Adult entertainment? Why the normalisation of extreme porn needs to be stopped

‘It seems that there has been no real appetite on the part of police and CPS to pursue prosecutions for rape pornography. Meanwhile, there has been an explosion in the availability of online pornography, and a mainstreaming of forms of violent sex that were once confined to a niche’

Louise Perry

The year 2008 is a lifetime ago in terms of the development of the internet. Back then, the first generation of iPhone had only just gone on the market. A micro-blogging site called “Twitter” had been launched two years before and approximately 20,000 tweets were being sent per day, compared with half a billion in 2020. WhatsApp, Snapchat, Spotify, and Netflix had yet to be invented. Most British teenagers did not have access to the internet in the privacy of their bedrooms, and 10 per cent did not have access to the internet at all.

It was in that year that Section 63 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act criminalised the possession of certain forms of extreme porn. According to this legislation, it is illegal to possess pornographic material featuring any of the following: necrophilia, bestiality, any act likely to cause serious injury to a person’s genitals, anus, or breasts, and any act that threatens a person’s life. In 2015, further legislation criminalised the possession of pornography depicting rape. Crucially, such pornography need not depict “real” crimes against people or animals—it need only look real, from the perspective of a reasonable person.

This legislation was, in part, a response to the murder of Jane Longhurst in 2003. Longhurst’s killer, Graham Coutts, confessed during his trial that he had a long-standing neck fetish and obsession with strangulation, and the prosecution argued that Coutts’s use of extreme porn, depicting strangulation, rape, and necrophilia, likely contributed to his murderous intent. Following Coutts’ conviction for murder, Jane’s mother Liz Longhurst, with the support of then Home Secretary David Blunkett, petitioned the government to ban “extreme internet sites promoting violence against women in the name of sexual gratification”. Ultimately, the 2008 Act did not ban such sites, but instead criminalised those who accessed them—focusing on the demand for extreme material, rather than the supply.

The legislation on extreme pornography has since attracted sustained opposition, with critics suggesting during the passage of the Bill in 2008 that many thousands of people in the BDSM community might find themselves prosecuted for engaging in consensual and harmless acts of fantasy. The pressure group Backlash was founded in response to this perceived threat, and over the last decade has supported several people prosecuted under extreme pornography laws. Myles Jackman, a lawyer who specialises in defending cases related to porn, provides pro bono legal advice to Backlash, and in 2012 successfully defended Simon Walsh in a case seen to be a test of the 2008 legislation. Walsh, a barrister, magistrate, and former aide to Boris Johnson, was prosecuted for possession of pornography featuring anal fisting and urethral sounding (the insertion of medical instruments into the urethra), but was acquitted after Walsh’s defence team successfully argued that such acts were not “likely to result in serious injury”.

Jackman is something of an eccentric. He has a taste for wearing Batman socks and, in his central London office, has hung a portrait of himself dressed as the Pokemon character Pikachu. His taste in clients also has a carnivalesque tone to it. In one notable case, Jackman represented a man prosecuted for possession of bestiality pornography seemingly featuring a woman having sex with a tiger, although in fact the tiger in question was actually a man dressed in a tiger skin suit. Jackman succeeded in convincing the court that the material did not reach the “realistic” threshold by pointing out that, at one point in the film, the tiger is seen to talk.

But absurd cases like these, memorable though they may be, are outliers in prosecutions for extreme porn. Research published last year by Clare McGlynn and Hannah Bows, both academics at the University of Durham, collected information on the people charged with extreme pornography offences in England and Wales. They found that the number of successful prosecutions remains small. The vast majority of defendants were male and, in most cases, the extreme pornography charges were brought together with other sexual offences, seemingly because the material was chanced upon during examination of a suspect’s computer in relation to another offence. Most surprisingly, 85 per cent of charges related to bestiality material. Cases of suspects charged with possessing rape pornography were particularly unusual. It seems that there has been no real appetite on the part of police and Crown Prosecution Service to pursue prosecutions.

Meanwhile, the last 12 years has seen an explosion in the availability of online pornography, and a mainstreaming of forms of violent sex that were once confined to a niche within the BDSM community. A recent investigation by the Sunday Times, for instance, revealed that strangulation (or “choking”) pornography is now widely available on social media platforms such as Instagram, Pinterest, and Tumblr, which are marketed as suitable for children aged 13 and over. Strangulation, particularly to unconsciousness, ought to fall under the category of acts that “threaten a person’s life”. And yet, not only is the possession of strangulation pornography not being prosecuted, it is in fact being normalised. The Sunday Times report features an interview with a 23-year-old student who described coming across such material at the age of 14:

I’d inadvertently see a lot of pornographic material because accounts would use the hashtags of other popular TV shows or media to bring followers to their porn sites . . . After my experiences with Tumblr, I felt that choking was normalised as a sexual behaviour. It’s shown as an expression of passion and it’s something that girls are kind of groomed into doing, but it’s only recently that I see that being critiqued as something criminal.

Fiona Vera-Gray, also an academic at the University of Durham, confirms that
extreme pornography is now easily accessed, not only by those who seek it out, but also by users of mainstream porn sites, and even casual users of social media. “I don’t think still, to this day, the general public are aware that it’s illegal to view this material,” she tells me, pointing out that extreme material, particularly rape porn, can often be found on the front pages of some of the largest pornography platforms.

Vera-Gray suggests that the existing legislation on extreme pornography serves a largely symbolic function, allowing the state to signal its disapproval of pornography that features violent, dangerous, and degrading acts. But unfortunately that symbolic function has been lost as a result of the government’s failure to widely advertise the existence of the legislation, a task made more difficult by the rapid development of the online pornography industry in the years since it was first introduced.

The precise effects of the increase in the availability of extreme online pornography are not easy to discern. Our society has changed so much in recent decades, it is difficult to disentangle this one factor from others that might be contributing to changes in sexual norms. It is also difficult to persuade research participants to be entirely honest about their pornography use and sex lives. However, there are reasons to be concerned. Research conducted by ComRes at the end of last year, for instance, found that over half of 18-to-24-year-old UK women reported having been strangled by their partners during sex, compared with 23 per cent of women in the oldest age group surveyed, aged 35 to 39. Younger women were also more likely to have experienced other forms of aggression that are commonplace in porn: hair pulling, slapping, or being spat on. More than half of respondents to this survey, across all age groups, reported that these acts were either sometimes or always unwanted.

The increased use of the “rough sex defence” is also suggestive of an unwelcome shift in our sexual culture. The We Can’t Consent To This campaign documents cases in which UK women have been killed or seriously injured and their attackers have claimed in court that their injuries resulted from consensual “rough sex” (disclosure: I work as Press Officer for this campaign). The use of this defence tactic has risen rapidly in recent decades, with a tenfold increase between 1996 and 2016. Graham Coutts was not able to persuade the court that Jane Longhurst died accidentally during consensual strangulation, but many killers have successfully relied on a similar defence. In 45 per cent of the homicide cases where defendants used a “rough sex” defence, they were able to avoid a murder conviction, despite the fact that case law in England and Wales makes clear that consent cannot be a defence to serious injury. This phenomenon seems to be the result of a greater public tolerance for violent sex which has percolated into the criminal justice system, meaning that police, juries, and judges are all increasingly willing to believe defendants when they present such narratives. Last month, the government introduced new provisions in the Domestic Abuse Bill that, if passed, will put existing case law into statute, making clear that the ‘rough sex’ defence cannot be relied upon in cases where a victim has suffered serious injury.

All of which suggests, argues Clare McGlynn, that the availability of extreme pornography may be having some effect. There is no randomised double blind trial proving that the consumption of this kind of material inevitably leads directly to sexual violence, but then that kind of research is probably never going to be produced. “You’re never going to find a study that proves the case either way,” McGlynn tells me, but she draws a comparison with advertising: “It’s not that I watch adverts and then go out and buy a particular washing powder. But on some level it is having some influence on me, and companies spend billions on advertising.”

Shouldn’t we also expect extreme material to have at least some effect on its users?

There seems to be the will within government to act on the issue of pornography regulation, but recent attempts at action have proved unsuccessful. During the 2015 general election, the Conservative government proposed a new system of age verification to prevent children from accessing porn. But, after years of reported technical difficulties, the implementation date was repeatedly delayed, and the project ultimately abandoned at the end of 2019.

Experts such as McGlynn and Vera-Gray insist that the time has come to turn away from failed efforts to regulate the users, and instead regulate the platforms. Globally, the pornography industry is certainly worth many billions of US dollars, with some placing the figure as high as $97 billion. And there are giants within the industry, such as the Canadian site Pornhub, owned by MindGeek, which is the 10th most trafficked website in the world. And yet, unlike figures such as Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey, the senior executives of MindGeek and similar companies are not household names, and they have thus far been able to keep out of the media spotlight, accumulating vast wealth without the burden of accountability.

But they are starting to face a greater degree of scrutiny. The American campaign group TraffickingHub documents cases in which sex trafficking and child rape films have been hosted on the Pornhub site. One 15-year-old girl who had been missing for a year was found after her mother was tipped off that her daughter was being featured in videos on Pornhub—58 such videos of her rape and abuse were discovered. Another girl, 14-year-old Rose Kalemba, was gang raped at knifepoint. Footage of the attack was posted on Pornhub. Kalemba contacted the site repeatedly over a period of six months, asking for the video to be removed, but with no success. Meanwhile, Pornhub continued to profit from the footage of her assault.

Right now, the law is not functioning as intended. Contrary to the fears expressed by groups such as Backlash, we have not seen widespread intrusion of the state into the private lives of its citizens, nor a draconian crackdown on the pornography industry in the years following the 2008 Act. Instead, what we have seen is a very small number of prosecutions, some poorly judged, at the same time as a rapid normalisation and increase in the availability of pornography that is technically illegal, but only rarely pursued. Criminalising the users of extreme porn is not working—it’s time to change tack. 

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