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?”
Campaigners are “astonished” that the government’s draft Online Safety Bill does not contain long-promised age verification checks for pornography.
Companies have invested heavily in the technology in recent years to prepare for legally-required checks.
But an earlier law requiring them was never enforced.
The government says the new bill will focus on online platforms where children are more likely to find pornography by chance.
This includes social media, but the law may not apply to many commercial adult sites because the current draft only covers websites containing user-generated content.
“I was completely astonished when I saw the bill,” said John Carr, Secretary of the Children’s Charities’ Coalition on Internet Safety.
“Pornhub, xHamster, all of the big commercial pornography sites – the largest single source of pornography in the world – are outside the scope of the bill or could easily put themselves outside of the scope of the bill.”.
They could do so by easily removing all user-uploaded content, he said – as Pornhub recently did within days of an investigation being launched into its user-generated content.
“They could do that and it would not affect their core business model in any way, shape or form,” Mr Carr said.
Proposals to make all UK pornography users confirm their age before accessing explicit content was first mooted in 2016.
It was made law in the 2017 Digital Economy Act – but that was never brought into force after repeated delays, and fears it would not work.
It was officially dropped in 2019, but the government pledged “other measures” would achieve the same results.
Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden told a meeting of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee that the Online Safety Bill was designed to deal with social media sites, where he believed the biggest risk with pornography was “kids stumbling across it”.
He also suggested that most commercial porn sites “do have user-generated content on them, so most of them will be in scope”.
But he left the door open to firm up the rules.
“I don’t have a closed mind on this. If we could find a commensurate way of providing wider protection for children within it… I think there is a strong case for doing that,” Mr Dowden said.
“Companies hosting user-generated content, video-sharing or live-streaming will need to prove to an independent regulator they can stop children accessing harmful content,” a spokeswoman for DCMS said.
“Our new laws will therefore go further than the Digital Economy Act,” she added.
John Carr said there were “two scurrilous rumours” circulating about the omission; that either it was a tactical move by the government, or that the authorities simply did not want to enforce it.
But Baroness Floella Benjamin, a House of Lords member who has campaigned on issues around pornography, said she believes parliamentary review will “add back the essential elements” of the older law.
“It was obvious that adult sites would simply drop interactive functionality to evade age verification,” she said.
“The elephant in the room is what happens to protect children over the next three to four years,” she warned, because of the time it would take to develop and implement the rules.
“A seven-year-old will be a teenager before this new law comes into force,” she said.
A father and a student campaigner are seeking a High Court hearing to consider whether the government should tighten youngsters’ access to porn.
Ioannis Dekas and Ava Vakil want the government to implement proof of age for access to pornography promised in the 2017 Digital Economy Act.
It comes as new research suggests the majority of 16 and 17-year-olds in the UK have recently seen pornography.
The government is currently preparing a new Online Harms Bill.
This bill would go further than the Digital Economy Act, giving the watchdog, Ofcom, powers to block access to online services – including social media platforms and search engines – which fail to do enough to protect children.
It is expected to be put before Parliament later this year.
Ioannis Dekas, a father of four sons, became concerned after he found one of his boys had accessed pornography.
He said this was a wake-up call for him and his wife as parents, making them confront the potential danger to their son and the impact on them all as a family.
“In the two weeks leading up to this moment, we’d noticed a drastic change in his behaviour, withdrawal, a sense of anger towards his siblings, we could sense frustration in his life.”
When he and his wife talked to their son, they found he was under peer pressure to be familiar with the language of porn.
“What I don’t often hear is how to deal with this. What happens in your household when this happens? With the availability, it’s not a matter of if, but of when.”
Mr Dekas wants the government to put in place the age verification requirements set out in part three of the Digital Economy Act – a law that was passed in 2017.
However, in 2019, the then Digital Secretary Nicky Morgan said the measures would no longer go ahead, with efforts instead focused on the government’s wider Online Harms Bill.
But Mr Dekas says that this bill still has to be brought before Parliament, and may be delayed if detailed regulations need to be drawn up.
In the meantime, children are being exposed to pornography, he says, when they could be protected using the Digital Economy Act’s full powers.
Mr Dekas is bringing the challenge jointly with 20-year-old University of Oxford student Ava Vakil, whose letter about what she described as a culture of sexual violence in some schools went viral online.
Ms Vakil told the BBC: “I think porn is everywhere, and growing up as a young woman I’ve seen the influence of that.
“I think young men are ingesting pornography online to an extent that people aren’t aware of.
“I’m sure everyone, and particularly young women, can look back on so many conversations they’ve had with boyfriends and male friends and think 100% it was impacted by porn.”
The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport said it would not be appropriate to comment on legal proceedings.
A spokesman said the government was committed to protecting children from harmful content.
The legal action comes as research from City, University of London found many teenagers had seen porn.
Prof Neil Thurman conducted a survey of more than 1,000 16 and 17-year-olds in the UK, using a panel from the specialist market research company Youthsite.
While 63% said they came across porn on social media, 47% said they had also visited porn websites.
The research suggests the government’s approach of widening the range of legislation to more platforms is right, Prof Thurman said.
More worryingly, 46% had used technology that disguises identity when browsing online, such as a virtual private network, and which could allow evasion of age verification.
However, Prof Thurman said this was not a reason not to regulate access.
“It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t bring in legislation,” he said. “Firstly I think it would reduce accidental exposure, particularly for younger children and teenagers, and it does send a signal, not present at the moment, that they are accessing something inappropriate for their age group.”
Vanessa Morse, head of the Centre to End All Sexual Exploitation, said there was a “wealth of evidence” to show that viewing pornography led to harmful sexual attitudes and behaviours.
“The government’s own research, which it published this year, showed an association between porn consumption and real world violence against women. It’s no surprise considering one in eight porn videos contains sexual violence,” she said.
“Pornography has made violent acts in sex completely normalised.”
A new report by the internet safety body, Internet Matters, looking at children’s use of technology during lockdown has found that although the internet had a positive impact on how children learn and socialise, parents also reported a rise in the amount of online harms children experienced.
A survey of 2,000 parents in the UK in March this year suggests a 39% increase in the sharing of sexual images among children since January 2020.
Psychologist Dr Linda Papadopoulos, ambassador of Internet Matters, says “as children have come to rely on technology more than ever during the pandemic, and therefore spending sometimes several hours a day online, it also gives them increased exposure to all of the risks that go with it.”
I used to regularly go into schools to teach consent workshops to teenagers aged between around 13 and 16, which included showing the students a video made by Thames Valley Police called Tea and Consent. I’ve seen this video so many times I can almost recite it by heart. It begins with this line: “If you’re still struggling with consent, just imagine that instead of initiating sex, you’re making them a cup of tea…”
The video gently compares the act of making tea to the act of sex, appealing to the viewer’s common sense understanding of social niceties. Making someone a cup of tea is generous, right? But as a well socialised person, you’ll know that if someone says no to your offer of tea, you shouldn’t force it upon them, or get angry because they refused you. And you certainly shouldn’t pour tea down an unconscious person’s throat.
Although I don’t think my efforts in the workshops were entirely wasted, I also doubt they made much – if any –difference to rates of sexual violence within the schools. Consent workshops can potentially achieve two things: they can teach participants (including potential victims) what is and is not illegal, and they can offer schools the opportunity to declare a zero-tolerance attitude towards any kind of sexual misbehaviour. If, for instance, a student is caught sharing revenge porn after taking part in an official consent workshop, he or she can’t plausibly claim they did not know this act is both illegal and punishable by expulsion.
But many fans of consent workshops seem to believe their chief purpose is to do something fairly miraculous: to appeal to students’ empathy and common sense, thus dissuading potential rapists or, as the tea video phrases it, people “still struggling with consent” from acting on their desires. This hopeful project relies on the idea that the whole business of sexual violence is really just a consequence of some misunderstanding, swiftly cleared up during a 45-minute workshop in which children are told not to rape one another.
Forgive my cynicism, but I don’t think this workshop strategy is going to work. I find it odd that liberal feminist media outlets such as Teen Vogue will wax lyrical about the importance of consent education in schools, while also telling young readers it’s OK to watch porn that “portrays fantasies about non-consensual sex”. It is recklessly inconsistent to suggest, on the one hand, that consent workshops can have a profound effect on teenagers’ behaviour, while also insisting that exposing their young brains to porn depicting rape or other violence (even if only simulated) is nothing to worry about.
The arrival of the internet has changed both the quantity and quality of the porn that’s available. In a 2020 survey of men across several western European countries, respondents reported watching an average of 70 minutes of online porn a week – with 2.2 per cent watching more than seven hours. Within the last decade or so, BDSM content, particularly that featuring strangulation, has migrated from niche porn sites to mainstream porn sites and now to social media, including to platforms that advertise themselves as suitable for children aged 13 and over. You do not have to look hard to find these images. If you are exposed to mainstream porn or even just to mainstream social media, you are very likely to come across them unintentionally.
How on Earth is a consent workshop supposed to compete with the vast dopamine feedback loop offered by the online porn industry? Gail Dines, an academic specialising in violence against women, is one of the most pessimistic voices on this issue, and she describes the problem with painful clarity: “The pornographers are laying waste a whole generation of boys, and when you lay waste a generation of boys, you lay waste a generation of girls.”
The most popular porn sites are bombarding users with sexually violent material depicting rape, upskirting and other abuse, according to a landmark study.
An analysis of 131,738 titles on the homepages of Pornhub, XHamster and XVideos found that one in eight showed non-consensual or incestuous acts, including where the subjects were described as drugged, unconscious or “very young”.
More than 8,000 titles referred to physical aggression or forced sexual activity, even when the researchers excluded representations of consensual bondage, discipline and sadomasochism (BDSM) practices.
The study, published today in the British Journal of Criminology, is one of the most in-depth analyses of online porn to date and draws on the largest sample of mainstream material yet collected. Swathes of material depicting degrading and extreme violence against women were widely available to view for free and with no age checks.
The findings will fuel calls for measures to force porn companies to tackle harmful content, which campaigners and charities have said normalises violence against women.
First-time visitors were shown the material by default even though much of it contravened the sites’ terms and conditions, researchers from Durham University’s law school found.
Many of the videos included references to forced sexual activity — “rape porn” — which is illegal to possess or distribute in the UK, whether real or acted, if it is realistic.
“It is not the case that criminal material is relegated to niche sites, hidden from all but a determined viewer, or only available on the dark web,” the authors of the study write.
The findings come as Britain is rocked by allegations of sexual abuse at schools and by the death of Sarah Everard, 33, who went missing while walking home in Clapham, south London.
In recent weeks thousands of people have spoken out about their experiences of sexual violence, with many women describing times they have felt afraid in day-to-day situations.
Over six months in 2017-18, the researchers took hourly snapshots of content on the home pages of the three most popular sites, including 72,326 titles from XHamster, 40,401 from Pornhub and 38,858 from XVideos.
After removing videos with no description of the content, they used keywords to categorise titles in line with the World Health Organisation’s definition of sexual violence. Each video was then reviewed and those that described consensual BDSM practices were excluded.
In total 2,966 titles on the homepages described criminal acts of image-based sexual abuse, including “Pharmacy store bathroom hidden cam”and “Upskirted in the train” and examples of so-called revenge porn.
A further 5,389 titles referred to physical aggression and 2,698 described coercion and exploitation.
Only one clip included the word “rape”, which is banned by the sites, but thousands described it in other terms, such as “Again and again forced” and “Boyfriend forced gf for sex”.
Common keywords included “grope” and “molest”, and many titles referred to women crying. Four included the word “chloroform”, a chemical used to incapacitate and kill. Another 5,785 titles described sexual activity between family members, making it the most common category of “sexually violent” material identified in the sample.
Previous research has shown young people turning to online porn as an educational tool. A recent survey by the British Board of Film Classification involving 16 and 17-year-olds found that most had viewed pornography that they found disturbing or overly aggressive, with many saying it influenced how they behaved in sexual encounters.
Clare McGlynn QC, a professor of law at Durham who co-authored the study, said: “It’s shocking that this is the material that the porn companies themselves are choosing to showcase to first-time users. Our findings raise serious questions about the extent of criminal material easily and freely available on mainstream porn websites and the efficacy of current regulatory mechanisms.”
She said it was common for descriptions of the most serious sexual offences to be characterised as ordinary or entertaining. “It’s no wonder that young women are sharing their stories of sexual harassment and abuse when this is normalised in the porn that is being offered to new users.”
Fiona Vera-Gray, a legal research fellow and co-author of the study, said sexually violent material “eroticised non-consent” and distorted “the boundary between sexual pleasure and sexual violence”.
The study has raised questions over the ability and willingness of sites to regulate themselves. Much of the material the researchers identified is likely to be in breach of the websites’ own terms and conditions.
In their policies, Pornhub and XVideos explicitly state that all content “depicting” child sexual abuse, rape, incest and forced sexual acts is prohibited, meaning simulations as well as real acts of violence are prohibited.
XHamster’s terms proscribe any material that is “unlawful, threatening, abusive, harassing … invasive of another person’s privacy” or “hateful”.
The researchers said their analysis, which was carried out with the porn sites’ written consent, showed a “large gulf between what the companies say they prohibit and what is actually available”, although they added that their findings focused on the titles of the videos, rather than the footage itself.
They urged the government to use the Online Harms Bill to hold porn companies to account.
Legislation that will make Ofcom the regulator of “online harms”, and give it the power to fine companies up to 10 percent of their turnover for failings relating to harmful content, is being prepared by the government, but the most intense scrutiny so far has been reserved for social media companies such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
Despite being less talked about, the porn sites — which allow users to upload their own content, like YouTube — command huge audiences. XVideos is the seventh-most visited website in the world while Pornhub, the UK’s top porn site, is 13th globally and XHamster 20th, according to rankings on SimilarWeb, making them more popular than eBay, PayPal and LinkedIn.
In addition to sexually violent material, much of the content on the website homepages fetishised sex with teenagers, including those who are underage. The most frequently occurring word overall was “teen”, which occurred in 7.7 per cent of video titles and 8.5 per cent of those found to describe sexual violence, while 26 videos included the words “very young”.
All the sites claim a zero-tolerance policy on child sexual abuse material and block searches for related keywords.
The research has added to concerns around porn websites’ moderation practices, which have long been criticised for being weak. Last October, an investigation by Vice News found that XHamster hired unpaid reviewers to moderate the site and instructed them: “Do not remove any content if you’re not 100 per cent sure that it’s illegal to be here.”
Since the Durham study began in 2017, Mindgeek, Pornhub’s parent company, claims to have cracked down on illegal content, removing millions of user-uploaded videos in December after Mastercard ended its relationship over further abuse claims.
Unilever and Heinz cut ties with Pornhub in 2019 after it was found to host content showing illegal acts, including secretly filmed “creepshots” of schoolgirls and clips of men performing sex acts in front of teenagers on buses.
Last week, in contravention of their own terms and conditions, content depicting rape, incest and other abuse remained widespread on all three sites.
Pornhub disputed the findings of the study and claimed all content on its website depicted “consensual kinks”. A spokesman said: “Consenting adults are entitled to their own sexual preferences, as long as they are legal and consensual, and all kinks that meet these criteria are welcome on Pornhub.”
The company said any suggestion it allowed illegal content was “categorically and factually inaccurate” and that it had instituted an “industry-leading” policy to identify and eradicate illegal material, as well as banning content from unverified users and expanding its moderation practices.
XVideos said: “We prohibit the uploading of illegal content, remove potentially illegal content when it is brought to our attention, and work with law enforcement in appropriate cases.”
Neither site commented on claims they had failed to remove content prohibited by their own terms and conditions.
XHamster did not respond to requests for comment.
Caroline Nokes, the MP who chairs the women and equalities committee, called for age certification of porn sites as promised by Theresa May’s government.
“Porn is part of the problem that underpins male violence against women and so must be addressed,” she said. “This is giving young people a very warped view of sex and relationships and even more worryingly is normalising this kind of behaviour.”