More than 40 cases of sexual abuse among primary-school children have been reported to a prominent website after Ofsted warned that abuse was “bleeding down” from older children.
The website Everyone’s Invited has collected testimonies of sexual abuse from pupils at schools and universities since June 2020, but after the sexual abduction and death of Sarah Everard, 33, in south London in March, thousands of women and girls submitted their stories.
As a result of the testimonies posted to the site, the Metropolitan Police has started investigating some individual schools and Scotland Yard began a national investigation.
A helpline was launched for victims and Ofsted began a review into safeguarding and abuse in schools, which concluded this week.
After reviewing more than 2,000 testimonies on the site, The Times has found that more than 40 relate to incidents among children of primary school age, including some as young as six.
Two came from an exclusive chain of schools where pupils include the children of prominent people. While the schools teach children aged two to 18, both testimonies related to ages eight to 11.
One girl wrote in a submission to the site that harassment of girls by boys was rife at her primary school and that it took both verbal and physical forms. She said that boys would make highly unacceptable sexual remarks about girls, sometimes to their faces. She alleged that a ten-year-old boy had told her that he intended to rape a particular girl when she was asleep.
Although she was pretty sure that the boy was not serious, she said, she had been very shocked.
Another girl claimed that it was commonplace for boys to give girls scores for attractiveness, to grope them and to make extremely disrespectful remarks about them in their presence.
A pupil from a different primary school, in Kent, alleged that when she was nine a group of boys pushed her over and chanted “rape” at her.
She described the incident as involving them taking hold of her and pushing her around the group. The children were required to write letters of apology after she told a teacher but were not suspended from the school, she wrote.
Amanda Spielman, the head of Ofsted, said the regulator had not done such extensive research into primary schools and that their main concerns were still for older children.
She added: “But they are very definitely the same issues bleeding down into schools, into primary schools from the top down where we had clear concerns about the same kinds of issues that older children were reporting cropping up.”
Ofsted’s report found evidence that children at primary schools had access to pornography or were sharing inappropriate images and videos online.
It reads: “In one all-through school, leaders have identified a trend of cases in the primary school that are linked to social media. There is a no-phone policy in this school, so incidents are likely taking place outside school. Incidents cited include viewing pornography, requests to look up pornography websites and viewing inappropriate images on social media. There was an example from another school of children in years 6 and 7 sending nudes.”
In response to Ofsted’s findings the Department for Education said that it would strengthen guidance for sex education — a curriculum that has long been criticised for being outdated and irrelevant (Nicola Woolcock writes).
Updated lessons, covering porn, sexting and consent, were due to be introduced in England last September after months of consultation but were pushed back because of the coronavirus pandemic. Relationships education was due to become compulsory in England’s state primary schools at the start of the academic year, as was relationships and sex education in secondary schools.
Schools were allowed to delay this until this year’s summer term.
The new curriculum caused upset in some areas when it was proposed, and some schools have experienced protests about its LGBT content. Schools are expected to discuss the lessons with parents but can overrule opposition.
The PSHE Association, which supports teachers taking relationships and sex education lessons, said that the Department for Education must make clear that regular teaching was needed. It said: “We don’t expect pupils to learn algebra or about the Norman Conquest via the odd assembly or awareness day, so why should we expect this when it comes to consent and respectful relationship behaviour?”
It said PSHE education had a proven role in academic attainment: “Safe, healthy and content students are in a better place to learn.”
While some girls feel they are expected to look and behave like porn stars, with hairless, glistening bodies, a few boys are turning to plastic surgery because they worry their penises aren’t large enough. A friend who is a north London GP and mother of two boys says, “I’m getting requests from teenage boys for penis enlargement. That’s surely a result of too much porn.”
Almost every expert, parent, teacher and teenager I talk to feels that it’s the rise of online porn that underlies the current problems – for boys and girls. Only 25 per cent of parents think their 16-year-old sons have watched porn. Yet a survey by the NSPCC showed that two thirds of 15 to 16-year-olds have seen pornography online, and nearly a third of 11 to 12-year-olds, with the majority being violent and non-consensual.
“Pornography is everywhere,” says Mohammed, now in the sixth form of an all-boys school in Yorkshire and a champion debater. “You can’t avoid it. It’s just a click away while you are doing your homework and it makes you feel inadequate. That’s why my generation needs alcohol or drugs to do this kind of stuff. I envy my friends who’ve been in a steady relationship since they were young, and my parents, who had an arranged marriage.”
Our children have become subject to the whims of a vast $97 billion profit-seeking industry that has no concern whatsoever for their emotional or sexual health, according to Simon Bailey, the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead on child protection. He has been demanding a national debate about the potentially devastating impact of online porn ever since I first interviewed him a decade ago. The sense of young male entitlement, he says, “sometimes feels medieval. Boys get some of their sex education from porn, which once might have been a picture of a naked woman spread across a page,” but now involves images of gagging, rape, anal sex and domination. “More and more children are watching hardcore porn and it soon becomes normalised,” says Bailey, who is heading the police service response to investigating the Everyone’s Invited allegations. “You can’t rely on families or schools alone to tackle this. The tech industry needs to take responsibility. No one under 18 should be able to see this stuff.”
Dr Caroline Douglas-Pennant, a counselling psychologist working in west London, who has four daughters, believes boys need new boundaries. “Boys think about sex a lot of the time, but it’s vital they understand that their sexual needs are not more important than women’s and what may even have been tacitly acceptable in their parents’ generation is unacceptable now,” she says. Children receive sex education classes at school. “But a lot of boys and girls feel that adults and teachers are still letting them down. They are being tokenistic and just ticking the boxes with their relationship and consent classes without helping them address the real problems. It’s the competitive, pressurised, misogynist culture we need to tackle.”
Porn, she agrees, has exacerbated the situation. “It gives the message women are constantly available and enjoy aggressive sex. Boys at 17 are driven by testosterone. They need to be shown how to control it. Dads are extremely important role models for loving and respectful relationships for their boys and we need to encourage them to think about their position in the conversation and be curious about why they may feel defensive or attacked.”
Teachers say they do not feel equipped to deal with peer-on-peer sexual abuse because they have had no training.
More than 1,500 UK teachers replied to a questionnaire from BBC Radio 4’s File on 4 and teachers’ union the NASUWT.
More than half said they did not think adequate procedures were in place in their schools to deal with abuse.
Many are also unsure how to deliver elements of a new sex-and-relationships curriculum, which the government says third parties might now help with.
In England, the Department for Education has introduced a compulsory Sex and Relationships Education (RSE) curriculum in all schools, focusing on relationships in primary schools and sex and relationships in secondaries.
It has also asked Ofsted to review peer-on-peer safeguarding procedures.
Of the teachers surveyed, almost a third said they had witnessed peer-on-peer sexual harassment or abuse and almost one in 10 said they saw it on a weekly basis.
The debate about a culture of sexual abuse at schools has escalated in recent months after a website set up for victims to post their experiences anonymously gained more than 16,000 posts – some from children as young as nine.
The Everyone’s Invited website publishes anonymous allegations which refer mostly to sexual harassment carried out against young women by young men at their school or university.
The government has now launched a dedicated hotline with the NSPCC for young people who feel they have been harassed and abused.
Since the helpline launched at the beginning of April, it has received more than 350 calls, and 65 referrals have been made to agencies including social services and the police.
The new RSE curriculum in England was introduced in September 2020.
Andrew Fellows, associate head of policy at child-protection charity the NSPCC, says that while the new lessons are a positive development, schools have not been given the support and guidance to deliver the new curriculum effectively.
“Coercive control, sexual consent, healthy relationships, online safety, pornography – that’s all in there.
“But what schools haven’t been given is the guidance and the support to cover that and to deliver that in a way that works for their students,” he said.
Flora Cooper, head teacher of Crowmarsh Primary School in Oxfordshire, where staff have just started to teach the new RSE lessons, said: “In terms of external training, we’ve not had any.
“We actually haven’t seen much being offered in terms of training and it is absolutely in the training – that’s what is essential, which we don’t have.
“Until the teachers are confident with the delivery of the content, then I don’t think any of them will be confident and fully teaching the children the full curriculum. It feels as though we are on our own.”
Ofsted is currently conducting a review of safeguarding policies and practices relating to sexual abuse in state and independent schools and colleges.
It was ordered by the government after thousands of young people – mostly girls and young women – contacted the Everyone’s Invited website.
Children’s Minister Vicky Ford said: “We’ve seen these enormously worrying and very shocking allegations that have come through the Everyone’s Invited site.
“One of the things that Ofsted will be looking at in this review is, are schools getting enough training and support? Do they need, for example, third parties to come in and train elements of that curriculum?”
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.”
A head teacher says he is “sorry” if homework asking pupils to define types of hardcore pornography led them to undertake inappropriate web searches.
The work was given to children, aged 11 to 14, at Archbishop Sentamu Academy in Hull, the Hull Daily Mail reported.
Principal Chay Bell stressed the assignment did not require internet research as the answers were in the material the pupils were sent.
Leon Dagon was “flabbergasted” when he saw his 13-year-old sister’s homework.
The work is part of pupils’ Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE) learning, the school said.
The students were asked to “define” topics including hardcore pornography, soft pornography as well as female genital mutilation and breast ironing.
They were also asked questions about alcohol, drugs and smoking, as part of the homework.
Mr Dagon, who took to Facebook to share his concerns, said: “My little sister knows make-up and TikTok at the age of 13. She doesn’t know about hardcore porn, and then asking her to define it.
“The majority of children nowadays will now go on the internet to help them with their homework and if you type that kind of thing on the internet, God knows what’s going to pop up.”
Mr Bell said: “I am genuinely sorry if parents or students have unnecessarily researched any of these phrases and for any offence caused by this mistake.”
He said students “were not directed to research these topics themselves on the internet because all the answers to the questions posed are contained in the teacher-produced materials we shared”.
The work was in line with government guidance, but he added: “I have asked that no future PSHE materials contain any potentially sensitive content and will ensure all materials are fully age-appropriate.”
A spokesman for the Department for Education said it was a matter for the school and had no further comment to make.
QotD: “For some male students, treating a sexual partner — especially one who was not suitably hot or selective — with roughness or disinterest and then bragging about it the next day became a form of image management”
There are two contradictory trends identified in reports about young people’s sex lives. One is that they are virtually celibate, too busy playing Fortnite, watching porn, scrolling through Instagram or otherwise living screen-mediated lives to actually connect with another human being. The other is that “hook-up culture” and a plethora of Tinder-type swipe apps have made sex so accessible that everyone is bed-hopping in a nonstop, booze-fuelled bacchanal. The truth lies somewhere in between. School and university students are, in fact, having less vaginal intercourse than they were 25 years ago (the studies quoted in the press, though, don’t ask about oral or anal sex, both of which have become more common), but that’s partly because the context in which they indulge has shifted.
In a relationship, couples tend to have intercourse regularly; students who engage primarily in hook-ups, even those they consider “consistent”, do so only sporadically — an irony, given the dissolute presumptions about hook-up culture.
“Hook-up”, a word adolescents bandy about incessantly, is intentionally vague. In reality, about 35%-40% of student hook-ups include intercourse, which means 60% or more do not. Because of the ambiguity, however, students tend to radically overestimate what their classmates are up to (not to mention allow others to draw inflated conclusions about their own exploits). This can fuel feelings of inadequacy and Fomo, contributing to pressure to keep pace through undesired sex, coerciveness or aggression. According to the Online College Social Life Survey, which encompassed more than 20,000 students across America, close to three-quarters of both male and female students will hook up at least once by the time they are 18. The average number of partners? Seven to eight. Not exactly the fall of Rome. A full quarter never hook up during their time as a student and 40% hook up fewer than three times, though 20% of students do hook up 10 times or more.
Boys in my interviews were less likely than girls to express anger, betrayal, resentment or feelings of being “used” in hook-ups. That’s partly because hook-up culture aligns with the values of conventional masculinity: conquest over connection, sex as status seeking, partners as disposable. The Online College Social Life Survey found that 29%-53% of girls climaxed in their most recent hook-up, as opposed to 56%-81% of boys. In the words of one boy: “It sounds bad, but in a one-time thing, I don’t really care.”
For some male students, treating a sexual partner — especially one who was not suitably hot or selective — with roughness or disinterest and then bragging about it the next day became a form of image management, a pre-emptive strike against potential ridicule, the loss of social currency. So, when boys assured me that their friends and classmates would never sexually assault a girl (it was always those other boys), that felt like a very low bar: having sex that is technically “legal” is hardly the same as sex that is ethical, mutual, reciprocal or kind. “Casual sex can be great,” observed one student. “But you can forget to treat the other person as a human being.”
It’s no secret that today’s children are guinea pigs in a colossal porn experiment. Whereas (mostly) boys of previous generations might have passed around a filched copy of Playboy, today anyone with a broadband connection can instantly access anything you can imagine — and a whole lot of stuff you don’t want to imagine.
Some boys felt that their porn use had no effect on them, many of them asserting: “I can tell the difference between fantasy and reality.” That, as it happens, is the instinctive response people give to any suggestion of media influence — none of us wants to think we’re so impressionable, though we’re quick to recognise that others are. But decades of research show that what we consume becomes part of our psyches, unconsciously affecting how we feel, think and behave.
Porn use has been associated with boys’ real-life badgering of girls for nude pictures. Both boys and girls who consume porn at younger ages are more likely to become sexually active sooner than peers, to have more partners, to have higher rates of pregnancy, to view sexual aggression more positively and women more negatively, and to engage in the riskier and more atypical behaviours porn depicts.
Male porn users report less satisfaction than others with their sex lives, their own performance in bed and with their female partners’ bodies. There is even speculation that because of its convenience as well as low physical and emotional investment — porn never rejects you, never makes demands of you, never wants you to talk about your feelings — the rise in porn use is partially responsible for the lower rates of intercourse among millennials. That reduction of pleasure in partnered sex was what concerned most of my interviewees.
One student called Reza believed porn increased his awareness of real women’s physical imperfections. “I’ve got things narrowed down to a very, very specific body type that turns me on,” he explained. “It’s probably not all driven by porn, but I figured out what I liked from that and I think I wouldn’t have otherwise. It doesn’t ruin my relationships, but it’s not nice when I’m trying to talk my girlfriend into liking a part of her body, but I’m secretly thinking, well, actually, I would prefer …” And Kevin, a school pupil, said that after watching “all those skinny white women” (he’s Caucasian), he was having a hard time becoming aroused by his black girlfriend’s body.
Some boys fretted more over their own bodies’ contours than their partners’, especially (and perhaps not surprisingly) their penis size. A few boys were so concerned about size that they avoided sexual situations. “I had a girlfriend at 16,” said Mitchell, “and as we started being more sexual, I became very nervous about being … sufficient. I couldn’t perform during our first real sexual experience because that was so much on my mind. And once you feel like you can’t, you can’t. You’re done.” With time, and maybe a little maturity, he got past it. In retrospect, he said: “Comparing myself to porn was obviously ridiculous. But, you know, it’s also kind of understandable.”
Like every boy I spoke with, Mitchell claimed to know that, of course, porn wasn’t realistic. But that line between fact and fiction was not clear; after all, porn is depicting something, and what other point of reference do young people have? “If you’re a teenage guy and you don’t have much sexual experience, and you’ve been watching porn for the past six or seven years, you can develop almost a … fear, really,” said another university student. “A fear that you would not be able to perform up to those standards, though, of course, no one really can. But maybe the starkest contrast is your perception of the kind of feedback that you’re going to be getting from a girl. Like that they will be moaning and having orgasms all over the place. That’s obviously not the case.”
“I don’t consider the porn I watch to be representative of the person I am,” said Daniel, a lantern-jawed student with hipster glasses. “The whole category of ‘Unwilling’ [women who say no to sex, then change their mind when forced]. It’s very appealing to me, even though I know it’s wrong. And I do truly believe it’s wrong. I would never do it. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy watching it.”
In real life, Daniel was consciously trying to curb his use of the thoughtlessly sexist, homophobic language that had been common at secondary school. He also said he considered any form of sexual interaction to have “spiritual significance” and claimed to prize intimacy over “raw sex”.
But that’s not what got him off. Real sex with his school girlfriend wasn’t stimulating enough. “I felt like I was never really satisfied,” he said. “There was always more to try. Like, ‘Oh, this is pretty good, she’s letting me do a lot, but we haven’t done this yet, we haven’t done this, done this, done this.’ ”
As another boy put it: “I think porn affects your ability to be innocent in a sexual relationship. The whole idea of exploring sex without any preconceived ideas of what it is, you know? That natural organic process has just been f***** by porn.”
When Adam Lazarus complained about a seven-year-old boy putting his hands on his daughter at school, he was told not to cry sexual assault. “They don’t think like that,” the teachers said, “not at that age.” “But it’s power,” Lazarus seethes, recounting the incident. “It’s gendered power, and if you excuse it this kid thinks it’s OK.”
The Canadian performer made waves at the Edinburgh festival in 2018 with his controversial, gut-punch solo Daughter, which he is now bringing to Battersea Arts Centre in London. The show is told from the perspective of a young girl’s father and what starts as a charming and funny quasi-standup set quickly turns into something acidic. Over the course of an increasingly intense hour, Lazarus – dressed in fairy wings, dancing adorably to his daughter’s favourite song – unspools a brutal thread of toxic masculinity. First it’s shrugged off as a joke, then a distasteful comment, until suddenly there’s a metal rod in his hand and we’re wondering how we got here. “Are you OK that I did that?” he asks in the show, as remnants of laughter start to taste like bile.
Having trained at Philippe Gaulier’s prestigious clown school in France, Lazarus makes work that stems from bouffon, the French style of theatre with its roots in mockery. In contrast to his past performances, which involved elaborate costume and character, the father in Daughter is almost indistinguishable from Lazarus himself, and it leaves you wondering how much is true. “We had to ride the line [between reality and fiction] to be sure you couldn’t dismiss him as a character,” he says. “We were trying to get to a point where the room would say, I get it, I understand how a person could think like that.”
With his co-creators Ann-Marie Kerr, Jivesh Parasram and Melissa D’Agostino, Lazarus began developing Daughter after allegations of sexual misconduct were made against former CBC host Jian Ghomeshi. “It blew the minds of Canadians, because we listened to him every morning,” explains Lazarus. Ghomeshi was acquitted in 2016 of four counts of sexual assault and one count of choking involving three complainants.
Daughter is built from real stories, though only some are from Lazarus’s own life. Regardless, audiences frequently believe it’s all him and that it’s all true. In the Edinburgh performances, some people walked out, while lots of others refused to applaud. But silence is not the worst response Lazarus has had; people frequently ask his wife if she’s OK, some close friends believe the stories are his own, and one man threatened to kill him for suggesting men had such a violent streak.
The hardest responses to reconcile are from the people – primarily women – who have been hurt by the performance. “I don’t think everyone needs to see the show,” Lazarus says frankly, when I ask about those who reported crying in the toilets afterwards, wishing they hadn’t seen it. “The show picks at a scab and if you have a trauma or a trigger that’s in there, it’s gonna peel really bad. I don’t know how to prepare people for that.” After every performance the company hold a space to talk, led by producer Aislinn Rose. Lazarus doesn’t attend those sessions; audiences feel more comfortable without him.
Lazarus argues that Daughter is a feminist play. “Pre-Trump I think it was a warning. Now I think it’s a rallying cry.” The show, Lazarus freely admits, is an attack on men, and the behaviour we often excuse. “It seethes underneath everything. These are microaggressions everyone is part of. The ‘good guys’ have a lot of work to do.” He does the quotation marks in the air.
With thunderous impact, Daughter toys with these complex ideas of responsibility and consent, asking how we protect our daughters by talking to our sons. Lazarus’s daughter is now eight, his son five. Scared and hopeful for them both in equal measure, he paraphrases a recent article by Peggy Orenstein. “We have to talk to our sons about sex in the same way we talk about manners: often. Even if you feel like you wanna poke your eye out talking to your son [about sex], if you don’t teach them, porn will.”
QotD: “she says she believes that coercive sex is the price she has to pay for being in a relationship”
When Jed first heard from friends about websites where you could see naked women, it sounded too good to be true. So one afternoon, aged 11 and with his mind straying from homework, and while his mother was busy, he typed “boobs” and “sex” into the search bar of the family laptop.
“My first reaction was: ‘This is confusing.’ I knew a bit about sex, but there were men doing painful stuff to women,” he recalls.
After trying to make sense of what he was seeing, Jed clicked off the page and cleared the browsing history. “But I couldn’t put it out of my mind, so half an hour later, I had another look.”
Now, eight years on and in his first year of an engineering course at university, Jed is a member of a generation that has grown up with porn, and estimates he spends five or six hours a week looking at it.
Indeed, a 2016 analysis of 1,001 11- to 16-year-olds by Middlesex University for the children’s commissioner and the NSPCC found that at least 56% of boys and 40% of girls had been exposed to online pornography by the age of 16. The study also found that not only are boys more likely to keep seeking it out after they first see it (59%, compared with 25% of girls) but they are more likely to be positive about it.
“It’s normal,” says Jake, 19, echoing many of the boys I spoke to. “If one of my friends hadn’t seen it, I’d consider that weird.” For Jason, a swaggering 17-year-old, porn is a comforting routine, something functional that he wakes up with and winds down to at the end of the day. “It’s stress relief, and less work than girls,” he says.
When Samuel’s parents found a list of what they considered to be extreme sexual acts in his browsing history (“Nothing too serious,” Samuel, who is 16, says: “double and triple penetration”) he wasn’t embarrassed. He was annoyed: “I thought, ‘So what? Everyone watches it.’” Tom, 17, says: “We know it’s fake. My mates laugh about it.”
“They may be laughing about it,” says Dr Gail Dines, a scholar of pornography and professor emerita of sociology and women’s studies at Wheelock College, Boston, “but they are also masturbating to it. They say they know it’s fake, but what does that mean? You haven’t got one brain that processes fake stuff and one that processes real stuff. You have one brain and one body that’s aroused. If you begin by masturbating to cruel, hardcore, violent porn, studies show that you are not going to grow up wired for intimacy and connection.”
Most of the girls I spoke to seemed to be concerned about a loss of intimacy that comes from their male peers’ porn use. Although there are some girls who watch porn, most I speak to are exasperated by the groups of lads accessing it on GCSE field trips or talking in the school cafeteria about videos they’ve seen.
Nia is 14, and though she avoids porn, that doesn’t mean she hasn’t felt its influence. Among the boys, she says it’s easy to tell which ones are the heavy users. “They’re the ones who don’t know what to say at parties, and then write sexual comments on your Instagram posts.”
Megan, 15, has visited porn sites a few times because she heard about her friends giving blowjobs and thought, “it sounds like a skill you’d better learn how to do. You don’t want to get it wrong.” Ayeesha, 17, talks about how porn warps things. “Boys like to spice it up because ordinary sex is considered boring,” she says. “And girls think having anal sex will make the boys love them.” When Ayeesha had sex, she rated her performance as if through the pornographer’s lens. “The first time I did it, I was thinking, ‘My body looks good.’”
When Rhianna, 21, looks back on her teenage sexual relationships, she recalls being asked to replicate scenes her boyfriends had seen on porn. “It wasn’t about what I wanted. It was as if you were some prototype female they got to act out their favourite videos with.”
Now she’s older, Rhianna has started to demand sex on her own terms and enjoys porn herself. “As long as it’s not violent, or shows rape, it’s fine for people over 18 to watch. I think it can be fun to use with a partner.”
But it’s impossible not to hear the angst and confusion in the voice of Ciara, a 20-year-old retail trainee, when she says she believes that coercive sex is the price she has to pay for being in a relationship. “Boys all want the things they’ve seen in porn. If you say it hurts, they don’t seem to take it seriously. It’s as if that’s a normal part of the experience.”
There is some hope, though: a few of the older boys I speak to seem to be gaining some perspective on the downsides of porn. Henry, 20, decided to wean himself off it when he felt he couldn’t masturbate without it. “You’re entranced by it. Denying myself and forcing myself to use my imagination instead was really tough.”
Beyond that, he also started to recognise how it affected his view of women. “I’d see girls in the street and realise I couldn’t just click a button and see them naked. I’d be talking to someone and get frustrated that I couldn’t just make sex happen.”
Mitchell, 19, has begun to understand the connection between what he watches and how he behaves. “If girls are reluctant to do something, you pressure them because you think, ‘Lots of women do it in porn. Why don’t you?’” He says he began to feel “like I wasn’t in my own body”.
The effects of porn run deep – 53% of boys and 39% of girls in the Middlesex University study saw it as “a realistic depiction” of sex – and even with the anticipated new verification checks, free porn will bubble up in other ways; it is already increasingly appearing on platforms children use from a young age, such as Snapchat and Instagram.
A pint of semi-skimmed, 20 Bensons, a scratchcard and, er, a porn pass . . . The odds on this becoming a regular corner-shop scenario crashed this week as Jeremy Wright, the culture secretary, announced that age verification checks for accessing online pornography would be delayed yet again, this time because the government forgot to inform the European Commission. No wonder it’s been called Sexit.
Age verification began as a thoughtful response by the coalition government to alarming NSPCC research that 65 per cent of 15 to 16-year-olds and almost a third of 12-year-olds access porn. That porn sites should be age-verified, as gambling domains already are, has a 67 per cent approval rating. The problem is that it’s technologically impossible to enforce.
From July 15, clicking on a porn site was supposed to generate a page where a user must provide proof via a credit card, passport or driving licence that they are over 18. Unfortunately Britain stands nobly alone in this endeavour against a global porn industry. And any fool can easily install a VPN (virtual private network): a bit of software which conceals your geographical location. British kids use them already to dodge rights issues, particularly to access US Netflix with its superior range of films.
A VPN would allow a porn user to swerve the UK age-blocker. And which punter wouldn’t do that rather than give personal details to the state-approved verification firm AgeID (which, unbelievably, has the same owner as Pornhub)? No amount of blah about safe encrypted data will reassure anyone that their name and mugshot won’t one day pop up alongside their taste for “watersports” and MILFs.
The alternative would be to go into a shop and, after showing an age ID, buy a £4.99 porn pass. While oldsters might find this no more embarrassing than the time they bumped into their mate’s mum while buying a copy of Razzle, young people have grown up under the total anonymity of the web. Besides, they would simply access porn on platforms such as WhatsApp, Reddit or Snapchat. And a VPN can make the internet an even more dangerous landscape, opening up blocked extremist, paedophile and drug sites on the dark web.
Yet whether age-verification is feasible should not distract from the bigger, more pressing question: does allowing the porn industry to pipe its product unrestricted into every home have toxic consequences? Ireland is reeling from the murder of Ana Kriegel, 14, found naked with extensive injuries and a ligature around her neck, killed by two 13-year-old boys. One of the boys was found to have phones containing thousands of pornographic images, many involving children and animals. The Irish prime minister has said he will be viewing Britain’s age-verification plans closely.
This, of course, is the most extreme scenario. Experts speculated in 1993 whether James Bulger’s killers were inspired by “video nasties” or were just disturbed children who’d have killed in any era. But there is no question that having immediate access to images once obtained only by writing to obscure PO box addresses has changed society. Police now investigate 1,000 cases of offenders viewing child abuse images each month: our jails could not accommodate them all so most are dismissed with a caution on a first offence. Many such men say that viewing “barely legal” porn involving teenagers on legal sites drew them to younger children.
There has also been a spate of deaths of women at the hands of partners who claimed they were engaged in consensual “sex games”. These include Anna Reed, 22, from Harrogate who was suffocated in a Swiss hotel room; Charlotte Teeling, 33, from Birmingham, who was strangled, as was Hannah Dorans, 21, from Edinburgh. Natalie Connolly, 26, was penetrated with a bottle of carpet cleaner and left for dead at the bottom of the stairs. All the men concerned argued that “rough sex” or “Fifty Shades of Grey games” had gone wrong, that these women had, in effect, consented to their own deaths.
These are scenes choreographed by violent pornography, which is not some rare category but just a click away. Researchers studying aggressive porn that involves slaps, hair-pulling and choking found that in 95 per cent of cases the actresses responded with expressions of pleasure, suggesting to the viewer that violence is desired.
Is it any coincidence that the first generation of children exposed to hardcore pornography before their first kiss have epidemic levels of mental illness? The extreme aesthetics of porn fuel body-hatred in young women, while psychologists are concerned that a growing cohort of young men are so desensitised by porn that they suffer erectile dysfunction and emotional disconnection from real women. Moreover, when sex is learnt through porn — a misogynist industry focused solely on male desire — girls prioritise their performance above their own pleasure.
This is now normalised in the mainstream: Teen Vogue ran a feature on anal sex, which most women find uncomfortable, even painful, but is demanded by some men because it’s a major porn trope. Teen Vogue’s anatomical diagram did not even include the clitoris.
Yet young women are not allowed to balk at porn. In the US high school comedy Booksmart, two girls watch porn on their phone in horror. One tries to tell herself she must enjoy it because “I’m a sex-positive feminist”. Not to love porn marks a girl out as uncool, conservative and “unwoke”. Age-verifying technology is, alas, a distraction from the real conversation we need with young people about porn. That it is not feminist nor is it positive sex.