ALL PARTY PARLIAMENTARY GROUP RESPONSE
Links Between Pornography, Sexual Coercion, and Violence in the Lives of Children and Young People.
by Heather Brunskell-Evans
There is much evidence that children and young people are exposed to pornography, and that pornography contributes to a conducive context for sexual violence, particularly in the lives of girls and young women.
Three major studies are:
1. The NSPCC and Middlesex University (1)
In 2015 a survey commissioned by the NSPCC from Middlesex University researched young people’s consumption of internet pornography and its impact on them. The survey polled nearly 700 children aged12 to 13 in the UK. The results reveal that: one in five said they had viewed images that shocked or disturbed them; one in ten is worried that he or she is addicted to pornography; and 12% admitted to making or performing in a sexually explicit video.
These figures suggest that the private lives of pre-teens are deeply affected by internet pornography. The findings highlight not only the scale with which young people are being exposed to online pornography, but also the numbers who see it inadvertently.
Although the survey was not carried out with specific reference to differential effects on boys and girls, the data reveal: the negative effects exposure can have on children’s emotions, particularly first exposure; that a proportion continue to search for pornography after seeing it inadvertently; feelings of shock and confusion can dissipate as children become seemingly de-sensitised to the content; a significant minority want to emulate what they have seen online; and there is a perception, particularly by boys, that what they have viewed is realistic.
2. The London School of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (2)
In 2014 The London School of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene completed a qualitative, longitudinal study of the expectations, experiences and circumstances of anal sex among 130 young people aged 16–18.
The results demonstrated teenage boys expect anal hetero-sex, even though they know it might be uncomfortable or even painful for girls. Correspondingly, although anal sex was often experienced by teenage girls as painful, and some dreaded it, they submitted because boys persuaded them or coerced them.
Interviewees frequently cited pornography as the explanation for anal sex, yet their accounts revealed a complex context with availability of pornography being only one element. Other key elements included competition between the boys with regard to ‘masculine’ prowess; the claim that ‘people must like it if they do it’ (made alongside the seemingly contradictory expectation that it will be painful for girls); and crucially, the normalisation of boys’ coercion of girls and ‘accidental’ penetration.
The study concluded that young people’s narratives normalise coercive, painful and unsafe anal hetero-sex. There is an urgent need for harm reduction efforts to help encourage discussion between young people about mutuality and consent, and to challenge views that normalise boys’ sexual coercion of girls and girls’ acquiescence.
3. The Women and Equality Commission and the Girls’ Attitudes Surveys (3)
In 2016 the Women and Equality Commission Inquiry into sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools used data from the Girls’ Attitudes Surveys. The Girlguiding Association annually gathers research into the opinions of girls and young women aged 7-21 throughout the UK. Over 1,500 girls and young women, inside and outside of guiding across the UK, participate each year.
Surveys have repeatedly reported that girls experience high levels of sexual harassment in schools. This harassment affects girls’ behaviour and performance in class and their health and wellbeing.
In 2015, when asked what impact pornography has on levels of sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools, the data demonstrates that girls worry they are left to learn about sex and relationships through the prism of pornography. 60% of girls said they see boys their age viewing pornography in school on mobile devices such as phones or tablets. They felt very strongly that pornography has a negative impact on boys’ behaviour in school.
Young women aged 17- 21 felt that pornography has a wider impact on them. 87% said online pornography creates unrealistic expectations of what women’s bodies should look like. The influence of pornography on relationships was one of their top concerns. 71% thought online pornography makes aggressive and violent behaviour towards women seem normal, and 65% thought pornography increases hateful language used about/to women.
The Girlguiding Association concluded their data draws attention to the wider, societal context of sexual harassment and sexual violence that girls and young women face. Harassment and sexual violence must be confronted as part of a wider response to tackling gender inequality.
The Challenges of Implementing the Current Regulatory and Legal Framework
Research has found that pornography is linked to children and young people’s beliefs that women are sex objects, to negative and even fearful attitudes towards sex, and to sexual violence within schools. What legal steps, if any, have been taken to implement effective safeguards online and to reduce the harms of pornography?
The current changes to the regulatory framework include:
1) Age Verification
In 2014 the Coalition Government introduced legislation that compelled UK ISPs to provide parental controls, presenting the bill-payer with a choice to block or allow pornographic content. Major ISPs such as BT, Virgin, TalkTalk and Sky have introduced these features.
Technology safety filters on desktop computers and lap tops proved insufficient to prevent children’s access to pornography. Firstly, not all parents apply safety filters, and secondly many children access the internet through hand-held devices such as smart phones. In 2015, Ofcom reported that for the first time, smartphones had overtaken laptops as the most popular device for getting online in the UK. Most, if not all, safety features on smartphones can be circumvented by anyone with sufficient technological knowledge – which often includes children.
In 2015 The Conservative Party’s manifesto pledge was to make the UK the safest place in the world for children to go online. Further legal steps to implement safeguards have involved making age verification compulsory for commercial pornography sites. The law, when it is finally implemented, will require all pornography websites to verify the age of visitors from the UK or face being blocked. This regulation will be achieved through credit card ownership and electoral register cross-checks.
Age-verification will not prevent children from witnessing the copious free pornography online. Pornographic content is also transmitted through other forms of social media. There are no parental controls for Snapchat and Instagram, for example, nor for messaging apps. Parents cannot always monitor conversations or images because most of them can be deleted or delete themselves directly after transmission.
2. Prohibiting the Depiction of Rape in Pornography (4)
The Criminal Justice and Court Bill Act 2015 made it an offence to possess pornographic images that realistically depict rape by penetration of a person’s vagina, anus or mouth by a penis or other object. This measure was part of the Conservative Government’s pledge to regulate violence in pornography. However, the most widely consumed pornographic content features violent and aggressive scenes as standard, and almost all of the violence and aggression portrays women as being multiply penetrated, and either accepting it or consenting to it (5)
The most ‘popular’ acts are vaginal, anal and oral penetration of a woman (in combinations of various orifices being penetrated, and by varying numbers of men, often simultaneously); gagging; ass-to-mouth penetration; and ‘bukkake’, involving ejaculation onto a woman’s body, face, hair, eyes, ears or mouth (6)
Discussions of pornographic content and its relationship with violence is frequently derailed by opponents of regulation who claim it is impossible to make definitive statements due to the diversity of content. However, this claim usually serves to bolster a perspective that is largely uncritical of what constitutes mainstream pornography. XHamster and Pornhub are two of the most frequently visited sites in the UK, with a user survey finding that in one month in 2014 these sites were visited by 2, 737, 000 and 2, 528, 000 unique UK users respectively. Pornhub is particularly popular among UK males between aged 12-17 (7)
The categories featured on these two sites give a good indication of what constitutes mainstream content. ‘Straight’ categories, which comprise the overwhelming majority on both sites, indicate the dominance of certain themes. With very few exceptions the content is clearly directed at a presumed male audience; it refers directly to the penetration of a woman by a penis, or multiple penises e.g. ‘anal’, ‘blowjobs’, ‘gangbang’, ‘DP’, ‘fisting’; and it violates women’s bodily boundaries e.g. ‘creampie’, ‘bukkake’, ‘up-skirts’, ‘hidden cams’.
Conclusions: The Effectiveness of the Laws; and Recommendations
The Criminal Justice and Court Bill Act has not helped reduce representations of sexual violence towards women. Pornography naturalises the woman’s violability, and the penetration of women’s orifices is standard fare. Pornography repeatedly invites the viewer to watch men repetitively penetrating women in multiple ways. The women are ‘done to’, acted upon, treated as lacking in boundary integrity, as something that it is permissible to break into (8)
With regard to age-verification, there are three ‘traditional’ objections to it made by opponents. First, responsibility for preventing children’s access to pornography lies with parents not the state. Second, the legal changes are a vehicle for gathering personal data and pose enormous privacy risks for viewers. Age verification would create a direct link between identifiable persons and their viewing habits. Third, the requirement for age-verification will have an effect on small independent pornography companies and curtail their freedoms of expression whilst allowing multinational pornography giants such as Pornhub and XHamster to monopolise the industry.
We do not support these objections: First, sole parental responsibility is clearly unworkable, even with the parents’ best of intentions. Second, would the new regulation increase surveillance of our private habits any more than the myriad current online surveillance practices to which we are already subject, whether voluntarily or involuntarily? Since the consumption of violence in pornography has become so ubiquitous and acceptable, does the fear of surveillance say more about personal anxiety than it does about the chances of illegitimate government interference? Third, whose sexual freedoms and rights are advanced by these objections? Does the fear of government control and the possible impact on small independent producers matter more than the protection of children?
The idea that pornography helps shape children and young people’s sexuality and social behaviour is often eschewed by lobby groups as nothing more than a ‘moral panic’.(9) However, pornography clearly has a tangible impact on young people’s lives as evidenced above. There is an identifiable causal relationship between pornography, the shaping of children and young people’s sexual relationships and identities, and sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools. The pornography industry itself has no qualms about acknowledging the relationship between pornography and the shaping of the consumer – sophisticated marketing technologies and public relations companies are dedicated to strategizing how to manipulate our most personal, intimate sexual desires and embodied experiences.
In conclusion, any liberal democratic government, on either the left or right, is compelled to regulate social conduct, and in doing weighs up costs and benefits. We argue regulating ISPs with regard to age restriction would, on the whole, increase freedom rather than decrease it. Age-verification checks will go some way to safeguarding children, although children will still have access to free material. The relationship between pornography and violence cannot be reduced to a simple one of cause and effect. Pornography itself is the product and outcome of a culture where girls and women are sexually objectified, the blurring of ‘consent’ is eroticised, and where sexual harassment and sexual violence is prevalent. We recommend that in considering the links between pornography and sexual violence, the APPG also focusses on the culture out of which pornography emerges.
Dr Heather Brunskell-Evans
Spokeswoman for the charity FiLiA, Policy on Violence Against Women and Girls:
Spokeswoman for OBJECT: Women Not Objects:
(1) Martellozzo, E., Monaghan, A, Adler, J. R., Davidson, J, Leyva, R. and Horvath, M. A. H. (2017). “I wasn’t sure it was normal to watch it...” A quantitative and qualitative examination of the impact of online pornography on the values, attitudes, beliefs and behaviours of children and young people. London: Middlesex University doi:10.6084/m9.figshare.3382393
(2) Marston C, Lewis R. Anal hetero-sex among young people and implications for health promotion: a qualitative study in the UK. BMJ Open 2014;4:e004996. doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2014- 004996
(3) Women and Equality Committee Inquiry: Sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools - Girlguiding Response, May 2016
(4) The Criminal Justice and Court Bill Act (effective 13th April 2015) introduced an extension of the offence of extreme pornography; specifically criminalising the possession of pornographic images depicting rape and assault by penetration.
(5) Bridges et al (2010) ‘Aggression and sexual behaviour in best-selling pornography videos: A content analysis update. Violence Against Women, 16, 1065-1085
(6) Dines, G (2010) Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality. Boston: Beacon Press
(7) Regulator for television on-demand, ATVOD, 2014
(8) Long, J. (2016) ‘The Violable Woman: Cosmetic Practices and the Pornographic (De)Construction of Women’s Bodies’ in Brunskell-Evans, H. (ed.) (2016) The Sexualized Body and The Medical Authority of Pornography: Performing Sexual Liberation. Cambridge Scholars: Newcastle