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Opinion: Sexually violent pornography is being promoted to first-time users of top sites

A comprehensive study by Dr Fiona Vera-Gray and Professor Clare McGlynn of Durham University uncovered worrying levels of access to violent pornography.

Dr Fiona Vera-Gray & Professor Clare McGlynn

Updated May 28th 2021, 10:19 AM

IN THE LAST few weeks, Ireland has had to confront worrying evidence of the prevalence of sexual violence, particularly amongst young people and students. With one in five cases of sexual violence involving under 18s, and close to three out of every 10 female students in Ireland having experienced non-consensual penetration, we need to look at the cultural messages young people are getting about sex and sexual violence.

Our new research reveals worrying evidence about the prevalence of sexually violent material on mainstream pornography websites. 

Trends of concern

Over the course of six months, we collected the largest-ever research sample of online pornographic content. We found that one in every eight titles advertised to a new user on the UK’s three most popular pornography sites – including Pornhub – described acts of sexual violence.

This means that the most popular online pornography sites are regularly showing first-time users sexually violent content. 

We found that descriptions of sexual activity between family members, particularly blood relatives, was most common. Descriptions of physical aggression and assault were also clearly evident on the front page, such as ‘again and again forced’.

The word ‘black’ was among the most frequently used terms in this category, suggesting connections between physical aggression and racialised descriptions of black performers.

The third most common category was image-based sexual abuse material, that is all forms of non-consensual creation and/or distribution of sexual images including material commonly known as ‘revenge porn’ and ‘upskirting’, as well as voyeurism including hidden cameras and ‘spycams’.

Finally, we found many titles describing coercive sexual activity, particularly in relation to the sexual exploitation of young women, with the top three words in this category being schoolgirl, girl and teen.

Miseducation

What is surprising everyone is that despite the fact that the actual titles of these videos are too explicit to reproduce here, these videos are not hidden in the deep recesses of the internet or dark web.

In fact, they are freely and immediately advertised on the landing page for a first-time user: the ‘shop window’ of the porn websites for the young and new to the world of online porn.

The problem here is not that these videos lead someone to go out and commit acts of rape, incest or image-based sexual abuse. It’s not about direct causal effects. Rather, in promoting sexually violent content in this way, mainstream online porn companies are contributing to a culture in which the boundary between sex and sexual violence is blurred, and the harms of sexual violence are minimised and mocked. 

These videos contribute to a context where the taking and sharing of private sexual videos without consent is seen as a legitimate sexual practice. A context where a woman’s non-consent is seen as a barrier to be overcome and where coercion is seen as a common part of sexual activity.

For new users, the harm of these messages may be particularly pronounced. Indeed, research from the UK suggests that pornography use begins during the early teenage years, though first-time viewing can be much earlier. 

Pornography is not just a tool for individual pleasure, it serves a range of social functions including acting as sexual education and sexual instruction. In the absence of high-quality sex education, young people are using pornography to find out about sex.
What our research has found is that both young men and young women are being given a strong message that heterosexual sex is about men coercing, exploiting, and forcing women (particularly young women) into sexual activity. 

There is little space provided for representations of women’s sexual pleasure or desire outside of a desire to be dominated, and there is hardly any room for representations of sex as something mutual, reciprocal, intimate and kind.

Distinctions – what is damaging and what is not?

We are not claiming that the videos are all of real acts of violence, though it is likely that some may be, particularly given recent exposés and class action lawsuits being taken against the largest companies like Pornhub and XVideos. 

Instead, we consider our research means that we must start to hold these porn companies to account for the adverse impact they are having on our social understandings about sex and also about what counts as sexual violence.

We must also ensure that they better comply with their own terms and conditions; swiftly removing unlawful content and requiring the consent of all participants for any videos.

Ireland has a role to play with reports that significant financial resources come through subsidiaries of companies like Pornhub based in Ireland. Perhaps the Irish Parliament can start to question Pornhub’s role in similar ways happening in Canada where its parent company Mindgeek is based?

Ultimately, we must resist attempts by the porn companies to push responsibility onto individual porn users. We must hold the companies themselves accountable for the messages they are actively promoting to first-time users that normalise and trivialise sexual violence.

We know that famous line about the internet – if it’s free, you’re the product. Currently, mainstream pornography platforms are monetising the access of children and young people to sexually violent porn, and we are paying the price. 

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Dr Fiona Vera-Gray is Assistant Professor of Sociology and Professor Clare McGlynn is Professor of Law. Both are based at Durham University.

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Dr Fiona Vera-Gray & Professor Clare McGlynn

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