A mock-Tudor semi on a residential street in west London is the nerve centre of the organisation that made history 27 years ago in a landmark domestic violence ruling.
Southall Black Sisters (SBS), a not-for-profit group, is celebrating the 40th anniversary since it began challenging gender-based violence and providing practical support to black and Asian women escaping domestic violence and forced marriages.
Most famously it supported Kiranjit Ahluwalia, whose successful 1992 appeal against her conviction for murdering her violent husband changed the law on provocation and the understanding of battered woman syndrome.
To less fanfare, a 20-year campaign resulted in changes to immigration rules that had trapped women from overseas in abusive marriages. The 2012 concession let women who had come to the UK on a partner visa claim benefits while applying for settled status after fleeing domestic violence.
Formed by Afro-Caribbean and Asian women, SBS arose when in 1979 Southall communities united to oppose a National Front march through the town. Pragna Patel, who has led the group since 1982, says: “The growing anti-racist consciousness and second wave of feminism came together with the recognition that you couldn’t prioritise the fight against racism at the expense of women’s struggles.”
She explains that the word “black” in the name was a political and unifying term, bringing together disparate minority communities with common histories of imperialism and colonialism. With funding from the Greater London Council, she started out with two others. SBS now has 14 staff and, through a trust, owns its premises. Her vision, inspired by the burgeoning law centre movement, was to bring the law to people to deal with their realities.
“I was 22 and very naive in lots of ways, but fearless in other ways,” Patel says. “If you asked me to set up something like that today, I’d say you were kidding.”
In 1980 one of its first campaigns followed the death of a local woman, known only as “Mrs Dhillon”, burnt by her husband because she had only given birth to daughters. “The same community that had shown such indignation about racial violence was silent on gender-based violence,” Patel says.
The same year, SBS exposed the racist and sexist Home Office practice of testing the virginity of Asian women coming to the UK to join their husbands. Officials at the time argued that the test was necessary to determine the authenticity of their marriages.
The organisation shot to national prominence when it took up the case of Ahluwalia. It was pivotal for two reasons, Patel says. “It laid bare the built-in discrimination in the criminal justice system, based on white male assumptions of behaviour and conduct. And it forced minority communities to acknowledge that gender-based violence existed and the way they treated women was partly responsible.”
Ahluwalia tells The Times: “When I got my life sentence and my trial solicitor said there were no grounds of appeal that was a big blow. I had no lawyer, no family. I lost everything.”
After receiving her letter for help, Patel visited Ahluwalia hundreds of times and painstakingly put together her history to support her appeal. “In my trial statement there were 40 pages,” Ahluwalia says. “When SBS took over my case, there were nearly 500. I don’t have the words for SBS and Pragna. Without them I wouldn’t be here.”
SBS also worked to introduce the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007, giving courts power to stop someone from forcing another into marriage. Until then, Patel says, authorities were reluctant to intervene in what they saw as “cultural matters” for fear of being branded racist.
Patel insists it is racist not to act: “Tolerance, diversity and multiculturalism are important in the fight against racism. But you can’t allow multiculturalism to be used to cloak abuse of more vulnerable people in the community.”
As SBS celebrates its anniversary, there is much still to do. The group has just been given a grant from the tampon tax fund to support migrant women escaping domestic violence. They are fighting for changes to the Domestic Abuse Bill, published this year, which leaves migrant women unprotected and trapped in cycles of abuse, exploitation and destitution.
These women do not need charity, Patel says — they need rights.
On a sunny morning in Madrid, two young women duck down a side street, into a residential block and up to an apartment front door. Then they start knocking. Marcella and Maria spend a lot of time banging on doors and yelling through letterboxes all over the city. Most of the time, these doors never open. When they do, the two women could find themselves in trouble. Their job on the frontline of Spain’s fight against sex trafficking is a dangerous one; both have been assaulted and threatened. Yet they keep on knocking, because they have been on the other side of those doors, forced to sell their bodies for a handful of euros, dozens of times a day, seven days a week.
To say that prostitution is big business in Spain would be a gross understatement. The country has become known as the brothel of Europe, after a 2011 United Nations report cited Spain as the third biggest capital of prostitution in the world, behind Thailand and Puerto Rico. Although the Spanish Socialist party, which two weeks ago won another term in government, has promised to make it illegal to pay for sex, prostitution has boomed since it was decriminalised here in 1995. Recent estimates put revenue from Spain’s domestic sex trade at $26.5bn a year, with hundreds of licensed brothels and an estimated workforce of 300,000.
Supporters of decriminalisation claim it has brought benefits to those working in the trade, including making life safer for women. Yet this vastly profitable and largely unregulated market has also become infested with criminality, turning Spain into a global hub for human trafficking and sexual slavery.
Prostitution becomes sex trafficking when one person moves, detains or transports someone else for the purpose of profiting from their prostitution using fraud, force or coercion. In the UK, thousands of women are thought to be trapped in sexual servitude, but the scale of the problem in Spain is staggering. Until 2010, the law didn’t even recognise human trafficking as a crime. Now the Spanish government estimates that up to 90% of women working in prostitution could be victims of trafficking or under the control of a third party – such as a pimp – who is profiting from them. Between 2012-2016, security forces in Spain rescued 5,695 people from slavery but acknowledge that thousands more remain under the control of criminals.
Since it passed its first anti-trafficking laws in 2010, the government has been scrambling to get on top of this crisis, spending millions of euros on an emergency plan to target the individuals and gangs operating with impunity. In 2015, it went further and created formal alliances between security forces, prosecutors, judges and NGOs, to rescue victims and prosecute the perpetrators. Survivors such as Maria and Marcella now find themselves playing a crucial part in bringing the battle to the criminals who once sold and exploited them. But can Spain’s new alliance of defenders really turn the tide against the traffickers?
I meet Maria and Marcella, both in their mid-20s, in the offices of Apramp, an organisation set up to protect, reintegrate and assist women in prostitution. Apramp helped them escape their traffickers, and they are now among its outreach workers. Their day job is to identify potential trafficking victims and try to offer them a way out. They find women they think might need help on the streets, in hostess clubs, and in some of the 400 residences they say are operating as informal brothels in Madrid.
Both shrug off the suggestion that they are brave. “When I’m wearing the Apramp vest at those apartments or on the streets, I don’t feel scared,” Marcella says. “We know from our own experience they’re doing much worse things to the girls and women inside. So it only makes us more determined.”
The two poised and eloquent young women, dressed like students in jeans and trainers, have lived through terrible things. Maria, petite and softly spoken, her brown hair pulled back in a ponytail, was brought to Spain from Romania by someone she trusted: she thought she was going on holiday with her new boyfriend. Instead, he drove her over the border using their EU residency cards and within 24 hours she was on the streets.
“It just happens so fast,” she says. “It’s difficult to describe how much you can be broken in such a short time. The shock and the trauma makes you go into survival mode. You don’t have time to realise what has happened to you.” She spent eight months being prostituted on street corners, in brothels and in strange apartments. “You’re alive but you’re not really existing,” she says. “Not one of the men who paid to sleep with me asked me if I was there out of choice, or whether I wanted to be doing this. They didn’t care either way.”
She was told by her pimp that she would have to pay off a debt of €20,000 before she could go home. “With Romanian women, the traffickers threaten to kill your mother or your sister or your children if you don’t pay off your debt,” she says. “People always ask, ‘Why didn’t you just run away or go to the police?’ but they don’t know what they’re talking about. You can’t just stop a random person on the street and ask for help, because someone you love could get killed. The police in Romania are often corrupt. You think, why should it be different here?”
The promise of freedom in return for paying off the debt almost always turns out to be a lie. Maria says that, throughout her time under the control of the traffickers, she was hit with hundreds of tiny charges: she’d have to pay for clothes, rent for the corner she worked, for condoms and sanitary towels. If she didn’t bring back enough money, she wouldn’t eat or she’d be beaten.
“Debt is invisible,” Maria says. “It’s not a physical chain but it works the same way.” She says some traffickers force women to get breast implants and even though the operation costs around €3,000, tell them they have to pay back €10,000. Marcella nods in agreement. She was trafficked from her native Brazil after applying to do a master’s in Spain, a university course that turned out to be bogus. She was forced into prostitution immediately after she was collected from the airport. “If Apramp hadn’t found me, I think I’d be dead by now,” she says.
The fact that she not only survived but is now able to help others in the same situation has been an essential part of her recovery. “The mafia take you and destroy your whole identity. Even now, you’re recovering but you can never forget your past,” she says. “Doing this work really helps.”
Between them, Maria and Marcella have helped dozens of women and girls escape their traffickers. It’s a process that takes months, sometimes years. Afterwards, Apramp finds the women somewhere safe to live, offers counselling and legal support, and helps them find work. “We have to show them that their lives are worth living again,” Marcella says.
Rocío Mora, Apramp’s co-founder and director, sweeps into the room and embraces Maria and Marcella, who are about to start their afternoon shift. “The only ones who really understand what we are facing are the survivors,” she says. Tall and immaculately groomed, Mora is one of Spain’s best-known anti-trafficking advocates; her rage at what she sees happening on the streets is raw and visceral. What Spain is facing, she says, is a huge violation of the fundamental rights of women and girls; anyone labouring under the impression that the majority of women working in prostitution in Spain are doing so by choice is deluding themselves. “The sex industry profits from the sale of women who are being controlled and exploited through debt, violence or psychological manipulation,” she says. “Our mobile unit has contact with 280 women a day and almost 100% are victims of exploitation and trafficking.”
There are many reasons why Spain has become a hotspot, but for Mora, the biggest single factor is cultural. Spain’s sex trafficking epidemic is, she says, just the most extreme manifestation of the country’s problematic attitudes to women and sex. “There is huge demand for prostitution here. It’s become so normalised that it’s just seen like any other leisure activity.”
One survey in 2008 found that 78% of Spanish people consider prostitution an inevitability in modern society. And demand is huge: another survey, conducted in 2006, found that nearly 40% of Spanish men over the age of 18 had paid for sex at least once in their life. Mora has recently seen a radical change in the kind of men buying sex. Before, it was largely older men sneaking away from their families. Now, both the women on the streets and the sex buyers themselves are getting younger. “The social stigma isn’t the same as it was when I started out,” she says. “We have a generation of young men growing up believing they have the right to do anything to a woman’s body if they have paid for it, and they don’t have to worry about the consequences.”
As a young girl, Mora watched her mother (also called Rocío) start Apramp from their kitchen table. At 18, Mora was studying by day and driving a mobile health unit through Madrid’s red-light district by night.
“When my mother started this work, it was mainly getting health services to Spanish women who were engaged in prostitution to feed their families or a drug addiction,” she says. Two decades ago, criminal gangs started to take hold. “And it really was a radical change. There was suddenly a lot of violence and coercion – men on the streets watching the women and taking their money.”
Now, she says, most women in prostitution in Spain are foreigners: Apramp works with women of 53 different nationalities. “And the gangs are more sophisticated and more ruthless. They no longer need men on the street, because they are controlling the women through debt, fear and psychological control. This is what makes it much harder to fight, because many don’t see that they have a way out.”
On Calle Montera, one of Madrid’s busiest shopping streets, eastern European or South American women stand alone or in small groups. Maria and Marcella point out that many of the women they help don’t look like trafficking victims: it is easy for people to walk past them and not realise. Maria says many are also acting as human signposts, indicating that there are houses filled with other women nearby. When we get back to our car that evening, flyers have been stuck under our windscreen wipers offering a two-for-one deal on women for the special price of €30.
A short walk from Calle Montera is the HQ of the Centre of Intelligence and Risk Analysis, run by Spain’s national police. José Nieto is its chief inspector and Spain’s leading anti-trafficking law enforcement officer. As with Mora, anti-trafficking work has become Nieto’s vocation. He has spent more than 20 years trying to develop an effective police response to a human rights catastrophe that, until 2010, wasn’t even included in Spain’s criminal code.
“When I started in 1997, I was part of the brigade that believed all prostitutes did this work because they wanted to,” he says. “But it’s like an illness: at first you feel that something is wrong but you haven’t got a diagnosis. But as soon as you put a name to it, everything changes. You see it for what it really is.”
He explains the myriad reasons why Spain has become such a magnet for sex trafficking networks; “a perfect storm”, he calls it. “First, we are fighting a crime that is socially acceptable, because prostitution is accepted and embraced by many people here.” Second there is geography: “We are at the centre of all major migratory routes. The main victims we are seeing trafficked and forced into prostitution are Romanian, West African and South American. You can cross from Romania to Spain with an ID card. Africa is just 15km from us. We have a historic and a linguistic connection to South America.”
As in many countries, a prosecution is almost impossible without a victim willing to disclose their situation and testify against their exploiters. “There is great fear among victims that if they tell the police, they will be sent back to their countries with their debts unpaid,” Nieto says. “It makes policing very difficult; if the women don’t ask for help, there is a limit to what you can do. Here in Spain, prostitution itself isn’t illegal, running a brothel isn’t illegal, so you have to prove that what is going on is more than meets the eye.”
I can’t come here as a friend, even though I might very much want to.” These are the words of Andrea Dworkin, addressing an anti-sexist men’s organisation in 1983, in her acclaimed speech I Want a 24-Hour Truce in Which There Is No Rape. “The power exercised by men, day to day, in life is power that is institutionalised. It is protected by law. It is protected by religion and religious practice. It is protected by universities, which are strongholds of male supremacy. It is protected by a police force. It is protected by those whom Shelley called “the unacknowledged legislators of the world”: the poets, the artists. Against that power, we have silence.”
Dworkin, who died of heart failure in 2005 at the age of 58, was one of the world’s most notorious radical feminists. She wrote 14 books, the most famous of which was Pornography: Men Possessing Women (1981). Now her work is being revisited in Last Days at Hot Slit, a new collection of her writing.
Many of the articles written about her claimed Dworkin personified hate. The media often said she hated men, hated sex, hated sexual freedom and absolutely hated the left. In 1998, a writer in the London Review of Books saw fit to give his view on her appearance (“overweight and ugly”) and how her “frustration” at not having enough sex “has turned her into a man-hater”. Another wrote after her death that Dworkin was a “sad ghost” that feminism needs to exorcise and that she was “insane”.
I knew the real Dworkin, and our decade-long friendship taught me far more about love than hate. “I keep the stories of the women in my heart,” she would tell me when I asked how she did the work she did and stayed sane. “They urge me on, and keep me focused on what needs to be done.”
She was motivated by an innate desire to rid the world of pain and oppression. Had more of us listened to Dworkin during her decades of activism, and taken her work more seriously, more women would have signed up to an uncompromising feminism, as opposed to the fun kind, the sloganeering sort you read on high-street T-shirts, that is all about individual “girl power” and being able to wear trousers, rather than a collective movement to emancipate all women from the tyranny of oppression.
We met in 1996. I was one of the organisers of an international conference on violence against women, and Dworkin was a keynote speaker. We hit it off immediately, as we had a similar sense of humour and a number of friends in common. A group of conference speakers went to dinner on the first night and we were raucously discussing our various wishlists of ways to end patriarchy. “Did you notice that we were ‘ladies’ when we came in, ‘guys’ when our order was taken,” said Dworkin the following morning, “and probably banned for life by the time we left?”
In the early 1970s, Dworkin spoke of her own experiences of sexual abuse and violence at a time when few did. And in today’s climate of #MeToo revelations, we can see how far ahead of her time she was. “In the 1980s and 1990s, reading Dworkin became, for many, a discomfiting and exhilarating collegiate rite of passage,” reads a recent piece in the New York Times. “Her writing is a strident and raw look at the systemic bias affecting the everyday experiences of women.”
Dworkin’s 1983 book, Right-Wing Women, could have been about how Trump came to power. Although I doubt she would have been so quick to lay the bulk of the blame for Trump’s election on white women, her razor-sharp analysis of why so many women are attracted to a politics that despises their rights is more relevant today than ever. Her central theory is that the right exploits women’s fear and offers us a chivalrous protection. It reassures us that we do not need to change the status quo, but accept it, and take whatever access to power is available to us. Dworkin despaired at what has come to be known as “lean-in feminism” which focuses on the ability of individual, privileged women to climb to the top, and always said that until women at the “bottom of the pile” were liberated, none of us could be.
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.
Human rights workers at Amnesty International are braced for scores of redundancies after the management admitted to a hole in its budget of up to £17m to the end of 2020.
Up to 70 jobs will go in voluntary and compulsory layoffs amid a slump in donations and a multi-million pound increase in spending on fundraising, the Guardian has learned. Staff have been told the organisation will be reshaped in line with the vision of recently appointed secretary general, Kumi Naidoo, who wants to increase Amnesty’s work on climate change and economic rights. There are concerns that cuts will marginalise in depth research on totemic Amnesty causes such as the death penalty, torture and the arms trade.
Next week Naidoo is due to unveil a new strategic direction, which he has previously indicated requires treating issues like climate change as core components of the human rights struggle. Sources said it appears he wants to increase the focus on campaigning, rather than traditional research-led human rights investigations.
One insider said the 58-year old global organisation was in the grip of “an existential crisis”. The union resolution described it as “a perfect storm of challenges”.
The job losses follow a damning report into the charity’s culture in February, commissioned after the suicides last year of two staff members, Gaëtan Mootoo and Rosalind McGregor. It detailed a “toxic” working environment and widespread bullying.
It warned: “As organisational rifts and evidence of nepotism and hypocrisy become public knowledge they will be used by government and other opponents of Amnesty’s work to undercut or dismiss Amnesty’s advocacy around the world, fundamentally jeopardising the organisation’s mission.”
According to a resolution from unionised staff in response to the threat of cuts “much of the anxiety experienced by staff in recent years has been generated precisely by the kind of mismanagement of finances and unfair treatment of staff that once again we see displayed in measures now proposed by the senior leadership team”.
The memo shows the charity was on course for a £7m shortfall on its spending of £20m and that travel budgets have already been cut and a hiring freeze extended. The shortfall includes £2.5m spent on fundraising that it could not afford. Income from Amnesty branches around the world was £4.5m less than forecast.
I would be very interested to know how much of Amnesty’s fall in income is a result of its move to support the complete decriminalisation of the sex industry (including pimps and brothel keepers). That move seems to fall under the category of ‘economic rights’ and signalled a fundamental change in direction for the organisation, away from clear human rights violations such as torture and illegal detention, into more complicated political/social areas that it had no expertise in. The shift in focus from research to campaigning risks turning it into a PETA-like organisation, existing purely to get attention/donations and to keep itself in existence. While it is very true that the environment is fundamentally tied in with human welfare, many charities already exist to champion that cause, it looks like opportunism.
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.
“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.”
A myth has arisen, [Kirsten Swinth] argues, which says that second-wave feminism fought for women to “have it all” – family, motherhood, career, money, prestige, success – and then seeks to blame feminists for their failure to make this happen. This myth suggests, in some iterations, that feminists accepted a flawed, patriarchal image of corporate success and pursued it, failing to critique or challenge the problems inherent in the structures of patriarchy, capitalism and racism on which it was based.
Alternately, it suggests that elite feminists hijacked the movement and failed to understand or fight for the needs of poor, racialized, colonized, and otherwise marginalized women. In yet other iterations, it argues that “feminists overpromised”, and are therefore the ones to blame for the failure of society to make good on those promises. The result of these (mis)interpretations of feminist history is that today feminists find themselves under attack on the one side from a powerful and retrenched conservative patriarchy, and on the other from would-be progressives who have uncritically accepted the myth that feminism is to blame for its failure to achieve all of its aims.
While anti-feminist conservatives have always been around, the splintering of progressive thought is a more recent phenomenon. When progressives adopt an ahistorical critique of feminism, they risking aiding and abetting its subversion. They also risk reinventing the wheel: trying to set what they think is a new agenda while failing to learn from feminism’s long history in fighting for the exact same goals. In so doing, they risk repeating the struggles and often the failures of second-wave feminism, instead of building on feminists’ rich efforts to reinvent society.
In contrast to this myth of the blame-worthy feminist, Swinth argues that post-WWII feminism engaged in a broad and creative effort not simply to tap into the privileges of elite white men, but rather to reinvent and rebuild society in a deeply radical way. Feminists undertook imaginative efforts to restructure family relationships; to redefine masculinity; to achieve a more equitable distribution of wealth across lines of race and class; to support women’s rights to choose either to have children or to not have children, and facilitate the family structures and supports that women in either scenario needed to achieve their dreams.
No, feminist movements have not been perfect — and no one is suggesting that. Liberal feminists have sometimes capitulated on radical demands; white feminists have sometimes failed to stand up for women of colour; the anti-sexist men’s movement inadvertently spawned the virulent sexism of today’s “men’s rights” activism. Tremendous achievements have sometimes slipped from the movement’s grasp as a result of division and compromise. But Swinth’s point is that the history of post-WWII feminism is far more complex than today’s pundits make it out to be, and that we accept reductionist sloganeering at the risk of losing important lessons from our past.
One of the trademark responses of anti-feminists, Swinth observes, has been to co-opt the language of feminism in an effort to subvert public perception of feminist goals. Anti-feminists sought to brand themselves as defenders of “family”, much to the outrage of feminists, who rightly pointed out that they were the ones truly concerned with the well-being of America’s diversity of families: poor families, non-white families, immigrant families, single-parent families. What “pro-family” conservatives really seek is to retrench the primacy of the male breadwinner model; one in which white men have primacy of place and in which women essentially exist as household slaves.
Likewise, it was conservative forces that leapt on feminism’s so-called failure to enable women to “have it all”. They presented it as a structural contradiction within feminism – as though feminists had promised an unrealistic goal – while masking their own role in opposing equality-seeking projects. Women can have it all – it’s just that they’ve been stymied in this goal by the conservative forces that fear or oppose equality, and which successfully marshalled political opposition to equity-seeking initiatives.
Swinth’s main goal is to remind us of the variety and creativity of feminist activism in the ’60s and ’70s. Her book is a dense compendium of organizations, policies and struggles: a voluminous reference worthy of mining by researchers and activists alike. Her study is divided into three key areas in which feminists sought to redefine identity (self, fatherhood, and partners) and five key areas in which they sought to restructure social and work relationships (housework, care work, childcare, maternity, and flextime). Under each of these categories she examines American feminists’ movement goals and organizing efforts through the ’60s and ’70s. It’s a historical survey, crammed full of dates, organizations, bills and people. But it achieves the goal of depicting a rich and varied movement, full of difference, diversity, and idealism.
Swinth is attentive to the tensions and alliances between liberal, middle-class and poor women, and also between white women and women of colour. In fact, it is her thorough excavation of those tensions and alliances that really succeeds in reinforcing her argument that post-WWII ‘second-wave’ feminism was a more complex, diverse and idealistic movement than it is often portrayed as today. That’s not to ignore the proper concerns of contemporary equity-seeking activists about its shortcomings, but to warn against the simplistic and often ahistorical reductionism with which second-wave feminism is often dismissed and derided. Just as socialism is witnessing a renewed surge in the political sphere, so the goals of second-wave feminism continue to percolate in the social and policy sphere, and there’s much to learn from a rich movement history which is all-too-often glossed over.
From the origin of marriage contracts to the Women’s Strike for Equality; from the near achievement of a Guaranteed Income to the fight for pregnant women and mothers’ right to work; the historical sweep of Swinth’s survey is impressive and enlightening. But it is in her main goal – reminding us that second-wave feminists weren’t fighting merely for improved policies but to restructure and transform society and social relations between the powerful and the oppressed, the privileged and the marginalized – that Swinth’s book achieves its most impressive moments. Most importantly, Swinth reminds us that the purpose of learning (and re-learning) this history is not simply academic; it is to equip us with the tools to pick up a struggle which for many seems to have stalled.
“Second-wave feminism changed how Americans think and act so dramatically that we can almost no longer conceive how profoundly the movement transformed our society,” she writes, in conclusion.
“And it was not that feminists overpromised: their comprehensive conception of reorganized family and work lives carried wide appeal and elicited broad support. Rather, feminism’s opponents clawed back. They successfully resisted the legislative, legal, and workplace changes the movement’s champions sought. Their rhetorical triumph in distorting the movement’s goals has buried the breathtaking scope of the feminist dream. It is time to recover that vision, and to tell the world what having it all truly means.”
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.