Everyone’s Invited has shined a light on sexual harassment in society. Now is the time to recognise one of the root causes: the normalisation of pornography

The past week has seen a sadly necessary but welcome groundswell in media attention around the anti-sexual violence campaign group “Everyone’s Invited”, who have been active in highlighting just how prevalent and insidious rape culture and sexual abuse has become in society, and specifically within schools, in recent years. As the Everyone’s Invited website explains:

In June 2020, Soma Sara the founder of this movement began sharing her personal experience rape culture via Instagram. Immediately, she received a number of messages from not only those who felt that her experiences strongly resonated with their own, but also those who detailed their own stories of misogyny, harassment, abuse and assault. Within a week she received and shared over 300 anonymous responses, reaching over 10,000 people. These stories provide a vital education on the complex and pervasive reality of rape culture.

In recent days, over 10,000 reports of sexual harassment, assault, and abuse in schools have been sent into the website, with more than 100 schools named, including top private schools Eton College, St Paul’s Boys’ School, Dulwich College, Westminster School, Wellington College and Highgate School.

This surge in young people reporting an explosion of sexual harassment and abuse in schools has sadly been all but inevitable given the uncontrollable deluge of free-to-access porn and its growing ubiquity in recent years. The links are clear to see, if we will only take an honest look at them.

One of the most worrying developments in recent years is not only the sheer quantity of porn available at the click of a button, but that many young people are receiving a great deal of “informal sex education” from porn. This may not appear problematic when viewed in a vacuum, but given the prevalence of physical and sexual violence within porn, and the fact that this directly impacts users’ behaviour and views towards their partners – and women and girls more broadly – the disaster playing out in front of us appears in a different light.

With a media form that not only facilitates, but actively normalises sexual violence against women and girls, it isn’t a surprise that this is trickling down classrooms and corridors. Too many men and boys are being socialised into viewing their friends, classmates, and colleagues as objects to be sexualised, violated, and abused.

This also extends to more “soft” forms of digital socialisation on websites such as TikTok, Snapchat and Instagram. Whilst these sites do contain outright explicit images and videos, the breadth of sexualised “content” runs the gamut, with a recent TikTok post going viral, that depicted a girl saying:

“me daydreaming about getting absolutely railed tf out of while he chokes me and slaps me calling me unholy names and leaving bruises all over my body”

And then in the next image she states:

“me remembering I’m only 15”.

Young people and children are able to access this content for free, which has the effect of normalising the attitudes displayed in the videos for both men and women – encouraging men to view women as objects that are uniformly there to be treated as such; and women to acquiesce to such treatment even when they feel uncomfortable or object to it, for fear of otherwise being labelled as “prudes” or “vanilla”.

Commercial pornography websites are also a hotbed for predatory adults to groom and abuse young people and children with the protection of digital anonymity, as a report from The Sunday Times exposed recently. With this in mind, it is astounding that Facebook – which owns Instagram – recently announced plans for an Instagram-style platform solely for users under the age of 13.

This would be a disaster. It would effectively group a very vulnerable demographic into one place, making abuse and grooming like that which occurs on the main site presumably even easier. It would lead to a highly-distilled version of what is already happening across other social media platforms: given that children are now accessing pornography from ages as young as seven, this is highly-likely to normalise sexualised and pornographic content amongst children who have not even entered high school, and will consequently very likely impact the type of content that is expected and uploaded onto under-13 platforms by those same children.

In light of recent developing conversations around male violence against women and girls, and the Government’s apparently-renewed commitment to tackling it, this is a vital opportunity for their Online Safety Bill to really get to grips with this tragedy playing out in front of our eyes. We at CEASE urge the Government to recognise that this uptick in sexual violence is not occurring in a vacuum.  It has multiple clear links to the accessibility of porn. It is essential that these links are recognised and dealt with robustly, beginning with the urgent implementation of age verification for users on porn sites and the creation of a framework that requires uploaders to prove age and consent of those featured in videos. The wellbeing and lives of young people across the country – and indeed the world – depends on it.