Women and Equalities Committee
Oral evidence: Pornography and its impact on violence against women and girls, HC 87
Wednesday 11 May 2022
Ordered by the House of Commons to be published on 11 May 2022.
Watch the meeting
Members present: Caroline Nokes (Chair); Caroline Dinenage; Jackie Doyle-Price; Kim Johnson; Anum Qaisar; Bell Ribeiro-Addy.
Questions 1 - 38
I: Gabriela De Oliveira, Head of Policy Research Campaigns, Glitch; Hannah Ruschen, Senior Policy and Public Affairs Officer, National Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Child (NSPCC); Professor Clare McGlynn, Professor of Law, Durham University; Vanessa Morse, Chief Executive Officer, CEASE.
Written evidence from witnesses:
Witnesses: Gabriela De Oliveira, Hannah Ruschen, Professor McGlynn and Vanessa Morse.
Q1 Chair: Welcome to this afternoon's meeting of the Women and Equalities Committee and our evidence session into pornography and its impact on violence against women and girls. I thank all of our witnesses for coming along to give evidence this afternoon: Gabriela de Oliveira, Head of Policy Research Campaigns at Glitch, Hannah Ruschen, the Senior Policy and Public Affairs Officer at the NSPCC, Professor Clare McGlynn, Professor of Law at Durham University and Vanessa Morse, Chief Executive Officer at CEASE.
We have seen some really stark evidence about the increase and prevalence of the use of pornography. I will come to every member of the panel in turn, but can I start with Professor McGlynn please, and just ask how much is that increase and what is the driver behind it?
Professor McGlynn: There is such prevalence of pornography online now due to the ease of access through smartphones that we would not have imagined 10, 20, 30 years ago. It is obviously far easier to access, which means it is then far easier to produce as well, so there has just been an exponential growth in the amount of pornography available online and the ease with which individuals are accessing it. You talked as well about the why, but the others will fill in the detail.
Gabriela De Oliveira: Thank you for the invitation today. Just to explain a little bit of background of what Glitch does, we are a UK charity, and we work to tackle and end online abuse and build better digital citizenship, active bystander behaviours and tech accountability. Our focus is on online abuse rather than pornography specifically. Today I hope to help orientate the Committee in terms of the Online Safety Bill, an opportunity to strengthen it in relation to VAWG, so I will let the others comment on prevalence.
Vanessa Morse: I am Vanessa, from CEASE, and we work to expose the cultural and commercial driving forces behind all forms of sexual exploitation. A big focus of ours currently is pornography and the Online Safety Bill. Watching pornography has become normalised and ubiquitous, and it was the rise of the internet that changed the print predecessor from the margins to the mainstream. It was tech-savvy platforms that used all of those data tactics that we are familiar with now, like SEO, algorithms, data surveillance et cetera, to drive a massive boom in engagement over the past two decades. They created tube-style sites like YouTube for pornography that made porn free, easily accessible and anonymous.
In looking at prevalence, it is really important to understand the business model of the pornography industry. Online porn is prevalent because greater content means greater profits. The porn industry is not about pornography, it is about money. Profit is driven by a high volume of content being uploaded at speed. These porn sites, many of which are huge platforms, make money from premium subscriptions and from advertising revenues, so the frictionless upload process is very important to the porn platforms, which is why there has been virtually no verification, and moderation of content has been lax.
Let me give a couple of facts around this big porn industry to give you a sense of the size and scale. It has an estimated revenue of £100 billion per year, which is even more than Hollywood. Porn sites received more website traffic in 2020 than Instagram, Twitter, Netflix, Zoom, Pinterest and LinkedIn combined. However, unlike big tech companies like Facebook, Apple and Google, which have come under increasing media and government scrutiny in recent years, big porn has largely escaped under the radar. To give a few stats in terms of UK adults specifically who are using pornography, according to Ofcom, half of all adults watched porn during lockdown, which is around 33 million people. A 2019 BBC study said that 77% of men acknowledged that they had viewed X-rated content in the last month, and—this is a particularly hard-hitting stat—Pornhub’s own 2021 Year in Review report showed that after the US, there were more visitors to Pornhub from the UK than from any other country in the world.
Q2 Chair: If access is free, is much of the revenue driven by advertising—so by pushing it through SEOs means more hits, means more people to look at your advertisers’ notional content?
Vanessa Morse: Exactly. The more content there is, the more engagement there is. This means you will be higher up the Google rankings, which in turn means more people will see your content, which means greater advertising revenue and, of course, more opportunity to get more subscriptions. That is where a culture has arisen where there are virtually no verification processes in what content can be uploaded online because content is king in this.
Q3 Caroline Dinenage: The stat that you just gave about the UK being the second highest traffic to the site, is that because Pornhub is geared toward English-speaking audiences, or is it because we have more people who are regular viewers of porn? Is it that people in other countries are just watching an alternative provider, or is it that we have a disproportionately high number of people accessing pornographic channels?
Vanessa Morse: Pornhub is the self-proclaimed most popular porn site in the world, so it is heavily watched by many countries around the world and all of those insights are available on its website. I believe it is the sheer number of unique visitors that come from the UK that has driven that particular statistic.
Hannah Ruschen: Thank you for having me today. When we talk about children and pornography, we know that children are accessing pornography from a very young age, which can be unintentional viewing, where a young person might stumble across that content on an online platform, but it can also be intentional viewing of pornography. We know that evidence suggests nearly half of all 11 to 16-year-olds have viewed pornography. We know that when they first accessed it, boys were approximately twice as likely compared to girls to have actively searched for that pornography, but overall, 60% of 11 to 13-year-olds have seen pornography in a way that was mostly unintentional.
Thinking about why children are accessing pornography, if they do choose to access it intentionally there are a variety of reasons. Curiosity—they are seeking out pornography as a form of sex education to learn more about sex and relationships, or they may have been sent that material by others. A study by Girlguiding showed that 20% of girls and young women had been sent unwanted pornographic content.
When we think about children accessing this content online, we really need to think about the impact that that will have on young people. We know that it can have a really traumatic effect on young people the first time they view pornography, and, as they continue to view further pornographic materials, they can become desensitised to that content. They can start off feeling shocked, ashamed, perhaps concerned about what they might be seeing online, and then, with more viewing, they slowly become desensitised and express that they are less concerned about what they might be viewing online.
Q4 Chair: Would you agree with what Professor McGlynn said right at the beginning, that the evidence shows that much of the access is via smartphone?
Hannah Ruschen: Yes, in fact may I just add one comment on that point? Initial exposure to pornography is often through mobile phones, but those who regularly consume pornography do seek it out through dedicated free porn sites on desktop as well as mobile.
Q5 Chair: Thank you for that, I will go back to Hannah for this question. At what age are people first accessing porn, and why?
Hannah Ruschen: We know from our contacts through Childline that, on average, children are calling regarding pornography around the 12 to 15 age bracket, but we do receive calls from around age 11. There can be a variety and difference in the age that a person might be accessing pornography.
In terms of why they may be accessing it, if they are intentionally choosing, it could be out of curiosity or as a form of sex education. We know from the Ofsted review that was published after the Everyone's Invited campaign that many young people seek pornography as a way to learn about sex and relationships and feel that they have learned more about that from pornography than they do from their education or schooling. As I said, they can come across that material if it is being shown or sent to them by others, whether consensually or non-consensually.
Q6 Chair: Can I ask a question, and I would appreciate any member of the panel indicating if they wish to answer it, about the normalisation of porn? We have heard how prevalent and easy it is to access—how has that contributed to a changing attitude towards porn where, to be blunt, it feels like everybody is looking at it. Does anyone want to try and answer that? Has nobody got any views on the normalisation of porn? Clare?
Professor McGlynn: It is particularly the prevalence of harmful, violent pornography online which normalises and minimises sexual violence. There is some evidence to suggest that those who frequently view pornography are less likely to intervene in situations where there is harassment or violence taking place, which then translates into everyday life, whether it be individuals in the workplace, individuals on a jury, et cetera—they have been normalised into cultures of sexual violence. In that sense, it is thinking about pornography being the cultural wallpaper in all of our lives, but the kind of wallpaper we would really rather take down and change because it is so predominantly abusive and violent material.
Gabriela De Oliveira: On that point I would like to add that it is quite important to note the particular link between pornography and increasingly normalised attitudes of violence against black women and girls in particular.
In this country there is a long history of racism against black women involving narratives of black women being hypersexual or more aggressive, and black girls being subject to adultification as children. This is a particularly dangerous theme that we see normalised through a lot of pornography. It is not that pornography has created it—it is something that exists in our world known as misogynoir, a phrase coined by Moya Bailey—but rather that pornography reflects that and actually can end up normalising and further entrenching those attitudes, as Hannah mentioned.
There are various examples of that, and Clare has done some work on this in terms of titles within pornography content. Where black performers are involved, it is more likely to be a physically aggressive content. There is some work done by Professor Safiya Umoja Noble around algorithms on Google, and how search terms around black women, or black girls in particular, are more likely to bring up sexually explicit images, rather than search terms for white girls, which is an important nuance to bring out.
Vanessa Morse: Part of the reason why porn has become normalised is because of the way that these porn websites are designed—it is basically addiction by design. Not that I recommend this, but if you do go to a porn site and scroll, you will find it is infinite scroll—you never get to the bottom of the page. There are many boxes; it is a wall-to-wall style pornography where one act just flows seamlessly into another. The point that I am making is that, particularly with young people, we cannot underestimate the kind of neurological impact of pornography.
Young people's brains are wired to novelty, and their brains get a massive dopamine hit when they watch pornography. This overstimulates the reward centres of the brain, which then means that they cannot be satiated—they do not register satisfaction—so they have to keep coming back for more. When looking at why has porn become so popular, we must not neglect to look at the very intentionality in creating the sites, they have been designed to get people to come back more and more often and to stay on the site for longer.
Hannah Ruschen: We should not underestimate the impact that unrestricted access to porn, as identified by Vanessa, has normalised that idea of user-generated sexual content online. Following on logically from that, this has resulted in the normalisation of requesting and setting of self-generated imagery among peers, as has been highlighted by the Ofsted review and Everyone's Invited. From that, we also know that this has clearly impacted the nature of child sexual abuse online. The IWF—the Internet Watch Foundation—has shown almost half of all child sexual abuse content online is self-generated material, and that really has a gendered impact here, because we know that the majority of self-generated sexual abuse content is of 11 to 13-year-old girls.
When we think about the links between exposure and early access to pornography and its impact on children's online behaviour, we clearly see the link to the creation and sending of user-generated material, the normalisation of that, and the way that this might be linked to child sexual abuse material online.
Q7 Chair: Clare, you used a phrase about cultural wallpaper. What has changed in the content over time? We heard something particularly disturbing earlier about the conflict in Ukraine and how many of the major porn sites were using that to drive content and, presumably, views, but how has porn itself changed?
Professor McGlynn: The content of the largest commercial mainstream sites varies according to public holidays, other festivals and public debates, of which Ukraine is one. How has it changed? As Vanessa has intimated, in terms of the need to satisfy users and to keep users on, it gets more and more extreme and violent. The porn that is on the mainstream websites is not the porn that was available 20, 30 years ago. In the study that myself, Fiona Vera-Gray and colleagues did at Durham, we looked at the landing pages of the largest three porn websites in the UK and we found that one in eight of the titles on those pages described sexually violent material. I cannot tell you what that was 10, 15 years ago, but 10, 15 years ago when things were on cassettes, on DVDs, they were in regulated sex shops. The situation was just very different.
It is also the easy availability of extreme pornography like rape pornography, which is literally one click away on Google, free and easily accessible—reams of that material, all the links to all the websites. It is the same with incest material, which is again one click away through Google. The commercial mainstream porn sites have considerable amounts of unlawful material, but it is the free and easy access through Google that also has to be recognised and registered in this debate.
Q8 Chair: Can I ask what evidence there is that access to the free, accessible and—I hesitate to use the phrase—run-of-the-mill porn available on the main porn sites actually drives people to more extreme, more violent pornography?
Vanessa Morse: We know from a growing body of evidence, particularly reports from clinical practitioners who are working with sex offenders—for example the Lucy Faithfull Foundation—who have catalogued how hardcore pornography depictions of rape or depictions of activity with a child are a gateway to people moving on to seek out the real thing. In fact, convicted sex offenders have reported that they were surprised at how easy that journey was for them. There is a large body of clinical evidence that this is happening, and it is being seen by police and psychologists.
Chair: Thank you, did anybody else want to come in there?
Professor McGlynn: Just to follow up, it is not just about if someone starts off with milder pornography and then ends up in the more extreme material, because, like I said, on some of the mainstream websites the mainstream material is just there. The point about the study we did about the landing pages, is that we had the computer going fresh each time to the website, so it was not registering what you had already searched for before. This is what the porn companies themselves were choosing to show to the first-time user. That is what was so significant about it, and that includes the whole panoply of ordinary abusive rough sex, if you like, the incest material, and then to the rape porn. That is all available on that front page of those mainstream sites. It is not that you end up down a rabbit hole after a while, although that does happen, but it is just all there and really straightforward. It is not in the dark recesses of the internet. That is the point about Google as well: you do not have to search on the dark web to find rape porn, it is right there, and there are huge amounts of it.
Chair: I am conscious I have used up quite a lot of time, so Vanessa, can I go to you for a quick answer?
Vanessa Morse: Absolutely. On that point about the development of contemporary pornography and the worsening of that violent content, building on what Clare said already and which is particularly applicable for this Committee, the theme that unites much of this extreme content is some form of sexual aggression that is perpetrated by men against women and girls. Many of the popular themes in pornography centre on men's abuse of power as they take advantage of relative vulnerability of the other—predominantly women—by virtue of sex, age, race and socioeconomic status.
I do not want to be gratuitous, but I think it is really important to understand some of the typical practices, which include double penetration, where two men simultaneously penetrate a woman; money shots, where a man ejaculates on a woman's face; gang bangs and sexual torture. These are the kinds of pieces of content that Clare is referring to, so it is important to understand what we are talking about.
Hannah Ruschen: When we think about the way that contemporary pornography has changed over time, it is important to highlight the change from focusing on not just commercial pornography but also the user generated content.
When it comes to children, we have seen children move from passive consumers of this content to both consumers and producers of some of that content. For example, we have calls on Childline where we know that children are producing OnlyFans material. We had one girl call who was aged 16 to 18, who said, “I've been on OnlyFans since I was 13. I don’t want to talk about the types of pictures I post on there, and I know it's not appropriate for children my age to be doing this, but it's an easy way to make money. Some of the girls have thousands of followers on Instagram and they must be raking it in, I want to be just like them.” It is really important here that we recognise the fact that there is a blurring there between the normalisation and production of that content, and the way that we are seeing the lines being blurred between that influencer culture, the passive consumption of that material and the user generated content that we might be seeing.
Q9 Caroline Dinenage: Welcome all of you, can I talk to you about the Online Safety Bill? You will be aware that it has come through various iterations and has most recently been published in its final form, and basically started its progress through Parliament. It has very bold ambitions to try to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online. I am really keen from the outset to get an idea from you of the extent you think the Bill, in its most recent form, will tackle the two issues we are talking about today in a) reducing the concerns around pornography, and b) how that then relates to violence against women and girls. Vanessa, can I start with you?
Vanessa Morse: Yes of course, we welcome the fact that the Bill includes extreme pornography as a priority offence, along with image-based sexual abuse and cyberflashing. The inclusion of age verification in Part 5 will mean that the majority of children are not stumbling onto porn sites, which will help greatly in breaking the cycle early, meaning that fewer young people will develop long-term viewing habits of pornography and all of the associated harms that go with that. I realise we have not discussed all those implications yet, but perhaps we will come back to that later.
This removes young people from the direct harm from pornography and the influencers, which we will speak about. However, the Bill currently does not address pornography’s wider social harms. Unfortunately, the Bill’s understanding of harm to adults is defined in a very narrow way, focused on immediate risk of harm to the individual user rather than the harms in production and the more generalised indirect, though no less serious, harms to society and, in particular, to women and children. In short, the Online Safety Bill must do a lot more to protect women and girls on both sides of the camera from the harms of online pornography.
Q10 Caroline Dinenage: Thank you very much. Clare, you talked about the search engines as well, so I would be interested to your opinion.
Professor McGlynn: The Online Safety Bill as a whole provides a real opportunity, both in terms of reducing violence against women and girls, and particularly around pornography. I do not yet think the Bill is living up to that potential. The Bill needs to go further to specifically address violence against women and girls, for example with a mandatory code of practice.
In relation to pornography, most of the public debate and discussion has been around children's access to pornography, and it is very important to stop them stumbling upon pornography. But it is also really important to understand that especially older children will evade that. In a recent study of 1,000 UK young people, 50% of them had already used a VPN to avoid national boundaries, and another 25% knew about it; 75% of 15 and 16-year-olds know how to evade age verification requirements. That is why I also think we have to focus on the content more, which has not been discussed as much.
In relation to how the Bill tackles the content, there is the extreme pornography provision, which is a priority offence as Vanessa mentioned, but you will know yourselves that even that provision is limited. For example, it does not cover all types of bestiality—there will be exceptions there—but it does not include incest material as that is not deemed extreme pornography, so incest material is not a priority offence under the Online Safety Bill.
In relation to the search engines, because the requirements on search engines are different from user to user and they are lesser in many ways, what we will end up with at the moment with Google is an obligation to try and minimise the extreme porn or rape porn. What it will then come down to is how rigorous is Ofcom going to be in terms of asking how are you going to reduce the risk of people coming across rape pornography for example, because it is a priority offence? At the moment it seems to me that they are not doing anything to reduce that. Is the regulator going to be satisfied with parental controls or SafeSearch, for example? For me, that would not be enough, because that is then again putting the onus on the individuals to put on SafeSearch and to have parental controls, which we know everyone will evade.
Under the terms of the current Bill, the regulator is going to need to demand that those search companies do more than what that minimum would be to reduce the likelihood of coming across something like rape porn, or they need to do more to, if you like, curate the content—other organisations such as Glitch and so forth know far more about that than I do—so that content does not come up so obviously, which happens in relation to some other topics, but they are not doing in relation to the rape pornography, which I am just using as the clearest example.
Q11 Caroline Dinenage: I am just going to go completely off-piste here and ask you a supplementary before I go back and ask the other two the substantive question. With that in mind then, we always talk about the Online Safety Bill effectively implementing the concept of what is illegal offline should be illegal online: rape is illegal in the real world, incest is illegal in the real world, and yet you can simulate rape and you can simulate incest online and that is not illegal. Do you think it should be?
Professor McGlynn: There is a real case for amending the extreme porn laws to include the incest material that is a criminal offence as well, because then you would have the obligations that would follow through to the user-to-user services and Google to do something about that incest material. That is the value of reforming the extreme porn law to include something like incest material. There are very few prosecutions under that legislation, but here, it is about the influence it would have in the Bill.
Q12 Caroline Dinenage: It would need to be something that was done separately to the Online Safety Bill, but then that would mean that the online service providers would have to pay heed to it when the Bill is implemented. Did you want to come back?
Vanessa Morse: On the same point, if I may. In the offline world, the British Board of Film Classification has a framework for classifying pornography that relates to DVDs, what is sold in sex shops and sex cinemas, but refuses to classify certain kinds of harmful, though legal, pornographic content—for example, videos depicting children, rape or the infliction of pain.
While I completely agree with Clare around the definition of extreme pornography not being clear, specific or wide enough, a solution that we would be keen to see is for the BBFC standard for offline material to be upheld for online pornography. There is already a precedent which has just been introduced to Ofcom’s video-sharing platform regulation, although that only stret ceterahes as far as UK-based sites, which does not cover much of the porn industry and I believe is currently voluntary. But that would be a vehicle that we would want to see, and I can speak more about this later, coming in as part of a unified framework for regulating that legal but harmful content.
Caroline Dinenage: That is really helpful, thank you. Gabriela, did you have any thoughts on that?
Gabriela De Oliveira: To add to what has been said about the Online Safety Bill and to explain from our perspective, the Bill takes two merged approaches in a way, and is very much set out to take what we call a systems approach in terms of using risk mitigation and transparency to reduce the prevalence of harmful content on platforms. It is merged with what we call a content takedown approach, where now priority offences have been listed and linked through to criminal law.
That brings its own problems due to not being able to list everything, so inherently having gaps, and not being future-proof in the same way that we would need to be able to respond to tech. DCMS colleagues have shared that the idea of the Bill is to be able to update that priority offence list easily, but as we can see, given the rate that tech develops versus law—actually in practice how that will be future-proof is left to question. However, we are very supportive of the systems approach, and particularly that focus on risk assessment, and supporting tech companies to reduce the level of harmful content on their platforms.
In terms of the link to violence against women and girls as the link to pornography has been covered, women and girls and violence against women and girls is not mentioned once in the Bill, even though there is a huge amount of evidence to show the disproportionate impact of online abuse on women and girls in particular. We would really like to see violence against women and girls in the Bill, with a code of practice, for Ofcom to support tech companies to do that, in partnership with VAWG specialist organisations. We feel that actually bringing in that lens of understanding violence against women and girls as a serious part of online abuse will then support work both in pornography and across other offences as well.
Q13 Caroline Dinenage: Again, going completely wild and asking you a supplementary before I go to Hannah, in the original draft Bill the only harms that were named on the face of the Bill were child sexual exploitation and terrorism offences. The latest version of the Bill has more actual harms named on the face of the Bill; we were originally going to scoop it all up in secondary legislation and name the priority ones. From what you are saying, does that mean you concur more with the original draft form? In order to future-proof the Bill, would you rather have had less on the face of the Bill and more in the secondary legislation?
Gabriela De Oliveira: Not quite that, but rather with VAWG sometimes it is quite difficult to divide between criminal and non-criminal content because there is such an interplay between both. Actually having violence against women and girls, and women and girls as a priority group alongside children and alongside terrorism, would be a much more future-proof way of taking that gendered lens to the Bill.
Q14 Caroline Dinenage: You would want more on the face of the Bill?
Gabriela De Oliveira: Yes, Violence against women and girls as a group named on the face of the bill, absolutely. The issue with the secondary legislation around legal but harmful content is that we have not seen it, we do not know when we are going to see it and we are not clear that it is going to have the same level of public scrutiny as the primary legislation has had. It is sometimes a bit difficult to understand what will be included and how well it will be included. Bringing violence against women and girls into that core primary legislation will allow these other offences to have a gendered lens and understand the disproportionate impact on women.
Q15 Caroline Dinenage: You would want it named as a priority harm?
Gabriela De Oliveira: Yes—relevant offence is the language—alongside terrorism and child sexual exploitation.
Q16 Caroline Dinenage: Then that does make future-proofing the Bill a little bit more tricky because it is a bigger thing to amend it.
Gabriela De Oliveira: The future-proofing point that I am mentioning is to do with the priority offences that are listed in criminal law. I am talking about bringing violence against women and girls in as a relevant offence—thinking about it slightly differently—I would advocate for doing that not attached just to criminal law, because for VAWG it does not quite work in the way that we would want it to.
Caroline Dinenage: Okay, thank you.
Professor McGlynn: Can I follow on from that, because of what you are mentioning about the previous draft when effectively, as you say, it was terrorism and child sexual abuse material that were the priorities. As Gabriela said, the ideal would have expanded that to a definition of violence against women and girls, say from the Istanbul Convention, and that would have then future-proofed it because you would not have been relying on what is now the schedule 7 priority list. But now that we have moved towards those schedules of criminal offences lists, we have shifted from where you could have just had a general definition of violence against women and girls. Going back to that and having that general definition would be ideal. As we know, policing is now having to prioritise terrorism, child sexual offences and violence against women and girls. It would have been a similar sort of approach into the Bill that those three are the priority, but of course, we are now talking about—
Caroline Dinenage: We are off in a different direction now.
Professor McGlynn: Yes.
Caroline Dinenage: Okay, thank you very much, that is helpful. Finally, Hannah.
Hannah Ruschen: I would agree with everything that others on the panel have said, and it is really great to see that we have that Part 5 provision for commercial pornography. But I think that there is an issue of scope here as well, and we are concerned about some of the structure here in the way that the legislation is currently drafted. This results in what we are calling an “OnlyFans loophole” where OnlyFans would not come under part 5 as it does not count as commercial pornography, but the content that is produced and shared on a site like OnlyFans, or other sites as well, would instead fall under part 3 of that Bill. What that means is that they would be subject to the children's access assessment, so it is possible that a site like OnlyFans could claim they do not have a significant number of child users, and therefore that could either stop them being in the scope of the legislation or delay them being regulated and stopping children from accessing their content.
We might end up in this perverse situation where OnlyFans is now regulated by Ofcom’s VSP regime but, seeing as the Online Safety Bill will supersede that, we may end up in a situation where OnlyFans and other similar sites might fall out of scope of regulation—which is a massive gap here and a really perverse outcome from the way that the Bill has been drafted.
In terms of that children's access assessment, OnlyFans could easily claim that they do not have a significant number of child users, which would then be beneficial for them because that would delay the regulation for them. That is something that should really be addressed with this Bill moving forward.
Q17 Caroline Dinenage: That is helpful. There was always this dilemma between social media companies and websites not being able to say, “Well, our priorities are not geared towards children, and therefore we do not count.” We do agree that bit has been tackled, but you are saying that they can still say, “We do not get that volume of kids to our site”?
Hannah Ruschen: Yes, and that could easily be resolved by removing or amending that children's access assessment, so we do not end up with a child use test where, if you can prove or cannot prove that children are accessing your site, you would then fall out of the scope of that part 3 requirement.
Caroline Dinenage: Helpful, thank you. Chair.
Chair: Bell, did you want to come in?
Q18 Bell Ribeiro-Addy: Yes. I had a constituent contact me about a pornographic magazine, which was being sold in a local shop, and it was called Teen Tarts. Obviously, I can guess that the sale of pornographic images of a child would be illegal, but what has probably happened is you have a younger-looking woman dress up and simulate that for someone's sexual pleasure. We have touched on incest, general violence against women, rape and bestiality even, but I was wondering how many other examples there are of things which are quite murky under the law, where people are pretending to do things that would be illegal, which might encourage that behaviour more widely?
Vanessa Morse: Pornography websites are full of that sort of legal but harmful content. A few years ago, the teen porn category was responsible for one third of all global pornography revenues. The reality is so much pornography actually contains extremity as the extreme pornography definition goes—acts which are likely to result in serious injury, which include non-consensual penetration. Porn sites are full of that material, in part because the porn industry itself has fought regulation in the past that would have prohibited the depictions of children, for example.
In fact, what we need to see is this legal but harmful material coming under clear regulation, and we are very keen to see a unified regulatory framework come through the Online Safety Bill which recognises the harm to adults. At the moment that harm is not recognised in the Bill, and there is such a driving force behind this fake incest and fake rape material that it is prevalent in many places. It is some of the most popular categories and we really are seeing a link between that and those harmful behaviours coming out into society as well.
Hannah Ruschen: A really important point that we could bring in here is around some scoping that the NSPCC has done on VR headsets. We have found that there are a variety of games in Oculus, but across VR headset games that you can access, where you can befriend a schoolgirl or become a tutor for a schoolgirl. Even though it might say that the characters are over 18, it is very clear from the images what the intent there is, and there are many examples of so-called cheat codes in the comments that users can unlock to then sleep with that character. Another example was that much to the dismay of other users, you could not have a cheat code to unlock the next level within this VR headset.
When you think about engaging with that pornographic material, when it is in a VR headset and you are thinking about the way that technology is constantly changing, this is now becoming immersive and experiential in nature. When you think about that and what that means for things like the metaverse and the way that harms are perpetuated and experienced, thinking about some of those examples with the VR headsets, there are similar risks from the offline world here, but it is much higher stakes. The murkiness in that one example that I highlighted shows that pornography is moving from something that you do not just view to something that you experience, and what that might mean for what happens in the real world or becomes normalised is very concerning, and really speaks to your point there.
Q19 Kim Johnson: Good afternoon panel. You have already touched on the harmful effects of pornography and violence towards women and girls, but I want to know why the consumption of pornography will lead to harmful attitudes and behaviours towards women and girls by some men and boys but not others. May we start with Vanessa, if that is okay?
Vanessa Morse: I would push back slightly and say, while absolutely we would agree that not every man or boy who goes on to a pornography website will go on to commit a crime against a woman, we do know that there is a serious correlation between pornography and criminal activity such as murder, domestic violence and child sexual abuse material. It will be the relative minority, although it is a growing minority. But I really do think that pornography is having a widespread societal effect on how boys and men view sex and view the opposite sex because of the harms of pornography. We know that around 44% of boys aged between 11 and 16 who watch pornography regularly said it gave them ideas of the type of sex that they want to try with others.
As Clare has explained and her work demonstrates so powerfully, so much of that material is violent content. Pornography is really built on sex inequality; I cannot stress that enough in this context. While not every man or woman who watches pornography goes on to commit a crime, even those who do not watch pornography are under the influence of pornography because it is the cultural wallpaper. We now live in a pornified society, in which the corrosive effects of porn are shaping men's minds around sexual scripts toward more violent sexual aggression, and often shaping women and girls’ attitudes towards sex into believing that they need to deliver that because that is what men want or because that is what good sex is, or because if they do not, they will be labelled a prude.
These are the kind of powerful, conflicting currents that are at work because of pornography, and that is why we must address the illegal content on porn sites, but also that legal but extremely harmful content, which, at the moment, is not getting dealt with in the Bill which is a huge oversight. We really do want to see all pornography labelled as category 1 in the Online Safety Bill, and that BBFC standard coming into that regulatory framework specifically for pornography because pornography is uniquely high risk, and that will address these legal but harmful influences on our society.
Q20 Kim Johnson: Thanks, Vanessa. I am sure people that are watching this Select Committee at home will be surprised in terms of the level of consumption in this country—as you pointed out, the second highest globally—and the types of content that are available and how readily available it is online. I do not know whether any other panelists might want to respond to that question that Vanessa has just answered. Gabriela?
Gabriela De Oliveira: Glitch does a lot of work on media literacy, and we think it is an absolutely crucial way of making the internet a safer place. We cannot just depend on legislation to do that for us, every single person, every user, company and workplace has a role to play here. That is particularly important when talking about pornography, as with other pieces of content, for users to understand what is and is not real and how to interact with that content in a safe way.
Sometimes when we talk about online abuse at Glitch, we find that there is a lack of understanding, that there is no distinction between our online and offline selves, and that actually online harm causes real-life harm. That is particularly pronounced when we talk about consent, and when we see the prevalence of image-based sexual abuse and non-consensual image sharing, we see how that crosses over into consent around sexual images.
There is also a real opportunity here with the Bill to bolster the media literacy requirements and requirements for pornography platforms as well as other tech platforms, to work with VAWG specialist organisations, to understand how to increase media literacy both amongst users and those who might have been survivors or victims of the non-consensual image sharing I just mentioned, which often turns up on pornography platforms as well, as we have seen.
There are organisations like Revenge Porn Helpline and NotYourPorn, who do a lot of work with pornography sites trying to bring that content down, but actually, there is a lot of opportunity to work earlier with those platforms to think about how we reduce risk, as the legislation tries to do.
I would also point the Committee to some interesting research done at the University of Liverpool by Dr Craig Haslop and Dr Fiona O’Rourke, who look at how lad culture develops within online spaces and in particular how that relates to misogyny, sexism and the lack of reviews around sex and consent. Their key recommendation is also around education, and they talk about doing intervention work with young men and boys focusing on helping them critically understand harmful gender norms. Speaking of Vanessa's point in terms of societal harms in both online and offline spaces, actually a really important way of dealing with this. I would point you to that research as well if you are interested in attitudes.
Kim Johnson: That would be really useful, thanks, Gabriela. You make an important point about education because it has been raised in this Committee before, and the fact that so many teachers are expected to cover this who do not have the relevant skills and experience to be able to push it and support children in the skills to do that. Hannah, you wanted to raise something.
Hannah Ruschen: Yes, as others have highlighted here, we know that girls are facing an epidemic of sexual violence in schools and in their daily lives. You may have seen on the BBC this morning that there is evidence from the NSPCC Helpline that peer-on-peer sexual harassment has increased by 29% over the last year, and there are contacts to our helpline regarding that.
We know that there is an emerging body of evidence thate early pornography exposure can lead to harmful sexual behaviour in children, and we know that it is not uncommon for a child to talk about wanting to try out what they might have seen in pornography. A greater proportion of boys want to emulate some of that than girls, which I think really reflects the gendered nature of what they are being exposed to online. The NSPCC has found that there is an emerging link between pornography viewing and both offline and online technology-assisted harmful sexual behaviour.
Just to come to your point on RSHE, when it comes to preventing and taking an approach to violence against women and girls across the board, the best preventative mechanism is through RSHE education. We know that with the rollout of mandatory RSHE, a lack of funding, resources and support in this means that teachers feel ill-equipped and ill-prepared to deliver those lessons to students in school. What we really need to see is teachers being given the opportunity and the support to teach children about the difference between healthy sexual relationships and harmful sexual relationships. What does consent mean both offline and online? That is a really fantastic way that we can use that to make sure that children are equipped to go about the rest of their lives understanding those key issues that we then see played out across society in a variety of different ways.
Q21 Kim Johnson: A really important point, thank you, Hannah. My next question is to Clare. In your written evidence submitted to the Online Safety Bill, you highlighted that material depicting rape, incest and upskirting are actively pushed to the forefront of porn sites, which has already been mentioned. But you also alluded to the fact about the word “black” being used and the racialisation of attitudes towards black women. I know Gabriela touched on that earlier on, so I just wanted to know whether you could say a little about that and its potential impact?
Professor McGlynn: That was a study that my colleagues and I did with Fiona Vera-Gray—the largest study so far of online content—where we focused on the titles. The two points you just brought up there, one in eight of those titles was sexually violent material including rape. The incest material was the most common among different categories of sexually violent material.
In relation to black and minoritised women, what we found was there was an association between the physically aggressive and forced sexual activity and use of the word “black” as a descriptor suggesting that there was a link there. One of the other findings from that study was that the word “teen” itself was the most common word through the entire corpus—more common than any body part, for example; it was “teen” that was the most common. Again, there was a stronger association between “teen” and the physically aggressive and violent pornography as well, which raises worrying concerns.
That was about what those companies themselves were choosing to display on that front page. That gives an idea of why the Online Safety Bill has such potential, because if we regulate what those companies actually show and choose to show, we can reduce some of that unlawful and sexually violent material on the websites.
Kim Johnson: Thanks, Clare. Again, I am sure people watching this would be surprised that violence against women and girls is not included in the Online Safety Bill, and I imagine that needs to be looked at.
Q22 Jackie Doyle-Price: Coming back to this issue of consent—if I could perhaps start with you, Hannah—one of the concerns that I have felt for a long time is that the ready availability of porn and the early exposure to it is leading to a very sexualised environment for girls in school. Increasingly too many girls are having sexual experiences which are coercive and not consensual. Could you perhaps expand a little more on what you just said in answer to Kim Johnson about how this early exposure and prevalence of pornography is affecting the views of boys and men towards consent?
Hannah Ruschen: Yes definitely. To make reference to some of the information that we have from both Childline and the helpline, when it comes to children who call, I can cite some quotes from boys who may have called Childline and expressed their concern. I really cannot stress enough that one of the main themes that they highlight when they do call is that they are worried, ashamed and concerned about what viewing this content makes them feel. In particular, when it comes to women and girls, we had one caller telling us that, “I think watching porn has influenced my perception of girls. It's affecting how I see all women as a sexual object. I want to stop watching it, but I can't.” The impact of the trauma of viewing that pornographic content has on children and the way that it can make them feel, really cannot be overstated.
The number of calls that we are getting to Childline is just a drop in the ocean because we know that not every child will contact Childline. But just to give some more information about how this impacts children and in particular boys, we hear comments like, “I really want to watch it, but I feel bad after”, “I feel like I'm a monster,” “I can't get the images out of my head,” “I'm scared that when I'm an adult I will forever think of the things that I allowed myself to watch,” and, “Seeing these images has affected my whole life.”
When you think about what this really tells us about society and the sexual expectations that children are living with, and how that plays out when they come to school, we know from the Ofsted review that that often results in requests for the sending and sharing of sexual images. When it comes to those self-generated or user-generated images, we know that images of girls often hold more cultural capital for boys—it can be a case of the more images you have, the cooler you may seem—and that girls feel under an incredible amount of pressure to share and send, and then it becomes so normalised that they feel that they have that massive pressure on them to share those images and behave in that way.
It really shows the impact that we are all discussing here today on the panel, the way that we are seeing that as a microcosm in schools and the lack of separation between offline and online, and the way that this explosion of pornography can really impact children's understanding of consent, and of what harm against women and girls means is going to cause a massive problem unless we can find a way to tackle this, both through the Online Safety Bill and through a variety of other ways across society, for example through RSHE, domestic abuse, et cetera.
Q23 Kim Johnson: We have often looked at crimes and abuse through the perspective of the extent to which it is nature or nurture, and there is enough data to suggest that abusers breed abusers. But essentially, what you have just articulated in terms of the feedback you are getting from your hotline is that this cultural wallpaper is nurturing boys into seeing things this way. We are tackling it from the perspective of violence against women and