Evidence Provided by Vanessa Morse, CEO, to the APPG on Commercial Sexual Exploitation Inquiry into Pornography

“Good afternoon. I am Vanessa Morse, CEO of CEASE, the Centre to End All Sexual Exploitation. CEASE is a national human rights campaigning charity with a particular focus on how the porn industry is driving sexual exploitation in many forms. Thank you for running this vital inquiry and putting the parliamentary spotlight onto pornography at a time when media stories appear nearly every week about its harmful impact, and while the current draft Online Safety Bill fails to mention pornography. 

Over the next few minutes, I will briefly outline porn’s harms particularly to children, stress the importance of regulation for this uniquely high-risk industry, and make three recommendations for the Online Safety Bill. For more detail on all of these areas, please see our 2021 Expose Big Porn report.  

Firstly, the harms of porn.

Over the past 20 years, porn has moved from the margins into the mainstream. The porn industry’s sophisticated PR machine has rebranded porn as harmless recreation that embodies the values of sexual freedom, expression and empowerment. 

But in reality, today’s online porn is a hotbed of harmful and illegal content, serving up an infinite variety of sexual violence, misogyny and abuse. Although porn is consumed in private, it has profound public ramifications. 

Today is Safer Internet Day. Last month, the Internet Watch Foundation recorded a three-fold increase in 2021 of self-generated child abuse imagery showing 7-10 year-olds. This is deeply disturbing. There are many existing operations tackling child sexual abuse, however we can no longer afford to ignore the influence of pornography. An increasing number of young men are developing an interest in child sexual abuse material via heavy use of hardcore mainstream pornography that sexualises children and normalises adult-child sexual relations.   

This brings me to my second point: the online porn industry is in urgent need of regulation.

For the past 20 years, it has acted with virtual impunity. Behind its defence of “free speech”, the industry is only interested in profit, and this comes about by maximising user engagement at any cost. In this highly competitive space, there’s a “race to the bottom” with porn sites competing to promote and profit from the most extreme content. 

This explains why self-regulation has been a failure; porn sites have strong commercial incentive to minimise moderation in order to host as much content as possible. 

So, lastly, how can the Online Safety Bill ensure that it holds this ruthless, uniquely high-risk industry to account? 

Firstly, age verification on porn must be implemented with a sense of urgency. Ofcom must have the rights and the resources now to prepare for its enforcement rather than waiting until the Bill receives Royal Assent to begin its preparations. 

Secondly, regulation must force porn sites to tackle illegal content including extreme porn,  footage of real rape, spy-cam porn, image-based sexual abuse and child sexual abuse material. The definition of ‘illegal extreme’ must be widened.

And thirdly, it must address the vast quantity of “legal but harmful” content depicting everything from racism, sexual violence and coercion to incest and adult-child sexual relations. We need a definition of “harmful” pornography based on existing laws in the offline world. It’s indefensible that depicting illegal sexual activity in pornography has the effect of normalising it in the real world, which experts report is taking place at scale.

Type in the words “daddy daughter” to the popular porn site XNXX and it brings up 27,000 results with titles like “mummy licks adopted daughter to prepare her for father” or “I filmed what my new husband was doing with my daughter.” 

Freedom of expression has limitations, not grounded in subjective arguments about ideology or morality, but in evidence of real-world harm to vulnerable groups and individuals.

In conclusion: We can anticipate that the porn industry will do the bare minimum to avoid unwanted attention and to disrupt its profit margin. Whilst we should not be naive about the scale of the task before us, we must act with courage and conviction. I urge you to use the inquiry to help ensure that the Online Safety Bill does not give this industry a free pass. 

Thank you.” – Vanessa Morse, CEO