An abuse survivor can sue Visa over videos of her posted to Pornhub, a US court has ruled.
Serena Fleites was 13 in 2014 when, it is alleged, a boyfriend pressured her into making an explicit video which he posted to Pornhub.
Ms Fleites alleges that Visa, by processing revenue from ads, conspired with Pornhub’s parent firm MindGeek to make money from videos of her abuse.
Visa had sought to be removed from the case.
Ms Fleites’ story has featured in the New York Times article The Children of Pornhub – an article which prompted MindGeek to delete millions of videos and make significant changes to its policies and practice.
Her allegations are summarised in the pre-trial ruling of the Central District Court of California.
The initial explicit video, posted to Pornhub without her knowledge or consent, had 400,000 views by the time she discovered it, Ms Fleites says.
She alleges that after becoming aware of the video, she contacted Mindgeek pretending to be her mother “to inform it that the video qualified as child pornography”. A few weeks later it was removed
But the video was downloaded by users and re-uploaded several times, with one of the re-uploads viewed 2.7 million times, she argues.
MindGeek earned advertisement revenue from these re-uploads, it is alleged.
Ms Fleites says her life had “spiralled out of control” – there were several failed suicide attempts and family relationships deteriorated – then while living at a friend’s house, an older man introduced her to heroin.
To fund her addiction, while still a child, she created further explicit videos at this man’s behest, some of which were uploaded to Pornhub.
“While MindGeek profited from the child porn featuring Plaintiff, Plaintiff was intermittently homeless or living in her car, addicted to heroin, depressed and suicidal, and without the support of her family,” Judge Cormac J. Carney’s summary of her allegations says.
MindGeek told the BBC that at this point in the case, the court has not yet ruled on the truth of the allegations, and is required to assume all of the plaintiff’s allegations are true and accurate.
“When the court can actually consider the facts, we are confident the plaintiff’s claims will be dismissed for lack of merit,” the company said.
The Judge ruled that, at the current stage of proceedings, “the Court can infer a strong possibility that Visa’s network was involved in at least some advertisement transactions relating directly to Plaintiff’s videos”.
But Visa argued that the “allegation that Visa recognized MindGeek as an authorized merchant and processed payment to its websites does not suggest that Visa agreed to participate in sex trafficking of any kind”.
It also argued, according to the judge’s account of its position, that a commercial relationship alone does not establish a conspiracy.
But Judge Carney said that, again at this stage of proceedings, “the Court can comfortably infer that Visa intended to help MindGeek monetize child porn from the very fact that Visa continued to provide MindGeek the means to do so and knew MindGeek was indeed doing so.
“Put yet another way, Visa is not alleged to have simply created an incentive to commit a crime, it is alleged to have knowingly provided the tool used to complete a crime”.
A spokesperson for Visa told the BBC that it condemned sex trafficking, sexual exploitation and child sexual abuse material.
“This pre-trial ruling is disappointing and mischaracterizes Visa’s role and its policies and practices. Visa will not tolerate the use of our network for illegal activity. We continue to believe that Visa is an improper defendant in this case.”
Last month MindGeek’s chief executive officer and chief operating officer resigned.
The senior departures followed further negative press in an article in the magazine the New Yorker, examining among other things the company’s moderation policies.
Mindgeek told the BBC that it has:
- zero tolerance for the posting of illegal content on its platforms
- banned uploads from anyone who has not submitted government-issued ID that passes third-party verification
- eliminated the ability to download free content
- integrated several technological platform and content moderation tools
- instituted digital fingerprinting of all videos found to be in violation of our Non-Consensual Content and CSAM Policies to help protect against removed videos being reposted
- expanded its moderation workforce and processes
The company also said that any insinuation that it does not take the elimination of illegal material seriously is “categorically false”.
In a restaurant in Manchester last Wednesday my phone began to vibrate so often that I thought it was in meltdown. Minutes earlier I had posted a message on Twitter reacting to the findings of an inquiry into the grooming and abuse of young girls in Telford.
The message read: “Hard to understand why Telford scandal is not front of every paper. 1000 children.” It went viral and was eventually viewed two million times.
A three-year independent inquiry into child sexual exploitation in the Shropshire town had uncovered child abuse lasting decades. So why were the media not shouting about it in every newspaper, radio broadcast and TV bulletin? Was it apathy? Concern at media outlets over how to report on the culturally awkward subject of Asian men, largely of Pakistani heritage, abusing scores of children? Or are we so fascinated by the power struggles of Tory politicians that we don’t care about life in towns and villages far away from London?
Halfway through my starter, I asked my lunch partner, Nazir Afzal, the former chief prosecutor for northwest England who brought down the Rochdale child sex abuse ring, what he believed.
He blamed apathy. Fatigue. We’ve seen it all before. “At first everybody was reading about the Ukraine war and talking about it. But that has started to fall away. It’s the same with the child sex gangs,” he said.
The blitz of stories about grooming gangs has felt endless. Court cases. Council reviews. Police watchdog reports. Last month a report by the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC), called Operation Linden, found that South Yorkshire police let down 1,400 abuse victims in Rotherham — enough children to fill a decent-size secondary school.
The same month, Greater Manchester’s authorities published their own review of historical child sex abuse, which found children had been left exposed to sexual exploitation because of “serious failings” by the police and Oldham council. This included a council welfare officer convicted of 30 rapes.
Child sex gangs have been rooted out in Newcastle, Oxford, Halifax, Keighley, Derby, Peterborough, Bristol, Huddersfield, Manchester, Coventry, Middlesbrough, Burton-on-Trent, Bradford, Birmingham, Nottingham, Hull, Sheffield … I could go on, but you get the picture.
“They’re in the news for 24 hours, then it’s gone,” Afzal said. “It’s today’s newspaper, but not tomorrow’s.”
And after each scandal nothing seems to change. Like the police and social services, we move on, and lurch to the next scandal of mass rape in a post-industrial town. That’s the problem. But how do we fix it? Be more proactive, Afzal argues. He makes a good point.
Victims often feel criminalised and made to believe it is their fault — that they chose a certain lifestyle and are paying for it. These young girls are so traumatised by their abuse that they are rightly suspicious of the authorities.
They find it hard to trust social workers and detectives. Children like that are not going to easily approach such people, so you have to go out and find them.
Roughly a decade ago, there was a scheme in Greater Manchester in which social workers would go out at night and visit the staff and customers of the night-time economy – the takeaway shops, pool halls and taxi ranks. This is an economy that, for whatever reason, has a disproportionately high number of Asian men.
It is in the dimly lit streets and litter-strewn pavements of the night-time economy that the perpetrators meet their victims, luring them in with gifts of food, cigarettes, booze and free rides. A victim’s mother once told me her 14-year-old daughter was performing oral sex in exchange for a bag of chips or a box of chicken. She cried to me on the phone. The whole family is broken.
The 14-year-old met her abusers in a chicken shop. Local authorities, like all public services, are firefighting, with budget cuts due to austerity and holes in their finances due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Money is stretched thinly – and proactive work is always the first to go. But police and social services must recognise this repeating pattern and disrupt it. Set up teams of community police officers and social workers. Get out there and target the night-time economy. Find those victims and earn their trust. Break the cycle.
Obvious evidence of child sex crimes in Telford was ignored for generations leading to more than 1,000 girls being abused, an inquiry has found.
Agencies blamed children for the abuse they suffered, not the perpetrators, and exploitation was not investigated because of “nervousness about race”.
The inquiry was set up after the Sunday Mirror revealed gangs had been abusing girls in the town since the 1980s.
Chairman Tom Crowther QC said the abuse had thrived unchecked for decades.
His report makes 47 recommendations for improvement by agencies involved. West Mercia Police has apologised “unequivocally” for past events as has Telford & Wrekin Council.
The report found agencies dismissed reports of child exploitation as “child prostitution”.
Mr Crowther said: “The overwhelming theme of the evidence has been the appalling suffering of generations of children caused by the utter cruelty of those who committed child sexual exploitation.
“Victims and survivors repeatedly told the inquiry how, when they were children, adult men worked to gain their trust before ruthlessly betraying that trust, treating them as sexual objects or commodities.
“Countless children were sexually assaulted and raped. They were deliberately humiliated and degraded. They were shared and trafficked. They were subjected to violence and their families were threatened.
“They lived in fear and their lives were forever changed. They have asked, over the years: how was this allowed to happen?”
Other key report findings include:
- Teachers and social workers being discouraged from reporting abuse
- Offenders becoming “emboldened” by the absence of police action, with abuse continuing for years without concerted response
- Exploitation was not investigated because of nervousness about race, that investigating concerns against Asian men, in particular, would inflame “racial tensions”
- Even after an investigation leading to seven men being jailed for child sex crimes West Mercia Police and Telford & Wrekin Council scaled down their specialist teams “to virtual zero” in order to save money
The investigation was known as Operation Chalice and saw two Telford brothers among those jailed. A court heard the brothers sexually abused, trafficked and prostituted, or tried to prostitute, four teenagers between March 2008 and December 2009.
The report found the most common way children were exploited was through a “boyfriend” model, where a child would meet a man, who would persuade them to become his girlfriend.
Perpetrators, it said, sought out “vulnerable” children and would begin giving them lifts, buying them food, alcohol or cigarettes which led to the children becoming involved in sexual activity with the men as a “favour” as payment for the gifts.
Most of those responsible for the abuse did not use contraception and “pregnancies were expected to be (and in many cases were) terminated.” Some of those abused went on to bear the perpetrator’s children.
In several cases, victims received death threats against them or their families if they tried to end the abuse.
The report references the case of Lucy Lowe, 16, who died along with her 17-year-old sister and mother in a house fire started by Azhar Ali Mehmood, 26, the father of her daughter. She had become pregnant at 14 to Mehmood.
The report continued to say children were often abused in nightclubs and takeaways with witnesses also describing a “rape house” in Wellington, Telford, to which young people were taken.
Within schools, it said, there was a “reluctance” to report concerning activity without “concrete proof” which was an “overly cautious approach”, while “obvious” indicators like absences and changes in behaviour went unremarked by school staff.
The report said, in the most recent figures from the first six months of 2020, police received 172 referrals related to child exploitation.
The “dreadful, life altering crime has not gone away – in Telford or elsewhere,” the report said.
It also outlines recent police evidence of “an unacceptable, and quite frankly offensive attitude”, towards child abuse victims, with “disparaging language being used”.
In his statement, Mr Crowther said he looked back as far as 1989 to draw his conclusions, but had heard from victims exploited as long ago as the 1970s.
“I saw references to exploitation being ‘generational’; having come to be regarded as ‘normal’ by perpetrators and inevitable by victims and survivors some of whose parents had been through similar experiences,” he said.
He urged agencies to accept the recommendations made in the report and hoped the report “goes some way” to giving a voice to the survivors.
Mr Crowther recommended the formation of a joint review team to publish an annual report on child abuse in Telford.
Following the inquiry’s publication, survivor Joanne Phillips, who gave evidence said: “Victims were being identified as child prostitutes. Once you have been convicted that label will never leave you.
“Prosecutions are damaging to your life.
“Some children went to prison for not paying the fines. Convictions should be completely expunged.
“Today I feel incredibly proud of the girls in Telford….I cannot express enough how proud I am for seeing this through and their resilience and bravery.”
Lucy Allan, the MP for Telford, who has been campaigning on the issue since 2016, said: “Today is a very important day for victims and survivors of CSE, not just in Telford but right across the country because this report is damning, it is devastating.
“There are clear patterns that existed well before this report was commissioned that people knew about CSE, we had had high profile court cases in Telford and we should have taken learnings from that and we quite clearly didn’t.
“The saddest thing is that victims and survivors, their voices weren’t heard, they weren’t taken seriously and that should never have happened.”
The report’s recommendations should be adopted by local authorities around the country, she said.
Telford and Wrekin Council has said it “apologises wholeheartedly” to the victims.
“Child sexual exploitation is a vile crime that disgusts us and all right thinking people.
“The independent inquiry acknowledges we have made significant improvements in recent years.”
It said it was working to provide support for victims and it was already carrying out many of the inquiry’s recommendations.
Assistant Chief Constable Richard Cooper, of West Mercia Police, said he would like to say sorry to the survivors and all those affected in Telford.
“While there were no findings of corruption, our actions fell far short of the help and protection you should have had from us, it was unacceptable, we let you down. It is important we now take time to reflect critically and carefully on the content of the report and the recommendations that have been made,” he said.
He said the force now has teams dedicated to preventing and tackling child exploitation and works better together with organisations to safeguard children.
West Mercia Police and Crime Commissioner, John Campion, said victims and survivors had been let down.
“I cannot say with absolute certainty, just because lessons have been learnt, that it will never happen again.
“However, my drive as PCC remains resolute to ensure the system, that is there to keep people safe, continues building on the progress that has been made.”
Shropshire Council, which neighbours Telford & Wrekin said these crimes are “happening right across the country”.
It said awareness of the crime is now “far greater” and it has “safeguards” in place to help people living in the area.
Most parents approach children’s questions about sex with careful thought. We know that our period chat, puberty Q&A, our bleakly vital guidance on sexting and porn won’t just affect their present happiness and bodily ease, but future relationships too. We entrust schools to make up for our shortfalls or embarrassment, to further our conversations with sensitivity and fact.
We’d expect RSHE (relationships, sex and health education) lessons to be conducted by trained teachers, schooled in biology, alert to pornified and misleading internet content. We’d hope our kids learn not just where babies come from but that sexuality is diverse, that sex isn’t just about problems, like STIs and abortion, but a source of joy.
Instead your child may be taught by the School of Sexuality Education which asked kids to Google then draw masturbating animals. Or the Proud Trust, whose dice game asks 13-year-olds to speculate how various body parts and objects will pleasure their anus. Or Diversity Role Models, which promoted the message beloved of paedophiles: “Love has no age limit.”
Because any organisation can now teach RSHE, including activist groups with political agendas. Staff don’t need education or child development qualifications. There is no professional register or regulation of their curriculum. The Department for Education (DfE) says it is a school’s responsibility to oversee lesson content but many don’t have time, often entrusting outside speakers to address classes with no teacher present. And if parents demand to see teaching resources, groups often cite copyright law and refuse.
RSHE teaching, as Miriam Cates, a Tory MP and former biology teacher, noted in her Westminster Hall debate on Thursday, is “a wild west”. Indeed it is a deregulated, privatised, quintessentially Conservative mess.
The government’s response to criticism about inadequate sex education was to make it mandatory from September 2020 for both primary and secondary pupils. The DfE advocates a “programme tailored to the age and the physical and emotional maturity of the pupils”. But instead of providing funds to recruit or train RSHE specialists, it left schools often to outsource lessons to groups, some newly formed to win these lucrative contracts. Since then many parents have voiced concerns. First at the inappropriately sexualised content of lessons for young children: 11-year-olds asked to work out from a list if they are straight, gay or bisexual; ten-year-olds told to discuss masturbation in pairs. Compelling pre-pubescent children to talk about explicit material with adults transgresses their natural shyness and is a safeguarding red flag.
Many groups brand themselves “sex positive”, a confusing term which doesn’t mean “relationships are great” but that no sexual practice is off-limits and the sex industry, specifically pornography, is wholly liberating. BISH Training’s website entry on “rough sex” dismisses the notion that online porn is responsible for a rise in choking, hair-pulling and spitting as “annoying”. Although 60 British women have died of strangulation during sex, BISH simply tells young people to go slow “at first”.
Reading RSHE groups’ online material, and most is hidden from public scrutiny, none addresses the fact that boys and girls are fed different sexual scripts from increasingly violent mainstream porn. Those being choked, violently penetrated in multiple orifices are rarely male. Yet there is no feminist critique or much focus on female pleasure.
Such teaching is supposed to uphold the 2010 Equality Act in which sex is a protected characteristic, yet much of it blurs biology. The Sex Education Forum divides us into “menstruaters” and “non-menstruaters”. Just Like Us states that sex can be changed. Amaze suggests boys who wear nail varnish and girls who like weightlifting could be trans.
Researching my report on the Tavistock child gender service, I spoke with parents of girls on the autistic spectrum who’d always felt like misfits but after listening to outside speakers at school assemblies or RSHE classes now believed they were boys. Gender ideology, with no basis in science or fact, is being pushed in schools, as Cates says, “with religious fervour”.
In its carelessness and cheap-skatery, the government has enabled teaching that is well out of step with public opinion. More In Common polling of 5,000 people found that while 64 per cent of us are happy for schools to teach that some children have two dads or mums, only 31 per cent believe primary schools should teach about trans identity. Parents know it is confusing, unscientific and predicated upon gender stereotypes.
The government’s present hands-off policy also leaves schools vulnerable when challenged by homophobic religious groups, as in Birmingham when extreme Islamists stirred up parents to oppose teaching about gay parents. Head teachers then said they’d have welcomed more prescriptive government guidance so parents could hold elected politicians, not individual schools, to account.
At Thursday’s debate, the chastened schools minister Robin Walker noted that parents should have ready access to all RSHE teaching materials and said the equality and human rights commission is working out guidance on how gender identity should be taught in schools. Such lessons must include evidence of social contagion, the harms of puberty blockers, warning about irreversible treatment and the experience of a growing number of “detransitioners”.
But the government needs to go further, with a register of outside groups and close monitoring of misleading materials. It should also teach critical thinking, so children can evaluate the porn-suffused culture in which they live. There’s no point parents putting such care into how we teach children about sex if the government gives none at all.
It is dinner time on a Friday evening and a teenage girl is sitting in her bedroom facing the camera on her laptop.
On the other end of the screen, boys are telling her to take her clothes off. “Your tits look heavy, do you want me to hold them?” a boy says. “I’d still dog you darling,” another replies.
Later on a boy asks if he can call a girl, who is black, a “dirty little slave”. Another group livestream is titled “n***a lynching clubhouse”.
The conversations are all happening on a social media app called Yubo, which is known as “Tinder for teens” and allows children aged 13 to 17 to match with potential dates as well as to join “lives” where they are encouraged to interact with about 100 other teenagers.
An undercover investigation into the app, which has 3.6 million UK users, has found children are subjected to sexual harassment, racism and bullying.
Schools have sent warnings to parents telling them that Yubo may not be safe. Head teachers have shared a newsletter saying that “due to the nature of this app, your child may come across content that is not appropriate to them”.
James Loten, deputy head at Harwich and Dovercourt school, in Essex, told parents he was concerned it could be “exploited by adults for nefarious purposes”. Kingsley primary school, in Co Durham, said children should be stopped from downloading it.
Our undercover reporter spent ten days on Yubo, posing as a 15-year-old girl called Anne. No age verification was required, with the journalist able to use profile pictures of her 20-year-old self.
She was propositioned for sex and frequently asked to send nude pictures. A message from a 17-year-old boy said: “Let me rail [have sex with] you”, while others on a livestream told girls they would “strip you naked and rape you” and “choke you”.
A black 16-year-old was told by another user: “I’d let you pick my cotton any day.”
Self-harm and suicide were frequently discussed. Our reporter saw a group of boys trade explicit images of girls they knew while others chanted “get your wrists out” to a female user. Others were told to “f*** off and kill yourselves” during a discussion about feminism.
Many of the conversations happened as teens were finishing school and doing their homework, with some parents shouting up to bedrooms about coming down for dinner.
MPs and campaigners said the investigation raised significant safety concerns. They also questioned whether children would be sufficiently protected by the new Online Safety Bill, which could be presented to parliament within weeks.
The Conservative MP Robert Halfon, chairman of the education select committee, said the findings were “deeply shocking, both for the parents and children involved, and also for educators across the country”. “The Online Safety Bill is a welcome step in the right direction but much more needs to be done to keep pace with the ever-evolving technology,” he said.
Chris Philp, the minister for tech and the digital economy, said: “What I have heard about this site is sickening. Apps designed for and marketed at children should be safe for them to use. The government will not allow this kind of thing to continue threatening children and that is why we are strengthening the Online Safety Bill to put a stop to content harmful to children once and for all.”
Steve Chalke, founder of Oasis, one of England’s biggest academy trusts, with 52 schools, said the site was dangerous and must be made safer “to stop lives being lost and futures ruined”.
Young people have contacted the charity Childline asking for help. “A guy saved my nudes on Yubo. I eventually got him to delete them but he said if I don’t send him stuff tomorrow he’ll get the pictures back and spread them,” one girl said.
Ian Critchley, in charge of child protection for the National Police Chiefs’ Council, said sites such as Yubo were being used to “commit some of the most abhorrent acts”.
“These platforms are multimillion-pound companies. They take large profits and they have the moral and legal responsibility to make sure the communities they have created are safe communities. There is much more they can do.
“The findings from your report highlight the role they must play in being proactive in seeking to stop child abuse where perpetrators are seeking to groom children,” he said.
Sarah Parker, from Catch 22, an agency that works with police and schools to combat child exploitation, said Yubo had been mentioned in a “flurry” of recent cases.
The new Online Safety Bill is supposed “to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online”.
Under the new rules social media companies will have to show a “duty of care” to users by removing illegal content and ensuring children are not exposed to inappropriate material.
If they do not meet these responsibilities, tech giants could face fines from the regulator Ofcom and senior managers may be held criminally liable.
Baroness Morgan of Cotes, a former education and digital secretary, said: “No teenager should be exposed to the harmful content that you found … just because Yubo or any other platform can’t properly police their sites. Those running Yubo and similar sites need to be held accountable.”
Yubo says its moderators check profiles and monitor messages for inappropriate content, yet chats with names such as “pissing on dead n**gs” appeared to go unnoticed.
Rules on the discussion and consumption of drugs, which it also claims to enforce, were consistently broken.
Our reporter heard a drug dealer telling a 15-year-old girl about ketamine and acid. As a teenage girl appeared to snort cocaine, a male user said: “Would you do a line off my wood [erection]?”.
Yubo, which is based in Paris and was previously called Yellow, has been linked to a string of criminal cases involving teenagers being groomed.
Last week Rhys Stone, 21, was jailed at Cardiff crown court after he locked a 17-year-old in his car and subjected her to a sexual attack as she screamed and begged him to stop.
He had met the victim hours before on a Yubo livestream.
Dewan Gazi, 22, was sentenced to 12 years in October 2019 for raping a 12-year-old and sexually abusing a 15-year-old. Over a period of 12 days, he had messaged 95 teenagers on the app.
Detective Sergeant Jinnett Lunt, from Greater Manchester police, said: “What this case showed was Gazi’s apparent intent on using Yubo with a view to making contact with as many young people as possible, before moving them on to other platforms where he would then commit his offending.”
Last month pupils at the Jewish Free School in north London revealed that younger children were using Yubo, where bullying and harassment were rife. The school was placed into special measures last year by inspectors after the death of a 14-year-old girl.
In a report Ofsted told of widespread “sexual bullying including via social media” at the school, which has 2,000 pupils and where three students are thought to have taken their own lives in the past four years.
Assemblies on sexting were held, with parents given advice on supervising their teenagers’ phone use. The school has since improved.
A spokeswoman for Yubo said the safety of users was “our foremost priority”, with safety practices developed on a “constant” basis. They added that the site cared “deeply” about the wellbeing of its users.
Yubo said it had an extensive range of safety tools in place to “safeguard our users at every stage of their journey within the app”, with moderators who “intervene in real time”, and has an age verification process.
A spokeswoman said: “We are saddened to learn of the journalist’s experience and can only apologise for the way she and others have been impacted during this time on our platform. We’re taking the investigation by The Sunday Times extremely seriously and have instigated an immediate review of the safety features and how they may have failed. Our users and their safety always have, and always will, come first.”
Cressida Dick, Metropolitan Police Commissioner, has just been forced to resign by Sadiq Khan. I first became aware of her when my partner, Harriet Wistrich was representing the family of Jean Charles de Menezes. He was an innocent man, but police shot him dead in London in a case of mistaken identity. Dick was the officer in charge of the operation, but did not face any consequences for her role in the tragedy.
During the case, I got to know some of de Menezes’ family members, including Maria Otoni de Menezes, Jean Charles’ mother, who I interviewed after the 2008 inquest. I still recall her distress at the fact that Dick had not just kept her job following her son’s death but had been promoted through the ranks.
Cressida Dick is an out lesbian and the first woman to rise to the top of policing ranks — an impressive accomplishment. That she has made monumental and catastrophic errors should not serve as an excuse for the offensive banter I often hear, including childish skits on her name. It is possible for a woman to be both the victim of bigotry and at serious fault herself. Both of these things can be true at the same time. It is possible that in order to survive and thrive in such a male-dominated profession, Dick protected her officers rather more vehemently than she should have done. But the fact is that her primary loyalty should have been to Londoners, not officers.
During Dick’s tenure, the public has been deluged with stories of sexual and domestic violence committed by serving police officers; a failure to police such crimes among civilians; and clear evidence of appalling racism, misogyny and homophobia among officers of all ranks. As a result, faith and trust in the Metropolitan police is at rock bottom. Why Dick did not use her tenure as Met Police Commissioner to begin the process of root-and-branch reform? Instead, under her command, whistle-blowers were either silenced or punished. Her most shameful moment surely was in her description of Wayne Couzens as a ‘bad apple’.
After the Savile scandal in 2011, victims and their families accused the Met of ignoring or covering up allegations of abuse, and in doing so failing to prosecute one of Britain’s most prolific sex offenders. In response, the Met instituted a policy of automatically believing victims who report sex crimes. But in 2018, Dick announced that the Met would be abandoning this policy. She has presided over mounting evidence of multiple allegations of abuse and police failures to tackle violence against women and racism, but nothing has changed.
Who will take her place? Is there anyone that has the genuine desire and ability to tackle the rotten culture at Britain’s largest police force, and to bring about real change in the institution? I can’t say that I’m holding my breath.
Part of the reason that Jeffrey Epstein’s abuse of girls and women fascinates is that he belonged to such a remote, rarefied world. Private jets, princes, billionaires, the daughter of a media magnate to act as his madam. For those who would like to believe that the powerful and wealthy exist in a state of ultimate corruption, here is ample material.
But the truth is that beyond the vulgar surface glitz and the celebrity names, grooming and trafficking is always only grooming and trafficking. Always only rape. Swap Mar-a-Lago for a care home. Swap the Lolita Express for a minicab rank. Swap the private island for a grey industrial estate. The differences are superficial. The underlying exploitation of female bodies is much the same.
It starts when the exploiter finds a person he can exploit. Sometimes, that means someone who’s already been abused: Virginia Giuffre, the Epstein victim who is currently pursuing a civil suit against Prince Andrew, has said she’d gone through “so much abuse already” before she met Epstein. Sometimes the vulnerability is love. Sammy Woodhouse, one of the victims of the Rotherham grooming scandal, believed that the man in his twenties who started raping her when she was 14 was her boyfriend.
Power is fundamental to all sexual abuse. Epstein’s power was most obvious in his money and connections, but it was also inherent to his sex. For the abusers of Woodhouse and all the other girls like her—the ones in Rotherham and Rochdale, the ones we know about and the ones we don’t—power consisted simply in being male. Their victims, being girls, were of no value. The police would look right at them in the passenger seat of an adult man’s car and ask no questions.
The fact that men as a whole have more power than women as a whole is the most unfashionable intersection. On the left, it is easy to talk about race, about sexuality, about gender identity. Sometimes, social class is even brought into the picture. But if sex is brought into the picture at all, it’s usually done dismissively. What about Maxwell? (Well, what about Maxwell? There have always been female pimps, acting for men and against other women and girls.)
White women as a group are discussed in terms of their privilege—so-called “Karens,” up to their necks in complicity. The oppression of black women can be acknowledged, but only in terms of their race, and often as a means of undermining “white feminism.” The injunction to remember that sex is not the only axis of oppression is applied to mean that, in effect, sex is not a real axis of oppression at all.
By the time one has worked through the liturgy of all the ways a woman might have advantages over a man, any sense that women might share a common social vulnerability has long been dissolved. This has depressing consequences for almost every aspect of politics regarding women’s lives, but it has a particularly egregious effect when it comes to the discussion of sexual exploitation.
Without an understanding of men’s power in general over women in general, it becomes impossible to make sense of an Epstein, a Rotherham, a Rochdale. It is impossible to make any sense of the sex industry as a whole: it simply becomes a baffling patchwork of people (who happen to be mostly female) providing services (which happen to be sexual) to other people (who happen to be almost exclusively male). No structural forces here, just arbitrary and individual choice.
That’s if the buyers are brought into the discussion at all. Usually, conversations about the sale of sex are conversations about the people—the women—who sell it. The men simply melt away into the background, undiscussed, unmentioned, too unremarkable to draw comment; a strange, faceless inevitability. The vast majority of research on prostitution focuses on the prostituted rather than the punters.
Perhaps that’s because most research into prostitution starts from the ideological position that “sex work is work,” and so examining the character of the men who drive the industry would be an obstacle to normalising it, as the researchers want to. Buyers are not the only sources of harm against women in prostitution, but they are a significant one: the UK 2020 Femicide Census recorded the killings of 32 women involved in prostitution, 18 of whom were killed by clients. Research into men who buy sex has found they score highly for sexual aggression, and (unsurprisingly) lowly on empathy for women in prostitution.
We don’t know whether the act begets the attitude or the attitude begets the act, but it seems plausible that the influence runs both ways. What’s interesting, though, is that when such a man is brought into public view—a man like Epstein, who used girls and young women, and passed them around his friends, if not for direct financial gain then for social advantage—he is seen, rightly, with revulsion.
To exploit another person for your own pleasure is a grotesque thing to do, and a thing that can only happen under a terrible mismatch of power. We can talk about a woman’s “choice” to sell sex, but it is a choice that can be made only when a man decides to buy it. Epstein was not extraordinary. He was any pimp and any punter, and his wrongs are the wrongs of the entire trade in women.
Ministers are preparing to introduce laws to prevent children accessing online pornography.
Plans to bring in age verification for adult sites, which were shelved in 2017, are now being looked on with approval by Nadine Dorries, the culture secretary, and Nadhim Zahawi, the education secretary.
Their support follows work by Dame Rachel de Souza, the children’s commissioner, who has sent a report to ministers recommending that age verification becomes compulsory on all porn sites.
Today she reveals that in meetings with porn providers she found them willing to introduce age verification measures as long as they were imposed industry-wide.
Studies show that half of 11 to 13-year-olds have seen pornography at some point. This rises to two-thirds of 14 to 15-year-olds and four in five 16 to 17-year-olds, according to De Souza. She is also pushing for the big tech firms such as Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram to do much more to prevent children from seeing porn and other damaging material on their sites by accident, although ministers are not expected to back full age verification for these platforms.
The eight big tech companies have been summoned to a meeting on Wednesday hosted by the two ministers and De Souza to thrash out how they stop children stumbling across porn or harmful material on suicide and eating disorders.
De Souza, a former head teacher, said she had seen the hugely damaging effects of pornography on children, including a young girl who took her own life. “Kids are seeing things that warp what they think real sexual relationships are like,” she said. “I’ve had girls say to me that during their first kiss with their boyfriend he’s tried to strangle her because he’s seen it on a porn video. Girls are filming themselves in their bedroom and sending it to boys who are sharing it. These girls are being pestered ten or more times a night to send naked images of themselves. I’ve had boys traumatised because they are in big WhatsApp groups, seeing things they don’t want to see.”
The tougher rules are expected to be written into the forthcoming online harms bill, which had been due before Christmas but has been put on hold until the new year after Boris Johnson told the House of Commons liaison committee that he wanted to see it strengthened. Dorries has also told MPs that she wants it to go further.
Theresa May’s government passed the Digital Economy Act in 2017, requiring commercial providers of pornography “to have robust age verification controls in place to prevent children and young people under 18 from accessing pornographic material”. However, it was never enacted after privacy campaigners claimed that it would force users to hand over their identities to porn sites.
De Souza said that technology now existed that will allow users to prove their age online using a passport or other identification in a way that they secure an access code. “Technology is so much better now and the privacy issues are no longer a concern,” she said. “Third parties can do age verification and get rid of that information straight away.
“I met with some of the biggest porn companies and challenged them on age verification. As long as all adult sites have to have age verification put on them, they would be comfortable to go forward with that. They basically said, ‘Make us do it’. I was pleased with that.”
Ministers are examining how to introduce age verification using biometric data and “age assurance” measures, whereby sites can use artificial intelligence to identify children by the way they they behave online or interact with a device, including the language they use.
Senior government sources said officials were considering whether to write changes into the published draft of the bill or whether to amend the legislation when it goes before parliament in the spring. The bill is expected to become law by the end of next year.
Women woke to find a new item on our stay-safe list. Beneath “stick to well-lit streets” and “wear flat shoes you can run in”; after “text your taxi’s number plate to a friend” and “clutch keys in your fist like a claw” came new guidance: “Don’t trust a policeman working alone.”
Is this our duty too? To adjudge on dark nights whether men paid with our taxes to protect us may prefer to kill us? The North Yorkshire police commissioner Philip Allott said that Sarah Everard “should never have submitted to arrest”. But women are raised to comply. It’s drummed into us: be good, be kind. Sarah got into Wayne Couzens’s car because, in visiting her friend, she knew she’d broken lockdown rules. Sorry, officer, I’ll come to the station. Handcuffs? Are you sure? OK . . .
No more. If Naomi Alderman’s novel The Power, in which women’s rage converts into high-voltage electricity, were true, skies would crackle, buildings blaze. Not just for Sarah or Sabina Nessa, bludgeoned crossing a park, or Julia James, walking her dog, or Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry, enjoying a summer night. Nor even for all 80 women killed by men since Sarah. But because we will no longer accept male violence, and the misogyny which underpins it, being shrugged away.
The police should have no doubt this is their Jimmy Savile moment. Cressida Dick chose the day Couzens pleaded guilty to kidnapping and rape to talk about the odd ‘bad ’un’ in the force. But what does that make colleagues who let him slide across the spectrum, from slapping a female cop’s backside to stopping only women motorists, using personal details to loiter outside their homes. Women now know that acquiring the nickname The Rapist is no impediment to a police career.
It’s all banter isn’t it, just a laugh? Couzens, spotted driving around naked from the waist-down? A kink, maybe. (Once flashers were comedy staples, now it’s argued that indecent exposure is an outdated offence in our sex-positive age.) Couzens using violent pornography or hiring prostitutes? Only a prude would judge. (Unembarrassed men browse PornHub right beside you on a train.) Every warning sign that Couzens saw women as disposable objects was glossed over, not even picked up in professional screening which granted him a gun.
Because we never riot and, alas, lack electric super-powers, police disregard our deaths. Even our grief at the Sarah Everard vigil, where officers stomped flowers and strong-armed speakers, wasn’t worthy of the respect protesters receive for lying on the M25. They are political: women are collateral.
If a man is freaked out by lockdown he might kill his wife of 44 years: Ruth Williams. If he’s drunk, horny and has watched choking porn he might strangle his mistress: Sophie Moss. (Both men got five years.) All these reported pillars of the community, decent dads, nice, quiet blokes who just “turned”. Nothing to see. Just an annual 150 or so one-offs.
Yet Sue Fish, the former chief constable of Nottinghamshire, has spoken of “institutional misogyny” so ingrained in the decision-making “they don’t realise they are doing it and why”. She reports police calling young women “whores” or “sugar tits”, older ones “Dorises”.
No surprise that Couzens and colleagues traded racist and misogynist WhatsApp messages or that other Met officers posed for selfies by Nicole and Bibaa’s dead bodies. Because we know northern police forces ignored gangs trafficking underage girls for sex for decades, since they were just “little slags”. We learnt this week that police chiefs disregarded undercover cops having sexual relationships with women by deception. The impunity of the penis rules the police, as elsewhere.
Now a third of officers are women, yet it is still hard to complain about men like Couzens. Parm Sandhu, a former chief superintendent, said female officers hesitate to report colleagues lest they be labelled as troublemakers so “when you press your emergency button on your radio for back up, no one comes and you get beaten up in the street”.
In a super-complaint lodged by the Centre for Women’s Justice (CWJ), of which I am a trustee, 666 women reported abuse by police officer partners. Australian research has shown that since policemen tend to have more authoritarian personalities they are more likely to be controlling spouses, yet their conviction rate for domestic violence is 3.9 per cent compared with a 6.2 per cent average in the general population.
CWJ argues this is because the police service looks after its own. Abusive officers told their wives that since colleagues would investigate their claims, they would never be believed. Indeed, in case after case women report that witnesses aren’t contacted, statements and evidence lost, no further action taken. (CWJ wants a separate channel for police partners to report abuse away from boys’-club meddling.) No wonder that since 2009 at least 15 serving or ex-police officers have killed women.
This statistic is from the femicide census, the annual list read in parliament by Jess Phillips compiled by the campaigner Karen Ingala Smith from news reports. She does this because, astonishingly, the government doesn’t keep data on how many women are killed by men. The first of many acts police need to perform to win back women’s trust is create a femicide league table showing which forces have brought women’s deaths down. And spare us that sly obfuscation “gender-based violence”.
It is time for the demands of violence against women campaigners to be addressed. Cressida Dick should dedicate her remaining years to this most intractable crime. Male violence is a problem with the deepest, most tangled roots. And police are just men, but with handcuffs and warrant cards.
QotD: “Courts ‘scandal’ robbing domestic abuse victims of their children – sometimes to their abusers”
Victims of domestic abuse are being discriminated against in the family courts and regularly lose custody of their children, sometimes to their abusers, according to campaigners, social workers and lawyers who’ve spoken to Sky News.
Courts and councils are accused of helping abusers to land a huge psychological blow on the victim and their child, by separating them and severely damaging their lives.
The situation is so bad, the domestic abuse commissioner says lawyers often advise clients not to tell the court they have been victims of domestic violence in case it is used against them.
Nicole Jacobs told Sky News that solicitors tell them: “The judge doesn’t like it, it complicates things.”
Barrister and advisor to the government on domestic abuse, Usha Sood, has described the situation as “scandalous”, and is among many calling for greater transparency in the family courts.
One leading campaigner on child sexual exploitation (CSE), Sammy Woodhouse, says that victims of CSE who become mothers are facing similar problems with “hundreds of women” contacting her to say: “I wish I’d never come forward because now they’re going to take my kids.”
Sky News looked at the case of “Sally”, whose daughter was removed from her care four years ago and given to her ex-partner, who she claims she had broken up with to escape from an abusive relationship.
In disturbing footage of the moment her daughter is removed, the toddler reaches out and cries “mummy” as she is carried to a car to be taken away.
Campaigners say that for the abuser, child custody is often part of a malicious game to gain control of the victim, who has otherwise escaped the violent behaviour.
Sally told us when her ex-partner applied for custody, that’s how she viewed it.
She said: “I knew it was a game, I knew it was about control, I knew it was just going to be another abusive tactic to cause as much chaos and pain and drama as possible. And I just thought it was absolutely absurd.”
But the court ruled that her ex should have custody and Sally, who is DBS checked to work with other children, can now only have supervised contact with her own child once a fortnight.
We don’t have the partner’s side of the story, but the case was assessed by an independent social worker from another district.
She looked at the psychological assessment into the mother and in her report suggests it implies that “the domestic violence work being undertaken by [the mother] was having a negative effect upon her ability to progress” and the social worker believes this was used to remove the child and place it with the alleged abuser.
In her assessment, the social worker concluded the mother “should have been encouraged/supported to engage in domestic violence work, not criticised for it”.
The report author also found that while the child was observed to have “an excellent relationship” with her mother and was reaching developmental milestones, the toddler often reacted badly to contact with the partner, screaming “no, no, no, don’t go” and “clawing at her mother”.
The report author, who we can’t identify for legal reasons, told Sky News: “I was basically shocked when I read the documents that were provided to me as to why this child was taken.
“It was absolutely appalling and shocking and highly disturbing.”
Ms Jacobs said: “These are the times when the stakes are highest. Someone losing their child to a perpetrator, someone that they feel and know is unsafe for their child, and these are decisions being made.
“And this is what’s happening day in and day out in our family courts, which is why we need so much more oversight.
“Many of them will say their own solicitor advised them not to raise domestic abuse.
“They’ll say they were advised because the opinion of that solicitor was quote-on-quote ‘the judge doesn’t like it, that it complicates things’ and so they will advise people to avoid raising those issues.
“Then of course there are real consequences to that if decisions are being made without understanding this history of abuse or the context of abuse within a family.
“And so, there is a real oddity about this, that we have players in the system who are in and out of courts every day thinking that the system is not able to understand domestic abuse so much that it’s best not to even talk about it.”
Ms Jacobs added: “It seems extreme, and it doesn’t make sense, and yet it’s happening in huge volumes every single day.”
There seems to be a range of reasons why victims of domestic abuse fall foul of the courts.
Sometimes they are not believed and are considered too protective of their children, not wanting their partner to have unsupervised access.
In other cases, they are portrayed as damaged, passing on psychological scars to their children.
The family court’s first consideration is always to protect the child, but campaigners say this can bring suspicion on parents who reach out for support and not just in domestic violence cases.
Rotherham has hundreds of victims from its infamous child abuse scandal – who are now parents themselves.
An independent report found that as children they were let down by the authorities, who made assumptions about them being prostitutes or making poor lifestyle choices.
Survivor and campaigner Sammy Woodhouse told Sky News similar assumptions are being made about a child abuse victim’s parenting skills.
She said: “If you’ve been raped or exploited, you know, we know that that can affect you not just for many years but sometimes for a lifetime, and that’s what they’re trying to use, in removing children.
“Then what’s happening is when children are being removed and if those children are being conceived through that abuse or rape, they are then given to the perpetrator.”
Ms Woodhouse added: “The man who raped me, he was offered to apply to courts not just for contact but for full custody.
“He’s sat in prison for 35 years for being, you know, one of the worst sex offenders in the country.
“Unfortunately, lessons aren’t being learnt.
“I’ve been contacted by hundreds of women around the country – so this isn’t just a Rotherham problem – saying ‘Sammy, I wish I’d never come forward. You know, I wish I’d have just kept my mouth shut and not told anyone because now they’re going to take my kids.'”
Another alleged victim of child abuse, “Kelly”, was groomed by a man from the age of 15. By 16 she had a baby.
She says she was made to have a Muslim marriage ceremony and was virtually imprisoned in the house, suffering regular domestic violence.
She told Sky News: “He was pulling me around by my hair, slapping me, dragging me about, kicking me, punching me, ripped my clothes, you know I had bald patches in my head from where he’d dragged me about by my hair.”
The father was even convicted of abuse against Kelly, but won custody partly because the boy said he wanted to be with his father.
Kelly says the boy was coerced. “He’d say to my son, you know, ‘Your mum’s a dirty white w****. She’s a dirty prostitute. You know, when you get older, when you get to 16, beat her up, kick her in the head, spit on her, come and live with me, she’s just a tramp.'”
Kelly’s barrister Usha Sood says the court should have seen the signs in her son’s behaviour: “There were several indicators, like he’d call her names.
“He swore at his mother many times. He would order her to do things, and he’d call her s***.”
Mrs Sood, an advisor to the government on domestic abuse, says her client’s story is the symptom of a wider problem.
She said: “I don’t think there’s any other way to describe it other than it is a real scandal that there hasn’t been a multi-faceted attempt to cure this.
“We see reports damning the police, we see reports damning the CPS for low prosecutions.
“We also see reports saying social services aren’t doing their job.
“But at the end of the day, all these agencies have a responsibility to tackle domestic abuse.”
In Sally’s case, a spokesperson for the local authority concerned told Sky News: “All the of the evidence in this case has been considered by the family courts, on several occasions and in front of different judges.
“The court has made the final decisions about the child’s care.
“Throughout these proceedings, the child has been represented by a court appointed guardian, independent of the local authority, to ensure that their views and wishes are heard.
“At all times we have acted in the best interests of the child.”
A Ministry of Justice report last year also criticised the balance given to abusers in private law children cases.
It said: “Submissions highlighted a feeling that abuse is systematically minimised, ranging from children’s voices not being heard, allegations being ignored, dismissed or disbelieved, to inadequate assessment of risk, traumatic court processes, perceived unsafe child arrangements, and abusers exercising continued control through repeat litigation.”
It found: “The courts almost always ordered some form of contact, frequently unrestricted, and usually without requiring an alleged abuser to address their behaviour.”
Campaigners are calling for more transparency.
They want the government to provide figures on numbers of abuse victims who’ve lost their children in the courts – and if a parent seeks mental health support due to abuse, then for help to be given, rather than their children taken away and sometimes given to the abuser.
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “We are determined to keep victims and children safe.
“Last year we announced an overhaul of how family courts deal with domestic abuse cases.
“This will provide extra protections for victims, and we are currently reviewing the presumption of parental involvement where there is a risk of harm to a child.”