Wayne Couzens, the ex-police officer who kidnapped, raped and murdered Sarah Everard, viewed “brutal pornography” in the years before he committed his crimes. In fact, the murderer was so renowned for his interest in vile pornography, he was nicknamed “The Rapist” by colleagues. These disturbing facts are important. They shine the spotlight on a leading motivator of sexual violence against women and girls that isn’t being talked about enough — pervasive and totally unregulated internet porn.
Many porn videos present rape, violence and humiliation as normal and acceptable sexual behaviours. Writing in The Guardian this week, Durham University sociologist Dr Fiona Vera-Gray cited research showing “one in every eight titles on the front pages of the UK’s most popular porn websites described sexual violence against women and girls”. She adds: “This isn’t sexually violent porn hidden in some dark recess of the internet, only accessed by a few bad men. This is mainstream pornography on mainstream sites with the mainstream message that sexual violence is sexy.”
Commenting on prevalent themes in porn videos Dr. Norman Doidge, an academic at the Toronto Institute of Psychoanalysis, further notes that videos are “increasingly dominated by sadomasochistic themes… all involving scripts fusing sex with hatred and humiliation”. It’s not a stretch to suggest these videos are driving attacks in the offline world. In fact, the evidence shows they are.
Research published by the UK Government’s Equalities Office last year found that frontline workers helping victims of sexual crime “spontaneously mentioned pornography as an influential factor for harmful sexual behaviours towards women and girls”. The authors of the study took time to point out “a widespread belief” amongst workers “in the need to address the role that pornography plays”.
I can speak to the need for legislative action against the porn industry
The question we face today is no longer “is porn a problem?” It’s “how do we address the problem of porn?” And this question needs to be answered urgently. A failure to confront it will result in more and more porn-motivated attacks on women and girls in years to come. There are many possible answers to the question: education, honest conversations between parents and their children about what kids are encountering online and, in the political context, much tougher action on porn providers.
I cannot speak to the first two aspects — education and conversations — being neither a teacher nor a parent. However, I can speak to the need for legislative action against the porn industry and the lack of activity in this area thus far. It’s a sad fact that, far from introducing measures to tackle porn’s harms, the UK Government has continuously turned a blind eye to them. Ministers have actively blocked measures agreed by parliament to censor vile pornographic content and protect kids.
Proposals arising from a Tory manifesto pledge were agreed by parliament in 2017. Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act was designed to punish porn providers that host “extreme” content and stop children accessing pornographic sites by ushering in a system of age verification. These measures were lauded as a long-overdue step that would prevent the kind of sadistic videos so favoured by monsters like Wayne Couzens from being posted on porn sites and consumed by users in the UK, including kids.
Part 3 was ready to go in 2017 but Ministers delayed. In 2018 they delayed again. And in 2019, they suddenly announced they were scrapping the measures altogether. It appears that key players in Johnson’s Cabinet bowed to pressure from pro-porn campaigners who described a curb of violent and degrading pornography as “totalitarian” and a “threat to freedom”. In truth, the government’s decision to scrap these measures was one of the most egregious affronts to women and children in recent years.
The online safety regime will be hotly contested
If you were to put a Minister on the spot about the shameful abandonment of Part 3 today, they would probably point to the government’s forthcoming “Online Safety” legislation. This, they would say, will solve all our woes and protect children from harmful content. However, there are many problems with the proposals. At present, they don’t cover all porn sites and there is no indication that they will block underage access. The plans are largely tailored towards social media platforms, which are only part of the problem.
The proposals also appear to cast the net too wide. They encompass a plethora of vague “online harms” and are drafted in a way that could seriously undermine free expression. The online safety regime will be hotly contested and possibly kicked into the long grass. If it is not, it may be defeated by parliament, never to see the light of day again. All the while, women and children will continue to be the victims of sexual violence motivated by pornographic content.
The answer to this dilemma is clear in my mind. Ministers must urgently reinstate and enforce Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act. This can be done in a matter of weeks before the debate about the Online Safety Bill gets underway. In doing this, they will extend greater protection to women and children which can be built on. If Ministers do not take this step, the price women and children will pay in years to come hardly bears thinking about.
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