The Government has announced plans to update the draft Online Safety Bill to require commercial pornography websites to implement urgently-needed age assurance measures – in order to prevent children’s exposure to pornography.
This is a critical component in efforts to tackle the current culture of normalised misogyny and abuse, which I wrote about last year in ‘Protecting children from pornography is crucial to end violence against women and girls’ (reproduced below).
Currently, it is illegal to make pornography available to children in the offline world, but online they can easily access deeply disturbing, hardcore material. Modern day pornography is violent, misogynistic and racist. The very fact that it is so easy to access sends a powerful normative message to children. It is well-established that children’s exposure to pornography has deeply harmful consequences, having a significant influence on boys’ attitudes towards women and girls – and girls’ views of what is expected of them.
In 2017, Parliament passed legislation mandating that pornography websites should verify users’ ages. However, the Government then failed to implement this crucial child protection measure, resulting in further untold (and preventable) harm to masses of children. We cannot afford to fail more generations of young people. This week’s Government announcement that it will finally introduce age assurance measures is an overdue first step in an urgently needed national conversation about the harms of online pornography to society.
Misogynistic pornography is pervasive in the lives of children today
The scale at which children are currently being exposed to online pornography is deeply troubling. The vast majority of top pornography websites visited by UK users provide instant, free and unrestricted access to hardcore pornographic videos and images – including to children. So it is no surprise that recent research by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) found that half of 11 to 13-year-olds had seen pornography, and half of them said it was only ever by accident.
Pornography websites promote and profit from profoundly harmful sexist and racist attitudes, whilst normalising the commercial sexual exploitation of adults and children. As Diana Johnson MP said in Parliament last year, “contemporary pornography is overwhelmingly violent and misogynistic, and it feeds and fuels that toxic attitude that we see, particularly towards women and girls.”
One analysis of popular pornographic videos found that 88% of scenes contained physical aggression and nearly half contained verbal aggression. Perpetrators of aggression were usually male, whereas the targets were overwhelmingly female. Pornography also capitalises from presenting racially degrading stereotypes as sexual entertainment. According to Gail Dines and Robert Jensen, “the racism of the industry is so pervasive that it goes largely unnoticed”.
The severity of the content available on today’s pornography websites cannot be overstated. Last year, leading pornography website Pornhub was found to be hosting videos of rape, sex trafficking and child sexual exploitation.
Moreover, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) confirms that many pornography websites host content that may be illegal, including “content that depicts, for example, abuse or rape, including sex between purported family members, scenarios involving non-consensual activity, actors presented to appear under the age of consent, and aggressive and violent sex.”
Pornography has a deeply harmful impact on children
Evidence shows that viewing this content has very real consequences. The DCMS highlights that “one longitudinal study found that male adolescents’ pornography use predicted their perpetration of sexual harassment two years later.”
Moreover, the BBFC found that 29% of children who said that most pornography they’d seen was viewed intentionally, believed that consent was unnecessary if “you knew the person really fancies you”. Of children who had mostly seen it by accident, only 5% believed the same.
It is clear that pornography is having a disturbing impact on young people’s understanding of sex and relationships, just as they are learning to navigate the world. Following its review into sexual abuse in the education system this year, Ofsted’s Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman said that the Government must look at “the ease with which children can access pornography” in order to tackle ‘normalised’ sexual harassment in schools and colleges.
The normalisation of violence against women in pornography is also resulting in an expectation on young women to partake in increasingly painful, humiliating and dangerous sex acts. Earlier this year, Sam Pybus strangled Sophie Moss to death. He received only a four-year prison sentence for ending her life – joining a succession of men to have evaded justice by using the so-called ‘rough sex’ defence.
Pybus’ ex-wife Louise Pybus says: “Porn has a lot to answer for here; it has normalised violence against women. Those who don’t want to be strangled, slapped, spat on, or punched during sex are derogatorily referred to as ‘vanilla’. Rough sex is not just fashionable; it has now become the norm.”
Why don’t offline safeguards extend to the online world?
Offline, it is illegal to make pornography available to under 18s, yet pornography websites have so far been granted a free pass. However, as children’s internet safety expert John Carr says, the era of ‘internet exceptionalism’ may at last be coming to an end, as we come to expect the online world to live up to safeguarding standards we would expect in the offline world. This is particularly important when children’s worlds have existed so heavily in online spaces during the pandemic.
We claim to be cultivating a progressive society, where inequality is increasingly being challenged and consent is starting to be taught in schools. Pornography perpetuates ideas that fly in the face of all that. And young people know it. A survey by the Institute for Public Policy Research found 70% of 18-year-olds felt that pornography can have a damaging impact on young people’s views of sex and relationships. What message does it send, then, that laws allow them to access this abusive content in their bedrooms?
What is the Government doing to protect young people?
In 2017, Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act was passed, making it illegal for commercial websites to make pornography available to anyone under the age of 18. Age verification technologies were developed, with regulation and enforcement systems established. This legislation brought pornography websites in line with online gambling websites which are already required to implement age verification mechanisms, as well as in line with the offline world where it is illegal to supply pornography to children.
However, despite substantial support from leading children’s organisations and 88% of parents with children aged 7–17, the Government recently announced that the legislation would be repealed. The Government’s claims that children will instead be protected from pornography under the Draft Online Safety Bill simply don’t hold up.
Proposals in the draft bill do not make it mandatory for commercial websites to implement age verification measures, instead outlining ‘expectations’ for websites. It seems unlikely that these profit-making web giants will suddenly elect to voluntarily change their practices when so far they have failed to protect children by choice. Moreover, the proposals only apply to websites that allow sharing of user generated content or user interactions (a function that can easily be removed), therefore not covering all commercial websites.
The Government’s proposals are inadequate, and it is indefensible that children continue to be exposed to harmful online content despite tools to protect children being ready to use – tools that would prevent children from easily accessing pornography. The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Commercial Sexual Exploitation is currently calling on the Government to ensure that the Online Safety Bill legally prohibits pornography websites from making their content available to children.
It couldn’t be more urgent to protect children from pornography
Government legislation currently allows commercial websites to profit from exposing children to pornography on an enormous scale, despite the well-documented and hugely damaging consequences – particularly for women and girls.
Society must no longer turn a blind eye to the role of pornography in manipulating young peoples’ sexual interests so destructively. Tackling pornography is a crucial part of the puzzle in creating a culture where women and men are treated equally, and where violence against women and girls is no longer tolerated.
It couldn’t be more urgent to hold websites accountable for the immeasurable harm they cause, and to prevent further generations from growing up on a staple diet of misogynistic pornography.