The Government are intent on tackling Violence Against Women and Girls, but it is vital that they recognise the role pornography plays in encouraging this violence

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This month the Home Office drew to a close their consultation on the Government’s new Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) strategy, which sought to hear from a range of voices in order to implement new, more effective ways of combatting VAWG. CEASE was proud to submit an evidence-based proposal calling for the Government to recognise porn, and the wider porn industry, as both an example and facilitator of VAWG.

In the proposal, we implore the Government to start from the position that porn is fundamentally a form of violence against women, and to do otherwise would be to misunderstand the true nature of this exploitative industry. For example, one study found thatof the 304 scenes analysed, 88.2% contained physical aggression… only 10.2% (of scenes did not contain an aggressive act”. Despite claims from the pro-sex trade lobby that an increase in “female-centred” pornography highlights the “gender equal” allure of porn, it is notable that research demonstrated the majority of this violence was meted out by men, against women.

For example:

Women were significantly more likely to be spanked, choked, and gagged than men. Aggregately speaking across the sample spectrum, women were verbally insulted or referred to in derogatory terms 534 times, whereas men experienced similar verbal assaults in only 65 instances. Women were spanked on 953 occasions, visibly gagged 756 times, experienced an open-hand slap 361 times, had their hair pulled or yanked on 267 separate occasions, and were choked 180 times. Men, however, were spanked only 26 times, experienced an open-hand slap in 47 instances, and for all other aggressive acts, were aggressed against fewer than 10 times”

This violence is not only confined to instances of physical abuse, but also sexual violence, with rape, torture, and even attempted murder being common themes. The increase in violence in something that has been recognised even by those within the industry, with porn producer Rob Black stating:

“[…] what I did was fantasy. I was able to preach it as a movie. It is a guy in a costume. Now you have companies that do it in the guise of BDSM. You put a girl on a dog chain and chain her to a wall and them keep her there for two days and take a cattle prod and electrocute her and do all this under the guise of a documentary. You are taking the element of the movie out. Now, you are doing torture. You are taking the fantasy out. Now all of the sudden it’s let’s do this under the guise of BDSM.” 

This abuse has also resulted in an explosion of child sexual abuse material (CSAM), more colloquially known as “child pornography”. This has in part stemmed from an ease-of-access resulting from legal rollbacks, but just as notably, viewing pornography itself can encourage an increase in the desire for material that would have previously been considered “disgusting and degrading”. Anti-CSA expert Michael Sheath, of the charity Lucy Faithfull, stated that:

“Mainstream pornography sites are changing the thresholds of what is normal and I think it’s dangerous. Of course most people can watch extreme porn and walk away but I don’t see those people. What we are seeing on a daily basis is the conflation of easy access to hardcore and deviant pornography and an interest in child molestation. The link is unambiguous.”

Indeed, this desire to view more degrading material also extends into the “real world”, with a notable shift in the attitudes of porn consumers towards women and girls. It has led to an increase in both attitudes that are more supportive of violence against women, and in actual instances of victimising women. Rape crisis centre workers who conducted face‐to‐face and phone interviews with sexual and physical assault survivors, and with abused woman who sought support from battered women’s services, found “a strong association between men’s porn consumption and female victimization.” They also found that “abuser use of porn doubled the risk of a physically assaulted woman being sexually assaulted”.

Decades of research highlights the links between porn use and subsequent violence against women, but the Government have yet to even recognise this, let alone get to grips with it. This must change. And immediately.

There are two concrete steps that can be taken in the short-term, to begin combatting what is effectively a normalised and socially acceptable form of violence against women. Firstly, we urge the Government to work with educators to introduce critical porn analysis in schools, not least to cast the porn industry’s own “sex education” toolkit into a realistic light. Research demonstrates that children as young as seven are now accessing mainstream, hardcore pornography, with no understanding as to what it is they are actually viewing, leaving them vulnerable to long-term psychological, emotional, and cognitive trauma.

The second tangible step that the Government must take is placing pornography sites – such as Pornhub – into Category One within the new Online Harms Bill regulatory framework. This Category is reserved for sites that host “legal but harmful content and activity accessed by adults on their services”, notwithstanding that much of the material on these sites is neither legal nor accessed solely by adults.

It is imperative that this unchecked, abusive industry no longer profits freely from the misery of vulnerable and exploited women and girls. Further, without recognising the very real and serious harm it causes to women and girls outside of the industry, it leaves any subsequent VAWG strategy incomplete, and lacking in truly comprehensive vision and direction. It’s time to hold the porn industry to account once and for all.