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).
QotD: “she says she believes that coercive sex is the price she has to pay for being in a relationship”
When Jed first heard from friends about websites where you could see naked women, it sounded too good to be true. So one afternoon, aged 11 and with his mind straying from homework, and while his mother was busy, he typed “boobs” and “sex” into the search bar of the family laptop.
“My first reaction was: ‘This is confusing.’ I knew a bit about sex, but there were men doing painful stuff to women,” he recalls.
After trying to make sense of what he was seeing, Jed clicked off the page and cleared the browsing history. “But I couldn’t put it out of my mind, so half an hour later, I had another look.”
Now, eight years on and in his first year of an engineering course at university, Jed is a member of a generation that has grown up with porn, and estimates he spends five or six hours a week looking at it.
Indeed, a 2016 analysis of 1,001 11- to 16-year-olds by Middlesex University for the children’s commissioner and the NSPCC found that at least 56% of boys and 40% of girls had been exposed to online pornography by the age of 16. The study also found that not only are boys more likely to keep seeking it out after they first see it (59%, compared with 25% of girls) but they are more likely to be positive about it.
“It’s normal,” says Jake, 19, echoing many of the boys I spoke to. “If one of my friends hadn’t seen it, I’d consider that weird.” For Jason, a swaggering 17-year-old, porn is a comforting routine, something functional that he wakes up with and winds down to at the end of the day. “It’s stress relief, and less work than girls,” he says.
When Samuel’s parents found a list of what they considered to be extreme sexual acts in his browsing history (“Nothing too serious,” Samuel, who is 16, says: “double and triple penetration”) he wasn’t embarrassed. He was annoyed: “I thought, ‘So what? Everyone watches it.’” Tom, 17, says: “We know it’s fake. My mates laugh about it.”
“They may be laughing about it,” says Dr Gail Dines, a scholar of pornography and professor emerita of sociology and women’s studies at Wheelock College, Boston, “but they are also masturbating to it. They say they know it’s fake, but what does that mean? You haven’t got one brain that processes fake stuff and one that processes real stuff. You have one brain and one body that’s aroused. If you begin by masturbating to cruel, hardcore, violent porn, studies show that you are not going to grow up wired for intimacy and connection.”
Most of the girls I spoke to seemed to be concerned about a loss of intimacy that comes from their male peers’ porn use. Although there are some girls who watch porn, most I speak to are exasperated by the groups of lads accessing it on GCSE field trips or talking in the school cafeteria about videos they’ve seen.
Nia is 14, and though she avoids porn, that doesn’t mean she hasn’t felt its influence. Among the boys, she says it’s easy to tell which ones are the heavy users. “They’re the ones who don’t know what to say at parties, and then write sexual comments on your Instagram posts.”
Megan, 15, has visited porn sites a few times because she heard about her friends giving blowjobs and thought, “it sounds like a skill you’d better learn how to do. You don’t want to get it wrong.” Ayeesha, 17, talks about how porn warps things. “Boys like to spice it up because ordinary sex is considered boring,” she says. “And girls think having anal sex will make the boys love them.” When Ayeesha had sex, she rated her performance as if through the pornographer’s lens. “The first time I did it, I was thinking, ‘My body looks good.’”
When Rhianna, 21, looks back on her teenage sexual relationships, she recalls being asked to replicate scenes her boyfriends had seen on porn. “It wasn’t about what I wanted. It was as if you were some prototype female they got to act out their favourite videos with.”
Now she’s older, Rhianna has started to demand sex on her own terms and enjoys porn herself. “As long as it’s not violent, or shows rape, it’s fine for people over 18 to watch. I think it can be fun to use with a partner.”
But it’s impossible not to hear the angst and confusion in the voice of Ciara, a 20-year-old retail trainee, when she says she believes that coercive sex is the price she has to pay for being in a relationship. “Boys all want the things they’ve seen in porn. If you say it hurts, they don’t seem to take it seriously. It’s as if that’s a normal part of the experience.”
There is some hope, though: a few of the older boys I speak to seem to be gaining some perspective on the downsides of porn. Henry, 20, decided to wean himself off it when he felt he couldn’t masturbate without it. “You’re entranced by it. Denying myself and forcing myself to use my imagination instead was really tough.”
Beyond that, he also started to recognise how it affected his view of women. “I’d see girls in the street and realise I couldn’t just click a button and see them naked. I’d be talking to someone and get frustrated that I couldn’t just make sex happen.”
Mitchell, 19, has begun to understand the connection between what he watches and how he behaves. “If girls are reluctant to do something, you pressure them because you think, ‘Lots of women do it in porn. Why don’t you?’” He says he began to feel “like I wasn’t in my own body”.
The effects of porn run deep – 53% of boys and 39% of girls in the Middlesex University study saw it as “a realistic depiction” of sex – and even with the anticipated new verification checks, free porn will bubble up in other ways; it is already increasingly appearing on platforms children use from a young age, such as Snapchat and Instagram.
Former top porn actress Mia Khalifa has called out pornography companies that “prey on callow young women”.
The 26-year-old says the corporations “trap women legally in to contracts when they’re vulnerable”.
Mia spent just three months working in the porn industry before leaving in 2015 but she remains a highly ranked star on site Pornhub.
Speaking in an interview with her friend Megan Abbott, Mia says she “hasn’t yet accepted [her] past”.
Mia has usually avoided speaking about her career in porn, but says she’s “ready to shed light on every questionable moment from my past, because if I own it, it can’t be used against me”.
She is one of the most-viewed porn stars of all time – but Mia says that didn’t necessarily equate to payment.
She says she made around $12,000 (£9,900) during her time performing and “never saw a penny again after that”.
There is still an active website under her name, which she says she doesn’t own or profit from.
“All I’ve wanted these last years is for the site to be changed from my direct name,” she says.
The Lebanon-born performer opened up about how difficult it is to move on after porn, as she found out when attempting to pursue a career in sports punditry.
“It gets me so down when I get ‘no’s’ from companies who don’t want to work with me because of my past, but I also thought I would never find a man like my fiancé,” she said.
Mia Khalifa got engaged to Robert Sandberg earlier this year.
“The fact that he appreciated everything I’ve done since porn meant so much.”
Although Mia’s career was short-lived, it wasn’t without controversy. Her most famous scene shows her performing sex acts whilst wearing a hijab.
“Instantly that it was posted, it was like wildfire. ISIS sent me death threats, they sent me a Google Maps image of my apartment.
“I stayed in a hotel for two weeks after that because fear really set in.”
With almost 17 million followers on her Instagram page, Mia often receives offensive messages from trolls.
“I don’t sweat the small stuff anymore, things people say don’t offend me. I always think ‘OK, but are you ISIS? Are you going to kill me? No, move on’.”
The actress was scouted on the street in Miami in 2014, and made her first porn film in October that year.
She didn’t plan for anyone to find out, telling Megan Abbott she saw it as her “dirty little secret”.
But by December she was the number one ranked performer on website Pornhub.
“I definitely have not come to terms with my past yet,” she says. “I might put on a facade, because I fake it until I make it.”
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.
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.
A pornography festival in London this weekend has been forced to relocate after protests.
Faced with the prospect of a picket, organisers of the London porn film festival, which describes itself as “celebrating queer, feminist, radical and experimental porn”, pulled screenings from the Horse Hospital, an arts venue in Bloomsbury. The three-day event will instead be held at a new location disclosed only to ticket holders.
Multiple complaints about the festival were made to Camden council. Local authorities have the power to permit screenings of uncertificated films.
Despite the festival’s progressive intentions, feminist organisations branded it demeaning. Janice Williams, chair of the activist group Object, said the films on show promoted “degradation and oppression”. Rude Jude, one of the festival’s organisers, disagreed. “This is the next step on from the moral panic and the rightwing conservative groups that protested this kind of thing before … Britain likes to think of itself as a place tolerant of queer people, but when queer people assert ourselves, we’re attacked.”
The festival programme includes screenings titled Soft Tender Tuff Bois, described as a “love letter to all genderqueer and transmasculine people”, and The Kinks Are All Right, which takes the theme of “seductive humiliation”.
Rude Jude said the festival was staged as a response to 2014 legislation that extended pornography laws to films streamed over the internet: “It banned so many queer acts. It banned the depiction of female ejaculation, caning, breast play, flogging. These things are part of queer sexuality. The festival was formed as a protest.”
The coordinators of a separate pressure group, Women Against Pornography, said: “Feminist pornography is an oxymoron … feminism is not about individualistic wishes or desires, it is about liberating all women from the oppression of males. This can never be achieved by being tied up in a bed or by telling women that torture will make them free.” Women Against Pornography cited “security reasons” for not wanting to reveal their names.
In a letter to Camden council, Williams singled out a festival strand titled Sex Work Is Work, the online description for which included the hashtag #necrophilia. Williams claimed the festival was to show extreme pornographic images and pornography that is “likely to result in serious injury” to the performers. The hashtag has since been removed from the festival site.
In a series of Twitter posts, the festival claimed transphobia underlay the attack on the event. Women Against Pornography refute the accusation: “In the letters we sent there was no mention of transgenderism. However, if transgenderism is apparently so closely linked with pornography then that’s not a very good advert for it. As radical feminists we are gender critical, although this didn’t form part of our criticism of the festival.”
The Horse Hospital, which does not receive public money, is known for its grassroots art programming and has hosted the festival since its inception. “We’re in a difficult position here. We’re always up against it with somebody,” said director Roger Burton.
‘Mums Make Porn’ is a Channel 4 documentary about a group of mothers who make a short porn film. Emma, the lead on this project, describes mainstream porn as “horrible. Gruesome” and her intention is to create a ‘new wave’ of porn.
The result is a 14-minute film that Emma’s 20-year-old daughter was happy to watch alongside her mum, dad, and grandmother, with her boyfriend and friends in attendance.
There is some acknowledgement of the realities of the porn industry:
“The darker realities of the sex industry are never mentioned – in the first episode of the series at least. Emma says that they met one actress who had performed so much that she was physically injured, and that some of the films she saw were so gruesome she could barely kiss her husband goodnight. There was a point when the group thought that instead of making a porn film they should be campaigning to have it banned. “But that’s a huge step,” Emma says. “We were just four middle-aged hormonal females. But absolutely it needs to be policed. Everyone needs to get involved, from the government to mums and even those working in the porn industry. […] Back home they started to interview potential cast members. The first question was: “What sort of porn do you like to watch?” Most of the actors, Emma says, didn’t like a lot of what they saw, or indeed a lot of what they were doing.”
What is the actual purpose of this 14-minute porno, apart from making a small group of middle-class women feel good about themselves?
Could it work as ‘sex education’? But education in what? If its purpose is to educate about consent, why do you then need to see real sex acts? Does it include stopping and starting again, or giving up for the night? (at 14 minutes, I doubt it.)
Is it supposed to be an education in technique? The mention of male performance anxiety suggests so, but then who gets to set the standard?
Is it commercially viable? Is it going to ‘disrupt’ the porn industry? Of course not. The fact that it is being put up online for free (on Erika Lust’s website – more on her later), suggests that making it commercially viable was not a part of the plan (making it even more a middle-class vanity project, working-class women don’t have the time or resources to make porn for free, instead, they get ‘sex work’ pushed on them as something they ‘need’).
There is no meaningful definition of ‘feminist’ when it comes to porn, only ‘a woman made it’ and/or ‘a woman gets off on it’; which means all porn is ‘feminist’, including the most extreme acts of violence, bestiality, and child sex abuse images, because somewhere there is a woman who will get off to that.
Pandora Blake, a self-styled ‘feminism pornographer’ produces only sado-masochistic porn centred around corporal punishment, and even Emma “is impressed by a couple of fetishists she watches making a naughty little video” while another mother is interested in “’beauty’, ‘tastefulness’ and large penises”, so there is no standard (sex products sold to women always claim higher production values, and always sport a bigger price tag).
The Guardian published an article last year titled ‘The Pleasure Revolution’, some of it was interesting, like the need to correctly describe, and normalise, female genitalia, and sex toys that aren’t objectifying and aimed at men; and some of it was ridiculous, like politics lecturer Reba Maybury, who has a side-gig as ‘political dominatrix’ ‘Mistress Rebecca’, who only dominates white, right-wing men, in order to ‘shift the power balance between the sexes’ (which is laughable, of course, she is being paid by these men for this ‘service’, she is still doing what they want, and outside that BDSM bubble, these men will carry on exactly as before). The article also links to a supposedly ‘feminist’ website, called ‘frolic me’, at the bottom of the website’s front page (click on image to enlarge) is a list of ‘erotic’ films and stories available on the site, including “voyeur catches a couple having a sexy rough fuck’, ‘BDSM erotic story of a submissive girl and her daddy’, and ‘forbidden seduction of a young horny stepson’. There is no meaningful definition of ‘feminist’ porn.
The idea of ‘ethical porn’ is equally meaningless. Mainstream porn uses ‘exit interviews’ (filmed statements where the female porn performers say that they consented to everything that just happened to them); as recent cases of abuse in the US porn industry show, these are faked in order for the woman to get paid, and there are plenty of other accounts of abuse and abusive conditions on porn sets. Any genuine policing of porn sets would make porn production impossible.
The pornographer Erika Lust is name-checked approvingly by the Mums, but this is Gail Dines’ description of one of her porn shoots (from ‘Hot Girls Wanted: Turned On’):
Lust’s rather bizarre idea of a compelling “erotic” movie for women was to portray a woman pianist living out her fantasy of playing the piano naked while being “pleasured.” So Lust finds Monica, a woman who is both a pianist and willing to play out this fantasy, concocted by Lust. The problem is that Monica is new to porn and lacks any experience, while Lust hires a mainstream male porn performer, resulting in the usual degrading porn sex – pounding penetration and hair pulling included. Monica finishes the scene in obvious pain and traumatized, looking like a deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming truck. But remember, this is a “feminist” porn film, so Lust, acting all sisterly, gives Monica a big hug and a glass of water to make her feel better. And then asks her to fake an orgasm for the final scene. So much for authentic female sexuality!
It was stomach churning to watch Lust manipulate and cajole Monica into making this film, and lying through her teeth as she explained that she is doing something different from the boys. Despite all the talk about aesthetic value and women’s sexuality, HGWTO is just a clever piece of ideological propaganda. Lust, just like the boys, is making money from sexually exploiting women; unlike the boys, she wraps herself in a feminist flag as a way to differentiate her brand in a glutted market. In Lust’s world, sisterhood is powerful because it provides cover to pimp out women in the name of feminism.
What projects like ‘Mums Make Porn’ miss is that even ‘better’ porn still objectifies and commodifies sexuality, and also ignores the addictive nature of porn, requiring more, and more extreme, images. It also makes the common, mainstream, assumption that men are simply consuming ‘bad’ porn by mistake, because there isn’t any ‘good’ porn available (a similar apology is made for male sexual violence, that poor men simply don’t understand when they are raping someone). If ‘good’ porn were commercially viable, it would already exist, and higher production value porn already exists.
This porn film will do nothing to challenge the mainstream porn industry, and it is no substitute for compulsory, age-appropriate, sex and relationships education, including education on consent, and the porn industry.
“I was 12 when I watched my first gang bang scene,” says 24-year-old Neelam Tailor. “I was pretty shocked. You know, you go from watching romantic films as a kid, where people are in love, and sex is all nice and sanitised, to watching…” She trails off with a small shrug.
Between the ages of 11 and 16, Neelam watched porn most days. She’d go up to her childhood bedroom – KT Tunstall posters and pictures of friends tacked to the wall, books and revision notes strewn on the floor – close the door and spend “anything from 10 minutes to an hour” scrolling through porn sites. “I don’t think my parents ever knew,” she says. She quickly got over that initial shock. “I think porn desensitises you. I definitely got to a point where I wasn’t shocked by much, really – and then you see more violent things and the other stuff becomes just normal.”
She wasn’t alone. A 2016 study suggests that around 53% of 11 to 16-year-olds have seen explicit material online. For Neelam, it started with a simple curiosity about sex. “I think I just saw it in films and wanted to know more. Maybe I had a high libido, or I was just hitting puberty, I don’t know, but I started searching for mainstream films that had a lot of sex in them.” She soon graduated, though, onto more explicit material. “I’d heard about porn at school, but I went to an all-girls school and it was always seen as ‘something boys do’. It piqued my curiosity but it also made me feel a lot of shame, like I was doing something unnatural, that normal girls wouldn’t.”
As Neelam became more well-versed in the kinds of videos that were available, she began to develop certain tastes. “I’d seek out porn where the woman is submissive, perhaps coerced, maybe even looking like she was forced into the act. Or I’d look for older men and younger girls. I don’t know why, but at such a young age, like 13, I don’t believe I had really developed my own sexual preferences – I feel like they were massively influenced by what I saw.”
25-year-old Sarah* reports similar experiences. “I started watching porn from the age of 13 or 14; at least twice a week, if not more. It just felt like I was satisfying a need. I remember how quickly I got desensitised to it – 10 men and one woman, orgies that were basically a writhing mass of bodies, women being slapped or otherwise humiliated – and I was accessing all this before I had even had sex. I still watch it, though not as much, but I do think that after using it regularly for more than 10 years, I now find it difficult to orgasm without some higher level of stimulation, like a vibrator. Or more porn.”
A lot has been written on the subject of men and excessive porn use, by news outlets and scientists. In 2016, Angela Gregory, a psychosexual therapist working within the NHS, told the BBC that easy-to-access porn had led to an increase in the numbers of men being referred for treatment of erectile dysfunction. An educational charity’s analysis suggested that, while porn accounted for around 2 to 5% of impotence cases in the early 2000s – when broadband was just taking off in the UK – it is now blamed for around 30% of cases. And it’s not all about bodily function: researchers in the US claimed that men who were exposed to porn at a young age were more likely to agree with statements that asserted male dominance, such as “things tend to be better when men are in charge”.
Some 94% of the 11 to 16-year-olds who’ve accessed pornographic material have done so by the age of 14, and that figure includes male and female teens. When I began researching this article, I expected to find less information about the impact of porn on women, because on average fewer women watch porn – as shown by the user data of a well-known porn site – but I didn’t expect to find close to nothing. I’m privileged […] and yet, I couldn’t find any research that reflected my lived experience – so was I the only one? I started by looking for others like me, who consumed mainstream porn, to see whether it had had any effect on them.
In a recent study of 1,000 18 to 25-year-olds, conducted for BBC Three, 47% of women have watched porn in the last month and 14% of the women surveyed felt that at some point, they might have been addicted to porn. And yet, over the months and weeks, expert after expert kept giving me the same response: women just don’t use porn compulsively. Or if they do, it doesn’t affect them very much… and yet, the women that I spoke to were telling a different story.
Neelam stopped watching porn when she was 16, precisely because of the physical impact it was having. “I got my first boyfriend and realised that I basically couldn’t get aroused by actual sex. I think porn is a completely unnatural level of stimulation, particularly if you’ve got 10 tabs open – what human partner can replicate that? Noticing the physical difference when I was watching porn vs when I was having actual sex… I got really fearful. I was like, ‘Am I going to have to go to the toilet and watch porn before I have sex just so that I get properly aroused?’” She stopped watching from that point on. “I don’t think I could say I was ‘addicted’ because I just stopped and never wanted to start again.”
American author Erica Garza, now 36, was 12 years old when she began to watch ‘softcore’ porn on late night TV. It was 1994 and the internet was still in its infancy. “I developed scoliosis and had to wear a back brace to school,” she explains. “I was bullied and felt isolated, and used pornography and masturbation as a way to escape and feel good.”
In 2014 she wrote an article in Salon magazine about her decision to seek treatment for sex addiction. She writes: “Usually gang bangs were a sure bet to getting off, but not this time. I kept searching, clicking through endless galleries of flesh, waiting to be impressed. Finally I found it. One that gave me that body-tingling, heart-racing, sweat-inducing rush of excitement. It was an older clip, late ’90s, but it was perfect. More than 500 men. ‘The Houston 500 stars the buxom blonde Houston, born Kimberly Halsom, taking on a reportedly 620 men in an uninterrupted frenzy hosted by Ron Jeremy’… I got off once, then twice, then three times, and saved it for later use. But after I’d put my computer away, I felt something different than the usual post-orgasm glow. I felt sick. Guilty. Too aware.”
“It impacted me in a lot of ways,” Erica tells me. “It made me attracted to certain sorts of sexual scenarios that I might not have otherwise considered. Like being treated roughly in bed, being talked to in a demeaning way. I also watched lots of scenes where the men were a lot older than the women, and so I came to expect and desire aggressive behaviour from men. It also made me think about what kind of body I should have. I became obsessed with removing all of my body hair because that’s what I saw on the screen.”
Over the years Neelam has also questioned how much her early exposure to porn has formed her sexual desires. “Slowly, through seeing how women of colour were treated in porn, I started internalising the idea that I’m something people are ‘into’, a fetish, rather than an individual woman. I also sought out the power dynamics I’d witness – like, after so many years watching older guys and younger girls, when I was 17, 18, 19, I started actively trying to date older guys. I don’t know whether that’s a coincidence. I will never know which came first – whether I had some innate tastes, or whether the porn created them.”
It’s a question many women that I speak to ask themselves, and one that I’ve often wondered about. When I was younger, I had this idea that when it came to sex, I should be completely passive – that sex was something that should be done to me. Was that passivity always there, or did I learn it from porn?
In a 2010 analysis of more than 300 porn scenes, 88% were found to include physical aggression, with the study explaining that most of the perpetrators were male, their targets female, and the latter’s most common response to aggression was to show pleasure or respond neutrally. Other, similar studies have been inconclusive about the effect aggressive porn has on men – some found the link between porn consumption and violence to be minor. But there is even less information about how it might affect women. “Either way, I think schools should be more proactive in educating children about sex,” says Neelam. “I think sex and porn is still treated as a taboo in schools but it’s either the schools educate them or porn does. And I don’t believe anyone, especially a young girl, should get their sexual education from porn.”
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 government will next week confirm the launch date for a UK-wide age block on online pornography as privacy campaigners continue to raise concerns about how websites and age verification companies will use the data they collect.
The plan for implementing the long-delayed age block, which has been beset by technical difficulties, is expected to be announced alongside the government’s other proposals for tackling online content harmful to children, although it could be several months before the system is fully up and running.
The age block will require commercial pornography sites to show that they are taking sufficient steps to verify their users are over 18, such as by uploading a passport or driving licence or by visiting a newsagent to buy a pass only available to adults. Websites which fail to comply risk substantial fines or having their websites banned by all British internet service providers.
Jim Killock, the executive director of the Open Rights Group, said he remained concerned about the prospect of a major data leak as a result of people handing over their personal identification: “It might lead to people being outed. It could also be you’re a teacher with an unusual sexual preference and your pupils get to know that as a result of a leak. It won’t get you sacked for viewing something legal but it could destroy your reputation.”
“Politicians don’t understand that data about their porn preferences might end up in the hands of journalists or others.”
Killock, whose organisation campaigns against state intervention online, said he was particularly worried about the role played by a single company called MindGeek, which owns the vast majority of major pornography sites such as PornHub, and has founded its own age verification company called AgeID: “The problem is you’re giving all your data to the pornographic equivalent of Mark Zuckerberg: ‘This is what I like, this is who I am, and these are all of the sites I’ve visited’.”
AgeID has previously said it believes there is a market of up to 25 millions Britons for its age verification system, suggesting it believes around half of British adults will want to access online pornography through its service.
Its system will require individuals to create an account with their email and password and then upload a passport or driving licence, which will be verified by a third party. If they do not feel comfortable doing this, they can present themselves in person with appropriate ID at a newsagent to buy a so-called “porn pass” for £4.99 per device, with the owner of the shop verifying the age of the purchaser.
James Clark, the director of communications at AgeID, said its method of storing the login and password of verified users meant that “at no point does AgeID have a database of email addresses”, citing external audits of his company’s processes.
“AgeID does not store any personal data input by users during the age verification process, such as name, address, phone number, date of birth. As we do not collect such data, it cannot be leaked, marketed to, or used in any way.”
He claimed that while AgeID could not be used to link viewing data to an individual’s identity, rival age verification companies “may not be so robust” and could be prone to leaks.