A pint of semi-skimmed, 20 Bensons, a scratchcard and, er, a porn pass . . . The odds on this becoming a regular corner-shop scenario crashed this week as Jeremy Wright, the culture secretary, announced that age verification checks for accessing online pornography would be delayed yet again, this time because the government forgot to inform the European Commission. No wonder it’s been called Sexit.
Age verification began as a thoughtful response by the coalition government to alarming NSPCC research that 65 per cent of 15 to 16-year-olds and almost a third of 12-year-olds access porn. That porn sites should be age-verified, as gambling domains already are, has a 67 per cent approval rating. The problem is that it’s technologically impossible to enforce.
From July 15, clicking on a porn site was supposed to generate a page where a user must provide proof via a credit card, passport or driving licence that they are over 18. Unfortunately Britain stands nobly alone in this endeavour against a global porn industry. And any fool can easily install a VPN (virtual private network): a bit of software which conceals your geographical location. British kids use them already to dodge rights issues, particularly to access US Netflix with its superior range of films.
A VPN would allow a porn user to swerve the UK age-blocker. And which punter wouldn’t do that rather than give personal details to the state-approved verification firm AgeID (which, unbelievably, has the same owner as Pornhub)? No amount of blah about safe encrypted data will reassure anyone that their name and mugshot won’t one day pop up alongside their taste for “watersports” and MILFs.
The alternative would be to go into a shop and, after showing an age ID, buy a £4.99 porn pass. While oldsters might find this no more embarrassing than the time they bumped into their mate’s mum while buying a copy of Razzle, young people have grown up under the total anonymity of the web. Besides, they would simply access porn on platforms such as WhatsApp, Reddit or Snapchat. And a VPN can make the internet an even more dangerous landscape, opening up blocked extremist, paedophile and drug sites on the dark web.
Yet whether age-verification is feasible should not distract from the bigger, more pressing question: does allowing the porn industry to pipe its product unrestricted into every home have toxic consequences? Ireland is reeling from the murder of Ana Kriegel, 14, found naked with extensive injuries and a ligature around her neck, killed by two 13-year-old boys. One of the boys was found to have phones containing thousands of pornographic images, many involving children and animals. The Irish prime minister has said he will be viewing Britain’s age-verification plans closely.
This, of course, is the most extreme scenario. Experts speculated in 1993 whether James Bulger’s killers were inspired by “video nasties” or were just disturbed children who’d have killed in any era. But there is no question that having immediate access to images once obtained only by writing to obscure PO box addresses has changed society. Police now investigate 1,000 cases of offenders viewing child abuse images each month: our jails could not accommodate them all so most are dismissed with a caution on a first offence. Many such men say that viewing “barely legal” porn involving teenagers on legal sites drew them to younger children.
There has also been a spate of deaths of women at the hands of partners who claimed they were engaged in consensual “sex games”. These include Anna Reed, 22, from Harrogate who was suffocated in a Swiss hotel room; Charlotte Teeling, 33, from Birmingham, who was strangled, as was Hannah Dorans, 21, from Edinburgh. Natalie Connolly, 26, was penetrated with a bottle of carpet cleaner and left for dead at the bottom of the stairs. All the men concerned argued that “rough sex” or “Fifty Shades of Grey games” had gone wrong, that these women had, in effect, consented to their own deaths.
These are scenes choreographed by violent pornography, which is not some rare category but just a click away. Researchers studying aggressive porn that involves slaps, hair-pulling and choking found that in 95 per cent of cases the actresses responded with expressions of pleasure, suggesting to the viewer that violence is desired.
Is it any coincidence that the first generation of children exposed to hardcore pornography before their first kiss have epidemic levels of mental illness? The extreme aesthetics of porn fuel body-hatred in young women, while psychologists are concerned that a growing cohort of young men are so desensitised by porn that they suffer erectile dysfunction and emotional disconnection from real women. Moreover, when sex is learnt through porn — a misogynist industry focused solely on male desire — girls prioritise their performance above their own pleasure.
This is now normalised in the mainstream: Teen Vogue ran a feature on anal sex, which most women find uncomfortable, even painful, but is demanded by some men because it’s a major porn trope. Teen Vogue’s anatomical diagram did not even include the clitoris.
Yet young women are not allowed to balk at porn. In the US high school comedy Booksmart, two girls watch porn on their phone in horror. One tries to tell herself she must enjoy it because “I’m a sex-positive feminist”. Not to love porn marks a girl out as uncool, conservative and “unwoke”. Age-verifying technology is, alas, a distraction from the real conversation we need with young people about porn. That it is not feminist nor is it positive sex.
Jayne Ozanne is right that conversion therapy is almost exclusively carried out by faith groups (‘It takes a lifetime to recover’, G2, 8 August). However, psychotherapists and counsellors should not be complacent. There are things we need to own and attend to.
First, there is a history of homophobic non-acceptance of same-sex love on the part, in particular, of psychoanalysis. Much has been done within that modality to make necessary revisions to theory and practice.
Second, the psychotherapy professional groups need to make it crystal clear that the answer to this problem of continuing – but non-professional – conversion therapy is not to take the entire profession under some kind of statutory regulation. The drawbacks of that are well-established by now. The Professional Standards Authority’s scheme of accredited voluntary registers is working.
Finally, we need to make it absolutely clear that if you come to psychotherapy wishing to explore issues of sex and sexuality, you will still be able to do so. There is no way in which the condemnation of conversion therapy should impose a cordon sanitaire on one of the main reasons people come to psychotherapists.
When I was chair of the UK Council for Psychotherapy in 2009-12, at the time when the memorandum of understanding banning conversion therapy was conceived, we wanted to reassure potential patients that sexuality was still something we expected our clients and patients to engage with. However, this reassurance slipped off the agenda because it was – wrongly – deemed too complex a matter.
Clarity on this issue is really important, because ‘conversion therapy’, the attempt to alter a person’s sexuality, is being conflated with any approach to gender dysphoria or gender identity confusion that isn’t ‘affirmative’, that is, agreeing that the person is in the ‘wrong body’.
There is an example of this in the Guardian very recently, the examples in the article and the films described are all gay conversion, but the journalist describes ‘conversion therapy’ as “any treatment aiming to change a person’s sexual orientation or suppress their gender identity”.
This matters, because, as Jesse Singal reports: “All else being equal, this research suggests that the most likely outcome for a child with gender dysphoria is that they will grow up to be cisgender and gay or bisexual. Researchers don’t know why that is, but it appears that in some kids, nascent homo- or bisexuality manifests itself as gender dysphoria. In others, gender dysphoria can arise as a result of some sort of trauma or other unresolved psychological issue, and goes away either with time or counselling. And in still others, of course, it is a sign that the child will identify as transgender for their whole adult life. While the actual percentages vary from study to study, overall, it appears that about 80 percent of kids with gender dysphoria end up feeling okay, in the long run, with the bodies they were born into.”
There has been no systematic research into the ‘gender affirmative’ approach; but claims of 100% ‘success’ rates from ‘gender affirming’ doctors (ie, of all the children treated with ‘gender affirmation’, none of them desisted).
The UK Council for Psychotherapy has launched a new Memorandum of Understanding on Conversion Therapy to include ‘gender identity,’ leaving therapists, counsellors, GPs and clinical professionals in a position where they may be afraid to do anything but agree with a patient’s self-diagnosis as ‘transgender.’ Anything other than ‘affirmation’ could lay a professional open to the charge of conversion or reparative therapy.
‘Affirmation’ is an untested approach to children with gender dysphoria, a result of demands by political activists rather than an approach developed on the basis of research and evidence.
Of course, we support the original Memorandum of Understanding on Conversion Therapy which outlaws attempts to change a person’s sexual orientation. But ‘gender identity’ should not be conflated with sexual orientation as if the two things are essentially the same issue. For gender dysphoria, the choice of approach is between ‘affirmation’ and ‘watchful waiting’ but its inclusion in the Memorandum suggests that the watchful waiting approach could be considered to be conversion therapy if a child subsequently desists.
What it means is that for a health practitioner to offer any therapeutic support or exploration of underlying factors, motives or reasons for a cross-sex identity in childhood they are now taking a professional risk. Instead, a practitioner must confirm and therefore reinforce a child’s belief that they really are the opposite sex. If a boy thinks he’s a girl, he’s a girl. If a girl believes herself to be a boy, she’s a boy, no questions allowed.
No concession is given to children and young people whose identities are in development and highly susceptible to influence from parents, peers and professionals as well as an increasingly powerful transgender lobby. ‘Affirmation’ is not a neutral approach, it is a strong statement of belief that a girl can be born in a boy’s body and vice versa. No practitioner should be imposing false and non-scientific beliefs on a child or young person or knowingly mislead them about reality.
Ironically, the new MOU asserts that practitioners should be “free from any agenda that favours one gender identity […] as preferable over other gender […] diversities” and yet ‘affirmation’ explicitly favours one identity over another and is wholly dependent upon the agenda of trans activists who have fought to impose this approach.
The statement “no gender identity is inherently preferable to any other” hides the fact that this ideology says that one kind of sexed body is preferable to the other and that the only treatment pathway is medical change of the body to ‘match’ the identity. Under the guise of ‘support’, the assertion “your identity is right” is a cover-up for the underlying message “your body is wrong.”
Professionals are warned that ‘conversion therapy’ constitutes any attempt to ‘bring about a change in someone’s gender identity.’ In other words, even if a child’s belief does not match reality, it must be affirmed as the truth. In no other area of health care is a practitioner compelled to confirm a patient’s false belief. Protection of a child’s belief about which sex they are, by definition takes away all normal protections for a child’s body and fertility. Afraid to do anything which may lead to a change in identity, therapists are compelled to facilitate treatment to bring about medical change of the body.
With no trace of irony, righteous condemnation of ‘conversion therapy’ is used to justify the most extreme medical ‘conversion’ of the physical body into cosmetic imitation of the opposite sexed body. Why, uniquely in this case, are children and young people’s bodies not protected from unnecessary and invasive treatment with some effects irreversible and others unknown, while their beliefs are considered worthy of our greatest efforts at preservation?
Jenny Valentish doesn’t like labels. But if there’s one word she will ascribe to her history with childhood trauma and drug abuse, it’s “archetypal”.
“My story is fairly representative of women who have severe problems,” she says when we meet at her Sydney hotel in May. “It ticks boxes actually: sexual abuse, sexual assault, promiscuity, self-medication. It’s got everything, really.”
Valentish, 42, was born and raised in Slough, England – the same dreary industrial town immortalised in The Office, and a brutal poem by John Betjeman that calls on it to be bombed.
But her memories of childhood are clouded for another reason: when she was seven, a high school boy five years her senior began [raping her].
Too young to fully understand what was happening, she felt somehow complicit, and when she finally told her mother she underplayed the details. The boy – dismissed as merely a pest – returned throughout the summer. It would be 15 years until Valentish was able to sleep well again and decades until her parents found out exactly who they’d been inviting back to the house. To this day she has an “indescribable fear” of being touched on her hips.
“It was fairly pedestrian abuse when set against some of the stories I’ve heard,” she writes in her new book Woman of Substances, “but it set off a catastrophic chain reaction all the same.”
Valentish tells her story with brutal honesty and dark, wry wit – but the memoir is made more urgent by the research woven through it. It’s a startling and thorough investigation into the relationship between gender, trauma and addiction, and the women who fall through the gaps – with the writer offering herself up as the case study.
Valentish started drinking heavily when she was 13. She had blackout sex through her teens, swapped sex for drugs at 17, and spent most of her 20s abusing speed and harder drugs, and chasing dopamine in other ways – from kleptomania to eating disorders to compulsive sexual behaviour. She was working in the drug-fuelled music industry, as a publicist and a music journalist, and would often sneak out of the office in the morning to throw back drinks, speed or both at once, alone. Deprived of a normal childhood, she’d never learned to socialise while sober. “I needed at least three drinks in me before I could sit still,” she says.
As she tells her story, Valentish identifies a series of shortcomings of the medical and addiction treatment industries which have failed to understand and communicate how substance abuse affects women. “I had no idea that this was the case when I started writing,” she says. “I was just going to write about the female experience [of addiction] – there was going to be no call to arms.”
But the more she spoke to researchers, social workers, addicts and specialists, the clearer the paucity of data became. Although the drinking rate among men and women are actually about equal, and the pathways that lead women into drug abuse are heavily gendered, drug and alcohol research remains biased towards men.
“Nobody wants to use women in any kind of research. Not just about medications, but any kind,” she says. “You should be splitting up the data depending on where [women] are in their menstrual cycle, week one to four – and nobody wants to do that, because nobody’s got the money … Every argument ever comes down to funding, doesn’t it?”
For any woman who drinks or takes drugs, Woman of Substances makes for a frightening read. How many of us know that alcohol raises oestrogen levels, explaining why two beers can knock us out one week and slide right through the next? How many doctors tell women that each glass of wine they consume significantly increases their risk of breast cancer – along with polycystic ovaries, fibroadenomas, anxiety, sleep issues and memory loss?
“I couldn’t find this information anywhere either,” Valentish says. “That’s one of the reasons I wanted to write the book.”
There are other gaps too. While substance abuse is often linked to childhood trauma, women are more likely to be pathologised and treated for mental health disorders than to receive trauma-focused care. While women with severe eating disorders also often have substance issues, there are few clinics that will treat both at once. And while Alcoholics Anonymous – which was originally designed for men – focuses heavily on the idea of handing yourself over to a “higher power”, in Valentish’s experience what women need at that point is autonomy. “There’s a lot of catching up to do in the industry,” she says.
I think this paragraph is particularly interesting:
Some chapters ground her down so much she would end up writing through tears. Suddenly, all the coping mechanisms she used to fall back on came into play; the dopamine releases of smoking, Candy Crush, spending sprees and porn. “You can’t think about anything else if you’re watching porn,” she says. “So much porn was watched during the writing of this book. PornHub should give me some money.”
Women binging on porn to numb their emotions and block out the memories of abuse is not empowered, sexually liberated, or ‘sex positive’ in any meaningful way, and it raises questions about how many other women (and men) are consuming porn in this way.
“You often get them late afternoon on a Friday. If somebody doesn’t want to go home, that’s when you get these conversations,” says Alison Hamnett, director of operations across the north for Brook. They may start with asking for free condoms, but eventually the real story emerges: sexual exploitation, abusive relationships, precarious lives. Girls who don’t even feel entitled to refuse sex, let alone insist on protecting themselves.
Some are guarded. “Particularly if they are being groomed, they will have the answers to the questions down pat,” says Hamnett. “But the receptionist will say she saw a car outside drop them off – and the same car is coming with lots of young girls …” Posters hanging in the waiting room of the Manchester clinic where we meet explain the difference between exploitative and loving relationships: no, it’s not OK if he offers a roof over your head and expects sex in return.
The Burnley, Blackburn and Oldham clinics tend to see more grooming-gang victims, says Hamnett. In Liverpool, she found them dealing with a young homeless man, released from prison, who had been having sex in broad daylight in a car park while intoxicated. Manchester saw a young Muslim girl who was being radicalised. The checklist used with clients ranges from female genital mutilation to mental health issues. “We had a young woman of about 17, very intelligent, got all her A-levels and went to university,” says Hamnett. “She was bipolar and, when she was on her meds, she was great. When she wasn’t, she’d sell herself for sex.” The clinic helped her until she was too old to use its service, which is restricted to under-19s. They don’t know where she is now.
Brook’s expertise is in this area – where sexuality, deep-seated social problems and mental health issues collide – and is, says Hallgarten, what makes them “very good value for money”, as identifying the root cause of sexual risk-taking offers more chance of changing it.
But specialist clinics for vulnerable young people such as these are increasingly merging with more general services to save money. There is a push, says Hamnett, towards using GPs instead for contraception. That may work for young people with happy sex lives, but there is a reason appointments here last for up to 40 minutes, not the 10 minutes a busy GP might offer. “I feel as if we’re almost waiting a few years down the line for teenage pregnancies to go up,” she says ruefully. It is this sense of a clock being turned back that worries many.
Still furious about this. Who the fuck thinks “ah, person with a cervix, it me”? Women will miss screening because of this language. It’s not about reaching transmen – you could just *say* “women & transmen”. It’s about not saying “women” in a context that excludes transwomen.
Sarah Ditum is spot on with her analysis here, all this ‘inclusive’ language (‘pregnant person’, ‘chest feeding’, etc) has nothing to do with helping trans men, and everything to do with pandering to trans women.
Transgender schools guidance produced by transgender and LGBT organisations promotes a new ‘affirmation’ and social transition model which has been shown to increase persistence of gender dysphoria in children. The model fails to take into account the various reasons for childhood cross-sex identity, which can range from perfectly normal developmental exploration, through difficult family dynamics all the way to previous trauma or sexual abuse. It may also be a result of homophobic bullying, emotional and psychological issues, ASD or simple social contagion, particularly in cases of Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria seen predominantly in teenage girls.
We feel that to simply take a child’s words at face value and respond with a one-size-fits-all approach is a dereliction of duty of care for children and adolescents, and this approach should not be forced upon schools.
Published transgender schools guidance also fails to take into account sex-based rights and protections already in place to protect the privacy of all students and in particular the welfare of girls. This guidance misrepresents Equality law in placing the rights of transgender students above those of other students, with no requirement for equality impact assessments. The prioritisation of ‘gender identity’ above biological sex as the distinction between boys and girls gives weight to a belief over material reality and obviously raises issues of safeguarding as well as the right to name reality.
We felt there was an urgent need for clear factual information for schools seeking advice on a very recent and unprecedented phenomenon, guidance which is based on protecting the welfare and rights of all children.
We have developed a comprehensive schools resource pack, in consultation with teachers, child protection and welfare professionals and lawyers. Our aim is to arm schools with all the relevant facts so that teachers feel more informed and confident in creating a safe school for all pupils, including non-conforming children and those who identify as ‘transgender.’
Our resource pack covers advice for school leaders, tips on how to create a school culture of acceptance of gender non-conformity without denying biological sex, communication, primary schools and secondary schools, existing safeguarding policies and guidance, the legal situation for schools, and a glossary of terms.
We also include factual information about the social and medical transition of children, testimonies from young people who have desisted or detransitioned, and a statement from a teacher who has witnessed the increase in the number of young people identifying as ‘trans’ in their school. We have included a statement from the Lesbian Rights Alliance in recognition of the fact that the number of teenage lesbians who are choosing to identify as ‘trans men’ has recently grown so significantly.
We have designed the document to be fully comprehensive and cover all areas because this is such a new phenomenon that teachers are facing and existing guidance is so one-sided, but each individual section may be printed out and used separately if needed.
Download the pdf here:
There are far more intended parents waiting to be matched with a surrogate than there are women available to carry these pregnancies, yet surrogates are taught to view themselves as disposable laborers. A doctor at a clinic in India adds that “for the surrogates it’s mostly the character of the womb that we are interested in. We make sure the surrogates know that they are not genetically related to the baby, they are just the wombs.” … The doctor superimposes a single body part (the womb) over the personhood of the surrogate as a whole being, effectively eliding her subjectivity.
The surrogates that Pande interviewed referenced their own contributions to the pregnancy, contrasting the level of effort that they were putting into the pregnancies to that of the intended mother, who contributed “only an egg.” The surrogates were thus justified in making kinship claims to the future child … When one surrogate was told that she would have to “reduce” her pregnancy from triplets to twins, she insisted that she would keep the third baby if the intended parents did not want it because it was her blood, if not her genes … While blood does not circulate between the pregnant woman and fetus, the placenta is built from both maternal and fetal blood cells that can migrate between the two, lingering in various organs of the body and potentially impacting a variety of future conditions for the child, such as cancer risk and immune disorders.
This biological connection, however, is often downplayed because it is not genetic. In the Assisted Reproductive Technology industry, genetics are privileged over gestation, and thus the role of the surrogate is cast as that of an incubator who will not affect the appearance, intelligence, or personality of the child. This strict compartmentalization assures intended parents that their choice of surrogate will not impact the quality of their carefully selected genetic material, thus legitimizing cross-racial, cross-class, transnational surrogacy arrangements in ways that benefit the consumers of reproductive technologies. […]
Daisy Deomampo found that the intended parents she interviewed became very attached to the Indian “origin story” of their children, regardless of whether the child was conceived using Indian gametes. Parents returned from Indian with emblems of the country, “flattening out” the specificity of India and its historical and political contexts. [She] argues that parents “conflated the geographic space of India – and the attendant orientalist discourses that construct “Indian-ness” as exotically opposite to Western sensibilities – with the embodiment of the child’s identity through its gestation by an Indian surrogate mother in India” … Simultaneously Other[ing] Indian women’s bodies while incorporating romanticized and potentially colonializing notions of Indian identity or origins for surrogate-born children.
The idea that reproductive tourists can tap in to the natural resource of Indian’s fertility is also raised … [Despite] India’s birth rate or “fertility surplus” [being] deemed a demographic problem, [it is implied] that the purported “excessive” population, bodies, and fertility of India are always an available commodity for the foreign tourist … An estimated 8-10% of Indian women suffer from infertility and most surrogate mothers have been permanently sterilized … [But] rather than addressing the health care needs of Indian citizens, foreign economic pressure and state intervention have aimed at limiting the fertility of the poor at the same time that the image of fertile Indian surrogates is used to draw in reproductive tourists.
Laura Harrison, Brown Bodies, White Babies: The Politics of Cross-Racial Surrogacy