The top court in Maryland ruled this week that a teen who sent a sexually explicit cellphone video of herself to two friends violated state child pornography law.
The teen, referred to in court papers as SK, did not have to register as a sex offender but was ordered to undergo electronic monitoring and probation, which required drug tests and anger management classes as well as permission to leave the state.
The decision, which upheld a decision from a lower Maryland appeals court, means other minors who engage in sexting could face similar legal repercussions.
Amidst spreading criticism, one expert told the Guardian it was “a ridiculous reading of the statute” concerned.
The ruling, by a 6-1 majority among the judges on the Maryland court of appeals, said: “We refuse to read into the statute an exception for minors who distribute their own matter, and thus we believe SK’s adjudication as delinquent … must be upheld.”
This 35-page decision stemmed from an incident at a high school several years ago. The student identified as SK was 16 at the time and therefore “legally able to consent to engage in sexual conduct”.
According to the ruling, she and her two best friends swapped “silly photos and videos” in a cellphone-based group chat “in an effort to ‘one-up’ each other”.
“The trio hung out together and trusted one another to keep their group messages private,” the ruling said.
The other group members were identified as AT, a 16-year-old female, and KS, a 17-year-old male. During the 2016-17 school year, SK sent them a “one-minute video of herself performing [oral sex] on a male”.
After the trio fell out, the clip was shared with other students.
AT testified that KS “would always write on the board, like, saying she’s a slut or saying any type of thing” and also urged AT to accompany him to the school resource officer, a member of the sheriff’s department, to report the video. While KS claimed he “was worried about SK and wanted her to receive help”, the court papers said, AT thought his motives “were not so pure”.
“AT testified that KS was bragging around school about SK going to jail if he were to report the text message,” the papers said.
KS, who had a copy of the video in his email account, showed it to Officer Eugene Caballero. He was told to delete it.
Caballero then met SK, who was read her rights. According to Caballero’s police report, SK “cried during their meeting and was upset that the video was going around the school”. The student thought the meeting would stop the video circulating. Caballero did not tell her she was “considered a suspect for criminal activity”.
SK gave Caballero a written statement saying she was in the video and had shared it with her two friends.
Caballero’s report was sent to a state attorney. Prosecutors charged SK as a juvenile with filming a minor engaging in sexual conduct, distributing child pornography and displaying an obscene item to a minor. The juvenile court determined SK was involved in the last two counts.
She appealed, arguing that “the statute was intended to protect, not prosecute, minors victimized and exploited in the production of sexually explicit videos”.
The top court recognized that the issue was more complicated than in cases involving adults – but still ruled against SK.
“On the one hand, there is no question that the state has an overwhelming interest in preventing the spread of child pornography and has been given broad authority to eradicate the production and distribution of child pornography,” the opinion said.
“On the other hand, SK, albeit unwisely, engaged in the same behavior as many of her peers. Here, SK is prosecuted as a ‘child pornographer’ for sexting and, because she is a minor, her actions fell directly within the scope of the statute … As written, the statute in its plain meaning is all encompassing, making no distinction whether a minor or an adult is distributing the matter.”
The judges said they did “recognize that there may be compelling policy reasons for treating teenage sexting different from child pornography” and said legislation differentiating the two “ought to be considered by [Maryland’s] general assembly in the future”.
The dissenting judge said prosecuting SK conflicted with the intent of the state’s child pornography statute.
“She made a video depicting consensual sexual conduct,” Judge Michele D Hotten wrote. “The general assembly did not seek to subject minors who recorded themselves in non-exploitative sexual encounters to prosecution. Rather, the statute contemplates protecting children from the actions of others.”
The decision prompted criticism.
“If there is any victim here,” said Slate, “it is SK, who was allegedly the target of revenge porn by her erstwhile friend KS. Yet KS was never charged with distributing the video, nor were any of the students who passed it around.
“Only SK, humiliated and horrified, found herself charged as a child pornographer. The system failed her at every step, from the school resource officer who treated her like a criminal, to the prosecutor who inexplicably brought a criminal case against her, to the courts that affirmed the prosecutors’ ridiculous reading of the law.”
Rebecca Roiphe, a professor of law at New York Law School and former assistant district attorney in Manhattan, agreed.
“This is a ridiculous reading of the statute,” she said in an email. “The law uses two different terms, ‘person’ to describe the perpetrator and ‘minor’ to describe the victim. The legislature clearly did not intend to criminalize the victim.
“If there were a law prohibiting a person from bringing an animal into the park, it would be absurd to say a man walking alone in the park violated the law because he brought himself.”
Roiphe added: “I think the case illustrates how troubling the enforcement of sex crimes can be and how important it is that prosecutors use their discretion wisely.”
Obviously, I agree that it is completely wrong for minors to be prosecuted in this way, and that this is an incorrect interpretation of the law, which is meant to protect minors.
We need to be careful that this isn’t used to try to weaken laws that protect minors from sexual exploitation, especially by the porn industry (see my 2015 blog post here about an attempt in the UK to do just that).
Glamorous and flamboyant, Liliana del Carmen Campos Puello often posted snaps to her Instagram followers of racy days spent surrounded by beautiful young women in some of Colombia’s most exclusive spots.
Behind the façade, prosecutors say, lay a dark secret: last year the brash 48-year-old woman was arrested and accused of being the country’s biggest pimp. She is now in jail and on trial accused of making a fortune by catering to the dark desires of those visiting the Caribbean coastal city of Cartagena, after her arrest last year along with 17 others in a huge police sting known as Operation Vesta.
Prosecutors allege that Ms Campos Puello, nicknamed “La Madame”, forced young women to work in her international sex-trafficking ring and provided them to clients such as celebrities, policemen and politicians.
While Ms Campos Puello vehemently denies the accusations, her trial has highlighted Colombia’s insidious problem with sex tourism.
During the Eighties and Nineties Colombia was a no-go zone for travellers as a war involving left-wing guerrillas, drug traffickers and right-wing paramilitaries turned it into a near-failed state. But tourism has been booming since a peace deal in 2016 ended half a century of conflict, and Cartagena is the country’s biggest tourist trap. The beaches and colonial architecture of the Unesco World Heritage site attract millions of visitors each year.
But anyone wandering around the city’s old town will come across females, many very young, offering their services. Prostitution in Colombia is legal but it is alleged that Ms Campos Puello coerced women, often from poor backgrounds, into the trade and trafficked them overseas. Others caught in Operation Vesta were alleged to have trafficked children.
Despite admitting to having an escort agency, Ms Campos Puello claims that those involved chose to be so and were always older than 18. Mario Gómez Jiménez, the chief prosecutor, said that Ms Campos Puello had close to 400 women in the network.
“Never, never have there been minors involved,” Ms Campos Puello told local media in an interview from prison.
She has been kept in jail since her arrest last year. She has since been accused of continuing to run her agency and also threatening a journalist via her social media accounts.
Last year Néstor Humberto Martínez, Colombia’s former chief prosecutor, described the victims in the case as “true 21st-century sex slaves”.
The US-aided Operation Vesta led to 17 other people being arrested, including three Israelis who “had built a network of human trafficking, sex tourism and child exploitation that plagued Colombia for over a decade”. One navy official who has been jailed tattooed his initials on the bodies of the underage girls he raped. About 250 victims have been identified.
Mr Gómez said he hoped Operation Vesta would “open the eyes of the state, the government and society”.
Most of Cartagena is poor and the sex trade is seen as an easy way out of poverty for many young women.
“It’s very difficult to believe just one case will radically change the country. But emblematic cases such as this one give us hope,” Mr Gómez said. “We hope it could give some direction and help with the next step with many of the women who are involved in this trade. If the government could help, financially, those trapped in this trade and provide better opportunities, such as funds to set up small businesses, that would be a turning point.”
When I first heard about the tragic case of Cyntoia Brown, sentenced in 2006 to 51 years for killing a man who was paying to use her for sex when she was 16-years-old, I immediately thought of Emma Humphreys. In 1985, Emma also killed a man in very similar circumstances.
Both girls killed as a result of severe provocation and mental ill health, caused by the extreme abuse they had endured in prostitution.
Brown shot Johnny Allen in 2004. On the night she killed him, Allen picked up Cyntoia and took her to his home. Brown said in her statement she thought he was reaching for a gun during sex, so she shot him with a handgun and fled with his money.
The defence claimed Cyntoia was a victim of sex trafficking who feared for her life and was afraid of coming back to her pimp, “Cut Throat”, who used to beat and terrorise her, with no money. The prosecution said she was a greedy opportunist. Cyntoia was convicted of murder.
Like Cyntoia, Emma had grown up with appalling abuse, and was pimped into prostitution as a runaway child. Having met Trevor Armitage on the streets of Nottingham, Emma – who had been prostituted on the streets aged 13 – moved in with him, desperate for a home.
Armitage began beating, raping and pimping Emma, and her life was sheer hell. She killed him after he threatened her with a “gang-bang”. Like Cyntoia, she was just 16 years old, and yet was convicted a few months later of his murder. The jury failed to understand how child abuse and neglect is a training ground for prostitution, and how pimps and other predators target girls such as Emma.
Following a relentless three-year campaign to overturn Emma’s conviction, she finally walked free in July 1995. Emma had served a decade in prison for the “crime” of defending herself. But the lifetime of abuse, and her decade in prison took its toll on her mental and physical health, and Emma died three years later.
Cyntoia had been in prison for over a decade when campaigners brought her case to the public’s attention, and soon the hashtag #FreeCyntoiaBrown trended on Twitter. Celebrities including Kim Kardashian, and even Snoop Dogg, himself a former pimp, called for her release.
Cyontia says that “My hope is to help other young girls avoid ending up where I have been.” Emma said much the same when she was released. What Emma needed, and what all the girls caught up in prostitution need from us is to call it what it is – child abuse.
We need to challenge those that claim that when the Cyntoias and Emmas of this world reach 18 they are merely exercising a “choice”. One pro-prostitution organisation recently referred to Cyntoia as “a survival sex worker” as opposed to a victim of sexual exploitation, and called for changes to attitudes so that such young women can hang on to their “agency”.
A child in the sex trade has no “agency”. She is a victim of sexual abuse and violence. Girls such as Cyntoia and Emma usually never come to our attention. They often take their own lives, die from HIV, are murdered by pimps and punters, or end up in prison. We owe them a duty of care, and that begins by calling prostitution what it is: one of the worst forms of sexual exploitation and brutality on the planet.
I cannot believe the Observer/Guardian is still calling commercially raped women and girls ‘sex workers’
Dear Observer and Guardian Editors,
I am incredibly disappointed to have to contact you, yet again, to complain about the use of the term ‘sex work’ in an article about the commercial rape of women and girls (https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2019/jul/06/living-hell-of-bangladesh-brothels-sex-trafficking).
It is entirely wrong to refer to commercial sexual abuse as ‘work’, especially the commercial rape of children. No child can legally consent to ‘sex work’ in any part of the world, including in countries that take a decriminalisation/legalisation approach to prostitution, and being sexually abused is not ‘work’ by any meaningful measure.
By the Guardian’s own guidelines (http://www.theguardian.com/guardian-observer-style-guide-c), ‘child pornography’ should be referred to as child abuse images, therefore a recording of a ‘child sex worker’ doing ‘sex work’ would be an image of abuse, but the creation of that abuse image would be only ‘work’.
Calling the commercial sexual exploitation of women and children ‘sex work’ stops it being seen as a sex abuse issue, and reduces it to a mere labour issue. It also helps to make invisible the men actually doing the abuse, and the demand for women and child victims.
It is particularly galling to see this in an article intended to highlight the criminal abuses occurring within Bangladesh’s legalised sex industry, an article that is otherwise very valuable. You need to decide, as an organisation, whether you are reporting on avoidable flaws within a legitimate industry, or on the globalised traffic in women and girls for commercial sexual abuse.
I look forward (in vain) to hearing back from you,
The article is published today (Saturday), but seems to be an Observer article, so I am emailing the editors of both. Humanity United, who ‘supported’ the article, does not seem to have a publicly available email address, but they are on twitter: @HumanityUnited
After five years in the brothel, Labonni stopped dreaming of being rescued. Ever since she had been sold to a madam at 13 years old, customers had promised to help her escape. None had followed through. Over time, their faces began to blur together, so she couldn’t remember exactly who had visited before, or how many men had come by that day. There’s usually one every hour, starting from 9am.
“Sometimes I wake up and I don’t understand why I’m not dead yet,” she says.
Now 19, Labonni says she’s resigned to life – and death – in Mymensingh, a brothel village in the centre of Bangladesh. Here, between 700 and 1,000 women and girls are working in the sex trade – many of them against their will.
Girls as young as 12 sleep five to a room; their beds only cordoned off by torn cotton curtains. Music blares from heavyset sound systems and homemade liquor is poured from plastic bottles to numb the pain. Men swagger shirtless down the alleys looking for girls. Ten minutes of sex will cost them TK400 (about £3.66) – but it’s money that mainly lands in the pockets of those running the brothel.
Like the majority of girls in Mymensingh, Labonni was trafficked into sex work. On the run at 13 years old, she left her six-month-old daughter behind to flee the abusive husband she had been made to marry the year before, in a ceremony that took place on the same day she started her period. “I didn’t know where I was going,” she remembers. “I thought maybe I could find work in a garment factory.”
A woman saw her looking tearful in Dhaka railway station, and offered her food and a place to sleep for the night. Two days later, Labonni was sold by her to the brothel for about £180 and forbidden to leave.
Overnight, she became a chukri, or bonded sex worker – imprisoned within the brothel until she repaid hundreds of pounds in fabricated debts. “The madam who bought me said that I had to pay her back,” Labonni says in a flat voice. “She’d bribed the police to say I was 18 [the legal age for a registered sex worker] and told me I owed her more than £914. Then she confiscated my phone and locked me in my bedroom. She said that she’d hurt me if I tried to run away.” After two or three months, Labonni gave up trying to escape. “They always find you,” she adds.
A quick breakdown of the figures involved shows how girls like Labonni are a vital part of a hugely profitable business model for brothel owners in Bangladesh. For the past six years, since being trapped in the brothel, she has worked continually to pay off her phantom debt. Yet over those six years she has earned upwards of £46,500 for madams who enjoy lives of considerable luxury.
Until last year everything Labonni earned went to her madam. All she was given back was a £37 as a monthly allowance for food, clothes and toiletries. Labonni has now paid her original £914 “debt” back 50 times over.
Last year she was finally told she had paid off her debt, but she has yet to move on. Her mental strength is worn down by years of abuse. “I feel worthless,” she says. “My daughter doesn’t even know I’m her mum.” Even with her “debt” gone, she’s still obliged to pay half of her weekly earnings – approximately £78 – to the madams in exchange for electricity and a place to stay.
One of her regular customers, Mohammed Muktal Ali, is 30 years old. A married bus driver from the nearby town, he has been visiting Labonni every day for four and a half years, since she was 14. “All the girls here are helpless,” he says. “You can’t sell a boy to a brothel, but you can sell a girl because she has monetary value.” He doesn’t feel guilty for paying for sex with a trafficked teenager. “I am in love with Labonni. I’m 70% sure that one day I will rescue her.” Labonni doesn’t look up. “I don’t believe anything the men say to me any more,” she says later. “They all lie.”
Four floors down from Labonni’s bedroom, Farada, 33, says the number of trafficked girls has increased since she arrived at the brothel in 1999. She knows, she says, because she buys them. After 12 years entrapped in sexual slavery herself, she was given a girl as a gift by a customer eight years ago, moving from exploited to exploiter overnight. When the girl escaped, she bought a second, called Moni, for £137. “I paid £27 on cigarettes for the police, and they sorted all the paperwork,” she says, referring to the government-mandated certificates that state every sex worker is at least 18 and consents to engaging in prostitution. “Now the police charge more. It’s at least £450, which is very expensive, so the girls have to pay me back.” The younger the girl, the higher the bribe required by law enforcement, she adds.
These days, she makes about £187 every week from two girls, but says a third of that goes to local gang members who control the brothel.
The money being made in this single brothel is an indicator of the vast profits generated by the global trade in women and girls. Sex trafficking is an enormously lucrative business.
Academic Siddharth Kara advises the United Nations and the US government on slavery and has shown through his own research that sex trafficking is disproportionately lucrative compared with other forms of slavery. He estimates that sex trafficking creates half of the total profits generated globally by modern slavery, despite only accounting for 5% of all trafficking victims worldwide.
He told the Observer: “The return on investment for sex trafficking is around 1,000% compared with much lower returns in exploitation for construction, agriculture or mining. The immense profitability of sex trafficking is … driven by the minimal expense associated with acquiring victims and the fact that the victim can be sold up to 20 times a day, generating tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of dollars in profit per victim.”
Prostitution was legalised in Bangladesh in 2000, after the year-long detention of 100 sex workers by police sparked protests calling for the women’s freedom and equal rights. The women’s release heralded a new legal framework, but few protections.
Instead, the business of sexual exploitation has thrived in a country where women are oppressed in many ways. Across the country, one in five girls is married before her 15th birthday and only a quarter finish secondary education. Choice is a luxury few women here can afford.
While prostitution is legal, trafficking and forced labour are not. But poor enforcement of legislation in a country where women are easy prey means traffickers act with impunity. The Bangladesh government estimates that 100,000 women and girls are working in the country’s sex industry and one study reports that less than 10% of those had entered prostitution voluntarily. This investigation found hundreds of girls who spoke of being sold by strangers, family members or husbands without their consent.
In April the Dhaka Tribune reported that the conviction rate for people arrested in connection with trafficking is less than half a percent. While more than 6,000 people have been arrested in connection with human trafficking since 2013, only 25 were convicted. Last year only eight traffickers were convicted in Bangladesh.
While many girls sell sex from their homes or the street, more than 5,000 women and girls are split between 11 huge brothels countrywide. Some dating back hundreds of years, each brothel is registered with the government and monitored by the local police. Here, a triumvirate of powerful institutions – government, police and religion – watch over and approve the rape, enslavement and abuse of hundreds of thousands of prepubescent girls.
“The Bangladeshi police know everything that takes place in the brothels,” says Azharul Islam, programme manager of Rights Jessore, a local non-governmental organisation working to rehabilitate trafficked children working in the sex trade and return them to their families. “The brothel owners are involved in gangs, and our political leaders and law enforcement are involved in those gangs, too.” Corrupt government officials profit by accepting bribes and sexual favours in exchange for turning a blind eye to the abuse.
As part of this investigation, more than 20 underage girls in four of the brothels showed us their police-stamped certificates stating they were over 18. One girl admitted she was still 13. “Law enforcement here is a local mafia,” says Mahmudul Kabir, Bangladesh country director for the Netherlands-based NGO Terre des Hommes. “And it runs through the entire chain of power.”
The steady stream of women and children being trafficked into Bangladesh’s sex industry means that the girls are disposable to those making money out of them. The numbers killing themselves has reached a point where at least two brothels in central Bangladesh – Kandapara, on the on the outskirts of Tangail, and Daulatdia, on the banks of the Padma river – have had to built private graveyards to cope with the dead.
“There’s about one death a month,” says Shilpi, 57, who was sold to Daulatdia brothel in 1977. “It never used to be this many.” These days she conducts the funerals: washing each body before leading a team of 12 brothel guards through the thicket of weeds that shrouds the burial grounds; finally reciting a short prayer over the grave. She doesn’t know how many girls are buried there. She lost count after 100. “For a while, we tied a stone around their necks and threw the bodies in the pond,” Shilpi adds. “But sometimes they floated to the surface, so we had to find land.”
In Mymensingh, there’s no such graveyard – but not from lack of need. Instead, bodies are carried out to the countryside at nightfall; buried in unmarked graves by torchlight.
Public graveyards aren’t an option: the stigma that surrounds sex workers in Bangladesh forbids their burial in municipal ground. “Here we are shameful, bad women,” says Shilpi. “If a girl kills herself, people say it’s good riddance – it’s just a quicker way for them to get to hell.”.
Labonni has also tried to kill herself several times. “I’ll probably try again one day,” she says, sitting on the floor of the concrete cell that passes as a bedroom: her customers’ phone numbers are scratched into the wall. Meanwhile, she cuts herself daily.
Such deep-rooted mental health problems are endemic among Bangladesh’s bonded brothel workers, and make it harder for them to move on even when their “debts” are paid. Though there is little mental health support for the women, there is evidence that when it’s provided, it helps. One organisation working to rescue and rehabilitate underage trafficking victims is the Bangladesh National Women’s Lawyers’ Association. “When they first arrive at the home, they’re scared,” says BNWLA psychologist Sadia Sharmin Urmi. It takes consistent counselling to help them move forward, but within three months, she sees progress. “They know they are safe. That means a lot.”
For Labonni, the idea of ever getting help feels unlikely. “All my life, people tell me to have sex so that they can make money from it,” she says. “How much do I have to earn to be free of this life?”
For Labonni, escape now takes the form of daily video calls with her daughter, who is living with her elder sister in Dhaka. “I can’t raise her here and that hurts me, but I know she’s happy,” she says. “One day, when she’s old enough, I would like her to know I’m her real mum.”
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.
On a sunny morning in Madrid, two young women duck down a side street, into a residential block and up to an apartment front door. Then they start knocking. Marcella and Maria spend a lot of time banging on doors and yelling through letterboxes all over the city. Most of the time, these doors never open. When they do, the two women could find themselves in trouble. Their job on the frontline of Spain’s fight against sex trafficking is a dangerous one; both have been assaulted and threatened. Yet they keep on knocking, because they have been on the other side of those doors, forced to sell their bodies for a handful of euros, dozens of times a day, seven days a week.
To say that prostitution is big business in Spain would be a gross understatement. The country has become known as the brothel of Europe, after a 2011 United Nations report cited Spain as the third biggest capital of prostitution in the world, behind Thailand and Puerto Rico. Although the Spanish Socialist party, which two weeks ago won another term in government, has promised to make it illegal to pay for sex, prostitution has boomed since it was decriminalised here in 1995. Recent estimates put revenue from Spain’s domestic sex trade at $26.5bn a year, with hundreds of licensed brothels and an estimated workforce of 300,000.
Supporters of decriminalisation claim it has brought benefits to those working in the trade, including making life safer for women. Yet this vastly profitable and largely unregulated market has also become infested with criminality, turning Spain into a global hub for human trafficking and sexual slavery.
Prostitution becomes sex trafficking when one person moves, detains or transports someone else for the purpose of profiting from their prostitution using fraud, force or coercion. In the UK, thousands of women are thought to be trapped in sexual servitude, but the scale of the problem in Spain is staggering. Until 2010, the law didn’t even recognise human trafficking as a crime. Now the Spanish government estimates that up to 90% of women working in prostitution could be victims of trafficking or under the control of a third party – such as a pimp – who is profiting from them. Between 2012-2016, security forces in Spain rescued 5,695 people from slavery but acknowledge that thousands more remain under the control of criminals.
Since it passed its first anti-trafficking laws in 2010, the government has been scrambling to get on top of this crisis, spending millions of euros on an emergency plan to target the individuals and gangs operating with impunity. In 2015, it went further and created formal alliances between security forces, prosecutors, judges and NGOs, to rescue victims and prosecute the perpetrators. Survivors such as Maria and Marcella now find themselves playing a crucial part in bringing the battle to the criminals who once sold and exploited them. But can Spain’s new alliance of defenders really turn the tide against the traffickers?
I meet Maria and Marcella, both in their mid-20s, in the offices of Apramp, an organisation set up to protect, reintegrate and assist women in prostitution. Apramp helped them escape their traffickers, and they are now among its outreach workers. Their day job is to identify potential trafficking victims and try to offer them a way out. They find women they think might need help on the streets, in hostess clubs, and in some of the 400 residences they say are operating as informal brothels in Madrid.
Both shrug off the suggestion that they are brave. “When I’m wearing the Apramp vest at those apartments or on the streets, I don’t feel scared,” Marcella says. “We know from our own experience they’re doing much worse things to the girls and women inside. So it only makes us more determined.”
The two poised and eloquent young women, dressed like students in jeans and trainers, have lived through terrible things. Maria, petite and softly spoken, her brown hair pulled back in a ponytail, was brought to Spain from Romania by someone she trusted: she thought she was going on holiday with her new boyfriend. Instead, he drove her over the border using their EU residency cards and within 24 hours she was on the streets.
“It just happens so fast,” she says. “It’s difficult to describe how much you can be broken in such a short time. The shock and the trauma makes you go into survival mode. You don’t have time to realise what has happened to you.” She spent eight months being prostituted on street corners, in brothels and in strange apartments. “You’re alive but you’re not really existing,” she says. “Not one of the men who paid to sleep with me asked me if I was there out of choice, or whether I wanted to be doing this. They didn’t care either way.”
She was told by her pimp that she would have to pay off a debt of €20,000 before she could go home. “With Romanian women, the traffickers threaten to kill your mother or your sister or your children if you don’t pay off your debt,” she says. “People always ask, ‘Why didn’t you just run away or go to the police?’ but they don’t know what they’re talking about. You can’t just stop a random person on the street and ask for help, because someone you love could get killed. The police in Romania are often corrupt. You think, why should it be different here?”
The promise of freedom in return for paying off the debt almost always turns out to be a lie. Maria says that, throughout her time under the control of the traffickers, she was hit with hundreds of tiny charges: she’d have to pay for clothes, rent for the corner she worked, for condoms and sanitary towels. If she didn’t bring back enough money, she wouldn’t eat or she’d be beaten.
“Debt is invisible,” Maria says. “It’s not a physical chain but it works the same way.” She says some traffickers force women to get breast implants and even though the operation costs around €3,000, tell them they have to pay back €10,000. Marcella nods in agreement. She was trafficked from her native Brazil after applying to do a master’s in Spain, a university course that turned out to be bogus. She was forced into prostitution immediately after she was collected from the airport. “If Apramp hadn’t found me, I think I’d be dead by now,” she says.
The fact that she not only survived but is now able to help others in the same situation has been an essential part of her recovery. “The mafia take you and destroy your whole identity. Even now, you’re recovering but you can never forget your past,” she says. “Doing this work really helps.”
Between them, Maria and Marcella have helped dozens of women and girls escape their traffickers. It’s a process that takes months, sometimes years. Afterwards, Apramp finds the women somewhere safe to live, offers counselling and legal support, and helps them find work. “We have to show them that their lives are worth living again,” Marcella says.
Rocío Mora, Apramp’s co-founder and director, sweeps into the room and embraces Maria and Marcella, who are about to start their afternoon shift. “The only ones who really understand what we are facing are the survivors,” she says. Tall and immaculately groomed, Mora is one of Spain’s best-known anti-trafficking advocates; her rage at what she sees happening on the streets is raw and visceral. What Spain is facing, she says, is a huge violation of the fundamental rights of women and girls; anyone labouring under the impression that the majority of women working in prostitution in Spain are doing so by choice is deluding themselves. “The sex industry profits from the sale of women who are being controlled and exploited through debt, violence or psychological manipulation,” she says. “Our mobile unit has contact with 280 women a day and almost 100% are victims of exploitation and trafficking.”
There are many reasons why Spain has become a hotspot, but for Mora, the biggest single factor is cultural. Spain’s sex trafficking epidemic is, she says, just the most extreme manifestation of the country’s problematic attitudes to women and sex. “There is huge demand for prostitution here. It’s become so normalised that it’s just seen like any other leisure activity.”
One survey in 2008 found that 78% of Spanish people consider prostitution an inevitability in modern society. And demand is huge: another survey, conducted in 2006, found that nearly 40% of Spanish men over the age of 18 had paid for sex at least once in their life. Mora has recently seen a radical change in the kind of men buying sex. Before, it was largely older men sneaking away from their families. Now, both the women on the streets and the sex buyers themselves are getting younger. “The social stigma isn’t the same as it was when I started out,” she says. “We have a generation of young men growing up believing they have the right to do anything to a woman’s body if they have paid for it, and they don’t have to worry about the consequences.”
As a young girl, Mora watched her mother (also called Rocío) start Apramp from their kitchen table. At 18, Mora was studying by day and driving a mobile health unit through Madrid’s red-light district by night.
“When my mother started this work, it was mainly getting health services to Spanish women who were engaged in prostitution to feed their families or a drug addiction,” she says. Two decades ago, criminal gangs started to take hold. “And it really was a radical change. There was suddenly a lot of violence and coercion – men on the streets watching the women and taking their money.”
Now, she says, most women in prostitution in Spain are foreigners: Apramp works with women of 53 different nationalities. “And the gangs are more sophisticated and more ruthless. They no longer need men on the street, because they are controlling the women through debt, fear and psychological control. This is what makes it much harder to fight, because many don’t see that they have a way out.”
On Calle Montera, one of Madrid’s busiest shopping streets, eastern European or South American women stand alone or in small groups. Maria and Marcella point out that many of the women they help don’t look like trafficking victims: it is easy for people to walk past them and not realise. Maria says many are also acting as human signposts, indicating that there are houses filled with other women nearby. When we get back to our car that evening, flyers have been stuck under our windscreen wipers offering a two-for-one deal on women for the special price of €30.
A short walk from Calle Montera is the HQ of the Centre of Intelligence and Risk Analysis, run by Spain’s national police. José Nieto is its chief inspector and Spain’s leading anti-trafficking law enforcement officer. As with Mora, anti-trafficking work has become Nieto’s vocation. He has spent more than 20 years trying to develop an effective police response to a human rights catastrophe that, until 2010, wasn’t even included in Spain’s criminal code.
“When I started in 1997, I was part of the brigade that believed all prostitutes did this work because they wanted to,” he says. “But it’s like an illness: at first you feel that something is wrong but you haven’t got a diagnosis. But as soon as you put a name to it, everything changes. You see it for what it really is.”
He explains the myriad reasons why Spain has become such a magnet for sex trafficking networks; “a perfect storm”, he calls it. “First, we are fighting a crime that is socially acceptable, because prostitution is accepted and embraced by many people here.” Second there is geography: “We are at the centre of all major migratory routes. The main victims we are seeing trafficked and forced into prostitution are Romanian, West African and South American. You can cross from Romania to Spain with an ID card. Africa is just 15km from us. We have a historic and a linguistic connection to South America.”
As in many countries, a prosecution is almost impossible without a victim willing to disclose their situation and testify against their exploiters. “There is great fear among victims that if they tell the police, they will be sent back to their countries with their debts unpaid,” Nieto says. “It makes policing very difficult; if the women don’t ask for help, there is a limit to what you can do. Here in Spain, prostitution itself isn’t illegal, running a brothel isn’t illegal, so you have to prove that what is going on is more than meets the eye.”
An age-check scheme designed to stop under-18s viewing pornographic websites will come into force on 15 July.
From that date, affected sites will have to verify the age of UK visitors.
If they fail to comply they will face being blocked by internet service providers.
But critics say teens may find it relatively easy to bypass the restriction or could simply turn to porn-hosting platforms not covered by the law.
Twitter, Reddit and image-sharing community Imgur, for example, will not be required to administer the scheme because they fall under an exception where more than a third of a site or app’s content must be pornographic to qualify.
Likewise, any platform that hosts pornography but does not do so on a commercial basis – meaning it does not charge a fee or make money from adverts or other activity – will not be affected.
Furthermore, it will remain legal to use virtual private networks (VPNs), which can make it seem like a UK-based computer is located elsewhere, to evade the age checks.
The authorities have, however, acknowledged that age-verification is “not a silver bullet” solution, but rather a means to make it less likely that children stumble across unsuitable material online.
“The introduction of mandatory age-verification is a world-first, and we’ve taken the time to balance privacy concerns with the need to protect children from inappropriate content,” said the Minister for Digital Margot James.
“We want the UK to be the safest place in the world to be online, and these new laws will help us achieve this.”
It had originally been proposed that pornographic services that refused to carry out age checks could be fined up to £250,000. However, this power will not be enforced because ministers believe the threat to block defiant sites will be sufficient and that trying to chase overseas-based entities for payment would have been difficult.
However, the government has said that other measures could follow.
“We know that pornography is available on some social media platforms and we expect those platforms to do a lot more to create a safer environment for children,” a spokesman for the Department of Digital Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) told the BBC.
“If we do not see action then we do not rule out legislating in the future to force companies to take responsibility for protecting vulnerable users from the potentially harmful content that they host.”
The age checks were originally proposed by the now defunct regulator Atvod in 2014 and were enacted into law as part of the the Digital Economy Act 2017. But their rollout had been repeatedly delayed.
UK-hosted pornographic video services already have to verify visitors’ ages, as do online gambling platforms.
The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) – which gives movies their UK age certificates – will be responsible for regulating the effort. It will instruct internet providers which sites and apps to block for non-compliance. In addition, it can call on payment service providers to pull support, and ask search engines and advertisers to shun an offending business.
QotD: “Their journey takes them into the dark underbelly of the scene, where they hear tales of human trafficking, forced drug taking and violence.”
A couple writhe naked on the sand while the waves break gently behind them.
A jogger runs past and he does not bat an eyelid at the sex scene playing out yards away.
The “lovers” are in fact porn stars, and they are filming on a beach in Spain — fast becoming the adult movie capital of the world.
While passers-by in the UK would be shocked, producer Thierry Kemaco — renowned in the industry for his outdoor films — explains: “In Spain, the people watch and when you finish, they applaud.”
This liberal attitude may be less surprising to a younger generation brought up on a sex-rich diet of TV’s Love Island and online porn.
But there is still plenty to shock six young Brits who travelled to Spain to explore the booming sex industry for BBC3 documentary Porn Laid Bare.
Their journey takes them into the dark underbelly of the scene, where they hear tales of human trafficking, forced drug taking and violence.
They are also on set to witness the nerves of a young Russian girl when she realises she is expected to have sex with 20 men.
The Brit group, who were chosen for their varying attitudes towards porn, include freelance journalist Neelam Tailor, 24, porn star super fan Ryan Scarborough, 28, student Anna Adams, 23, and the youngest of the group Cameron Dale, 21.
Not one of them comes away unchanged by what they witness.
The film is directed by Rob Diesel, who also stars in it. He says he went to Spain from his native Sweden because “they’re more liberal here”.
The website he is making the film for had 7.6billion visits last year and turned over £6.9million.
Rob says: “It’s a multi-billion-pound industry in Spain.
“They respect you as an artist. It’s a job here, it’s not like, ‘Look at the freaky guy there who’s doing porn’.
“There’s so many myths in porn still. You don’t have to do anything you’re not comfortable with and the artists I work with all have contracts.”
But the Brits are left horrified when they later watch footage of Rob pulling a woman along by her hair in what is known as a “public disgrace” video.
Neelam says: “I felt like I’d been lied to. He’d talked so much about respect and choice and then we saw him doing the other side.
“When we confronted him, his argument was that people are into it.
“But I completely disagree with him and he has to think about the message he’s putting out into the world. For me, it’s always about the bigger picture.”
Neelam was just 12 when she first watched porn and says she would then view it “most days”.
She stopped aged 16 after noticing she struggled to become aroused when having sex.
Neelam, who is in a long-term relationship, says: “I realised this is the effect it can have so I stopped watching porn because real intimacy is so much more important to me.”
A third of young people surveyed say they’ve had riskier sex due to porn, while a quarter have felt pressured by a partner to do pornographic acts.
Roughly four in ten say porn has made them more concerned about how their genitals look, and one in five claim it made them consider plastic surgery.
Yet over half of those surveyed agreed that performing in porn is a good way to make money, and over a quarter would like to perform in porn themselves.
In Barcelona, they meet Ismael López Fauste, a porn magazine journalist turned police informant. He decided to leave the industry after witnessing “human trafficking, drugs, lots of violence and a lot of prostitution”.
Ismael tells them: “The point where I got out was when some of the girls overdosed on the set because they gave them drugs. I thought, ‘OK, I am a part of this’. This is just one of the stories.”
After writing a book exposing how some women are exploited, he says more came forward to tell their story.
But he adds: “Then the threats began because they wanted me to stop writing. They wanted me to delete everything.”
Asked who threatened him, Ismael replies: “The producers.”
He adds: “I want you to hear someone who was inside the industry. She was going to be with you but in the last few days she got threatened.”
The woman agrees to speak to the group over the phone. A former porn actress, she says: “In some scenes I was made to take drugs and if I didn’t I would be sent home without the money.”
She adds that she tried to report it to the police “but they aren’t bothered” and that she has failed to get the videos deleted.
The emotional interview leaves student Anna, from London, in tears.
She says: “It’s just really quite hard to know that it’s going on.”
A visit to a Madrid studio, run by director Torbe, the so-called king of Spanish porn, also leaves her shaken.
He tells them: “I find girls who don’t know anything about anything.
“Ninety-five per cent of the girls who come here are new, so I teach them, especially young girls.”
When the TV pals visit he is a filming a group sex session involving one woman and several men.
The star is a 19-year-old Russian girl who, the group are told, will earn just over £2,500.
She is wearing a red eye mask and her hair is in pigtails.
Her appearance is enough to prompt Anna to demand Torbe — under investigation for allegedly distributing child pornography — to show them proof of the girl’s age.
After seeing a copy of the her ID, Anna is satisfied but remarks: “She’s just turned 19.”
Filming is further delayed because the young actress — who reveals she has only been in the job a week — is so nervous.
As the 20 men, who wear masks to hide their identities, wait around on set, the Brits discover that the Russian girl had been expecting half that number.
Let’s pause here to take a look at the numbers, since porn-apologists make claims like, the women in porn make “a million a year”. Porn is usually paid by the sex act, £2,500 ÷ 20 = £125 per sex act, assuming there is only one sex act per man on set, so the £2,500 is actually a rip-off. There is no way anyone could do this kind of filming every day; women only last “six months to three years, tops” in the porn industry, and one analysis found that almost half of the women in the US porn industry did only one or two films before quitting.
When Anna, who stopped watching porn because she felt it did not fit with her feminist views, confronts Torbe, he says it is because they are shooting “two scenes” today.
When filming does finally start, Anna leaves the set in tears.
Speaking outside, she says: “I’m really concerned for her safety. I feel scared for us to leave because I don’t know what’s going to happen when we are not there.”
In the studio, Ryan has to comfort a tearful Cameron, who says: “It is the worst thing I’ve seen.”
Ryan adds: “It just doesn’t look fun. After a week, how do you know how comfortable you feel sleeping with this amount of men? It’s not the environment for a 19-year-old.”
The Knesset [in late December] passed a landmark law against prostitution making [sex buying] a crime, rather than the [‘work’] itself.
The law makes Israel the 10th country to institute what is called the “Nordic Model” of combating human trafficking and prostitution. The law passed with the approval of 34 MKs, with none voting against, at the last minute before the Knesset broke for the April 9 elections.
There are currently 14,000 people [being commercially sexually exploited] in Israel, including 3,000 minors, according to the Welfare Ministry, and 76% would leave [the sex industry] if they could. The average lifespan of a prostitute in Israel is 46 years.
Now a first-time offender will be fined NIS 2,000 for hiring or attempting to hire a prostitute and NIS 4,000 for further offenses. It also allows for pressing charges and fining the offender up to NIS 75,300. It offers the Justice Ministry the option of instituting other punishments, such as “John Schools,” meant to educate those who pay for sex.