were brought to the forefront, and they were listened to somewhat. And after yesterday’s circus so many more people are speaking out about who the problem is and who actually causes these so-called divisions. I don’t know if this means that we have a chance to influence things, we’re gonna have our own gender self-id row very soon (also our Minister of Equality said, about the proposal to make a law that deals with sex trafficking since we have so many cases of that, that she’s “for the complete abolition of sex trafficking but she has friends who are for the regulation of prostitution so :(” and so many people are calling bullshit, but there’s being talk of a law tackling trafficking by activists groups, the conversation is out in the open, now we must move our pieces)
I don’t know if this new notoriety is gonna make anyone listen, but we’re here, we’re condemning the absolutely despicable behaviors promoted by liberal feminists and trans activists, and so many people with a big following are doing it. For once it really feels like they won’t shut us up.
Ok I’m gonna tell you what they did in France and Belgium.
A prostitution survivor named Fiji was holding a sign that said : I am a survivor of incest and prostitution and I am an abolitionist. «Abolitionist» is what we call anti-prostitution feminists in France.
As she was bravely marching, the liberals kept following her, laughing at her and taking pictures to identify her. Then some girls came behind her, one of them asked : «are you against prostitution ?» she replied «yes», the girl said «I am pro sex» and, still smiling, tried to steal the sign from Fiji’s hands. All the feminists that were supporting her held on to her sign and protected her. The liberals were laughing. The feminists were outraged «how are you not ashamed ? How dare you do that to a victim ? How dare you speak of feminism ?» they asked. The liberals laughed some more and started chanting «DEATH TO ABOLITIONISTS».
The liberals kept following them and laughing… feminist survivors were not safe… in a march for women’s rights. After a while, the liberals took out their own sign it said : transfeminists. You can see them behind Fiji on the picture I posted above.
Anti-prostitution activist Joana and her group (which included ex prostituted women) were attacked and punched in the face by men and women wearing masks.
«They saw us preparing for the march, taking out our banner and they jumped us, kicked us, hit us». Their big anti-prostitution banner was stolen. Joana tried to run after the thieves to get her banner back. As a result 5 people wearing masks beat her up in the middle of the street. The police had to intervene to stop the beating.
Later that day a local «anti-fascist» group wearing masks posted a picture of themselves proudly posing with a racist banner they had stolen. On the ground is Joana’s banner that says “survivors, feminists, abolitionists fighting” and “collectif abolition porno prostitution” which I don’t need to translate I think.
After realizing that Joana’s banner was visible the “anti-fascist” page changed the picture.
Too late. They have been reported to the police.
Several survivors of prostitution have reported that as they were marching some liberals/trans activists were chanting «death to abolitionists» and «death to fascists». A prostituted friend of mine added : «there were no fascist near us, yet the trans activists were looking at us, they were menacing and trying to provoke us, you could tell they wanted to beat us up». One liberal screamed “no feminism without whores !”, others were getting close enough to whisper “death to abolitionists” in women’s ears and then disappear into the crowd like some sort of sick game.
On facebook, prostitution survivor Emma wrote this post:
«I just came back from the march for women’s rights in Bruxelle. We had abolitionist signs. We were booed several times by women who chanted «death to abolionists, death to fascists» looking us straight in the eyes.
So I had to endure the violence of a pimp, the discrimination that goes with prostitution and now I am told to die during a march for women’s rights because I am speaking up about the suffering I’ve been through.»
She added a video to her post in which we can see and hear liberal women chanting «death to abolitionists».
All that being said and speaking from my experience in France, liberal pseudo-feminism is more of a cult than anything else. They are a minority who have built an echo chamber for themselves, mostly on the internet, and when out in the real world, facing their limits as an idiotic and self centered little cult they shout and threaten and grin and kick but normal people don’t understand a word they are saying. They remind me of skinheads actually. Dangerous and pathetic at the same time.
Anyway, nothing can stop actual feminism and sisterhood.
QotD: “COVID-19 puts women in New Zealand’s sex trade in more danger than ever; why isn’t the decrim lobby helping?”
On March 21, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that the country would go on lockdown in response to COVID-19. She explained:
“We are fortunate to still be some way behind the majority of overseas countries in terms of cases, but the trajectory is clear. Act now, or risk the virus taking hold as it has elsewhere.
We currently have 102 cases. But so did Italy once. Now the virus has overwhelmed their health system and hundreds of people are dying every day.
The situation here is moving at pace, and so must we.
We have always said we would act early, decisively, and go hard. And we will.”
Ardern introduced the four-tiered alert system the government would be using, to first Prepare to tackle the virus, then Reduce risk of community transmission, then further Restrict person-to-person contact, and finally Eliminate risk by imposing full quarantine.
By Monday, March 23rd, New Zealand moved to Alert Level 3 and prepared to move to Level 4 after 48 hours. Our borders are closed and people are being asked to stay home and remain two metres away from each other, for instance when “undertaking essential shops.” Essential services are still operating, and schools are closed except to the children of people who keep them running. Ardern has clarified that “there will be no tolerance” for breach of orders, adding:
“The police and the military will be working together, and there is assistance at the ready if required. If people do not follow the messages here today, then the police will remind people of their obligations, they have the ability to escalate if required, they can arrest if needed, they can detain if needed.”
Many New Zealanders take pride in Ardern’s leadership. The government has prepared financial packages for employees, businesses, and sole traders to reduce the financial burden as people are asked to self-isolate to stop the virus from spreading, and laid out the details on a Unite Against COVID-19 website.
Women’s Refuge, an organization that oversees a network of domestic violence safehouses throughout New Zealand, has acknowledged that one of the biggest concerns of the lockdown is that many women and children are not safe at home. Chief executive Dr. Ang Jury explained that, “although it’s clearly very necessary, self-isolating will likely mean an escalation of violence for many women.”
The alternative for many women would be to join the 34,000+ New Zealanders who suffer severe housing deprivation. Homeless women are more vulnerable than their male counterparts, also because of the high risk of sexual violence. For women, the threats of domestic violence, homelessness, and prostitution are connected, and many women in prostitution have suffered domestic violence as well as homelessness and transience.
This begs the question: what advice is the New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective (NZPC) issuing in response to COVID-19? This is a question that needs to be asked for another important reason: prostitution also lends itself to the spread of disease. The Ministry of Health funds NZPC to the tune of $1.1 million per year ostensibly for this reason: to reduce the spread of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). The NZPC’s approach is to distribute condoms, pamphlets, and a 125-page manual titled, Stepping Forward, to “assist” prostituted women in dealing with the problem themselves. About half of Stepping Forward is dedicated to describing common STDs, using small, badly photocopied images of genital warts, gonorrhea, and chlamydia as they appear on men’s genitals.
A handbook produced by the Department of Labour’s Occupational Safety and Health Service advises women in the sex industry that, in the event of condom breakage, they should remove semen by “squatting and squeezing it out using vaginal muscle exertion. Fingers can be used to scoop.”
In 2005, a 24-year-old woman was strangled, bound, raped, run over, and killed after an argument with a john resulting from his refusal to use a condom.
Those who defend decriminalized prostitution often argue that completely eliminating the risk of the violence and disease involved with prostitution is not possible, because prostitution is inevitable and cannot be stopped, and because it is essential — some men simply cannot live without sexual access to women. So, offering women pamphlets and condoms, and normalizing prostitution by legitimizing it legally, is the best that can be done.
Yet after the COVID-19 lockdown was announced, NZPC updated the front page of its website to announce that prostitution must be halted by midnight on Wednesday. The page reads:
“COVID-19 INFORMATION: INSTRUCTIONS TO STOP PHYSICAL CONTACT SEX WORK BY MIDNIGHT WEDNESDAY 25 MARCH 2020
NZPC recognises that sex work is work and is the main form of income for a number of people.
However, with New Zealand going to a Level 4 alert, sex workers are asked to comply with the requirement to stay at home during the four-week period of isolation indicated by the Government. Only those in essential services will be permitted to work. Sex work is not classed among the essential services (doctors, pharmacists, police, ambulance, fire, vets, food production, and supermarkets).
Therefore NZPC wants all sex workers to comply with the four-week closure.
Failure to comply could result in officials arriving at your place of work to enforce compliance.”
The message concludes with a link to the Work and Income New Zealand (WINZ) website, and to the government’s Unite Against COVID-19 site.
There are a few concessions involved in this notification on NZPC’s website. One is that prostitution can be stopped — and immediately — if the political will is there and the need is considered urgent. The fact that the rate of sexual violence against women in prostitution is higher than that committed in any other context has simply never constituted an urgent enough threat. The second concession here is that men do not actually need prostitution — it is not essential, a human need, or a right. It is something men can live without.
There are also some assumptions underlying NZPC’s decision to target prostituted women with its instructions to “STOP PHYSICAL CONTACT SEX WORK BY MIDNIGHT WEDNESDAY.” According to studies that NZPC helped to carry out, 72 per cent of these women are stuck in the sex industry due to circumstance. A 2007 survey conducted by NZPC to review the current laws showed that 10 per cent of women in prostitution say they “don’t know how to leave,” 8.5 per cent say they “can’t get help to leave,” 24 per cent “don’t know what else to do,” and 29.5 per cent “have no other income.”
Yet NZPC assumes that it is these very women who have the power and responsibility to shut down the industry. They assume it is the “supply,” not the “demand” — or more accurately, the victims, not the perpetrators — who should be threatened with state intervention in case of “failure to comply.” Will prostituted women be arrested? Are we going to see a return of the brothel raids that police used to carry out before the Prostitution Reform Act? Will this be endorsed by NZPC?
That the NZPC is putting full responsibility in the hands of these women, who have little if any alternative, and threatening them with police intervention if they fail to comply, demonstrates that the organization is not a feminist one, nor anything resembling a union standing for workers’ rights.
This response to COVID-19 highlights the fact that full decriminalization of prostitution does not actually protect women.
On Tuesday, the survivor-led organization Wahine Toa Rising (WTR) sent a letter to ministers in parliament asking, “What financial and other support is available for women and young people who are currently in prostitution,” and, “What measures are in place to ensure women and young people in prostitution are protected from catching or transmitting the COVID-19 virus?”
The least that a Ministry of Health-funded organization could do for women in prostitution in response to COVID-19 is to demand an allocation of funds from the government to help women exit the industry safely, and to insist on the banning of buying and pimping women, rather than threaten abused women into staying home, when they are part of a demographic that makes them especially likely not to have a safe home to go to.
NZPC tends to minimize the true hardships involved with prostitution. In a 2017 article announcing the launch of a safehouse to help women exit the sex trade, NZPC programmes coordinator Dame Catherine Healy claimed that only 10 per cent of women need assistance leaving prostitution. This does not agree with global research, survivor testimony, or NZPC’s own surveys.
This leads to another point: prostitution is an industry that profits from crisis, and this crisis may be no exception.
The workforce is gendered — this is the problem that pay gap campaigning points to. Care work tends to be feminized — 92 per cent of New Zealand’s nursing staff and 72 per cent of teaching staff are women. In industries and sectors that are not “feminized,” women tend to be paid less, considered more dispensable, and are more at risk of losing work and a living wage. In cases where companies are shedding staff, women will likely carry the burden disproportionately. Airlines, for instance, are likely to be sending stewardesses home as they reduce business.
This is how crisis tends to unfold and one reason why it typically leads to an expansion of the sex trade — because women still need to shelter and feed themselves and their children during economic crises. Men will exploit their increased dependence regardless of the circumstances. Hell, they are apparently already making corona virus-themed pornography.
If New Zealand’s sex trade expands because of women’s vulnerability and the economic fallout resulting from COVID-19, it goes without saying that this will lead to a spread of disease, and not only this respiratory illness. Syphilis is on the rise in New Zealand. In the year ending March 2019, 548 cases were reported, up from 82 in 2013.
Yet NZPC continues to simply hand out condoms and pamphlets and promote the legitimization of the sex trade. It offers no exit services, and, as stated, even undermines the need for them when other people take on the task. It does not protect women from danger. The advice NZPC offers women in Stepping Forward, in terms of “dealing with violent clients,” is:
“Make as much noise as possible to attract attention. Try calling FIRE, a passerby will probably pay more attention. If you wear a whistle around your neck, blow it in his ear.”
NZPC later says that “getting loud” can “backfire because some clients are just wanting you to do this so that they have an excuse.”
Before the lockdown was announced, on March 19, liberal news site The Spinoff released an article titled, “Covid-19: What happens when touching people is part of your job?” which included reference to prostitution. In it, Healy casually advised women in prostitution:
“There’s also cam work, but that’s not a big money earner generally. When you think we have several thousand sex workers at the moment, the best suggestion is for them to find alternative income.”
That week, Healy responded to an inquiry she received from a woman asking her for help by sending her a screenshot of the WINZ Job Seeker form, totally ignoring the fact that the nature of her job is to help women whose circumstances are desperate.
Prostitution is also correlated with family violence through pornography, of which camming is a form. The filming of prostitution to make pornography has been called a “public health crisis,” and in New Zealand, approximately 54 per cent of child abusers are known to use pornography. Many of these porn-consuming men will now be spending more time at home, with their children.
As Wahine Toa Rising founder Ally Marie Diamond says:
“Full decriminalization only protects the pimps, buyers, brothel owners, and those who profit from the sex trade. As COVID-19 has proven, women in the sex trade in New Zealand are not protected. They are not safer, they are ultimately in more danger now than they would have been prior to 2003. When are we going to start opening our eyes and waking up to what is happening around us? It really is time to look at it another way.”
Another thing COVID-19 has proven is that when a threat is considered urgent enough and the political will is there, the government and the New Zealand public are willing to commit to a course of action that will not just reduce but eliminate that threat.
While we are in isolation, many people will be reflecting more deeply on their lives and relationships. Prostitution and porn affect us all. They perpetuate rape and objectification and there is no end to how much and how deeply they affect sexual relations and the culture we live in. Right now, these industries and their normalization are contributing directly to a situation in which many women and children are unsafe, including at home, under quarantine.
Perhaps a few questions for us all to consider while we are on lockdown are these: isn’t men’s violence against women and children an urgent threat, worthy of eliminating? Can it end as long as rape is accepted as inevitable, and normalized and made profitable through prostitution and porn? What would it really look like for us, individually and collectively, if we took the steps necessary to eliminate the threat of men’s violence against women and children from our lives, and from our culture?
Lisa is one of a number of young women who have told the BBC they have been pressured into acts of violence in the bedroom.
She says she willingly “got together” with a guy she “kind of knew” at a house party but was shocked when he began repeatedly biting down on her body.
“When he pulled his mouth away, his teeth were still clenched. I thought he was going to tear chunks out of my skin,” she says.
Lisa, which is not her real name, said there was no conversation beforehand about whether she wanted to be bitten and she was physically shocked by it.
She says she was crying and asked him to stop “but there’s only so much you can do when somebody is a lot larger and stronger than you are”.
Online culture is changing behaviour in the bedroom and what was once regarded as strictly fetish is rapidly becoming the norm.
BBC Disclosure and BBC 5Live commissioned a survey of 2,049 UK men aged 18 to 39 to assess how so-called “rough sex” was being navigated.
In the survey, 71% of the men who took part said they had slapped, choked, gagged or spat on their partner during consensual sex.
One-third (33%) of the men who had done this said they would not ask verbally whether their partner would like them to do it either before or during sexual activity.
What is driving this interest in so-called “rough sex”? Our survey of young men pointed to a big factor – pornography.
More than half of the men (57%) who had said they had slapped, choked, gagged and spat on partners said pornography had influenced their desire to do so.
One in five (20%) said it had influenced them a “great deal”.
A man called George – not his real name – told the BBC Disclosure programme A Question of Consent that he had tried choking and slapping during sex.
“You see it in porn and think, ‘oh, that looks class’ and you try it,” he says.
However, George says it can be disappointing when re-enacting what you watch on free pornography sites.
“It never turns out the way it looks in porn,” he says. “Obviously, they are actors, even though you watch and you like it, when you try it in real life you are disappointed quite a lot.”
Dr Fiona Vera-Gray, from Durham University, researches the clips, titles and thumbnails found on the front pages of the world’s most popular free pornography sites.
She says she found evidence on the first page of the sites of all kinds of videos that would not be allowed to be uploaded under their stated terms and conditions.
Dr Vera-Gray says she even found evidence of videos that “promote, endorse or glorify sexual violence, such as rape”.
She says: “Porn has changed the landscape of what’s going on for kids and so if you think your 12-year-old hasn’t seen pornography, I’d really question that.”
BBC Disclosure approached the most popular free pornography sites for an interview. None agreed.
Lisa, who is in her 20s, told the programme how she felt after her encounter.
“I was just in shock,” she says.
She says she felt a bit guilty because she had “gotten with him”.
“Could I have done more? Could I have said more? Could I have left?” she says.
She asks herself: “Did you do enough to stop it?”
Brenna Jessie, from Rape Crisis Scotland, says that feelings of guilt are really common among victims of abuse.
“I think there will be a lot of women who have consented to sex but who have not consented to violence who won’t necessarily recognise their experience or understand their experience to be sexual violence,” she says.
Ms Jessie believes that society is to blame for those feelings.
“We live in a society that really shames victims and blames them for not doing more to keep themselves safe rather than asking the perpetrators – or the people, who have committed these acts – why they have done that?”
QotD: “For some male students, treating a sexual partner — especially one who was not suitably hot or selective — with roughness or disinterest and then bragging about it the next day became a form of image management”
There are two contradictory trends identified in reports about young people’s sex lives. One is that they are virtually celibate, too busy playing Fortnite, watching porn, scrolling through Instagram or otherwise living screen-mediated lives to actually connect with another human being. The other is that “hook-up culture” and a plethora of Tinder-type swipe apps have made sex so accessible that everyone is bed-hopping in a nonstop, booze-fuelled bacchanal. The truth lies somewhere in between. School and university students are, in fact, having less vaginal intercourse than they were 25 years ago (the studies quoted in the press, though, don’t ask about oral or anal sex, both of which have become more common), but that’s partly because the context in which they indulge has shifted.
In a relationship, couples tend to have intercourse regularly; students who engage primarily in hook-ups, even those they consider “consistent”, do so only sporadically — an irony, given the dissolute presumptions about hook-up culture.
“Hook-up”, a word adolescents bandy about incessantly, is intentionally vague. In reality, about 35%-40% of student hook-ups include intercourse, which means 60% or more do not. Because of the ambiguity, however, students tend to radically overestimate what their classmates are up to (not to mention allow others to draw inflated conclusions about their own exploits). This can fuel feelings of inadequacy and Fomo, contributing to pressure to keep pace through undesired sex, coerciveness or aggression. According to the Online College Social Life Survey, which encompassed more than 20,000 students across America, close to three-quarters of both male and female students will hook up at least once by the time they are 18. The average number of partners? Seven to eight. Not exactly the fall of Rome. A full quarter never hook up during their time as a student and 40% hook up fewer than three times, though 20% of students do hook up 10 times or more.
Boys in my interviews were less likely than girls to express anger, betrayal, resentment or feelings of being “used” in hook-ups. That’s partly because hook-up culture aligns with the values of conventional masculinity: conquest over connection, sex as status seeking, partners as disposable. The Online College Social Life Survey found that 29%-53% of girls climaxed in their most recent hook-up, as opposed to 56%-81% of boys. In the words of one boy: “It sounds bad, but in a one-time thing, I don’t really care.”
For some male students, treating a sexual partner — especially one who was not suitably hot or selective — with roughness or disinterest and then bragging about it the next day became a form of image management, a pre-emptive strike against potential ridicule, the loss of social currency. So, when boys assured me that their friends and classmates would never sexually assault a girl (it was always those other boys), that felt like a very low bar: having sex that is technically “legal” is hardly the same as sex that is ethical, mutual, reciprocal or kind. “Casual sex can be great,” observed one student. “But you can forget to treat the other person as a human being.”
It’s no secret that today’s children are guinea pigs in a colossal porn experiment. Whereas (mostly) boys of previous generations might have passed around a filched copy of Playboy, today anyone with a broadband connection can instantly access anything you can imagine — and a whole lot of stuff you don’t want to imagine.
Some boys felt that their porn use had no effect on them, many of them asserting: “I can tell the difference between fantasy and reality.” That, as it happens, is the instinctive response people give to any suggestion of media influence — none of us wants to think we’re so impressionable, though we’re quick to recognise that others are. But decades of research show that what we consume becomes part of our psyches, unconsciously affecting how we feel, think and behave.
Porn use has been associated with boys’ real-life badgering of girls for nude pictures. Both boys and girls who consume porn at younger ages are more likely to become sexually active sooner than peers, to have more partners, to have higher rates of pregnancy, to view sexual aggression more positively and women more negatively, and to engage in the riskier and more atypical behaviours porn depicts.
Male porn users report less satisfaction than others with their sex lives, their own performance in bed and with their female partners’ bodies. There is even speculation that because of its convenience as well as low physical and emotional investment — porn never rejects you, never makes demands of you, never wants you to talk about your feelings — the rise in porn use is partially responsible for the lower rates of intercourse among millennials. That reduction of pleasure in partnered sex was what concerned most of my interviewees.
One student called Reza believed porn increased his awareness of real women’s physical imperfections. “I’ve got things narrowed down to a very, very specific body type that turns me on,” he explained. “It’s probably not all driven by porn, but I figured out what I liked from that and I think I wouldn’t have otherwise. It doesn’t ruin my relationships, but it’s not nice when I’m trying to talk my girlfriend into liking a part of her body, but I’m secretly thinking, well, actually, I would prefer …” And Kevin, a school pupil, said that after watching “all those skinny white women” (he’s Caucasian), he was having a hard time becoming aroused by his black girlfriend’s body.
Some boys fretted more over their own bodies’ contours than their partners’, especially (and perhaps not surprisingly) their penis size. A few boys were so concerned about size that they avoided sexual situations. “I had a girlfriend at 16,” said Mitchell, “and as we started being more sexual, I became very nervous about being … sufficient. I couldn’t perform during our first real sexual experience because that was so much on my mind. And once you feel like you can’t, you can’t. You’re done.” With time, and maybe a little maturity, he got past it. In retrospect, he said: “Comparing myself to porn was obviously ridiculous. But, you know, it’s also kind of understandable.”
Like every boy I spoke with, Mitchell claimed to know that, of course, porn wasn’t realistic. But that line between fact and fiction was not clear; after all, porn is depicting something, and what other point of reference do young people have? “If you’re a teenage guy and you don’t have much sexual experience, and you’ve been watching porn for the past six or seven years, you can develop almost a … fear, really,” said another university student. “A fear that you would not be able to perform up to those standards, though, of course, no one really can. But maybe the starkest contrast is your perception of the kind of feedback that you’re going to be getting from a girl. Like that they will be moaning and having orgasms all over the place. That’s obviously not the case.”
“I don’t consider the porn I watch to be representative of the person I am,” said Daniel, a lantern-jawed student with hipster glasses. “The whole category of ‘Unwilling’ [women who say no to sex, then change their mind when forced]. It’s very appealing to me, even though I know it’s wrong. And I do truly believe it’s wrong. I would never do it. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy watching it.”
In real life, Daniel was consciously trying to curb his use of the thoughtlessly sexist, homophobic language that had been common at secondary school. He also said he considered any form of sexual interaction to have “spiritual significance” and claimed to prize intimacy over “raw sex”.
But that’s not what got him off. Real sex with his school girlfriend wasn’t stimulating enough. “I felt like I was never really satisfied,” he said. “There was always more to try. Like, ‘Oh, this is pretty good, she’s letting me do a lot, but we haven’t done this yet, we haven’t done this, done this, done this.’ ”
As another boy put it: “I think porn affects your ability to be innocent in a sexual relationship. The whole idea of exploring sex without any preconceived ideas of what it is, you know? That natural organic process has just been f***** by porn.”
When Marco first met his new foster father, his reaction was one of relief. Not yet six, he had taken to wandering the streets of West Berlin to escape an abusive father who beat him so hard that his legs would bleed.
By contrast, Fritz Henkel — a man in his late forties whom he soon came to call “Papa” or “Paps” — was kindly, and his five-bedroom flat in the city’s Friedenau district was enormous. Marco had his own bedroom, a basic computer on which to play games, and two pet rabbits.
Unwittingly, however, he had become the subject of a bizarre experiment carried out from the late 1960s until well into the 2000s. Marco and as many as 200 other boys were allegedly put into the care of known paedophiles.
Henkel’s mask quickly dropped: he began to shout at Marco (not his real name) and hit him. After about six months, in the autumn of 1989, shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall, he came into Marco’s room one evening asking for a cuddle. He then ordered the boy to perform oral sex on him and later raped him.
According to Marco’s account, Henkel continued to abuse him, raping him once a week or so for the next decade, often filming him. The assaults became rarer when Marco was in his teens, finally stopping when he was 17 or 18 and strong enough to resist.
“He was a psychopath, a monster. He had no feeling and no emotions,” Marco said this week in a telephone interview from his home in Brandenburg, outside Berlin. “He saw people as objects.”
More than three decades later, Marco — now 39, with a female partner and four-year-old daughter and six-month-old son of his own — is fighting for compensation from the city’s authorities.
A second victim, known as Sven, 36, who was picked up while living on the streets and sent by social services to live with Henkel in 1991, is pursuing a linked legal action over similar sexual abuse he claims to have suffered.
Henkel, who is now dead, lived off the 12,000 deutschmarks a month (about £4,000) he was given to look after his charges. The former electrician fostered nine children from 1973 until 2003, typically two or three at a time.
They came from troubled families or children’s homes. Some lived rough near West Berlin’s Zoo station — like the street kids whose plight was depicted in the 1981 film Christiane F. In some cases, it has since emerged, Henkel simply took home those boys who took his fancy, only sorting out the paperwork with the state youth welfare office months later.
To hide what was going on, Henkel discouraged his charges from talking or playing with one another, and encouraged them to misbehave at school to convince teachers they were troublemakers. He never took them to the doctor.
“He wanted to make us dependent on him, to make us feel he had saved us from living in a children’s home or amid the dirt on the street,” Marco said. “He indoctrinated us into seeing everyone else as an enemy.”
Both Marco and Sven claim to have been left traumatised by their experiences, unable to learn an occupation or hold down a job.
Another severely disabled boy, known as Sascha, who also lived for many years in Henkel’s flat, was even more unfortunate. Unable to talk and barely capable of walking, he was neglected, and died in 2003 of a lung infection. “Henkel said he would have died anyway,” Marco said.
Henkel tried to get another foster child in Sascha’s place but was refused. No longer receiving any money from the state, he threw out both Marco and Sven, by then in their early twenties, and moved to the countryside.
Shortly before Henkel died of cancer in 2015, Marco visited him in the hospice. “I wanted to see him while he was dying,” he said. “It sounds mean, but I cried with joy. I was happy, in a way.”
Henkel was an odd choice as foster father. He was single and had spent time in jail for minor offences while serving in the army, and during the 1970s was investigated over the sexual abuse of one of his earlier charges. In January 1980, he was officially informed that the investigation had been shelved.
But suspicion of paedophile tendencies do not appear to have counted against Henkel or the other men to whom children were fostered out by the city’s authorities.
On the contrary, it appears to have worked in their favour, in large part thanks to the efforts of a highly influential academic, Helmut Kentler, who began his career in West Berlin before becoming professor of social education at Hanover University and one of the country’s leading sexologists.
Kentler launched a curious experiment in West Berlin in 1969, with the apparent consent of local authorities, in which troubled young street children were put in the care of three paedophiles — Henkel among them.
In an official report for city authorities in 1988, seen by the Berliner Zeitung newspaper, Kentler wrote it was clear the main reason the men “did so much for ‘their’ boy was because they had a sexual relationship with him”.
Kentler, who died in 2008 and is suspected of having himself been a paedophile, spoke not of abuse but of “the advantages for children of having sexual contacts with adults”.
Many more paedophiles could have been involved. Roman Simon, a centre-right politician in the Berlin state parliament, has estimated that as many as 200 children were handed over to such men. “That is the kind of number we are talking about,” he said.
Henkel enjoyed the personal protection of Kentler, who in professional reports in the city archives was rated “very highly” and praised for his “natural talent for pedagogy”. The two men were friends and spent hours on the phone. Marco remembers visiting Kentler’s home in Hanover and has a photograph of himself as a small boy sitting next to him. Kentler did not assault him, though. “I was Henkel’s property,” he said.
Abhorrent as such ideas sound today, Kentler was not acting in a vacuum. Amid the drive for sexual liberation that swept Europe in the late 1960s and 1970s, some campaigners in Germany went further to challenge the traditional taboos against sex with children.
Such ideas were also advocated elsewhere, including in Britain, where the now notorious Paedophile Information Exchange, set up in 1974, campaigned for the abolition of the age of consent, until the group was disbanded a decade later.
Those who run Berlin at present have long since distanced themselves from such bizarre ideas. In 2016, Teresa Nentwig, a political scientist, was asked to go through the files and conduct an inquiry.
Kentler “was convinced that children and young people from families that neglected them could be helped by living with paedophiles”, Nentwig told German television. The men looked after the boys, but in return enjoyed sexual favours. “It was a kind of barter trade.”
Yet the authorities appear reluctant to act on her findings, denying their employees were at fault and insisting they could not have been aware of what was going on in Henkel’s home — an excuse dismissed by Marco and Sven. The two men are trying to pursue the matter through the courts. Refused legal aid, they have launched a crowdfunding campaign to try to cover their lawyers’ bills.
For Marco, the battle is about justice rather than money — and about coming to terms with his past so he can provide a normal life for his own children. “It is not about financial compensation, it is about identifying those in the administration who were responsible, and getting them to apologise,” he said. “Henkel should never have been given children.”
QotD: “It was clear that public protest was the only way we were going to get people talking about women’s liberation”
When I first encountered feminism, in 1979, aged 17, there was one story I heard about over and over from the activists I was hanging out with: the direct action that disrupted the 1970 Miss World competition, in front of a live audience of 100 million TV viewers worldwide, 20 million of them in Britain. Several women had dressed up and bought tickets to the televised event at the Royal Albert Hall in London and, at the height of proceedings, threw flour bombs and shook loud rattles, leading to the programme being taken off air and sending the host, the US comedian Bob Hope, scuttling backstage. The massive success of that action taught me that huge change can come from women being inventive and brave.
At a screening of the film Misbehaviour, based on that protest, I was honoured to sit next to a couple of elderly women who had taken part in the protest. I thanked them for setting an example of proper feminism for future generations, and they told me they have been heartened by what looks like a resurgence of public feminist protest.
At the time of the Miss World protest the movement was only a few months old, having been launched at the now infamous conference held at Ruskin College, Oxford, in February 1970. The way the competitors were judged and paraded around like cattle in beauty contests further entrenched the notion that women were worth nothing unless we were glamorous for men. The notorious “36-24-36” that judges considered the ideal body shape for women became common parlance and gave rise to such sexist monstrosities as the Sun’s Page 3.
My first direct action was with a group of feminists protesting against the tax on sanitary products. We went into a large supermarket, filled our trolleys with sanitary towels and tampons, took them to the checkout and then refused to pay the full amount, insisting they deduct the 15% VAT. Security eventually led us out, but lots of women stopped to ask us about the protest. Most had no idea that an essential product such as sanitary protection was considered to be a “luxury item”. We raised some awareness that day.
I then joined a group of women going out late at night, after the pubs had closed, spray-painting feminist slogans on billboards with messages that were sexist and demeaning to women. Over the billboard depicting a car with the slogan “If this car was a lady it would get its bottom pinched”, we daubed, “If this lady was a car she’d run you down”. Over the image of a naked woman half under a duvet on an advertisement for a bed, which was captioned, “We can improve your nightlife” we sprayed, “Join lesbians united”.
It was clear that public protest was the only way we were going to get people talking about women’s liberation. These were the days before the internet, social media or mobile phones. There was no 24-hour news, and stories were broken in a newspaper the morning after the events had taken place. Feminists became inventive, and we were very successful. There were pickets and protests outside cinemas showing “video nasties” – essentially violent and misogynistic pornography. We’d go in pairs to visit all the local newsagents once a week and remove magazines such as Playboy and Hustler from the top shelves, piling them up on the floor. Other shoppers would often praise us, joining in our protest about women’s subordination being sold as titillation for men.
One of my favourite actions was getting into the offices of the Yorkshire Evening Post after the editor had refused to acknowledge letters of complaint from my women’s group about the way that sexualised images of women, often topless, were strategically and purposely placed next to reports of rape. We found our way into the building and to the editor’s office, and politely explained why this practice was offensive and damaging. It was soon stopped.
Since those early days, before CCTV, when I was young and reckless enough not to care if I ended up with a criminal record, I’ve taken part in countless legal public protests against male violence. Despite the fact that much activism is now online, I still hold with the feminist tradition of being loud, visible and public. I wish more women would walk away from their keyboards and wave a placard or hold a banner outside the court of appeal to protest against injustice to women, such as the recent campaign to free Sally Challen. Public protest is the lifeblood of feminism, and no amount of online activity could ever replace it. I am grateful to those women that launched the Women’s Liberation Movement with such verve and sheer audacity. Let’s ditch the armchair and keyboard and grab the placard and loudhailer with both hands.
Internet companies must do more to tackle “an explosion” in images of child sex abuse on their platforms, a UK-held inquiry has concluded.
The panel also said the technology companies had “failed to demonstrate” they were fully aware of the number of under-13s using their services and lacked a plan to combat the problem.
It has called for all images to be screened before publication.
And it said more stringent age checks were also required.
Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat were identified as the most commonly cited apps where grooming was said to take place.
And the industry at large was accused of being “reactive rather than proactive” in response to the issues.
“Action seemed driven by a desire to avoid reputational damage rather than to prioritise protection of children,” the inquiry said.
The report follows a series of public hearings, between January 2018 and May 2019, during which the police said they believed the UK was the world’s third biggest consumer of live-streamed child sex abuse.
Facebook was one of the first to respond.
“[We] have made huge investments in sophisticated solutions,” said its European head of safety, David Miles.
“As this is a global, industry-wide issue, we’ll continue to develop new technologies and work alongside law enforcement and specialist experts in child protection to keep children safe.”
Microsoft also promised to “consider these findings carefully”, while Google said it would keep working with others to “tackle this evil crime”.
The report said some steps should be taken before the end of September.
Leading its list is a requirement for screening before images appear online.
The report noted technologies such as Microsoft’s PhotoDNA had made it possible for pictures to be quickly checked against databases of known illegal imagery without humans needing to look at them.
But at present, this filtering process typically happened after the material had already become available for others to see.
Users might be frustrated by a delay in seeing their content go live but, the panel said, it had not been told of any technical reason this process could not happen before publication.
The inquiry also said the UK government should introduce legislation to compel the companies involved to adopt more effective checks to deter under-age users.
Pre-teens were at “particularly acute” risk of being groomed, it said.
The panel recognised many services were officially banned to under-13s.
But it said in many cases, the only test was to require users to fill in a date-of-birth form, which could easily be falsified.
“There must be better means of ensuring compliance,” it said.
The report acknowledged detecting and preventing the live-streaming of abuse was difficult but highlighted a French app as an example to learn from.
It said Yubo used algorithms to detect possible instances of child nudity, which a human moderator would then check to see if action if necessary.
The panel also noted existing anti-abuse technologies did not work when communications were protected by end-to-end encryption, which digitally scrambles communications without giving platform providers a key.
The inquiry highlighted WhatsApp and Apple’s iMessage and FaceTime already used the technique by default and Facebook intended to deploy it more widely soon.
However, it did not say how this should be addressed.
One day, just after I had dropped my son off at school, I was sent a horrific video on WhatsApp. It made me question how images and videos of child sex abuse come to be made, and how they can be openly circulated on social media. And I wanted one answer above all – what happened to the boy in the video?
It may sound strange, but the woman who sent me the video was a fellow mum at the school gates. A group of us had set up a WhatsApp group to discuss term dates, uniforms, illnesses.
Then one morning, out of the blue, one of these mums sent a video to the group, with two crying-face emojis underneath it.
It was just a black box, no thumbnail, and we all pressed play without thinking. Maybe it would be a meme or a news story. Maybe one of the “stranger danger” videos some of the mums had started to share.
The video starts with a shot of a man and a baby, about 18 months old, sitting on a sofa. The baby smiles at the man.
I can’t describe the rest.
If I tell you what I saw in the 10 seconds it took to grasp what was happening, and press stop, you’ll have the image in your head too. And you don’t want it. It’s a video of child sex abuse. It’s nine minutes long.
I screamed, and threw my phone across the room. It was pinging with messages from distraught members of the group.
I took my phone to the police station. I told them what had happened. I told them I believed the woman had sent it to us as a warning, and that I hoped they would investigate where the video came from. Was it new, or one they’d already come across? Was this little boy still in danger? Could this evidence help save him, or catch the abuser?
The police had my phone for two weeks. I found out the next day that they arrested the woman who sent it and visited other members of the group. And then I didn’t hear anything else about it.
But one question stayed with me. What happened to the boy in the video? And so, a few months later, once I could read my own kids a bedtime story without thinking of him and life had got back to normal, I began to look for answers.
I started by trying to speak to the police officer investigating the video on my phone. But every time I called Wembley CID to speak to him, he’d just gone out.
He didn’t want anything to do with me.
I checked with Alan Collins, a lawyer who specialises in child sex abuse, to see if any of the things I might normally do to track down people would work. Could I, for example, send former police officers a copy of the video to see if they recognised it?
“You could be looking at a prison sentence of 10 years,” he told me. Same goes for taking a still and sending that. Just possessing an image like this on my phone could land me in jail.
So I called a friend of a friend who used to work for the police. He told me Wembley CID would have sent my phone off to one of the digital forensics labs spread across the city. The labs list all the illegal content, and when it’s child sex abuse they grade it: Category A for the most serious, Cat B, Cat C. This WhatsApp video was Cat A.
Next, the file goes to victim identification and my case was passed to the Metropolitan Police’s Online Child Sexual Exploitation and Abuse Command. An officer there, Det Sgt Lindsay Dick, agreed to talk to me, but he didn’t want to say much about the techniques used in case it helped offenders work out how to evade capture.
He did tell me about one case, where an officer had got hold of a phone that had images of a boy being abused on it, along with images of the same boy not being abused. In one, he’s standing at a bus stop in school uniform. An officer recognised the bus stop as a Mersey Transport sign, and put a call in to the Merseyside team. They recognised the school uniform. The boy was identified, his parents arrested, and social services took over. Victim-identification police all over the world rely on little clues like this.
Lindsay Dick wouldn’t discuss the details of what I’d been sent, even though he had investigated the case. Then, when I asked him about a suggestion from an editor to take a still from the video of the perpetrator’s face, to help identify him, I started to feel some heat.
“Do you still have a copy of that video?” he asked me, sternly. “No,” I replied. But it was still sitting somewhere on WhatsApp’s server, and because I was still a member of the group, it was still showing on my phone. Even though I’d done nothing wrong, I realised how seriously the police took this kind of thing.
This hit home late last year when a senior Metropolitan Police officer, Supt Novlett Robyn Williams, was given 200 community hours’ unpaid work and threatened with losing her job for failing to report a video of child sex abuse her sister had sent her on WhatsApp. (She is now appealing against the conviction.)
The Metropolitan Police refused to help me any further in my search for the boy in the video. At one point they even told officers in another part of the country, incorrectly, that I’d been cautioned for sharing the video.
I found out later from the woman who sent the video to me that she had been given three years on the sex offenders register. But the investigating officers at Wembley CID took the case no further – they didn’t arrest the friend who had sent it to her, and they didn’t even try to find out who had sent it to her friend. Further up that chain of people sharing the video must be some dangerous people, perhaps an abuser. But nothing was done to follow the trail.
The Metropolitan Police says: “The scale of child abuse and sexual exploitation offending online has grown in recent years. This increased demand on police, coupled with the need to keep up with advancement of technology and adapt our methods to detect and identify offenders, means it is a challenging area for the Met and police forces nationally. However, we remain committed to bringing those who commit child abuse offences online to justice, and safeguarding victims and young people at risk.
“We encourage anyone concerned about a child at risk of abuse or a possible victim, to contact police immediately. Anyone who receives an unsolicited message which depicts child abuse should report it to police immediately so action can be taken. Images of this nature should not be shared under any circumstances.”
I needed someone who wasn’t involved with the case to give me some more clues about where this file I’d been sent might have come from. So I started searching, and I came across news articles about a team in Queensland, Australia with a reputation for infiltrating child abuse video-sharing sites.
Their head of victim identification, former Greater Manchester Police detective Paul Griffiths, told me the file I’d been sent had probably started life on one of these sites.
“What tends to happen is that when a file gets produced like that, it generally stays under cover, under wraps, circulating amongst a fairly small, tight network. Very often people who would know that they need to keep it safe and not distribute it widely,” he said.
These networks of paedophiles use the dark web, a part of the internet that isn’t indexed readily by search engines such as Google. They access sites through a connection called TOR, or the onion router. They use a fake IP address, connected to several other servers dotted around the globe, which makes their location untraceable.
Members of these dark web sites are like sick stamp collectors – they post thumbnails of what they have on dedicated online forums, and look to complete series, usually of a particular child.
Some of them are “producers” – they abuse the children, or film them being abused.
A couple of years ago Paul Griffiths’ team was watching one site called Child’s Play. They had intelligence that two of the site’s leaders were meeting up in the US. Officers intercepted them, arrested them, and got their passwords.
Now they could see everything – each and every video – and they could get to work finding children and perpetrators. They made hundreds of arrests worldwide, and 200 children have been saved so far.
“It’s Sherlock Holmes stuff, it’s following little clues and seeing what you can piece together to try and find a needle in a haystack,” says Griffiths.
The big worry now is live-streaming, where adults can pay to watch children being abused in real time. It’s even harder to detect, because no file containing clues circulates, and the platforms are all encrypted. Just as the police and technology get better at finding victims in stills or videos, another threat emerges.
“There’s a famous story and it often gets told in relation to this area of crime, in relation to the young girl walking on the beach and there’s starfish all over the beach and she’s picking the starfish up and putting them back into the sea and a guy says to her, ‘Little girl, what are you doing? You’re never gonna be able to save all of these starfish.’ And she says, ‘No, but I’ll save that one.’ And that’s really what we’re doing,” says Griffiths.
“You know, we’re saving the ones we can save. And if some magical solution appears somewhere in the future that’s going to save all of them, that’s going to stop this happening, then that’ll be wonderful. But in the meantime, we can’t just sit back and ignore what we know is happening.”
Paul Griffiths is part of a small network of people who travel the globe for meetings and conferences on what to do about the huge numbers of videos and images circulating online.
He told me to contact Maggie Brennan, a lecturer in clinical forensic psychology at the University of Plymouth, who has been studying child-sex-abuse material for years. Between 2016 and 2018 she combed through the child-abuse images in a database run by Interpol, to build up a profile of victims.
She found a chilling pattern that suggested the age of the boy in the video I saw is not that unusual.
“Concerningly, there is a substantive, small, but important proportion of those images that do depict infants and toddlers. And we found a significant result in terms of the association between very extreme forms of sexual violence and very young children.”
Like the boy in the video I was sent, most children on the database are white – most likely a reflection of the fact that the police forces contributing to it are from majority-white countries.
There’s constant pressure, Brennan says, to quantify the numbers of images or videos that are in existence, and the numbers of victims who are being sexually exploited. But it’s impossible. Databases only hold the images that have been found, through police raids or reports. Who knows how many are circulating out there?
Paul Griffiths says it only takes one person to bring a video out of the depths of the dark web and unleash it on the general population.
“Sooner or later it comes into the possession of someone who either doesn’t know how to keep it safe and hidden, or doesn’t really care. And they spread it wider. It can take a few hours, and it’s all over the internet.”
I spoke to one offender who served seven months in prison for viewing child abuse images. He had been offered the files on Skype during an adult online sexual meet-up. He’d opened the first file, seen it was of a child – and carried on opening all 20. Then he tried to share them with someone else. Eventually, the man who sent him the files sent them to someone who told the police. But it’s a telling example of how easily files like the one I was sent spread, from the depths of the dark web, on to platforms like Skype, and then to people’s phones.
Despite the lack of action taken on my case, the UK policing response to child sex abuse images is one of the most robust in the world.
The Child Abuse Image Database (CAID) has seen huge investment over the last five years. When detectives receive the phone or laptop of a suspect, they can run images on it through state-of-the-art software that checks whether images are new, or already known to police. All police forces are linked up, and the database talks to others around the world.
In the 1990s the Home Office undertook a study of the proliferation of indecent imagery of children. There were less than 10,000 images in circulation then. Now there are almost 14 million images on the UK database.
The levels of depravity in videos and images are getting worse, Chief Constable Simon Bailey tells me. He’s been the National Police Chief Council’s lead for child protection and abuse investigations for the last five years.
I am expecting a forbidding character when I go to interview him at his Norfolk HQ. What I find is a man at the end of his tether.
“It just keeps growing, and growing, and growing,” he says. “And there is an element of, ‘These figures are just so huge that just can’t be right.’ Well trust me, it is right. And if I have one really significant regret around my leadership and our response to this it’s that we have struggled to land with the public the true scale of what we are dealing with, the horrors of what we are dealing with. Most people, I would like to think, would be mortified that this type of abuse is taking place.”