QotD: “An alleged sexual abuse victim’s successful defence against a defamation claim could set an important precedent, lawyers say”
A landmark ruling where an alleged sexual abuse victim successfully defended a libel claim does not give carte blanche for survivors to name perpetrators, lawyers argue.
Nina Cresswell, 33, claimed that she had been sexually assaulted by a tattooist, Billy “the bastard” Hay, at a nightclub in Sunderland in 2010 when she was a 20-year-old student.
She reported an attempted rape to Northumbria police immediately after the alleged assault, but within hours officers decided that her complaint would not be treated as a crime.
A decade later, when the #TattooMeToo campaign was exposing the prevalence of sexual abuse in the tattoo industry, Cresswell publicly named Hay as her attacker in a blog, an email and social media posts to alert other women about his behaviour towards her.
Hay sued for libel, claiming that her defamatory publications had caused serious harm to his reputation and resulted in him losing work.
Cresswell relied on the defences of truth and public interest, set out in the Defamation Act 2013. After a four-day trial at the High Court in London, Mrs Justice Heather Williams ruled that Cresswell’s allegation that Hay had violently sexually assaulted her was “substantially true on the balance of probabilities” — the civil law standard of proof, which is lower than the criminal standard of beyond reasonable doubt.
The judge said that Cresswell’s credibility was not undermined by “minor inconsistencies” in her account, the fact that she had not made the public allegations sooner or by the police’s decision not to take any action.
Additionally the judge ruled that Cresswell’s publications were “on a matter of public interest”, that Cresswell believed that it was in the public interest to publish them and that her belief was reasonable in all of the circumstances.
The media would normally be expected to have contacted a subject for comment before publishing allegations. But, crucially, the judge held that it would have been “unreasonable” to expect Cresswell to have sought a comment from Hay or included his denial because she was “writing from her own knowledge of the sexual assault on her”.
Four years after the Court of Appeal ruled that the public interest defence was not limited to the media, the case is believed to be the first where an alleged victim has successfully relied on it when the other party has sued for libel.
Lawyers suggest that it sets an important precedent in relation to the discussion of “experiences of sexual violence” online.
Tamsin Allen, a partner at the law firm Bindmans, who represented Cresswell, says that the judgment “gives much-needed support and guidance to women who seek to name their attackers to protect others”. The ruling, she says, clarifies the law for those who claim to have been silenced by their alleged abusers and failed by the police.
Allen describes the ruling as “a powerful testament to the bravery” of Cresswell “in defending the claim over two years at huge personal cost, and underlines calls for reform in libel law so that public interest publications can more easily be defended”.
QotD: “A Trailblazer of Trauma Studies Asks What Victims Really Want”
When the Harvard psychiatry professor Judith Herman began her medical training, in the nineteen-sixties, sexual and domestic abuse was still considered a private scourge that victims brought on themselves—if, that is, it was considered at all. Prominent journals were publishing studies like “The Wifebeater’s Wife” (Archives of General Psychiatry, 1964), which attributed marital violence to the “masochistic needs” of battered women. A major textbook put the prevalence of incest at one in a million, which was an underestimate by several orders of magnitude. In 1975, when Herman and a colleague submitted the draft of a landmark paper on incest and it circulated within the field, they were surprised to receive numerous letters with messages like “I thought no one would believe me” and “I thought I was the only one.” In a new afterword to her first book, “Father-Daughter Incest,” which was originally published in 1981, Herman recalls, “It was generally held that sexual offenses were rare in reality but rampant in the overactive imaginations of women and children.” She dedicated her career to studying both the psychological impact of such abuse and the public tendency to overlook it. In “Trauma and Recovery,” published in 1992, she famously compared survivors of rape with veterans of combat. Both were subject to “the coercive violence at the foundation of adult society,” she argued, but only those who fought in wars were acknowledged with medals and memorial ceremonies. “There is no public monument for rape survivors,” she wrote.
Herman, who is now eighty-one, came of age during the women’s-liberation movement. She still credits her career to what the author Grace Paley has called “the buoyancy, the noise, the saltiness” of second-wave feminism. In her twenties, she joined the Bread and Roses collective, a socialist consciousness-raising group in Boston. “It was the grassroots activists who knew what was going on,” she told me recently when I visited her at the senior-living facility where she resides, not far from Harvard. “The psychiatry departments had no clue.” “Trauma and Recovery” proposed what was then a novel diagnosis—“complex post-traumatic stress disorder”—for prolonged or repeated abuse, whether it occurred in a war zone or in the supposed sanctum of a family home. Herman outlined a three-stage recovery process, which has since become a therapeutic template in the field of psychiatry. Before anything else, trauma survivors must salvage a basic sense of safety (step one). Only afterward can they mourn what they have lost (step two) and resume some version of ordinary life (step three). Following the publication of “Trauma and Recovery”—which the feminist psychologist Phyllis Chesler, in a New York Times review, called “one of the most important psychiatric works to be published since Freud”—Herman began contemplating a fourth stage of recovery. If trauma was a problem of public recognition as much as of personal suffering, shouldn’t true healing entail more than a private undertaking by the survivor?
In the early two-thousands, during a sabbatical, Herman began interviewing victims of gender-based violence for a new book project. She got as far as publishing a concept paper, “Justice from the Victim’s Perspective,” in a special issue of the journal Violence Against Women, in 2005. But she was sidelined, in the succeeding years, with nerve tumors from an old knee injury, which left her reliant on crutches, a brace, and a fentanyl patch. Herman continued overseeing trainees at Harvard, but her own research stalled. In the meantime, trauma studies developed a new focus on brain science. In 2014, Herman’s old friend and colleague Bessel van der Kolk published “The Body Keeps the Score,” an unexpected best-seller exploring the power of the brain and the body to change consciousness through therapies as plain as yoga and as experimental as psychedelics. (“In the culture right now, if it’s based on the brain, it’s real,” van der Kolk recently told the Times. “Everything else is woozy stuff.”) Herman, by contrast, has largely concentrated on “the power of consciousness”—both social and individual—to change the body and the brain. “Healing from the impact of human cruelty requires a relational context of human devotion and kindness,” she writes in the latest afterword to “Trauma and Recovery.” “No new technique or drug is likely to change these fundamental principles.”
To treat her knee, Herman tried physical therapy, acupuncture, “every weirdo cure you can imagine,” she told me. A few years ago, a doctor suggested an innovative surgery that ended up relieving her pain. During the pandemic, while confined to her one-bedroom suite in the senior-living facility, she returned at last to work on the project that she’d begun two decades before. “Truth and Repair,” which was published in March, is part polemic and part ethnography, assembling testimony from thirty survivors of traumas including child abuse, sexual assault, sex trafficking, and domestic violence. (Twenty-six are women and four are men.) Herman’s central argument is that neither the traditional model of retributive justice, with its emphasis on punishment, nor the burgeoning alternative of restorative justice, with its focus on forgiveness, truly prioritizes survivors.
Of the victims in “Truth and Repair”—Herman, like an anthropologist, calls them “informants”—very few crave revenge against their abusers. A filmmaker and writer who was sexually abused by her paternal grandfather feels resentment, first off, toward her own mother, who didn’t believe her at first and then urged her never to tell her grandmother, on the ground that the truth “would kill her.” A community organizer who was raped at knifepoint by her ex-boyfriend is appalled when his parents, who once welcomed her into their home, launch a letter-writing campaign on his behalf. A man who was abused as a child by a priest in the Boston archdiocese seems less enraged at the perpetrator than at the religious leaders who moved pedophiles from parish to parish: “I want to go punch them in the face, and I’m not a violent person,” he says. “They should have known better.” Herman suggests that “bystander” is too benign a description for such ancillary figures. Instead, she borrows the term “implicated subjects” from the scholar Michael Rothberg, who has argued that almost all of us contribute to or benefit from structural injustice, and so almost none of us is innocent of implication. “Truth and Repair” invites readers to apply the concept widely. Is a high-school teacher “implicated” for failing to realize that a star student is flunking out because, unbeknownst to him, she was raped? Readers may allocate blame in their own ways, but Herman succeeds in reformulating justice as more than an adversarial contest between victim and abuser. Trauma estranges a victim from “all those who doubt her veracity, who blame her rather than the perpetrator, or who choose to turn a blind eye,” Herman writes. “In standing by the survivor,” she adds, implicated subjects can “reclaim their own moral standing.”
The victims in “Truth and Repair” are perhaps less vengeful than proponents of retributive justice presume. They are also less conciliatory than advocates of restorative justice seem to hope. The #MeToo movement prompted much discussion about the path to absolution for high-profile abusers: What amounts to a satisfactory apology? Can the public tell true penitence from scripted, self-serving expressions of regret? Herman considers real apologies, however healing in theory, to be rare, and she notes that few of her subjects counted on receiving one. “I’ve had enough work to do on my own,” an attorney and rape survivor from Florida tells her. A poet who was molested by her older brother dreads the idea that he’d even discuss the crime: “I suspect he would enjoy talking about what he did.” Herman worries that efforts to reconcile perpetrators and victims, a chief component of certain restorative-justice processes, could be “tailor-made for manipulation” by abusers who re-offend. Even profuse apologies figure in cycles of domestic abuse, by sustaining victims’ hope that violence will end. Although Herman entertains the “creative promise” of restorative justice, she suspects that its “sentimental emphasis” on reconciliation may pressure survivors to forgive crimes that their communities do not take seriously.
In one of Herman’s most complicated interviews, Kyra Jones, a Chicago artist and community activist, recalls that she was assaulted by a fellow-activist who “weaponized the language of the movement to target vulnerable women.” Jones, who is Black, describes herself as a prison abolitionist. She couldn’t stand the idea of reporting her assailant to the police, so she chose to participate in a “peace circle” overseen by the organizer Mariame Kaba. (One general irony of restorative-justice programs, Herman points out, is that they often rely on the threat of criminal punishment to secure an offender’s compliance.) Jones and her assailant—or, in the idiom of the movement, her “harm-doer”—gathered with separate support groups, hers to help “process the trauma,” his to help brainstorm amends. After fifteen months, the assailant’s group deemed him sufficiently committed to “deep reflection and change.” Before long, though, he was accused of assaulting other women. (The man, Malcolm London, has publicly apologized to Jones but denied one of the subsequent allegations.) Like most of Herman’s subjects, Jones ends up pointing her finger at the surrounding community, which “had gone back to its default habits of valuing Black men over Black women.” Jones “agonized” over the outcome, Herman tells us, but she still refrained from reporting the man to the police.
QotD: “MeToo accuser wins landmark libel ruling after sex assault claim”
A woman has successfully defended herself against a £70,000 libel claim from a man she accused of sexually assaulting her, even though the police took no action against him.
In a landmark ruling regarding social media, a High Court judge rejected a claim from a Glasgow tattoo artist who complained that Nina Cresswell had falsely accused him of attempted rape.
The ruling in favour of Cresswell, 33, over Billy “the Bastard” Hay potentially sets a precedent for a public interest defence in relation to the discussion of “experiences of sexual violence” online.
It is thought that the decision from Mrs Justice Heather Williams at the Royal Courts of Justice in London could protect people from being sued when they post comments about alleged attacks.
During the hearing Cresswell claimed that Hay tried to rape her about 13 years ago after the pair met at a nightclub while she was a student in Sunderland.
She reported the incident to the police at the time, but officers took the matter no further.
Hay has always maintained that the allegation was false and that he had only made an “ill-judged offer of a kiss” outside the club. But in 2020, amid the #metoo backlash against sexual crimes against women, Cresswell posted comments on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and a blog site in which she related her version of the incident.
Her barrister told the court that Hay “pushed” Cresswell into a wall, pinned her arms and “when she crouched to extricate herself, exposed his penis and asked her to suck it”.
The barrister told the court that Cresswell was in tears but managed to escape. She later told her mother and friends and went to the police.
Hay sued her over the publications, claiming £70,000 libel damages for the serious negative impact he said the online posts had on his reputation.
But the judge found that Cresswell’s story of the attack was “substantially true on the balance of probabilities”, the civil law standard of proof, which is lower than the criminal standard of beyond reasonable doubt.
Williams said that she accepted that publishing the statements was not the only way that Cresswell “could have taken steps to try to afford protection to other women”. But she said that the question for the court was “whether her belief that publishing the statements was in the public interest was a reasonable one to hold”.
After the ruling, Cresswell said that she was “hugely relieved and delighted at the judgment and I can’t believe that I am finally free to speak the truth about the man who attacked me”.
She added that her “only motivation throughout has been to protect other women from risk, and I am confident this judgment will help others to do the same”.
What young men need to be taught about sex
Starmer has just announced that Labour plans to give more school time explicitly to teaching boys how to treat girls better. This is one of the Labour Party’s measures to meet its pledge of halving violence against women, such as sexual assault and stalking, within a decade. Is this demonising of our boys that will do more harm than good? Or is it a long overdue mission that needs to begin far earlier, in primary school? Last year it was reported that more than 50 MPs faced sexual misconduct allegations; I asked those working on the front line with teenagers in schools whether this is a case of “do as I say, not as I do”.
One, Allison Havey, I first met nearly a decade ago when I was observing a workshop for 14-year-olds. “What about Ched Evans?” said one boy, putting up his hand in the grand wood-panelled hall of his centuries-old independent school. The workshop, which was conducted by the Rap Project, co-founded by Havey, was the first time I realised how porn had become mainstream. At the beginning there was some spontaneous applause, even a small whoop, when Havey read out a statistic about how most teenage boys think porn is “really inspiring”.
She specialises in challenging the porn-and-brawn media diet of young boys. They were unembarrassed about it. This, Havey explained, is the generational difference. Once they reached secondary school it was too late for sex education, porn had taken care of that. It then became about sex re-education, trying to break through the desensitisation of viewing so many violent sexual images.
The mention of Evans dates the debate: he was then a much-admired footballer who in 2014 was released from prison after a conviction for rape of a 19-year-old woman who was alleged to be too drunk to consent (his conviction was later overturned to “not guilty”). The case triggered a mass debate about consent, and these boys were by turns angry, worried and confused. “He thought he had consent,” said the schoolboy as I watched. A barrage of supportive questions followed from his friends. “What if you are both drunk, is that consent?” was one particularly tricky follow-up.
The tea video — simplistic and pat — is key evidence for what can and can’t be done to help the lives of boys and girls. The blogger May wrote an article explaining consent through the medium of tea. This is possibly the most British of responses to a sex education crisis, but it worked. Her two-minute video went viral in secondary school staff rooms. Eight years later, few teenagers can say they don’t understand consent — they are drilled in it. By 2018, in a YouGov survey for End Violence Against Women, 6 per cent of people said that if a man has sex with a woman who is very drunk or asleep, it “usually or definitely isn’t rape”; a dramatic reduction on similar surveys a decade before.
But in the intervening decade the issue had shifted on its axis. It wasn’t a misunderstanding of consent, it was eroticising the abuse of power. The Everyone’s Invited website set up in 2020 attached personal stories to the statistics, such as figures obtained by the BBC that 600 rapes had been reported on school premises over a three-year period. In 2021 a survey of Irish teenagers by consent researchers at the University of Galway found 18 per cent of males were “neutral” as to whether consent was always required, compared with only 6 per cent of females. Secondary schools bought in workshops of varying quality. Smartphones democratised hardcore porn: a survey this year found a third of children had viewed porn by the age of ten. The choking of women entered sexual norms. More research found greater viewing of porn increased coercive sexual behaviour. Is secondary school now too late?
“Yes, if that is where it is beginning,” Kate Dawson says. She is a lecturer into the effects of porn on young people at Greenwich University and has been a sexual health educator in secondary schools. “By the time you reach secondary a lot of values and behaviour have been set.”
At present there is nothing in the government curriculum that asks primary schools to address pornography or violence towards women. Instead, it asks schools to address “respectful relationships”, which, the government website says, is the “forerunner of teaching consent which takes place at secondary”.
“Ideally, we need to form these attitudes long before adolescence,” Dawson says, “when they are influenced by their parents, while adolescents are influenced by their friends.”
Michael Conroy, founder of the Men at Work workshops which train teachers to work with boys, agrees that primary education needs to catch up to the reality of ever younger exposure to explicit material. Conroy says Starmer’s announcement was “empty” of any detail, but he had to be very careful not to make things worse.
“To some, it comes across as if it’s the boys who are the problem. Well, the boys are only doing things that they’ve seen grown men do. We never ask them what the adult world’s put in their head, the routine and bad information about what it is to be a man. We just tell them off when it goes wrong.
“So we have to look at ourselves, whether we’re politicians or school leaders, senior policemen or whoever. We have to put our own house in order as we are part of this too. That would instil the humility which is essential to working with boys.
“A root-and-branch approach to this needs to have the best and brightest working cross-party. And it needs to involve regulation of porn and access to porn. Otherwise it’s all in vain, because the messages that the boys are given through porn are contrary to anything that we might be doing in class. What we’ve got now, essentially, is a laissez-faire attitude to misogyny. So this is urgent work, but it also can’t be rushed.”
Nearly a decade on I catch up with Havey. In an ideal world, what would she do? First, control porn, she says. When she asks sixth formers of its effects, most tell her they wish they had never seen such sexual violence, “which makes me sad”. Second, she says that one of the reasons sex education is deemed so successful in Scandinavia is that sex equality is taught explicitly at primary age.
“We need to start teaching equality in a simple, clear way in our primary schools, and we need to teach mutual respect and mutual consent from a very early age because this is an absolutely critical concept. There’s no other way of forming successful romantic relationships. None.”
QotD: “The police have used a ‘wokescreen’ to cover their racism and misogyny”
Where to start, with a police force where decent behaviour seems to be the exception rather than the norm?
For a quarter of a century since the murder of Stephen Lawrence caused the Macpherson report to call the Metropolitan police ‘institutionally racist’ we’ve been comforting ourselves – in the manner of frightened children humming in the dark – with the Few Bad Apples theory. It’s just so silly to say that. There are bad apples in all professions, but a milkman doesn’t have the right to arrest people and strip-search them, last time I checked. As Doreen Lawrence said, ‘It is not, and has never been, a case of a few ‘bad apples’ within the Metropolitan police. It is rotten to the core.’
Is it a Met thing? I remember striking miners would talk about hating the Met much more than any other force, because they were the bully boys who’d be sent in to break up pickets when the local police had turned out not to be brutal enough. They were renowned for being the Hardest Bastard Coppers in the country, and a lot of them took a lot of pride in that, as with fans of Millwall Football Club.
So it seems inevitable that bullying would be endemic in their workplace. Once you’ve cut off a Sikh colleague’s beard and put a banana on the desk of a black colleague, once you’ve treated the people on your own team with such disrespect, a little light sexual assault of ‘civilians’ is nothing.
You can practise on your female colleagues first, as happened in the case of the female officer who reported abuse and rape from a colleague to no avail, concluding that if the same thing happened again ‘I wouldn’t report it to the police’. When an army conquers a city, mass rape inevitably happens.
A large minority of men at the Met – big enough to do damage to the whole culture – seemed to view sex with the women they were supposed to protect as a ‘reward’ for their supposed hard work in keeping society ‘safe’. What a piece of logic. To some it seemed like a project or a hobby; Met officer David Carrick committed 21 rapes over 17 years while Wayne Couzens, killer of Sarah Everard – the 15th woman killed by a policeman in 12 years – was affectionately known as ‘The Rapist’ by his workmates at the Met. Not even 1 per cent of the 1,500 officers accused of violence against women have been sacked.
But it’s not just the Met – the rot has spread to police forces all across the nation. We became aware of this when the horrific scale of the grooming gangs was exposed, police sometimes arresting the girls themselves for ‘disorderly behaviour’ when they reported rape and torture. It’s telling that it was a woman, former detective Maggie Oliver, who became a whistleblower after resigning in disgust at the handling of the cases by the police force during the years when the grooming gangs had the pigs in their pockets.
A friend tells me:
When I worked in a police force in the Midlands, our DCI did all these little simpering speeches about diversity, while he and a rival DCI on the floor below laid bets as to who’d get me into bed first. There wasn’t a department in which this didn’t happen. The officer heading up Public Protection was demoted after sexual harassment. One of our murder squad DCIs had to leave and become a handyman because of the same stuff. Head of ballistics intel was basically Jimmy Saville with a degree. When I first joined that unit, I was warned not to go for a drink if he was about because he’d ‘rape you.’
All of this would be bad enough, but what lends a terrible situation an awful air of surrealism is that as police misogyny, racism and homophobia flourished, the police adopted ‘woke’ ways with enthusiasm.
In my book Welcome To The Woke Trials, I put forward the theory that wokeism is a reactionary, not a revolutionary, creed. The fact that the police seem to prefer taking the side of the males who score high in the victimhood olympics, be they mostly Muslim men torturing mostly white female children or men pretending to be women and boasting that they kill Terfs, shows how misogyny has shape-shifted, happily assisted by the ‘justice’ system.
When Dame Vera Baird, the Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales, told a police association conference that ‘sexist’ police were putting ‘male brotherhood’ above the protection of women and girls from sexual violence, she highlighted a frightening fact.
How can a police force be both reactionary and woke? Well, when you consider that woke is a secular theocracy with a strongly authoritarian bent, it’s not that difficult to pull off at all. It’s hard to know whether the same coppers waving rainbow flags at Pride had any cross-over with those bullying the young gay policeman who heartbreakingly said ‘This will sound quite laughable. I am scared of the police. I don’t trust my own organisation’ and how much the ‘wokescreen’ – virual-signalling in order to obscure evil-doing – was at work.
Of course there were corrupt police long before identity politics began choking the breath out of our civil life. But it’s interesting that the police have paid such lip service to #BEKIND while becoming ever more nastier.
On rape in particular, the Woke Bros and the PC PCs seem to agree; the first don’t believe that ‘carceral feminism’ (sending rapists to jail) is the answer and the Met’s conviction rate for rape is so low that an anonymous officer chillingly said ‘you may as well say it’s legal in London’.
It’s interesting that though the Met is named as sexist, racist and homophobic, it’s not called transphobic. The police in general have adopted the dubious claims of the trans lobby with astounding enthusiasm. Cynics used to advise women not to shout ‘RAPE!’ but ‘FIRE!’ if they needed assistance from the bobby on the beat. Today, I’d go with ‘MISGENDER!’ Is it coincidence that taking up the trans cause has given policemen a whole new way of harassing women?
What a mess it all is. We have to ask ourselves questions we thought we’d never have to. What are we paying the police for? To dress up in uniforms and drive fast? To do the Macarena with a bunch of obstructive crusties living off the public purse? All those antics with Extinction Rebellion make sense now: both protestors and police are a bunch of anti-social parasites who look down on the rest of us for playing by the rules.
What proportion of the police are fit for purpose? And how many have left the force in despair over the endemic corruption, like the officer who said that he had so little respect for his ‘laddish’ colleagues that he took the trouble to avoid them outside of the workplace. How do we begin to clean up this mess? We can’t even say ‘give the job to a woman’ because of two awful little words: ‘Cressida’ and ‘Dick’.
Andy Warhol once wrote that if you see a man dressed up as cowboy walking along a city street, be careful because he’s probably not your fantasy – but his own. The same could be said of the 21st century British police man.
Were we naive all those years, believing that with a very few exceptions men joined the police force because they wanted to make society better instead of worse? Or ever since Dixon of Dock Green was replaced by the bent coppers of GF Newman did the sort of boys who were bullies at school think ‘That looks like fun!’ What are the brutes in blue doing right now – running around destroying evidence? Looking with fear at the Good Cops among them for the first time, not so cocky now? Or, my guess, still sneering at the chumps who pay their wages because what are we going to do, abolish the police?
QotD: “Sex trafficking cases climb in New York City – but NYPD is accused of turning a blind eye”
Walking through the streets of Queens, New York, with her two best friends at the age of 12, Melanie Thompson was being assessed. Two boys from her neighbourhood – a few years older but familiar faces from middle school – made a calculation and invited the girls indoors.
“It was really innocent at first, we were just joking around. Then they gave us alcohol and I ended up blacking out,” Melanie recalled. “When I woke up, my two girlfriends were gone. I was being raped by one of the boys.”
Melanie tried to find her clothes and escape from the basement. But she was trapped; an older man entered. “He told me I wasn’t going anywhere,” she told The Telegraph, waiving her right to anonymity. “My trafficking had started.”
Human trafficking – including sex and child trafficking – has increased worldwide in recent years. In the United States, it is now the fastest growing organised criminal activity.
“We’re seeing a very high degree of an escalation in sexual violence, and a very high degree of human trafficking taking place in and around New York City and throughout the state,” warned Dorchen Leidholdt, director of the Center for Battered Women’s Legal Services at Sanctuary for Families, the largest legal services programme for domestic violence victims in the US.
Escape attempts through a window failed. As punishment, Melanie’s face was burnt with cigarettes, a gun held against her head and told that next time she would be killed. “I know where your sister goes to school,” her pimp threatened, “I know where she lives, where she hangs out.”
Melanie was taken to underground strip clubs and raped. “He would make me dance and then sleep with the men who would stand around watching me dance, this was all before the age of 13,” she says.
Between 6pm and 7am, Melanie would be forced to walk the “track” – roads in the US known for sex work. One evening, another girl on the track said: “I feel like I’ve seen your missing poster in the train stations”.
While Melanie was trafficked just over a decade ago, the pandemic has “absolutely” caused a spike in the number of people being trafficked, Ms Leidholdt said.
“It’s the deadly combination of people losing their jobs, increasing poverty, and many victims sheltering in their homes with abusers. We’ve seen a spike in homicide of domestic violence victims,” Ms Leidholdt said.
During April 1 and Sept 30 2020 – a period in which New York experienced state-wide Covid-19 restrictions – the number of situations in which people needed immediate emergency shelter nearly doubled, compared to the same period in the previous year, according to trafficking helpline Polaris.
One New York Police Department officer confirmed Ms Leidholdt’s statements, telling The Telegraph that human trafficking cases and homicides have skyrocketed since Covid-19 lockdowns and are a “major problem” across the state.
But while New York State has “very effective laws” addressing both sex trafficking – a Class B felony which carries a maximum sentence of 25 years imprisonment – the New York Police Department is failing to step up, Ms Leidholdt said.
“Unfortunately, we find that these laws are not being enforced by the police, or that many prosecutors are not enforcing them,” she said. “That has enabled the sex trafficking industry in our city to increase and flourish – especially during the pandemic, when there has been so much poverty, vulnerability, isolation and violence.”
Alexi Meyers, a former prosecutor in human trafficking cases in Brooklyn, said that the lack of police engagement has led to an increase in pimps trafficking children living from foster care homes.
“We’ve noticed an uptick in recruitment of children outside child welfare centres [foster care homes] – that’s due to a shift in policy where the NYPD aren’t arresting the sex buyers, and there’s an attitude of free markets, and like, open air sex markets – where it’s not even hidden anymore out on the street,” Mrs Meyers said.
“One detective told us last year that on Saturday nights the Brooklyn track looks like the Long Island Expressway – a traffic jam of men rolling through to buy sex,” she added.
Ms Leidholdt, who is also a co-founder of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, said communication between human trafficking advocates and the NYPD has deteriorated over the past two years.
“When the pandemic hit, there was so much backsliding in terms of our ability to engage with police. We’ve worked hard to reach the NYPD but we have our work cut out for us, let’s put it that way,” Ms Leidholdt added.
It comes as the NYPD’s crime statistics for August 2022 saw an overall increase by 26 per cent compared to the previous year. Five of the seven major crime categories saw a jump: a 38 per cent increase in robbery, a 34.7 per cent increase in grand larceny, and a 31.1 per cent rise in burglary.
Approached for comment, a spokesperson for the deputy commissioner of public information said the NYPD had shifted its policy in 2017, which has led to overall arrests of prostitution-related charges declining, from 2,682 in 2014 to 193 arrests in 2021. There have been fewer arrests of sex workers – which trafficking advocates support – however, arrests of pimps and buyers have also decreased.
“Arrests of buyers (johns) and promoters (pimps) of sex have also gone down,” the spokesperson said. They added that the NYPD is refocusing efforts to cases involving sex trafficking, indentured servitude and the exploitation of children.
When Melanie was found by the police 13 years ago, she was arrested under a warrant used for runaway children. While waiting for officials, Melanie said she was handcuffed to a metal bench.
“They were trying to intimidate me, saying ‘you’re being arrested for prostitution’. The cops were making jokes. They were saying: ‘How bad do you want to see your mum?’” she recalls. “They left me there for a while. I was banging on the chair that I was attached to and trying to get someone’s attention because I really had to use the bathroom.”
Melanie said she urinated over herself before she was allowed to see officials.
Activists say police have engaged in how to better support victims of trafficking over the past decade, since Melanie’s detention, but victim support and training is still greatly needed. The DCPI spokesperson said the NYPD coordinates with several social service agencies who work with sex workers to help connect them to prompt and supportive services.
Local girls and women account for the largest group who are sex trafficked in New York, according to Ms Leidholdt, particularly those living in vulnerable households or foster care, LGBTQ+ people who are made homeless, and those with histories of sexual abuse.
In Queens, there is also a high incidence of sex trafficking through brothels of Asian women, principally from China and Korea, most of whom are undocumented, Ms Leidholdt said.
“There is significant trafficking from Latin America, highly organised family-based trafficking, typically of young women. They promise vulnerable young women, who are usually in conditions of poverty and teenagers, romance, marriage and support. Then they slowly groom them into sex trafficking – scores of women,” she added.
Mrs Meyers added that “communities often traffic their own”. In 2020, 42 per cent of trafficking victims in New York were brought in by a member of their families, according to Polaris. Thirty-nine per cent were recruited through an intimate partner or marriage proposal.
Ms Thompson, Ms Leidholdt and Mrs Meyers are all calling for better engagement and support services from the NYPD.
“There’s a lot of talk around what we do to keep [victims] safe or get them out, but there’s nothing really that focuses or targets on rehabilitation, so that we do not relapse,” Melanie said.
“Stop the arrest of people who are in prostitution, but keep the criminal penalties against sex buyers and exploiters, including brothel owners,” said Mrs Meyers, adding: “Seeing a 12-year-old child pregnant with a child from an abuser, there’s nothing worse. You need to fight for these women.”
QotD: “Pornhub partners with child abuse charities to intercept illegal activity”
There are 175,000 searches for sexual images on Pornhub that trigger child-abuse checks every month in the UK alone, according to data provided by a groundbreaking new chatbot designed to intercept illegal activity on the adult site.
The startling figures are revealed as the chatbot is rolled out on Pornhub, the world’s biggest pornography site, after a trial that began in March.
When someone visiting the Pornhub site uses one of 28,000 words that are linked to the abuse of children – including codewords – it will prompt a pop-up message informing them that no results exist and that they are searching for potentially abusive and illegal imagery.
The user will then be directed into a conversation about their behaviour and encouraged to get help from Stop It Now!, a helpline aimed at supporting offenders and preventing people watching online child abuse.
Tech experts at the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) – a UK-based organisation that removes images of child abuse from the internet – have spent more than two years designing the chatbot, using research gathered from offenders by a child protection charity, the Lucy Faithfull Foundation. The project has been funded by Safe Online – End Violence Against Children. Pornhub agreed to host the technology.
This is the first time a chatbot has been used to target potential abusers and the charities say they were pleased when Pornhub’s owner, MindGeek, allowed them to use it on its site. Pornhub is visited by 15 million people a month in the UK alone, a larger audience than many mainstream TV channels.
Susie Hargreaves, the chief executive of the IWF, says moving into prevention is vital. “The courts can’t keep up with this crime,” she says.
“In 2021, we removed a quarter of a million webpages containing child sexual abuse material from the internet – an increase of 64% on 2020. In the first month of the UK lockdown there were eight million attempts to access just three of the websites on our block list. These are really scary numbers.
“Prevention is key and it is to MindGeek’s credit that they stepped up to help. We needed a site with a lot of traffic, which MindGeek have provided, and I should stress that this year we have removed 169,000 pages so far with illegal content from the internet, and only one of them was on Pornhub.”
Child abuse charities are aware that working with MindGeek will be seen as a divisive move. The company has faced a string of serious allegations in recent years related to allegations of nonconsensual videos, films of children and extreme content on its sites.
In 2020 MindGeek announced it would be banning unverified video uploads after allegations by the New York Times that it had been hosting child abuse videos. MindGeek came under huge pressure to make reforms to its operating model – including losing the business of Mastercard and Visa. An investigation in the New Yorker this year reported that nonconsensual and underage videos – including those with children – have ended up on Pornhub.
The investigation follows a 2021 lawsuit that alleged MindGeek violated US sex trafficking and child pornography laws by allowing, and profiting from, its users to post pornographic videos featuring people under the age of 18. MindGeek has denied the allegations.
MindGeek’s chief executive, Feras Antoon, and its chief operating officer, David Tassillo, resigned in June, though MindGeek rejected claims the resignations were linked to the allegations.
Donald Findlater is the director of Stop It Now! and the Lucy Faithfull Foundation. He acknowledges the very serious criticisms of MindGeek in recent years but said working with them has helped reach many offenders at the beginning of their journey.
“We thought very long and hard about a collaboration with Pornhub. But this is pragmatic. We know from speaking to people who contact our helpline or who are arrested that their route to watching the abuse of children often involves accessing legal porn and then searching from there.
“To be clear, that is not the journey all offenders make, but it is the journey for some and we need to serve warnings to them – that children were harmed to make these images and are further harmed by continual viewing.”
The numbers involved in the online child abuse crisis are huge and growing all the time. About 850 people, virtually all of them men, are arrested each month in England and Wales for downloading indecent images or grooming children online. In 2010 there were only 407 arrests across the entire year – a 25-fold rise.
Dan Sexton is the chief technology officer at the IWF. “Our job is to eliminate child sexual abuse so we need to go where we can do that – that would apply to many websites,” he says. “If we can reach people earlier, reduce the number of people who search for children, then it will reduce demand.”
The Guardian has previously reported on concerns around pornography that fetishises child abuse, rape, incest and “revenge porn”.
Hargreaves did not want to comment on wider criticisms that the porn industry promotes fantasies of sex with minors through films acted by adults. “The issue is so huge, we have to focus on real children who are being sexually abused.”
A spokesperson for Pornhub said: “Pornhub has zero tolerance for child sexual abuse material, and we are honoured to partner with leading organisations like IWF and Stop It Now! to deploy this groundbreaking technology that will help deter bad actors before they commit a crime. While Pornhub utilises deterrence messaging worldwide, the chatbot serves as an additional layer of social intervention being piloted in the UK.
“We encourage other tech platforms to implement tools like the chatbot as part of a strategy of deterrence.”
Findlater is optimistic that despite the huge scale of the challenge, the chatbot is just the beginning. He says: “UK law enforcement and tech experts are really at the forefront globally of tackling the online child-abuse crisis and I think this chatbot can continue to grow and develop and eventually protect children from abuse which is what we all want to achieve.”
QotD: “Soma Sara: Extreme porn is rewiring boys’ brains to sanction rape culture”
The testimonials are devastating, yet they keep coming — 50,000 teenagers have posted on Everyone’s Invited since it was launched two summers ago.
Thirteen-year-old girls forced to smile as they are choked by a line of boys in the school lavatories, 15-year-olds watching nude pictures of themselves being shared at parties and projected on the walls, desperate tales of children too terrified to tell adults about the culture of harassment, assault and sexual humiliation that they are enduring in the playground. The authors remain anonymous but the sense of pain is overwhelming. The most recent starts: “I was 12 when I was raped. I had forgotten my homework . . .”
Soma Sara, 23, set up Everyone’s Invited after facing years of humiliation and degradation at the hands of boys while a schoolgirl and student in London. She has now written a book of the same name to make sense of the “torrent of tears” she has witnessed since her Instagram campaign highlighting sexual abuse went viral and schools were forced to conduct inquiries. The quietly spoken, poised graduate is not an obvious Generation Z influencer: she disappeared for months from the news after I interviewed her last year, tries to avoid social media in favour of novels and prefers cafés to clubs.
I meet her in Notting Hill, west London, reeling from her Everyone’s Invited book launch the night before when her old English teacher came to congratulate her. Sara writes beautifully about porn, pick-up culture and surviving the abuse that permeated her childhood and thrived in dark corners as adults obsessed about exam results and bedtimes.
“It’s been harrowing reading the testimonies,” she admits. “It’s psychological, it’s physical, like a friend telling you every few minutes about being raped. I underestimated how much of a toll it would take on my life. I was getting burnt out but it was so moving and emotional to see young people having the strength to share something so intimate and to be so heartbreakingly honest that I felt I had to keep going. I never imagined it would explode on this scale.”
What Sara did not expect was the backlash from mothers of sons, worried that their boys were being stigmatised and might be wrongly challenged over their actions. “I had to learn how to be empathetic enough to understand their fear. The instinctive thing to do is to try and absolve responsibility and protect their children. My book tries to explain that we are all responsible for this rape culture and need to work together to change it. I want to bridge the generational gap and help parents and teachers understand the modern sexual landscape, the rise of social media and online pornography and how it has dramatically changed the way the young live.”
The second of three sisters, Sara was raised by a single father, an American who works in sustainable energy. Her Chinese mother is a writer. The impetus for Everyone’s Invited partly came from Sara’s realisation that she did not want her much younger sister to face the same problems she had as a teenager. “I see even now with my little sister how society has got its tentacles wrapped round her so young. She is told she is pretty and pink and perfect, there is an expectation of behaviour because she is a girl.”
Meanwhile boys, she says, are increasingly being manipulated by toxic alpha-male influencers, promoting a masculinity “that is about domination and suppression and hurting and belittling women and competing and winning”. She is referring to men such as Andrew Tate, recently banned from Facebook and TikTok for his glorification of rape culture and abuse of women. “The older generation have no idea how toxic he is.”
Parents and teachers, she warns, should be worried. “We are in a moment when we need to be really reaching out and helping boys because they are vulnerable to radicalisation, essentially. This is hateful, anti-feminist ideology and boys deserve better, they should be able to talk openly about their mental health, to be emotional and share their vulnerability.
“The masculinity now being promoted is all very aggressive and febrile and about making money and taming women. You have to be this rock of a man who is dominating and objectifying and oppressing women rather than befriending them.” The gap between the generations, she feels, is wider than for years. “Young people genuinely are online all day. They’ll spend eight hours scrolling, it’s such a different way to live from their parents. Their on- and offline personas have become entangled.”
But it is porn that worries her most. “It’s the biggest mountain we have to tackle. Porn is the wallpaper that framed our lives.” One young author recently wrote about how when she was 12 she saw a woman being involved in a sex act with a frozen fish online. Sara says, “It’s far more extreme now, it’s about suppression and objectification and much of the time lacks consent. All young people have seen online porn. It’s transforming and rewiring boys’ brains to normalise sexual violence and sanction rape culture. How can a 30-minute PHSE class challenge that?” Her friends, now in their twenties, are questioning why they were allowed access to such extreme content. “It’s harmed many relationships and the distribution of power. A 14-year-old boy shouldn’t think it’s normal for a girl to cry when she’s having sex.”
Why can’t girls just say “no” when their male peers try to coerce them into abusive behaviour? “Boys would say you’re being a prude or selfish or frigid if you don’t do this. Girls don’t want to get a reputation for being boring or vanilla and adults weren’t telling us what was normal and acceptable. It would have been transformative for my age group if the older generation of women had said, ‘You deserve to prioritise your sexual pleasure too, you should be able to explore your sexuality in a safe way’.”
Instead, she says, talk about sex has remained taboo. “When you are very young and someone asks you to have anal sex it’s too awkward to ask an adult if that’s right, you probably haven’t even spoken to your parents or teachers about kissing. My generation felt so isolated with no one to talk to about these issues. It was peer-on-peer normalisation setting the standards and no adult said — that’s not OK, that’s not what we are doing in real life.”
Casual sex, she says, was the default. “Of course, there were some teens having normal long-term relationships but there was this huge pick-up thing and casual sex was normal.” Sara worries about the blurring between consensual and non-consensual sex. “Our testimonies show that boys will jump to do abusive stuff without asking because they think it is normal.’’
In her book, Soma examines the myriad pressures on her generation of women. “Social media has added another male gaze online with TikTok and Instagram and unrealistic standards of beauty, women getting Botox and liposuction. When you are young you want to feel admired. Getting likes feels empowering but it hasn’t given us any more control.”
Digital sex is real sex, Sara says, for a generation living online. “If you judge and shame young girls for sending nude pics you are creating an even more isolating system, the world is seen as hostile rather than helpful.
“We had so many testimonies of 11-year-olds being forced by older boys to share nudes and then suspended when the boys have shared them round. The abuse was seen as the girls’ fault, they were the sluts. But they are children and need protecting, not punishing.” Sara adds that as a teenager she also faced racism. “It’s like another layer of dehumanisation. Look at the porn categories: Latina, ebony, Asian babe. It’s fetishising racism.”
Sometimes parents and teachers say to boys: “Imagine if it’s your sister or mother, you wouldn’t behave that way, would you?” Sara particularly dislikes this form of explanation in sex lessons. “You shouldn’t need to say that girls are human beings — they don’t belong to anyone.”
Politicians, Sara feels, must take children’s concerns seriously. “They are more interested in what is woke among the young rather than what is actually affecting them and they aren’t acting as role models. Having 56 MPs in parliament who have been accused of assault and another who was done for watching porn at work sends out a message to my generation that this kind of behaviour is OK even when you reach the top.”
Her generation, she says, is not weak or “weirdly woke”. “Generation Z are facing huge stress and insecurity: house prices, a looming recession, inflation and then climate change, whether to have children, it feels quite bleak. The issues that are prioritised aren’t ones that matter most to us. When I go round schools, I see 16-year-olds who are so thoughtful and interesting about abuse online and power imbalances, yet the adults aren’t discussing it with them. Sex education should be as important as maths lessons.”
Sara says the pressure has eased slightly now she is in her twenties. “I think the death of Sarah Everard last year showed my generation that you aren’t safe at any age. It’s second nature for my girlfriends and me now to put our keys between our knuckles, walk fast down a street late at night, check our drinks, and say ‘Text me when you get home’. There is implied violence in all that. But I get less hassle now then as a teenager in school uniform.”
There must be a way of the sexes co-existing harmoniously in the 21st century. “I think we need to help boys and men and communicate with them and let them know how we feel and what reaction they are provoking.
“That’s why I have written Everyone’s Invited, to help men as well as women, boys and girls and parents, we all need to have this sex conversation together.”
QotD: “This is a hard lesson society is still learning: sex offenders are husbands, dads, people holding down respectable jobs”
Rebecca Myers has dedicated her life to trying to change the most brutal of Britain’s serial rapists and abusers. When people hear that, they always want her to reveal the “worst” thing she has heard.
Go on, they say, as though it’s an episode of The Killing or CSI. Myers, who is a forensic psychologist working with deviant criminals, will give away a few things, such as the fact that she can’t look at a table knife casually left in the butter over breakfast after her prison housed a man who stabbed his girlfriend in the bath and left the knife behind, stuck in. Or that the theme tune to Coronation Street gives her chills. One of her first cases was a man who went on a three-year raping spree, breaking into the homes of single women while wearing an animal mask. On one occasion he hid behind the sofa of his next victim in his terrifying costume as she, oblivious and happy, watched her favourite soap opera.
The actual worst thing? She won’t tell me that — she is scared it will contaminate me too. “I have never told a soul, and never will.” That’s her job, to suffer so that others don’t, to save other women.
One of the worst things she has heard wasn’t exactly a crime. It was after a lifetime of getting into the heads of these men through a gruelling and expensive rehabilitation programme for sex offenders that thousands of male prisoners in this country undertook over a two-decade period, at a taxpayer cost of an estimated £100 million. She personally started working with the Sex Offender Treatment Programme (SOTP) when she was 22, soon after she joined one of Britain’s most notorious prisons, known for the number of inmates convicted for sexual or violent offences. She worked with them, including the mask-wearing rapist, out of idealism and trust.
Then, in 2017, after Myers had spent 16 years on the front line of the SOTP, the results of a national evaluation came in. The SOTP didn’t work. It was abruptly abandoned. She had spent so long attempting to change people who had done horrible things, and when they were released they went out and did them again at just the same rate as the men who hadn’t attempted any change.
QotD: “Rise in popularity of anal sex has led to health problems for women”
Women in the UK are suffering injuries and other health problems as a result of the growing popularity of anal sex among straight couples, two NHS surgeons have warned.
The consequences include incontinence and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) as well as pain and bleeding because they have experienced bodily trauma while engaging in the practice, the doctors write in an article in the British Medical Journal.
Tabitha Gana and Lesley Hunt also argued that doctors’ reluctance to discuss the risks associated with anal sex was leading to women being harmed by the practice and letting down a generation of women who are not aware of the potential problems.
In the journal, they said “anal intercourse is considered a risky sexual behaviour because of its association with alcohol, drug use and multiple sex partners”.
However, “within popular culture it has moved from the world of pornography to mainstream media” and TV shows including Sex and the City and Fleabag may have contributed to the trend by making it seem “racy and daring”.
However, women who engage in anal sex are at greater risk from it than men. “Increased rates of faecal incontinence and anal sphincter injury have been reported in women who have anal intercourse,” the report said.
“Women are at a higher risk of incontinence than men because of their different anatomy and the effects of hormones, pregnancy and childbirth on the pelvic floor.
“Women have less robust anal sphincters and lower anal canal pressures than men, and damage caused by anal penetration is therefore more consequential.
“The pain and bleeding women report after anal sex is indicative of trauma, and risks may be increased if anal sex is coerced,” they said.
National Survey of Sexual Attitudes research undertaken in Britain has found that the proportion of 16- to 24-year-olds engaging in heterosexual anal intercourse has risen from 12.5% to 28.5% over recent decades. Similarly, in the US 30% to 45% of both sexes have experienced it.
“It is no longer considered an extreme behaviour but increasingly portrayed as a prized and pleasurable experience,” wrote Hunt, a surgeon in Sheffield, and Gana, a trainee colorectal surgeon in Yorkshire.
Many doctors, though, especially GPs and hospital doctors, are reluctant to talk to women about the risks involved, partly because they do not want to seem judgmental or homophobic, they add.
“However, with such a high proportion of young women now having anal sex, failure to discuss it when they present with anorectal symptoms exposes women to missed diagnoses, futile treatments and further harm arising from a lack of medical advice,” the surgeons said.
NHS patient information about the risks of anal sex is incomplete because it only cites STIs, and makes “no mention of anal trauma, incontinence or the psychological aftermath of the coercion young women report in relation to this activity”.
Health professionals’ disinclination to discuss the practice openly with patients “may be failing a generation of young women, who are unaware of the risks”.
Claudia Estcourt, a professor of sexual health and HIV and member of the British Association for Sexual Health and HIV (BASHH), backed the surgeons’ call for doctors to talk openly about anal sex.
“BASHH strongly supports the call for careful, non-judgmental inquiry about anal sex in the context of women with anal symptoms,” she said.
“Within sexual health services, women are routinely asked about the types of sex they have so that comprehensive assessment of likely cause of symptoms, investigations needed and management can be made.
“We find that by explaining why we are asking these questions, asking them in sensitive, non-judgmental ways and giving patients time to answer, are all key to providing the best care.
“We are highly skilled in assessment of women with possible sexually caused anal trauma, whether through consensual or non-consensual sex, and would encourage women with concerns to contact their local sexual health clinic or sexual assault service as appropriate.”