Reality TV

Is porn causing rape culture among young people in the UK and how effective is age verification?



Trigger warning: sexual abuse.

The UK has been rocked by the ‘school sex scandal’ after thousands of survivors of sexual violence shared their stories on a site called Everyone’s Invited. The platform has exposed widespread misogyny among schoolboys towards girls as young as 9-years-old. As Anne-Marie Tomchak reports, the scandal has opened up a new chapter in the conversation on the role that porn plays in the rise of rape culture and it has given a fresh voice to those who’ve been urgently calling for age verification on porn sites for years. Will thousands of testimonies from survivors finally be enough to make the powers that be hold Big Porn to account?

The UK has a rape culture problem. In case you were in any doubt of that, take a few minutes to read some of the testimonies on the platform Everyone’s Invited. It was founded by 22-year-old Soma Sara, after she took to her Instagram in June 2020 to post about her experiences on the reality of being a school girl in the UK. “It was only after years of reflection and from chatting to my friends long after these events that I realised how prevalent rape culture was in school. I received hundreds of replies to that Instagram post and it gave me a sense of the scale of the problem,” she says.

The outpouring that Soma received prompted her to set up Everyone’s Invited. On 8 March 2021 (International Women’s Day) she asked her community to anonymously submit their testimonies on the website with the goal of eradicating rape culture and finding a path towards reconciliation. Within weeks the site has already received more than 14,404 testimonies (at time of writing) and has been described as potentially “the biggest explosion in sexual abuse since Jimmy Savile”.

The range and spectrum of the incidents outlined in the testimonies is truly shocking. It makes for painful and distressing reading and is difficult to put into words. Girls describe being groped on public transport while in their school uniform, being harassed for nudes and blackmailed by school mates, being filmed while being raped by several boys and then being shamed and humiliated with videos of the incident posted on social media. Phones, social media and tech platforms are used as a weapon with nudes of girls being distributed on Google drives, for example. It sounds like anyone’s worst nightmare. But for school girls (and boys) all over the country, it is part of everyday life.

The ripple effect of Everyone’s Invited is already being felt. The government set up an immediate review into sexual abuse in schools asking Ofsted to look into safeguarding policies straight away and a helpline run by the NSPCC has been opened. But the question about where this culture has been allowed to take root is being debated. One of the places where the spotlight has been cast is on the porn industry. Or, more specifically, Big Porn – that is, commercial porn that dominates the online space where adult content is accessible by practically anyone with an internet connection and a device. This potentially includes 10-year-old children who’ve just been given their first mobile phone as they head to big school.

Parents, campaigners and child protection experts want age verification tools to be introduced so that adult content isn’t accessible to minors. “It seems so blatantly obvious to me that pornography should not just be openly accessible online,” says Naomi Greenway, a Daily Telegraph journalist and parent of three. Naomi has started a petition calling on the government to protect children from online porn and make age verification mandatory. She wants porn websites and platforms that distribute pornographic content (such as Google and social media sites like Twitter) to be regulated. “It’s crazy that any child of any age is just one click away from viewing the most hardcore adult material the world has to offer. It’s shocking that the government has let it get to this stage and hasn’t taken responsibility for safeguarding our children online,” she says.

At the moment porn sites are not required by law to verify the age of their users. “We are way behind with laws on children accessing adult content,” says Abhilash Nair, a lawyer and author of ‘The Regulation of Internet Pornography’. “The focus of the law in the UK has been to tackle child abuse material where children are the object or target of the image. The law is strict in that regard. But when it comes to stopping children accessing or being exposed to explicit content, that’s where the law is non-existent.”

“The solution seems so simple,” adds Naomi. “the Government needs to legislate so that pornography sites have to put their material behind a paywall or require age verification. Platforms that distribute the material should also be held accountable. A newsagent would be prosecuted for selling an adult magazine to a child, so why is Google any different? The material online is much more hardcore.”

Plans were afoot to bring in a “porn pass” in the UK (through the Digital Economy Act 2017) which would’ve compelled companies like MindGeek (the owner of sites like PornHub and RedTube) to ensure kids didn’t access their content. But these plans were abandoned by the government at the end of 2019. There was little to no official explanation from the government at the time for why the initial age verification plans were dropped. Apparently it was due to difficulties in implementing it which is baffling considering that age verification technology is not new and it has been successfully applied to other industries such as online gambling. Glamour UK has reached out to the government to seek clarity.

The porn industry and age verification companies had spent millions getting ready. But the government ended up kicking it into the long grass by moving the plans over to the Online Safety Bill instead. “This is a terrible day for UK children,” wrote child safety expert John Carr at the time. He interpreted the change of plan as the government “condemning Britain’s children to being exposed to horrific scenes of sexual violence for a further two, three, maybe four years” and said that the law could easily have been introduced and than adjusted as part of the Online Harms White Paper.

“The Digital Economy Act wasn’t perfect,” says Abhilash Nair. “It wouldn’t have covered social media sites, for example, where there is a lot of user generated content (UGC).” It’s now hoped that the Online Safety Bill will take a broader approach to include companies who host UGC. But there are concerns that the scope of the Online Safety Bill may erroneously exclude many commercial pornography sites who do not host this type of content. A sizeable portion of content on porn sites is footage and content that people have created themselves.

Abhilash says unless this loophole is addressed the porn companies would simply change this aspect of their offering to get around the new legislation: the Government should ensure that commercial pornography companies fall within the remit of the new law. “Regulation has to be focused on restricting access to content rather than regulating the content itself as what’s obscene to one person is acceptable to another,” he adds.

“The problem is no one wants to talk about porn,” says Kate Isaacs, 28, founder of #NotYourPorn campaign. “If we start regulating the porn industry, we start accepting it and discussing it in parliament and in schools and other places. The reality is porn is already a mainstream industry. But when we don’t talk about it we give it more power.”

Kate started the #NotYourPorn campaign after her friend’s sex tape was leaked onto PornHub. She reported that her pal was under 18 in the video and the content was removed only to discover that it was quickly re-uploaded by another user. The experience of trying to help her friend get out of this distressing situation highlighted how little the law does to prohibit businesses from profiting from revenge porn. The industry is not regulating itself. The #NotYourPorn campaign wants regulations to protect children, victims of image based abuse and sex workers.

#NotYourPorn identifies as a sex positive campaign and isn’t out to vilify all porn. But it does have an issue with Big Porn – the likes of MindGeek which dominates up to 80% of the commercial porn industry. “If you look at Big Porn it has really hurt ethical and representative porn. There is so much racism and misogyny on these big porn platforms. It stands to reason that’s what kids are being exposed to and it has a massive effect on social values and norms,” says Kate. “The lack of consent that is normalised on porn sites plays a big part. Popular genres include secret cam footage, flashing and secret snaps.”

“I have definitely seen testimonies referring to porn and the impact that it has had on people,” says Sara Soma of the accounts being documented on Everyone’s Invited (she didn’t go into specific examples). So just how widely accessible is porn to young people and how does it affect them? In a horrible turn of events, is life imitating art when it comes to porn and teen interactions? And is porn directly responsible for the rise in rape culture?

“We need to bear in mind that everyone reacts to porn in a different way. Sexual violence is shaped by multiple social and cultural factors but porn is definitely one of the risk factors,” says Dr Elena Martellozzo, a criminologist and associate professor at the centre for Child Abuse and Trauma Studies at Middlesex University. Dr Martellozzo and her colleagues published a study earlier this year which interviewed 11,000 young people aged between 11 and 16. “We asked if online porn had given them ideas to try out and a significant number said it had. About half (48%) of the people we spoke to had seen porn. They were predominantly in the older group,” says Martellozzo. “Over half (53%) of the boys who’s seen porn thought it was realistic compared to 39% of the girls.”

“Girls feel undermined by pornography which objectifies them and promotes engaging in sex that is painful or degrading,” adds Dr Martellozzo. They felt pressure to perform and look a certain way with large breasts and shaved bodies. When young people see porn for the first time the most common feeling is shock and disgust. But over time this is replaced with excitement. The more they saw porn the more normalised the behaviour depicted became.” says Martellozzo.

This shock that kids express about porn was also reported in a study published in January 2020 about young people, porn and age verification by the British Board of Film Classification. It found that kids as young as 7 are exposed to porn online and that younger children found porn upsetting and disturbing. The report found that half of children actually want to be locked out of adult sites, and believe that age verification would stop them from accidentally coming acrossing explicit content.

Research outside of the UK is also revealing. A study of over 4,500 young people aged 14-17 in five European countries found a link between boys’ regularly watching porn and sexual coercion and abuse. Boys who regularly watched online pornography were also significantly more likely to hold negative gender attitudes. And another study carried out in Holland found that the more exposure boys had to understanding and talking about porn, the less of a negative attitude they had towards women.

So with porn so readily available and easy to access, and the absence of immediate legislation to safeguard children through age verification, what is the answer? The need for more conversation about porn and consent and bringing porn into sex education is something that all of the people I spoke to raised as being important: “Discussing porn more openly and honestly is part of the solution. Young people need our help to contextualise what they see online. I don’t think just limiting access to porn is the answer,” said Elena Martellozzo. “The nature and diversity of porn online has distorted children’s perceptions of what is normal. I would go as far as to say that some children get their first lesson in sex education on porn sites,” says Abhilash Nair.

“Sexual exploration doesn’t just exist in the physical world. I think what’s happened with Everyone’s Invited has marked the beginning of a new day. Our institutions need to step up. Porn needs to be included in sex education. By putting it underground we’re giving it a lot of power,” adds Kate Isaacs.

For young women like Soma Sara providing a platform for people to speak out is just the first step. She believes the emphasis should be on education and not only on restricting adult content. “It’s 2021 and it feels like we have gone backwards rather than forwards. We’ve been living in a shame culture that stigmatises speaking out about sexual violence and rape culture. Everyone’s Invited is performing a function by allowing people to verbalise their trauma. It’s offering a sense of catharsis and empowerment. These testimonies are really only the tip of the iceberg.”

If you’ve been affected by the issues raised in this article, the NSPCC’s Report Abuse in Education helpline can be reached on 0800 136 663 Monday to Friday 8am-10pm and from 9am-6pm at weekends. It can also be contacted by email at help@nspcc.org.uk. There is a range of advice and resources at everyonesinvite.uk/help. If you want to talk to your child about porn there are a range of expert resources available online.



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