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.”
One of the country’s most senior police officers has said he believes that schools have covered up sexual offences to protect their reputations as a task force took charge of the surge in abuse complaints.
Chief Constable Simon Bailey told The Times that the outpouring of allegations was the education sector’s “MeToo” moment and that he feared a “culture of misogyny and sexual harassment” had not been challenged in some schools.
Bailey is the lead officer for Operation Hydrant, the national task force for child sexual abuse investigations in institutions. It will assess allegations of abuse in schools before they are given to individual forces to investigate, with a national hotline for abuse reports to be set up within 72 hours.
His comments come after thousands of anonymous testimonies of abuse in schools from students and alumni were shared on the Everyone’s Invited website. Police are working with the Department for Education, Home Office and Department of Health, and are prepared to investigate historical complaints as well as reports from witnesses to abuse on others.
Detectives will model their approach on the national football child abuse scandal, where police received more than 2,000 referrals involving more than 330 clubs. It resulted in the conviction of the former youth football coach Barry Bennell. Bailey, the National Police Chiefs Council lead for child protection, said that he expected forces across the country to be involved.
“If somebody has been privy to rape or serious sexual assault then we want to hear from them,” he said. “What I fear is that there will be a number of sexual predators that will have moved from secondary school to university where they will continue to offend.”
Asked whether some schools had have covered up reports to protect their reputation, Bailey said he did not yet have evidence of that but added: “Am I naive enough to think that hasn’t happened? Of course I’m not. Do I think there will be circumstances where abuse will have been covered up to protect reputations? Yes I do.”
Magdalen, a leading private school for boys with a mixed sixth form, immediately contacted the Oxfordshire safeguarding team upon finding out about the allegations just over two weeks ago, Pike said.
“I was hoping that whoever it is [that had posted the testimonies] had spoken to us and was OK, it’s particularly challenging because they were anonymous and I was really worried that young people were taking to Instagram, when I would hope that they would seek professional support,” she told Today on BBC Radio 4 this morning.
“The influences of alcohol and pornography and expectations around what sex is are really challenging. Questions of consent for children are really challenging for us.”
Pike, the first female head of Magdalen, said she is “relieved” that Bailey does not have evidence that schools have covered up reports of abuse to protect their reputations.
She added that Magdalen tries to foster a culture of respect, boundaries and sensible decision-making in its pupils from the age of seven. In a virtual assembly this month she told pupils to ask their mothers and sisters about the sexual harassment they have suffered.
The Department for Education is prepared to close schools if they fail to meet safeguarding standards. A source in the department said: “If it becomes clear that there are current failings in any school’s safeguarding practice, we will immediately ask Ofsted or the Independent Schools Inspectorate to conduct an inspection. If a school is found to not be meeting the required safeguarding standard, we will make sure it either improves or closes.”
The focus has so far been on the private sector, but Bailey said that he expected to receive reports from state schools. “This goes right across the whole of the education section . . . and I think it is the next big national child sexual abuse scandal,” he said “It’s the ‘MeToo’ movement for schools. We are dealing with the tip of the iceberg.”
Speaking to Today on BBC Radio 4, Bailey expanded on this. He said: “What I am anticipating is that as there is greater focus on this issue we will start to see reports of abuse, of current abuse, of non-recent abuse in the university sector, in the state sector, in the private sector as well. This is not something that is exclusive only to the private schools.
“The website has already received . . . over 7,000 testimonies. And those numbers are growing exponentially on Everyone’s Invited. So I think it’s reasonable to predict that there is going to be a significant number of reports that are going to come into the system.”
He said that victims would be believed when they came forward but that the police would then investigate without fear or favour.
Nearly 100 private schools and 75 state schools have been named on the Everyone’s Invited website, analysis of 1,000 testimonies by The Times found. There are significantly more submissions relating to private schools.
Detective Superintendent Mel Laremore, the Met’s lead for rape and sexual offences, said on Saturday that the issue was not limited to private schools.
Scotland Yard said it had reviewed the website and had received reports of offences of misogyny, harassment, abuse and assault.
Bailey warned that it was the responsibility of parents and guardians, as well as teachers, to ensure that young men and women understood what healthy relationships are.
“I think there is a culture that has to be challenged where young men are viewing pornography, are seeing the sexualisation of women and as a result of that healthy relationships are not truly understood,” he said.
“It has to be the responsibility of parents and guardians and teachers to ensure that young men and young women understand what healthy relationships are. We have got to start challenging this culture now.”
He said that schools were responsible for setting the right tone: “If sexual harassment and misogyny and sexual abuse are not tolerated, it can’t take root and it doesn’t then become part of the school’s culture. If the school does not challenge this behaviour then pupils know it is acceptable.”
Rapists are not a talkative lot. They don’t discuss the deed much, after they have been caught. And you might think this is because they feel remorseful, but often they don’t seem to know that they have done something wrong. Or they know that they have done something illegal, but the act itself is fine by them. They admit to nonconsensual sex “but not rape”. They admit to rape but not to blame: “I felt I was repaying her for sexually arousing me,” a man in one of the few studies says.
On a Reddit forum where, at the onset of the #MeToo revolution, my soul went to die, men wrote “from the other side” of sexual assault. Their accounts implied covert participation – “She just had this unusually sexual way of carrying herself” – or active reciprocation: “In my mind, at the time, she wanted it.” This man looked at the woman’s face and realised he had been mistaken.
A few things are striking about the comments: one is that desire – and I think this is true for women also – turns the sexual object into a fragmented object. When people are having sex, they can get a bit lost in it. We do not always look into our lover’s eyes, not all the time, so yes it is a good idea to check back with the entire person to see if your needs are still aligned. The sense of entitlement is, with the vengeful or narcissistic types, always breathtaking. This is something society does not encourage or allow in women, for which you might almost be grateful. Who wants to be like that? There is also the mechanism of blame, that magical projection machine. These men speak as though arousal comes from somewhere outside the self, and that it, even more strangely, continues to happen outside the self. There is no reality check. She started this. She wants this. It comes from her.
The courts don’t laugh at these projections, they magnify them. We have all seen women destroyed by a justice system that puts them on trial for being attacked. The courtroom discussion becomes all about the victim, her clothes, her “mistakes”, while the perpetrator remains a blank.
This gap in the argument is an odd absence that requires a lot of energy to maintain. This is why strange things happen in court: why a woman’s thong is waved by the defence, as in a case in Cork last year; or a woman’s silence during a gang rape is taken as a sign of her enthusiasm, as happened in a 2019 trial in Pamplona, Spain. A good part of female outrage, the years of #MeToo, has been taken up by raw disbelief. These courtroom arguments are a bit mad. They are also a distraction from the man in the dock. There is a kind of trick happening here.
Men do not just disappear in court, they disappear from the discussion, they disappear from the language we use. Rape is described as “a women’s issue”. We speak of “women’s safety concerns”, not “concerns about men’s violence”. We call it “an abusive relationship” as though the relationship were doing the abusing, or an “abusive home” as though the walls were insulting the occupants for fun. The notorious line “she was asking for it” is not so different to “a woman was raped”; both take the rapist out of the sentence.
Male agency is routinely removed from descriptions of male violence, and this helps men get away with it. I still can’t figure out the contradiction, though, that the violent assertion of male potency also involves a kind of vanishing act. It seems very self defeating.
The American theorist and activist Jackson Katz is one of the few men who states the obvious fact that men’s sexual violence is first of all an issue for men. He also says male silence about this so-called “women’s issue” is a form of consent. His remarks about the use of the passive voice hit Twitter in a week of renewed social unrest about sexual crime. “When you look at that term, ‘violence against women’, nobody is doing it to them. It just happens. Men aren’t even a part of it!”
In his popular TED talk Katz describes men’s ability to go unexamined as “one of the key characteristics of power and privilege”. We do not talk about men, because that is the way they like it. For Katz, a tendency to blame the victim is not about sex or even gender, it is just what humans do. “Our whole cognitive structure is set up to blame victims,” he says. Katz teaches a bystander programme, in which he urges men to interrupt other men who talk abusively about women. He wants us to know that this is not a call for greater sensitivity, however – he seems to realise how sensitive men can get when you ask them to be “sensitive” – no, this is a leadership thing, “because the typical perpetrator is not sick and twisted. He’s a normal guy in every other way, right?”
Well, how would I know? I can’t say if a perpetrator is a “normal guy” because I am not a guy, and the men who do know are saying nothing. I do think misogynists are “twisted” because of the way they twist the truth of their own psychology and I think some men are aware of this and some men are not.
Is that why society maintains a silence about rapists, because we secretly think that they are just “normal” guys, they are just “male”? It is possible that men worry this is the case and Katz wants to reassure them that their fantasies, their swagger do not automatically turn them into monsters. He is, very cannily, working with and not against male bonding, which has a big role in the formation of male sexuality. But he is also accurate to the fact that most rapists do not commit other crimes. In social terms, they can be anybody.
Most rapists do not end up in jail. The rapists who do end up in jail, according to one American study, are also more likely to have committed non-sexual crimes. Work within this cohort shows that convicted rapists tend to start young, have female-hostile peer groups, like rape-pornography (which is more than 80% of pornography), often report feeling rejected in some way and suffer from a lack of empathy.
The vengeful sentence “I felt I was repaying her for arousing me,” feels very familiar to women, who are long tired of the weirdness it contains. But the man who said it also seems to consider arousal to be a kind of punishment. It is not pleasant. It is unfair. The man who says, “This is her fault, she did this,” feels as though he has been acted upon. He is passive, perhaps unbearably so. This man is taking himself out of his own desiring; you might say he is obliterating himself.
If I were a man, I might want to put my self back into the discussion, I might want to do a reality check. But if I were a man, I wouldn’t be writing this because writing about rape, talking about rape, protesting against rape and being raped are all women’s work. This despite the fact that the weekend of protests in London was also a weekend during which footage was circulated online of an RAF recruit being sexually threatened by a group of his peers brandishing a piece of military hardware. In America the figures show that one in six men has been the victim of sexual violence of some kind, as opposed to one in three women, and that 99% of the perpetrators are male. The difference between the victims, sadly, is that society has long been happy to blame the women.
In the days since the death of Sarah Everard, the sadness many felt has turned to anger, with women railing against the general atmosphere of danger and threat they encounter in their day-to-day lives.
But others are also looking for solutions – asking what leads to attacks, as well as how to stop them.
These are big questions, taking in everything from the psychology of perpetrators to the patriarchal system we live in that allows violence against women to continue often unremarked on and unpunished.
To begin with, psychologists say there is no simple checklist to identify the man – because it is almost always men – who might abuse a woman. But there are some warning signs.
Dr Ruth Scully, a consultant forensic psychologist from Nottingham working with sex offenders, uses the term “hyper masculinity” to describe the attitudes of men she works with. They often have very strong views on how men should act and feel, she says.
“They also have these views about women. For example, men must have the dominant and powerful role in relationships, with women taking guidance on what to do and how to behave,” she says.
Sexual offenders often display feelings of entitlement – either sexual entitlement or entitlement in general, believing they can have what they want regardless of the consequences.
“An extreme example would be ‘I bought her a drink, she owes me’,” she says.
“They may also have an adversarial attitude towards women: women are the enemy, they are mistrustful of them and feel that women are trying to get one over on them,” Dr Scully adds.
And sexual attacks are often not about sex.
“It can be about anger, emotional expression or mistrust of women. Or again it could be about sexual entitlement,” says Dr Scully.
And these attitudes are also likely to exist in men who harass women on the street.
“People behave in ways that are in line with their attitudes so it’s likely that sexist attitudes and attitudes of entitlement will underpin those beliefs. That doesn’t mean that people who engage in the harassing behaviours will go on to commit a sexual offence, but we tend to behave in ways that are in alignment with our views,” she says.
One of the problems with unpicking the roots of male violence is that research – like Dr Scully’s – is usually centred on men who have been found guilty of an offence. But these offences rarely come out of the blue.
“Nobody starts their journey of perpetration, of abuse, with murder or kidnap. They have had a long history of getting there,” says Dr Purna Sen, a leading expert on violence against women. “How have they got through that journey without being stopped?”
Dr Sen, an academic at London Metropolitan University and former director of policy at UN Women, isn’t saying that every cat caller is a potential murderer. But the problem for women is: they could be.
“The thing is, we just don’t know. And so we have to assume, for our own safety and well-being, that he is going to be worse,” adds Dr Sen, who is organising a conference on violence against women this summer in Reyjkavik.
Professor Aisha K Gill, a criminologist at the University of Roehampton, describes the abuse of women as a “continuum of violence” arising from structural inequalities.
“At the heart of all of this is gender discrimination and unequal power relations between men and women,” she says, stressing that these are compounded by other issues like race and class.
There are ways to identify women who may be at risk, for example through questioning during routine health appointments.
But identifying a potential attacker is harder. Several groups have worked towards developing models that look for what makes someone become an abuser.
A recent US Department of Justice review of evidence suggests that a combination of factors – from adverse conditions in early childhood to impulse control problems or repeated exposure to violent pornography – “likely contribute” to sexual violence.
The trait of anger is also associated with a higher risk of intimate partners violence, a major review of the literature showed in 2015.
Researchers have mainly focused on the likelihood of people re-offending, rather than finding them in the first place – the key tool used in the British prison service has just been updated and predicts this with reasonable accuracy.
And sexual offenders can also be treated. The UK’s Horizon programme is targeted at prisoners deemed at risk of re-offending and it looks at problem solving, self-regulation, relationships, sexual attitudes and behaviours.
Those in prison are at one end of the scale, whereas violence against women is much more pervasive although often less extreme, making it hard to predict where it might come from.
One in three women globally experience sexual or physical violence in their lives and harassment is even more common: recent figures from UN Women showed that 97 per cent of young women in the UK have been sexually harassed.
“One of the things we have to jettison very fast is this notion that it’s unusual for men to behave in ways that are abusive or enable abuse,” says Dr Sen, who says the idea there is a “type” is also reductive.
“It’s more about what maleness looks like across society and how we think about each other and how we behave,” she adds.
While there are no “types” of man there are defined patterns of behaviour for the worst offenders.
Professor Jane Monckton-Smith, a former police officer and forensic criminologist, is a specialist in domestic homicide. The narrative of “he just snapped” when discussing the murder of a – usually female – partner is wrong, she says in her book In Control: Dangerous Relationships and How They End in Murder. These attacks can be predicted and stopped, she argues.
She has plotted an eight-stage timeline in these relationships, with the risk increasing. Stage one is the man’s previous abusive relationship history and stage eight is murder.
“They are the most predictable homicides, which is why we can and should be preventing them,” Prof Monckton-Smith writes.
Prevention has a role to play across the board, the experts agree, and at a more fundamental societal level. That also applies to the work that needs to be done for victims, ensuring that they can get justice.
Dr Sen says that the Nordic countries, regularly voted as the safest places to be a woman, have at least in part achieved their success by tackling inequality at its root, from addressing the sex industry to childcare.
“There is an expectation inculcated in all men, whether they use it or not, that they have control over, or an entitlement to, women. So this has really changed things,” she says.
Dr Scully says that a complex interplay between a man’s environment and his upbringing influences his attitude towards women. She believes education is important but adds: “It’s much bigger than education – even if you think about what’s on TV, never mind what’s going on in someone’s home, there are so many things that influence our attitudes and behaviour. But we have to start somewhere,” she says.
Deniz Ugur, deputy director at the End Violence Against Women Coalition, is more blunt.
“Violence against women and girls is inextricably tied to inequality and until we talk about it in those terms, women will never be free,” she said.
The leader of England’s top public schools says she is willing to refer boys to the police after more than 3,000 allegations, ranging from sexual harassment to rape, were posted on Instagram.
Eton, St Paul’s, Harrow, Hampton and Latymer Upper are named in the anonymous accounts of sexual abuse, some from girls as young as 11, posted on @everyonesinvited.
A small number of state schools and universities are also named on the site, set up by Soma Sara, 22, a former boarder at Wycombe Abbey.
The claims include more than 50 of rape, 35 allegedly linked to schools.
One contributor describes being choked until she passed out. Others detail Instagram pages where nude photographs are shared and rated. Many describe being pressured into giving oral sex. One said she was told by boys that she reminded them of “the Asian girls in porn”.
Maria Miller, the former chairwoman of the women and equalities committee, said this weekend that schools and the police “should not ignore rape or violent sexual assault [just] because they involve children” and “boys must be taught trying to strangle someone is not normal”.
In a letter to alumni, Sally-Anne Huang, the first female high master of St Paul’s and head of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, which represents top public schools, said she had seen the Instagram site, “which seeks to bring people together to understand and reject sexual violence and harassment”.
She wrote: “There are many responses to its testimonials section, some harrowing, and there is a focus on rape culture within schools. A number of these testimonials cite Paulines as the perpetrators … We have made children’s services aware of the website and would always investigate fully … informing the police where a criminal act may have been committed.”
No names had been provided and so the police had not been informed, Huang added.
Sarah Fletcher, head of St Paul’s girls’ school, wrote to parents last week about comments by its pupils on the website. “It is evident that there remains a culture among some young men and boys of this activity … My heart goes out to everyone whose experiences are recorded,” she said, adding that counselling would be offered.
Kevin Knibbs, headmaster at Hampton School in southwest London, wrote to parents: “We have no tolerance whatsoever of the kind of behaviours highlighted on this website.”
Many public schools emphasised that they had brought in initiatives, including Good Lad workshops, to tackle toxic masculine behaviour.
But in an interview with The Times yesterday, Sara said: “In the holidays I grew up in London social circles and sex was a palpable presence throughout my teens. Disgusting behaviour was trivialised. It could be sexual coercion, rape, catcalling, sexual bullying, stealthing [non-consensual condom removal], image-based abuse, victim blaming. Sexual abuse didn’t just exist. It thrived. It was rife.”
Miller, who led an inquiry into sexual abuse in schools five years ago, said too many were still not reporting abuse to the police or doing enough to stop teenagers posting intimate photos online.
“No one wants to criminalise young people, but if there have been violent sexual attacks on young women in schools this cannot be ignored,” she said.
A former pupil at St Paul’s girls’ school said: “The school could have done much more. Sexual violence and consent were discussed with boys at the boys’ school in the form of a joint feminist society, even though this was often met with laughter or disdain by male students.”
A leading former headmaster said schools should report boys to the police in the hope that it would stop them getting a criminal record later. He also warned girls that a nude photo texted to a boy would end up online. “Don’t trust boys,” he said. Parents should protect their sons from online pornography, which was distorting their behaviour, and schools should “get the police to explain what the law says”, he added. “Boys need to worry.”
Barnaby Lenon, chairman of the Independent Schools Council and former headmaster of Harrow, said many schools had introduced courses on “how to treat girls properly”, which, he added, “would never have happened 20 years ago”.
I wanna preface this by saying that this isn’t a “callout”, a guilt trip, an accusation or a declaration of my own virtue – i’m simply looking to draw attention to something i’ve noticed and offer my own thoughts. I’m open to discussion as long as it’s civilised.
I’ve noticed a lot of gay men acknowledging how the porn industry harms women, with particular relation to its association with sex trafficking, child porn and sexual violence (you can read about this here), however these same gay men will then make references to watching gay porn themselves.
Obviously there are no women in gay porn, so why is this a problem? I promise i’m not just trying to burst a bubble here, but it’s a lot more complicated than that. Almost all online porn platforms are owned by the same company, called Mindgeek. Pornhub, Youporn, Redtube, Mydirtyhobby, Xtube and more all make up part of a gigantic conglomeration founded by a man called Fabian Thylmann. This corporation also owns several porn movie production companies including Brazzers, Digital Playground, Men.com, Reality Kings, Sean Cody, and WhyNotBi.com.
When a gay man consumes gay porn on these platforms, he directly funds the exact same company that profits from the abuse, trafficking and rape of women and children. That 10 second ad before the video starts, the one that gay men joke about shielding their eyes from because it’s full of naked women, literally puts money in their pocket. It goes without saying that the women in the ad could be victims too. Opposing the porn industry’s brutal treatment of women is meaningless if you’re also paying their ad revenue.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop there – even when avoiding the platforms above. Evidence shows that the porn industry really doesn’t treat gay men that much better than women. Gay porn actors are dropping dead at an alarming rate and their average age is just 25. Suicide and drug use are major factors in this statistic, as is premature heart failure from steroid use. Gay porn also pays an average yearly salary of $24000, with the expectation that actors supplement their income with prostitution. Men in central europe are being trafficked and raped on camera, and this makes up a significant part of the Czech Republic’s renowned gay porn industry. At least half of gay porn actors are heterosexual but shoot gay scenes because they make more money than in straight porn – this, as much as the actors make light of it, is rape. Former gay porn stars have commented on the prevalence of the PTSD “thousand yard stare” among their coworkers. I once personally met a former gay porn actor who had the thousand yard stare – he was also addicted to meth and told me he quit porn after his guts literally started falling out of his ass. Talking of which, bottoms are subjected to slaps, punches and homophobic/misogynistic slurs on camera. If you’ve watched literally any gay porn you’ll have seen this. Why is this violence ok?
Gay teens also use porn as a form of sex education because their sex ed classes don’t cover what they need to know, so this violent subjugation of bottoms forms the basis of their education about gay sexuality. Double penetration, fisting and even just rough sex are dangerous for bottoms in the long term, but this is what young boys are learning to call normal. It’s important for gay men to know the nature of the industry they support when they consume porn.
It’s also important to remember that porn consumption is just as harmful to gay men as it is to straight male consumers (another link to the masterpost if you don’t feel like scrolling up) with respect to brain damage, mental health issues, violent thoughts/behaviour and addiction. And personally, as someone who used sex to validate myself in my early 20s and ended up sleeping with over 100 men in my lifetime as a result, i can testify to this: the more porn you watch, the worse at sex you are. I could always tell when a guy watched too much porn because he would be totally unwilling to collaborate with me during sex – either we did exactly what he wanted (which was usually a re-enactment of a porn video) or he wasn’t interested. A lot of these guys wanted to fuck in positions which would look great on camera, but are actually just kinda awkward in real life. Sometimes they’d boss me about like a movie director, dictating my every move. Generally speaking, they were a lot more critical and less satisfied with both my body and their own. One just straight up spat in my mouth without even asking me if i was into it first. Porn can and will make you terrible in bed. I could send these guys into orbit with a mediocre blowjob because they’d never even been with somebody that prioritised tangible pleasure and sensation over porn re-enactment before.
If you’re a gay man who opposes the porn industry but still consumes gay porn, or you’ve read this post and would like to quit, then there’s plenty of other options. Find real people. Connect with other gay men in your local community. Go on a date and fuck if there’s chemistry. Read gay erotica. Buy some toys if you get bored of “just” jerking off, although there’s a lot to be said for having a long, self-indulgent reconnection with your own body after spending so much time on porn sites looking at someone else’s. Whatever you do, please don’t continue supporting this industry – especially if you already hate what it does to women (and the men in your own community.)
It’s not really fair to judge a book by its cover, but why does a book called Women on Top of the World: What Women Think About When They’re Having Sex have to come in various shades of Mattel pink, inside and out? Is this subliminally to suggest to any man picking it up that it really isn’t for him? If so, that would be a great shame because this is a book that really should be pressed into the hands of a generation of young men who have learnt everything they wanted to know about sex but were afraid to ask from porn.
Women, I suspect, will find the testimonies of the 51 respondents from around the world, selected by Lucy-Anne Holmes (a writer who among other things was responsible for the campaign against Page 3 girls in The Sun and is now training to be a “sacred sexual priestess”), rather depressing. Indeed, if any woman out there is feeling that she has been missing out on a dalliance during lockdown, she would be well advised to avoid this book, because an alarmingly high proportion of the women interviewed are not having any fun in bed at all.
Take Melanie, 19, from the UK, who thought sex was going to be “spectacular . . . but I had no idea how awkward it would actually be”. Or Vi, 25, from India (“I used to think pain was a part of sex”), or Rose, 25, from the US (“I’ve never had an orgasm with a man in my entire life”), or Lisa, 29, from Austria, who echoes many of the interviewees when she says: “I have been with too many men who have watched too much porn, and I used to go ahead with what I thought they liked to do, rather than saying to them, ‘If you do that again, I might throw up.’”
The really tragic theme in this book is how many of the women in it have been scarred by sexual abuse. Usually it has happened in childhood at the hands of an uncle, a family friend, a brother — Zaye, 36, from Malaysia, starts her chapter saying that her guy friends call her a nympho, but then says that the reason she is so sexually active is that she was abused by her brother from the ages of 7 to 12. Generally the more sexually active the interviewee, the more likely it is that she will admit to some history of abuse. There is no introduction to this book, so we don’t know on what basis Holmes selected her subjects, or indeed how she went about questioning them, but even if this sample is possibly skewed towards women who have been abused, it is hard to read the book without feeling not arousal but anger.
Of course, during sex not all women are thinking about whether they have left the gas on; some, especially those who are not heterosexuals, seem to be enjoying themselves just fine. Maria-Libra, 26, from the Philippines, says: “When I was with a guy, I didn’t really experience the highest level of climax I am experiencing now. I feel like with guys it was average, but now (with a woman) it’s so much better.”
Jennifer, 39, US/UK and a trans woman, says that since her testosterone levels have been suppressed with hormones she has “much less sex, but when I do, it’s a really special experience; it takes longer and is sensitive and emotional. I don’t really miss the way I used to have sex.”
The women in this book come from all over the world, but it doesn’t matter whether you are from Iran, Lebanon or Tanzania, everyone wants more kissing and cuddling. Nobody complains about too much foreplay, except for Ling Ling, 38, from China, who “doesn’t like snogging. You see it in the movies, but I don’t understand why they do it . . . I’ve said this to my husband; he hates me saying it and I feel like a terrible person, but kissing is like a tumble dryer going around and around.”
Ling Ling, though, is really the exception — another reason why this would be an ideal Valentine’s present for a man. Even Grace, a 26-year-old sex worker from Australia who enjoys her work, really wants to find someone she can “connect with on a physical and emotional level”. But escort work is better than casual sex. “I didn’t make any money and I didn’t fall in love, what’s the point?”
The most touching story comes from Wambui, 32, from Kenya, who underwent FGM in 2000 and was told: “You no longer have a clitoris now you’re a woman.” She was abused as a teenager, attempted suicide and then married a man who died three months after their wedding, and her first thought was: “Phew, I don’t have to have sex any more.” But after restorative surgery and counselling she feels “like it was a rebirth, an instant shift; like my sexuality was handed back to me in an envelope.”
Holmes has done an admirable job of including women of every sexual preference; there are women who masturbate with 200 other people, women who cuckold over the internet, mothers who find it difficult to be a mother and a lover, tantric sex practitioners, and pensioners who use Tinder but worry about their knees on the kitchen floor. Generally, the older they are the more confident — Vivian, 70, from the US, says: “I thought the idea was to be in love, now I just want what I want when I want it.” Sadly, there are too many in this book just waiting for it to be over.