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.
Reports of sexual abuse between children in England and Wales more than doubled over two years, new figures show.
Police figures show that there were 16,102 reported cases of sexual abuse between people aged under 18 between April 2018 and March 2019.
This was up from the 7,866 cases between 2016 and 2017, and the 14,915 cases between 2019 and 2020, according to BBC Panorama.
In the latest full year of data between 2020 and 2021, 10,861 reports of abuse were made, despite months of lockdown and closed schools due to the Covid pandemic.
The broadcaster says 34 out of 43 police forces in England and Wales responded to a Freedom of Information request asking for the number of sexual offence reports, including rape and sexual assault, where both the alleged perpetrator and victim were under 18.
The online offence of non-consensual sharing of private sexual images or videos was not included in the figures.
The figures show that the alleged perpetrator was aged ten or under in ten per cent of the reported cases, with boys the alleged abusers around 90 per cent of the time.
Vicky Ford MP, minister for children and families in England, told Panorama: “We’ve strengthened [guidance] every year, specific advice on keeping children safe and education from sexual abuse.”
She added the government had also launched safeguarding partnerships between schools, the police and social services to help schools tackle the problem.
The Welsh government told the broadcaster that guidance had been issued to support schools in creating a safe learning environment for children.
The Labour MP and former teacher Emma Hardy said: “I still think that those figures might be an underestimation of the extent of the problem, because not all cases ended up going to the police. Not all things are reported.”
Rebekah Eglinton, chief psychologist for the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, said unwanted touching, along with being pressured into sharing nude photos, had become a part of everyday life for children “to the point where they wouldn’t bother reporting it”.
“What children have said to us is that sexual violence is now completely normalised through social media platforms [and] through access to online pornography,” she told Panorama.
The disclosure of the figures follows The Times reporting rife abuse in unregistered schools, which continue to operate within a legal loophole which prevents them from being inspected like registered educational establishments.
In June, shocking analysis of the Everyone’s invited website, set up to allow women and girls to anonymously report sexual abuse, revealed numerous reports of sexual harassment in primary and secondary schools across Scotland. A few weeks earlier, English schools’ regulator Ofsted warned that sexual harassment has become “normalised” among school-aged children. Ask female pupils what they think the root of the problem is and many will say the same thing — porn.
A growing body of evidence links pornography consumption to harassment and abuse. It is said to propagate degrading ideas about women, inspire sexual violence, and desensitise viewers to shocking sexual practices. Commenting on the character of porn videos, Dr. Norman Doidge, an academic at the Toronto Institute of Psychoanalysis, writes that videos are “increasingly dominated by sadomasochistic themes… all involving scripts fusing sex with hatred and humiliation”. Given all this, is it any wonder that attacks on girls are taking place?
The production of pornographic videos is also harmful to porn industry insiders. Women are leaving the industry in droves and lamenting the toxic culture that exists “on the inside”. A recent Reddit thread penned by a man who worked for several pornographic websites reveals a toxic and criminal industry, indifferent to human suffering and safeguarding concerns and always pursuing financial profit, regardless of the cost to people:
“New content would come in (filmed/shot) daily and it needed to be edited/published ASAP. It didn’t matter what the talent looked like. Hot, drugged out of their gords, crying, happy, questionable age, raped, didn’t matter. The company paid for it and it all had to be used. If I objected to questionable material, I was told to ignore it and do my job.”
“…companies are required to keep records of the ages of all the talent they use. In one company…It consisted of images of the model holding their IDs next to their faces. These photos were the first ones before any of the porn photos… Four times out of 10, the model has their thumb over their date of birth.”
“When the stuff is shot, it’s shipped off to the main office to be edited. Like I said, they shoot EVERYTHING. Nothing is tossed…I saw a lot of homemade rape, child porn, borderline stuff, guys injecting their genitals with stuff, drug use, etc. Oh, and actual incest.”
Mind Geek, the parent company behind the world’s largest porn site “Pornhub” and other major sites, is now under investigation by Canadian authorities for publishing videos of actual rape and child abuse. In May, a letter signed by 750 people including victims of sexual exploitation accused the site of: “corporate indifference regarding harm caused to women and children on its platform” and “facilitating and profiting from criminal acts” including sex trafficking, child abuse, and voyeurism.
Given the significant and growing evidence showing porn’s harms in wider society, and in the industry itself, it is staggering that so little is being done to curb it. In the UK, the Conservative Government, which has controls over internet regulation, has consistently refused to implement even the slightest measures to restrict access to commercial porn sites by children, and punish sites that post vile content.
Ministers scrapped legislation, Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act, to usher in age verification and regulation of “extreme” content in 2019 — despite these measures being backed by children’s charities and women’s groups as well as Parliament as a whole. And they are refusing to resurrect the measures despite growing pressure from Scottish parliamentarians, Peers, and the public. Why is the government so hesitant to enforce legislation that could counter sexual harassment, and deter sites from publishing vile content?
The Government might point to its online safety regime, expected in the coming months. However, if this regime ever does come into force, it is not set to cover all porn sites. Its focus will be user-generated content, of the type found on social media platforms. Commercial porn sites that do not host user-generated content (or quickly change their rules to avoid doing so) will be missed. A requirement for age verification is also missing from the government’s plans. Perhaps this is deliberate.
Cabinet politicians appear to have bowed to pressure from voices who see any restrictions on porn access as a violation of “freedoms”. One prominent think tank actively campaigned against age checks on the basis that providing ID to access porn violates privacy. Privacy is important. However, adults provide ID to access other adult products online. I recently had to provide ID to purchase cutlery from Amazon. It hardly seems right that we require proof of age for access to cutlery but allow children to access explicit sex videos on porn sites with no age checks whatsoever.
It is also hard to justify the publication of videos that favourably portray rape, violence, and humiliation — especially in a context where harassment is on the rise. Whether such videos are dramatised or not, do we really want to turn a blind eye to them? What message does this send to women? The duty of care politicians have means that they should protect young, impressionable minds from these odious videos, which teach boys that rape and harassment are satiating, rather than sinister. And protect women from attacks motivated by online pornography.
The porn industry profits from human misery. Why should we allow it to continue unchecked? Civilised societies don’t allow exploitative industries to exist, they tear them down. It is past time the government got tough on the porn industry and acted to protect women and girls. No more dither and delay, no more half measures. If Ministers won’t usher in age verification and regulation of porn sites, MPs across the political spectrum must stand up, join up and act.
I blogged in July last year about a BBC article that sounded like a recruitment drive for the sex industry. That article was in the business section of the BBC’s website, but recently the BBC has been publishing more pro-sex industry propaganda, but this time in the ‘Newsbeat’ section, which is aimed at teenagers and young adults.
The article, ‘OnlyFans porn ban a ‘kick in the teeth’ for creators’, makes the sex industry sound like a perfectly normal career choice for any young person. I have sent the below complaint (via the web page here), please feel free to copy or adapt:
I am writing to complain about the article ‘OnlyFans porn ban a ‘kick in the teeth’ for creators’ published online on 21/Aug/21, which reads in places like a recruitment drive for the sex industry.
The BBC is a national institution which helps set social norms in the UK. It is entirely inappropriate for the BBC to publish an article which normalises the sex industry, and makes being in the sex industry sound like a viable career choice. It is even more inappropriate and irresponsible when this article is published under the ‘Newsbeat’ section, which is aimed at teenagers and young adults.
We are told at the beginning of the article about a 22-year-old making £4,000 a month from OnlyFans, and also told by this young man that OnlyFans “could be getting people off drugs, off the streets.” This is portraying OnlyFans as a public good, based on no evidence whatsoever, beyond the say-so of one person with a vested interest in the continuation of OnyFans’ ‘adult content’. This is irresponsible and unbalanced reporting.
There is also a quote from the English Collective of Prostitutes, a lobby group for the sex industry, with no counterbalancing opinion from, say, someone who has exited the sex industry.
The idea that prostitution is exploitation rather than ‘work’ (a debate that is still open in the UK), and that people do have, or should have, alternatives to ‘sex work’ is ignored, again making a ‘career’ in the sex industry seem like a normal thing.
There is mention, at the end of the article, if the reader gets that far, of the possibility of exploitation and underage users at OnlyFans, but the article as a whole still suggests a ‘career’ in ‘sex work’ is a good thing, and that OnlyFans is good for ‘sex workers’.
The links at the bottom of the article led me to another, earlier, Newsbeat article, which I hadn’t spotted at the time, which is all about how healthy and fun porn use is! I have written another complaint, please feel free to copy or adapt:
I am writing to complain about the article ‘Porn: The ‘incredible’ number of UK adults watching content’ published online on 11/Jun/21, for its biased and one-sided reporting.
The BBC is a national institution that helps set social norms in the UK, the BBC should not be using its news service for teenagers and young adults to push the idea that porn use is normal and healthy.
On 23/Mar/20 the BBC published a report (‘I thought he was going to tear chunks out of my skin’) about the high numbers of young women who have been subjected to sexual violence by young men influenced by their porn consumption, and since then there have been numerous accounts from teenage girls (via the ‘Everyone’s Invited’ website) of sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools, partly fuelled by porn.
I want to know how, in the current political climate, the BBC justifies publishing such a one-sided puff-piece, with no mention of sexual violence or revenge porn? There is no counter-balance in the piece to the claim that porn is good for the “exploration of new sexual fantasies and things you might be in to.” It is completely irresponsible to publish articles like this aimed at teenagers.
More than 30 women are suing the company which owns the streaming site Pornhub, alleging exploitation over the use of explicit videos of them.
The women say the videos were uploaded to Pornhub without their consent and have lodged a civil suit in California.
The California lawsuit accuses Mindgeek of running a “criminal enterprise”.
In a statement, Pornhub called the allegations “utterly absurd, completely reckless and categorically false”.
Pornhub is free to use but users can pay a monthly fee for higher-quality video streams and extra content.
Its content is mostly uploaded by its own community and publicly viewable. However, the company has said every video uploaded is reviewed by human moderators.
Pornhub told the BBC: “Pornhub has zero tolerance for illegal content and investigates any complaint or allegation made about content on our platforms.”
It said it had “the most comprehensive safeguards in user-generated platform history, which include the banning of uploads from unverified users”.
However, the BBC’s US partner CBS says Pornhub does not require its users to verify the identity or age of those featured in its videos – nor, according to CBS, does it seek to confirm the consent of people who appear in videos posted to the site.
One of the women in the suit told CBS she was only 17 when her boyfriend coerced her into making a nude video. The woman, who used the pseudonym Isabella, said the video was later posted on Pornhub without her consent and she only found out about it from a friend.
Pornhub said it “takes every complaint regarding the abuse of its platform seriously, including those of the plaintiffs in this case”.
It added that it did not intend to let the “hyperbolic language in the lawsuit distract from the fact that Pornhub has in place a safety and security policy that surpasses that of any other major platform on the internet”.
Last December, a New York Times investigation accused Pornhub of being “infested” with child-abuse and rape-related videos – claims the site denied.
Pornhub said it received 42 billion site visits in 2019, with 6.83 million videos uploaded, for a combined viewing time of 169 years. It did not say how many moderators it employed.
More than 40 cases of sexual abuse among primary-school children have been reported to a prominent website after Ofsted warned that abuse was “bleeding down” from older children.
The website Everyone’s Invited has collected testimonies of sexual abuse from pupils at schools and universities since June 2020, but after the sexual abduction and death of Sarah Everard, 33, in south London in March, thousands of women and girls submitted their stories.
As a result of the testimonies posted to the site, the Metropolitan Police has started investigating some individual schools and Scotland Yard began a national investigation.
A helpline was launched for victims and Ofsted began a review into safeguarding and abuse in schools, which concluded this week.
After reviewing more than 2,000 testimonies on the site, The Times has found that more than 40 relate to incidents among children of primary school age, including some as young as six.
Two came from an exclusive chain of schools where pupils include the children of prominent people. While the schools teach children aged two to 18, both testimonies related to ages eight to 11.
One girl wrote in a submission to the site that harassment of girls by boys was rife at her primary school and that it took both verbal and physical forms. She said that boys would make highly unacceptable sexual remarks about girls, sometimes to their faces. She alleged that a ten-year-old boy had told her that he intended to rape a particular girl when she was asleep.
Although she was pretty sure that the boy was not serious, she said, she had been very shocked.
Another girl claimed that it was commonplace for boys to give girls scores for attractiveness, to grope them and to make extremely disrespectful remarks about them in their presence.
A pupil from a different primary school, in Kent, alleged that when she was nine a group of boys pushed her over and chanted “rape” at her.
She described the incident as involving them taking hold of her and pushing her around the group. The children were required to write letters of apology after she told a teacher but were not suspended from the school, she wrote.
Amanda Spielman, the head of Ofsted, said the regulator had not done such extensive research into primary schools and that their main concerns were still for older children.
She added: “But they are very definitely the same issues bleeding down into schools, into primary schools from the top down where we had clear concerns about the same kinds of issues that older children were reporting cropping up.”
Ofsted’s report found evidence that children at primary schools had access to pornography or were sharing inappropriate images and videos online.
It reads: “In one all-through school, leaders have identified a trend of cases in the primary school that are linked to social media. There is a no-phone policy in this school, so incidents are likely taking place outside school. Incidents cited include viewing pornography, requests to look up pornography websites and viewing inappropriate images on social media. There was an example from another school of children in years 6 and 7 sending nudes.”
In response to Ofsted’s findings the Department for Education said that it would strengthen guidance for sex education — a curriculum that has long been criticised for being outdated and irrelevant (Nicola Woolcock writes).
Updated lessons, covering porn, sexting and consent, were due to be introduced in England last September after months of consultation but were pushed back because of the coronavirus pandemic. Relationships education was due to become compulsory in England’s state primary schools at the start of the academic year, as was relationships and sex education in secondary schools.
Schools were allowed to delay this until this year’s summer term.
The new curriculum caused upset in some areas when it was proposed, and some schools have experienced protests about its LGBT content. Schools are expected to discuss the lessons with parents but can overrule opposition.
The PSHE Association, which supports teachers taking relationships and sex education lessons, said that the Department for Education must make clear that regular teaching was needed. It said: “We don’t expect pupils to learn algebra or about the Norman Conquest via the odd assembly or awareness day, so why should we expect this when it comes to consent and respectful relationship behaviour?”
It said PSHE education had a proven role in academic attainment: “Safe, healthy and content students are in a better place to learn.”
Early last year I was invited to do a presentation to a class of 15-year-old girls in a North London comprehensive school. It was International Women’s Day, and I chose to focus my talk on the prevalence of and fightback against male violence.
As soon as we got to the Q&A session, the stories immediately began: girls telling me about being flashed at, boys masturbating under the desk at school while staring at them, the tsunami of dick pics flooding into the girls’ iPhones, and rape and sexual assault. I asked what they think was at the root of the escalation of such behaviour, and there was an almost unanimous shout of “porn”.
I am not in the slightest bit surprised, therefore at the Ofsted report released today about the horrific levels of sexual harassment and online sexual abuse that girls (and some boys) experience on a daily basis. The most upsetting thing for me, as a feminist who has campaigned for decades to expose the porn industry, is that so many victims consider such harassment as a routine part of their daily lives and therefore see little point in challenging or reporting it.
As the report highlights, girls suffer sexist name-calling, online abuse, upskirting, unwanted touching in school corridors and rape jokes. Boys share nude pictures on WhatsApp and Snapchat “like a collection game”.
Feminists have been warning about the effects of pornography for some time. Despite the fact that we have long been accused of anti-sex moralism, prudishness, and man-hating, we have the evidence to show that the availability of what used to be called ‘hard-core porn’, and is now just ‘porn’ (none of it fits into the so-called soft-core category these days), can shape the way boys view women.
When I have interviewed boys about their pornography consumption, they have told me that they seek more and more violent forms as they get bored with the more mainstream stuff. Porn is now the new ‘sex education’ in schools, and a number of young men have spoken out about being unable to sexually respond to women because their brains are so full of images of women being choked, urinated on, and damaged in ways probably too graphic for this publication.
In 2010 I interviewed the anti-porn activist and academic Gail Dines, author of ‘Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality’, who told me that:
“We are now bringing up a generation of boys on cruel, violent porn, and given what we know about how images affect people, this is going to have a profound influence on their sexuality, behaviour and attitudes towards women.”
Three years later, an academic journal entitled Porn Studies was launched. This has been heavily criticised by Dines and other experts on sexual exploitation and violence against women for its pro-porn bias. The Porn Studies board appears to be comprised of entirely pro-porn individuals, including Tristan Taormino, who describes herself as a ‘feminist pornographer’ (vegan butcher, anyone?) but who has worked alongside some of the most hard-core porn directors in the industry.
Unless we admit the truth about porn — that it is misogynistic propaganda that teaches boys to hate women — I fear that things will only get worse for girls, and our schools will become training grounds for sexual assault.
While some girls feel they are expected to look and behave like porn stars, with hairless, glistening bodies, a few boys are turning to plastic surgery because they worry their penises aren’t large enough. A friend who is a north London GP and mother of two boys says, “I’m getting requests from teenage boys for penis enlargement. That’s surely a result of too much porn.”
Almost every expert, parent, teacher and teenager I talk to feels that it’s the rise of online porn that underlies the current problems – for boys and girls. Only 25 per cent of parents think their 16-year-old sons have watched porn. Yet a survey by the NSPCC showed that two thirds of 15 to 16-year-olds have seen pornography online, and nearly a third of 11 to 12-year-olds, with the majority being violent and non-consensual.
“Pornography is everywhere,” says Mohammed, now in the sixth form of an all-boys school in Yorkshire and a champion debater. “You can’t avoid it. It’s just a click away while you are doing your homework and it makes you feel inadequate. That’s why my generation needs alcohol or drugs to do this kind of stuff. I envy my friends who’ve been in a steady relationship since they were young, and my parents, who had an arranged marriage.”
Our children have become subject to the whims of a vast $97 billion profit-seeking industry that has no concern whatsoever for their emotional or sexual health, according to Simon Bailey, the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead on child protection. He has been demanding a national debate about the potentially devastating impact of online porn ever since I first interviewed him a decade ago. The sense of young male entitlement, he says, “sometimes feels medieval. Boys get some of their sex education from porn, which once might have been a picture of a naked woman spread across a page,” but now involves images of gagging, rape, anal sex and domination. “More and more children are watching hardcore porn and it soon becomes normalised,” says Bailey, who is heading the police service response to investigating the Everyone’s Invited allegations. “You can’t rely on families or schools alone to tackle this. The tech industry needs to take responsibility. No one under 18 should be able to see this stuff.”
Dr Caroline Douglas-Pennant, a counselling psychologist working in west London, who has four daughters, believes boys need new boundaries. “Boys think about sex a lot of the time, but it’s vital they understand that their sexual needs are not more important than women’s and what may even have been tacitly acceptable in their parents’ generation is unacceptable now,” she says. Children receive sex education classes at school. “But a lot of boys and girls feel that adults and teachers are still letting them down. They are being tokenistic and just ticking the boxes with their relationship and consent classes without helping them address the real problems. It’s the competitive, pressurised, misogynist culture we need to tackle.”
Porn, she agrees, has exacerbated the situation. “It gives the message women are constantly available and enjoy aggressive sex. Boys at 17 are driven by testosterone. They need to be shown how to control it. Dads are extremely important role models for loving and respectful relationships for their boys and we need to encourage them to think about their position in the conversation and be curious about why they may feel defensive or attacked.”
Teachers say they do not feel equipped to deal with peer-on-peer sexual abuse because they have had no training.
More than 1,500 UK teachers replied to a questionnaire from BBC Radio 4’s File on 4 and teachers’ union the NASUWT.
More than half said they did not think adequate procedures were in place in their schools to deal with abuse.
Many are also unsure how to deliver elements of a new sex-and-relationships curriculum, which the government says third parties might now help with.
In England, the Department for Education has introduced a compulsory Sex and Relationships Education (RSE) curriculum in all schools, focusing on relationships in primary schools and sex and relationships in secondaries.
It has also asked Ofsted to review peer-on-peer safeguarding procedures.
Of the teachers surveyed, almost a third said they had witnessed peer-on-peer sexual harassment or abuse and almost one in 10 said they saw it on a weekly basis.
The debate about a culture of sexual abuse at schools has escalated in recent months after a website set up for victims to post their experiences anonymously gained more than 16,000 posts – some from children as young as nine.
The Everyone’s Invited website publishes anonymous allegations which refer mostly to sexual harassment carried out against young women by young men at their school or university.
The government has now launched a dedicated hotline with the NSPCC for young people who feel they have been harassed and abused.
Since the helpline launched at the beginning of April, it has received more than 350 calls, and 65 referrals have been made to agencies including social services and the police.
The new RSE curriculum in England was introduced in September 2020.
Andrew Fellows, associate head of policy at child-protection charity the NSPCC, says that while the new lessons are a positive development, schools have not been given the support and guidance to deliver the new curriculum effectively.
“Coercive control, sexual consent, healthy relationships, online safety, pornography – that’s all in there.
“But what schools haven’t been given is the guidance and the support to cover that and to deliver that in a way that works for their students,” he said.
Flora Cooper, head teacher of Crowmarsh Primary School in Oxfordshire, where staff have just started to teach the new RSE lessons, said: “In terms of external training, we’ve not had any.
“We actually haven’t seen much being offered in terms of training and it is absolutely in the training – that’s what is essential, which we don’t have.
“Until the teachers are confident with the delivery of the content, then I don’t think any of them will be confident and fully teaching the children the full curriculum. It feels as though we are on our own.”
Ofsted is currently conducting a review of safeguarding policies and practices relating to sexual abuse in state and independent schools and colleges.
It was ordered by the government after thousands of young people – mostly girls and young women – contacted the Everyone’s Invited website.
Children’s Minister Vicky Ford said: “We’ve seen these enormously worrying and very shocking allegations that have come through the Everyone’s Invited site.
“One of the things that Ofsted will be looking at in this review is, are schools getting enough training and support? Do they need, for example, third parties to come in and train elements of that curriculum?”